03 Apr A Mile Above Hell
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"A Mile Above Hell"Written by
Estimated reading time — 26 minutes
The first thing I always remember is the heat.
Even when I could see nothing, hear nothing, even when my brain was trying bury itself in the comfy, dark recesses of unconsciousness, my body was slowly being cooked sunny side down. I couldn’t open my eyes, but I didn’t want to anyway. I was tired, I had been unconscious, the heat was tolerable when I was asleep, and I really wanted to go back to sleep, like a tired kid burying his head into the pillow moaning “I don’t want to go to school”.
My body however was slowly waking up on it’s own. I began to grow conscious of other stimuli, the lightweight cotton green uniform, the heavy combat boots, the open ended gloves that protected my palms but left my fingers to saute on the melted asphalt. Something was missing though…
Finally, I slowly opened my eyes, and the light and heat quickly slammed the doors again. I tried again after several minutes, but slower this time, and this time it was bearable.
I was laying on something hot, a stretch of rough, black surface turned into a warped, bubbly skillet by heat. Some of it stuck to the black, pocketed vest that covered my torso, to the knee pads, and the toes of my boots.
As my vision cleared further, I noticed more and more of the area beyond the black road. Dust swirled about me in dust devils. The heat was not just coming from the ground, the wind was like a dragon’s breath, and it smelled of something burning… a bit of everything burning.
Then came the pain.
I say the pain because there was no one area of it, I felt as if I had been run over by a steamroller from head to foot. My hands were charred from lying on the ground. My body was a little better off, protected from direct heat by a couple layers of cotton, and tactical vest pockets, but my skin was drenched with sweat, the inside of my clothes was a swamp. And my head…
Oh… Jesus Christ, my head. Only way to describe it is to imagine your head being put in a maraca with ten pounds of buckshot lead, and going to Mexican New Year celebrations. It was terrible, and I wasn’t even moving yet. There seemed to be a big blackness on the right side of my vision. It came to me that I had only been seeing out of my left eye, the right side had not opened… or it wasn’t there.
I realized now that little could be done lying on my face like a dead turtle, so I decided to attempt rolling onto my back, and getting a somewhat better look about me. I knew already that this was going to hurt. Some of the melted asphalt had cooled with my face touching it, it would be like ripping off duct tape… only a lot worse. I prepared for blood, knowing that the oily tar would not come off on it’s own, and I could not lie here on my face all day.
At first my arms didn’t seem to work, just laying there like dry docked eels. Then, as they got more blood in them, the pain flowed in. They felt like they had been stretched, balled up, jack-hammered, then mixed with water and spread out alongside the asphalt. However my arms are rather muscular and recovered quickly. Planting my hands against the ground, my elbows reaching above my spine like a spider’s legs, I braced for the pain, and pushed, arching my spine. At first my face resisted parting with the ground, and the pulling my skin caused a sharp discomfort.
This was bliss compared with what happened next. Setting my neck and jaw, I yanked my head backwards and pushed up. There was a most nasty peeling noise, like the pulling apart of two pieces of meat (which is not too far off), a tear or two, and warm, red blood began to spurt onto the smoking tar, My face seized up from the utter agony of several layers of my skin being yanked off. It made me glad I hadn’t grown a beard or long hair, I might have lost my whole face. At least I was able to move, but the pain was making my vision flutter.
Stabilizing myself, I rocked myself backwards, so I was kneeling upright. Now the steady tide of blood streaked down my neck to soak into my thick, green spattered coat. I knew now that before I could look around I needed to find something to cover the wound. Something was falling out of the sky into my hair, building up on my shoulders and gear. It looked like dirty snow. Whatever it was, I needed to clean and dress my disfigured cheek immediately.
I looked around me for some spare cloth, a medkit or… a backpack. I had a large backpack on my shoulders, it matched my forest pattern uniform, probably my helmet too… wherever that thing was. It was held across my chest by several buckles to keep it on my back, so I proceeded to undo them. I then noticed a name tag on the left shoulder strap. Specialist Four, Austin Carver. It wasn’t a name I recognized.
My fingers were so blistered and sore it was slow and hellish undoing the three clasps, but click by click I was able to shrug the gear off. It fell with a thud into the dust, and I felt lighter, the strain on my back lessened. A couple more clamps and it lay open like a little cave.
It was chock-full of gear. Pouches on the outside held a canteen filled with lukewarm water, a couple tube-like grenades, more ammunition for my rifle, which also seemed to be missing like most of my hardware, and a radio, but the materials inside were enough for three men, and it was all mine. I quickly found ample medical supplies in a small red box.
More pain was to come. I would have to dab some disinfectant onto my cheek before I patched it up. I stared at the dreaded brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide before gritting my teeth, biting down on a piece of gauze before applying some to a cloth. I poised it over my cheek, bit the bullet,, and pressed it to my face.
Some pain is so bad it makes you lose control of some other parts of your body. I felt my fingers numb a bit and shake like an electrical current was going through them, but my jaw dropped into a soundless scream as my face squeezed tight. Through it all the offending cloth stayed over the wound. Finally, satisfied that the disinfectant had done it’s work, I threw the blood stained item as far from me as possible, gasping for breath, and grabbed a clean gauze, folded it into a wad, and taped it onto the wound. Before sweat and blood could remove the adhesive, I wrapped a bandage around my head, encompassing my mouth, ears, and the back of my head. I can only imagine it looked like makeshift balaclava for someone in a mental institution, especially when I had to cut a hole for my mouth to breath through. Then I remembered my right eye.
When applying the bandage I had felt a scaly surface over the right side of my head, along with an acute pain. Feeling it again, I rubbed it with my finger, and it came off dusted with something like rust. Dried blood. Somehow my head had been injured and blood had poured over my eye and hardened like a seal of wax. Taking a little more cloth, I dampened it with water and rubbed at my eye. It came away red, but soon my right eye was opened.
Then I turned my attention to my aforementioned head wound, gingerly my hand crept up my skull to the nexus of pain jolts. Suddenly I found the problem.
It was as if my hand were a car and it had suddenly driven off a cliff. A massive dent, more like a bomb crater, shaped like a spear head running about four inches along the dome of my head. It was no wonder I wasn’t remembering much, there was serious damage up there.
My stomach rumbled most audibly, and it felt shrunken. I patted my belly, and noticed that there were some ribs showing. Before I shouldered the pack again, I found some containers near the bottom of the bag, reading Case 4 MRE. Were I in a more comfortable situation I’m sure the rations inside would’ve been left where they were, but as I was I inhaled the food quicker than you would think possible.
More of the dirty snow was falling as I shouldered my gear again, pushing my curiosity more. I needed to examine the environment beyond where I was. At the moment, I had slowly pieced together my surroundings. I seemed to be in a large hole, a foxhole perhaps, but there was asphalt at the bottom. My thought was that maybe an earthquake had caused this part of the road to fall several feet into a fault. The sides were a steep mix of gravel, sand, and several huge fragments of metal beams. I could climb out, but it would be on all fours.
Now that all my immediate issues had been cared for, it hit me like a thunderbolt, so sudden and profound that I nearly rocked back on my heels. Who am I? I hadn’t recognized the name tag, was it my own name? How did I get here? What’s been happening? A thousand questions swarmed through my head so fast my knees buckled, and I ended up back where I had started ten minutes ago.
Suddenly the slopes of the crater I was in became like walls, and they began to close in. A deep seated panic set in and my heart began to race. Blood oozed through my cheek and down my forehead as I clawed into the sand hiding me from the rest of the world. I dug in my toes, and climbed furiously up the slope. Then, like a drowning man breaking the surface of the water, I emerged from the hole, gasping for air.
I lay prone on the lip of the crater for a minute, my stress induced claustrophobia bleeding away with all my head wounds. My hand gripped the scorched sand like a lifeline. My head slowly came up again. I felt serious deja vu from an hour ago when I had awoken in the crater. Mostly because I, again, was lying my face, feeling like death. And, looking up, the area I had now discovered was not much different from the smoking hole from which I had emerged.
It was larger, more open, and set on a softly sloped hillside leading to a peak. A road ran the length of it, disappearing over the top. Many structures lined both sides of the road, a lot of them on fire, some of them unrecognizable, reduced to splintered wood, crushed plaster and scattered tiles. Everything had been sprawled in one direction, like a huge sledgehammer had hit the block and sent everything flying. What an ungodly mess. Some cars were lying on their backs like dead spiders, some twisted or smelted into shapeless masses of steel and rubber. License plates had melted and cooled into shiny green stained icicles on the rear ends of the now dead machines.
I tried to crawl forward, but a tinkling noise and a sharp pain in my fingertips forced me to stop again. Shattered glass carpeted the ground in every direction, you could spit and not miss a shard. Now blood oozed from my fingers, and I was forced to dig into the bag again, fresh warm blood smearing the green material. Soon my hands matched my rather grotesque head bandage. I must have looked quite a sight, my charred green uniform, all my gear, and then these blaring white bandages smeared with red stains turning a deep rusty brown.
I stood up this time, very shakily, to save my fingers more damage and to let my tough boots deal with the glass. Now my head was brushing against a layer of smoke that was flowing parallel to the spread of wreckage that encompassed me. I became conscious of the smell again, only now it was much stronger, a witch’s cauldron of pongs, I could not find one word for it.
The clouds split for a moment, and the light poured onto the smoldering landscape. Something shone into my dazed right eye, which was still adjusting, and I raised my bandaged hands to ease the flash. The sun was reflecting off a large piece of shiny metal, flat, protected from damage by a pile of rubble. It caught my attention firmly, and I felt the irrepressible need to investigate it, to touch it. I stumbled across the street, not bothering to look both ways, it hardly seemed the time to worry about the old common courtesies of times that seemed to have changed dramatically.
I stood over the pile of concrete crumbles and jagged miniature palisades of steel rebar, carefully putting one foot in front of the other in my little quest. While I shambled gently like a colt taking it’s first steps, my eyes took in thousands of images from the endless stimuli of this foreign seeming landscape.
The cars all looked like corpses, some of them were burnt to charcoal. Once charming houses making up a suburb now were piles of splinters and glass shards, like the cremated remains of the dead tossed to the wind.
I finally reached the pile of wreckage underneath which the piece of metal shone like a beacon. I now saw it lay beneath an gutted couch, with bits of stuffing catching in the wind like cottonwood seeds. I even saw some broken picture frames, empty, shattered reminders of a healthy, safe world long gone, bulldozed by un unforeseen event.
The metal was now within my reach, and I grabbed it with both hands, pulling with my back, legs and shoulders. Even with the glove protecting my palms, I could feel the heat of the metal on my exposed fingers, like a cookie sheet taken out of the oven. A screeching of concrete scraping steel, and I felt it slowly releasing, bit by bit, for it was huge, about the size of a plane’s wing.
It was bent into the shape of a dinner plate by the rubble that imprisoned it, it was battered into a surprisingly fetching mix of silver scrapes and turquoise splashes. I now could see what it was, one of those signs in a city that directs you somewhere. It was upside down, and a lot of the lettering had been battered away, so I couldn’t read it yet. Oh how I wanted to read it.
Now I could feel the pain in my muscles, my shoulders especially, it just seemed to keep feeding itself out like a scroll. Finally, after having dragged nearly ten feet of metal from the rubble, it gave, I fell backwards onto the fiercely hot ground, the huge sign clattering at my feet.
I got up shakily, stretching the tensility from my aching muscles. I could feel my face bleed again from my elevated heart rate, and I knew I had lost a dangerous amount of my blood. I would probably find a trail of it like bread crumbs going back to the pit where I had woken up.
I fumbled into the backpack for my canteen of warm water as I stood the sign on it’s side so as to read it. I twisted the cap off, some blood streaking on the edges, making it a bit slippery. I tilted it to my mouth to drink… until I saw what was on the sign.
From what little I could read behind the damage, it read:
Welcome to Denver. Population 554,363. Elevation: 5280 Feet.
It brought back a ton of memories I didn’t think I had, as I looked around I saw flashes of bustling streets, busy sidewalks, windows with faces looking out, and thousands, tens of thousands of people. All of that, the skyscrapers, the bridges, and over half a million souls, all gone in an flash because of some unknown catastrophe.
The hot wind suddenly kicked up with a heavy gust, and the sign fell onto its front, showing the backside. I saw writing, from another author. It was in spray paint, hastily scrawled, with the most atrocious grammar I’ve ever seen. Welcum 2 the Wastland. Populashun: All ded. Elevashun: 1 mile abuv Hell.
The canteen sat on my lips, frozen in place, and my mouth was now very dry. In the reflection of the steel sign, I saw something enormous behind me. I turned around slowly, not out of pain or aching, but out of sheer awe and terror.
There, on the middle of the horizon, towered a rising ball of fire and smoke, looming like a lumbering giant of destruction. It grew and grew, mushrooming into the sky, and clouds of ash blocked out the sun.
The area where I had awakened had fared relatively well, some buildings were still intact, sheltered from the thermonuclear blast by sturdier buildings which took the full force of the missile strike. I looked out into the skyline, the city center about four miles east of my position, and saw nothing but a huge sinkhole of buildings, machines, and bodies, all molten into a vile smelling mix.
I shook my head, my jaw slack in wonder. How had I alone survived? This was a ten second massacre, who knows how many innocent people were turned to ash before they even had a chance to scream for some God to save them.
Then my heart jumped higher than it was made to do, and I ran for cover, before I knew what I was doing I was hiding behind a massive chunk of concrete from a parking garage. I had heard someone moving out there.
It was human, nothing else walks with slow sounding footsteps or is heavy enough to dislodge rubble. It grew closer and closer, I could hear a guttural grunting from a damaged or dry throat. It had to be a survivor. I cleared my throat quietly, and called out in a timid voice.
“Hello? Is there someone out there?”
The footsteps immediately stopped. The world had become silent again. But there was a new smell in the stench. It smelled like burning meat, like bad food, it was a scent that makes any sensible human nervous.
It was the stench of death, and it was here.
I shook off my anxiety, and strode out to the street again. I looked around, seeing no one, but there was too much cover for them to hide in. I planted my feet and called out again, stronger this time.
“Is somebody out there? Are there any survivors?”
There it was again, the grunting. But it had taken on a new tone, less a benign grunting like a pig slopping around. It now sounded more like a dog, giving out the quiet order to move in.
I suddenly became aware of multiple sources, now several unseen assailants were responding to the call of the first like a wolf pack. I could sense the approach of many more footsteps, the sound of gravel dislodged underfoot, it was all around me.
I began to panic, and looked around for a weapon. I could now see shell casings lying everywhere, evidence of a huge but futile struggle against an enemy I had yet to face. There, leaning on the open door on a burnt out husk of a car, was an M4A1 assault rifle.
It had all the attachments and specs of the rifle standard to the United States Army, but I would’ve taken it if it were an age old musket if it meant I had something to defend myself with. I rushed for it, as the sounds were so near I swear I could’ve touched them. I reached the car, and grabbed the gun, ready to level it on the attackers.
I couldn’t move the gun very far, there was a charred, bony hand reaching out of the car like a creepy decoration, clutching the barrel with an iron death grip. I yanked, and pulled, until with a sickening, dry tearing noise like the uprooting of a sapling the arm gave way, leaving the hand still attached to the barrel. I grabbed it, and broke it off, the brittle fingers snapping like twigs and I pulled back the slide, cocking the weapon. I whirled around, ready to fight back, only to find myself dumbfounded again.
There were five of them, all in plain sight now. They, at first glance, looked like humans, standing upright, two arms and legs, and a head above their shoulders. But as I stared at them with horror, I saw they were not human, not anymore.
All of them were charred like burnt steaks, some of them steamed as their flesh boiled. One of them looked like a burnt puppet, all carbon black, moving with creaking joints. All of them were torn apart. There was a woman figure, most of her clothes were burnt off, and her entire front, chest, stomach, and throat, were torn to shreds as if by the teeth of a wild animal. A man crawled on the ground, both legs gone, dragging itself on a trail of it’s own blood and trailing guts. The others, a mix of women and men, looked more intact, but all bore signs of horrific wounds. All had flesh missing, one had the side of her neck gaping open, oozing a black gel of some kind. And worst of all, they all had strings of meat, fat and tendons stuck between their teeth, and drips of blood coming from their mouths.
And in spite of their horrific mutilations, they all were moving towards me. Their eyes were blank, those that still had eyes, they had turned a milky white, unseeing, dead eyes.
The gun trembled in my hand, and I found I could not aim at the pitiful sights. I screamed in horror at the creatures shambling towards me. “Jesus H Christ! What’s happened? What the hell happened?!”
My words seemed to stir them up, and with louder growls, they all raised their arms towards me with the intent of grabbing me. I could only sicken myself imagining what they would do to me. I steeled my nerves, and took aim with the rifle.
My finger acted of it’s own accord, and gunfire ripped the silence. I saw little spurts of black ooze burst from impact wounds on their chests, legs, stomachs. The weapon roared like a cornered lion, and I jammed the trigger as hard as I could, a hail of bullets tore into the abominations.
I saw one take a hit right in the heart and go flailing onto his back. As I started to shoot another, out of the corner of my vision I saw him getting right back up as if I hadn’t shot him at all. I was panicking, and fighting for my life, slowly retreating backwards down the leveled street.
The gun finally clicked empty, and still all five were following me, and now several more had emerged from alleyways and from under cars to join the assault. It was a pack, slowly growing into a horde. I quickly switched the dry magazine for a fresh one from my vest, and began firing again.
This time I was firing semi auto, careful not to miss or waste ammo. I knew I was hitting them, I knew I was supposed to be wasting them, yet they shrugged off everything I gave them. They were unstoppable, and now two more had arrived. I was faced with a wall of the creatures, and I was running out of room, backing into a cul-de-sac with no where to run.
Another mag empty, I was down to two full ones. I was desperate, and I decided on a different measure, I had to take out the heads. It’s a difficult shot, and my training revolved around aiming for the widest, biggest target on the human body, the chest. But there was no other way.
Reloading the rifle, looking up to see more than twenty assorted attackers, I dropped to one knee to steady my aim. I placed the red dot between the white, moonlike eyes of the closest attacker. It was the torn woman, and she looked right back at me down the sight. Why weren’t these things afraid of dying? Maybe they couldn’t feel fear. They weren’t human anymore.
I chanted this to myself as I fired, watching as the bullet flew right into the face of the woman. I saw a tidy blue hole appear in her forehead, and black, grey, and blueish matter blast out the back of the skull. She collapsed, not even twitching. She fell flat onto her back, her fellow attackers took no notice, stepping over her as they continued to shamble in my direction.
That’s all it took, my dander was up, and I felt my nerves turn to steel, and I placed the next target. It was easier this time, by now I had convinced myself, these things were monsters, and I needed to kill them. They needed to die, they had to die!
One by one, I popped their heads like water balloons, watching them fall back onto their own mess of bone and brains. The time blurred, I was winning, and I knew it. Finally, I dropped the 20th and last target, and I didn’t even flinch as I saw it crumple to the ground, it’s head blown clean of it’s brain. I was in hunter mode, I was no longer the hunted. Twenty shots, twenty kills. I felt the adrenaline surging through my once lethargic body. I was so focused on my blood pumping victory, I did not hear something behind me.
It must have crawled from under the wrecked Chevy that lay on it’s back behind me. I first heard it when it began to drag itself across a patch of shattered glass. Before I could turn around, I felt a grip of iron clasp around my ankle.
It’s legs were shredded tatters of cloth and tendons trailing behind it, and the arms were atrophied, but it was like a strongman’s arm, and my legs were thrown out from beneath me. My knuckles banged against the blacktop, and my rifle went clattering to the ground beyond my reach. My head also hit the ground, and everything fogged up for a moment.
I was brought back by high pressure to my toe. It felt like something was squeezing my boot with a vice. I brought my head up and looked at the afflicted foot. The crawler was still there, trying furiously to bite through the reinforced material of my left combat boot like a dog chewing a rubber ball, and it growled angrily, the material resisted its broken teeth.
I jolted back into action, and tried to free my boot, but this creature had a grip like steel. I brought up my free foot, the righthand one, and pumped the heel into the thing’s face. I felt a satisfying crunch as I connected with the jaw, dislocating it completely, rendering the teeth useless. I then swung back my right leg and soccer kicked my attacker full in the head.
I heard a sound like breaking a thick carrot in half, and it’s head snapped to a certainly unnatural angle. It twitched it’s hands for a moment, and then went limp. It’s hands relaxed their grip, and I kicked my left foot free again.
Once I was on my feet, I cast my eye around for my weapon. It had gone about ten feet from me, and I ran to grab it. Before I could get it, something wrapped itself around my waist in a tackle, and I was on the ground again. I felt fists pound my face, jolting my head back and forth.
It was small, a teenager I think, and it weighed so little it was a wonder it had knocked me down at all. I returned the blow, feeling it slam into a thin cheek, and my attacker leapt away, cursing in some language I didn’t understand.
This got my attention, those things I had just fought and killed, they didn’t talk, and they certainly didn’t back down. I looked up and saw my latest assailant in full light.
Goodness, T thought, it can’t have been more than 16 years old. She, for it was in fact a girl, wore a torn hoodie, and fingerless gloves and slim jeans, along with muddied converse shoes. She now had sat down against a wall, crying her eyes out, murmuring in what, years later, I could tell was Spanish.
I immediately felt terrible, although I wasn’t sure why. I edged my way towards her, slowly offering my hand in peace. She wouldn’t look up at me, she was still bawling like a little child. I gained the courage to lay my hand on her shoulder, and to my surprise she didn’t fight me. I kneeled down, and she lifted her tear soaked face.
She was easily young enough to my daughter. She looked me right in the eye, and I again felt miserable when I saw the growing bruise on her left cheek.
“Hey uh, sorry about that” I said sheepishly.
She brushed her black hair out of her eyes back into her hood and sniffled. “It’s ok.”
I was shocked by this, I had heard her curse me in clear Spanish, and now she spoke forgivingly in English. However I didn’t mind the change, I knew no Spanish at the time.
“Why’d you attack me?”
She lowered her eyes at this, as if embarrassed. “I heard gunfire, and thought perhaps some soldiers were here. I ran this way, hoping to get rescued, and I saw you. Your face, it spooked me, all those bandages and all that blood. I panicked, and blindly attacked. I’m very sorry.”
I nodded, touching a new tender spot on my previously undamaged left cheek. “I don’t imagine you’ll be the last.” I tried a weak smile, but the torn side of my face didn’t like it. I pulled her to her feet, and having grabbed the rifle, I began walking. She followed me, staying behind me like one would behind a parent. I began to feel nervous, we were out of the cul-de-sac, and she hadn’t said a word. So, clearing my dry throat, I tried to strike conversation. “What’s your name?”
It was a nice name, and I nodded. But she didn’t say anything more beyond the clipped answer, so I continued.
“How’re you still alive?”
“I was hiding in a subway tunnel from the firebomb, and waited till the flames died down. I stayed far away from the area of the missile strike. I didn’t want to get sick from radiation poisoning.”
“You seem to know a lot about all this.”
She nodded nervously, and wiped her face on her sleeve. “Yeah. My dad, he’s a soldier in the U.S. Army, and we all lived here. We had a nice house, just down the hill.”
Ruby pointed down the road to our left, towards where I had woken up. From here I could see a blazing crater, and many smoldering wrecks of houses. I turned my eye away when I saw three burning corpses lying in the street. They looked like dead beetles.
“…And then it all hit the fan.” She finished, putting her hands in her pockets.
I looked around, and agreed that it certainly had.
We had been walking for about five minutes, when I finally asked her the biggest question on my mind. “So, what the hell happened here?”
She looked at me in shock. “What? How could you not know, the military’s been on the front lines of this whole thing since it happened.”
I reached up, tapping my bandaged skull with the rifle barrel. She looked confused, then seemed to have put two and two together. “Are you one of those guys? I thought that only happened in movies.”
I grinned. “Nope. Must’ve took one big hit to the noggin.”
“Yet you know how to use that?” she gestured to the rifle slung across my chest. ”And how to talk?”
I shrugged at this. “Dunno about the talking thing, maybe that’s built in no matter what. And the gun… it’s all been instinctual. Plus, I think I’m remembering stuff again.”
She nodded. “That’s good.”
After another five minutes, the girl pointed to a large green vehicle parked carelessly in the middle of the road. It was untouched by the firebombing, as was most of this area. She ran up to it, smiled, and patted the armored skin like one does a horse.
It was bigger than a car. I saw a big, mean looking gun on top, and the front, hood and windshield were spattered with blood. I swear I saw some fingers stuck in the grill. Without taking time to look, I yanked open the door.
I was bombarded by the fierce smell that one gets when they return from vacation to find rotten food in their fridge, and I recoiled, covering my mouth and shutting my eyes. Over the intense droning of flies, I could barely hear a frenzied growl. I couldn’t open my eyes, but I felt two bony hands, creaky and putrid, lock onto my shoulders and I felt someone pushing me onto my back.
I heard Ruby scream as we tumbled. It was on me, I smelt the vile breath, and knew that if I opened my eyes I’d be greeted by something very unpleasant. So I wrestled blindly, pushing with all my might, but his hands were like handcuffs, in spite of being half claimed by rot and maggots. How were these things so strong?
I had dropped my gun, so I could use both my hands. I gave up pushing it away, and now got it around the throat, trying to break it’s atrophied neck. I heard it growling, it wasn’t a choked noise, just angry. Suddenly, a loud bang numbed my eardrums. I heard a loud splat, and my attacker went limp, falling on top of me like a puppet, almost kissing me. I felt it expel a cloud a vile cloud of defiled air out it’s mouth right into mine.
For the first time I could remember, I wanted to vomit, and, kicking the creature off of me, I rolled over and pasted the pavement with Case 4 MRE. My stomach emptied, I kinda laughed at the stuff as it congealed in the heat. It sure looked worse than I remembered it.
I turned about, to see Ruby, shaking like a leaf, holding the gun that seemed to dwarf her. She held it like I did, across the chest, barrel pointing safely downward.
She looked at me, then at the dead creature who’s head was oozing what little was left in the skull, and at the gun. “I’m… I’m sorry.”
I waved her concern away, and stood up, shaking even worse than her. “No… no you… you did good kiddo.”
I took the gun back, and draped the strap over the back of my neck. “You used this like a pro.”
She nodded, and smiled a bit. “Yeah, my dad taught me. He also taught me how to use his service pistol. He said ‘they’ll never expect a girl to be looking back at them behind the gun.’”
“Smart man your dad.” I gave the creature a soft kick, just to see if it would try to move. It certainly didn’t. I saw it had a uniform like mine, but without all the gear, just a driver I guess.
Before I could pat her on the shoulder, I heard another growl, and looked around in terror.
In the minutes after the gunshot, a ring of the monsters had emerged from all directions, some of them from the undamaged houses, I saw one crawl from a ditch, two more crawled out of the back of a red pickup. We were ringed in.
Ruby gulped, knowing that her shot had gotten a lot of unwanted attention. “Oh God.. I’m so sorry!”
I took a head count, had to be thirty of them, all groaning and growling like sick dogs. Ruby put her back to mine, and I fumbled at the side of my pant leg. Undoing a strap, I pulled a pistol from it’s holster and jammed it into her wrist.
“Here, more your size.”
Over the echoing chorus of growling and moaning, came a clattering roar from a machine gun, and a huge armored vehicle swung into sight, careening towards us. The creatures began to fall like wheat before a scythe, and those that endured the hail of bullets were splattered on the vehicle’s front end. It came to a stop not five yards from us.
The back end opened, and about ten men in uniforms leapt out. Two of them went to the still wriggling corpses and began began dispatching them with head shots, but the other eight circled us, training their weapons on me. They all wore ominous gas masks, wore thick green uniforms like mine, and were armed to the teeth.
“On the ground!” One of them scream through his mask. I looked down the barrels of eight assault rifles, and felt laser pointers dancing across my chest. I put myself between them and the girl.
“Don’t hurt her.” I said calmly, slowly laying my gun on the asphalt. I kneeled down, my head held high, my hands held palms open. Two men shouldered their firearms and dashed forward to seize me. I lowered my head, and prepared to be roughhoused by the men in masks.
Then we all were stopped by a loud gasp from behind me. The soldiers froze in place, not alerted or scared, just paused in surprise. I turned, and the girl’s face had paled with shock. She pointed to my face, the left side which wasn’t obscured by bandages, and reached out to touch it. She looked into my eyes, and began crying anew. And then she did something that caught me off guard. She threw her arms around me, weeping, but happily so this time.
Over her sobbing, and sniffling, I heard her squeak one word. “Daddy.”
I was floored, and hugged her back. She saw me as her dad, and yet I did not know her. Two soldiers gently pulled her off me, and, holding me by the arms, escorted us into the back of their vehicle. It reminded me of the inside of a ribcage, with heavy cloth covering the frame. It was like a cage, yet it felt safe. It was nice and cold inside.
My daughter sat across from me, between two huge soldiers with their gas masks, her eyes down as if horrified to look at me. I’m sure that, if there were a vanity mirror in the back of these armor plated truck, I would have been too. I tried to smile, but it felt like someone stabbing thumb tacks into the bandages. All we could do was look at each other, before I was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the transport.
When I awoke, I wondered if I had again woken up in a different world. The truck had just stopped, and I opened my eyes as the soldiers filed out the open back end of the vehicle. My daughter went first, and then me, and I almost fell down.
Overhead swept a deep, blue sky, floored on the horizon by what at first looked like clouds, all towards what remained of Denver. All around me I could see everything bursting with life. Thousands of people filed about, a quarter of them in uniforms of all kinds, a lot them like mine. I saw men and women in work suits, in casual clothes, some of them only had bed clothes and emergency blankets. And children of all ages, many of them had backpacks, they must’ve been in school only days ago.
And the herd wasn’t just made up of humans, I saw dogs zipping about, birds in cages, a lot of cows and horses. A few cats perched lazily or hunted quietly, and I swear I even saw an ox.
I looked beyond the crowd, and saw a high wall made of huge metal cargo containers, soldier and citizen alike wandered the top with guns, firing out beyond the wall occasionally. And beyond the wall stretched mountains and ridges, endless trees, and even some waterfalls. I grabbed the shirt sleeve of a man walking by. He was in a suit, like he had just come back from the office.
“Hey, where the hell are we?”
He put his hand on my should softly, and gave me a sorrowed look. “Glenwood. Everything farther east is gone man, The Eastern Seaboard, the Plains, everything east of the Rockies.”
I had no time to ask more questions before two military officers came and asked me to come with them to be “decontaminated”.
After intensive showers and tests, details were provided to fill the blanks. Some disease had hit the country, coming from the east coast ports and spreading inland. By the time we recognized it, it had hit half the country. Those who got the disease died, and became, apparently, the creatures that now stumbled about. Pretty sad if you ask me, the most intelligent creatures on the planet down to the two legged equal of a bacteria.
Funny statement that, they were carriers of the disease even after death, in all essence a two legged bacteria, a bipedal virus, a mobile sickness.
We had been lucky, it could’ve spread through the airlines, as it can only be spread by contact with infected blood. We had been able to fence it off at the mountains, to save the rest of the country. What little was left to save.
Apparently, my men were deployed to Denver, where everyone was told to just stay indoors, that they’d be ok once the army arrived. But it was far worse there than the higher-ups could’ve guessed. I had abandoned my unit to go find my family, instead of fleeing the incoming bombs, and that had put me in the immediate area of a bomb strike.
Over the course of the story, I heard words like the Denver outbreak, containment failure, and decontamination. They meant nothing to me, not that I didn’t understand them, I just didn’t care. I was still tired and drained from my battle for survival.
I paid attention when I was told that my family… they all died when a napalm strike hit our neighborhood. Except my daughter Ruby, who hadn’t been home when the bombing commenced. Yet I didn’t feel anger, not at first. How cruel is it that you don’t cry for your lost loved ones because you forgot them? My injury caused me to not remember them, not my wife, sons, sisters, brothers, not even my daughter. That thought is what provoked me to cry, I cried because I did not remember them.
I looked out the door, seeing Ruby sitting nervously in the hall, probably waiting for me. I did smile to myself a bit. At least I had her still, I still had a chance to know my family again, to know her again. Finally I was told that, once I recovered, me and my daughter would be moved to a safe zone in Grand Junction.
But before we left, I chanced to ask the doctors what had happened to me. Again, I heard a lot of terms that were meaningless, but then I heard amnesia, damage to the cerebral cortex. It was a miracle that I had survived the wound, never mind the nuclear blast.
You see, one of the soldiers who had picked us up came in with my old helmet. I almost didn’t recognize it. It was bent in half, with a huge crater in the side deep enough to hide a cake. It had been impaled on a steel beam hurled by the explosion, and had not the chin strap broken it would’ve taken my head clean off. I remember running my hand along the helmet, watching my hand disappear into the massive dent. I looked from the helmet to my daughter, sitting in a chair just outside the examination room, and chuckled to myself.
A miracle indeed.
Credit To – Evan Dollarhide
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