Estimated reading time — 26 minutes
Ryan reached the top of the hill and looked down onto the town of Prieska. It was a small, one horse town in the Upper Karoo desert. The old church in the middle of the town still stood tall, the clock tower casting a long shadow in the late afternoon sun.
The town looked like it was in a fairly good condition compared to many of the other places he had passed through, though it seemed just as abandoned – which was seldom actually the case.
He sighed, and scanned the streets and buildings for any sign of life.
He had been walking for hours and he was exhausted. The old Ford Focus he had managed to get running in Potchefstroom had finally given in about twenty five kilometers back and he had been walking since. The hot desert sun had not made it easy, but he had made it. He needed to find food, shelter and new transport, and hopefully he would be on his way to Namibia sooner rather than later.
Ryan pulled the pair of binoculars he had out of his pack and scanned the town again for a couple of minutes.
There were a few shops in Prieska which had sold food and supplies, though these would more than likely have been looted since. He was inclined to check the general store, seeing as Prieska was a farm town, but it would probably also be empty. Surrounding farms could prove fruitful and might warrant a trip out, but he would avoid prolonging his stay close to town if he could. Where there were towns, trouble was usually not far off.
A slight movement caught his eye in the window of a building he was examining. He quickly jerked the binoculars to focus on this particular window, and he thought he just caught a glimpse of someone moving out of sight. He examined the building for a few moments longer, waiting for another glimpse at what had caught his eye, but all was quiet once again.
Ryan sighed again. Of course the town wouldn’t be empty, why would anything ever be easy?
Lowering the binoculars he glanced up at the sinking sun. He had to get under cover before nightfall – especially if he wasn’t alone.
He packed away his binoculars, shouldered his pack, picked up his rifle and started down the hill.
He knew Prieska well. In the native Korana tongue, Prieska translated to “The Place of the Lost She-goat”. His grandparents had lived there for many years, and growing up he had often visited. The butchery was where they sold the best biltong he had ever tasted and the small corner shop often gave him free candy when he entered. But his favorite place in town was the old fort on the Prieska Koppie. The British had built it during the Anglo-Boer War, and the sense of history he had felt when he first visited it had always lured him back. He looked up and could see it on the other side of the town. It seemed to watch over the small town in an ominous silence.
Ryan descended the hill and reached the edge of town as the sun was lowering behind the buildings. Time to focus, buddy.
He cocked his Remington and took a few deep breaths to steady himself.
He didn’t know what to expect, and after all this time he still wasn’t sure what he dreaded more; coming across bandits or lurkers. One thing he had learned on his journey from Johannesburg, was that people were capable of unparalleled cruelty, and they could be just as fear inducing as any lurker he had come across. And he had come across many.
He quickly moved up to the closest building, looking in all directions as he approached. Slowly he peered around the wall and down the street heading into Prieska. Nothing stirred.
Cautiously, he headed down the street, staying low and close to the building. It was some sort of government building and held no real interest for him.
Shelter was now his number one concern, as the lurkers became particularly active after sundown. This he had learned early on in his exodus from Johannesburg, when he had at first opted to travel only by night to avoid the desperate people looking for help – and those people who always seemed to thrive in humanity’s darkest times. These people seemed to enjoy the lawlessness – and the suffering, and they were more than willing to add to it if it benefited them.
Reaching an intersection, he quickly scanned both ways and behind him before proceeding.
The residential area started only a few blocks ahead of him and he figured he would be able to hole up in an abandoned house for the night. It was now fully dark, but the full moon gave a generous amount of light.
Ryan had crossed another intersection when he heard a groan and footsteps around the next corner. He froze, and backed up a few steps. Raising the rifle, he steeled himself for what would emerge.
Another groan and then a hiss came from around the corner, and a few seconds later a small figure stepped into view.
Ryan recoiled. He had seen many lurkers, but this was new even for him.
A boy of no more than three stood a few feet before him.
At least, it used to be a boy.
The boy’s eyes were a feral yellow – unfocused and crazed. He was bleeding from his mouth, and his skin had a gray-ish hue to it – like ash. Black veins were all over his body, thick and bulging as if they were struggling to pump the blood through.
This was the youngest lurker Ryan had ever seen. They were always young, but never this young.
He looked up at Ryan, and at first it seemed as if he looked right through him.
Then his eyes seemed to focus, and hate and anger filled them. He hissed like a snake, and sprang forward, coming at Ryan at full tilt.
The scariest thing about lurkers were their speed and what took him off guard even more, was the agility of the young – former – young boy.
Ryan had been frozen when he saw the boy, but now, with a hissing, feral lurker charging at him, his survival instinct which had kept him alive for so long quickly kicked in.
He raised his rifle and fired a single shot, hitting the lurker mid leap and instantly dropping him.
The gun shot’s echo thundered through the small town, and now Ryan was in trouble. If there were more lurkers around, they would come running. If there were bandits around – so would they.
Usually Ryan dispatched single lurkers with the trusty hand axe he kept at his side, but the young lurker had shocked him out of his wits.
Quickly chambering another round, he started forward again, this time jogging.
An instant later he heard a shriek to his left, which was answered by another to his right.
He started sprinting.
He heard shrieks, screams and hisses approaching from both sides and Ryan started to panic.
He was desperately looking around for a place of safety, anything that could save him from the oncoming death rush.
He glanced over his shoulder, but the street was empty – for now. He spotted a small side street a couple of yards ahead and ducked into it. Clambering onto a nearby dumpster, he was able to reach the roof of the adjoining building and quickly hoisted himself up.
He rolled away from the edge and took a few calming breaths.
Slowly, he peered over the edge just as a dozen or so of the lurkers poured into the street from each direction.
Searching for the cause of the gunshot, they sprinted up and down the street, teeth gnashing. The black veins crisscrossing their bodies were visible to Ryan even from a distance. They quickly found the body of the one he had killed, and anger seemed to ripple through the group. Their gnashing and hissing intensified, and they raced up and down the street, looking for the one responsible.
It had been three years since Revelations – the media had named it after the book in the bible – had crashed into the desert of Texas in the United States. The large asteroid had done considerable damage to the area, but as it had crashed in a fairly deserted area, few human lives were lost. It was what came after that had given the asteroid its name.
Days after the asteroid hit, reports began to come in of first responders dying of some sort of disease. Doctors were baffled, as it started very much like flu, but quickly escalated with ebola-like symptoms. Soon the afflicted would die of massive organ failure, only hours after the first symptoms showed. After the scientists that visited the scene began to die as well, the connection was made to the asteroid and the crash site was quarantined. The last few people to have come in contact with the asteroid quickly died. The families and anyone who had come in close proximity to the responders and scientists were also quarantined, as they had no idea if the disease was infectious. But after days of tests and monitoring, it was concluded that the disease was in fact not infectious and the quarantined people were allowed to leave. They were so, so wrong.
Ryan’s attention was brought back to the present when a lurker entered the side street he had used to get to the roof and started sniffing around the dumpster.
Ryan had quickly learned a few important things about them through his various encounters. They were extremely fast; you can’t outrun them. On top of that, they had incredible endurance – they never stopped coming. Once they saw you – or smelled you, which was another thing that made them difficult to evade – they would pursue you relentlessly, risking self injury and even death to try and reach you – they had no inclination to self preservation whatsoever. The only thing that seemed to drive them was their need to kill. They did not feed on humans – in fact, Ryan had never seen them eat anything – they merely killed them. The only way Ryan knew how to get a lurker off of your tail, was to kill it, or to put enough distance between yourself and it. And that meant kilometers.
Ryan watched the lurker continue sniffing the dumpster and suddenly, it looked up – somehow Ryan had expected this, and was just able to duck behind the edge in time to avoid being spotted. But if it had his scent, it would soon attempt to follow him onto the roof.
Ryan quickly scanned the roof and summed up his options. He saw the neighboring building was a two story and that he might be able to jump onto the balcony. Not really having much choice, he quietly sprang up and carefully made his way to the edge.
The balcony was slightly lower than he was, but it was a fair distance away. He shouldered the rifle and took a few quick breaths. Tensing his whole body, he managed a few quick steps and jumped. His hands caught the railing of the balcony and his body slammed into it, causing it to rattle. He tried to pull himself up, but his left hand slipped on the cool metal, and he almost dropped into the alley below. Hanging by one hand, he looked down and saw several lurkers speeding this way and that. They had not looked up yet.
With a great effort he managed to get his left hand onto the railing again, and started to pull himself up. He was soon able to use his legs to help himself up and seconds later he was on the correct side of the railing.
He was panting, and Ryan stood with his hands on his knees, looking back the way he had come.
He was about to turn, when he heard the click of a revolver being cocked behind his head.
“Slowly straighten. Then drop your rifle and pack on the ground. Don’t turn around.”
It was a female voice, with a thick Afrikaans accent and he guessed the person behind it fairly young.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble. I’m just running from those things, please.” He spoke calmly and clearly.
“I don’t really care. Do as I say or you’ll soon join them down there.”
Ryan slowly straightened, unslung his rifle and pack and carefully laid them on the ground.
The woman stepped forward and Ryan could hear her crouch to grab his rifle. In a flash, he spun around the other way, in the same movement drawing his small axe from its sheath beneath his coat. He grabbed the wrist she was holding the revolver in and jerked it sideways, causing her to drop the weapon. He then spun her around and in another swift movement pinned her arm behind her, slammed her against the wall and brought the axe up to her throat – this all happened in maybe three seconds.
She tensed, but mostly seemed shocked by the speed at which he had disarmed her.
“I don’t want to hurt you. I’m just passing through town and I got attacked. I didn’t even know there was anyone in this place.”
She tried to look at him, but he still held her firmly against the wall, her cheek flat against it.
“Now I’m going to let you go. I don’t want to hurt you, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t – if you leave me no choice. Stay calm, don’t do anything stupid, and we’ll both live through the night so that we can die tomorrow. Do we have an understanding?”
She seemed to think for a second, but then slowly nodded.
Ryan released her and stepped back, quickly stooping to retrieve her revolver.
She turned around, rubbing her wrist and then her cheek.
She was beautiful and young. Ryan guessed her at no more than twenty. She was the youngest person that he had seen since everything had started. Well, the youngest normal person. She had wild, curly black hair and bright blue eyes. Even in the moonlight he could see that she had freckles. She was a great deal shorter than him and was slightly built.
She looked him up and down in return, but remained silent.
“What’s your name?” he asked, opening the revolver and seeing that it was empty.
“Helena.” she said, looking at him and the revolver with indifference.
“Do you even have bullets?”
She folded her arms and shrugged. “I found it a while back. Could never get it open to check.”
He handed her the revolver and picked up his pack and rifle.
“Do you stay here alone?”
She looked back into the room, but it was dark inside and he couldn’t see past the door.
“Not when it started.”
She didn’t elaborate so Ryan decided not to ask.
“I’m Ryan.” He held out his hand and she looked at it for a couple of moments before she shook it.
“I’d say nice to meet you Ryan, but you did just slam me into a wall and nearly tear my arm off.”
Her lip curled into the slightest of grins, though he thought it was just nerves.
“Says the one who held a gun to my head and threatened to throw me to the lurkers.”
“Is that what you call them? Lurkers? Why?” He sighed, looking back down into the alley. It was deserted.
“Have you ever seen them in the day? They walk around slowly, as if they were high or drunk, right?”
“Well, at night they move much quicker, and they walk sort of hunched over. To me it always looked like they were lurking.”
“Huh. I just call them crazies. Are they still human?” She hugged herself and Ryan got the impression that this was an involuntary moment.
“To be honest, I don’t know. But the way they attack you definitely isn’t.”
“Have you killed any of them? Was it your gunshot I heard earlier?”
“Yes and yes.”
She looked him up and down again, this time with what seemed to be a little more respect.
“How did you do that?” she asked as he sheathed his axe.
“Take my gun away from me so quickly. Are you some kind of soldier?”
He chuckled humorlessly. “I’ve just been on the road a very long time and it’s something I had to learn along the way.”
She looked impressed. “Where are you from?”
“Joburg. Look, I’ll answer all the questions you want, but can we please go inside?”
She looked him up and down and nodded. She headed into the room and he followed.
It was pitch black inside and he could barely make out what he thought was some furniture.
He turned and she closed the glass sliding door. Then she closed a heavy, sturdy looking metal gate, which she then proceeded to lock with two bolts and a key. After this she moved to a corner close to the door and lifted what looked like plywood, which she placed in front of the door and locked in place with improvised latches. Finally, she drew the curtains closed. They were thick, black and spilled all the way onto the floor.
Taking a few steps into the room, she passed Ryan and then bent down. A second later a match sparked into life and she used this to light a lantern. She took the lantern and switched on two more camping lights.
She turned to look at Ryan. “They’re solar powered, so that makes things easier.”
As his eyes adjusted, he looked around. They were in what Ryan guessed was probably the open plan living room of a larger flat. He could see a makeshift kitchen and there were two couches, an armchair and a bed in the corner of the living room.
She saw him looking around. “I used to live here with my mom and sister. There is a downstairs as well, but after … I didn’t need that much space and it felt … safer being up here. I only go down there when I have to go out and then only in the day.”
“That’s smart. They’re not very active in daylight.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“I really don’t know. So you’ve been on your own since the beginning? How have you survived?” He was really interested, but he knew as soon as he said it that it came across as an insult – literal amazement that she was still alive.
“Hey, fuck you buddy.” she said fiercely.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant how did you survive literally – what did you do for food, supplies? Were there bandits and how did you dodge the lurkers? That’s all.”
She glared at him for a couple of seconds, but said nothing.
He looked down at his shoes and then back up at her.
“How did you manage to block off everything like this?” he said and gestured to the fortified door they had just passed through.
Her look softened a little and then she smirked. “I’ve just been alone a very long time and it’s something I had to learn along the way.”
“Are you thirsty? I’ve got quite a lot of water – even a couple of bottles of booze.”
“Water would be great, thanks.”
She moved off to the kitchen while Ryan chose the comfortable looking arm chair that gave him a great view of the door that he assumed led downstairs and the door they had just passed through. He sank down onto it and it really was comfortable. Laying his pack and his rifle next to him, he sat back in the chair and sighed deeply. He had had a very long day and he was exhausted. He closed his eyes.
A few days after the quarantined people were released, the news started reporting some very disturbing things. At first it was only isolated reports in Texas, but soon these reports were coming from all over America. Children were attacking and killing their parents. Well, at first it was their parents, then, it started to look like anyone was free game. News reports about children killing their parents in their sleep were heard. Stories of whole classrooms turning on their teachers and ripping them to shreds came to light. Videos of children throwing their parents and bystanders off of balconies in shopping malls became all the more frequent. Something was making the children in America crazy.
Soon some people started connecting the dots, noting that some of the first attacks by kids were by the children of first responders. The same first responders who had died due to a mysterious disease. Some believed that the disease they had died from had somehow passed to the children, making them insane.
It was around this time that other countries started reporting the same horrific stories. South Africa was one of the first. It had always been a popular tourist destination.
Scientists then concluded, that the only way this ‘sickness’ would be able to spread so quickly, was if it was airborne. It was theorized that adults could carry it and helped to spread it, even though no symptoms were ever noted in adults. Within a few weeks, containment measures were put in place, but it was too late it – it was global and the authorities had no plan, no way forward – and no cure.
Only a couple of days before entire countries started going dark, scientists released the last, and perhaps the most disturbing finding. Babies – foetuses – in the womb were also susceptible and countless pregnant women had died. Though the explanation was hard to swallow, their unborn children had killed them from the inside. Even after the mother had died, and the foetus had been removed, it still showed heightened agility and aggression.
It was also theorized that children up to the age of seventeen or eighteen were still susceptible, but it seemed to also depend on the individual. Some sixteen year old’s remained unaffected, while some young adults of up to twenty years of age were afflicted.
It was literally the end of the world. Not only was all the youth of the world going into murderous rampages, but no new children were being born.
It was the end of man.
Ryan was jerked awake by a loud bang. Grabbing his rifle he jumped up and looked around, fighting off the sleep which he had so recklessly allowed to take him.
He saw Helena standing in the kitchen, eyes wide with fear.
The bang came again and Ryan realized that it was coming from the door through which they had entered earlier.
“Fuck!” he hissed. “They must have followed me here.”
Glass shattered and he knew that they had broken the glass door. The large metal gate rattled.
“We need to move now!” he said to Helena, but she remained still, staring at the covered door.
Ryan slung his pack on and moved toward her.
“The gate will hold, they can’t get in!” she whimpered, tears beginning to stream down her face.
He reached her and took hold of her shoulders.
“Look at me! Helena, look at me!” he ordered and she finally looked into his eyes.
“I know you’re scared. I am too, but we have to get out of here. Nothing holds against them forever – they will get in.”
She sobbed again, but nodded.
“Grab whatever food and water you have, quick!” Ryan turned, keeping an eye on the door while she hurried about the small kitchen, throwing cans of food and bottles of water into a backpack.
The gate was still being attacked, and Ryan heard something break. One of the deadbolts must have broken.
Ryan waited as long as he could, but after a couple of seconds more he felt they had to move.
“Ok, that’s enough, we have to go. Which door?” he took her arm and led her to the two other doors in the room. She pointed at the one opposite the balcony.
Ryan opened it, and found another large piece of plywood blocking their path. With a savage kick he sent it tumbling down the stairs leading down. Quickly, but cautiously, he led the way down, his rifle raised and ready.
The first floor was pitch black, but he sensed that it was a much larger room than the one upstairs.
“Which way?” he whispered, as the racket upstairs continued.
“The back door’s that way, it comes out below the balcony.”
“Front door it is.” he replied.
She took his arm and led him to the right, around the obstacles. As his eyes adjusted, he thought he saw two bodies against a wall, but he couldn’t be sure.
Helena moved out in front of him and bent down. He heard two clicks and then she stood up and he heard two more clicks. She removed another large piece of plywood and a wooden door with a small window was revealed. Light streamed in and Ryan couldn’t help but look back at where he thought he saw the bodies. His night vision had proved to be correct, as two skeletal bodies were propped up against the wall in sitting positions. The one looked to be no more than a child and the other adult.
He looked back at her and saw her staring at them too.
She looked into his eyes and new tears were flowing freely.
He looked down for a moment and then stepped up to the door. Looking through the window, the street looked empty.
A loud crash came from upstairs as the gate came down.
“Come on.” he whispered and tried opening the door. It was locked, but Helena quickly stepped forward and flipped the deadbolts and removed the chain.
He opened the door an inch and peered out. Quickly he stepped out and allowed her to follow, and then quietly shut the door. They could hear the lurkers crashing down the stairs, looking for them. Ryan headed in the direction of the fort, hoping to hide there until sunrise. He felt they needed to get out of the center of town, away from the obviously large concentration of lurkers.
“Where are we going?” Helena whispered behind him.
“To the fort.”
“They’ve got my scent, that’s how they followed me to your place. We need to get out of town and away from them – put some distance between us. If we hide somewhere in town they’ll quickly find us again.”
They stayed close to the buildings, trying to keep low. Ryan had them move quickly, and they could hear the sounds of the lurkers echoing through the town. A couple of times they ducked into doorways or behind trees when they spotted one. It was chilling seeing these former children running rabid around the town, knowing that at any moment, they could be seen and attacked.
The final stretch was open ground. They’d have to cross a road, a small field and a graveyard before reaching the bottom of the koppie.
Ryan scanned the area looking for lurkers, but spotted none.
“Come on.” He started jogging and Helena followed.
They had just reached the graveyard, when they heard a shriek behind them. The same lurker who had sniffed around the dumpster had spotted them – or tracked him. It was about sixty meters away and it was a large one. Ryan guessed that it had probably been a sports star in the old world.
Its shriek had alerted others, and within seconds six lurkers were bearing down on them.
“Run!” Ryan screamed, and Helena took off into the graveyard.
Ryan raised his rifle and got the closest one in his sights. Squeezing the trigger the rifle fired and the lurker dropped. The others didn’t seem to notice – they only kept coming.
Ryan chambered another round and fired. Another one dropped. Ryan again chambered a round and brought another one down.
He turned and sprinted after Helena, reloading as he ran. The remaining three were after him and they were gaining quickly. Reloading while running was not easy, but Ryan had managed it on previous occasions. Finally he was done. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that they had gained significantly, and were only a couple of meters behind him.
He was about to turn to take down one or two more when his foot caught on a broken head stone protruding from the ground. He went sprawling and the rifle flew from his hands. Landing hard, he could hear the gnashing, hissing monsters approaching. He desperately crawled forward to where the rifle had landed, panic threatening to take hold. Reaching it, he grabbed it and turned, still lying on his back.
A lurker was almost on him, and he fired immediately, striking it in the chest. It crumpled to the ground, almost landing on top of him. He quickly ejected the spent cartridge and chambered another, but before he could pull the trigger, the next one was on him.
It dived onto him, causing him to once again lose the rifle. Ryan managed to get his hands up, keeping it away from his neck as it tried to rip his throat open with its teeth. Soon its hands were wrapped around Ryan’s neck and it started squeezing.
Ryan started panicking as his windpipe was cut off. With his right hand he let go of the lurker and reached under his coat. Drawing his small axe, he put it to the creature’s neck and with all his strength and both hands he jammed it upward. Blood spewed from the wound, covering Ryan’s face and chest, but the lurker became limp and Ryan threw it aside.
Coughing and retching, he got to his knees before he was shaken by the sound of another gunshot.
His head whipped up, just to see the final lurker dropping, most of its head gone. Ryan looked to where the rifle had dropped and saw Helena standing there, the rifle in her hands and the barrel smoking.
Ryan collapsed into a sitting position, taking a few more moments to cough and to get his breath back.
Finally he looked up at Helena, who had walked over and was now crouching beside him.
“Thanks.” he managed before bursting into another coughing fit.
“No problem.” she smiled back.
Ryan looked at the one she had shot and saw that it was the big one that had tracked him.
“We have to move, the gunshots will draw them here.” he wheezed, and got to his feet. He took the rifle back from her and reloaded. He only had a dozen rounds left.
They headed to the fort, now looming over them in the night sky, the moon right behind it. In the dark it looked like an old castle. It made Ryan think of Dracula.
They had just started climbing the hill, when they heard more shrieks behind them. He looked back, and saw dozens, maybe hundreds of lurkers pouring into the field.
“Go! Go! Go!” he yelled, and they double their pace.
The hill wasn’t very steep, but the climb was tricky due to lots of loose gravel and rocks. Twice in a matter of seconds they both slid back several feet.
Halfway up, Ryan glanced back and saw that several lurkers had already reached the bottom of the hill. The only thing going for them at this stage, was that the lurkers attacked the hill with such speed and aggression, that they too constantly slid back down.
Ryan thought about firing off a couple of rounds, but there were too many and the effect would be minimal. He focused again on scaling the hill and eventually they reached the top.
They were both panting, and looking down they saw that some of their pursuers were already half way up.
“What now?” Helena asked, panic seemingly just under the surface.
Ryan took a moment and looked around. The fort was a couple of meters in front of them and a small shed was to the right of it, no more than a few meters wide. The fort was about six meters high, and the rock it was built from protruded slightly, giving Ryan an idea.
“Climb the fort.” he said simply.
Helena looked at him as if he was mad.
“Climb the fort. We get on top. It has no door so we can’t go inside. They’ll break down that shed in seconds and we can’t go running into the night over flat plains, they’ll catch us before we had made a kilometer. If we make it to sunrise, we might have a chance. They’re not the best climbers and I still have a couple of rounds left.”
She stared at him for a couple of seconds more, internally debating what he had said. Making up her mind, she ran to the fort and he followed.
He gave her a boost, and followed after she was more than halfway up. They reached the top fairly easily, as there were several good gripping places along the wall. Ryan only hoped that the lurkers’ blind aggression and insanity prevented them from finding them too.
They sat on the edge of the roof and waited. The original roof had caved in many years before and it had been replaced by flimsy corrugated metal. It looked very precarious. They heard the sounds of the creatures struggling up the hill and it was becoming louder and louder. Ryan had given Helena his axe, and he sat ready, waiting with his loaded rifle.
“Was that your mom and sister?” Ryan asked gently.
She didn’t respond immediately.
“Yes.” she said quietly.
“It wasn’t long after we began seeing the things happening in Johannesburg and Pretoria that it began happening here. It was just a street kid here or there, attacking adults on the main street and in front of shops. They were quickly dealt with, either locked up and some were even shot.”
“But then the local kids began getting aggressive as well. My mom was smart enough to keep my sister in the house as soon as she saw the news stories on TV. She always was over protective and paranoid like that. It kept my sister … herself for much longer than the others.”
“Soon the community started breaking down. There were lots and lots of kids in the township on the edge of town and one night they all stormed into Prieska, killing everyone they came across. We hid upstairs in the closet, and the next day we started boarding up the flat. We didn’t have a car, we couldn’t leave. I was just visiting from university and my mom worked in the post office for fuck sake.”
She had started crying.
“So we hid. I went out in the day with a butcher knife if we needed something, and in the evenings we boarded up the house, kept the lights off and hid.” She laughed through her tears. “I don’t know what we thought I would do with the knife if I ran into real trouble, but it made me feel safer.”
“It was about a week after that initial attack that my sister started to change. She became agitated, snapping at us over the smallest thing. Two day later she began running a fever, and her skin became pale. It was almost dark that day when my mom sent me out to look for some antibiotics and something to help with the fever. I could see she didn’t want to, but I insisted. I had to help my little sister.”
“That was the only time I had been out after dark before tonight. Finding the medicine wasn’t that hard, the town was abandoned pretty quickly and most people left everything just like it was.”
“When I got back to the flat, I could hear a commotion inside. I rushed through the door, to my sister standing over my mom, her mouth bloody and blood gushing from my mother’s neck. My little sister had killed my mom.” At this she broke down, but Ryan thought that it was good that she was talking about it. He realized then that he was probably the first person she had seen in almost three years. He laid a hand on her shoulder.
“She came at me. No words or explanation. Not even a threat or a curse. She just attacked. I had raised my hands to protect myself and she dove me to the ground, but suddenly she went rigid and then limp. I was still holding the knife when she attacked – I had actually forgotten I had it, and I had stabbed my own sister in the heart.”
She broke down again, sobbing uncontrollably into Ryan’s shoulder.
“Helena, listen.” He lifted her chin and looked into her sad, blue eyes. “That wasn’t your sister anymore. If you hadn’t done what you did, you’d be dead.” He wiped a tear off her cheek. “And I’d be sitting here alone right now.” he added with a smile. She returned his smile, and suddenly kissed him. He returned her kiss. It was innocent somehow – only asking for someone, anyone to care for her again, to not be alone anymore. For just a moment, both Helena and Ryan forgot their grief and anger and pain, and lost themselves completely in that moment.
But only for a moment.
A high pitched scream broke them apart and brought them back down to earth hard.
The first lurker had managed to scale the gravelly hill, and it was soon joined by another and then another.
Ryan got on his one knee and raised his rifle, but didn’t fire.
The lurkers didn’t immediately spot them, but started running around erratically, looking for them.
“Shoot them!” Helena whispered.
“I don’t have a lot of ammo. If I shoot, it has to count.”
One of the monsters spotted them, let loose a bloodcurdling shriek and sprinted at the fort. The others followed suit and all of the lurkers cresting the hill did the same.
Soon, a sea of lurkers was gathered around the fort, all jostling, biting and hitting to get to the front. The ones at the front were jumping and reaching for the top, but so far none had tried climbing.
Ryan and Helena sat atop the fort, nervously trying to look in all directions, waiting for the first to start climbing.
Eventually one lurker – he seemed to have been around fifteen – jumped and managed to grab hold of a ledge a few feet up. It seemed almost an accident, but it now knew what to do. It grabbed onto the next ledge, but when it tried for the third, in its haste it missed and went tumbling down. It fell over backwards, and landed on the back of its neck. Even through the chaos they heard its neck crack. It was swallowed by the sea of lurkers and they didn’t see it again.
But soon another managed to grab onto a protruding piece of wall. It hoisted itself up, and it made it much higher before also tumbling down. This one returned though, and immediately began climbing again. Others around it saw what it was doing, and several more attempted to climb the old structure.
The first one had made it more than halfway, and was only a few feet away when Ryan finally decided that it was close enough. Firing a single shot, the lurker fell back to earth.
Now though, it seemed as if the fort was being swarmed. All around the fort they were climbing, and the biggest problem they had, was not being able to see on the other side of the structure.
Ryan was forced to fire six more times, sending the monsters tumbling back down.
They did not have long, and would soon be overrun.
Helena looked at Ryan, her eyes pleading for him to save them. But he was all out of ideas for the moment.
Ryan despatched another lurker which had nearly made it to the top when he heard Helena yell. Two of them had managed to reach the top on the other side of the fort. Ryan raised his rifle, but the weapon only clicked harmlessly. He quickly pulled out four more rounds and started reloading, but the lurkers would be on them in half the time he needed to finish.
Helena raised the axe, but Ryan could see her shaking.
The two lurkers jumped forward – and fell right through the roof. The roof collapsed outward, and Ryan and Helena were left standing on the wall of the fort. Looking into the fort, Ryan could see lurkers streaming through the door, now trying to reach them from the inside as well.
He quickly finished reloading. It was his last four rounds.
He was starting to think that this had been a terrible idea.
“Ryan!” Helena screamed. “What do we do?”
Ryan looked at the swarm of monsters trying to climb the walls of the fort, both on the inside and out. One even made it to the top again on the opposite side, but in its haste to reach them, it fell after taking only a few steps due to over balancing.
Ryan was stumped, and despair was about to engulf him. He could see no way out.
For a moment his eyes glazed over, and he remembered the last time he had seen his wife, right before her father’s small Cessna 152 had taken off. She had pleaded to stay behind with him, to go searching for his brother together, but he had refused.
“The only thing that will make me feel better, that will keep me going – is knowing that you’re safe.” he had said to her, through tears. “I’ll find Matt, and then we’ll meet you at your dad’s farm. Just go with him. Get there. Make it safe. It will be ok. I will find you. I will make it.” He had embraced her, but she wouldn’t let go. He had had to forcefully remove her and get her into the plane, using his father-in-law’s help. She had been hysterical, but finally the plane had risen into the air and out of sight and Ryan had been alone.
“I will find you. I will make it.” he whispered. His eyes focused again and he raised the rifle.
“Helena, I’m sorry.” he said, just as the sun started to peak over the horizon.
Almost instantaneously, the lurkers quieted down, and became less frenzied. Their movements slowed, almost becoming lethargic and their screams and shrieks became low moans and grunts.
Helena looked up at Ryan, and a look of frightened confusion replaced the little relief she had shown at the change in the monsters’ behaviour.
“Ryan, wha – ?”
“I’m sorry.” he said again, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle roared and the bullet slammed into Helena’s right thigh. She screamed and dropped the axe. She fell forward onto the wall, and for a moment it seemed as if she would manage to hold on. Ryan stepped forward as if to help her, but only grabbed the pack filled with food on her back. As if in slow motion, she slid sideways and fell off down the outside of the wall, leaving the pack in Ryan’s hands. She screamed again as she fell, and her eyes met Ryan’s. Confusion and shock reflected there, but also sadness.
She disappeared into the ocean of waiting lurkers, and they immediately attacked her – even the monsters scaling the wall jumped off to get to her – albeit in a more distracted way than the frenzied creatures of minutes before.
Her screams erupted from beneath the mass of murdering bodies, and it seemed to draw them toward her. Ryan watched as the lurkers all slowly moved around the fort to the place where she had fallen – even those inside.
He bowed his head for a moment, anguished at what he had once again had to do to try and keep the promise to his wife. He had thought he had learned to live with the things he had done, but this moment had brought them all back.
Helena’s screams were suddenly cut short, and Ryan knew he had to move. Slowly, he crept along the wall to the other side of the fort, and started climbing down. All the lurkers had moved to where she had fallen, and he remained unseen.
Reaching the ground, he quickly moved away, keeping the fort between him and the lurkers.
Using a wide arch, Ryan entered Prieska again many hours later. Moving as quickly as his tired body would allow, he searched houses, shops and any building that he found for supplies and food. He didn’t find much, but more than he would have expected so long after society had fallen.
He then quickly inspected vehicle after vehicle, but could not get one to run. Cursing his luck, he found a bicycle in the post office and a hand pump in the general store. After inflating the wheels, he started peddling in the direction of Upington.
He had decided that he would rather sleep next to the road on the ground than spend another night in Prieska.
As he reached the edge of town, he slowed to a stop. Slowly, he turned and looked at the fort, still standing unaltered atop its koppie. It’ll probably still be there in a hundred years, Ryan thought. Sighing, his tired body protesting at every move he made, he started peddling.
Credit: Pablo Dickens