Shepard walked down the center of the old two lane road heading nowhere. It was hot and the sun seemed fixed behind him. The cumulus clouds that littered the sky did provide shade from time to time, but it was short lived. There was a slight breeze that blew in from the northwest, so he was thankful for that. Flat farmland surrounded Shepard on all sides. The fields had been abandoned long ago. A few corn stalks scattered about serve as an eerie reminder of how things used to be.
Alone, Shepard travelled with no destination in mind. The hiking backpack he wore carried supplies; mostly canned food, bottled water, and some helpful tools that he found along the way. There was a pry bar attached to the side of it, which came in handy in more ways than one.
The weight of the backpack was beginning to takes its toll. Soon Shepard knew he would have to give his shoulders a rest and take a break, but it wouldn’t be for long. His watch read 5:13pm and that meant it was time to start looking for shelter soon. It was not safe to be out at night. Most nights he would find and abandoned house to hold up in, but he walked most the day not really seeing any. His only lead was a thin stream of smoke rising into the air about two or three miles out.
The smoke was coming from a small grove of trees to Shepard’s left. He had been watching it for some time and wondered about its origins. It did not look like there was something burning out of control from what he could tell, and that made him all the more curious.
About an hour later Shepard arrived at a rock road that broke off to the left and entered the small grove. The smoke was still rising from the center of the cluster of trees that sat about a hundred and fifty yards back. Shepard unslung his backpack and set it on the ground. He opened the bag and begun to rummage though it until he found his binoculars.
Pulling them from the bag he stood up and began to scope out the area. It was hard to see through the dense trees, but he thought he could see the outlines of a house in there. Lowering the binoculars he stood contemplating his next move. If the smoke is coming from a house, then that could mean that it is occupied by actual people, which could be dangerous.
Shepard put his hand on the .38 revolver he had tucked in his waist band and pulled it out. There was no reason to check and see if it was loaded. He knew it was. The real question was how much ammo did he have? A quick search through the backpack revealed that he had plenty. Dropping the binoculars back into the bag he zipped it up and slung it over his shoulders. Shepard looked up at the sky for a second trying to find a reason not to check out the grove, but couldn’t find any. With the .38 in hand he set off down the rock road.
As Shepard entered the tree line he was able to see the house more clearly. It was an old two story farm house, but looked pretty well maintained. The house was white with a brick chimney running up the right side; the thin smoke he had spotted from the road was ascending from that. There was a matching one car garage that sat off to the left of the house; the door was closed so Shepard could not see into it. The closer he got to the house he could hear a banging noise coming from the backside; cautiously he began to head toward the noise.
Shepard rounded the corner of the house slowly with his pistol out in front of him. About twenty yards away from him stood an old man with white hair chopping wood. The man didn’t see Shepard standing there because his back was to him. Shepard marked the SKS assault rifle that was propped up against the wood pile about four steps away from the old man. Lowering his pistol he called out to the old man, “Hello”.
The old man whirled on his heels dropping the axe in the process. The look of terror showed in the man’s face as he started to take a couple clumsy steps toward the SKS. Shepard raised the pistol, not really pointing at the old man, but enough to get his attention.
“Don’t do that!” Shepard called out and added, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The old man stopped and looked at Shepard not trusting him. Shepard held out his left hand showing it was empty and slowly began to put the pistol away. He wasn’t worried about the old man going for the SKS. Shepard was confident that he could draw and gun the old man down if he went for it.
“I don’t want any trouble. I just saw the smoke from the road and came to check it out.” Shepard said.
When the gun was away the old man relaxed a little and asked, “Are you alone?”
“Yes.” Shepard answered.
Hearing this made the old man’s state of fear do a one eighty. All his fears seemed to disappear in an instant. The old man began to smile and stepped away from the SKS.
“No harm no foul, you startled me is all.” The old man said.
“Sorry, that wasn’t my intention.” Shepard replied.
The old man stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s Tom, and you can’t be too carful these days, no sir.”
Shepard shook Toms hand and said, “Mine’s John Shepard, but I just go by Shepard.”
“Nice to meet ya.” Tom said.
“What about you, are you alone here?” Shepard asked.
“Yes, just me.” Tom answered quickly then added, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone.”
“Same here.” Shepard said.
“Well, I don’t have much, but if you’d like to come in I could make us some dinner. I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with someone, to be honest with ya.” Tom said.
Shepard started to shake his head and said, “No, I don’t want to put you out.”
“Nonsense, you won’t be putting me out at all.” Tom replied.
Shepard thought it over. He wasn’t sure if he should trust the old man, but he seemed nice enough. The only thing that made Shepard keep second guessing himself was the man’s eyes. There was something wild about them, but he shrugged it off thinking it’s probably because the old man’s been alone for so long. The old man probably sees the same damn thing in my eyes, Shepard thought.
“I guess I could eat.” Shepard said.
“Good, good. Come on in.” Tom said as he turned and picked up the SKS by the barrel. Shepard’s hand dropped to the butt of his pistol, but he did not draw. Tom hadn’t noticed that the move he just made almost got him shot. He just turned and started walking toward the house. Shepard relaxed a little and began to follow him.
As the two approached the house, Shepard noticed something peculiar about the cellar doors. It was chained closed from the outside. Shepard found this to be strange. He understood chaining the doors closed to keep those things out, but why not chain it from the inside? He probably has it double chained, inside and out; he thought and followed Tom into the house.
The door they entered through lead them into the kitchen. It was dark inside the house. There wasn’t much light coming through the window thanks to the trees outside. Shepard expected it to be a mess inside, but it wasn’t. Sure, things were dusty but other than that, the place looked okay. After a few twist and turns, Tom led Shepard into the living room.
“Make yourself at home, I’ll start dinner.” Tom said as he leaned the SKS against the wall and turned back toward the kitchen.
Shepard stood for a moment and peered around the room. It had all the usual things a living room might have; a couch, end tables, a recliner, and a fireplace and mantle. The fireplace was roaring with flames, but the glass doors were closed trapping most of the heat inside of it. Shepard wondered why the old man kept a fire going with it being so hot outside, but as the thought was going through his mind something on the mantle caught his eye as he set his back pack on the floor.
The mantle was cover with little nic nacs, but there something that looked like a picture frame lying flat in the center. Shepard stepped over to the mantle and lifted the picture frame. The picture was of Tom and what seemed to be his family. Tom and his wife stood side by side smiling and a younger woman with two young children, both boys, sat in front of them smiling. The boys looked to be only seven or eight. Must be his daughter and grandkids, he thought. Shepard laid the picture back down and went to sit on the couch.
Sitting on the couch Shepard could hear Tom in the kitchen banging around on pots and pans. He also noticed though the window the sun was beginning to set. Another hour and it would be down and a half hour after that, total darkness would set in. The thought of night worried Shepard. If Tom decides not to let him stay for the night, things could get very bad for him. A few minutes later, as if Tom could read Shepard’s thoughts, Tom came into the living room.
“You gonna be okay to staying here tonight?” Tom asked.
“Sure, as long as it won’t be any trouble?” Shepard asked.
“No trouble at all. You don’t have a bigger group out there waiting for you to come back do you?” Tom asked.
“No, like I said, it just me.” Shepard answered.
Tom nodded his head and said, “Okay then. I’m gonna go outside and fire the generator up so I can start cooking. I’ll be closing the shutters on the windows while I’m out there too. I’ve got to barricade ourselves in for the night. The generators noisy, it’ll attract them throughout the night.”
“How bad does it get out here?”
“Not too bad, usually. Might have five or six to take care of in the morning.” Tom said as he grabbed his SKS and headed outside.
The sky was completely black by the time dinner was on the table. The two men ate what little food Tom made and made small talk. When they were finished eating Tom took the dishes from the table and returned with two glasses of wine. He set one of these in front of Shepard and kept the other for himself.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a drink.” Shepard said.
“It aint the best stuff, but we’ll make do.” Tom replied.
Shepard nodded, raised the glass toward Tom, and then took a sip. The wine was bitter, and Shepard wondered if this was homemade.
“So, how long have you lived here?” Shepard asked.
“Oh, about thirty five years or so. Just me and the wife. Well, until she passed a few years back.” Tom answered.
“No. Just me and her.” Tom’s eyes shifted downward as he answered.
He’s lying, Shepard thought, but why? The family picture on the mantle came to mind as he studied Tom.
Tom quickly changed the subject by asking, “How long have you been on the road?” Tom asked.
“Damn near since the start of it all.” Shepard answered.
“That’s a long time. How in the hell have you survived that long? It’s fucking dangerous out there!”
“Well, the U.S. government spent a lot of money on teaching me how to stay alive.”
Tom’s eyes widen at this remark and he asks, “Are you military?”
“Once upon a time.” Shepard answered as he sipped his wine.
“Before this….This epidemic or after, when the government was recruiting everyone?” Tom asked almost greedily.
“Before, long before.” Shepard answered thinking about how Tom used the word epidemic.
“So, you don’t know if they’ve come up with a cure yet?” Tom asked.
Shepard gave Tom a concerned look and asked, “A cure for what?”
“This…This…This sickness that’s infected everyone.”
Shepard thought for a second on how to respond to this. The man was obviously in some sort of denial about what was happening. He could see in the old man’s face that he was at war with himself. Not wanting to believe what was going on when it first started was understandable, but it’s been a better part of a year now.
Shepard felt that there was no other way but to come out with it and said, “There is no sickness. These people are dead, and the last time I checked there’s no cure for death.”
“Don’t be a fool! The dead don’t get up and try to fucking kill people. This is some kind of virus that’s making everyone crazy.” Tom said angrily.
“Look I’ve….” Shepard started to say but quit. Something wasn’t right, he felt different. The room began to spin out of control and before Shepard had time to react he passed out.
Slowly coming back to consciousness, Shepard realized he could not move his arms or legs. He felt like he was still sitting, but at the same time he felt like he was moving. He also noticed that he was having trouble breathing out of his mouth. Moving his tongue around Shepard discovered the reason for this. There was what felt like a dish rag stuffed into his mouth. He tried to spit it out unsuccessfully. Slowly opening his eyes, the horror began to set in.
Shepard was tied down by rope, around his wrist and ankles, to the chair he was sitting in. There was indeed a dish rag stuffed into his mouth and there was duct tape wrapped around his head holding it in place. He was also being dragged backward, to God knows where, and figured the movement is what woke him up.
The chair stopped outside a closed door just off of the kitchen. The door was locked by a deadbolt and Tom proceeded to unlock it. The lock made a clicking noise and then the door swung inward. Shepard’s turned his head and looked through the doorway.
There was a set of stairs leading into a basement, except only the top three steps remained. The rest of them were missing. There was a faint glow coming deep from within the basement and from what Shepard could see what looked like human bones scattered about. Tom spun Shepard around and looked him in the eyes.
“Sorry about this Mr. Shepard, but my daughter and grandkids are sick and need to eat. Since they won’t eat nothing but flesh now, that’s what I’m gonna give’em.” Tom said and then added, “Until they come up with a cure at least.”
It was in that moment Shepard realized the horrors of his mistakes. The smoke he’d seen from the road wasn’t by accident, it was a lure. The old man had been drawing people in and feeding them to his daughter and grandkids. That’s why the old man kept asking him if he was alone. He didn’t want a bigger group to come to look for him later, and let’s not forget about the cellar doors. The chains were on the outside to keep people in, not out.
Shepard tried to beg the old man to stop, but nothing would come out thanks to the rag stuffed into his mouth. Tom grabbed Shepard by his shirt and pushed him backwards. It took about two seconds for Shepard to hit the basement floor. The chair broke into pieces on impact and there was a loud thud when his body hit the floor. Tom assumed the thud was Shepard’s head bouncing off the concrete floor. The old man stood and starred down at Shepard for a moment to see if he would try and get up. He didn’t, Shepard lay motionless on the floor. Tom stepped down on to the stairs and began clapping loudly and whistling.
“Come on! Time to eat!” He yelled and then slammed the door and locked it.
Shepard’s eyes snapped open when he heard the deadbolt lock. He quickly looked around in a panic to see where the undead were. He saw nothing but junk scattered about.
There was only a single light bulb hanging in the middle of the basement and it made it hard for Shepard to see anything past it. He quickly started to free his hands from the ropes, when that task was done he tore the duct tape off and pulled the rag out of his mouth. As he started to untie his legs something moved from the back of the room. Shepard froze and fixed his eyes on the dark object moving in his direction. Stepping into the light from the back of the basement was Tom’s daughter.
She was in the middle stages of decomposition. Her once blonde hair was now dark and matted down with dried blood, her skin was a pale grey, and her eyes were white filled sacs of pus. The sun dress she wore was torn down the center and her left breast, which looked to be mostly eaten away by insects, was exposed. Behind her the two boys, now a few years older than in the picture, followed. They too looked to be in the middle stages of decomposition.
Shepard franticly tried to untie his legs as the dead woman closed in on him. It felt like the knots got tighter with every step she took toward him. His heart was beating so hard he thought it was going to burst. Was this how he was going to die, eaten alive in this crazy assholes basement? No, Shepard thinks and tears away the last of the ropes.
The dead woman tried to fall on top of Shepard but he rolled to his right avoiding any contact with her. Shepard quick sprang to his feet and kick the woman in the chest sending her sprawling across the floor. He quickly turned his attention to the two boys and did the same to them.
The woman and the boys hissed like vipers and tried to regain their footing. Meanwhile Shepard moved to the other side of the basement looking for something to use as a weapon. He knew the only way to really kill them was to destroy the brain. Anything else just did not work. As he turned to check on the dead woman and children Shepard foot kicked something. Shepard bent down and picked up something that looked like a long bone.
It was a human femur. Well bub, this is as good as you’re gonna get. You’d better make it count, he thought. Shepard laid the femur on the ground and then put his foot on the top part of the bone. He lifted as hard as he could which caused the top part of the femur to snap off making it sharp and pointy.
When Shepard stood back up the dead woman was on him. He grabbed what was left of her dress and shoved her backwards. The dead woman stumbled three steps back, gained her footing, started back at Shepard, but it was too late for her. Shepard lunged forward and rammed the pointy end of the femur into one of her eye sockets, killing her for good.
Shepard then pulled the bone out of her skull and turned to the children when an idea came to him. Instead of killing the boys, he darted around them and headed for the stairs. Luckily the boys were slow and this bought Shepard some time.
He began rummaging through the junk piled up by where the stairs used to be. There were all sorts of junk, anything from old records to magazines and paperwork. Sifting through the paperwork Shepard found a paper clip holding a stack of papers together. This’ll work; he thought and grabbed the paper clip.
Sticking the paper clip into his mouth Shepard backed up, ran at the wall, kicked off of it propelling himself upward, and grabbed the stairs with his right hand. Still holding on to the femur with his left hand, he set it up on the stair quietly and then pulled himself up. It’s a good thing that ol’bastard didn’t remove all the stairs, otherwise I’d been fucked, Shepard thought.
Shepard sat catching his breath as he looked down at the two boys. They both stood underneath of him arms raised, moaning and hissing at him.
“Easy boys, suppers on its way.” Shepard said and then pulled the paper clip from his mouth.
It didn’t take long for Shepard to pick the lock. Quietly he stepped back onto the main floor and shut the door. He turned the femur over, holding the rounded blunt end upward like a club. As Shepard neared the living room he could hear loud music playing. He must not like to hear his victims scream while they’re being eaten alive, Shepard thought. This was good. It would cover up any noise he might make.
Stepping into the living room he saw Tom sitting in his recliner with his back to him. Shepard clammily walked over to Tom and stepped out in front of him. Tom’s eyes were closed and he was humming to the music.
“Wakey wakey.” Shepard said.
Tom’s eyes snapped open in terror as he saw Shepard standing there. Shepard swung the femur as hard as he could hitting Tom on the left side of his jaw. The blow sent teeth flying out of Tom’s mouth and knocked him to the floor. Shepard went to hit him again but stopped when he noticed that Tom was unconscious.
As Tom came to, he quickly realized that he was now strapped to a chair. He sat facing the open door to the basement where his two grandkids stood reaching up for him. He began to cough on the blood pouring from his swollen mouth.
Shepard knelt down beside him and said, “Make your peace with God old man. This is the end for you.”
He stood back up and stepped behind Tom. Tom tried to speak but nothing but mush would come out. With one swift kick to his back, Tom fell face first into the basement.
As soon as he hit the ground the two boys were on him, biting and tarring at his flesh. One of the boys bit into Tom’s cheek and pealed it off like pulling the skin off a piece of fried chicken. Tom Screamed in agonizing pain. When Shepard had seen enough, he closed the door and locked it.
An hour or so passed by when Shepard went back to the basement door. This time he had the SKS in his hands, as well as his .38 back in his waist band. No way am I sleeping here with those damned things alive in the basement, Shepard thought. Unlocking the door he swung it open slowly.
The two boys still sat eating parts their grandfather that they had torn off. Tom himself had turned into one of the undead. His head turned back and forth looking around as if he had lost something. Shepard raised the SKS and fired three shots into the heads of the undead creatures. He then fired two more into Tom’s head just out of spite. Shutting the door behind him Shepard went back into the living room and laid down on the couch. It wasn’t long before sleep came over him.
The next morning Shepard raided the kitchen for any food or water. There wasn’t much to find, but a couple cans of vegetables and four bottles of water. Shepard packed the item into his back pack and headed for the front door.
As he stepped over the threshold Shepard noticed that Tom was right about the noise from the generator. There was six of the undead wondering around the yard. Shepard dispatched these creatures easily. He stood for a moment and looked around making sure there were no more. When enough time had passed and Shepard felt it was safe, he headed for the garage.
Opening the garage door Shepard began to grin. Inside sat an older Ford pickup truck. He stepped around to the driver’s door and saw the keys hanging from the ignition. Wow, it the fucking thing starts, I just might dance the jig, he thought.
Shepard threw his bag in the bed of the pickup and slid into the driver’s seat. Turning the key the truck rumbled to life.
“Yes!” Shepard yelled.
Shepard put the truck in gear and drove down the long driveway back to the main road. As he reached the road he stopped for a second and looked at the gas gauge. The needle was at the half way mark. Shepard turned left onto the main road and continued on his way to nowhere.
Stephen P. Smith