Today’s Soundtrack – God’s Gonna Cut You Down by Johnny Cash
We’ve reached the seventh story in our chain, and before I introduce you to the fabulous writer who produced it, allow me to remind you – comment on any of the Zombie Project short stories and be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of Warm Bodies, an eBook copy of Julie Hutchings’ Running Home and possible other prizes to come! If you want to go back to the start and find the first short story in The Zombie Project series, click here.
The writer of this short story is none other than my cousin, Ruth Shedwick – because it runs in the family, don’t you know. Ruth is one of those people you’d never forget, and not just because she owns nine cats. She has a connection to the supernatural that seems inherent within our family, and is one of those writers who’ll make you suck in your breath whilst drawing you into their world. Her most recent work, Trembleath, is a NA Paranormal series following the story of Amelia Scott, a young woman rebuilding her life in southern England. Idyllic coastal life goes array when young girls go missing at night. If you like werewolves, pagan rituals and sexual tension – this is certainly one for you. You can find Ruth and her fear of clowns on Twitter, here, and on her blog, here.
Moving right along, then…
Red and Dead
by Ruth Shedwick
I sat idly scratching my forearm before realisation brought me back to the dingy café we occupied. The smell of stale coffee had clung to my tattered clothing and my nails were unusually dirty. There was a time that dirt under the fingernails was one thing I couldn’t stand; now I looked at them and wondered if there would ever be a time when I’d think about such frivolous things. My forearm had turned pink under the constant scratching, but I couldn’t forget why we were there, how we ended up sipping the contents of the ten year old whiskey, nor that we were now considered extinct.
“Don’t scratch, you’ll make it worse.” He said looking over his glass at me.
The implant was particularly annoying today, ice water usually sorted out the itch, but we hadn’t come across any uncontaminated water source in months and I couldn’t risk the infection. I downed more of the murky liquid and sucked in air to savour the flavour muttering a curse under my breath.
“Where you guys heading?” asked the waitress.
I looked across the table to my companion and we exchanged the usual bittersweet look. We often found people would try to tag along, but travelling in smaller groups didn’t attract attention. I felt her staring at me, and all pleasantries were beginning to fade from my vocabulary.
John put his glass down and turned to the waitress. “North.”
She stood for a couple of minutes and I was prepared for the questions, but they didn’t come, thankfully. Placing the coffee pot on our table, she turned and left us alone. I looked down at the black liquid, we both knew it wasn’t worth the risk and, lifting our glasses, we continued drinking the golden nectar.
The distant sound of the TV above the counter filled the silence of the café; the only channels available these days were the news bulletins. More riots, more dead, more tests. It was an endless cycle. I knew all that GM crop bollocks and animal testing would come to bite us in the arse one day. Only I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. Shit just happens.
They had bagged and tagged us over the course of four months. Bagged the infected, tagged the rest of us. We were now walking time bombs, but at least we had a warning. Dr Zimmerman had been hailed the saviour to humanity – finding the hormone imbalance that reacted to the infection. Those of us lucky enough to get through rigorous testing were tagged with a small chip, if it stayed green you were fine, but if it turned yellow – orange – and eventually red, you were pretty much walking dead. I looked at the faint green underneath the skin in my forearm just visible through the redness.
“Fucking hate this shit.” I muttered.
“Better than being a Red. Better than being dead.”
Reds. That’s what John referred to the infected. I found myself looking at everyone we came into contact with, if its red you’re dead, or pray to be dead. The waitress turned up the volume on the TV set drawing my attention away from my arm.
The presenter announced another village had been taken, the images were the usual daily standard playing on these channels – helicopters dropping shite down on the town, people screaming, black clouds billowing into the air. If you survived the infection, you’d hope to god you didn’t survive the crap they were releasing. There were rumours of genocide, the government had taken a hit for the biggest mistake known to man and they were cleaning up their mess without remorse. No one could have thought something that started out as an innocent cure for cancer had mutated into something nightmares were made of. The government named it Rezerection; we called it death.
I sighed into my hands.
“We’ll set off, get some miles behind us.”
“Formby isn’t that far away from here, we’ll be getting the tail end if the coastal winds move this way.”
He pulled my hand towards his. “Jennie, don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
John was the worst liar I had ever met, but he meant well. He stood and gulped the rest of the whiskey and left some change on the table. I downed the remainder of my drink and headed to the toilets listening to the roar of the motorbike as he revved ready for departure. I sat on the cold porcelain reading the graffiti in the stall. It reminded me of a time of innocence, and also reminded me that the people who had written those words were probably now dead. Noises from the next stall made me kick myself for not using the one nearest the exit. Always look for your exit, that’s what John said. Never get yourself backed into a corner. I quickly wiped myself, opened the stall door and hurried out of the café. John was sat on the bike tapping his wrist; he was always making a joke about how long it took me to get ready. I smiled and jumped on the back, wrapping my arms around his waist. He turned and kissed me on the lips.
“Mmm. Bourbon, just how I like my women to taste.”
“You’re an odd man John Harper, but you’re my odd man.”
The motorway had become treacherous to travel these days; everyone knew it attracted The Reds. The backwater drives were idyllic, but they took a lot longer. We drove for three hours until we hit the Lakes and I felt my stomach wobble as childhood memories of camping lurked at the back of my mind, but the memories were all too distant for my liking, maybe when we got as far North as we could, John and I could start making our own memories. Or was I just a romantic fool. We parked outside a small cottage with B&B sign hanging outside and he killed the engine. He pointed to the side door and nodded, I slowly got off the bike and walked to the rear of the cottage. No sign of life. It was hard to tell whether that was a good or a bad thing these days. John knocked on the front door and I heard the door creak as it opened. Walking around the rear of the garden, I saw a children’s slide, chicken coop, water barrel and dog bowl on the lawn. The rear door opened and John walked towards me.
“Empty. Looks like they had a couple of kids from the photos on the mantel.”
“And a dog.” I said looking at metal bowl with green algae forming along the bottom.
“Have a look inside the chicken coup I’ll go raid the cupboards, see if we can eat today.”
We hadn’t eaten anything substantial in days, apart from a few pieces of beef jerky we found stuffed in the glove compartment of an abandoned vehicle. We had siphoned the petrol and took what we could carry on the bike. I looked at the rotting wooden coup and found myself tensing. The infected humans were bad, but infected animals were just bonkers. A couple of weeks back we had come across a herd of infected cows, and if you thought being chased by cows was scary, they are nothing compared to zombie cows. That day will haunt me to my dying day. I looked down at my arm. The redness had subsided and I saw the faint glow of green. Not Red, not dead yet. I cautiously approached the coup and lifted the lid, and breathed a sigh of relief to find it empty. Stepping backwards I accidentally kicked the dog bowl, the metal sound stopping me in my tracks. Sounds attracted The Reds. I listened. Nothing. And so continued to the back door where I could see John preparing food in the kitchen, when I heard a low growl from behind me. I stopped, my leg mid strike, ears pinned back and broke out in goosebumps all over my body. John was unaware of my predicament and the moment I spoke or moved I knew I was dead. I prayed he would look up, wonder what was taking me so long. Another growl sounded and I stopped breathing. Scanning my eyes left I saw a black dog crouching at the side of the house its dead eyes trained on me and rotten teeth barred. Green puss was oozing from its nostrils and covered the snout; its yellowing canines were long and sharp, white froth covered its tongue and lower lip dropping like gloopy wallpaper paste onto the floor. Its rib cage and backbone were pronounced, a far cry from its former self. The dog lowered its head, putrid eyeballs rolled back into their sockets; he was ready for attack. It was then that I felt completely powerless. John looked out the window and frowned, he followed my eyes and then quietly walked to the back door. I was two feet away, too far to leap unaided. He motioned to me and mouthed 1 – 2 – 3. On three, I launched myself at him and the dog lurched forward at the same time, now occupying the spot I had been seconds earlier. John had me in his arms and kicked the door shut. The dog threw itself at the back door, scraping and gouging at the wood.
“He’s attracting too much attention.” John said searching the house for a weapon. He came from the pantry holding a rake and walked to the front of the house. “Keep it occupied.”
I yelled something incomprehensible that even I didn’t understand or care to. If something happened to John I’d be on my own and that wasn’t something I was prepared for. The dog continued to scratch with a ferocity I had never seen before, making the door shake in its frame. I held the door to prevent the frame coming loose when the dog suddenly stopped. Looking out of the window John was stood above the dog, the rake embedded in its stomach, legs twitching and head shaking. Black blood spilled over its stomach and onto the grass like an erupting volcano of thick treacle. He picked up the spade by the water barrel and cut off its head. The animal lay still. I felt relief, relief that our arrival could now be covert, and relief that the poor animal was out of its misery.
We sat down to watch TV, tucking into our sandwiches and red wine. Flicking between limited channels we found old re-runs of Abbott and Costello, the scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen a constant reminder of the news bulletins informing us of the world going on outside. I remember seeing the words flit across the screen, something about a high school in Montana, many casualties; we curled up together and rested in each other’s embrace. It felt good to be close again; we rarely got the opportunity to rest, let alone in a warm house. I traced the scar along his chest with my finger, and watched the translucent skin bounce back into place. I remembered the first time we met, over six months ago at a supermarket raid in Manchester. He was quietly stacking up on meats and booze while the other looters were taking electrical goods. Smart boy. But he always had been. Before the infection epidemic spread he was a lawyer, when the call came he did the noble thing and joined the army, he never really talks about it, but when his barracks were hit, John said he could never go back. He would talk about conspiracies and friendly fire so I have my own theory of what went down.
“Tell me a story.” I said rolling my head onto his chest.
I shrugged my shoulders as best I could under his tight grip. “I don’t know. Didn’t you say your unit had been involved in some stuff at Hutchings Res?”
He let out a slow release of breath that parted my hair, as I looked up he had closed his eyes and his lips were tight.
“I’m sorry, you don’t have to if you don’t want. Its just that I want to know more about John.”
“That wasn’t me, it wasn’t my life, or the life I wanted.”
“We’re all in the same boat. Do you think I wanted to be travelling the country on a motorbike with a hot guy?”
He looked down at my smile and he gave a short laugh. “The least you know the better.”
“I beg to differ, you’re the one who has seen most up front and personal with The Reds, forewarned is forearmed, be prepared and all that shit.”
“Stop quoting me.”
“You always do that when you deflect.”
“Seriously, we’re getting into a fight over this?”
I came up on my elbow. “Oh sweet John. If you think this is a fight, you’ve been missing out.”
He grabbed my waist and pulled me on top of him, resting his hands on my hips. The dangerous look he gave me was all the invitation I needed.
Exhausted we lay together catching our breath when I heard a faint banging noise. We looked at one another and then upwards. The noise came again. I pulled myself off him and fastened my jeans, reaching for the cricket bat by the stairwell.
“Thought you said it was empty.” I whispered.
He stood beside me at the bottom of the stairs looking upwards into the darkness. “It was.”
Scraping noises sounded above us and we had to choose fight or flight. I would rather have done the latter, but we could stand to have a roof for a couple of days before hitting the road again. We took the stairs one at a time, slowly and steady to avoid making a noise, and reached the landing to four closed doors. It was like one of those lame game shows – in my mind I could hear the game show host ask the contestant ‘what’s behind door number one’. I looked to John who had his serious expression. I stood back to allow John to do his thing, my grip tightening on the cricket bat, his hand hovered over the door handle when the noise sounded again, but it was coming from above. We looked up to the attic door, the string handle gently swaying. His expression became hardened and his brow knitted together. My heart was now banging so hard in my chest I thought it was going to burst through like a bad Ridley Scott movie. He reached up towards the handle and I found myself grabbing his arm.
“What if there’s a Red up there?” I whispered.
He looked down at me and squeezed my shoulders. “We have to know this place hasn’t been compromised.”
Compromised, I repeated in my head. He would slip into army mode in seconds and when John got serious, I couldn’t ignore his instincts. He kissed me hard on the lips, I dropped the bat and held him tight never wanting him to let me go, but when he pulled away and gave me his sad look I knew this could be goodbye. He stepped back and gently pulled the cord to the loft access. As the hutch gave way, dust rained down towards us like confetti, I quickly closed my eyes and bent down picking up the cricket bat, trying hard to stifle a sneeze from the dust that made it to my nostrils. Rubbing dust from my eyelashes, I saw John tease out the ladders and bring them towards the floor. We stared up at the darkened hole above us and waited, the faint noise of air rushing through roof tiles whistled around the opening. John started to climb the steps and my heart started to pound again, when his head was level with the ceiling he scanned 180 into the attic, I anticipated an attack but it didn’t come. John gingerly lifted his foot onto the next step and paused, I’m pretty certain I hadn’t breathed in hours when my lungs started to burn. He turned towards me and shrugged and I smiled, that’s when the attack came… from behind me.
My head connected with the steps and I felt my brain move from one end of my skull to the other. I closed my eyes as I hit the floor; the ringing noise of blood in my ears deafened me I thought my head would explode. Muffled voices were all around me, and someone was screaming. I felt the floorboards underneath me moving and the banging of feet on wooden floor reverberated around my skull. Lifting my hand to my head I felt the wetness upon my brow, I quickly brought my hand within eyesight and stared at my crimson coloured fingers. Someone grabbed my leg and pulled me away from the ladders. I quickly grabbed the cricket bat as I was pulled along the floor, my shirt caught on a nail and ripped, and as the nail connected with my skin it pulled flesh from my side. I screamed and thrashed the bat as best I could. The pain in my ankle was numbing I hoped I still had a foot, and then it stopped. I felt cold underneath and the door banged behind me. As I looked up, John was bolting the door and switched on the light, and we were now in the bathroom. John pushed his weight against the door, as its shook from the bombardment on the other side.
“You hurt?” he shouted.
I began to stand, the blood rushing to my head making me nauseous, before I knew it I was being sick in the bathtub. I bent over and that’s when the skin on my back tightened. I screamed in agony and held my side, my tattered shirt wet from blood. The banging continued.
“Are you hurt?” he shouted again.
Twisting my torso, I looked down at the puckered flesh and fatty tissue peeking through darkened blood. Fuck. I put pressure on the wound as blood seeped through my fingers. He threw me a towel and I wrapped it as best I could. Catching my reflection in the mirror, I saw the lump and trickle of blood on my forehead. Picking up another towel I dabbed my injury, every touch felt like knives pushing into my brain.
“Have a look in the cabinet see if they have any antiseptic, anything to stop the bleeding,” he said between gritted teeth.
His feet slid as the banging increased, I had to act quickly if we were to have any chance of getting out alive. Opening the cabinet I found tablets, lotions, cosmetics, sanitary pads and condoms. I bent down to the storage underneath the sink… bleach, toilet roll, soap, and rubbing alcohol. I picked up the bottle and poured it into the wound yelling from the searing pain. As quickly as it came it went, the smell of antiseptic clinging to my skin and in the air, that’s when I realised the banging had stopped. I turned to John, his brow wetted and worried expression concerned me. I had never seen him like that.
“Come here.” He said in a croaky voice.
Walking towards him he held out his hand and stroked my face. “If anything had happened to you…”
He left it unfinished and I was grateful. Kissing my forehead gently over the lump now forming John whispered something I thought I would never hear again.
“I love you.”
My gut tightened. It was the first time he had ever said those words. If I’d known it had taken a life or death situation to have him utter those words I would have done it sooner. I smiled and kissed his lips, salty from sweat. He held my hand and turned it over looking at my implant, following his gaze I looked down. Green. He smiled and exhaled. As I pulled at his sleeve, he stopped me.
“Don’t.” He whispered.
I frowned. “Don’t be silly.”
Tugging at his sleeve he grabbed my arm in a firm grip and shook his head.
“Go.” He said between gritted teeth.
“John, I’m not leaving you.”
The banging started again on the door, John pushed all his weight behind it to stop them getting in. The screams from the other side pierced my ears making my teeth itch. He pushed me away and I slapped him across the cheek as hard as I could. The pain in my side shot through my body and I growled. John looked at me.
“I’m dead Jennie.”
The words had no meaning; and I didn’t want to believe them. As all logic flowed from my senses I started to believe that if he were infected, we would figure it out, find a cure. I just couldn’t believe he was Red, if he was we were both dead.
“Get as far away from here as you can.” Putting the bike keys in my hand he closed his over mine. “Find an army camp, tell them you were with Lieutenant Harper tactical unit Titan. Here.” He pulled out his dog tags and put them over my head.
“You’re coming with me John. I won’t hear another word.”
“Please.” He closed his eyes and sighed letting his forehead connect with mine. “Do this one thing for me, for us.”
I stepped back. The door was starting to splinter from the barrage of assault. He screamed at me to leave one more time and I turned to the window above the bath. Stepping on the edge of the tub I lifted the latch and climbed onto the window ledge. The banging and screaming became louder, I heard John curse as he fell to the floor with a thud. Turning I saw the door open as he tried to push it back. Bloodied arms forced their way through clawing at the air. I saw him grimace under the pressure as he held out his arm across the door, and that’s when I saw it. His implant was green.
I cursed screaming his name, furious at his betrayal and yet elated that he wasn’t infected. His selflessness was his weakness. I knew that, he knew that, always had to be the fucking hero. I had minutes to think fast as a panel on the door exploded, wood splinters showered down on John. Jumping from the sill I wrapped by hand in a towel and smashed the mirror, shards of glass fell into the sink. I picked up the largest piece and ran at the door. I put all I had into stabbing anything that presented itself to me; arms, torsos, necks, heads, eyes. It was a bloodied mess of mucus and putrefied flesh. The stench alone made me heave; I tried breathing through my mouth to avoid throwing up again. John found his footing and picked up a shard of wood and embedded it into the skull of one of them, it screamed and fell backwards, but another quickly occupied its place.
“I told you to leave.” He shouted.
Between thrusts I managed to answer him. “I’m… Not… Leaving… You.”
I looked to the opened window. “Make a run for it, I’ll keep ‘em occupied.”
“You go first.” He elbowed one in the face; its nose exploded leaving a concave hole of black and yellow goo.
“I’m not getting into the whole ladies before gentlemen shit. You’re bulkier, and take time getting out of the window.”
He gouged one in the arm, which fell to the floor between us. “Charming.”
“Go, now. This door isn’t going to hold much longer.”
John gave one last blow towards the infected, jumped on the rim of the bath and onto the windowsill in one graceful move. I heard a thud from outside and then he was on the other side beckoning me to join him. We were lucky there was a single storey extension to aid our landing from the first floor.
I dropped the piece of glass and ran towards him. The door splintered and four of The Reds fell into the room. Two clambered over the bodies writhing on the floor and stumbled towards me. I lost my footing on the tub and banged my knee on the taps yelling from the pain and cursing my clumsiness. John grabbed my arms and pulled me through, the wound on my side opened and stung like a bitch, but I had to ignore the pain and we had to get out. He yanked me out of the window and we fell backwards onto the roof, they were fighting with one another trying to climb out of the window. The government led us to believe they had no thought or consciousness, it had me doubting what truths we were actually being told.
John helped me upright and we held each other’s hand standing on the edge of the roof. There was no counting to three, no time to prepare for the drop, they were now making their way out of the window behind us. Drop and roll, that’s what they tell you, lessens the impact, but it didn’t help my knee that was still aching from being smashed against the taps. John was running beside me and we managed to get to the bike, I pulled out the keys from my pocket and John caught them. He revved the bike and we floored it.
I held on tight to John as we rode through the night. Images of those we left behind embedded behind my eyelids, and the smell, god the smell; it was like it attached itself to you. I prayed we found somewhere we could take a shower and finally get the stench out of my hair.
Lights up ahead blinded me; we hadn’t come across a military roadblock in months. This meant we were heading in the right direction, having John with me meant they would look favourably upon us. I hoped. He slowed the bike and I sat back running my hands through my hair, the skin on my right palm tightened and I looked down to an opened wound which I didn’t recall. My eyes then wandered down to my forearm and the unmistakable faint glow of yellow under my skin.
If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by none other than the infamous Julie Hutchings! Not only that, but her book, ‘Running Home’, has just been published and is available on Amazon! Believe me – you want it. Click here to check out that awesome.