#16. Code Words by Leah Rhyne

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Today’s Soundtrack – Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked by Cage The Elephant

Sincere apologies, readers – last night my blog refused to work, for some asinine reason. It still won’t work on the computer, so I’m posting this off of my phone. I think it’s my antivirus software. Stuff like that is supposed to help, not hinder, you know?

The lovely Leah Rhyne continues what Jani Grey started and Kat Ellis spectacularly followed up. This story made my hair stand on end. Leah has actually released a book *all cheer* in the zombie genre, so if you like this, make sure you check that out, here. You can find Leah on Twitter and over on her blog. I’ll be back to edit this post later, seeing as I have to leave the house in ten minutes and editing from your phone isn’t the quickest or easiest thing to do, but I couldn’t leave it a minute longer now my blog has finally decided to play ball. Prepare to be sucked in…


Code Words
by Leah Rhyne

The hot desert winds swirl across my face, carrying with them dust and ash and the foul, acrid scent of rotting meat. My stomach roils as I open my eyes to face the darkness of night in a world of death and decay.
Blood floods my ears, my eyes, tinting the yellow stars a deep red. The moon, once wide and bright – lustrous as my girlfriend Steffy said in another life, another world – glows scarlet in the distance. I lay on my back, staring at it, letting its sanguine light wash over me as the rush of blood in my ears begins to pulse.
Beat, beat, beat.
It’s the sound of my heart, pumping the disease through my body.
But at least my heart’s still beating.
My left hand burns. My stupid left hand. Of course it was my left hand. It’s always been weaker, more clumsy. I never did learn to pitch with it. Not that I pitch anymore. Now I punch, I stab. If I find a working gun, I shoot. Always with my right hand. Tonight I left my weak side unguarded. I was stupid.
Beside me is the broken body of the one that got me. The one that finally called my number. I roll over to face him.
Shit. It was a girl.
Of course it was a girl. Dad used to say some girl would be my undoing. Girls are always the undoing of ball players, he’d say. I doubt this was what he had in mind.
It was a little girl, too. In life, she couldn’t have been more than eight. Mouse’s age. Her dress hangs in stringy rags about her shoulders, and her left arm is long gone.
Irony. Pass it on.
Her face? Also gone. After she bit me and the world went grey, I lashed out at her face. I couldn’t see straight, but I could hit. I can always hit. And now, where her face should have been, maybe pretty, maybe not, but at least existing, now there’s nothing but a black mess of sinew. Gristle. The bone must’ve crumbled like powder beneath my fist.
My good, right fist.
I pull in a test breath through my nose. Air floods my lungs, and the scent of the dead girl beside me – all sticky sweet carrion – clenches my stomach. I don’t fight it, rolling to the side and retching out a thick, pulpy substance. It’s bitter – like death – but at least I’m still able to vomit.
It was quiet this far outside of town, and it’s quiet again now that the girl’s dead. She was a straggler, dormant, a silent bag of bones resting beneath a Joshua tree. I never saw her coming.
From here I can see Father Dave’s house way down the road – a road I’ve traveled a thousand times before tonight, on runs to pick up blow. Smack. Junk. Meth. E. You name it, Father Dave’s got it. It’s the stuff that keeps the addicts pacified through the apocalypse. Pacified and paying, of course. They pay top dollar for that shit, and I get a cut toward a trade. A car. I was gonna get us out of this place. Me and Mouse.
Maybe I should go to Father Dave’s. Maybe he can help me.
The thought flies away on the hot desert winds. I won’t go to Father Dave – the Father who’s nobody’s father. Just an ex-military Chaplain out to make a buck. Father Dave won’t help anyone but himself.
He’ll put a bullet through my head faster than I can say hickory, dickory, dock.
I can’t tear my eyes from the dimming light of the bloody moon, up there in the sky. Red and awesome. From my hands and knees, I push back to sitting. Through the wooziness of a head-rush, the moon wavers, splitting in two for a second – a heartbeat – before joining back together to sit its silent vigil amid the fading stars.
My left hand burns. Arm too. The virus does its dirty work quickly.
Maybe I can fight it. Mind over matter and all that shit. I’m not ready to die.
It’s not a great idea, but it’s the best I’ve had so far. I learned all about healing thyself in a religion class I took at the community college last fall. Transcendental meditation. Or was it transcendental medication? I don’t know, but I’ve got to try. Closing my eyes I picture my body. In my mind, it’s just a shadow, a crude charcoal smudge. In my mind, my left hand glows. The light’s traveling up my arm. I have to put it out.
Deep breaths, Josh. Deep breaths. Focus. Put out the light.
In my mind, the light begins to fade. As it does, I the burn lessens in my arm.
It’s working. I’m stronger than the virus. I can beat it.
Soon I can’t feel my arm at all. I’m stronger again, able to move, able to walk. I press my right hand against the rocky soil, and I push myself to standing. The moon wavers again, threatening to split. I close my eyes.
Deep breaths, Josh. You’re stronger than the disease.
Blood rushes beat, beat, beat behind my ears and the world drifts back into focus.
Okay, I’m upright. Now what?
I glance at Father Dave’s once more. No. That’s not the answer.
There’s only one other place. Home. To Mouse. Little Mouse.
If I can get to Mouse soon enough, maybe I can set him free. He knows what he needs to do, he knows the plan, but he’ll never do it unless I tell him. He’ll stay trapped in that house, waiting for me, and that’s not an image I can handle right now.
Mouse. That’s it. Save the Mouse.
Swaying on my feet but determined not to fall, I turn for home.

****

Beat, beat, beat. I step in time to the rhythm of my heart. It’s slow. It’s steady. Perhaps I’ve already won. I don’t know anyone who’s lasted this long after a bite.
Mouse, Mouse, Mouse. I use his name like a mantra while I walk, a constant reminder of my destination. I learned about mantras in that religion class too.
A breeze tickles my nose. I stop. I sniff.
What’s that smell?
A memory. Steaks on the grill, back in the old days. Celebrating a win over Harrisville, two towns over. Our archrivals.
Dad has a beer and Mom has a glass of wine. Dad hands me the bottle when Mom turns away. “Here, son. Have a sip. You earned it.”
The beer’s bitter on my tongue but I take a long pull and swallow. It’s cold, and it’s good. We share a conspiratorial smile, and Dad flips the steak while Mouse pulls on my arm and asks me to play ball.
The steak juices sizzle and pop, releasing the scent of charred heaven into the sky. I inhaled it then as though the smell would sustain me forever.
I inhale it now, though I don’t know from where it comes.
I’m so hungry. I’ve never been this hungry in my life.
I whip around. The smell of meat is tantalizing. Almost euphoric. I want it. I need it. I’m hungry for all the meat in the world and with each beat, beat, beat of the blood through my ears my hunger grows.
Where is that smell coming from?
And what’s that sound?
It’s quiet. Low. Rumbling. The sound a dog makes when threatened. The sound a coyote makes on the prowl. It’s a growl.
It’s me.
I’m growling.
Shit, Josh. Get a grip. You’re a person. You don’t growl.
But the sound continues as my hunger builds and that smell – that beautiful smell – grows stronger.
I have to eat.
No, I have to stop this. Stop the virus.
I freeze. In the dust behind me I can see my footsteps. My feet have been shuffling, lurching, when all along I thought I was marching to the beat, beat, beat of my heart. But the beat is slowing. I hear it now.
I turn from my footsteps. I turn from the blood-red moon. I close my eyes.
The virus is spreading. I can feel it.
No. I’m stronger than the virus. I can beat it. I can save my brother. I can save Mouse.
But my hunger is strengthening and the virus is spreading. God help me, I’m not as strong as I thought.

****

Hunger burns bright. It glows. It can hurt you. It can kill you.
It can also make you stronger.
My footsteps quicken as I follow the smell.

****

Beat…beat…beat…
My heart is slowing, more and more. That much I can tell. The virus is winning. I can tell that too. But I’m still here. I’m still in control. I still have a chance.
And I always pull for the underdog.
I see our house.
Of course, it’s not our house, not really. Just some trashy dump we found on the outskirts of town when I realized we had to hide. But it’s ours now. I stare at the bulky shadow rising from the ashes of the desert, and within, upstairs in the attic, I see a faint glow. A light. I smell meat.
Oh God if I don’t eat something before I get there I’ll eat Mouse.
Oh God I don’t know if I care.
Oh God I have to care.
But then: salvation. Footsteps behind me. I stop. I sniff. I smell meat.
I want it.
I can save Mouse. I just have to eat.
“Josh?”
The voice is tentative, quiet. A voice from another life. A girl. I knew her. Somewhere. I almost recognize it, but then I don’t.
I’m frozen, the smell of meat thrumming through my body, making it sing. Footsteps draw closer. I’m hungry.
“Josh, are you okay?”
Pressure against my body. A touch, gentle and delicate. The smell of steak sizzling on the grill in my nose. I turn. I pounce.

****

Meat is warm, and it is good. I will take this to my brother. My Mouse. A little mouse, trapped in a big house. Mouse. House. House. Mouse.
I drag the meat behind me as I walk to Mouse. To the house.
I push into the house. I stop. I bend over the meat.
Mouse. House. Hickory, dickory, dock. The Mouse ran up the clock.
I press my face against a warm, wet mound of flesh. I lick. I lap. I feed.
“Josh?”
I stop.
I sniff.
Mouse. House. Save Mouse.
There’s enough meat here. Share it. Save your brother.
I scoop up a bit of food, still warm and pulsing.
Here, little Mouse. This is for you.
The little Mouse steps back. His eyes are wide. Big. Round. He shakes his head.
No. Eat. It’s good.
Now the little Mouse steps forward. He takes a bite. Chews. Swallows.
Together we feed.

****

Oh God, what have I done, what happened, where am I? What did I do to Mouse? Why is he bloody? Is he breathing? Oh, God, what’s going on?
He’s breathing. Okay, he’s sleeping. I didn’t bite him. Thank God, I didn’t bite him. I have to leave. Oh God. Mouse. Little Mouse. I didn’t say the magic words, our code words. Hickory, dickory, dock. I didn’t say them. Why did you come? You should have stayed upstairs. Oh God. Oh Mouse, I have to go.
I have to go.
I’m going. Walking. Leaving. Running.
He’ll never catch me. Not now.

****

— Josh?–
Warmth. Hunger. Food.
— Josh? —
Mine.
— Jo—
Food. Warmth. Wet. Food.

****

Oh god, what have I done? What am I? What’s going on?
Mouse? Little Mouse? Oh god oh god oh god…
Everything is red. Everything is wrong. I’m so hungry, still so hungry. Mouse, my little Mouse. I’m so sorry.
Oh Mouse, why did you follow me?


If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by the sizzling Lauren Spieller! Also, one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, has just been published! ‘Running Home’ is now available on Amazon. Believe me – you want it. Click here to check out that awesome.

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4 thoughts on “#16. Code Words by Leah Rhyne

    1. Leah Rhyne

      Thanks Kat!! I didn’t intend to kill him…that was a later addition, and trust me – I FEEL GUILTY!! He was so sweet!!!

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