Wednesday, 23 December 2009 - 7:03 pm

Teeth and bone

It has been months since we faced shamblers. We saw some on the way to the University, but they were easy to avoid. That was a month ago – since then, we have only seen the signs of their passing in broken windows and bashed-in doors. Blood stains on the floor tell of the taste of hunger.

When we saw that group of shamblers, the ex-soldiers with us asked us why we ran. Why we didn’t just stand and fight them. Today, we answered that question. We had no choice.

It was another regular foraging day. Yet another small town, another huddle of buildings on the side of a dirty road, the roadsigns so eaten by the acid that we couldn’t make out its name. There were no vehicles suitable for stealing, so we split into our pairs – and one threesome, as Mira decided to join us today – and scoured empty homes and businesses for food. We’ve found tools and equipment enough to keep us going, but food is still our biggest problem.

I don’t know which of us saw them first. If someone shouted a warning, I didn’t hear them.

Matt and I were in a sprawling house, set back from the road a little. It probably used to have a pretty garden out front; now it was just heavy dirt to wade across to get to the front door. We’re settling into a routine with these things. He stopped in the kitchen and started on the cupboards there, and I went further back to check for a pantry or laundry. There wasn’t much, but I did find a shelf of mason jars full of preserved fruit. My stomach growled at the sight of them: apricots and apples, and more I couldn’t quite see. I lifted myself onto tip-toes to try to take a count of them.

There was a shuffle against the floor. I turned towards it with a ready smile, so pleased with myself, thinking it was Matt.

Its skin was like burnt leather, blackened and cracked. Something had torn its mouth wider than it should have been – I could see teeth through its cheek. Clothes hung off it in rips and shreds. Its eyes were wrong. And it was right there, right beside me, close enough to smell the scorched, stale, bitter copper of it.

I screamed and did the worst thing I could have: I lifted a hand to fend it off as I stumbled backwards. A broken hand closed around my wrist. I felt the bones moving against each other as I tried to yank myself free, hard things shifting beneath the flesh, tearing at it from the inside. But it just kept pulling me, pulling and pulling towards its stretched mouth. Terrifyingly inexorable.

I tried to keep it away from me. I braced my other hand against its skull, pushing to keep those teeth away. I have no idea, but I think I was shouting at it, as if battering it with sound might make a difference. It was stronger than me. It didn’t care if I damaged it, but I shied away from breaking my own wrist to get free. Every instinct told me not to, even when its teeth were opening and closing just an inch from my forearm. Even when it moved itself closer and closer, backing me up against the counter and bearing down on me.

There was a rush of movement – Matt. Matt was coming. I just had to hold on a little longer, but it was so strong. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t stop its mouth from closing on my arm. The pain was sharp and hot, and wet when teeth tore the skin. I screamed all my fear and hurt at it. I could feel its teeth scraping against bone as it clamped down and down..

Then Matt was shouting something at me – let go, let go of its head. I yanked my free hand back and there was a flash and a deafening crack. The shambler was suddenly a dead weight on me, gravity pulling it down and my arm with it. I fought, trying to get free. Matt had to grab its head and lift the teeth out of the imprint on my arm. He still had the gun in his hand.

I was free. I gulped in air, staggering away from the crumpled body until my back hit a wall. My whole arm was molten fire and I was afraid to look at it – I just clamped my hand over it, aware I was bleeding. Matt got a clean shirt from somewhere and wound it around my arm, while I just stood there, staring at the damned dead thing on the floor and shaking. I couldn’t stop shaking.

When Matt was done tending my arm, he looked into my face, his expression all torn up with earnest pain. “There was another one,” he said, gesturing towards the kitchen where he had been. I jerked around to look and saw a crumpled arm lying across the doorway. It took me a moment to realise that he was trying to explain why it took him so long to get to me.

I lifted my hand to touch his cheek. “We’re all right,” I said. “We’re okay.” He’d saved me, saved my life – I knew it, but I had no idea how to put it into words.

A sharp crack from outside interrupted us. The others. There were more. Matt and I grabbed our weapons and ran outside, following the shouts and shots to our friends.

They were clustered near a store front: a straggle of hungry dead and five friends. Mira had been scavenging with Dale and Bobby; the three of them were tackling the loose shamblers at the edges of the group. Jonah and Jersey were inside the store, fending off front of the group through the shattered front window. The rest of the Seekers were back at the Farm. Every now and then, a shot punctured a skull and a body fell bonelessly to the ground.

Matt and I ran up and got to work. One immediately turned and reached for my arm. I realised with a lurch that it could smell the blood and wanted it. Matt shouted at me to get back, but I had a bat in my hands and our friends were trapped. I could feel the fear of the first one rising in my throat, trying to choke me the way it had grabbed my wrist. No. I struck out. No.

It still frightens and disturbs me to know just how easily a human skull can be caved in. I’ll never forget that sound.

There were so many of them. Matt’s gun cracked beside me. Our footing was treacherous; I couldn’t think about it too hard, or I’d know we were stepping on bodies. I got grabbed again and he peeled it off me. A shambler latched onto his shoulder and I smacked it in the head until it let go. The air was full of gunfire and shouts, and the sound of desperate bodies hitting the ground. The shamblers didn’t make any more noise than they always do, straining and moaning, and falling down.

The five of us outside managed to get to the window and regroup with the pair inside. Jonah was in a bad way – one of his legs was a mess. We finished off another couple inside, and I managed to get enough space to look at the injury. Jersey looked fit to murder another wave of the hungry bastards if they should happen to appear.

They had literally torn chunks off Jonah’s lower leg. I knew it was bad when I dabbed blood away and could see bone. He clenched his teeth and couldn’t keep still under the pain. There wasn’t much I could do, so I used my belt as a tourniquet just below his knee and told the others that we had to get back to the Farm, right now.

Bobby picked Jonah up and dragged him towards the vehicles while the rest of us ran in a group around them, watching for any more shamblers. Nothing was moving anywhere any more; the silence was as heavy and complete as always, with only our huffed breaths and hurried instructions interrupting it. Car doors slammed and we kicked the engines into a roar, tearing away from that awful, bloody town.

I don’t think we’ve driven that frantically in a long time. I was crouching in the back, trying to keep Jonah’s bleeding under control while I was being thrown against the seats and doors. He clung to consciousness, though I’m sure he wished otherwise.

The others knew there was something wrong when we got back so early. A few came out to meet us and there were plenty of hands to carry the injured man inside. Masterson descended from his rooms on high to take over; I was only too glad to see him. He snapped at everyone, but in that professional way that we all obeyed because he’s the doctor. We wanted him to save Jonah.

He banned me from helping when he saw the blood leaking from my arm. He didn’t want me contaminating everything. Then I heard him asking for a saw and went back, because he couldn’t possibly be about to do what I thought he was going to do.

“Has to come off,” he said.

I felt like throwing up. Jonah was shouting, begging him not to, his pride as shredded as his leg. No, please, anything but that. I wanted to join in, but I’d seen the mangled mess. It was horrible. There was so much missing.

Masterson pinned him to the bench by his shoulders and leaned over him. “If I don’t, you’re going to bleed to death. Do you understand?” He stood up and looked around. “Hold him down.”

No-one moved. We were all too shocked. Then I asked Jersey for her belt. She unthreaded it and handed it over without asking why. I stepped to Jonah’s head, folded the belt over, and said, “You’d better bite down on this.”

Jersey started to swear at me but the others moved to help. Thorpe held Jonah’s shoulders down and Bobby took hold of his legs. Janice was at his feet, ready to assist. I stroked Jonah’s hair apologetically. He knew that it had to be done, that Masterson wouldn’t demand this if he didn’t have to. Knowing didn’t make it any better.

I wish I hadn’t stayed. I wish I hadn’t heard the sound of a saw on bone, or Jonah screaming around the leather in his mouth. Masterson’s calm, sharp demands undercut the scene in an oddly comforting way, but it was a relief when the patient finally passed out. I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t help, so once he was still, I escaped. I ran to Matt and clung onto him, trying to forget the rasp of the saw. I tried not to think about what was going on in that room, or how close the man I was holding onto came to the same fate, back in Haven.

It took a long time. It was hours before Masterson finally showed himself. Jonah is still sleeping; he’s lost a lot of blood, but the doctor seems to think he has a chance.

Dinner is nearly finished. I should ask Masterson to look at my arm. I wish today was over.

I wonder if tomorrow is too soon to send someone back for the fruit I found.

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