PART IX: THE NOMAD (Chapters 44 - 47)
Exiled – Day 3
Gina Melborn sat crumpled up before the small fire, entranced by the warmth of dancing flames that stood up against the chilly night. Her shoulders tensed up as a light but steady breeze penetrated the gaps between the roots and dirt that made up her wind barrier. Not for the first time since being out here, she wished she’d never cut her hair. A little more length past her shoulders would’ve helped keep the cold from tormenting the back of her neck.
With the old stump of the large overturned tree at her back, Gina felt protected from the rear, and allowed herself to relax a little. The fire light lit up the woods in front, and on both sides of her, for about twenty feet before being swallowed up by a dense ring of trees which resembled cage bars in the half-light. Beyond nature’s prison cell, the darkness dominated with an eerie silence not natural to any forest. With the absence of wildlife, Gina had struggled with that awful silence, constantly reminding herself that she wasn’t being watched… although it always felt like it.
She had exited the wilderness preserve three days ago, deciding to head southwest. After inspecting the map Tony had left her, that area looked the most remote as she departed one large forest which turned into another larger forest. Since Gina still had no real plan, she chose to remain in the woods and live off her provisions to avoid the living and the dead. She wasn’t ready for conflict, and just wanted some time to process everything that had happened that led her here. Whether God was showing mercy, or if it had been sheer luck, Gina had seen no one, living or dead, in the past three days, allowing her time to heal.
Gina let out a big yawn, stretching her arms out wide. She felt like she could sleep indefinitely as the large weights above her eyes continued to fall. Each time the Sandman threatened, she shook herself awake, reaching instinctively for her silenced handgun.
Relax, oh, great paranoid one, she thought. You’re safe. You’re so far off the grid that even the dead can’t smell you out here.
She laughed at herself, the sound of her own voice seemed strange. “Go ahead and talk,” she tested the waters. “There’s no one out here who cares what you have to say any more. Just a crazy woman talking to herself. Might as well be dead already.” She’d meant it as a joke, but the moment she’d said it, Gina felt like she’d just invited this sick dead world to come alive and devour her.
Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.
Losing her fight with sleep, Gina lowered her guard considerably, lay on her side two feet from the fire, and let her eyes close…
…Panic-filled voices. Frantic footfalls. Screams. Gunfire. She can hear her own labored breathing competing with her pounding heartbeat as Gina races down the hallway toward the cafeteria. She can smell smoke. The compound low lights are flickering. There are streaks of blood along the walls of every corridor acting like macabre markings leading her toward the end of everything.
I’m too late! she thinks.
Gina turns to enter the galley but there is no entranceway—just another bloody wall.
What the hell?
She can hear them behind the wall, where the door should’ve been, crying out for anyone to stop the pain.
Gina slams her fist against the wall in frustration. “Let me through!” She stops, notices her hand is covered in thick syrupy blood. Within her fist, she’s holding a hunting knife. It’s still dripping crimson from her latest kill.
From another hallway behind her, she hears more chilling sounds of violence. The clinic and Cubicle City are back that way.
Gina turns back, takes a sharp left down another hall, then discovers the clinic door is gone. The control room door, also gone. But the walls are screaming! Everyone is dying!
The lights go out.
And then she hears them in the darkness, shambling toward her from the end of the hallway, from Cubicle City. Everyone is gone. She is too late.
Gina slowly backs away as the dead reach out for her from the darkness. Their moans of insatiable hunger fill her ears, pushing her toward the brink of insanity.
She thrusts her knife into the densely packed hallway full of rotting corpses, limbs flailing toward her like some monstrous unstoppable beast with a thousand arms, bellies full of her friends, their bloody flesh still falling from decayed teeth.
Gina screams into the darkness, stabbing… stabbing… but the moans of the dead block out her screams. She loses her knife as steel finds bone and is ripped from her hand.
She still has her shotgun.
Gina lowers the barrel and fires into the black.
The hallway is lit up momentarily as flashes of light reveal the eyes of the indifferent beasts seeking only to tear into her warm flesh. They are hideous shells of former men and women, sunken eyes peering lifelessly out of bones stretching out through rotting skin. Their ashen faces with bloody mouths howl toward her… and then recognition sets in.
It’s them! All of them! Her friends!
Gina lets loose a guttural sound as she fires the shotgun into those horrific faces… but they keep on coming!
She turns the corner, continuing to fire. The shotgun is hot in her hands. She should be out of shells, but the gun becomes an extension of her need to survive. She wills it to keep firing.
Gina backs up past where the cafeteria should be. She continues firing the shotgun into the never-ending horde. She shuts her eyes to block out those familiar cold faces, fearing that she’ll simply collapse from grief if she looks at them.
She lets out a final scream as her mind snaps. She turns the shotgun toward herself intending to blow her own head off.
The shotgun is empty.
Gina drops the hot weapon, falls into the fetal position on the floor, and covers her ears.
The hallway is now silent. The lights have flickered back to life.
She dares to open her eyes.
“What? What is… WHAT IS THIS?” she shouts down the hall.
The savage horde of her former family is gone. Instead, she sees the bodies of the recently slain, their bloody remains piled on top of each other down the hallway, eyes forever locked open, capturing the last moments of their deaths just moments ago.
Gina stands up on wobbly legs. She places her bloody hands over her mouth to keep from throwing up. She walks among them, every corpse blasted to pieces by shotgun blast… not one bite wound. Bodies lying in contorted positions, faces turned toward her, dead eyes—now acting as mirrors—reveal one word in the deafening silence of the hallway:
“NO!” Gina tries to flee the hall. She turns the corner into the previous hallway, only to find more bodies going all the way back toward Cubicle City. She has slain them all.
“No… no… I didn’t… they were already… they were already dead!” Gina feels her grip on sanity slipping.
From behind her, a big bloody man with a shotgun hole in his chest, rises from the pile.
Gina turns and stares in horror.
“I tried to stop you,” Tony says. His face is pale and bloody. His lifeless eyes—condemning. “We sent you away… but you came back. Now, see what you’ve done? Do you understand what you are now?”
Gina covers her face and shakes her head violently. “No… I’m not like this! This is wrong!”
The lifeless Tony is standing before her now. He grips her wrists in cold, clammy hands, forcing her to look at him. “You did this!” he screams into her face. “Why did you come back? See what you’ve done? You’ve murdered us all!”
Gina struggles to free her wrists from the ghastly thing. She falls to the ground with the corpse of Tony falling on top of her. She forces her eyes close and screams, “No! This is not me…
…THIS IS NOT WHO I AM!” Gina’s eyes shot open as she was ripped from the dream. Something was on top of her, gripping her wrists. The dead thing snapped its rotting teeth at her, just inches from her nose.
Gina reacted with a violent scream, rolling both herself and the monster to her left until she was on top of the creature, its back now sizzling on top of her camp fire. The beast let loose a frustrated howl as its dry rags, resembling clothing, caught fire. It let go of Gina’s wrists.
Gina rolled off the beast and out of the fire, her back striking the hard ground just as another beast was about to pounce on her. A savage looking teenage girl, her once long blond hair now a ratted mud-streaked mess of knots on top of a rotting skull, wearing what might have once been an attractive mall ensemble, fell toward her. Gina lifted her legs and kicked the savage thing in the chest, knocking the murderous teen to the ground beside her. Gina caught the thing’s arm as the savage teen reached over with manicured claws, months of dirt and blood caked beneath them, just avoiding being sliced across the throat. She got to her knees, pushing up on the teen’s arm and used it to push the dead girl on to her back.
The dead teen flailed on the ground, hissing at Gina as if just being told that she couldn’t have that expensive dress from some name-brand store. Before it could move and bite Gina’s ankle, she repeatedly brought her boot down hard into the tantrum-filled, dead things face, bashing it to mush.
Before she had a chance to recover, something wrapped its long arms around Gina’s waist, pulling her back and off-balance. She could hear it chattering its teeth near her right ear.
Gina desperately slammed the back of her head into what must have been the creature’s nose. She felt it crush up against her head, leaving something cold and sticky on the back of her hair. She then pushed back against the creature until they both fell to the ground. The creature lost its grip around her and Gina got to her feet and turned. What used to be a tall man, made much slenderer and brittle after a winter’s worth of malnutrition, hissed violently up at her with its caved in face.
Gina turned away from the thing, feeling dizzy and disoriented, and forced herself to breathe before she hyperventilated and passed out.
Several more dead things were scrambling toward her from out of the ring of dark trees.
The zombie in the fire pit, smoldering and half-charred, lunged out toward her legs. Gina easily side-stepped away from the thing and stumbled toward her handgun.
Two more dead-heads had reached her. One mas a bald man, naked from the waist up, wearing filthy pajama bottoms. It took a swing at her and Gina ducked beneath him. She reached her gun, turned, and fired two silenced shots into Pajama Man’s rotting face. The second, much larger zombie, nearly stumbled over the first, as Gina backed away before it fell on her. The second zombie tried to tackle Gina, but she kicked it in the face as it fell at her feet. She placed the gun directly to the back of its head and fired a shot.
Five more zombies charged at her from around the fire pit, including the one on fire, as Gina only had time to shoot the first two, grab her weapons bag, and stumble off into the darkness.
Her head felt hot, her limbs weak, and it took all she had to get the weapons bag around her shoulders as she pushed forward into the trees. Limbs whipped across her face as she ran blindly into the forest. As each new tree came into view, she aimed her gun at it, not knowing whether the next one would reach out for her, or if it was just a tree. She almost stumbled as her foot caught an exposed root. Gina cried out, believing something had grabbed her foot as she managed to keep from falling and bounced off a tree.
Gina continued her manic run. She didn’t dare look back, fueled by adrenaline and her survival instincts, not knowing if the night was going to swallow her up of if she’d just sprain her ankle and lie there like some injured animal until the blood maniacs found her.
She needed to stop soon and find somewhere to hide before her body gave out.
But more importantly, she needed a moment to find out if her race to stay alive was already lost.
Gina had no idea if she’d already been bitten or not.
The fresh morning light brought some relief as shadows fled before the opposing silence of a new uncertain day. She looked down at her blood-stained clothing, not yet convinced that some of it wasn’t her own.
Gina stood before a narrow river, hidden at the bottom of a ravine, and stripped naked. The morning had begun to slowly warm up, but the cool water assaulted her bare skin. It didn’t matter. She had to know.
There were no established timelines on being infected. She remembered that it took Greg’s daughter, Ashley, a while before she died… and came back. For others, it happened much sooner. She stepped into the widest portion of the river that ran up to her waist and washed up as best she could. Aside from some previous injuries and several scrapes and bruises resulting from her reckless dash through the forest, Gina found no bite marks or scratches.
Feeling a little more refreshed and relieved, Gina crawled out of the river, put her filthy, but dry clothes back on, and just sat there by the river as a bleak realization struck her.
It doesn’t matter, she thought, staring out at her lonely surroundings. I could wander these woods forever like a flesh-craving lunatic… or manage to lick my wounds and survive for a few more days like this… either way… I end the same. Alone and forgotten.
After the last three days, prior to being attacked, she’d almost convinced herself that she was immune out here. Immune to the monsters in the world who had simply forgotten about her, and immune to the monster within who had no further purpose… and no one left to harm. But now, she’d had her wake-up call.
“You’re a damn fool, Gina Melborn,” she scolded herself, vowing to never lower her guard again. “Just because the living have forgotten you, that doesn’t mean that the dead have.”
The gravity of her own words stuck home as she felt a wave of hopelessness strike her on that shore, and for a moment, she allowed it to consume her. Her eyes started to water up as she pulled her shivering legs in close and stared out at the vibrant river. It, too, would move on with or without her. “This is the last time you allow the weakness to win. So, get it over with.”
With no one left to care about her fate, Gina attended her final pity-party for one as she wept into her knees, feeling completely alone in the wilderness.