Jerome held his breath, pressing up against the side of the deserted building, praying to whoever or whatever might be listening that he wouldn’t be seen, wouldn’t be heard. Groaning and shuffling reached his ears, heralding the approach of the hordes of undead. The pounding of his heart in his ears was so loud, it almost seemed they should be able to hear it. Crouching behind the abandoned dumpsters and trash bags in the corner of the cramped alley, clutching his sidearm, he watched the infected slouch past his hiding place.
The sight — and smell — was not one for the weak of stomach. What once were clothes hung in rags off of bodies that were in many stages of putrefaction. A few limbs were missing and several faces were disfigured beyond recognition. Hair straggled in clumps and wisps from decaying scalps that clung to skulls in shreds. It was the most disgusting thing Jerome had ever seen… since the last group he had encountered. Roaming bands had become a familiar sight over the past few weeks since the outbreak of contagion began.
One figure stumbled over an uneven patch of pavement, and fell. The others simply walked over him, and several more fell on top, until they were tangled together in a mess of disgustingness. He curled his lip at the sight.
Once the group of shambling gruesomeness had passed by, a few of those who had fallen clawed their way back to their rotting feet, and followed their oblivious compatriots. Most, however, just lay there, already falling to pieces in the humid August heat.
Jerome pushed himself to his feet, watching for any threatening movement in his direction. Need for oxygen had forced him to stop holding his breath several minutes ago, and now the rank odour in the air nearly made him vomit. He forced himself to walk towards the pile of flesh, swallowing hard to keep the bile down. He had to make sure these wouldn’t be getting up again.
He needn’t have worried. Decay had already made it difficult to tell that the bodies had ever been anything resembling human. In some cases, he couldn’t even tell where one body ended and another began. Disgusted, he turned away. He lifted the bag of foodstuffs he had scrounged, hoisted it over his shoulder, and turned his steps back toward the Refuge.
Halfway there, he turned a corner and came upon another heap of bodies rotting in the sun. These, like the others, looked as if they had fallen down and decomposed where they lay. His steps quickened, and he held his breath as long he could, pondering what he had seen today. What was to fear from a foe that could be defeated by a few potholes and the heat of the sun?
With new hope in his heart, Jerome returned to the former school that had been repurposed as a Refuge. He smiled, imagining the reactions to his news. Many would poo-poo him, preferring to hold onto their fear rather than accept anything he said — his skills as a tracker and hunter, while vital to their survival, caused some to resent him. Tina would believe him, though, and he would be treated to her beautiful smile.
As he approached the Refuge, his heart dropped. The front door — which was never left open — was gaping wide. And it was too quiet. Dropping into a crouch, he slid from shadow to shadow until he was able to look into a window. He scanned the empty room within. There should be somebody here as a lookout, but there was no hint of life.
He clenched his teeth against the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. Hugging the wall, he slipped around to the back door — it was also hanging open. He took a deep breath, and stepped inside. Room after room was empty. Everyone must have fled, and in a hurry, for most — if not all — of their possessions remained.
In the room Tina had shared with her friend whose name escaped him, he stopped and stared at the picture on the makeshift nightstand. Perched atop the plastic milk crate, Tina and her late husband smiled from out of the past, the glow of life and love in their expressions a mockery of the present. Tina would never have left without this photo — not willingly.
Jerome found himself reaching out toward the image of Tina in her white dress, her dark hair adorned with flowers. His rough, calloused fingertips brushed the glass that protected her, leaving smudges across her face. He snatched his hand back, staring at the dark stains that obscured her face, his breathing ragged. Swallowing hard, he turned away, letting the bag of food slip from his shoulder as he readied his sidearm.
The trail leading away was confused, blurred by many feet stumbling along the same path, yet not at all difficult for him to follow. Jerome pushed away his fear, and focused on the anger that gave him strength. If something had happened to Tina, someone — or something — was going to pay.
The trail ended at another reeking pile of flesh. He lurched to a halt, staring at the bodies. His knees gave way, and he fell. He landed in a puddle of something that didn’t bear thinking about. An arm lay before him, extending from somewhere in the middle of the putrid pile, and a MedicAlert bracelet caught the slanting rays of the setting sun. Tina’s MedicAlert bracelet.
Jerome sat motionless for a long time, his mind blank. Finally, hunger drove him to his feet. He shuffled back toward the Refuge and the bag of food he had left there, his thoughts only of sustenance.