A drifter in a savage wasteland, up against the evil that has risen from the ashes of the zombie apocalypse.
In a brutal unforgiving world one man will be called upon to take up a fight to save those who remain. He thought his last war had been fought in the trenches against the zombie hordes. Now there is one more bloody battle that must be won. But the enemy is no longer undead, it is much worse than that…
The man found an empty house a mile further down the road, and he and the boy slept fitfully through the night huddled by the glow of a small fire. In the darkness before sunrise the man stirred the ashes and sipped at a cup of coffee, listening carefully to the soft sounds of the new dawning day. He could hear the drip of water and, far off, the sound of a barking dog.
He lit one of his few remaining cigarettes and left the ruins of the house.
It had snowed during the night, and the world was layered in a thin blanket of white. It covered the road and the grass, and it lay on the bare branches of the trees like Christmas tinsel. The man stood silent and unmoving, and marveled at nature’s ability to disguise the ravaged world’s ugliness beneath a mask of white and a sunrise of golden light that was beginning to spread its rays.
He finished the cigarette and then walked a slow, careful circuit of the house, studying the soft snow for footprints. When he was satisfied that the ground had not been disturbed, he went back into the house.
The boy awoke to the pressure of the man’s hand shaking his shoulder and a shaft of sunlight through one of the empty windows. He sat upright with an effort and let the threadbare blanket slip off his shoulders. He screwed up his face against the light. The cold overnight had stiffened his legs and his head felt hazy with fatigue.
“What?” the boy’s tone was an ill-tempered growl.
“Time to get up,” the man said. “We need to be on our way.”
They shared a can of condensed soup, warmed in the dying coals of the
little fire, and were ready to leave fifteen minutes later. The man hefted his canvas bag – and then froze.
Faint – so faint that it might have been merely his imagination – the man heard a new sound. He turned his head, closed his eyes and his face became a frown of deep concentration. He stood like that for several seconds, and then at last his eyes flashed open, filled with sudden alarm.
“Someone’s coming,” he said, the words spat out in urgency. “A truck, or a car.”
He clambered through the burned ruined shell of the house until he stood hidden by a wall, with a view down the long winding road. The sun had crested the rim of the horizon, making the morning shadows through the trees long and angular. The man fixed his gaze on the end of the road where it curved out of sight behind a low rise of brown grass. He could see nothing, but the sound of an engine was now clear in the silence. It was an abrasive snarling sound in total contrast to the tranquility of the snow-covered landscape.
The boy saw the man’s manner change abruptly. The man ducked down and ran back to where he was waiting, doubled over and urgent.
“What’s happening?” the boy’s voice quavered.
“Trouble,” the man said instinctively. “We have to get out of here. Right now .”
On the far side of the road clumped a ragged fringe of trees and long grass, but it would mean scampering across open ground, not knowing when the vehicle would round the corner and come into sight. If they were caught in the open…
The man ran through the wreckage to the back of the house. Behind it hunched another house that had been burned to rubble, and there were more houses on either side of where he stood. He didn’t want to be caught here. If trouble found them, it would be too hard to defend with just one handgun; too many blind corners, too many places to be caught and surrounded. He wanted to be in the woods, where he could evade and escape.
“Come on!” the man snapped.
The boy followed him back through the house and they crouched in the broken front doorway like men about to leap from an airplane into the vast empty void. The sound of the vehicle’s growling engine drew closer, coming in fits of high-revving snarls and then backing off again so that the noise seemed to pulse in waves. The man clenched his jaw, took a long deep breath, and then thumped the boy in the middle of his back.
“Go!” he hissed.
They scampered side-by-side across the open road, running with their bags thumping against their backs and the straps tugging heavy at their
shoulders. They ran until they were into the veil of trees and grass and then paused, fifty yards beyond the far side of the road. Before them the woods thinned into a field of open snowy ground and in the distance they could see more houses, spaced widely apart like farming properties.
The man doubled back with the boy following him, keeping within the dense cover of the wooded grove, and making his way back in the direction of the overpass. He knew they had left the clear sign of their footprints on the snow-covered roadway, and he wanted separation. If the driver of the truck saw the outline of the prints and decided to investigate, he and the boy had to be somewhere else.
They walked for a hundred yards and then the man steered the boy back through the woods to the edge of the road, keeping carefully concealed in the long grass. The sound of the truck’s roaring engine grew to a clamor of noise, overlaid with wild crazy whoops and shouts. The man threw his bag on the ground and crawled forward on his stomach through the dense grass until at last he could see. The boy stayed beside him, and they were breathing hard with their hands over their mouths to disguise and filter the moist clouds of their ragged breath.
There was a flicker of glaring sunlight reflected off metal, and then through the long grass the man saw a big 1-ton Ford truck approaching at a slow crawl. The vehicle was painted red, the color camouflaged by sprayed mud and dirt, and in the back of the truck stood two men wearing scruffy combat fatigues and holding shotguns. In the driver’s seat was another man with a long dark beard and sleepy, hooded eyes. Then a fourth person appeared – a woman sat suddenly upright in the passenger seat of the vehicle. She was young, and there was a length of rope knotted around her neck. The girl wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and stared blindly out the side window, seeming to look directly at the man where he lay hiding, with dull hopeless eyes.
The two strangers in the bed of the truck were peering into the dense border of bushes, the vehicle’s big engine almost idling as it went past at little more than walking pace. The man and the boy shrank back.
“They’re looking for us,” the man realized. They had seen the footprints.
He touched the boy’s shoulder with one finger, warning him to stay still, then leaned his head close until his lips were almost brushing the boy’s ear. “They’re searching for us,” he murmured. “They saw the footprints. If the truck stops, I want you to run back through the woods and head for one of those farm houses we saw on the far side of the field. I will find you.”
The man eased the Glock from out of the waistband of his jeans making slow deliberate movements. The truck was twenty yards down the road now, belching grey clouds of exhaust that mingled with the frigid morning air like a smoke screen. The man felt himself begin to relax. He let some of the tension ease from his body, became aware of the ice-cold dampness soaking through his clothes. He let out a deep, relieved breath… and then the truck suddenly stopped.
In an instant the man felt every muscle and fiber of his body re-string with taut strain. The blood in his veins was a sudden tattoo of pounding at his temples and the beat of his heart leaped and accelerated. He swiveled his eyes to the right until he could clearly see the back of the truck and he stared unblinking until at last his vision watered. One of the shotgun-holding strangers had climbed down off the truck and begun walking along the shoulder of the road, back towards where the man and the boy were concealed, while the other thug had run across to the far side of the road and disappeared into the line of ruined houses. The man watched the nearest gunman come closer. He was a big, beefy figure, heavy in the gut, wearing a filthy pair of denim overalls. He held the shotgun in front of him, squinting into the dense tree line with piggy little eyes, his booted feet crunching in the snow.
The man held his breath and glanced at the boy. He made an almost imperceptible gesture of dismissal with his head. The boy glared at him and the man frowned sharply. “Go!” the man silently mouthed the order and his face darkened with annoyance and rising alarm.
The boy stared back, unmoving and defiant.
Then abruptly, dramatically, the thug with the shotgun walked to where they lay and stood motionless for long seconds. He seemed so close that the man imagined he could almost reach out his hand and touch the gunman’s foot. The man and the boy stopped breathing, and for long perilous seconds the thug swayed from side to side as though he were trying to peer through the screen of trees. The man could smell a stench; the thick odor of the thug’s body, mingled with the rancid smell of unwashed clothes and grease.
Sudden distant shouts of triumph from across the road made the gunman standing over them turn his head sharply. He looked away from the trees, staring beyond where the truck stood idling in the middle of the road, and then he gave a loud whooping cry like a baying hunting dog that had tracked the scent of a fox. The stranger lowered his shotgun and went lumbering excitedly back in the direction of the truck.
Beside him, the man felt the boy’s body begin to relax in the long damp grass, but the man remained tensely drawn. A thousand tiny insects of dread crawled beneath his skin, for with a sickening lurch of intuitive understanding, he realized what was about to happen.
“My God,” he breathed. “They’ve found the couple in the house.”
Several of Nicholas Ryan’s books have since been published as audiobooks.
Nicholas Ryan lives on the East Coast of Australia with his long time girlfriend on a small farm.