“Ow! You little bugger!” Jake slapped the mosquito from his arm with several choice curses and nearly broke his leg tripping over debris on the road. A long string of curses filled the air. He’d known they shouldn’t have chosen to travel so close to the lake. He was going to itch for days, if he lived.
“Jake, shut up! You wanna bring ‘em all down on us? We barely escaped the last pack!”
He forced the anger down deep within, favoring his left leg and trying to ignore the rising itch on his arm. They were right. They were far from the nearest enclave, but that was no guarantee of safety. The dead never tired. They could be found anywhere, at any time. It was best not to find them whenever possible.
Oliver kept his lantern hooded so low they could barely see the road, but Jake didn’t complain. Sound would draw the dead to them, but light would do just as good a job. The nights were painfully dark when the moon was hidden, so even hooded, their light would stand out like a beacon, but they couldn’t move if they couldn’t see.
“Damned ‘squitos are worse than the dead,” he muttered.
“Just deal. At least all they want’s a little blood.”
They kept to the road, picking their way across the broken surface. They hadn’t been maintained since the fall of civilization a decade before, and it showed; so many plants had pushed their way up through the asphalt that calling it a ‘road’ was little more than being polite. Some of the sprouted trees were surprisingly mature.
The only sounds they heard were their own footsteps, occasional muttered and stifled curses, and the droning of mosquitoes that got too close. Jake banged his shin hard on the remains of a roadside barrier and fought to contain a shout. He felt a slow trickle of liquid and felt a shiver course down his spine. Just great; as if their anti-biotics weren’t tight enough.
“What’re you doing stumbling around like that, Jake?” Oliver whispered harshly. “Quit messing around, we’re out too late as it is.”
“I’m hurt, man. We got any ointment left?”
“Shit. How bad is it?” His tone was instantly serious.
“Bleeding. Not too bad.” The mosquito drone grew a bit louder as more of them were attracted to the scent. A shuffling sound far off the road jerked Jake’s attention off his leg. His heart began to pound. Not now, damnit, not now.
His mind raced. The smell of the blood would draw the dead as quickly as the mosquitoes, and the dead were more tenacious by far. “Let’s move out, quick!” he whispered. “They’re not far, they’ll smell this and be on us.”
He cringed even as he said it; he didn’t know exactly what he’d cut himself on. Taking care of the wound was their secondpriority. Leaving it any longer than absolutely necessary was as certain a death sentence as being caught by the dead. If they didn’t track them down by it, he’d die of infection.
They moved as quick as they dared through the broken street, avoiding rusted, rotting lumps that could only rarely be identified as cars. They were spurred on by the eerie, inarticulate vocalizations that were all the dead could produce. The moon was still hidden away behind thick clouds.
“We need more light,” Oliver growled as he nearly gashed his own leg open on some sort of rod of metal jutting up from the ground.
“Can’t, too risky. They’re too close on us as it is.” He was grateful they were so slow. These were old dead, bodies dried out, slow moving husks.
“I know. Didn’t say I was gonna open it up, just said I wish we could.”
“If wishin’ did any good, the dead would all be gone.” They had to be almost there. They had to be. Nothing looked at all familiar though, and Jake found himself wishing for more light in spite of his own advice.
They picked their way slowly through the ruin of the road until it was Jake’s turn to nearly open himself on the rusted remains of some metal structure. He hissed in pain as it scratched—but didn’t cut—him, and he stumbled, only barely keeping his feet.
“I’m tellin’ you, we need to open up the light,” Oliver growled. “If we keep it off, we’ll draw ‘em just as surely by sound anyway. We’re gonna get cut—”
“Aw hell,” Jake panted. Something had broken the skin. “I jus’ did. Fine, open it. Just as little as you can.” He strained to hear the slightest whisper of movement around them, but the breeze was rustling branches not far off the road, and the lake shore was splashing gently beside them.
We’re gonna regret this choice, he thought as the light opened and spilled onto the ground in a small area around them. “I can’t hear nothin’ over the wind and the lake,” he said, “so maybe they won’t either.”
The going was faster with the improved light, and they soon left the lake behind them. Jake grimaced as a dull pain spread out from where he’d gashed himself. “Hey,” he said a short time later.
“We got anythin’ left in the pack? This ain’t stopped bleedin’ yet.”
Oliver gave him a pained look. “Might be somethin’. If we press on, we can be there soon.”
“Yeah, and we’ll be trailin’ a line of the dead right behind us. Every step I take, I’m leavin’ blood behind.”
The other man sighed in resignation. “Right. We’re low though, man. Real low. This’ll clean us out but good.” He snapped the lid open on their travel kit and passed over a bottle of disinfectant, relatively clean rags for bandages, and the real prize of the lot, the all-important anti-bacterials.
“Damn. This is all we’ve got left?”
“Stop cuttin’ yourself and it’d last longer,” Oliver said grimly. He unstrapped a small hand axe from his belt, eyeing the land around them. “And hurry up about it, I don’t like just sittin’ here.”
“Me? You cut yourself more with that tree-splitter than I ever have on anything,” Jake spat, downing the last anti-bacterial tablet with some water, then cleaning the gash in his leg thoroughly. He was just about to start wrapping the bandage when Oliver jerked around to face behind him, eyes wide, raising his axe. He lurched to his own feet and awkwardly turned, stumbled backward, looking up into the half-missing face of the dead man that had walked up right behind him.
His brain numb with shock, he grabbed at his belt for his own axe, but Oliver was already beating the dead thing back, hacking at its neck with grim intensity until the head bounced off the side of the road.
Jake shook himself to clear his head and hastily tied off the bandage, fingers shaking. “Thanks,” he croaked, his throat suddenly sore.
“You alright? You don’t look so good,” the other man said.
“I’m fine. It just surprised me is all.” He felt a bit feverish and hot, and his legs shook as he stood. “I just need a few minutes to walk it off.” It’s just the shock, lettin’ it sneak up behind like that. “And that’s what we’d better do. We gotta kee—” He fell to one knee, retching. “Aw hell, did it get you?” Oliver looked torn between rushing to his side and backing away. “Couldn’t have bitten you, but did it scratch?”
He coughed up a storm, but managed to shake his head no. “Didn’t—didn’t touch me,” he forced out. It would’ve taken longer than that anyway. Nobody’d ever turned in less than half an hour. But if not that thing, then what?
His hand leaped up to his neck. He hadn’t been bitten by the dead, true … there it was. Boiled up to the side of a small grape, right where the damn bug had bitten him. His eyes met Oliver’s, and he nearly threw up again as he started noticing that Oliver looked oh so very tasty.
* * *
Oliver slipped the axe back into the loop on his belt, turned, walked away. He felt bad just leaving Jake back there, but staying at the site of a fresh kill was a good way to get dead fast.
As he pushed on, he forced his mind to backtrack over every step of their journey. Jake hadn’t been bit; he’d bashed his leg open on something sharp. Was that what got him infected? Try as he might, he’d never heard of anyone turning because of a cut before. It had to be a bite, a scratch, some kind of contact with the dead that opened the skin, let out the blood.
The path before him crossed a small bridge over a babbling creek. He wasn’t ordinarily the philosophical sort, but crossing that bridge felt strangely powerful just then, a leaving behind of his former self and on to the next stage of his life.
Something tickled his neck, just under his earlobe. He swatted it idly, wincing at the faint itching he felt spreading from the bite. “Damn ‘squitos,” he muttered. No matter. He’d be home soon.
(Originally published at Fiction Improbable)