Lost Things & Forgotten Places: Season 1, Episode 4
Note: this is a particularly grisly episode. Possibly the most extreme thing I've written yet in terms of body horror.
Whole-season content warnings here.
Additional warnings for this episode for: extreme body horror, mutilation, scarification, torture, imprisonment.
All that said - thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy it!
Lauren hadn’t given much thought to how the Unrotted lived, before Tobey and his sister showed up in her kitchen: where they slept and sheltered, how they fed themselves, what occupied the waking hours they didn’t spent stalking and killing survivors for pleasure. If someone had asked her - if there’d been someone to ask her - she’d probably have told them: like animals. Not pack hunters, but lone predators, jaguars or polar bears, roaming what was left of their towns and cities in search of healthy living bodies to destroy; always moving, never stopping.
She hadn’t expected community. Communality, even.
But the dozens of Unrotted that confronted her now, through the barred and blood-spattered upper windows of the old public library not a mile from Lauren’s apartment block… they were undeniably living together. Sharing space, co-existing, like the people they’d been before.
Maybe not exactly like they’d been before, she corrected herself: the manner of their sleeping, stretched out as they were haphazardly across one another on the library’s scratched and heavily blood-stained parquet flooring - juxtaposed with the piles of torn-up books and discarded food, clumps of hair and blackened jellylike coils of what Lauren suspected were human entrails that surrounded them as they slept - reminded her less of human dormitories and more of the cave habitats of an earlier species of hominid. Nor could she imagine what they wore would’ve flown in the offices and coffee shops they must have frequented in the old world.
Much of their flesh - or at least what Lauren was in no doubt they’d once have thought of as their intimate flesh - was visible: breasts and genitalia, stomachs and asses of every size, shape and age uncovered, draped here and there in residual slivers of cotton and wool and polyester so rigid with dried blood and dirt they might as well have been chipboard. But though none of them were in the strictest sense dressed, they were certainly branded; so elaborately and so gruesomely marked that even she found it hard to look right at them.
They’d mutilated themselves, or been mutilated; scarring and disfiguring their own, or one another’s, naked flesh. Deep gouges and gashes in a hundred stages of bleeding and healing - some obviously infected and some, impossibly, not - crisscrossed their thighs and triceps, their collarbones and abdomens; gouges made, in Lauren’s estimation, not by knives or hooks or any other conventional weapon, but by human teeth and fingernails. Scab-encrusted bite-marks, self-inflicted or defensive or both, peppered their wrists and forearms; some were missing earlobes, others toes and thumbs. She wondered, even through the miasma of her own revulsion, how exactly they’d come about the wounds. Was it deliberate, performative - a kind of ritual scarification? Or did they simply turn on each other, in the absence of more satisfying prey?
And either way: did they feel pain, when their skin split and the muscles inside tore open? Did they know what pain was, anymore?
There was another type of mutilation there too, she noticed as she looked closer, a kind that struck her as more unpleasantly functional than the scars and lacerations. The sleeping bodies on the library floor - they hadn’t just been disfigured. They’d been augmented; upgraded for efficiency.
The tissue at the tips of their elbows had been peeled away: stripped or sanded to leave the sharp yellow bone below exposed. As weapons, most likely; a built-in set of tapered sai-like prongs, all the better to strike and slash the faces of their living targets. Jagged shards of multicolored glass, she saw, protruded from their fists like knuckledusters, presumably also to help them more effectively strike and cut and maim; for one brief, unpleasant instant she was assailed by the image of a swarm of Unrotted teeming over a garbage heap, searching frantically for broken soda bottles and shattered Mason jars to jam under their skin.
They’d wrapped barbed wire, rusty and tetanal, around their necks; around their heads like martyrs’ crowns. One more weapon in their contaminated armoury. The metal bit into their scalps, drawing fresh blood from old scabs; if they were aware of the sensation, they weren’t showing it.
“Why do they look like this now?” Lauren said - her voice a whisper, though the girl had assured her, and she’d seen for herself, that none of them would hear her through the library windows. When they slept, it seemed - in the daytime, when the SoCal sun was hottest and highest - they slept like the dead. “They never have before. None of the ones I’ve seen have had any of… that shit on them.”
“That’s because the ones you’ve killed weren’t part of the pack,” said the girl. Matty, she’d told Lauren on the weird, tense drive from Lauren’s apartment to the library - Lauren’s gun pointed the whole way at the girl’s head from the backseat of the tank-like but quiet-as-hell SUV Lauren figured had belonged to the kids’ parents, once upon a time. She was Matty, and her brother was Tobey. “The ones who go wandering… they’re loners. Strays, you know? People who haven’t found their people.”
“A lot different than these guys,” Tobey added from beside his sister. “These guys are smarter, collaborative. They pool resources. Share ideas.”
The three of them were on their bellies, commando-style, on one of the sloping butterfly roofs projecting out like wings from either side of the building - an angled concrete canopy that projected out above the library’s main entrance and gave them, as long as they lay flat and directed their gazes downward, a clear view through the reinforced rectangular windows and into the grand reading room below, where the Unrotted - or this particular assemblage of them - had made their home.
“They don’t always need to go hunting either, now they’ve got a base camp. Not yet, anyway.” Matty grimaced. “Come over here and look at this.”
She began to edge, still on her belly, along the roof, away from Lauren and Tobey - stopping directly above another, more narrow window. She indicated down, and Lauren followed the trajectory of the kid’s hand gesture to what must’ve been another, smaller reading room: a collection of towering stacks and walnut-veneer shelving, newly-smashed table lamps and stepladders. The area around the stacks was strewn with detritus: damaged paperbacks and leather-bound reference volumes, vandalized furniture and thin streamer-like strips of paper that had probably once been text but were now just an ankle-high morass of soiled confetti.
And in the furthest pocket of the room, barely touched by sunlight, what might’ve been a very large chicken coop: a makeshift cage, five feet tall and constructed, if she had to guess, from the same barbed wire the Unrotted had wrapped around their heads and necks.
There were people inside. Six or seven of them, she thought, though there might have been more still beyond her field of vision. They were naked, bloody; all but one of them shuddering and convulsing on the floor of their pen like Pentecostals in the grip of an aggressive glossolalia. Their skins, like the Unrotted’s, were a mass of scabbed-over cuts and unhealed sores, deep gouges and shallow gnawing bites, some ulcerated at their ragged edges and many gathered in obscene constellations in and around the visible flesh of those areas Lauren knew the skin was thinnest, where the pain of a wound inflicted would be hardest to bear: their penises and ballsacks, anuses and vulvas; their nipples and their underarms; their inner thighs and septa and the corners of their lips. None possessed the full complement of teeth, fingers, eyes - the latter squeezed from their sockets by force, or so she assumed from the blood-trails dried and drying on their cheeks. The mouths of two or three were open, wide; it was hard to know for sure, through the thickened glass, but it was only logical to her that they were screaming.
The still man on the floor, she realized after a moment, hadn’t moved a muscle in the time she’d been observing him; may not even have been breathing. It seemed to Lauren a distinct possibility that he was dead already; that he’d died sometime earlier, hours or days or longer, and been left to cool and eventually decompose crammed in beside the other, living prisoners.
“Some they kill right away,” Matty said, “and some they keep alive awhile, like these ones. They go out to the city on raids, take whoever they can find still on the street. Kids, old people… doesn’t matter to them. The elderly are a little easier for them, actually. They never fight back.”
“We’ve seen what they do to the ones they keep,” said Tobey. “It’s just… it’s horrible. You can’t imagine what they go through, what they do to them. The ways they hurt them.”
“And when they’re done,” Matty finished, “they take the bodies to the beach and dump them in the ocean. Not straight away; usually they wait until there’s enough decomposition to bring the rats and raccoons inside.” She paused; stared down at the people in their chicken-coop cage. “They could care less about the smell, but vermin? We don’t know why, but it’s not their thing.”
Lauren did the math; silently assessed the likely injuries inflicted by the Unrotted against the wound patterns left on the corpses she’d disposed of lately, the ones she’d taken for granted were the work of wildlife and not anything more viciously sentient. “So what I’ve been seeing on my beach..?”
“Is what they’ve thrown away. Their leftovers.”
Below them, the unmoving man in the pen - the one Lauren had presumed was dead - began to writhe, to touch himself; to pick at the wounds on his body like a dog pulling tics from its fur.
“Okay, then,” she said, folding upwards to a standing crouch. “Thanks for sharing, I guess. Can’t say much of this has changed my mind on that road trip offer, but I appreciate the warning. Next time I want a little light reading, I’ll head to Barnes & Noble.”
“They know about you.” Tobey’s tone was soft; less assertive than his sister’s, reminding Lauren again just how young he likely was. “It’s like we said before. They’ve been following you; seeing when you leave your apartment, watching you haul the bodies out of the water. We think they might be using the bodies as a kind of… lure, you know? To coax you out of doors at the right time, so they can ambush you.”
“And add you to the collection.” Matty’s eyes flitted to the pen, then back to Lauren, and she grimaced. “You help us, get us across the desert to the farm… and you’ll be out of the bombsight. They’ve got short memories; they’ll forget you the second you’re gone. Ivor’s place, it’s got everything you need. Food, water, fuel… ammunition too, probably. Once we’re there, you can stay as long as you like - or you can fill up on supplies and take off somewhere else entirely. It’s your call. But you stay where you are and keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll wind up like those people down there, and that’s if they don’t just kill you right away where they find you. You get that, right? You don’t leave with us… and either way, they’ll tear you apart.”