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  • TC Parker

Lost Things & Forgotten Places: Season 1, Episode 5

Content warnings here

She kept her apartment neat. It was easy enough: she didn’t own much, had never wanted to. She had a laptop, top-of-range and so heavily encrypted it would’ve been easier to dump it in a river than find someone equipped to fix it in the event of it malfunctioning; of no use to her now, of course, but a necessary evil back when she’d been working and the world had still been sane. She owned books, because she liked them, to read and then to look at and remember that she’d read them; a stainless steel chest of knives and axes, firearms and explosives. Kitchen gadgets, that once encouraged her to cook instead of ordering takeout; a coffee-maker, for the days when it was easier to reach for caffeine than amphetamines to keep herself alert.

And the clock, of course.

She’d insisted on going home to pack before she left the city with Matty and her brother; had made it a condition of her going with them at all, despite the apparently imminent threat posed by the new, more organized Unrotted they’d shown her. Matty, she suspected, thought Lauren wanted more weapons, that there were pieces she couldn’t bear to leave behind on whatever desert odyssey the kid had planned. And sure, Lauren would be bringing a few old favorites along for the ride in her army surplus rucksack, along with her toothbrush and her underwear: a spiral knife and a machete, a semi-automatic and a bayonet, her most reliable katana.

But the clock was what she’d really come back for. It was just about the only thing she’d never let decay.

She’d hated it, when it was given to her: hadn’t understood, at seven years old, why her mother - by then confined to a hospital bed crammed into the living room, and hooked up day and night to a saline drip, an oxygen tank and a drug pump - had bought her something so ugly, so obviously cheap and proceeded to present it to her daughter like it was a necklace from Tiffany’s. Furdazzles had been Lauren’s thing, back then: cartoon puppies, each with her own special superpower, done up like drag queens in jewel-encrusted capes and masks and earrings and tasked with fighting crime and foiling the nefarious plots of their arch-nemesis Sir Tabby The Mog on the mean streets of Pooch Island. She’d watched them for hours on TV; worn slippers and pajamas decorated with their paws and faces; coveted the soft toys and moveable action figures that bore their likeness. And the puppies painted on the plastic face of the old-fashioned alarm clock her mother’s blue-veined hands had pressed into Lauren’s… they’d looked like Furdazzles, if you squinted: the long-lashed Dalmatian in the tiara a little like Athena, the grinning Pomeranian on a hover board almost, but not quite a match for Persephone.

But they were fakes; imitations, like the clock itself. Lauren had spotted that as soon as she’d set eyes on them, on it. The gift her mom was so bestowing on her - it was a knock-off. And a knock-off gift… it was no kind of gift at all. She’d learned that much in the playground; seen what happened to the kids who carried their sandwiches in not-quite-Pokémon pails, who rubbed out their pencil-marks with Ben 9 and Kim Probable erasers.

“Hope you like it, sweetheart,” her mom had said, with a weak smile that showed how far her gums had receded since she’d started the chemo. “Your dad and I picked it out for you.”

That explained it, then, Lauren had thought to herself: her dad couldn’t have picked a Furdazzle out of a lineup. She doubted he’d looked twice at the clock before he’d grabbed it from the shelf of whatever dollar store the thing had come from.

She hadn’t known then that he was getting sick too; that he’d been coughing up blood into his shirt-sleeve even while was giving his wife bed-baths and spoon-feeding her what little chicken broth she could keep down.

“Thanks,” she’d told her mom, making no effort at all at sincerity, nor to disguise her look of disappointment as she took ahold of the gift. And she’d scarpered off to her room, stuffed the rip-off clock in the bottom of a drawer, covered it with socks so she wouldn’t be disturbed by its ticking, and gone back to playing with her Power Rangers.

She didn’t think about the clock again until the day of her mom’s funeral. And it wasn’t until after her dad had died and she was getting ready to move into what would be the first of several foster homes that she’d remembered where she’d put it; that she’d removed it from the drawer, with an echo of the care her mom had taken when she’d pressed it into Lauren’s hands, and placed it gently into her suitcase.

She’d kept it with her since.

It fit as neatly into the rucksack as it had into the suitcase, wrapped in a long-sleeved shirt and slotted in among the weapons. She threw in a water bottle, a roll-up sleeping bag and a pup tent, much smaller but significantly more expensive than the one she’d slept in on the streets as a kid; added jeans and shorts, t-shirts and underwear, a lightweight armored vest and the Kevlar gloves; an unwrapped bar of soap and three bandanas she’d repurposed as face coverings. Shampoo and deodorant she could afford to forsake: she’d been shaving her head with a straight-razor for months, and had no interest anymore in masking the scent of her own sweat. The kids could deal with the smell of her, or they could find another warm body to look out for them on the road.

She did a final visual sweep of the apartment and, satisfied she could live happily without whatever else she’d left behind, slid the kitchen window open wide enough to accommodate the rucksack and climbed out onto the fire escape. The kids, if she could take them at their word, would be collecting her from right outside building in the same fortified SUV they’d used to drive her to the library; the tank was full, Matty had assured her, and they’d be carrying enough extra gas on board to see them through.

The farm they’d be headed to was somewhere east of Bakersfield, the girl had said. Almost as close to Nevada as it was to the nearest settlement their side of the state border - a town called Ellacott that had been, according to the description Matty had given, small, dusty and underpopulated before Bone Rot had hit, and was now likely all but deserted, bar whatever was left of the bodies of its one-time residents. They’d have made it there in an afternoon, in the world before; three or four hours of driving and they’d have been sipping ice tea on the farmhouse porch, watching the cattle graze and the corn leaves rustle in the breeze blowing in from the Mojave. Now, though, neither she nor the kids had much of a sense at all of how long the trip would take them. Every road out of Los Angeles was choked with rusting cars, trucks, emergency vehicles, not a single one of them moving; at some point, on the freeway or before, she’d told Matty, they’d be forced to ditch the SUV and find another way out and through to the desert.

The kid had thought of that already, though. Had thought of it, and made a plan.

She descended the stairs slowly, minimizing the sound each footstep made on the metal. The Unrotted would be roosting in their fetid birdhouse, still - the kids had made a study of their sleep schedule, and it tallied with the times Lauren herself had known the lone wolves appear on the attack - but it never hurt to be cautious; especially not now, when she knew just how many of them there were, and how close by that birdhouse was to her own nest. The one she was about to abandon.

Matty and her brother had taken for granted, when they’d taken her up onto the roof of that library, that it would be fear that would drive her out of the city and into their irrigated promised land in the desert: fear of a sentient, collaborative Unrotted; fear of what a coordinated ambush from a swathe of them would cost her. But they’d been wrong.

It wasn’t fear that had gripped Lauren, as she’d looked down into that reading room and taken in its newest landlords and the prisoners they’d tortured past madness. Or, if fear was a part of it - and maybe she was kidding herself if she thought otherwise - it wasn’t the only part. Rather it was something akin to disgust: a feeling of creeping violation, of having been intruded upon against her will; as if something pure and sacred to her had been infected with a disfiguring, foul-smelling fungus that had already begun to spread, and that she had no hope of excising, no matter if she scrubbed at it forever.

The apartment, the little strip of beach… they were - they’d been - hers, just hers: a clean, inviolable sanctuary she’d built around herself in spite of the dying, contaminated world. And now it was gone, or as good as. She couldn’t defend it; not against that many of the Unrotted, and certainly not with them working together. She’d already lost it. And if it was lost - why shouldn’t she follow the first interesting offer she’d had since the start of this whole mess and see where it led her? Even if it came from a couple of spooky-ass kids who’d stalked her into her own back yard; even if she didn’t know exactly what she was signing up for. She’d accepted weirder propositions; maybe even more dangerous ones. At least now the number of people who might want her dead - the number of people there were, period - was smaller than it had been, before.

Besides… there was another reason for her saying yes to the farm and the security gig, one she had no intention of sharing with Matty and Tobey. If Matty was right, if she wasn’t blowing smoke up Lauren’s ass, then there was an aquifer out there in Ellacott, a fresh supply of water. And for all Lauren’s attachment to her splendid isolation by the ocean, the issue of water - potable water - had been on her mind a while. The taps had dried up months before, as she’d expected they would, and she’d sustained herself since with bottles of Evian and Mountain Valley foraged from what felt to her sometimes like half the convenience store in Venice. But foraging - it wasn’t a sustainable strategy. She’d been worried, before the library, that eventually she’d run into trouble on one of her foraging expedition, or that the plastic bottles would degrade so badly that they rendered the water inside undrinkable; had begun to stockpile filters and sterilizing tablets on her visits to the camping store with a view to remedying the problem if and when it reared its head, despite harboring more than a few concerns about how good for her even filtered lake- or stream-water would be, given the volume of disintegrating corpses currently in circulation. The scene at the library, though, had driven home the real urgency of her situation. If the Unrotted really were coming for her, if they really had been tracking her movements, then her water-gathering trips would need to be curtailed for a while. And the bottles she had on hand in the apartment… they’d last her a fortnight, tops. After that, she’d be forced out whether she liked it or not - scurrying around in the shadow of those animals like a harvest mouse; always tentative, forever watching her back.

She wouldn’t live like that. Not while there were other options on the table. So she’d go with the weird kids, spend a few days watching their backs, and when they finally got to that farm in the middle of the desert… then, she’d just have to see which way the wind blew her, wouldn’t she?

At the bottom of the stairs she swung right - heading not down to the beach, as she normally would, but round to the front of the building, for the kids to collect in their super-size wagon.

She waited under the canopy by the entrance, muscles straining under the weight of the rucksack slung across her shoulders. The foliage was thickening around the doors, growing so dense and wild absent the intervention of a gardener that it now half-concealed the decayed, semi-mummified body sitting propped against the far end of the closed front doors. His name had been Andy; that, in any event, was the name she’d known him by. He’d set up home in the doorway, driven back out onto the street only intermittently by the concierge who’d eventually found it easier just to let him stay, so long as he didn’t panhandle or shout abuse at any of the residents - and in the end had died there, the Bone Rot fusing his spine in death into a permanent semi-hunch. She’d found him the same day she’d found Gus, the security guard putrefying at his desk - and swiftly reached the conclusion that, though she might’ve had many problems to deal with right then, the disposal of their earthly remains wasn’t one of them. She’d worried a little about contagions carried on the air, and especially the risks a pair of cadavers decomposing in such close proximity to the place she ate and slept might pose to her health. But not for long. Venice, LA - hell, California… they were nothing but bodies, she’d reasoned. Gus and Andy - theirs were just the ones she could see. Odds were there were five-dozen more behind the locked doors of the apartments above and below and down the corridor from hers. She just couldn’t see them.

Andy’s eyes were gone, pecked away by crows and sparrows the way so many of the dead’s had been. But she had a sense regardless of someone watching her, close by - a prickling like breath across her skin, reminiscent of the way she’d felt in her tent in the Mission all those years ago, with the old man in the raincoat making a study of her from inside his warehouse. She’d been right, then; her instincts had been corroborated the second the guy had stepped out from the shadows and shown himself. She’d trusted them then, and she trusted them now.

Abruptly, she spun: pivoted a quarter-turn right, then a half-turn right, scanning up and down the street for signs of life.

And saw… nothing. Nothing but the same empty, dirty asphalt she’d been seeing every day for the last nine months; nothing but shuttered stores and the spiderwebbed glass of splintered windows.

She looked behind her; saw nothing inside the building but the same trash-strewn lobby as always, and somewhere in it Gus’ spoiled body, turning steadily to bone and green-black liquid in the soft embrace of his imitation leather swivel chair.

Maybe it was nothing, then. Maybe this time she’d imagined it, on edge as she’d been since the library. Maybe, if someone was watching her, that someone was another survivor; as scared - as harmless and vulnerable - as Tobey had seemed earlier, shifting awkwardly in his seat at Lauren’s kitchen table.

A bead of something lukewarm and wet dropped down from somewhere above her, landing like an unexpected kiss on her cheekbone and rolling slowly down her jaw. She knew better than to think it was rain.

She was in motion before she even looked up: springing sideways so abruptly her left foot caught for a second in the turn-ups of what remained of Andy’s pants. Her eyes flickered upward as the other foot hit the sunbaked soil of the hedgerow, and there it was, as she’d known it would be: an Unrotted, crouched like a panther on the awning above.

He was big, physically powerful: 6’4 or more by her estimate and hulking as a defensive tackle, the biceps and quadriceps bulging under the shards of rusted metal and discolored glass protruding from his naked, abscessed skin. His hair was long and matted, blackened with gore, though she thought he might have been blond, once; like his friends at the library, he’d adorned himself with a crown of barbed wire so sharp it had torn chunks out of his scalp. His fingernails and toenails were missing, ripped wholesale from their beds. He was snarling, pink-and-yellow saliva leaking from his swollen tongue; his teeth, she saw, had been filed to rough, decaying points, each one - she imagined - loaded with bacteria.

She dropped the rucksack from her shoulders and, as it fell, thrust a hand inside and grasped the katana by the grip, pulling it out of the bag then out of its scabbard in a single unhesitating movement, not once letting him out of her sight.

He leapt: somersaulted from his perch on the awning with an unexpectedly gymnastic grace and landed fully upright scarcely two meters from her on the sidewalk, the toughened soles of his bare feet thudding as they hit the ground.

He lowered his head like a bull, the barbs of his wire crown keen enough to shred her face to ribbon, and charged.

She placed a second hand on the katana’s handle, sunk her weight into her front knee and drove the curved blade into his stomach, letting the momentum carry her forward until she was sure she’d hit a kidney, pierced the loop of his intestines.

He roared. Not, she thought, because she’d caused him pain - she was more convinced than ever now that the Unrotted didn’t register pain, didn’t recognize it - but because the strike had got in his way; because, in stabbing him, she’d prevented him, if only temporarily, from getting to her.

Simply hurting him would do no good; she’d learned this early on, and believed it more and more fervently with every Unrotted she’d put down. She could puncture every organ in his body and he’d keep right on coming for her until he bled to death or the oxygen stopped flowing to his brain.

She drew the katana from his gut. It came free with a sound like a suction hose on sodden leaves, blood and shit spilling from the blade as it left him.

It took him only seconds to rally. To yank himself to his full height, one palm splayed over the gaping wound in his abdomen, and prepare to charge at again.

She swung; brought the blade down on the side of his neck with the full force of her body and pushed, dropping her weight and pressing harder and harder onto the weapon until she felt the bone and gristle loosen. She pulled back; swung a second time, then a third and fourth, chopping at the groove she’d carved in the flesh.

When finally the head rolled free and his legs collapsed under the mass of his trunk, she stepped back. Slackened her grip on the sword and wiped the sweat from the back of her own neck with one hand.

Slowly, she walked back across the sidewalk to her rucksack and, beside it, the place she’d dropped the scabbard. She squatted; unzipped one of the bag’s many pockets. Rooted around in the opened pouch until she found what she was looking for: a half-used pack of baby wipes, the face of the smiling baby on the plastic peppered with dried, blood-red fingerprints.

She took a handful of wipes from the pack and ran them, with loving care, over the soiled katana. It was meditative, this tending to her weapons after the fact. She could lose herself in it: the steel under her fingers, the satisfying polish of a just-cleaned blade.

Something shifted and echoed in the space behind and above her. A patting of meat on canvas; the soft thud of feet on earth.

It was something, she’d tell herself later, that the katana was still in her hand when she turned back around.





#SerialisedFiction #serializedfiction #serializedstory #serializedhorror #freenovel


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