Lost Things & Forgotten Places: Season 1, Episode 2
Updated: Aug 27
Content warnings here
Recap: it's the end of the world as we know it, and Lauren feels (mostly) fine
Nine months later
The tide came in at 10am, and brought the bodies with it.
There were four of them, up from three the day before: one reasonably fresh, perhaps only a week or two dead, and the others green-blue and bloated, their eyes taken by seagulls and cormorants and sections of their swollen flesh bitten by sharks and gnawed away by sand crabs.
Lauren would’ve paid a lot of money, back in the old world, for an hour alone with whoever kept dumping them out in the water.
This morning, like every morning, she was out on the beach - her beach, the strip of palm tree-circled sand and bright blue sky directly below her apartment block. Her hair was pulled back tight from her face with a rubber band, making room for the triple-layered respirator mask that shielded her from chin to cheekbone and that she valued, these days, primarily for its talismanic properties. Dark blue rain-boots, taken from the smashed-in display case of a sports-goods warehouse on the Boulevard, covered her up the knee; inside them, her feet itched and sweated, moisture gathering in the chafed-raw inlets of her peeling toes. Heat-resistant gloves protected her hands: Neoprene and Kevlar, the kind once marketed to welders and at-home firepit enthusiasts.
She carried kerosene and windproof wooden safety matches, two 2-gallon jerry cans of one and a 25-pack of the other: enough to light all the fires she needed. There was no need for tarp today, nor for the wide-mouthed folding shovel she’d acquired from a mostly-cleaned out hardware store on a road trip out to El Segundo - this latest batch of bodies, she was happy to see, had been considerate enough to wash up in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together in an orgiastic eight-limbed caress. The freshest of them dominated the pile: a fiftysomething woman with a ragged hole for a nose and the same sunken mouth they all wound up with eventually, her thighs spread as if to mount the half-eaten men below her.
Good for her, thought Lauren. Good for her.
She emptied both jerry cans onto the bodies, wincing a little as the liquid streamed down in rivulets into their myriad suppurating crevices, and struck a match. They ignited immediately and impressively, despite the presence of the water, the resultant flames contorting their collective limbs into improbable Pompeii-like constellations. The ocean breeze blew the stench of them her way and she gagged, even with the mask in place. Healthy bodies, in her experience, burned like meat, like barbecue and sausage and char sui, and their burning wasn’t always as unpleasant as people of good conscience would have the world believe. These bodies, though - all the bodies that wound up here, on her beach… they burned like meat that had spoiled: old meat, diseased meat. Meat sloughing off the skeletons of plague victims stacked ten-deep on a funeral pyre, centuries before and continents away. They smelled like swamp gas, like chemicals and death; and maybe they should, no matter what the insult to her sinuses and tastebuds.
When the flames had died down and the bodies were nothing but smouldering muscle and bone, she turned around, retracing her steps across the sand, up the gently sloping dune that separated beach from road and back to her building; she’d be back later, to put whatever was left in the ground. She climbed the metal fire stairs that snaked like ivy around the exterior wall to the second floor, her floor; jimmied open the window that led to her apartment, to her kitchen, dropped the empty jerry cans inside and slithered in after them on her ass. The electronic doors out front were sealed now, hadn’t opened in months; and in any case, she had no appetite for using the lobby since she’d smelled, and then seen what was left of Gus, the old guy who worked security and who had, from the look of things, decided to remain in the post he’d occupied for decades even as the Bone Rot took ahold of him, right there at his desk. She’d needed more than a tarp to take care of him.
There was a kid in her kitchen. No: two kids, a boy and a girl, sitting right there at her dinner table. Waiting for her.
The guns in her belt were out and pointed at their heads before she knew what she was doing. Though maybe she was clawing back at least a little of her past restraint, she thought, as her swaddled index fingers came to rest on the triggers; even a month ago, she would’ve shot them both on sight.
“Don’t,” said the boy. But he didn’t sound frightened; didn’t sound much of anything. That wasn’t so surprising, Lauren figured: they must all be numb to fear now, the ones who were left. The few she’d met herself were so far past PTSD she’d be surprised if they remembered what it was to feel.
“We’re not a threat to you,” the girl said, equally equanimous. She was older than the boy, by Lauren’s estimate - seventeen to his fifteen, or thereabouts - but the physical similarity between them was impossible to miss. Both were dark-haired, dark-eyed, Middle Eastern or Latinx; both had dimples in their cheeks, though neither was smiling, and both were tall and markedly broad-shouldered, even sitting down. High-school athletes, probably; swimmers or lacrosse players.
And siblings. A brother and a sister, both living and breathing.
What were the odds of that?
Slowly, she slid one of the guns back into its belt - keeping a tight hold, still, on the other - and tugged down the mask until it cradled her chin like a goatee.
“What,” she said, her voice cracking, unused as it was to speaking aloud, “are you doing in my apartment?”
“We’re not a threat to you,” the girl repeated. She held up her arms; turned her palms outward to face Lauren. We come in peace, Lauren thought - that was how the girl intended it. Except that wasn’t how it came across. It reminded Lauren instead of the opening flourish of a stage magician with a rabbit up his sleeve and a coin tucked under his thumb. See for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen - there’s nothing in my hand here, nothing at all.
“You said that already.”
“You’ve been burying them - the dead people. Burning them then burying them in the sand.” This was the boy again. He was watching Lauren carefully; still not fearful, but a little wary now, as if she might decide to step right back out of the window and never come back.
“Yeah?” She shifted her weight, her boots squeaking on the linoleum underfoot; lowered the gun an inch, but no more. “And what would you have me do, kid? This is my home. The wind coming in from the beach down there, that’s the air I breathe all day. You think I want my sea breeze with a side of rotting corpse? Those things are vectors for disease. All kinds of disease,” she added.
“But you do it all the time - burn them and bury them. Every day.”
“Sure do.” She gripped the gun a little harder, through the Kevlar. How long had they been watching her, he and his sister? “And I’ll keep doing it, so long as whoever’s left out there keeps treating this stretch of the Pacific like it’s their personal goddamn Ganges.”
“You don’t worry for your safety?” the girl asked.
“They’re dead.” Lauren smiled at her, showing teeth. “What’s to be afraid of? Now, mind if we address the issue of what it is you’re doing in my kitchen, uninvited?”
“She didn’t mean from the dead folks,” the boy said, ignoring the second question. “She meant from them. The other ones.”
Lauren didn’t press him on which them exactly he was talking about; she didn’t have to. She knew as well as the two strange kids at her table who they were, and why someone might be afraid of them. They were dangerous: always volatile, entirely unpredictable. Dangerous not in the way a man with a grudge and a blade in his hand might be - not even in the way she was, or had been - but dangerous like a car with its brakes cut; like a faulty electrical wire in a dry old house.
Like the bodies on the beach, they were victims of the Bone Rot; like the millions - the tens, maybe hundreds of millions - stiff and decaying in their beds and cars and hospital trolleys from Oakland to Providence - and from Johannesburg to Kiribati, for all she knew. Their symptoms, though, were less overt, less physical - and for the most part less fatal.
They didn’t rot; not where it showed. Their skulls and jaws never softened; their ribs stayed firm; their skins maintained their original color and texture. Their organs didn’t atrophy, and their hearts kept beating.
Instead, they lost their minds.
Lauren didn’t know if the madness that seized them was neurological - the primary symptom of a Bone Rot variant that targeted, say, the cerebellum in lieu of other tissues - or whether it was purely psychological: a novel mental illness precipitated by the trauma of societal collapse, spontaneously manifesting in a percentage of those statistical anomalies who’d dodged the bullet of necropathy proper. But the underlying causes didn’t seem to her all that important, the first time she’d had to decapitate one of them with a cold-cut counter cleaver to stop him biting off her ear.
They were feral; that was the crux of it.
He come at her in a supermarket, the ear-biter - early on, after the generators had breathed their last but while some of the fresh food was still edible, if you cooked it long enough. From a distance, she’d thought he was like her: another survivor, rifling through the wreckage of the grocery aisle for his next meal. He was shoeless and shirtless, his feet red from sunburn and his khakis torn, but it was warm out, and good grooming was hardly front and center for her either lately, so who was she to judge?
Then he’d crept up close enough for her to see his face, and she’d run.
Their eyes… they weren’t blank or unfocused; there was intent there, if not cognizance. And there was rage, poker-hot and blinding.
They weren’t like zombies, the Unrotted, though the comparison had suggested itself to her in the wake of that first encounter and the others that followed. They didn’t shamble or grope or groan without direction; they weren’t lost or rudderless.
They were angry, and consumed with it.
She’d sprinted down the aisle to the fresh meat section, stomach turning at the waft of stale blood and fetid poultry, and he’d torn after her - abnormally fast, the soles of his bare feet beating out a ballistic allegrissimo on the dirty tiles. She’d dived behind the counter, already beginning to calculate where the butcher might’ve kept a knife block. He’d followed, a snarl like a rabid wolf’s rising from his throat; picked her up from the floor where she’d been crouching and thrown her against the wall.
He was still snarling, acrid spittle flying at her from between the brown-stained canines gnashing at the flesh of her earlobes, when she’d pushed the sharp edge of the cleaver through his windpipe.
“I’m not afraid of them either,” she told the boy.
He looked across the table at his sister. The pair of them exchanged a look Lauren couldn’t parse, and the girl nodded in unspoken agreement with whatever silent question she’d been asked, then turned back to look at Lauren.
“You’re fearless,” she said. “That’s good. Fearless is good. It’s what we need.”
“What you need?” Lauren allowed herself a smile; a more genuine one, this time around. You had to admire the kid’s confidence - the sheer steel balls of a girl her age saying something like that to someone like Lauren, on Lauren’s home field, with a gun trained on her. “You two here to recruit me for something?”
“Yes,” said the boy, straight-faced.
“We’re leaving the city,” the girl said, before Lauren could speak again. So calm; so preternaturally calm. “It’s… not good here anymore. We have to go somewhere safer, somewhere more stable. We know a place, but it’s far - real far. Far enough that we need help getting there and staying out of trouble on the way. A sort of… bodyguard looking out for us, you know? Someone who can take care of herself. Someone fearless.”