LOST THINGS & FORGOTTEN PLACES
An Adventure In Serialised Fiction
Hi everyone. I've been giving social media a wide berth lately, for a multiplicity of reasons - and I must confess, I haven't been writing much, either.
I miss it, though.
So, in the spirit of getting back on the horse - and to give myself a much-needed kick up the arse - I thought I'd share a WIP on here, as I write it: a potentially quite sprawling Stand-like behemoth of a thing, set in the Salvation Spring universe. (Though in no way is it a prerequisite to have read the latter before diving in).
I've always enjoyed - and fancied trying my hand at - serialised fiction (if Armistead Maupin can do it with Tales of the City, it's good enough for me)... and the loose-limbed structure of this particular story feels like it lends itself quite well to an episodic format. So I'll be dividing this one into Seasons - and, in true (old-school) terrestrial TV style, will be sharing new chapters/updating once a week.
(Not sure if it'll turn out to be Must-See TV, or will even warrant a brief bit of water-cooler chat... but we live in hope).
I'm writing Season 3 as we speak (after a very, very long hiatus), though it'll obviously be a while before we get there... but in the meantime, I'm delighted to be able to kick off Season 1 of LOST THINGS & FORGOTTEN PLACES on here - and see where this particular journey takes us.
More very soon!
P.S. Odds are, given it's a WIP, there'll be typos and inconsistencies that will mortify me later - so apologies in advance for whatever horrors you stumble upon herein.
The inadvertent horrors, anyway...
P.P.S. On the subject of which... since this is horror, content warnings apply throughout for:
- Body horror (human and animal), some of it extreme
- Violence, some of it extreme
- Death / murder
- Allusions to torture
- Physical illness, disease and decay
I'll update as we go, but by all means let me know if there are any I've missed
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1
Remember: none of this ever happened.
The house was big and tasteless: a Greek Revival monstrosity in a Stepford neighborhood just north of Indianapolis, its octagonal columns drowning in a sea of artificially green grass and frosting-pink peonies. It screamed money, six-figure bonuses and well-stuffed 401(k)s, but the security was pitiful, so meager Lauren felt a pang of pity for the man inside. There were no cameras; no gates, electronic or otherwise; not even a guard dog drooling in its kennel, though she’d had the foresight to slide three strips of gabapentin-seasoned jerky into the pocket of her jeans before she’d set out for the suburbs. There were streetlights, scoring grotesquely elongated shadows into the lawn and sidewalk, but no-one to see them. No child’s laughter or raised adult voices carrying on the darkening air; no electroluminescent screen-glow radiating out from the half-closed blinds of living rooms or dens. If other people lived here, on this pallid stretch of avenue, then they were asleep already, every one. Asleep, or dead and rotting in their beds.
She went in around the back, picking the single lock on the back door as quickly as the owner might have turned a key, and slipped inside, her sneakers - white, generic, bought just that morning from a dollar store in Cincinnati - silent on the hardwood and her breaths coming so slow and so shallow you’d be forgiven for surmising that she’d ceased to breathe at all.
She’d find him on the couch downstairs, the wife had told her. That was how he slept now; stretched out like a corpse in a casket, the laugh track of a sitcom singing out in the background and his laptop open but faded to black, the specter of whichever sweepstakes poker site he’d last visited still haunting his browser. She briefly considered, as she stalked the hallway, how much he’d lost that evening, and how he planned to pay for those losses: there were nothing left in their savings account, the wife had said, and their joint account - as well as the clandestine current account he’d created for himself online and thought she didn’t know about - had been drained dry. He’d taken out personal loans and extra credit cards to cover the debts as he racked them up - the wife had presented her with the evidence, although Lauren hadn’t asked to see it - but even these were at their limit, the cards maxed out and the loans accumulating interest at a barely legal rate. Maybe, Lauren thought, he’d finally succeeded in persuading some bank, somewhere to issue a card in the wife’s name, after all.
Was it any wonder she wanted him gone? Lauren sure as hell would, in the other woman’s shoes. She wouldn’t blink before she pulled the trigger.
Her mind drifted, at that, from the state of the wife’s marriage to the weapon strapped to her own lower leg, and she reached down - all the way down the length of herself and, as if performing a complicated hamstring stretch, drew the pistol from its holster with both hands. It was a ghost gun, boxy as a Glock, assembled - as per the wife’s instructions - specifically for this job, and this job alone. Lauren, truth be told, would have preferred a knife, a Bowie or a tantō or a well-oiled Gerber Mark II. But the wife had been adamant about what she wanted, about the way in which she intended the scene to play out for its eventual audience, and no argument from Lauren on the efficacy of blade versus firearm would persuade her otherwise.
After all, she’d said, back at Lauren’s office in the City, contempt and and simmering rage curling her lip and flaring her nostrils, this isn’t a hunting accident or a bar fight we’re talking about, is it? It’s a robbery. A home invasion gone awry. And what kind of robber takes a knife with them to ransack a house?
The wife would be in Baltimore now, with her sister - the trip planned months in advance, for the sake of verisimilitude. Would have been there for five days already; not scheduled to be back for at least another three. Leaving the husband alone with his computer, and probably her credit card, playing hand after hand of Texas Hold ‘Em until exhaustion took him over.
Such terribly unfortunate timing.
Gun sandwiched between her leather-gloved palms and one finger on the trigger, with barely a pause to revisit the floorplan she’d memorized and the position of the furniture within it, Lauren edged further down the hallway toward the living room. She could hear the television now; the low hum of alien voices, muted laughter, a sudden change in tone and pitch that marked temporary the shift from scheduled broadcast to diabetes-drug commercial slots and special messages from televangelists. Proof, if she’d needed it, that someone was home.
Where the hall met the living room’s doorframe, she pressed her back to the wall, gun raised. The door was ajar, just a crack; a thin blue light leaked out from under it, staining the floorboards the purple of a healing bruise. He’d be directly opposite the doorway, on the couch, his neck - the wife had assured Lauren - angled upward to the ceiling as he slept and his feet dangling over the couch’s cushioned arm. One shot to head was all she’d need, quick and clean, though she planned to take others, to put three or four more bullets in his chest and throat. This was a robbery, after all; it couldn’t be an execution.
She spun on her heel, kicked the door wide open with the ball of her foot and stepped through, gun levelled at the couch and the cocoon of blankets it enveloped.
Saw what was under them, and almost dropped the gun.
It was him, the husband - he and the living room configured exactly as the wife had said they’d be, all the way down to the blank laptop screen on the coffee table and the pair of feet splayed out over the edge of the couch. And certainly, he was asleep - asleep, or unconscious. But not under threat of torture would Lauren have recognized the face staring out at the room from below the heaped assembly of fleece throws and floral comforters, its black-ringed eyes mercifully closed, as the man in the wedding albums and family photographs she’d studied, had she not been expecting to find him there.
His skin was… green: pale and bloodless, the olive-and-pink of his cheeks and chin and forehead turned the color of mint ice-cream in the glare of the television. He was bald, entirely bald from crown to temple, every follicle of the thick brown hair she’d seen in the photos gone from his scalp - and collected, now, in oily radiation-sickness clumps around his blanket-wrapped shoulders. His mouth was a puckered void, the jaw hanging soft and slack and the teeth it was missing, to her horror, stuck loosely to his withered lips and gathered like a choker at his collarbone.
Below the blanket, his chest rose and fell, weakly; he was alive, despite the damning evidence of his appearance, though she couldn’t imagine anyone surviving long that way. Whatever had befallen him since the wife had left, whatever had brought him to his present state, he reminded her of nothing and no-one she’d seen before in the flesh. Instead, she thought of images seared into the camera lenses of wartime photographers: the screaming, burning almost-perished of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Trang Bàng and Halabja.
Keeping the gun trained on him - on the doughy, bulbous flesh of that too-smooth head - she moved closer. When there was less than the span of a body between them, the smell of him hit her: raw meat and fermenting fruit, draining pus and sulfur. She gagged; pressed her lips together to keep the taste at bay.
Alive or not, he was rotting.
She shifted the gun to her left hand and pulled her right hand to her own face, to protect her nose and mouth. It was a likely a futile gesture, she realized, even as she performed it; if what she was seeing was the result of something airborne, something bacterial that had first attacked him through his lungs, then she’d already have inhaled it. It would be in her now, right this second: carving pathogenic pathways through her trachea, flooding her blood and her lymphatic system with disease. But the impulse to stave it off was irresistible, regardless; as instinctive as making the sign of the cross at the foot of an altar.
And three feet away from her, the blankets continued to rise and fall, rise and fall with every fetid breath that broken face let free.
She pulled the neckline of her t-shirt - black, unbranded, purchased along with the sneakers and the Hoosiers cap that covered her hair - up and over the lower half of her own face in a loose approximation of a surgical mask, and cocked the pistol. He might not be pretty, she reasoned, and odds were good he was halfway out of this world already - but she’d taken the wife’s money, watched the payment land, and however unnecessary Lauren’s part in the cessation of their marriage might now be, it was a part she nonetheless felt obligated to fulfil. She had standards, after all. She’d built her business on them.
She squeezed the trigger, aiming not for his brain stem as she’d originally intended but for the center mass below the blankets - too disgusted at the prospect of what fluids might seep and trickle from the organ under that sickly skull to want to risk a headshot. The pistol discharged as quietly as she’d hoped it would, the report too low to wake any neighbors there might be, and the bullet bridged the gap between them, breaching the nest of throws and comforters and entering his midsection with a warm, wet pop; a straw piercing the rind of an overripe mango.
His eyes flew open, and and a gurgling sound came loose from his throat - the accompanying twitch and shudder dislodging a half-dozen uprooted teeth from his lower lip and sending them skittering like bugs onto the carpeted floor. The eyes too had a greenish hue, she saw: a septic, ulcerated tinge that made her wonder if whatever sickness had immobilized him had blinded him, too.
She pulled the trigger again: two, three, four times more, peppering his chest and stomach with slugs, all the while steeling herself for the headshot. Finally she took it, spattering the couch and the wallpaper behind it with dark blood and more fragments of bone than she might have anticipated, and he was still.
Generally she stuck around a spell, right after - if for no other reason than to be sure the job was done. Kept watch over the body; made certain nothing moved when it ought not to be moving.
Not tonight, though.
One set of thumb and fingers still clasped to her nose and mouth, she tucked the gun into her waistband and backed out of the room, gaze locked on the dead thing in the reddening blankets. Out in the hallway, she took a left, passing the kitchen and the study until she hit the stairs; went up, no longer bothering to muffle her footsteps, and onto the master bedroom and its walk-in closet. The jewelry chest was hidden where the wife had left it, behind the hanging rod that held six or seven of the husband’s more expensive suit jackets; as easily as she’d picked the back door lock, Lauren prised it open, unfastened the drawers and crammed as many of the earrings, chains and pendants as would fit into the belly bag strapped tight to the skin below her t-shirt. There was a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gold and silver in that chest, the wife had said, before briefing Lauren on exactly where to bury it, when the contract was fulfilled; that it had stayed in the chest, despite the husband’s predilections, was testament less to his moral fiber than to his absent-mindedness, his tendency to forget - distracted as he’d been by straight flushes and full houses - that the jewelry was there at all.
There was nothing else of real value on the first floor, but she helped herself to a few bits and pieces, for appearances’ sake: a men’s watch from the bedside table, a fountain pen from the writing bureau, an analog camera from the dresser. Then she was gone: down the stairs and through the back door, across the yard and back into the Toyota she’d picked up used in Cleveland and planned to abandon before she hit the parking lot at Fort Wayne International.
She took the I-60 to the airport; bought a ticket at the desk and hopped an early flight to Vegas, then another from Harry Reid to LAX; caught a cab from there to the Venice boardwalk and walked fifteen minutes more to her apartment by the beach, where she showered until her hair and nails were free of the smell of decay.
The possibility of contamination, putrefaction, disintegration; of the husband’s infection defiling her as it had defiled him… it troubled her. But managing worry, compartmentalizing anxiety - these were necessary attributes, in her line of work. All she could do, she told herself, was stay vigilant; watch out for any changes to her body, any symptoms, and make a judgement call thereafter, should any present themselves. Her doctor was good, her internist better; should she require more specialist attention, she would find it.
And so, soon enough, she slept.
Several weeks would pass before she’d realize how fortunate she’d been, in catching that first flight out of Fort Wayne. Not 24 hours after her plane left the runway, the airport - along with South Bend, Evansville and Indianapolis International - closed to all traffic, outbound and inbound. McCarran followed suit a week later - as, eventually, did LAX.
Not one of them would reopen. And though Lauren herself would stay healthy, every aircraft grounded on the tarmac - from Delaware County to Santa Barbara - would also, after a time, begin to rot.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 2
9 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.”
SEASON 1, EPISODE 3
She’d just turned twenty-one, the night someone first paid her for a kill. Barely legal, she’d remind herself later, with a wry, dry chuckle that would make sense only to her.
It was August, the middle of a heatwave. She’d been in San Francisco a month at most, sleeping in a pup tent pitched in the shade of a disused auto warehouse in the Mission - what she didn’t realize at the time was a prime location, empty as it was and mostly untroubled as she’d been by other people.
She’d had the sense, some nights, that something - someone - was watching her from inside the warehouse; someone hiding in the folds of its the soupy, mosquito-thickened darkness she’d made a conscious decision from the beginning to leave well alone, to not explore, however curious she might become. But it was small potatoes, this sensation, beside the many pairs of eyes she’d felt on her in the park in San Ysidro and the Greyhound station in Salinas, and when no-one came out of the darkness to disturb her, she’d figured she could live with being watched. And live with it she had - until the tech bro came along.
She’d been awake, which had worked in her favor - lying on top of her sleeping bag, the tent-flap open to keep the cooler night air flowing around her. The noise had alerted her to his presence: a trickle, then a drumming of liquid on the canvas outside, like the patter of rain. She’d stuck her head out of the flap, confused, and there he’d been: dick out and rose-gold phone in his free hand, pissing against the side of the tent.
He wasn’t that much older than her, she’d surmised: tall, pink-cheeked and skinny, thin blond hair dangling down to his nose and an army-green t-shirt proclaiming him a FREE THINKER plastered with sweat to his torso. A typical Silicon Valley boy, she’d thought; the kind she’d seen every day since she’d arrived, riding their electric bikes and checking the health data on their smartwatches on what seemed like every street in the City. The kind she’d have assumed was an entitled asshole even if he hadn’t been emptying his bladder onto her place of residence.
“Hey!” she’d shouted, her fury already building. “Hey! What the fuck are you doing?”
He’d stopped pissing, mid-stream, but hadn’t let go of his dick; had just looked at her, at her sleeping bag and the battered hiker’s backpack she kept close to her beside it, and grinned, like she was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
“Hey yourself,” he’d said - and she’d caught the amusement in his voice, too. His grin had widened. Then he’d swivelled his narrow hips toward her until the tip of his dick was practically in her face and let loose another, more thunderous stream of urine: onto the tent flaps, onto the sleeping bag, onto her shirt and shorts. It stank of coffee and ammonia, of the beer she’d supposed he’d been drinking, and it burned her nostrils; bit into the fabric of her clothes and scalded her skin.
She’d wanted to hurt him: smash the fine bones in his sallow, smirking face into a bloody yellow paste and make him suck down his expensive caps like they were ice chips; twist his arm so far around his back he’d hear it pop when it separated from the socket. So she had. There’d been no reason not to.
She was strong and spry - always had been. She built muscle quickly, easily; was quick on her feet, with reflexes to match, and simmering with anger enough that she’d never back down from a confrontation, no matter how outmatched she might’ve been. When her foster father had enrolled her in boxing classes at the Y when she turned eleven, he was only building on the foundations her body her and temperament had laid already; when she’d discovered, sparring in the ring with a boy two years older and thirty pounds heavier, that she actually enjoyed how it felt to crush another person’s nose with a closed fist and jab them so hard in the liver they threw up over themselves, it was a foregone conclusion that she’d find a way to chase that feeling outside the ring, too.
She’d kicked out at his knee with her heel from the floor of the dampening tent and sprung up to meet his nose with her elbow as his head had snapped forward. He’d cried out, but she’d silenced him immediately with a knife-hand strike to the throat, and though he’d continued to weep thereafter, his tears had been silent. He’d fallen to the ground, the scalp below his chick-feather hair crunching as it met the concrete; three further kicks to the ribs - and one more to the head - had kept him there, bunched up in an ineffective facsimile of a fetal position.
Eventually he’d lost consciousness, and the stabbing heat of her fury had begun to subside. She’d stepped back from his body, ache seeping into her swelling knuckles, and had been suddenly aware of another person behind her, and near: the stutter and halt of labored breathing, the click of a tongue on the roof of a mouth.
“That all you got for him, girl?” she’d heard. The voice had seemed to drift out from the entrance to the warehouse: Southern and male and gravelly, a TV cowboy in the grip of emphysema. “You not gonna finish what you started?”
There’d been footsteps, creeping up behind her to her left, and the man belonging to the voice had shown himself: an old white guy with dirt on his face and caked into the gray tufts of his beard, his bare chest concave under a weatherbeaten raincoat.
“You been watching me?” she’d said, and had found she wasn’t afraid, though she probably should’ve been; that the tough-girl confidence she’d tried to project wasn’t so illusory, after all.
“Not much else to look at out here.” The old guy had let out a laugh like the crack of a whip. “Might’ve come out sooner if I’d known you’d be puttin’ on a show.”
“Fuck off,” she’d told him, turning her attention back to the beaten boy on the ground, to the sodden tent; wondering how quickly she could clean up the area around him. How much of a trace of herself she’d left for the cops to find later, if they came looking.
“No need to be like that, little girl. We’re all friends here. I’m just sayin’, you really wanna leave him there like that? You not gonna finish the job?”
“Fuck off,” she’d said again, but something about the old dude had unsettled her. The way he’d been staring at her, maybe - like he wanted something from her, and was fully prepared to wait around for her to figure out what it was.
“He’s a repeat visitor, that motherfucker down there.” The man had moved closer until they were shoulder-to-shoulder, though he’d had the good sense not to try to touch her. She hadn’t washed in days, had been all too aware of the rank bouquet of fresh blood and piss, stale crotch and body odor rising from her jeans and tank, but her own reek had been overwhelmed immediately by the rotten fruit and feces stink of him; it must’ve been months, years even, since his clothes and skin had seen water. “What he just did there on you and your tent? He done it on mine, before the car people shut up shop and I moved inside. I been sleepin’, lying right about where’re standing now, and I wake up to a wet face and that bastard’s Johnson in my ear, and him stood near on top o’ me, laughing his ass off. He took pictures too, on one o’ them fancy-ass phones. That’s how proud he was o’ himself. Pictures o’ the tent and pictures o’ me with his piss in my beard. To show his rich-boy friends, was what I figured, so’s all o’ them could laugh about it with him.” He’d squinted at the insensate boy, his eyes narrowing; Lauren had thought the old man might be getting up the phlegm to spit on him. “I seen him do it again after, to some other people. Though not a one o’ them got him back the way you just done.”
“Yeah, well.” She’d bent down and grabbed the backpack from the inside the tent; started rolling up the sleeping bag. “Maybe one of them should’ve done. Would’ve saved me the cleaning bill.”
“I got a hun’ed and twenty-seven bucks saved up in my satchel.” The old man had spoken quickly; so quickly she’d thought at first she must have misheard him. “You finish up what you started, send this sack o’ horseshit off to meet his maker, and you can have it. Every cent.”
Her neck had spun around so fast she’d given herself whiplash.
“I ain’t messin’ with you,” he’d added. “Might not seem that way, but I got the money - that much, and more. And I’ll pay it gladly to see you put him in the soil. Time was, I coulda taken care of things myself, but…” He’d held up his forearms and shown her his hands, and she’d seen then how knotted they were under their layers of dirt: so gnarled the fingers were more claws than digits. “I got the arthritis. Got it all over - don’t hardly got the strength to button up my own pants, let alone beat another man to death. Couldn’t even say for sure I’d be capable o’ pinching his nose closed long enough to stop him breathing. But you… you’re young. Strong.” Here his wide, manic eyes had glistened. “You could do it, easy. I seen you in action.”
He’d been absolutely serious; she’d known that at once. He wasn’t messing with her, and chances were he would keep his end of the bargain, if she were to take him up on it.
And if wasn’t like she owed the tech-boy her compassion.
“Whaddya say, little girl?” the old man had said.
She’d thought of the money, of the things $127 could buy her. A brand-new tent and sleeping bag, for one; a tent and sleeping bag that didn’t smell like someone else’s piss. Then she’d thought of DNA evidence and fingerprints, of the difference between an assault charge and a whole-life sentence… and she’d picked up her backpack and her piss-soaked sleeping bag, and run like hell from the old man and the boy.
The cops never came for her, though she’d taken pains to keep moving for a long while after, and no news of the tech-bro - dead or recovered - had ever reached her, though she’d looked.
Eventually, when a dozen more men and boys like the tech-bro had crossed her path and more than a couple had left her bleeding, she came to realize how little it had actually mattered to her whether the original tech-boy lived or died - and began to regret not taking the old man’s money.
If she ever got another offer like his, she thought, she’d ponder it harder and longer before she said no. And if, in the end, she didn’t say no, she’d make absolutely sure she never got caught.
Whatever that offer might be, though - it would have to be worth it. If she was taking a risk, then she deserved a decent damn reward.
“No,” she told the kid in her kitchen. “I’m not open for business right now. And if I were, it would still be no. I take a pretty firm stance on people who break into my property. On how I deal with them.”
“You kill them,” the girl said.
“We’ve seen you, with the… other ones on the beach,” the boy added, and did they always finish each other’s sentences like that? Lauren could imagine it becoming very trying, very quickly if they did. “The ones who try to attack you. You put them down like dogs.”
They weren’t wrong: she had been killing the Unrotted, on the beach and elsewhere; killing them wherever they found her, wherever they came at her with their reaching hands, their bared teeth. She hadn’t left the apartment unarmed since that first encounter in the supermarket, in anticipation of needing at any moment to do exactly this. But the boy and the girl knew this, that they’d been watching her long enough to have seen her do this, apparently without flinching… it unnerved her, even if a part of her was forced to marvel, again, at the guts it must’ve taken them to do it. Nobody was that numb.
“It’s a no,” she said, very slowly raising the pistol - not so high that it was aimed at either one of the kids, but high enough for them to understand that might easily become a possibility.
“Our uncle Ivor has a farm, out in the middle of the desert,” the boy said, with no acknowledgement at all that Lauren had spoken. “Five hundred acres. There’s an aquifer, fresh water, plus corn and beets, vegetables. There were dairy cows, but we think they might have run away already, if they haven’t starved to death.”
“And solar panels.” There was a finality to the girl’s delivery, as if this last point were the one guaranteed to sway Lauren’s judgment. “A whole field of them, all off the grid. The whole plot is self-sufficient. As long as there’s sunlight, it has power. We could grow our own food, cook meals, switch the lights on at night. It’s remote, too - the nearest town is an hour away, at least. Nobody would find us.”
“We’d be safe,” said the boy.
“We just have to get there.” The girl rested back against Lauren’s chair, more relaxed by far than she ought to have been. “We should be okay once we’re out of LA - I hope so, anyway - but I don’t like our chances on the Interstate before then. The other people, the brainsick ones… they’re all over, and Tobey and I wouldn’t know how to shoot even if we had a weapon. On our own, we’d be sitting ducks.”
“Good luck to you, then, I guess.” Lauren raised the gun higher, so it was nearly level with the girl’s chest. Still not quite an explicit threat, but definitely a warning. “I’m sure you’ll be fine - you seem like smart kids. You need to be leaving here now, though. The way you came in, if you don’t mind.”
“You think you can live like this,” the girl said, utterly unfazed. “Eating out of cans and cleaning up the beach and killing them off, one by one. Ignoring the world while it’s burning around you. But you can’t. The other ones… they’ve seen you. They’ve got you pegged as an enemy, and they’re going to come for you - a bunch of them, and all at once. You might be able to fight off one of them, or two or three… but fifty? A hundred? There’s just no way.”
“It’s not. Tobey and I have seen it for ourselves. We know what’s coming. We’re here asking for your help because we need you, or someone like you. But you need us, too. You need a way out and a place to go just as much as we do. You just don’t know it yet, is all.”
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.
Additional warnings therefore for: extreme body horror, mutilation, scarification, torture, imprisonment.
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.”
SEASON 1, EPISODE 5
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 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.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 6
There were two of them, directly in front of her. A beat, and Lauren heard a third drop down from the canopy behind her.
She took a long step sideways; pivoted on one heel so all three were in view, and thrust the katana out toward them. Creating as much distance as she was able between her body and theirs.
The two in front were male: tall and broad, built to similar dimensions as the headless body on the ground and studded top to toe in the same sharp, skin-splitting fragments of metal and glass. The third was different though: smaller and female, her shoulders slight and her features still delicate in spite of the peeling aggregations of scar tissue that framed them. Her skin was free of glass, though thin copper spikes that might have been construction nails had been pressed into the soft flesh at her upper arms and torso - almost artfully, Lauren thought. Deep whorl-like lesions, not fresh but unhealed, had been cut into her abdomen; her mouth was sliced open at both corners in a serrated Black Dahlia smile.
She saw Lauren seeing her, cataloguing her, and smiled for real, the caking of scabs at her lips cracking in response to the movement of her facial muscles. New blood oozed and trickled down the creases of her chin, and she licked them clean.
“Lauren,” she said, her voice unexpectedly human, low and seductive.
It was the first time Lauren had heard any one of the Unrotted speak. She’d assumed, before, that they didn’t; that they’d surrendered language in favor of gesture - or some other more animalistic model of communication - at the moment of infection.
And, if they could speak - how did this one know her name?
She took another step backward, expanding the scope of her peripheral vision. They were like pit vipers, she thought; you couldn’t let them out of your sight, not if you had any hope of getting away from them unscathed.
They didn’t move, or even try to close the gap, which was… unusual. The Unrotted she was used to - what had Matty called them, the lone wolves? They didn’t give an inch. When you moved, they moved - and quickly, all the better to claw at you with their fingers and snap at your throat with their teeth. There was nothing measured about the way they attacked; certainly nothing strategic.
“Lauren,” the Black Dahlia repeated, and this time it sounded like an admonishment; as if Lauren had disappointed her, had proven herself more stupid than the Black Dahlia had believed in even entertaining the possibility of escape.
Lauren tightened her hold on the base of the katana. If they advanced further, she figured, she could take at least one of the big guys out with a horizontal sweep of the blade. If she was really lucky, it’d go right through him.
Overhead, the sky dimmed, sudden and unheralded - opaque clouds the color of day-old bruises forming from nowhere in what had been, last she’d checked, a rich uncluttered blue.
A storm: not closing in but already arrived, pitching the street, the building - the Unrotted themselves - into a semi-darkness that had her wishing even a few of the stores on the block had found a way to keep the lights on.
She had excellent night vision; it had been a distinct advantage in her former line of work. But did they? Would the darkness work for her, or would it blind her to an onslaught she’d see coming in broad daylight?
The darkness thickened, obscuring everything but the closest of objects: her hands, and the katana clasped between them. The Unrotted were outlines, charcoal scratches sketched against a crepuscular canvas; a blur of curves and edges, beginning now to shift and tense in their pool of shadow.
Something she couldn’t see hissed at her through the shadows: low but insistent as the whistle of a kettle. She took another step sideways. Lost her footing.
She fell, the katana dropping from her hand.
Her kneecap was first to slam into the ground. She threw an arm out in front of her, hand balled, to shield her face from the full force of the concrete, and felt the skin scrape away from her wrist as it landed.
The clatter of their hardened feet and the rancour of their quickening breaths told her they were on the move; that they’d get to her, begin to prise her open with their bloody fingers before she could reclaim the sword, let alone spring up to standing.
Where were those fucking kids, anyway? Neither Matty nor her brother would be any great shakes against even one of the Unrotted, and Lauren would be deluding herself if she chose to believe otherwise. But their arrival on the scene would be enough of a distraction, maybe, to buy her a few extra seconds; enough to get in a little damage. And she wouldn’t say no to the beams of that SUV’s headlamps cutting a swathe through the dark.
“Lauren.” The Black Dahlia was very close now, a meter away or less; her words were a lullaby, a nightmare’s cradlesong. “Lauren, Lauren, Lauren.”
Lauren rolled onto her back, stomach tightened and fists guarding her head, her uninjured leg halfway extended - ready to kick out at whatever she could reach. If she was going down, then she was going down fighting - what other way was there?
The ground below her began to vibrate: to rumble, the juddering echo of it like a slow cascade of boulders passing through her bones.
An earthquake. A fucking earthquake.
She’d been in California long enough to know one when she felt it hit; had lived through plenty of them in the Bay Area before she’d ever seen LA, and felt more than a few rise up through the bedrock and into her recumbent body while she slept curled-up on the sidewalks of the Mission and the Tenderloin. A couple - both minor by comparison - had struck Venice since the advent of the Bone Rot, though neither had much discernible destruction in their wake.
Now, though? Now?
If she’d ever been swayed by an argument from design; ever had even a modicum of faith in the intelligence or reasoning capacity of the universe… she might have believed that universe was fucking with her, right about now.
She placed a splayed hand on the floor beside her head, brought the knee of the extended leg to her chest and prepared to kick out at whichever of the Unrotted came at her first.
The granite split, then cleaved under her palm.
She pulled the hand up and away from the bisected ground, as quickly as she’d withdraw it from a sizzling stovetop; rolled back onto her side and used the momentum to push herself up, onto her feet and into some semblance of a fighting stance.
She held her breath; peered out through the darkness, her eyes searching the storm clouded murk for the smudged-charcoal shapes of the Unrotted, wherever they now were.
Another, louder rumble reverberated along the street, this one like an outsize hammer splintering quartz, followed immediately thereafter by a hard, dry sucking - the sound, she’d remember later, of marbles slurped through the parched, gummy mouth of an elderly man - and the altogether fleshier sound of warm meat, ripped and squeezed in the teeth of a grinder.
Then silence all around her, as thick as the dark.
And finally, finally, the screaming of brakes and the crack of tire-rubber propelled over ruptured rock as the SUV and its headlamps careened into view.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 7
A mile and a half along the 187 on the way to Culver City the storm clouds broke, dispersing enough of the darkness for Lauren to let Matty kill the lights on the SUV.
A journey that should have taken twenty minutes in moderate traffic had thus far eaten up three hours and change: the long expanse of tarmac leading out of Venice dotted with so many burned-out cars, empty ambulances and overturned delivery trucks that they’d crawled along at a steady ten, slowing to five whenever Matty was required - by the presence of a charbroiled Mazda or a heap of toasted aluminum siding - to spin the wheel back and forth and back again until the obstacle was circumnavigated. It was impressive, actually; the kid could’ve been a getaway driver in another life.
It had been anarchy out here on the roads for a while: after the Bone Rot first set in, but before the world resigned itself to expiration and decay. Lauren had barricaded herself in her apartment for most of it, waiting for the day the fires burned themselves out or she withered and died herself - whichever came first. But she’d smelled the smoke regardless; heard the sirens and the screams, even with the windows bolted shut.
“Did you see it happen?” Tobey said again.
“No,” she replied from the back seat, fingers tightening around her katana. “If I had, I’d have told you the first time you asked. You need to learn to listen.”
The it here contained multitudes. It wasn’t one single question Tobey was asking; it was a bundle of them, wrapped up together in a spider silk she didn’t have the headspace to unravel yet. It was, are you sure they were dead, the Unrotted that attacked you? It was, did you actually see the ground tear open and suck them under? And most of all, it was, what the hell did actually happen, back there? Make it make sense.
Please, make it make sense.
Now, as before, she had nothing to offer him.
Whatever she’d heard outside the apartment, what she’d seen amounted to very little - most of what she thought she knew was inference, gleaned from the evidence of the wide, jagged cracks in the earth she’d glimpsed in the beams of the SUV’s headlamps when the kids showed up. From the broken glass and wire mesh and drops of blood dappling the edges of those cracks.
More than that, though: she hadn’t wanted to know, in the moment. All she’d wanted right then was to pick up her sword, snatch her rucksack from where it had ended up - in the foliage, close to dead old Andy’s macerated feet - and drive the hell away from the scene of the crime before another sinkhole opened and devoured her.
“You must have seen something,” the kid persisted.
Next to him, his sister turned the wheel, steering them around a stack of dirty, desecrated mattresses, piled high and slashed so deep you could see the springs.
“Let it go,” she said, her eyes glued to the road ahead. “Just let it go. She doesn’t want to talk about it, and it doesn’t exactly matter now anyway, does it?”
A mountain lion the size of a man leapt out from the tall brown grass beside them; landed in the center of their lane and sauntered across the road to the mattress pile, its tail in the air. Lauren had seen a few of them since Venice, darting between the static vehicles and spoiled produce, and not just them: there were black bears and grizzlies too, gray wolves and coyotes, all of them lured out of hiding - she assumed - by the promise of the easy meat they’d find in the unattended stores and houses and hospitals along the highway, even if that meat was markedly less fresh than it had been, not so long ago.
It could’ve been worse, she told herself; it could’ve been an Unrotted out there, shambling toward the car. They, at least, seemed in mercifully short supply out here on the roads; in fact, now she stopped to consider it, she’d glimpsed not one of them, this whole time they’d been traveling.
“Did you see how big that was?” The boy turned around in his seat so he was looking right at Lauren, his face shiny with terrified excitement. “I’ve seen saltwater crocodiles smaller’n that!”
“Where have you seen freshwater crocodiles?” Lauren asked him. She’d seen them only once herself, a few years ago, on a tour of Sulawesi - a trip paid for out of the wallet of a pissed-off former debutante whose husband had been too careless to keep from knocking up his mistress.
“On Discovery,” Matty said, her gaze following the cougar as it tore into the uppermost mattress with its teeth. “He likes it when they eat the monkeys.”
This tracked, Lauren thought, with the few, thin nuggets of personal information Tobey - and to a lesser extent Matty - had proffered her in their time on the road. Despite their uncle’s apparent success in growing his desert ranch into a solar-powered Eden, the kids’ parents were decidedly blue-collar - or had been, before the Bone Rot took them in their bed while Tobey and Matty cried and held each other on the couch in the sitting room down the hall, scared shitless but with no-one left to call for help. The father was in construction, Tobey had said; the mother had seen active duty in the military before she’d been discharged. Neither one of them, the way Tobey told it, brought in the kind of money Lauren figured they’d have needed to finance a family vacation to Indonesia or Bangladesh.
“Me too, actually,” she told the boy, liking him that little bit better.
A few feet ahead of the SUV, an enormous blue-gray bird emerged from another section of overgrown grass and began to peck at the rearview mirror of a dented compact - its huge speckled beak wide below its cruel eyes, and its stork-like pencil legs and outspread wings giving it the look of a prima ballerina bracing herself for the jeté. If weren’t so densely covered with feathers, she could easily have taken it for an émigré from a Jurassic or a Cretaceous era: a velociraptor, maybe, or a minor pterosaur.
“What the fuck is that?” She craned forward, wedging her upper body as far into the space between the driver and passenger seats as the belt around her waist would allow, the better to see through the windshield.
“I think...” Tobey’s voice wavered uncertainly. “I think it’s a shoebill. A type of wading bird, you know? Like a pelican. But from East Africa.”
“A wading bird? An East African wading bird, no less?”
“From Sudan, I think. Mostly.”
She opened her mouth, set to ask him how he imagined a Sudanese pelican that looked like a fucking dinosaur might have found itself wandering along the Southern California highways… then remembered what she’d left behind in Venice - the swallowing earth and the Unrotted, the creeping death of near-on everyone and everything before that - and abruptly shut it again, sinking back into her own seat. This wasn’t a rational world anymore, if it ever had been. Anything was possible here; all bets were off. And what was a rogue East African wading bird anyway, next to the other realities she’d come to accept this last year?
Something struck them from behind, propelling the SUV forward and into a mercifully empty square of road with the force of a battering ram.
She slammed forward, her forehead striking Tobey’s headrest, and then backward, the recoil generated as Matty’s foot hit the brakes pinning her back against her seat.
The SUV slowed but spun, a ninety-degree turn that sent the front tires lurching off the tarmac and into the grass.
Tobey cried out, a strangulated wheeze that sounded close enough to an asthma attack for Lauren to wonder if the kid kept an inhaler in his pocket for emergencies. Matty stayed perfectly silent, perfectly still at the wheel.
Ungluing her shoulders from the leather interior, Lauren craned her neck toward the - now slightly cracked - glass of the passenger window, casting her eyes around for whatever had struck them.
And saw a rhino in the road, square and squat and mottled - two curved horns, one short and blunt and the other long and tapered to a tip as sharp as the katana’s, growing up from its lowered snout. Steam rose from the latticed folds of its hide; small dust clouds whirled and eddied at its hooves, a portable micro-climate all its own.
The horns, she couldn’t help but notice, were pointed right at them.
“Drive,” she said. “Now.”
“Where?” Matty didn’t question her; didn’t demand details or explanation. Lauren appreciated that.
“Anywhere you can.”
The SUV accelerated, sliding deeper into the grass at a shudder.
Too slow, and too late.
She heard the second impact coming before she felt it: the rhino’s hoofbeats on the blacktop and the ocean-gale rumble of its roar. Its dense skull made contact with the SUV on the passenger side, almost but not quite flipping them over… and then the steel and plastic and fabric of the door closest to Lauren was cleaving and rending, and the longer of the animal’s horns was thrust inside, the dirty gray keratin stopping six inches from her ribs.
The car began to shake, violently - the rhino’s wide ass and incongruously bovine tail bobbing up and down in Lauren’s sight line as its head moved back and forth in an effort to free itself, to loosen the door’s hold on its muzzle.
“What do we do?” Tobey shouted at her from the front. He’d unbuckled himself from his seat and scrambled up onto the dash, she saw; was perched there on his haunches, his fingertips clinging to the vinyl like a frightened monkey’s.
“Out of the car,” she told him, speaking without thinking. “Right away. Your sister’s side.”
On cue, still silent, Matty shouldered open the driver’s door and threw herself out. Tobey slid across the dash and did the same, the speed and gracelessness of his exit sending him sprawling onto the grass, which swallowed him as quickly and efficiently as the sidewalk by her apartment had eaten the Unrotted.
Inside the car, the shaking intensified - the rhino’s head convulsing aggressively enough to pull the SUV’s tires off the ground with every swoop and rattle, until the car - and Lauren in it - was suspended in mid-air a foot above the ground, sweeping back and forth, back and forth across the grass in a succession of violent pendulum arcs.
She crab-walked backward along the back seat, but her balance wouldn’t hold, and she tumbled down into the footwell.
A blast of warm air, and she felt hands on her triceps, dragging her out of the passenger door from behind as the SUV swung away from her like a fairground ride gone rogue: large, strong hands, stronger and larger than Matty’s or her brother’s.
Something - a weapon - clicked and discharged, uncomfortably close to her ear: a rifle, she thought, but not a powerful one. The rhino bellowed, then dropped, crumbling into the grass with a thudding snort - the toppled SUV still clamped to its horn.
She looked around, her own hands reaching instinctively for the ones digging into the muscle of her arms - for a pressure point to squeeze, or an unprotected joint to force into a lock.
A white man’s face stared down at her, all Jesus beard and shaggy bangs and snaggle-toothed smile. The hands - his hands - relinquished their hold.
“Woo-hee!” He whistled, high and slow, the fermented warmth of his breath brushing the skin of her cheek. “Talk about a fender bender! Be a while before that one’s back on the road again, am I right?”