Spinning In Daffodils

by Johnny Firecloud

Rachel’s last words. I still can’t make them out, between the tortured screams. The sounds don’t make sense, and it’s keeping me awake.

Sleep doesn’t come easy for most anyone anymore. Not in nearly five years – since the impact, or the hysteria that followed. Then the nuclear volleys of cataclysmic devastation, nations plunged into paranoid chaos and leaders pointing warhead-tipped fingers for the population-decimating calamity, desperate to lay blame and focus fury for a rock hurtling through space that our planet happened to be in the way of. Communications went out at 5:19pm on December 6th, 2012, six hours and change after the meteor hit, obliterating Honduras with an interstellar stone the size of Los Angeles.

We don’t know if it was the bombing that took down the national power grid, or a deliberate act from within. It doesn’t matter. What good are conspiracy theories when starvation and murder surround us all? When the sky has been choked to a constant brownish grey, and the sun was, at best, a glare in the haze. When next to nothing grows, and even the most prepared have long since run through their survival supplies, a desperation rises that’s simply inconceivable to the sane. Any faint trace of food ignites a survival battle to obtain.

The decomposing humanity all around us told of a future so horrifying one found little hope for mankind. These were people who watched the same TV shows we did, got caught up in the same useless “social media” traps we did. People who ate the same fast food value meals and moaned about the same injustice as us, during a time when the decency of “justice” went beyond an eye for an eye.

The radiation carried on the wind. The cancer that afflicted one in three at the peak of pop culture was now closer to four out of five, and that was just in the immediate area; we had no way of knowing what was happening far away.

How many years since any of us have tasted fresh fruit? Or seen the glow of a computer screen? Since we were able to transmit video from one place to another through the air? It all seems like a ridiculous dream, only four years on. The parts are around, rusting and scattered virtually everywhere. Ghosted husks of useless plastic and metal, remnants of a misguided world caught in a tide of worthless materialism. An entire population sustained on pharmaceuticals, pills to keep their conditions at bay. Without any chemical assistance, the accelerated cancers and infections ravaged the fragile and corroded most of the rest. Darwinism took on a terrifyingly accelerated process of natural selection, but “survival of the fittest” never promises that the fittest won’t be rapacious, gap-toothed monsters with a taste for human flesh and barely a hint of what once made us all human.

I don’t know if it’s worse if they didn’t share the same previous lives, if they were somehow another breed of American. Whatever the case, like pigs let free from captivity out into the wild, these people had regressed to a primal state of ruthless survivalism. A vicious pack mentality with a sharply enforced hierarchy, small bands of scavenger/killers took root all around the countryside. These hillbilly derelicts who hadn’t seen a shred of decency since the moment of impact (and likely before that), wielding rusty steak knives, spiked bats, chains, even sharpened sticks.

What guns and higher weaponry there were had been rendered useless in the first two years, when the resource wars unfolded in horrifically fast & brutal fashion. Gunshots rang all day and night for months on end, murderous sabotage and double crossing as common as starving men ending their families’ pain once and for all, before turning the muzzle on themselves.

It was that or the unthinkable. Who could truly live with the memory of watching their children gorge themselves on dead human flesh, even to save the child’s life? After weeks of foodless delirium, there would only be one vision greeting the reluctant mothers and fathers who resorted to their final option in feeding their offspring: whatever body they were able to find, hopefully that of a stranger (and hopefully not killed by their own hands), they would find a way to portion, cook and give to their offspring. The greedy, desperately ravenous devouring that would unfold, that had taken place in untold homes and shelters, was the stuff of pure nightmares. The nails of pre-pubescent children digging into human flesh, ripping darkened, malnourished meat from the bone, a primal, driving basic survival instinct to feed on life to sustain our own. A new Dark Age.

This says nothing, of course, of those who lacked the basic wherewithal and patience to find a way to make fire, forced to resort to eating raw meat. They didn’t last long. The images are disgusting, things we didn’t dare even consider as grotesque worst-case fantasies in the days of prosperity. These were once men of principle. Men who stood for something. Some of them still remembered that feeling. This is why so many would choose to end it. But how many had the foresight or concern of what would come of their bodies? How many would find a way to spare themselves and their families that final indignity?

The gang came in late afternoon. I had been out back in the wooded acreage my father, sister and I (27 and 23, her & I) shared with the Watsons on the opposite end, adjacent to the Halletts’ property. I was gathering firewood when I saw them. Along the roadway lined with the iced skeletons of maple, across the waist-high field of weeds & frosted bramble, movement caught my eye as I gathered an armload of kindling from among the frozen landscape. People. Lots of people. Not more than seventy feet out.

I saw danger in the figures before I could make out any details. They were walking with definite purpose.

I thanked my father silently for teaching me not only to recognize the flight instinct, but to fight the suddenly crushing urge to run – which would’ve undoubtedly drawn attention to myself. I slowly, so slowly, descended to nature’s rigid chill among the leaves and fallen trees, and watched in horror as the group came into clearer view. While none seemed particularly afflicted by hunger (in fact some even seemed well-fed, if eyes don’t deceive), and several had been huffers, back when gasoline was at least plentiful enough to even covet – I could see as much in their gaunt frames and jittering, arachnid movements. A little over two dozen deep, mostly men. Even with a weapon I stood no chance against this lot. I could take one, maybe two before going down if I had something to swing. But I had none, and they undoubtedly had many.

I crawled slowly, so slowly, over the crunchy, frozen earth to a cluster of young oaks in the brush, hoping hard enough to burst a blood vessel that one of the two in the house had seen the incoming danger. We had very little, almost nothing to offer, but my Dad would’ve had the sense not to raise objection as they cleaned out our supplies. I know that much. But when Rachel came to the window to casually see what might be taking me so long outside, the look on her face told me she had no idea. A few desperate seconds of small waving movements with my hand, her path of vision crossed where I was crouched. I saw a look of confusion give way to alarmed curiosity. A split second later, her head swiveled to the left, and her face contorted in horrified momentary paralysis. She disappeared from the window a moment before they broke through the door.

I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t scream. They went in full tilt, all of them. A handful had gone around the back and smashed the window my sister had been standing in front of moments before. I didn’t see what happened once they made it inside, but I know my father. I know he would’ve torn tigers apart to protect his daughter if he’d had the ability. But he was just a man, a starving, malnourished man standing against creatures who no longer deserved the distinction of humanity. His enraged yelling and grunting had ceased within a dozen seconds of their entry. They had ended him. Rachel had no defense at all.

I was close enough to hear the furniture being knocked around through the broken window. The flesh-greed negotiations among the men over my sister’s cries, their rationalization for placement in turn. Then the grunting and the slapping sounds… and of course the devastated, agonized screams. I couldn’t do anything – any movement at this point was certain death, no matter what I did.

Centuries passed. She didn’t scream my name, but I know I was on her mind. I had to be. She desperately needed my help, any help. I was the only one who could come to her aid, but she had to have known I’d have died before getting anywhere near her. I just want so badly to believe she was telling me to run from inside her head, not seeing the true coward inside me. Screaming as the minutes passed in Hell, telling me to get away, to remember her.

She did yell something, at the very end. Before she succumbed to what they’d done and continued to do to her. She made a sound. I can’t make it out, after thirty thousand repetitions burning inside my head. Something that sounded like “Dack Filled!” But it wasn’t that. The syllabic pacing was all wrong, on top of making no sense. There was an urgency, though.

What the hell? 

I knew I had to get away from there. My mind cut the path directly: through the woods and out to the clearing where the electrical towers stood, lifeless. Then left down two hundred yards, through the Hallett’s property and into Maybury Park. My dad used to keep a little hunting shed sticked with enough goods for a week. I was there, in my mind, but my body wouldn’t move. I couldn’t catch my breath, hyperventilating in the below-freezing temperature. I felt too weak to move, too overcome by the terror that had just unfolded. And when they dragged the bodies of my family outside to prepare them for what was to come next, I found the physical drive to get up & move – but lost the nerve and the timing. They were too close.

And so I lied there, not twenty-five feet away, face mashed into nature’s frozen floor for hidden protection, forced by my unshielded eardrums to endure the cutting and field-dressing of my family. The sharpening of the knives before the cut, the arguments over why they needed to take something somewhere. And then the real work began, blades entering flesh, bleeding out the fluids, clearing the undesirables. Vomit rose quickly and filled my mouth as I heard the intestines and internal organs of my loved ones hit the ground in wet, splattering thuds. To eject the vile, hot stew would mean some measure of noise, or at the very least movement, and neither could be risked. I swallowed it down. Slowly. Torturously.

I was nearly found by two who went to gather kindling, but they weren’t searching for me. They didn’t know I existed. In the dying light of the day, one of the men found my tracks not fifteen feet away, and even the stack of wood I’d gathered before they had arrived. An iota of greater intelligence, a mere moment of contemplation would’ve led them right to me. But the discovered stack of wood made their job less difficult, and in that cold that’s all that mattered in the moment.

They cooked outside over a fire pit – bravado in the face of the darkness surrounding them, or a reluctance to make a home inside the domiciles of the once-civilized family they were now eating like a store-bought feast. Either way, the fire was perilously close to the house, enough so that they could rush in through the window if the dog packs appeared. Not that that would do them much good once the dogs knew a way in, when it came down to it. Naturally, they didn’t have much wood, as that was the very reason I wasn’t with my family when they were slaughtered. But as much as it stopped my heart, that concerned me far less than what they were cooking and eating – the image of a man sinking his teeth into a charred forearm of my sister will forever haunt me.

Not to mention what was out in that darkness.

Like moving in slow motion, I used surgical caution in every inch I moved as I slowly backed further into the woods, into the black chill of night. My fingers and toes were numb beneath my gloves and boots, and any longer lying on the frozen ground would have me hitting hypothermia in no time. I had to stay away from the main roads, away from whoever else may be on the hunt. Being anywhere residential, particularly within any reasonable distance from what used to be the freeways, is to leave yourself open to starving, desperate pillagers –  and the cannibalism has skyrocketed as dry goods become more and more of a mythological scarcity. Gasoline is a vapor memory, the majority of gas wasted foolishly in the two years after the blackout. As a result, no vehicles have roared to life in years.

And then there are the dogs. Dog packs have grown to inconceivable numbers, and there’ve been reports through passersby that they’ve been emboldened enough to begin hunting in the daylight as well. They’ve killed off what little wildlife survived the die-off and the lack of vegetative growth. If the cold and the cannibal gangs didn’t get the rest of us, the dogs certainly would. They were powerful in numbers, and the most survival-savvy always persevered. We learned our lesson a month ago when the four remaining clans in Westfield put a plan together to outsmart and kill a nearby pack. Taking a stand would provide us with meat, real nourishment through the winter – the cold of winter would preserve what we didn’t get through immediately, we thought. We’d find a way to keep the scent from carrying. We’d bury the meat in the frozen ground, in some kind of storage. We were convinced it was worth the risk, and that through superior planning and intelligence we could persevere.

That’s what we thought.

We had lured them into town with the bones of our dead, and then through the old entry of the old Woolworth’s, having sealed off the exits to the stripped steel-and-concrete structure and stocked the front interior with as much dry kindling as we could. The goal was to trap them inside and set a blaze in the entryway, suffocating the dogs inside – but there were so many of them. We had expected roughly forty; what arrived was closer to 120. There was some sort of rapidly-evolved grasp of the new parameters of civilization and survival, the new rules of the game, as it were. They understood that survival meant something altogether different now, and that their relationship with humanity as “man’s best friend” was forever a memory. One of them was never seen without at least a dozen others.

At first the cordoned stand-off it seemed to work, despite the discouraging ratio of man to canine – each of us had a torch, arranged big enough to leave a wide swath of flame when waved. Ten men in total, shoulder to shoulder, visibly trembling with eyes as wide as saucers, moving in to narrow and block the single opening of escape the dogs had. Some had gathered rocks, stones as big as a man’s fist, to throw, some had sharpened long branches into spears. Others held knives, and all were as insulated with as many layers of clothing and rags one could spare. They closed in, attempting to improvise to adapt to the greater numbers than they’d been expecting.

The humans made the first move. Facing a wall of wild eyes, quivering gums and clenched, bared teeth, Byron Brooks – a middle-aged insurance fraud investigator in a former life – moved beyond our wall of resistance and lunged forward with his branch-spear, piercing what appeared to be a rottweiler mix in the left chest with a scream. The animal howled in surprised impaled agony, and the collective pack recoiled with it, like a school of fish moving away from an invading predator. Except this school had adapted to retaliate – immediately.

Before Byron had shifted his weight to pull the spear from the dying canine, a blur of fur and fangs was airborne in his direction. The only reaction was astonishment as they set upon him, three at his well-insulated body (we’d all layered up heavily beforehand), one to the left of his throat. The dog that found a weak point – a medium-sized shepherd mutt – seemed suspended in the air for a split second, tethered only by its chomping jaws to Byron’s neck. Then it impacted and angled downward, jaws locked and coated in the warm lifeblood of the night’s first kill flowing over its muzzle. Using the man’s body for leverage, it reapplied the bite, yanking backwards in a ripping/tugging shake while pushing against his chest and shoulder for resistance.

Byron dropped to a knee, frantically hitting at himself in what he had to have known was a lost cause. I was one of two men who leaped forward with spears to stab at the dogs, but the chaos caused an ill-timed lunge and I drove my sharpened plank directly into Byron’s abdomen. He glared up at me immediately with a look of betrayed shock, the force of impact causing a convulsive grunt that sent blood spraying – my only solace in that memory being the split second glance he gave my father before the dogs redoubled their efforts and lunged again, ripping at his face and sending him into a gurgling, blood-drowning shock of nerves and thrashing muscle. He knew it was an accident. He had to have known.

We pulled back immediately, my father yelling “Everybody out! Now!” as we scrambled over the stacked kindling in the doorway. Two had even dropped their torches and were running full-tilt away from the scene. We pulled back through the entryway and slid the large plywood board across the front of the door, as planned, trapping the canines with only a twenty inch gap above the six foot mark between the board and the top of the door frame. As the rest of us braced against the makeshift barricade, Rich Watson tossed his torch – the largest of ours – over the wall and directly onto the kindling. I glanced over the edge just long enough to see it land, a swarm of darkened limbs moving among the shadows, a choir of growls and gnashing teeth.

At first, nothing. A full minute of breathless adrenaline panting behind the wall of growling and barking passed before there was any sign of change. But as a light began to grow from within the store’s gutted warehouse, the pressure on the door intensified rapidly. The canines were realizing that their only means of escape was now barricaded, and were scrambling to find footing amidst the stacked branches and boards to get through as the kindling began to catch. A few began yelping as nails began digging at the bottom and corners of the plywood blockade, while shadows began to dance on the ceiling from the growing flames.

The fire rose higher, and chaos was setting in among the dogs. They began turning on one another, vying for space and leverage against the rising heat and thinning air. Some had begun outright ramming the barricade, and the power of the men braced against it was barely enough to sustain the resistance. As the flames began to lick the top of the plywood and come into view, it seemed as if our plan was going to work. Howling, panting, clawing frantically, the dogs were aware that the tide had turned for them, and the crackling sounds of the rising fire meant the end of their reign of terror.

And then, as if from some lunatic nightmare, one mid-size shepherd dog – having used other dogs for leverage, apparently – launched itself over the barricade. It had caught fire, and hurtling itself over the wall with wild, desperate eyes and bared teeth, looked like some demonic projectile from Hell. It hit the ground in a crumpled mess of flames, fur and grime, scrambling to its feet as Luke Hallett, one of Terry’s boys, lunged forward and stomped on its spine with one military-grade boot. The dog’s squealing yelp indicated its back had been broken; Luke’s follow-up stomp to the skull ended it for good.

We were totally unprepared for what came next, however – in our moment of distraction, several more dogs were attempting the same leaping tactic as the one before. One after another, sometimes two and three at a time, the dogs began scrambling over their suffocating, bottom-clawing brothers & sisters to get beyond the plywood blockade. Each had to fight through fire to get to the doorway, which meant that whatever came over and through that hole above us was desperate for air, choking on smoke and, very likely, on fire.

It felt like slow motion. Before the barricade failed, most of the dogs that escaped had scattered; some stayed to face their aggressors, banding together in smoldering, gnarled groups of three or four. And when the Roldan brothers turned their attention to handling the stragglers, only three of us were left against the plywood. They pushed through and around us, and in no time at all the wall was overtaken and we were scrambling away from a fiery canine stampede. It became immediately clear that we had no hope of regaining control of the situation, and retreated across the street to what used to be the walk-in freezer in the rear of the ice-cream shop.

All told, we’d lost four men. We waited until morning to venture out. By then, virtually nothing had remained of the men who’d been killed, or the dead dogs. If they hadn’t been charred to oblivion, they were picked over for meat by those remaining canines that were likely sticking around to see if we’d reemerge. We knew then that we were dealing with a terrifying force of nature, and that we could take nothing for granted. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe it was out of some biological instinct, but we retreated with our own kin to our homes and shelters, rather than band together the survivors and plot the next move. Defeat and despair were thick in the air.

That was the final sense of community I ever experienced. The collective failure of humanity against a lower animal.

Byron’s wife. Katherine Brooks, a British woman in her early fifties. She, of all people, had taken me in from the freeze of winter when I had nowhere to turn and was nearing the point of submitting to the elements. I’d climbed through miles of dense eastern Pennsylvania brush, making loose natural shelter where I could, after our house had been raided and my family was killed. My nose was frostbitten and I was badly dehydrated, nearly hysterical with sorrow and desperation as I staggered into the parking lot of an old 7-11 – a toddler could’ve killed me with a stone.

At least it’s good to know I could still cry.

Katherine spotted me from a lookout point and called out to me by name. She was the most motherly among all the women of the clans as we developed an understanding of civilization’s brutal new rules, caring for many the children while their parents would be gone on scavenger missions, sometimes days at a time. Her place in the unit was invaluable. She had undoubtedly heard the news of the accident that killed her husband, but we never spoke of it. I wish I’d been able to find a way to apologize, or at least share the torture I live with in knowing.

And here she was, entirely alone. No sign of her people, or anyone else for that matter. She looked horrible, too, like something was eating her alive from the inside. It appeared as if she had aged two decades in the fortysomething days since I’d seen her, despite being buried under layers of clothing and a thick wool hat. She needed help of some kind. Help I couldn’t give her. She didn’t have very long for this life.

After leading me through a rear entryway to the gutted convenience store and out of the chill, Mrs. Brooks showed me where to get off my feet and onto a stack of plastic crates, covered in a rain tarp. It seemed she hadn’t been here long – the place didn’t give off the impression of common shelter. But I felt like I could sleep for years.

She was clearly stricken with something deadly, shuffling with effort about the back room as she mixed a couple spoonfuls of instant mashed potato mix – a long-expired, grey powder that looked toxic – into a cup of melted snow and placed it in front of me. My stomach knotted and roared in anticipation. There’s no way she could’ve found this crucial sustenance in the store – it had been years since the last edible crumb was scraped from the floors of this place.

As I tried not to fade into oblivion’s sweet embrace after scooping the cold, ruined carbohydrates into my mouth, she told me of two gangs that had banded together and raided Westfield – nearly fifty deep in total, methodically going house to house, hunting for any sign of life or trade value. The women were raped, killed and eaten – I couldn’t help but wonder as I faded to black if they found it in themselves – in their final moments – to be thankful it was done in that order.

They found everyone. They killed everyone. They ate everyone.

Everyone but her.

“They got to the last house on Shadowlawn, where the DeGiannas lived before the Halletts took it over,” She explained with a rasp in her voice I’d never heard before. “And you knew right away that something was going on. They were excited, you could see it in the way they were crouching and circling the house.”

“How did you see them?” I asked, trying to piece together how she could witness their arrival but not warn the others.

“I was in the attic, looking for something to keep warm with.”

They had somehow known that the surviving members of the three remaining families in the area – the Watsons, Roldans and Halletts – were inside the house. My father had steered us clear of the others since the Woolworth’s nightmare with the dogs, for reasons I imagine had to do more with my actions that night than he let on. That’s the only reason we weren’t in the same attic when it happened.

It was quick work, she said, bringing an end to the three men, two women and five children that remained of the families. She had been in the attic, digging around for anything that might be of use, when they came through the door. They’d apparently heard one of her coughing fits, despite her best efforts to stifle it, and found her. But somehow, some way, they had let her live.

They didn’t want her because she was not only hideously afflicted by this point, but visibly toxic and clearly soon for death. That was how she told it. Shit, they couldn’t even be bothered to kill her there on the spot, either uninterested in what little meat they’d find on her rotted frame or worried they’d catch the affliction themselves, even by dirtying their blades against her flesh. Probably both. But they hadn’t fed her. She didn’t eat with them. I have to believe that.

Whatever the case, she was my problem, four days and counting. And only two days after finding me, we had set out to find better shelter, and her right knee gave out – it wouldn’t support her decomposing frame any longer. She was hobbled, and it was clear already that we needed to find a solution. The 7-11 had no warmth to offer, nowhere to hide if another group passed by.

This was a problem. A problem that was going to get us both killed unless I solved it. We both knew this. I couldn’t leave her for the cold to claim, or the ravenous teeth of the canines, and I couldn’t continue at the pace we were moving at, a tiny percentage of the ground I could cover alone. And she smelled.

She told me about a place of mercy, a place where people would be… handled. In a way that would ensure humanity, and as unpleasant as the process was, an escape from the devouring mouths of the rapists and murderous monsters destroying our last semblance of civilized community. These non-human fiends who feasted on the flesh of their own.

But what was the process? Where was the mercy, before death or after? Long ago I’d heard gruesome stories of chemical baths, of toxic solutions that would dissolve bodies – a better option than feeding the worst of us all with our remains, I suppose. But nobody anywhere around here had knowledge of what it took, much less access to the chemistry. If that’s what she was referring to, she wasn’t letting on. I would have to wait. And trust. That’s all she gave me.

Down the main corridor to West Hills, off the little ramp just before the turn to northbound 519, is a long and winding road that runs through an old town of industry – a series of factory buildings of a wide variety, most of them over 120 feet in height. We found ourselves along the westernmost street, entering the side of what used to be a hospital. Except inside, a fire had gutted the entirety of the first two floors, giving the area an apocalyptic, unwelcoming look. It seemed uninhabitable. This was the shelter we’d been seeking? The merciful final destination?

Katherine pointed an ancient-looking finger to a row of yellowed, warped pharmaceutical information boards in the corner, that each stood roughly five feet high. “Over there.”

“What’s over there?”

“That’s where we need to go. Behind the boards and through the utility door there’s a staircase. We need to go down.”

I investigated and found a spiral staircase, carefully hidden and entirely unexpected for its location. Looking down, it descended into absolute darkness.

Annoyance was beginning to rise. I’d been her crutch for miles on end, and now this?

It was as if she was reading my thoughts. “We have to go together. I need you to take me down.”

And so down we went. With her riding my back, her bony, gaunt frame barely a nuisance – though her smell was another issue entirely. We went down, down, down…. further down still, into some kind of underground chasm that reeked of suffocated, wet mildew and death. It offered no light whatsoever. A rattling, loud buzzing sound – like a giant mechanical hornet – was growing inside my head (or beneath us? I couldn’t tell) as we descended in darkness. I couldn’t place the sound. It was familiar, but still… it had been so long…

I began to detect the shadows and then the outlines of my feet on the stairs as we went further down, and suddenly it hit me like an icicle stabbed through my spine: The sound. It was a generator. Gasoline. They had gasoline.

Who?

“Where are we going? What is this?” I was nearly shouting. The noise – as well as the need for answers – grew stronger as we descended.

“Just keep going, we’re almost there,” Katherine croaked. There was something greedy in her voice that I didn’t like. Maybe it was just her stench. I have no idea how that smell could come from a living human. I was desperate to get it off of me.

We arrived at a metallic base platform after what felt like days. To our left was a wide industrial service elevator, long since rendered useless. Twenty feet across stood an equally wide rusted steel door, illuminated by two large halogen bulbs connected to extension cords that ran between a corroded hole in the top of the frame and into the unseen room behind the door. The sound of the generator was nearly deafening.

I set Katherine down despite her protests to continue, and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. She tried to rise to her feet. She failed, crumbling to the hostile steel floor.

“Pull it open,” she urged, her face leading to the doorway.

Panting, still out of breath from the infinite descent, I was opening my mouth to demand answers – a generator? Gasoline? Lights? What was going on here? – when the door opened from the inside. Two burly middle-aged men entered as if en route to the stairs, at first registering shocked alarm and then, upon seeing Katherine, some level of understanding. Somehow.

Recognition.

I barely had time to register danger. I was hit with a fist to the jaw only as I was just beginning to build a curiosity to my initial thought: these were two of the most well-fed and healthy-looking men I’d seen in years. As unconsciousness closed on my world like elevator doors, I registered one final observation: There was a great deal of warmth coming from the room that lie through the doorway.

I awoke to a dull, ten-thousand pound weight in my head. My eyes adjusted too slowly to a room flooded with light and full of scattered debris and devices of the expired world. Hospital beds. Medical equipment. Cooking utensils. Two portable stoves. A box oven. Four closed doors, two on the left, one across the way and one on the right. None resembled the door at the bottom of the staircase.

All of this was peripheral, however, to the centerpiece: an industrial meat grinder, at least three feet wide, welded to a metal frame that was bolted into the cement floor. It sat in the center of the room, dimly lit by the candle-light, the shadows dancing around it adding to its already terrifying presence. A stretch of thick yellow industrial tubing snaked from the machine’s interior out to a nearby barrel, while an electrical cord ran to an extension leading to the generator, undoubtedly, in another room off to the right. The machine’s use was immediately clear from the collection of indiscernible clumps and piles on the floor around it, particularly next to a large porcelain bathtub that served as the catchpoint. Next to it, some sort of swiveling spray guard. It was a rusty, uneven black.

Untold ends were met at the hand of this greedy machine, with coagulated blood and tissue fragment dried to a chunky, black mucosal sheen around its base and sides. White bone fragment and cartilage stuck clear from the rest of the little gatherings of meat, gleaming white amidst the blackened brown-grey mass encasing it.

An impossibly high stack of clothing of all types, all worn, occupied the far left end of the room. And here I was, not ten feet away from the machine, my mind racing to piece together the facts before…

(Before what?)

Then my olfactory sense kicked in, a switch flip. The smell of cooked meat hung thick in the air. My stomach growled as I dry heaved at the realization of what I was seeing, and then the self-disgust of my physiological reaction.

I looked back at the machine. Then to the makeshift kitchen area in the corner. Then back.

They had found a way to make cannibalism more… humane. Loosely speaking. Then the containers came into view, the pans that cooked the meat paste that fed whoever was down here.

I had to get out.

I pulled myself to my feet, head still screaming and ears nearly splitting from the resonating generator sounds, fighting the powerful urge to find a way to dismantle that gruesome, horrible machine, and made my way to the leftmost door. The moment I pulled it open I retched in reflex; the stench of feces and biological rot was overpowering. A dim orange light permeated the room, an ill-fitting bulb in a portable vanity mirror that hung from a hook in the corner ceiling.

Movement. Someone was in the room. Something, anyway. A horrible vision in a nightmare funhouse.

Katherine.

She was lying on a hospital bed, her rank clothes replaced by a tattered and stained emerald ball gown hiked up around her hips – revealing her skeletal nude figure from the waist down, a catheter snaking out from a withered pubic mess between her legs, down to a sickly orange-brown plastic bag that hung haphazardly off the bed. She looked so much older than she had… how much earlier? Hours? Days? How long had I been out?

Bands of white surgical tape wrapped around her left arm held an IV tube in place, leading to a clear bag hanging on the adjacent metal rack frame with a coathanger. This decrepit old hag, with thinning, greased hair hanging in patches around her scab-riddled skull, looked at me through dead eyes and grinned. Somehow this monster could find a cousin of demented satisfaction in her horrendously eroded state. It was almost nurturing.

What had awoken me earlier was the departure of the men. Something was urgent. As the fog slowly lifted between my ears, I began to remember hearing talk about a hunt.

Were we alone down here?

Between rotted teeth and freshly gaping holes, this living corpse spoke, her blackened tongue poking through as she asked me if I understood now. There were about a hundred in total who fed here, all serving a different role, all contributing their part in exchange for safety from the elements and, most importantly, the dogs.

She is the one who led them here, who allowed them to be saved from the cold and the treachery outside. Maybe they weren’t the first. Maybe these people had taken the bunker from others just like them, a desperate survival coup. There had been an incredible abundance of medicine and medical supplies, and in the early days after the bombs someone had the sense enough to store two generators and a massive stock of gasoline. But it only delayed the desperation, the inhumanity, and when it arrived, it came at full force. There was a far more gradual descent into madness for those who would slowly come to terms with their hopelessness and futility of the future, rather than the desperate rush to oblivion on the surface. As cannibalism took hold as the only semi-regular protein option, tough decisions were undoubtedly made.

These people were given refuge, a hope that stood against the truth of the outside world. They were greeted with horrors they didn’t have the organization or foresight to plan for, and this was a temporary fix, at least. Under penalty of death they would keep it secret. She might not have even told her husband. The man I killed.

And in some twisted mix of mercy and revenge, far as I could tell, she had led me down here. If she’d wanted me dead, she told me, then I would’ve already been ground and devoured. I could help, she told me. I could be a part of their world. She’d told them not to kill me.

Then it struck me, not as a slow accumulation of understanding but like a whip crack to the base of the skull; Katherine had led them to Westfield. She had given my family to these monsters.

It was clear. I focused on the sound of the generator. I set my mind neutral, with the occasional pass of Rachel’s final moments and my father’s desperate, short struggle to protect his family. This was my way to feel right again, if only for a moment.

I grabbed the edge of the bed and pulled. The wheels gave freely, rolling forward with my weight. Katherine’s eyes widened.

“Stop! Stop that!” She hissed, trying to kick at my hand with her one good leg. Her gnarled, yellow toenails drew blood.

I pulled her to the center of the room, back towards the door I’d come through. I kicked a folding chair out of the way as her IV strained taut, tearing from her arm as its coathanger attachment pulled the metal shelf forward. It teetered, but didn’t fall. “Please!” she screamed. “Please stop! Please!” I continued rolling her through the doorway.

Then she seemed to understand. With a new urgency she rolled off the bed, landing awkwardly on her right shoulder and snapping her clavicle. She screamed like a dying ferret and began to hyperventilate, losing consciousness within seconds.

Feeling a hundred miles away, forcibly stuck in a neutral state of emotion, I lifted this heap of decrepit betrayer back onto the rolling bed like one would a dog that’s been struck by a car. I wheeled her into the room I’d awoken in.

I ambled with slow deliberation to the grinding machine. I grabbed the side lever and lifted it upwards into the ON position. The seven long, rusted rows of blades immediately rattled to life, an uneven whir from undoubtedly constant misuse.

I lifted the skeletal frame from the bed and got to work. Katherine awoke the moment the blades touched the tips of her toes. Recoiling in squealing horror, she pulled her knees upwards, gripped my neck with her left arm and frantically tried to make use of her right to knock me back. All I had to do was lean forward – holding her like a newborn going into water, I pushed downward, and she entered the blades in a praying position of sorts, kneecaps first.

Animalistic howling. Guttural, chilling wails of the woman who led to the most gruesome deaths of families I’d grown up with, possibly including my own. Pieces of loose skin, bone fragment and fatty tissue flung about the room, like putting whole raw chickens into a blender without a lid. Large shredded clumps of meat & bone dropped into the porcelain tub, with flecks of emerald green fabric poking through the soaked red mass.

I was delirious. Teeth bared and covered in the splatter of this wretch’s insides, I realized that I was perfectly fine if I got caught in the blades myself. Where was there to go from here? Why even think about it? Happiness and comfort was an extinct hope. There was only survival, and the memory of what came before.

No thanks.

I bore down harder, the greedy knives almost to the top of Katherine’s thighs now rocking her body in jagged, graceless lurches. She was fucking dead. I resigned myself to the idea that maybe I could dive headfirst into the grinder once she was through. I was only beginning to grasp the lunacy of this concept when the gears choked to a halt. Half a second later they ground forward valiantly in two more attempts, before giving a lurching mechanical shudder and seizing, drowned in the blood-drenched gluttony of bone, muscle and cartilage.

Just as I spotted a blackened metal hunk amidst the bloodsoaked human gristle, I remembered something Katherine had told me in passing as we stumbled through the countryside; after a car accident in 2011 she’d had her hip replaced with a titanium and cobalt chromium combination, a powerfully strong metal that certainly wasn’t meant to be fed into an industrial grinder. In fact, it could righteously ruin a machine like that.

I was laughing at the poetically beautiful complexity of how it all connected when they came through the door. Four of them had returned for weapons. I was standing over the broken death machine, covered in blood, entering a fixed paralysis of maniacally hollering laughter when they came in and saw what was happening.

My eyes. They took my eyes out. Through some twisted loyalty, they had honored Katherine’s instruction not to kill me, despite my having ruined their processor. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. But either way, their dead savior’s demands didn’t mean they were going to leave me to my business, or that the heated debate over what would come of me would end in anything benefitting myself.

They forced me up the stairs while I still had eyes, beating me as we ascended the endless spirals. After a few hundred yards of walking through the wooded darkness, they kicked me to the ground and pinned me down. A blank expression on the face of a Boston-Irish brute as he leaned over me, his heaving pig breath billowing into the frigid air like chimney smoke, a dirty and dull steak knife in hand.

Slowly, so slowly, the blade went into my left eyeball, the jeers of “ungrateful motherfucker” and “murdering piece of shit”‘ rising like bubbles in a foam of otherwordly nerve explosions. I remember hearing myself screaming, as they held my face tight, as if it were somebody else. Somehow I experienced it almost in the third person, the twisting blade in my socket seeming almost to belong to a nonentity.

I lost consciousness the moment the blade touched my right eye.

I awoke in blind darkness, my hands bound behind me around a tree as thick as my thigh. My face screaming in agony, a chill digging into the center depths of my head, directly through what used to be my eyes.

And here I sit. The sounds on the wind and the frozen brush beneath me tell me I’m in the woods. Distant, so distant, I can hear the sounds of barking and howling, growling and yelping, a pack so deep, so full of desperate hunger, it wouldn’t take them long to get through me. Their sound has been rising for a few minutes. The blackness of my lacking sight is causing a technicolor hallucination in my head… I’m imagining the dogs running through fields, not about to devour me as I sit here…

Daffodils! It was daffodils!

Rachel’s last word. My sister’s final utterance, ascending out of the unthinkable hell tearing her apart. It was a coded reminder, a way to say goodbye in which nobody would know she was speaking to somebody.

Our mother’s favorite flower. She loved them, and they were the only true light in her hospital room as cancer ate her alive the year before everything went to hell. When we lost her, we’d put daffodils on her grave together every couple weeks. It’s just a thing Rachel and I would do. One would feel the need every so often, and the other always came. As security, as what, I don’t know. But it was what we did, and became a routine. And we never said “hey, let’s go to mom’s grave.”‘ Who could say that?

With a token variation on “I need to pick up some daffodils,” we’d be off together, just the two of us. It became something more than paying respects to mom. It became something special between us as well.

She had enough wits, in her greatest agony, to not only think of my safety but to find a way to say goodbye while doing so. That’s the best comfort my mind can escape to in these final moments – I know my heart’s beating too fast for hypothermia to set in before they get here.

Not having eyes – or even tear ducts – kind of rules out crying at this point.

I can hear individual animals now. They’re close.

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