She can see the figures through the window as she steps up the stairs. The door comes open in her hand and she winces at the sound of glass breaking. One of the creatures tumbles through, head-first and performs half a cartwheel in the air before landing on its back. The sound of meat on baked dirt is loud, and she winces to think of how far the noise of the window must have carried. The baton crushed the thing’s nose on the first swing, the grey flesh exploded under the impact. Its face is ragged, drooping skin slipping on the bone like a loose t-shirt around a starving man and she breaks the skin again with her second blow.
It twists on the ground for a moment, like a revolving worm, and she brings the weapon down double-handed on the back of its head, bone cracking beneath the impact. She steps back as another of the things follows the first, landing on its head this time and remaining still. She thinks it odd that bone turns tender so quickly, and wondered if that was some side-effect of the disease or curse or whatever madness drove these things into existence. She tries not to think that they look familiar, tries not to allow her memory to struggle, that it might dredge up stop-motion images of the past, when these people were distant neighbours.
The wheat field comes alive with moaning, and she glares over her shoulder at the shifting gold. The figures are moving with a purpose now, each head turning towards the farmhouse, every pair of eyes flickering with the strange yellow light and the hands, already starting to grasp at the air and the stalks around them, are raised ahead of them as though the action could add to their momentum. A few, she sees, ignore the weakness of their flesh and seem to be almost running, cutting through the field with an ugly, disjointed gait, like a crippled man escaping the scene of a crime.
She closes the door behind her and the chill of the kitchen strikes at her exposed skin. Her boots slip a little on the tiled flooring, an intersecting pattern of black and white, and she curses. The door of the fridge is hanging open, as are the cupboards, many reduced to one hinge, and the drawers have been torn from their holes and emptied quickly before being abandoned on the floor. She can imagine those desperate figures, perhaps shaking their silverware into plastic bags as the creatures they might have once called neighbours rattled the door in its frame. She had shared that panic, remembering her desire to save photographs as the things had made the apartment beneath hers scream.
‘Lily,’ she whispers into the mouthpiece, ‘you sure this is the right place? There are a lot of those things here, and I can’t see them palling up, to be honest.’ She steps into the doorway and instantly moves back again, her back against the wall and her finger slippery with sweat, moving up the length of the baton.
‘That’s definitely where the signal came from,’ she replies, keeping her voice as hushed as Gabriella’s, ‘they could have moved on by now but then why bother sending the message at all?’
‘Never mind,’ she says bleakly, closing her eyes tightly as though she could burn the sight from her memory, ‘I’ve found them.’
The radio answers with silence, and she can imagine Lily slumping back in her chair, her arms falling limply by her side as though she had been struck a physical blow. She doesn’t need to say anything more, Lily knows what the tone means.
The living room has a redwood floor, and had been designed with evident affection. One of the walls was interrupted at regular intervals by wide windows, facing towards the rising sun and it is all too easy to imagine the yellow light playing across the floorboards and heating them beneath bare feet. The windows are smashed, some from the inside and some from the outside, leaving glass sparkling throughout the room. There is a corpse on the couch, slumped on its side like it had spent had heavy night drinking and another is sitting against the wall beneath one of the windows. Kneeling beside it, two figures are tearing at its stomach with their bare hands, scooping long strands of intestine into their mouths like lovers eating spaghetti. They growl at each other, dogs arguing over a feast, and redouble their efforts to consume more of the corpse.
A few feet away from the figures, closer to Gabriella, a third thing is laying perfectly still with a long curvature of metal sticking straight up from its forehead. It looks like a short sword, but the blade is thick and the handle looks like it had been recently attached. She steps into the room as quietly as she can, an over-exaggerated caution which she could imagine a cartoon replicating; that old cat who always hunted Tweety-Bird.
The blade comes loose easily, slipping from the bone and brain after the first pull. It feels good in her hand, a pleasing weight which seems to fit her fingers better than the baton. The creak of floorboards from behind her makes her spin, and the blade comes with her, coming up into the thing’s jaw with all her spinning weight behind it. The chin falls away, sheared by the blade and the figure stumbles back a step. Before it can recover, she buries it deep in the thing’s forehead. It goes limp and almost pulls the blade from her hand as it falls, but she grabs the hilt with her free hand and it comes free with a sucking sound.
One of the feeding things looks up at the sound and its eyes alight as it sees her turning back to it. With a growl it propels itself towards her, coming up in a crouch with intestine still hanging from its lipless mouth. The heavy metal cuts into its neck and the head twists away, held on by a few scraps of muscle and flesh. The growl is cut short, replaced by a desperate wheezing which emerges from the open throat in red-black bubbles.
She hacks at the other creature, still feeding against the wall, and cuts deep into the thing’s head with a bone-breaking impact which send sickening tremors along the length of her arm. It falls over its meal, hiding the bloody stomach from her eyes, but the smell of meat and excrement still makes her want to gag.
There is a pistol caught in the dead man’s hand, and she drops to one knee to pry it from cold fingertips. They are tight about it, death and fear turning the severed muscle into an iron-like vice. She manages to free the weapon and recoils from the blood and the dried sweat around the weapon’s grip. She stands again, holding the weapon by the barrel to avoid the texture and wipes it against the cushions of the couch to remove the worst of the gummy texture.
She turns her back and the moans begin again, she turns to see the corpse, pinned to the ground by the greater weight of the thing which had been consuming it, clawing at the air above it. It had been a handsome, once; eyes a shade too large with thick irises and small pupils, now yellow where they had once been white, full lips which it had already begin to chew at and a strong jaw turning grey in death.
The gun was loaded, completely; he hadn’t even shot once before his hand had turned useless under the creatures’ onslaught. She feels like she owes him some peace, that he deserves a bullet in exchange for the weapon, but she still slips the gun into the waistband of her jeans. Even then, she considers ending the thing with one vicious swing, imagining the bite of the metal in its forehead, death returning in one jolted movement.
She leaves by the front door and breathes in the fresh air for a moment. The field is empty and stretches out alongside the dirt road; she is happy to be alive, for such simple pleasures. She descends the stairs slowly, the bullets rattling a little in her pocket and the pistol already rubbing at her skin.
The claw meets her ankle as she reaches the bottom step and she stumbles, tumbling into the dusty earth heavily, but she is already crawling as she hits the floor. She kicks her boot free and scrambles a few feet further before turning to her back. The thing is rising from its seat by the stairs, using the mismatched stone as a support.
The pistol leaves her jeans as she stands and the blade falls at her feet. She puts both hands around the weapon, feeling the stickiness of its texture between her fingertips and aims carefully. The thing moves its neck like it is studying her and she imagines the teeth are grinning at her like a death rictus. Her arm shakes a little, and she digs her feet into the earth whilst the dead thing crosses its arms and lets out an animalistic roar.
It lowers its head to charge, the long grass coiling about its feet like another enemy, and she squeezes the trigger.