By Jon Catron
Carl stood in the cooling midnight air of the woods by the lake. It was always so peaceful here, so serene, so free of the constant struggle back in the City. Somewhere in the distance, some nocturnal creature that Carl, city boy that he was, couldn’t identify called out to its mate or family or whatever. Honestly, Carl was ignorant about such things, but wasn’t about to let his ignorance of such small details spoil his brief getaway. He took a few lazy steps down the path toward the lake, letting the dense summer foliage brush against him. It was nothing like the forcible press of bodies that is ever-present in the city. Sometimes, Carl regretted his decision to stay in the city. He could have come out here into the “wilderness” but he was a city boy, and didn’t think he could go for very long apart from his beloved hustle and bustle.
If Carl were being completely honest with himself, there was a slight thrill to coming out to the lake. There were persistent stories and rumors about throwback quasi-religious cults performing monstrous and unspeakable acts on the occasional straggler out in the hills north of the lake. But even with his own small thrill at the potential for danger and wildness, Carl would be one of the first to discredit such silliness. The whole idea was preposterous. Those sorts of things didn’t happen anymore, too much had changed in the world. He would laugh at the very notion, if he could somehow find mirth after everything that had happened.
The Crisis, as everyone liked to call it, had changed so much in so many unexpected ways. But they had survived, and began to thrive, to truly live again. It changed Carl. He never smiled anymore. He never laughed. Not after what happened. But he still liked to come out to the lake and relax, and try to forget.
Memories from that time were still hazy, as if it had all been one horrible, arduous nightmare. Carl could remember very little after that horrid afternoon aside from the smoke and fire and the press of bodies, pain and relief as he realized he was alive and had, miraculously, survived. But from time to time, something, or someone, would remind Carl of that look on Bob’s face as they separated and a tear would roll from Carl’s remaining good eye.
Sometimes Carl had to wonder if any of the other survivors felt like he did. He had to wonder if any of them felt the loss as keenly as he did. Oh sure, some had lost much more, both in physical capabilities and emotional damage. But Carl had to wonder occasionally if they felt how deep the Change really went.
Occasionally, on a still night, he would sit in his dingy little apartment (It wasn’t really his apartment; the duplex he’d lived in had been burned down along with over half of the city.) and stare down at the bodies still decaying in the street. He would wonder why he wasn’t among them. What made him so special that he got to live? Why were any of them still around? Most of the time, Carl was just like the others; barely alive, barely mobile automatons, hardly at all distinct from the corpses still laying in the street, washing away little by little with each new downpour.
Carl slowly made his way from the cabin toward the lakeshore, lost in these inner reflections. He was not usually given to deep contemplations, but they came to him unbidden more and more lately. Perhaps that is how they got so close, so very close without him noticing.
The sound of a foot rustling through the underbrush finally gave them away. Carl’s eye snapped open wide and he turned his head as the wind change and gave him a whiff of their overpowering stench.
He turned and tried to run, but he couldn’t keep his footing in the brush choked slopes leading toward the lake. So instead he took several swings at his attackers, even as he stumbled, but his lack of footing sent his strikes wild. And then he saw Bob.
He wanted to deny it, he wanted to not believe it, but it was Bob’s face, Bob’s eyes hard and cold, staring back at him, intent on his destruction. That more than anything dropped Carl’s world out from under him. He turned again to try to run, but they were on him before he could take more than a single step. They jumped on him from behind, pinning him to the ground, tearing at his limbs, screaming at each other like wild animals. Despite having his head held down in a pile of wet and moldy leaves and fescue, Carl screamed as they tore first his legs, and then arms, loose from his body. Despite the pain, the shock, the soul crushing betrayal, Carl continued struggling, even as he saw Bob kneel next to him, machete in hand…
“Easy, easy there…” Bob said, trying to calm his team. “One mostly intact zombie head, just like the doctor ordered.”
Bob held Carl’s decaying head aloft just a bit, examining it with a concerned eye.
“You think he’ll really get us a cure, Bob?”
“Vaccine, Ted, not a cure…” Bob chided with irritation obvious in his voice.
“There ain’t no cure for this…” He said, motioning to Carl’s body simply. “but this.” He finished, raising the severed head level to Ted’s eyes.
“Now bag up the other parts and clean up this mess. Can’t take the chance that the wildlife gets inta this. An’ don’t get none in your mouths.”
Bob stood up and considered the decaying visage of his once best friend. “Goddamnit Carl…” He sighed and carefully placed his gruesome prize in a thick, ice filled polyethylene bag, and held it tenderly in his arms. “Well I guess ya might just save me after all… ya cocksure sombitch.” Bob sniffled slightly, but wisely resisted the temptation to wipe the tear from his eye.
Bob stood on the path down to the lake by Carl’s old fishing cabin, soaking up the cool night air. Before, it had always been so peaceful here, so serene, so free of the struggle and grind back in the City. But now, it was a battleground. Now, it was the front line of humanity’s constant struggle for survival in a world gone mad.
But soon, soon, Bob consoled his conscience, it would be Carl’s final resting place.
“Soon you’ll have Peace, old buddy…”