So, the twisted minds over at Humanitarian Fiction (you know, the ones that brought us Disastrous Passion, which should be enough to send chills up and down your spine in the first place) have set a global challenge- write and share a piece of Humanitarian Zombie Fiction.
I don’t post much fiction. As in, any. So this is definitely a stray from the path for me. But I thought, what the heck: I like aid, and I like zombies, and I kind of like writing too. And although I had lots of better things to be doing with my time, I did it anyway. So here ya go.
This little story is dedicated to @daggyvamp, aka Narrelle Harris, because it’s her birthday today, and because I don’t personally know any author who relishes the undead- and musing on the grisly transition towards deadness- quite so much as Narrelle does. Also, because once upon a time, Narrelle had a toe firmly dipped in the aid world, and I’m still waiting for her to write that sitcom… You can find Narrelle’s excellent and darkly humorous vampire novels The Opposite of Life and Walking Shadows linked right there, and I highly recommend them. You can also find one of her zombie-themed short stories in this compilation. Happy Birthday Narrelle!
* * * * *
From the roof of the white Land Cruiser, Jarrod watches the treeline for the first of them to appear.
It’s eerie in the late morning stillness. The boreal forest towers above them, cold and alien. Shafts of light catch in the drifting mist that’s burning off. The twittering of birds is at once familiar, but oddly disconcerting in the furtive, restless way the chimes bounce off one another.
The UN flag hangs limp. It’s as blue and pale as the cloudless sky.
Olivia touches his arm and Jarrod flinches. Looking down, he sees the rich hues of her fingers against the pale, almost translucent skin of his arm.
“Try to relax,” she intones quietly. “I know we’re a long way from home, but we’ve all done this before.”
The armoured vehicles are stationed in a broad ring about the distribution site. Jarrod can see the gunner atop the nearest. He’s looking out into the forest beyond the cleared circle. His head is swinging, side to side beneath the blue helmet, his thumbs twitching on the cannon grip. Jarrod can see a trail of sweat dampening the man’s dark temples. Mesh wire is clamped over the thick reinforced windows in the forward doors, and the white of the side panels is startling in the diffuse sunlight. The initials U.N. are stenciled in thick black lettering on the flanks.
Everyone’s either on a vehicle or in one, except Francois. The crusty old Malagasay, Head of Mission, stands with his arms folded in the middle of the ring, just at the foot of the flag. Crates of relief food pile behind him. He’s a picture of defiance, snowy whiskers against skin as dark as the forest soil, veined eyes behind narrow shades. Always the shades. Hiding those eyes that say he’s seen it all. The old-timer cut his teeth thirty-some years ago as a self-professed young-gun, first in Darfur, then later in responses like Haiti, Somalia, Azerbaijan, Mexico. Places that mean so little now, but he wears them like they’re badges, like military medals of honour. The staff still speak of him in revered tones, like he’s some kind of guru. He’s been in this since the start.
He’s wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved button-down. His nod to the locals. Jarrod feels a warmth at the old aid worker’s presence. It’s reassuring to have someone familiar in this foreign landscape, a figure so confident facing something that sends stronger men loose at the bowels. Someone from home. Yet even the thought of home startles Jarrod in a way he’s not anticipating.
This might have been my home, another time.
“They’re coming,” Olivia says quietly. She was Ugandan, once. She’s a stout, athletic woman who’s taken a motherly affection to Jarrod since he arrived at the fort a few weeks back. She’s speaking English to him, and he can’t tell if it’s because she’s just used to being out here, or whether she actually thinks Jarrod speaks better English than Kiswahili. Truth is, until he was deployed a few weeks back, Jarrod’s barely spoken English since he enrolled in Kofi Annan University six years ago.
They’re a long way from Antananarivo now.
“How can you tell?” he asks her.
Jarrod listens. All he can hear is the blood throbbing in his ears. The birds overhead. Odd, needle-shaped leaves on the tall trees- firs, he’s heard them called- seem to swallow sound. He’s never seen trees so tall, so straight, so close together. So dark. Like anything could be hiding in them. Staggeringly different to the bulbous baobabs back home that are now sparse, but for all that scarcity, fiercely guarded in their spreading glory.
That word again.
Then a flash of movement.
A gunner spins. The mounted turret makes an oiled hiss, and the man’s shoulders bunch beneath the blotches of camouflage. But the figure coming out of the trees moves slowly, and as Jarrod watches, the gunner’s grip relaxes. The gun stays trained.
“They’re jumpy,” Jarrod observes, to nobody in particular, but quietly hoping for some sense of comfort from Olivia.
“They should be,” she murmurs, then adds, as if realising his intent a mouthful too late, “But they’re good. The Haitians and the Dominicans, they’re some of the best troops we have in DPKO. They work well together. You know, Dominica held out for a long time. Nearly became a refuge as well. It was…” she hesitated, her voice tailing off like the fading mist. “Unfortunate.”
But Jarrod’s attention is now on the figure emerging from the treeline. No, not one figure. Several. Moving slowly. Stiffly. Something uncomfortable about the gait. Not the easy lope of a youth in sandals beneath a tropical sun, or the scurry of children as they tumble over one another in the dust. These figures are stumbling into the clearing. Hesitating before the outposts of gleaming white half-tracks. Even at a distance, Jarrod reads the flickering of an emotion: Fear? Relief? Or perhaps it’s simply the acknowledgement of constant insecurity, and the echoes of the question ‘why’ growing quieter with each passing year.
The first into the kill-zone is a woman. She’s emaciated, pale, her t-shirt hanging loosely off a body that might be considered tough under circumstances of diet and healthy labour, but which overwork and undernutrition has left brittle and unforgiving. Sharp angles. Stubborn.
There are three children with her. One is an infant, hanging wide-eyed from a makeshift carriage on the woman’s back- metal poles tied together with threadbare canvas. The others are young, though it’s hard to tell how much-so, as they’re equitably underfed. One has a crop of orange-blonde curls, a little girl who could be six. She’s in a tattered dress with holes worn into the fabric. Her little brother has a mop of startlingly black hair against fair skin, a swollen belly, and limps where his sister leads him.
“How far did you say the forward delivery point is from the refuge?” Jarrod asks.
“About six miles,” Olivia replies, dropping back into Kiswahili with him.
“Mmm. We do our best. But you know what Sphere says about standoff distance and noise protection. They don’t want any chance they might lead-”
She tails off as Francois steps forward and begins jabbing his hands decisively. He signals the guards to open up the perimeter fencing. It isn’t much to hold anything off, just a ring of coiled razor wire, but it might prove to be enough of a delay for the gunners to get a bead on, and that has to count for something.
The ballet is orchestrated in an odd, otherworldly silence, all hand-gestures and furtive movement. Jarrod listens to the birds, knowing from his security training that when they fall silent, it’s time to pay attention.
Olivia hops down off the roof.
They’re pouring through the opening now. Jarrod’s amazed at how many are arriving. Like a hot-season storm, what starts as a few drops becomes a patter, then a stream, then a torrent. In just a few minutes he reckons there’s a couple of hundred of them in here, all survivors, all haggard. He follows Olivia into the clearing, exhilerated, more alive than he’s ever felt even though he knows he’s never been more vulnerable.
He keeps his distance. He recalls what Francois warned him about.
“Remember, they’re desperate. Some of them won’t have seen anything but bush food in several weeks. Rabbits, rats, even boiled leaves. There’s not a lot left in the forests these days, between the survivors, and, well…”
“They get that we’re here to help, right?” Jarrod had interrupted.
Francois had spread his hands and shrugged. “People are fearful. We come in, we go out again. This is their reality. You know, there’s a lot of resentment. But mostly, desperation. You never know what people in that situation might do. And they’ll be armed, remember. They know not to bring their weapons in sight of the distribution. But the men’ll be out there, just a couple of hundred paces out, watching for their wives and children, their old men to come back. I’d hate to think what would happen if they thought they weren’t getting what they were entitled to.”
Jarrod could see them now. It was a fair overview. Wives and children, old men. A few able-bodied males- young men who looked close to Jarrod’s own age- had come in to help with the distribution itself, to haul the pallets around and assist some of the elderly or the slow with their burdens.
“I don’t understand,” he’d asked Olivia after their first distribution, back at the fort a couple of weeks back. “Why don’t they all gather here? There’s protection. We can get supplies and services to them, and they never need to leave the perimeter.”
He’d cast his eyes around the scene even as he’d said the words. The concrete walls. The squalid courtyards at the feet of those overcrowded condos. Nightsoil stains from glassless windows. Smoke eminating from cracks and holes where people burned refuse to keep their shelters warm. The smell. The constant clamour. In the far distance, the Bitterroot Mountains rising sharp and jagged and snowcapped into the sky.
“And you could ask why these ones don’t come to us,” Olivia had responded, looking up from where she squatted over a child’s scrawny pink arm, the measuring tape showing that he was just on the healthy side of malnourished. “There are always those who try. But for so many of them, this is home. And no matter how hard it gets, they won’t leave.”
Jarrod had made some noise indicating his lack of understanding.
“I don’t expect you to get it,” she had gone on in her melodic Kiswahili. “You’re one of the placeless. You were born in the camps, weren’t you?”
Jarrod had nodded. His father had been a surgeon, which had pushed the man to the top of the waiting lists. That had been before Jarrod, when his parents were newly wed, then thrust into the chaos, that destruction and terror that had seen a world torn down. Madagascar had taken them, an ark that even then had only so many places, and the foresight to ration them. At terrible cost to those unable to board. But for Jarrod’s family, it had been a beginning, of sorts. A fragile salvation.
Working in the survivor camps, Jarrod’s father had earned UN, and later government, contracts, eventually enough to rent them the small flat they shared with another family set back on the new developments among the lower hills, and later buy it freehold. The jagged skyline of Antananarivo today was a far cry from the coloured jumble of two- and three-story houses along the ridgeline that stills from the turn of the century showed. The towering slums of condominiums- frequently unpowered and unwatered, that swayed sickeningly when the cyclones barrelled through- were no paradise. But neither were they the camps, those ramshackle neighbourhoods that nearly thirty years on were still hives for desperation and disease of every kind but that one, overlooked by the tower-blocks like passers-by ignoring a dying derelict on the street.
“I don’t think they were as bad at first. Not when we were there,” Jarrod could recall his mother telling him one afternoon, as he stared from forty-three stories through shafts between the concrete trunks, down at the mess. It hung with brown smoke even on a day like it had been that day, wispy clouds against a burning heat-haze. His mother’s Kiswahili was affected, a little drawled, like her mouth was never quite willing to accept that it had to speak it. “Back then there was hope. Perhaps it was only temporary. And there was a sense of, oh I don’t know, it was almost paradise, back then, before the towers, when there were forests, and the elation of having survived. But now, the quarantine, the waiting lists, the wire and the guards and the watchtowers…”
She had tailed off, but something had lit inside Jarrod. A curiosity, at first. Nothing more. But it grew, at first into a hunger to know what it was like inside the camps and finally, when he saw firsthand the quarantine zones and the struggle to survive that so many failed, a passion to help.
Now, Jarrod drops into a crouch and pauses, getting his bearings in this growing maelstrom of humanity. He’s seen the camps. Seen the survivors in Fort Bitterroot, and over on the Eastern AirHead where the camps still feel a little like actual settlements, like the chaos of life in Antananarivo, only colder, more frantic. But this is different. He can sense the hunger. The fear is tangible, like a sweat, pervasive and inspiring and almost dizzying. There is something basic, primal, utterly desperate about the people as they come in. Grown women in bare feet, some of them in dresses so ragged they fail to protect their dignity. Children as filthy as any he’s seen playing in the gutters in the poorest of Madagascan slums. Young girls, teenagers, with lifeless eyes, slack jaws, the signs of a lifetime of poor diet and terrors unspoken.
Everything here is different. Even the soil, dark and loamy and moist, so unlike the red crumbly dirt at home. He had wondered. Wondered whether, coming here, he would feel a connection to the place. After all, he’s white, just like these people. He wants to feel something, some connection, some kinship. Wants the smell of the earth that he grinds between his fingers to awaken some sense of familiarity, a little voice that says You’re here, you’ve made it. But he remembers the first time he saw an American out here, one of the survivors at the fort. They locked eyes, and Jarrod gave what he hoped was a smile, though it felt uncertain. The man, a little older than him, just stared back. It wasn’t hostily. Just a blankness. No recognition.
You’re not one of us. You’ve not survived like we have. Just an outsider, scrammed in here, and you’ll scram out again when your shift’s over.
He breathes the cool highland air and tastes the acrid scent of the pines. Flavours of wood settle on his tongue like a grit. He hears birds he’s never heard before singing. Sees the pale skin of the troop of survivors stumbling towards the food stash. He wonders, if it all ended tomorrow, and the world righted itself, would he have a place in this land.
Could I die here?
It all goes ahead in silence. Words are spoken with heads leant in. Children are subdued. Babies muted. Jarrod wonders whether it’s because they’re malnourished, or if they sense the same terror that hangs like a blanket over the quietly milling knot of dulled colour.
He sees Juarez, the force commander, pacing the circle, checking with his men, eyeing up posture and readiness. His eyes are never still. He soaks in everything, that man. Never misses a detail. He pauses for just a moment, to ruffle the head of one of the sniffer dogs- a black lab- the first line of defense. Then he’s striding again, one eye on the survivors, another on his men, and somehow, both of them on the forest at the same time, on those dark trunks behind which anything could be lurking. Behind which, somewhere, something surely is.
He climbs a stack of pallets and watches the distribution for a few moments. Each pallet is pre-packed with tins of vegetables, condensed milk, cans of cooking oil, salt. It’s a monthly ration, to be shared among households of a predetermined size and number which is stamped on the base of the pallet. A short distance away, sacks of dried corn in 110-lb sacks are being handed out. Distribution staff with hand units read the ID chips of each sack and pallet as its passed over, then scan the wrist-band of the receiving survivor. Once, Jarrod understands, there would have been networks that such information could have traveled along, same as the data towers that dot Madagascar’s spine like a porcupine’s quills. But any such infrastructure would have fallen derelict some twenty-odd years ago out here. They’ll upload it when they get back to the fort and it’ll be transmitted, then collated centrally and checked for discrepencies. But the World Food Program runs a tight ship. They’ve been doing this stuff for about eighty years now. The systems are waterproof.
A girl reaches the front of the line. He can’t tell how old she is, maybe sixteen or seventeen. She’s got long white-blonde hair which she’s clearly brushed through and tied back in a tail before setting out, but the walk’s left renegade strands smeared down her cheeks. Her grey eyes meet Jarrod’s for just a moment. He can see dirt streaked on her sallow face. A figure clings to her leg, and he sees a toddler with the same colouring, naked except for a t-shirt. A little brother perhaps. Or her child. Her eyes fall away. There’s no flicker of connection. Just a hollow resentment.
This is my life. What do you know of it? Go back to your island.
Olivia’s overseeing the health tent, which is an insulated inflatable, double walls and an airlock, to keep the sound in. Jarrod zips up the outer layer, unzips the inner and steps through. In here he can hear the soft grumble of a supressed pump, and the bawling of infants.
Out in the open,they’d just be bait, he thinks to himself.
The makeshift clinic is insulated, but people still talk in quiet murmurs. Force of habit. A mistrust of the technology, perhaps. Olivia’s at the bloodwork desk. A male nurse who’s been brought in from Bitterroot pricks each child’s index finger as they’re presented. Some know what’s coming and start howling even before the tiny needle has had a chance to penetrate. The smear gets read on a handset.
“Clear,” Olivia says in English with a smile. “You have a healthy child, ma’am.”
The woman gives her a hunted look, as though the pronouncement is some kind of curse, or perhaps its Olivia’s dark skin that unsettles her so. She waits near the exit lock for her child’s crying to settle down and stares out, as though summoning the courage to pass through.
The next in line is a young teenager, not more than fifteen. She has loose dark hair that hangs in strands over a narrow face. Hazel eyes. Dirty, greyed-out skin that needs more washing, more care. Her infant is listless and doesn’t cry with the finger-prick.
“How old is he?” Olivia asks, as the nurse runs the sample.
The girl’s eyes shift unhappily and she looks at the floor as she nods. Jarrod looks at the child’s skeletal arms and thinks he can practically see the bone through the pale wrap of skin.
The handset chimes, a tiny whistling noise.
“Oedema,” Olivia says softly, switching back to Kiswahili. “We’ll need to evacuate this one.” She straightens up and fixes the girl with a smile, speaking soothingly in English. “We need to get some more help for your child. You can both come with us to Bitterroot. Do you have a husband? Do you need to ask permission to come?”
The girl shakes her head but looks anxious.
“I tried to feed her,” she protests, and gestures unconsciously towards her flat, limp chest. “I try, but nothing… nothing comes.”
Her voice is thick, slow, her accent strange to Jarrod’s ears. Nothing like the clipped sing-song language he’s used to hearing from his colleagues, from his friends in Antananarivo when they speak English.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.” Olivia gives her best motherly smile and touches the girl’s face. “It’s not your fault. We’ll get you fed and your little one sorted out. Just come with us.”
They leave as the afternoon is lengthening. The light is taking on yellow hues, and catching in the beads of the damp air. Jarrod is starting to feel like he’s never spent so long without a clear view to the sky. Even though the clearing itself is broad, and ringed by an open stretch giving line of sight and fire to the treeline, the imposing firs hem them in, shrinking the circle of crisp blue overhead.
“We’ll take two half-tracks and the two thin-skins,” Francois says as he steps away from Juarez. “We’re better off getting back to Bitterroot early. I don’t want to get caught in the dark in these Land Cruisers.”
They’re old vehicles, but trusty. Patched together from a thousand cannibalized husks. Scavenged from the African mainland, then shipped on over on the salvation barges. Nobody knew what states the vehicles would be in over here. They’re around. Abandoned everywhere. But rusting. No one in Madagascar knows how to repair an old GM. But every tinker in the slum can do up a Cruiser.
They leave the rest of the convoy- five half-tracks and half a dozen flatbeds- packing up the distribution site as the recipients melt back into the forest. The survivors have a couple of critical hours of light left to get back to the refuge. To make sure they’re not followed.
There’s a peacekeeper for each of the truck cabs, and firepower in the half-tracks too. They’ll be okay if they have to be out after dark, Jarrod tells himself. Though truth be told, he’d rather be riding in one of the armoured vehicles than in the bouncing thin-skins. The four-by-fours are an old legacy, Olivia tells him. Francois is a traditionalist.
The engines are muffled. They run quiet. Windows cracked, eyes open. Jarrod sits in the back of the second Cruiser. There’s a half-track behind him. The other fronts the convoy. Flags taken down. No need to attract undue attention with colour and movement. Apparently the white is harder to see in the daylight. Something about their eyes. Something about processing bright tones.
For the first hour or so, the track is pitted, just a set of old depressions carved into the forest. The trunks are close, and foliage scratches against the flanks. The gunners in the half-tracks duck into their hulls to avoid being swept off their perches, and Jarrod feels exposed. He tries not to stare out of the windows, to see something that isn’t really there.
Don’t be really there.
They hit asphalt. It’s a relief, of sorts. The road widens and a thin strip of light-leaching sky appears between the crowns. The shadows are deepening with the rolling of the miles. The gunners are out of their hatches, back on the mounted weapons, by parts bored and anxious.
The road’s in terrible repair. Roots jut up from underneath and it heaves like waves frozen in a storm. The bush grows thick to its very edge, gnawing at the artificial stone, enclosing the way like a corridor. Like a tunnel. Nobody speaks. With the windows slightly open, they can sometimes hear the birds over the sound of the murmuring engines and the hiss of rubber rolling on tarmac, the crackle of the treads of the armour.
Once, the roadway opens out a little. A natural clearing where a vast tree has slammed across the road. The leading halftrack slows to a halt. Francois’ Land Cruiser draws up alongside. He gets out. Stretches himself nonchalantly. As though this were just a jungle laneway in the Madagascar that once was. He talks with a soldier in the forward vehicle, gesturing with his hands, the only clue to the nature of the conversation.
“What’s going on? Why have we stopped?” Jarrod asks.
Olivia shrugs. She reaches forward, taps the driver- a fair-haired local- on his shoulder and signals for the handset. The teenaged mother watches on, wide-eyed and wordless. The infant is limp in her cradled arms.
“What’s happening?” Olivia asks in English- another protocol hangover.
“Just some disagreement about the route,” drawls the driver from the thin-skin up front.
“Disagreement- are we lost?” asks Jarrod.
“I didn’t see any turn-offs to disagree about. They’re just men. Disagreeing because they like to.”
Olivia casts a glance around them, at the still bush, at the lengthening shadows merging into one.
“Don’t worry,” she says, just a little too cheerfully. “We’re still on track.”
The forest is darker the next time they stop. The sun’s gone behind some hills. The conversation is briefer. Francois is visibly wary when he dismounts.
The third time, he doesn’t get out at all. Just speaks to the soldier through the cracked window. That’s when they turn around.
Back when they could still send things into space, there used to be some global location system. Jarrod’s learnt about it. Like so much of what went on, before. They still have the old HF radio kits for communication. But they won’t get a signal through the trees.
The headlights show the back of the first Cruiser, dirty grey in the wan light. Ahead, the half-track rolls forward, retracing their steps. Above them, the sky is now just a lighter strip between the jagged black tips of the firs. Every now and again, Jarrod can see the passenger in the back seat of the Cruiser- a Malawian named Cecil- turn around and stare back at them. His face reads little expression, but his eyes are oddly round in the artificial light.
Jarrod can feel his heartbeat.
The sensation is a frustrating one. He wants to be back at the Fort. Wants to be off the road, away from the trunks that hem them in, wants to be safe. Their wellbeing now lies in the hands of other people. Entirely. Somebody else’s decisions and somebody else’s mistakes. He’s trusted Francois, but now the old aid veteran seems to have let them down. They’re rolling through the forest in the dark, somewhere they shouldn’t be, and the brittle silence tells him that everybody knows it. His mouth is dry and he can feel the perspiration making his back clammy where he rests against the seat. He’s twitchy.
The birdsong is a clamour of ecstasy outside, the dying chorus before nightfall. Right now, it’s so loud it masks even the passage of the four vehicles. When it fades, there will be quiet. They will lose one more sense, one more early warning. And in the crisp forest air, the sound of their passing will carry.
The avian chatter fades with the last of the light. The indigo of the sky, now barely discernable from the black trees, shows there’s no moon out tonight.
“Shut the windows,” Olivia says. Her voice is soft, a deep bass rumble all but lost in the hum of the suppressed motor. She doesn’t look around as she says it. In the rear seat, Jarrod snaps his windows shut.
Nothing to hear now anyway.
An eye on the road, the driver reaches forward and pops open the glove box. When his hand returns, it’s gripping a pistol which he lays on the consul behind the gear stick.
“Where did you get that?” Olivia chides him. “You’re not supposed to have a weapon!”
The driver snorts. “You people don’t carry guns, that’s your choice. Me, I figure y’all’re stupid.”
“We never carry guns,” Olivia tells him, tells the world in general. “It’s not how we do things. We’re here to help.”
“Them Lyssa-ites, whatever you call ‘em, they don’t care if you carry guns or not. Y’all taste the same to them. But tell you what, ma’am, I ever get done with mine, you’re welcome to pick it up and use it yourself, no hard feelings, ‘k?”
Olivia sniffs and the driver focuses his attention on the road outside.
A loud smack echoes through the cabin and Jarrod jumps, but it’s just a branch bouncing off the roof. He gets that they don’t carry guns. Gets that they’re humanitarians, that they don’t want to frighten the survivors, don’t want to risk starting a fight. He gets that killing isn’t what they do.
But right now, with the darkness outside and the light from the last half-track illuminating him through the windows of the thin-skin like he’s in some shop-front display, and a crushing sense that they’ve lost the Fort which makes it hard to breathe, Jarrod really, really wants a gun.
“Olivia,” he says, “What exactly is it that-”
Something flashes out of the forest and they hear the metal clang as it slams into the flank of the first thin-skin, an impact so fierce that they see the lights rock from side to side. There’s time for the driver to stamp the brake. Olivia gives a squeak as she catches her breath. Jarrod feels a disorientating prickling sensation down his head as the blood flees from the skin of his face.
The vehicles stop. There’s a brief moment of silence. Nobody moves. Shadows crawl as the foremost half-track continues to roll ahead.
“Dear Jesus,” the young mother whispers, clutching her arms around her starved child.
Then Olivia screams “Go! Go! Go!” and suddenly the forest is moving, pouring in on them, and like magnets to a chunk of iron they can see shapes tumbling, tearing out of the treeline, slamming into the Land Cruiser in front of them, five, six, seven, eight of them, at full tilt and still coming. The driver kills the lights and throws the engine into reverse with a grinding of gears and a scrambling of tires on the rough asphalt, and Jarrod sees the fading image of the creatures hanging off Francois’ vehicle, scrabbling at the metal, pounding at the glass, imprinted on the soft tissue of his retina.
Their flight is short-lived as they slam with a jolt into the half-track behind them. The mother wails. The driver is cursing, swearing, fumbling for his gun. Something barrels into the vehicle and rocks it hard on its suspension. They hear the faint sound of shattering glass. The engine stalls. They’re struck again, and then again. Then with a pop, a window bursts inwards and cold night floods in.
“GET OUT!” Olivia howls.
They’re shrieking as they come now, like the wail of a kettle boiling on a gas stove, and the snarl of a cornered hound, and the screams of a cat slowly being crushed in heavy machinery. It’s ear-splitting. Paralyzing. Jarrod wants to be sick.
The gun on the half-track opens up. Jarrod sees lines of tracer walking off into the forest, and by the flash of the muzzle can see more of the distortions pouring forward, arms flailing, fingers hooked and nails clawing. The driver has his gun, fires two rounds through his window before hands seize him and haul him screaming into the darkness, pistol and all. In the blinking strobe of the machine-gun, Jarrod can see the rear doors of the Land Cruiser in front of them have been sheared off, and the dark shapes are crawling over one another in a frenzy to fit inside, crammed like meat in a sausage press. The vehicle is rocking from side to side, but if the occupants within are crying out, their voices are drowned by the howl of the once-were-humans.
They’re crawling in through the shattered front window. Olivia kicks out with her boots. In the headlights of the half-track, Jarrod catches a glimpse of grey flesh, raw putrecense, of a gnarled hand with broken, clawing digits and darkened with fresh fluids. Then he can feel rounds punching into the seething mob outside, the visceral sound of soft meat giving before fast, hot metal. A bullet smashes through the back window, and he’s shaken from his stunned trance, coiled as he’s been on the back bench.
“Come on,” he urges, looking behind him. The mindless creatures are still pawing at the front window. The back is clear. He reaches for the frail infant. “Give her to me.”
The young girl stares at him, eyes already blurry with tears, and hesitates.
“Now!” Jarrod yells. Olivia’s grunting, lashing out with her feet as fingers scrabble for a prise on her legs from the front seat. The girl passes the child over, and Jarrod tucks her under one arm, reaches for the back door, and shoves it open.
“Follow me!” he yells, not turning to see if the young mother is with him. For the briefest moment, he knows he’s done something terribly, terribly stupid. He’s alone. It’s dark. They’re everywhere. The thunder of the machine-gun is ear-splitting, and the little girl in his arms, light and spindly as she is, begins to cackle an ugly cry. Then he’s reaching for the railing on the side of the half-track, just a few paces behind, and yelling to be heard above the roar of the weapon as he realises he has only one hand to climb.
Something seizes him out of the darkness. He spins, crying out, but it’s the young mother. She’s tumbled out behind him and is trying to rip the child out of his arms.
“No! Climb! I’ll pass her up to you.”
He looks. Olivia is crawling frantically over the back seats of the Land Cruiser, reaching for the exit. Jarrod can see shadows behind her, a writhing bush of limbs in the splintered light. He can see her face, twisted with more terror than he’s ever seen in human expression before. Then a silhouette darts between them, and in that moment, they both know.
“My baby!” the girl cries out. She’s scrambled onto the hood of the half-track, ducking beneath the lance of flame as the gunner puts out burst after burst into the horde of creatures. Jarrod reaches the child up, and as he does so hears a scream from Olivia. It’s defiant, a war-cry as she fights back, kicking and scratching, and for the briefest moment, Jarrod’s filled with the sense that he can cross back to her, fight them off with her, seize her and drag her to safety. But he doesn’t move. Because he knows its a sick fantasy. And then her screams change, and grow gutteral, animal, and he can hear the snap and tear of shredding flesh beneath her shrieks.
The roar of automatic fire splits into his mind, deafening, agonizing, and his first thought is to scream at the thoughtless gunner who’s fired so close to his head. When he stumbles out of his flinch he sees one of the shapes staggering away just paces from him, head cleaved open by a well-placed round.
“Get up here you stupid mzungu!” yells a voice. He leaps at the railing and hauls himself up onto the armoured vehicle, and feels clawed hands slapping at the metal his body had been in contact with just an instant before. The yowling is all around them. The young mother is still crouched on the hood, cowering beneath the spear of fire put out by the machine-gun.
Jarrod clambers up to the hatch in the roof and sees a dim light glowing from the hull within. He wants to weep. Wants to throw himself down. But he turns instead, reaching out a hand to the young mother. As he does, a shape hurtles out of the night behind him, and he hears a grunt from the gunner, and then a howl of pain. A sea of darkness surges around the vehicle’s nose.
“MOVE!” he yells, reaching again for the child.
The girl looks at him from where she cowers. She hesitates. Her eyes are pale and round, lips trembling, body rigid. Jarrod can hear the struggle taking place just behind him on the roof but he doesn’t take his eyes from hers.
“Come on,” he urges through clenched teeth, as much to himself as to her. “Come on.”
Gingerly, almost timidly, she stretches her arms and passes the child to Jarrod. Jarrod seizes the little girl and pulls her tightly to him. He half-turns to slide into the hatch, and the girl straightens where she stands, finally finding her determination to move, and claws seize her ankles from below. She gives a prolonged wail and plunges backwards into the void. When Jarrod turns back, he’s in time to see her pale form disappear beneath a mob of writhing shadows on the asphalt, frenetic in their excitement as they mob over the quivering flesh.
He leaps down the hatch and lands heavily, rolling.
There’s a loud clang as the hatch is bolted shut, competing with the whine of dancing stars that fills his head. When he sits up, he’s aware that he managed to shield the infant in his arms as he rolled, and that he’s staring into the muzzle of a large handgun.
“Where are you cut? Where are you cut?”
The massive Haitian peacekeeper holding the pistol is bellowing at him, and Jarrod balls up around the infant. He’s aware of a second uniform struggling with a bulky shape down the gunner’s well, of moaning, of the hammering of flesh and bone against the armoured hull.
“I…” Jarrod stammers. The second hatch slams shut, and the sounds of howling diminish slightly. He can feel the vehicle rocking in the frenzy of the physical assault, tipping on its suspension. He glances inadvertantly over at the second soldier, crouched over the gunner and shaking him.
“Are you bleeding?” the Haitian roars, and Jarrod’s focus is back on the ring of darkness that is the muzzle of the gun.
“I’m not hurt. I’m not hurt!”
He holds up one hand to show his extremities, then shifts the infant and waves the other. He lifts the little girl. Her oversized head, more skull than face, lolls, but she is unblooded.
The Haitian spins from Jarrod and looks to his comrades. The gunner who has been dragged back inside the half-track is lying curled and twitching, his face and torso riven by tear-marks and gashes. He’s whimpering. When his hands come away from his face briefly, Jarrod can see one of his eyes has been gouged out.
The Haitian gives a tremulous sigh. The other soldier is a Dominican. He’s breathing hard, the exhileration of terror.
“Step back,” the Haitian says.
“Please,” his companion replies.
“It’s the only way. You know it is.”
The Dominican closes his eyes and turns his face away. The maimed gunner senses what’s going on and flinches. His blood is red, his palms are pink, but beyond that Jarrod has no idea what his background might be. The stricken soldier raises one hand to shield himself, and the Haitian squeezes the trigger. A roar pressurizes the tiny cabin, plugging ears already ringing from the thunder of the machine-gun. The contents of the gunner’s head splash thickly onto the metal hull and his arm drops, instantly limp. Wedged as he is in the corner, his body absorbs any ricocheting fragments. Red blood drains out of his skull, and the two peacekeepers avoid it superstitiously.
For a while they sit there in silence. The Haitian is sweating, beads standing out on his dark skin, his eyes wide and pale in the dim light cast by the instruments board. The Dominican is weeping softly, staring at his dead companion but not touching him, save to periodically pat at his booted ankle. Bodies continue to slam against the hull outside. The shrieking does not abate, but it’s somewhat muffled by the thick metal. The infant is putting up its frail, crackling mewl, and does not appear to be the least bit assauged by the rocking of the truck on its suspension.
“We’re not moving,” Jarrod says.
“Your driver punched a hole in the motor when he slammed back into us. The towbar was welded to the chassis.”
The Haitian falls silent, staring blankly at the interior flank. Something scrabbles at the slits at the front of the cab, hissing through the narrow gap at the prey it can sense inside. The air outside is cool, but it’s muggy in the claustrophobic half-track.
“So what do we do now?”
A fresh wave of impacts slamms against one side, jolting Jarrod forward where he sits cross-legged on the floor. He counts five or six, hard, with purpose.
“They’ll come for us, right?”
The Haitian says nothing. Just stares. Jarrod turns to the grieving Dominican, who senses Jarrod’s stare.
“Sure. Of course.” The Dominican tries on a smile, but it comes out more as a grimace.
The creature on the hood is still hissing, a wet, gutteral sound that gurgles at points, growls at others. By the faint interior light, Jarrod can see it’s peering inside. An eyeball, distended and grey-green in colour, is staring back, rolling with fervour. A snapping, snarling sound renews as it recognizes what it cannot yet reach. Filthy digits reach in, two of them snapped, bone exposed, and scratch for purchase against the metal interior.
“Zonbi,” the Haitian mutters, then crosses himself and looks away. He takes the pistol and drops out the magazine, checking the rounds before slamming it home again. He glances back at the creature still trying to find a way through the impossibly narrow slits, and Jarrod can see the man thinking about it.
“How many do you have?”
The Haitian shrugs. “Not enough.” Then he shares a look with the Dominican and adds, “But enough.”
There’s a rattling outside. Something, maybe several somethings, pawing at the exterior handles.
“What are they doing?” Jarrod asks, rocking the young child awkwardly in an effort to keep her calm.
“Trying to find a way in, of course.”
“I thought they couldn’t think.”
Another shrug. “Lyssa desolates the cerebrum. Pieces of cerebellum and spinal column remain intact, enough to support life. Who knows what else?”
“I was told…”
“You were told what they thought you wanted to know in order to accept the assignment,” the Haitian says curtly, and doesn’t elaborate.
There’s a renewed scrabbling outside. A fierce shaking. The beast at the window has been joined by a second. This one has four fingers all chewed fleshless, the bones gnawed into sharpened points like a claw, like four tiny sculpted daggers. The fingers explore the slit. Then the creature retreats. A short while later, when Jarrod hears a tapping sound on the roof, he imagines those same jagged bone-tips exploring for weakness.
The Haitian crosses himself again. The front of his uniform is drenched in a deep ‘V’ of perspiration, although the air that seeps into the hull is cool. With each fresh hammering of bodies against the half-track his eyes widen and roll, and a pink tongue rolls out to lick his top lip of moisture.
He’s fiddling with the gun. He and the Dominican are sharing more glances. Jarrod tries to focus on the little girl.
“What about her?” the Haitian mutters. The other shakes his head.
“No way I’m going to God with that on my conscience.”
“It would be a mercy.”
“Will she even know about it? She’s so small. She looks half-dead anyway.”
“They wouldn’t care. They’d crunch her like a chicken. She still feels pain.”
Jarrod looks up. “What are you talking about?”
The two fall silent. After a while, Jarrod sees the Haitian is praying. He’s pulled out a crucifix that shares a chain with two dog-tags, kissing it then pressing it to his forehead. Then he looks up and says,
“My home has gone. I’ve always known I wasn’t going to die there. But I hoped I would at least be with my family. That’s my home now.”
Jarrod can feel the accusation. He listens to the howling, roaring mob outside. The metallic tang of blood mixed with the death-stench of spilt bowels. Feels the cold metal beneath him, shaking with the unrelenting impacts. Remembers the glaze of a tropical sun on the harbour, and the scent of spices and woodsmoke in the Old Quarter, and the spiralling eddies of hot wind worrying garbage ahead of a summer downpour.
This place was never my home, he wants to scream out.
Instead, he strokes the child’s head and says gently to her unknowing face, “But we’re not going to die here, are we.”
* * * * *
Aaand, if you read this far- congratulations! I haven’t titled this story, because I suck at titles, but if you’ve got any good suggestions, stick ‘em in the comments section below and if I like one, I’ll credit you with it!