Chapter 01: Trying to live a normal life
"Can I come with you today?" Erin appears in the doorway as I pull my arms through my jacket. The morning light that filters through the window hits her red hair, making her long, wavy locks look like flames. Her hair comes from our mother's side of the family. Her brown eyes come from Dad's.
I sigh as I give the jacket a little tug. It's a little small, but it's all I have. The fact that it's leather doesn't help, as it doesn't stretch the way my sister's cotton one does. At least she'll be able to wear that for a while longer. Pretty soon I'll have to go without my thinnest form of protection.
As I adjust the cuffs, I look at her, "Get your coat on. It's a bit chilly out."
She scrambles to get her shoes and coat, as I pick up the shot gun, open the door and walk out.
It's still dark outside, and I wasn't lying when I said it was chilly, though I would make my sister wear her coat regardless of the weather and temperature. It's late September, and compared to the scorching summer we had, the cold isn't welcoming. The cool air creates Goosebumps across the skin that's not hidden underneath the layers of fabric. I sling the gun over my shoulder, rubbing my hands together to warm them up.
"Tharin," Erin throws open the door. I turn to see her shut it softly, careful not to wake my mother just yet. She runs towards me, her old sneakers throwing dirt up into the air. "Tharin, wait up."
"I'm waiting, don't worry," I let out a slow breath, almost expecting it to appear white the way it does in winter. But it doesn't. Stop being a pussy, I tell myself. It's a little nippy. Nothing you can't handle.
As she reaches my side, I glance around. In front of us is the driveway –the gate at the end is the first stop I need to make. Behind the house is the barn, chicken coop and stables. Beyond that are the fields.
I shove my hands in my pocket as the two of us stroll down along the gravel way. Neither of us say a word as I kneel down, double checking the strength of the lock, and the sturdiness of the gate itself. There's enough light coming up over the trees that I can see what's in front of me. As far as I can tell, the hinges are in great condition, and I have nothing to complain about –though I'm not sure what I could do even if I did. Beside the gate, the wire fence hums –a good sign.
"I –I think mom's getting sick," Erin says at last.
I look at her.
"Not sick… like them. But sick. Like, a cold, or… or something," she looks down at her hands, the way she does when she's worried. "We have antibiotics and asprin, but you and I both know she won't use it."
"If she's not using it, she's fine," I tell her, scanning the tree line. It's quiet out this morning, but I know that they're there. Somewhere. Whether in the forest or at the town that's not even a kilometer away. It's a ten minute walk –but these days it's been deadly.
"I really don't think she is. And I think it's the result of Dad…" Erin trails off, clenching her fists. "Stress and anxiety. I think it's the result of stress and anxiety. Over what happened last week."
Has it only been a week? It feels like a month, even two. But Erin keeps track of the days –I don't. I can't tell whether or not my mother did.
"She'll be fine, Erin," I tell her, before turning and heading back towards the house. She follows silently, keeping pace as we head beyond the farmhouse to the stables. The grass is getting long, but it's not like we can cut it without attracting them. So we put up with it. I haven't seen snakes for ages anyway.
I push the heavy stable door open, and a soft whinny greets the two of us. I turn on the lantern by the door, lifting it high into the air to illuminate the dark corners. Four pairs of eyes reflect the light back at us. Nearest to us is a copper-chestnut mare by the name of Penny.
Handing off the lantern to Erin, I approach Penny. I slip the gun off my shoulder and lean it against the wall of her stall, letting the mare press her nose into my neck as a small greeting of sorts. I lay a hand on the side of her face, and her deep eyes gaze back at me as I stroke the length of her nose. She breaths heavily, the harsh air moving my dark hair slightly.
Behind me, Erin moves to feed them. She sets the lantern down on a half-post, moving to open the window on the far side of the stable. She doesn't turn off the lantern though, as there's not enough light to help us see inside the stables. She leaves it there on the post, and grabs the pitchfork. The last two stalls are piles of hay, and she scoops out a pile for each horse.
While Penny and Nikita, my sister's mare, eat, I curry the copper hair. After feeding all four horses, Erin begins to do the same for Nikita.
"This is my favourite part of the day," Erin murmurs. "It's calming, isn't it?"
"Mm," I agree, running my fingers through Penny's hair. I remove my hand and rub my fingers together, letting grains of dirt fall to the ground.
"Just because our lives suck doesn't mean we should let you get all roughed up, eh, Nikita?" Erin whispers to her horse.
I don't say anything. Not that she was speaking to me, but the silence comes so quickly, and I can never really say whether it's good or bad. I used to love just listening to the sounds of nature, but when that's all you really hear, it kinda makes you go insane. There's a part of me that misses being in town and listening to Mrs. Hart arguing with her husband over the nights he spent at the bar. Or Tom and Katie, the youngest kids in town at the age of five, complaining how the older kids are always leaving them out.
It's crazy, isn't it, how so many little details make up your everyday life.
I didn't even know if anybody in town was alive. As the days go on, it was harder to say for sure.
Next door in the chicken coop, the rooster crows, and I look up to the window to see the pale orange light begin to filter into the dusty building. I pick up the pace. I would do a more thorough job later in the day, but I had to hurry to make my rounds.
A while later, I'm leading Penny outside, her saddle laying on her smooth back.
"Are you coming?" I asked Erin, adjusting the strap on the gun as I prepare to climb up.
"I'll finish up here," she tells me. I only nod –she's said what she's needed to, and that's all she wanted to do. I get on Penny's back and continue on on my own.
I head back to the gate, letting Penny walk until we reach the perimeter. Then I lead her into a slow pace as we begin to follow the fence around the property. After brushing the horse, listening to gait is the next calming thing. I pull her to a stop every forty feet to listen for the humming of the fence. It's this electric fence that has kept them out for so long. It just sucks that the fuel for the generator is getting low. It's lasted a long while, considering the only thing it's powering is the fence. We had a few barrels of diesel in the garage for the machines we used on the field. We can't use the machines without attracting a horde, so it's best, really, to use it solely on the generator.
It wouldn't be a problem if the power station hadn't stopped working. I didn't even know if it was because the workers were infected or just because they didn't want to even attempt trying to make it up the hill there. It didn't take a genius to know that the longer the stretch, the more dangerous it was. It's why I didn't want to think about having to go to town for anything. Not for a doctor. Not for more diesel.
But if I did have to go, I would. If it meant protecting my mother and sister.
Penny pauses, and I turn my head, trying to focus my listening on whatever she hears. But whatever it was, it seems as though it doesn't bother her, as she continues into a walk without me pushing her.
"Good girl," I run my fingers through her mane. But she must have heard it again, because she halts, breathing heavily through her nose. She shuffles uncomfortably away from the fence.
Suddenly, something sprang from the forest, leaping at us and hitting the electrical fence. The fence starts clicking as I swing the gun around, switch the safety off and pull the trigger. The shot rings through the surrounding forest, and I wince at the sound. But it has the effect that I want. The thing that had attacked falls away from the fence, and after the fence singes the dead skin and blood off, it goes back to its humming. I sit there for a few minutes, catching my breath. No matter how many times it happens, it still seems to catch me off guard.
I didn't have to look closely at the body to know it was one of them. A zombie.
No one's quite sure how it happened; only that it was too late to do anything about. Was it like the movies? A science experiment gone wrong? Or was "heaven too full?" Perhaps it was the beginning of biological warfare.
It doesn't matter what began it though, not in the long run. All that mattered was that our once peaceful town was overcome with danger and fear. There was no telling who was alive or who had… who had turned.
I'm scared of the day when the one I have to shoot turns out to be Dad.
"Tharin?!" Erin is hurrying towards me on her horse. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," I tell her, resting the gun on my lap. Penny lets out another deep breath as she shuffles nervously.
"The gunshot," she begins, pulling Nikita to a stop.
"I got it," I glance at her.
She slides of her horse, nearing the fence to get a better look. "Right through the head. Your aim is great."
"I can't waste bullets," is all I say. I set off into a pace again. "Go home –the chickens need to fed, the cows need to be milked. Once I finish up, I'll come help."
She didn't say anything, and I didn't look back. But the rest of the perimeter check goes on without a hitch, and when I get back, Mom's out there, scattering kernels of corn, her hair gleaming in the sunlight. For a moment, I almost mistake her as my sister, but she turns when I approach, and the difference becomes clear with the light wrinkles etched there on her face.
"Morning," she watches as I hop off Penny, tossing another handful as I draw near. I stand almost a foot taller than her, and when I kiss her forehead, I do notice that she has a fever. It's high, too. I can see perspiration beginning to appear on her brow.
"Feeling okay?" I ask her. There's a flash of bright orange, and I glance up at Erin as she appears in the doorway of the chicken coop. She has a basket in her hands, and I'm quick to realize that she's gathering eggs. There's a look on her face that shows how deep her concern is.
"I'm fine," my mother replies, waving me off with a laugh. She catches sight of my face and looks warmly up at me, "I'm serious. It's a small cold. It'll pass quickly."
"You should be inside resting," I tell her. "It's chilly out here. Come on, I'll start the fireplace –"
"Tharin Joseph Hunter," Mom tosses another handful of corn to the chickens, who cluck their joy as they hunt it down amongst the long grass. "If your mother tells you that she is fine, you will take her at her word, do you hear me?"
"As soon as the animals are cared for, we're getting you medicine and I'll cook you some soup over the fire," I stand my ground.
"Get out of here," she pushes me towards the barn. Penny's fine on her own. Later I'll put her in the field with the other horses.
Erin and I exchange glances as I head towards the broad building. Erin's already been inside –the windows are open, and sunlight is streaming in. I grab a bucket and head over to the nearest cow. There's already a stool there, but I'm not surprised. Erin's great for preparing ahead. I sit down, pat the side of cow, then reach for the teats.
With everything that had been going on lately, it wasn't surprising that the amount of milk being produced seems to be less and less as the days go on. Erin and Mom groom them, take care of their udders –but I'm pretty sure they still feel the tension and stress in the air. It definitely had an effect on them.
I finish the first cow and move on to the second. The bucket's not full yet, so I just move it under the other cow. I've just started to milk her when my sister calls frantically –"Tharin!"
She appears in the open door, as I move the bucket out of kicking distance and stand up, wiping my hands on my jeans as I follow Erin out of the barn.
"It's Mom –she fainted," Erin's breathing is quick and panicked. I can see tears beginning to rise in her eyes. I follow her around to the far side of the chicken coop, hurrying to my mother's body sprawled on the ground.
"Mom?" I place a hand to her cheek.
Her eyes flutter, but she doesn't respond. I lift her up, putting one of her arms around my shoulder and my hand on her waist. Erin gets her other side, and together we carry her towards the house. We enter through the back door, arriving in the kitchen.
"I got her," I tell Erin. "Get the anti-biotics and a thermometer. You might have to go and use the water pump and fill a bucket."
"On it," she says, dipping out from under Mom's other arm and heading for the cupboards.
I carry mom into the hallway, heading down the hall towards the living room. Without electricity to warm and light the house, we'd all been living on the first floor, trying to make things work for us as much as possible. I lay her down on the couch, grabbing the blanket and covering her completely. I feel her head again. She's burning up so badly.
"I told you to rest," I murmur, pressing her hand against my lips.
"And I… told you I was fine," she murmurs weakly, her eyes fluttering open.
"You're not fine," I tell her. She doesn't respond. I brush a hand against her cheek.
"Here," Erin hurries in, almost dumping the bucket of water.
"Careful," I get up, meeting her halfway and taking the bucket from her. "Ah, could you also fill a glass of water and get one of the cloths from the clothesline?"
"Yeah," she places the antibiotics and thermometer down on the table and leaves again.
I place the bucket beside the couch, then grab the thermometer. I turn it on, and then slip it into Mom's mouth, sticking it under her tongue.
I didn't think she was turning into one of them, but this was definitely more than the common cold.
When the outbreak in town happened a little over a month ago, I was there. So was Erin. We'd both gone into town to get small items for dinner from the general store when sirens were heard outside. We'd finished buying our things, and had just been talking to the owner –Mike Pure –and trying to get a word out of Taylor. She was one of those really quiet girls, but we've known each other since we were children.
But when the sirens went off, we all stopped.
"I'm sure it's nothing," Mike reassured us. "Probably ol' Matt fell down his porch steps again."
We all laughed, but it was natural to feel a little worried. In a town as tight knit as ours, it was startling whenever someone passed away. It hit the entire town hard when it did happen, whether it was of natural causes or accidents. We hadn't a clue that we'd lose half the population in less than twenty-four hours.
After that, all I really remember is hearing the police demanding everybody go home, lock their doors and not let anyone in –no matter how well we knew them.
I haven't seen anyone since then. We tried calling others, of course, but no one, at the time, really seemed to know what was going on. And then the phone's stopped working, probably two weeks before Dad tried heading into town… It's… aggravating, in some ways. Frustrating, especially since if any of them showed up at my door, bloody and ragged, I would want to help them. It hurt to even think about having to turn them away, or put a bullet through their head.
Live or die –it seemed simple. And maybe it would have been, had the world been unchanging. But I could honestly say that this was no longer the town I grew up in.
After all, who could recognize a town bathed in red?