Society officially ceased to exist on August 26, 2016. More specifically it was at 3:12pm EST. That was the exact moment the Emergency Broadcast, originating in a bunker deep beneath The White House, went off the air.
For most of the country, for most of the rest of the world, the very idea of society was already a memory.
Darrien Edison remembered waking up early to go to work. He also remembered hating it. Now that he was able to sleep in, he rarely did. The sun’s glare through his tent’s roof made it a near impossibility. He stretched inside his sleeping bag, then played with himself for a moment. Satisfied, he wriggled out of his bag, unzipped the front flap on his tent and stepped out into the world.
HIs tent sat upon a grassy hill, just outside of a small tent city. There were about 20 families in those tents, all races and creeds. None of that seemed to matter any more. The tents stretched for a quarter-mile, with a large open space in what was more or less the center. A tarp lay on the ground in the clearing, its center concave. Darrien knew that beneath that tarp was a stash of weapons, all of them close range. Firearms were forbidden in Camp City, as the children called it. On all sides of Camp City was a thick forest.
In a past life, this had been a city park. There were probably picnic tables scattered around, barbecue pits here and there. None of that remained now. It was a park, then it was a militia command center. All the tables were broken apart and burned for heat. The barbecue pits dismantled and used to build walls, weapons. There was nothing here that called to the old world, gone now for almost 14 months. Except for the children.
There were 4 small children in the city, young enough to not have their spirits crushed. They were running around now, even at this early hour, going from tent to tent, trying to wake the adults. For them it was playtime. Darrien almost smiled.
“Ahem.” The sudden noise startled Darrien. He jumped and spun around, preparing to defend his life. He was relieved to see it was Teddy Holmes. “Good morning, Darrien.”
Teddy’s voice was the voice of a life long smoker on their deathbed. It was grating to Darrien, and it didn’t help at all that his opinion of Teddy as a person was very low. “What do you want, Teddy?”
“Night watch spotted one, about 1/2 a klik East. You’re on call for the day.” Teddy fancied himself a bit of a military commander. He hadn’t served a day in his life, escaping the draft by traveling to the UK for law school. Teddy was also the only adult without a kill to his name. “So put some pants on and we’ll go get this bastard.”
They walked side by side through the camp. Darrien was a full head taller than the old man, and lacked the old man’s gut. He had a lean, strong body, one born out of a lifetime of vanity, but that was the old life. Darrien spent the last year in a world where any moment could be your last. The creatures that stalked them, like the one in the woods, didn’t care how many push-ups he could do. During the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Army set up training camps across the country. Here they taught ordinary citizens how to defend themselves, how to track, how to fight. There was no pretense made that the threat was going away anytime soon.
Darrien excelled at the training, in the last weeks he even ended up teaching some classes on survival. He was built for this new world, with a kill count in the hundreds. Teddy, on the other hand, was soft and weak. No doubt he’d survived this long the same way the children had, by clinging to the strong. Darrien had almost no respect for him. He did, however, respect Teddy’s knack for bluntness.
They entered the center of Camp City and stood over the tarp. Teddy crossed himself and pulled it back. The hole underneath was 4 feet deep and 4 feet around. An array of weapons stood on end, each one tied to a stick which was stuck in the dirt. They chose their weapons, Darrien taking a machete, Teddy an aluminum bat. “So,” Teddy said as he untied his bat, “How much longer are you staying?”
“Don’t be. I understand, it’s who you are.”
“Who said I’m leaving?”
Teddy huffed and puffed as he climbed out of the hole. Definitely not built for this world, Darrien thought. “No one has said it, yet. But I can see it on you. You haven’t tried to make a single friend here in the month you’ve been with us. I figure you’re just passing through,” Teddy motioned with his arms toward the woods to the East of Camp City.
Darrien just nodded, heading off in the direction of the creature sighting. They moved through the woods without a word. Darrien’s senses tuned to any change in their surroundings. The trees here were thick, the canopy above blocking out much of the light. Teddy’s feet crunched on a blanket of dead leaves, his breath heavy in Darrien’s ear. Darrien moved without a sound. They were 2 minutes in when the hairs on his neck began to stand on end, he picked up the unmistakable stench of decay that all predators brought with them.
Teddy’s footsteps continued to thunder behind him, loud as a herd of elephants, when Darrien realized he couldn’t hear any noise beside Teddy. The birds had stopped chirping, frogs stopped leaping from one crunchy spot to another. The animals sensed the danger. Then Teddy’s footsteps stopped.
Darrien turned his hips, sliding his feet along the ground, to face Teddy. The old man was standing still, his bat held at the ready in two, white-knuckled hands. Sweat and tears ran down his creased face, beading up in his grey beard. In complete silence, Darrien moved to the right. Now he could see it, coming up behind Teddy. It was huge, well over 6 feet tall, its shoulders wide, and its arms heavily muscled despite the decay. No hair remained on its head, and the tatters of clothes from a past life hung from its arms, hips and legs. The eyes were dead, blackened, its skin a lifeless grey. In its mouth was a row of razor-sharp teeth, strong enough to bite clean through bone, a product of its transformation. The hands ended in long, sickle-shaped claws.
Careful not to make any noise, Darrien took advantage of the fact that it seemed to be focused on Teddy, to circle around and come up behind it. The stench this close up was almost unbearable, his eye watered as he choked back a gag reflex. He brought the machete up over his head, holding the handle tight with two hands. The blade whistled as it swung on its arc toward the creature’s head. Darrien had done this a hundred times or more. He knew what would happen before it did: the blade would split the head open, spilling out a mess of grey brain matter and blackened blood. Only this time the creature moved at the last moment.
The blade missed its mark, sliding down the side of the creature’s head and taking off its ear before planting itself in the shoulder. The need for stealth had passed, so Darrien yelled out to Teddy, “Teddy, you son of a bitch, help me!”
Teddy did not move, the creature continued to move forward. Darrien pulled hard on his machete’s handle, to no avail. The creature grunted and looked over its shoulder at him, roared and continued its slow march toward Teddy. The gap between them now was small enough that the creature could reach out and touch Teddy with its sickle-claw.
“Teddy, you dumb old bastard! You’re going to die and you deserve it!” Darrien pulled again on the handle, his fingers slipping free. He stumbled backward, caught himself on a tree trunk. He regained his balance and rushed forward, no plan in his head other than to tackle the creature. A primal scream echoed through the woods. The children at Camp City heard it, some began to cry, others began to cheer. Teddy spun on his heel, his face red, and wet with tears, and swung his bat at the creature’s head.
The creature’s head caved with a sickening crunch. It’s large body fell to the ground without so much as a twitch. Teddy stood over it and began to pummel what remained of the skull with his bat, thick, black ooze flying in all directions. Darrien stumbled to a stop and grabbed Teddy’s shoulders, dragging him away from the body. “You got him, Teddy. Its dead!” The old man threw his bat on the ground and took a swing at Darrien, who easily avoided it.
“Fuck you, Darrien. I do not deserve to die!”
“No, you’re right. But you will unless you start fighting.”
Teddy started to speak, but lost his words in a flood of blubbery sobs. “I’m not a killer!” He finally managed to speak after he finished crying. Darrien stood by his side, keeping an eye out for anyone else from camp. He knew no one was coming, that was the rule. You don’t go back for anyone, you don’t be a hero. Those are good ways to get dead. Still, he didn’t want anyone to see Teddy like this.
“C’mon, Teddy. Let’s go back. You can regale everyone with the story of your kill.” The 2 men made their way back to what was now home.
“You never answered my question: when are you planning on leaving?”
“Today, before breakfast.”
Teddy stopped in his tracks. “You can’t just leave like that.”
“Why not? You said it yourself, I haven’t made any friends here.”
Teddy still didn’t move, except to nervously wring his hands. “Yeah, but you’re the best survivalist we’ve met. You’re a warrior, a soldier. We don’t have many of those here.”
Darrien walked over to the old man, placing a hand on his shoulder, “And is that the only reason you all want me to stay? To be your soldier?”
Teddy didn’t answer. He stared at his feet for a moment, then began walking again. From the camp they could both smell the fire, breakfast was under way. They reached the edge of camp and split up. Teddy moved West, toward the fire, toward undercooked eggs and grilled fruit. Darrien went back to his tent. He packed up his few belongings: a sleeping bag, pocket knife, jacket, and hidden beneath his pillow, a Beretta 92SF pistol. He stuffed this last item into the back of his pants and headed off into the woods, in the direction he knew would take him to the highway.