When she first began to feel the infection stirring inside her it was a confusing time. She was traveling with a small group by then, banded together on what had become the seemingly endless quest for food.
The feeling was unsettling. She felt a throb inside herself. Faintly – always faintly – like a branch knocking on a hollow log somewhere off aways on a windy night. The kind of sound on the dim edge of everything that you don’t always know you’re hearing, but you are.
She began to lag behind the others, shuffling through the forests and the long grass in their tracks, not letting any come too close when they occasionally stopped to consider where they might head next. Food was getting harder to find.
Then luck: they came upon a woodland larder, and there was meat there still, hidden away. There hadn’t been meat for a long time. They stuffed themselves and laughed, patting their swollen bellies afterward, sitting in the cold and the dank with shreds and sinews visible between their teeth, and the juice still on their fingertips and the fat on their lips.
Her belly felt good then, sated and settled, with the cause of its distension obvious.
When the others rose to move on, she was slow to follow. She pulled back the dirt-smeared sleeve of her blouse.
There, on her skinny forearm, the fading of the reddened bite.
Sometimes she dozed as she walked and, later, after they’d feasted, she came to from such a buzz-filled slumber, bleary-eyed, with a grunt, feeling the heaviness in her belly again – only now it felt wrong, like the meat she’d eaten had been spoiled, though she knew it couldn’t have been, fresh as they’d found it. For a moment she just wanted to stop and claw at her stomach and throat, to disgorge all that was swelling inside her, rip her own self open and let all spill out.
Just then though the man whose meat they’d taken caught up with them and there was fighting. Some of her party fell, and others fell upon the screaming man.
She ran, through the thicket and the brambles and the gloom of the woods, and, when she stopped, the heaviness was almost unbearable and the throb was there for sure, no longer faint, but all consuming, undeniable.
She no longer felt any pain from his bite, of course – felt hardly anything at all, in fact – but she remembered the pain of it and this new thing was much, much worse. It was more than a pain. It was a wrongness. A parasite inside her, sucking her dry. A knife against all that was soft.
Too dry to cry, she stood with her forehead against the trunk of a tree and snotty drool oozed from her nostrils and her panties grew sodden and wet beneath her torn dress.
She needed a place to hole up in.
Finding the building was another bit of good fortune. She saw it around sunrise and staggered up to it, heedless, not caring if it was occupied already, if there was lurking danger there. She heaved its door open and limped inside: crashing to her hands and knees and hearing something crunch; crawling to the mattress that lay half-on and half-off a bed-frame in a corner that the mealy light of morning didn’t reach and covering herself over with a stained and stiffened sheet.
Her veins burned, her eyes saw only amber.
Her body began to spasm.
When the pain grew too great she remembered things. The glow-box and its pictures and words. Something about… what? The end of the world?
She’d seen one in the shopping mall.
And she remembered the boy, of course.
The boy who had penetrated her and put this poison inside.
He’d meant to keep her safe. Thought her precious. And she dreamt of the time he’d come back from foraging in the chaos, gray-faced and ashen, with meat meat to penetrate her again.
It was sweet to remember him above her at first, but then she remembered the teeth and the pain of it fused with the pain of the parasite, the infection, that had been draining all of her vitality for so long now and so she woke.
Another creature had attached itself to her during her fugue. Some small, damp thing, so pale it was almost blue, smeared with a slick burgundy glaze. It had two tongues – one to squeal and screech with, and one winding out from its stomach to her, to the place of her pain.
She reached down to it and poked its rubbery belly with a nail-less finger.
It was meat.
And, though she hungered; though – more than anything – she knew her purpose was to bash the life out of such things as this and gorge on all its sweetness, she did nothing more than tear the looping gray band of flesh connecting them from its belly and from herself and it was that which she lifted to her lips: it was that which put a pause in the war raging between the two opposing instincts within her.
She tore at the gristly ribbon with her teeth. She gnawed it.
The meat continued to wail.
What she would do when she was done with the cold scrap she didn’t know.
There was a kerfuffle at the doorway.
She looked up and saw meat with a boom-stick.
He looked at her and then at the small meat.
She looked at the small meat and then at him.
She got up slowly, to give him a chance, and moved into the thunder.
Once upon a time the man with the rifle would have covered his son’s eyes from such a sight as this. Now he just lowered his gun a little and gave his boy’s gaunt face a fleeting look to make sure he was alright.
The boy hustled forward to see if the sound that had brought them here was really what they’d though it was. He saw the scene inside, swallowed as though he had bile in his mouth, and then looked up at his father with his dark eyes and asked in a croaking voice:
“Jesus, dad – can zombies have babies?”
Who the hell knew the answer to such a question?
The man lifted the rifle again to scope out the chalet’s dark corners, but it looked like she’d been alone. Without turning around he said:
“Go stand by that water-pump. Keep an eye on them woods. You see anything, you holler and come running.”
“What will we – ?”
“Just do as I say.”
He waited ‘til the boy was out of earshot and went in.
Papers on a desk by the window. A couple of suitcases packed for a weekend away, their contents strewn about and darkly smeared. A few creased and books on the coffee-table that stood beneath a hole in the roof. He picked a couple up – something by a ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’; something else by a spic he’d never heard of – since they’d be good for getting the fire going, and then went and stood by the bed.
He put his dirty backpack down and did his best to tell himself he hadn’t seen what he’d seen: in her dim eyes the vestigial idea that the baby at least had a chance with them.
Such knowledge did one little good when one understood that taking care of your own – always the bottom line, but now that line stood out starkly in the new world disorder – was the most natural instinct of all.
He glanced back to the doorway and called out – “Fetch some water for the big pan!” – before stretching his hand out towards the child.
©2010 SJ Hirons
SJ studied creative writing at the National Academy of Writing and Birmingham City University in the UK. More of SJ Hirons’ short fiction can be found in print in Clockwork Phoenix 3 (Norilana Books), Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction (Elastic Press), 52 Stitches(Strange Publications), Title Goes Here magazine (Issue #1, Fall 2009) and online in A Fly In Amber, Farrago’s Wainscot, Pantechnicon Online and The Absent Willow Review.
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