“It wasn’t supposed to be… This.” -MT 247-39
Chapter one: The messanger
Cleo Tanner perched on the edge of a roof like one of those stone gargoyles you see at the top of banks. The building itself might have been a bank or office building at one time, but now it blended into the landscape with all the others. This building, however, was her favorite place to watch the sunrise over the crumbling ruins of the city. Nestled somewhere in the middle, it afforded her the best vantage point to watch the city light up in the morning sun and avoid all those pesky wanderers down below.
Out here, in the wastes, she felt at peace. A calm stillness soothed the demons of her past, feeling at home within the destruction left behind in the wake of the disease.
The sky took its time turning from the dark indigoes to the deep reds and purples of predawn. A chorus of moans, garbled and lamented through the blood stained lips of the dead, rose up through the streets. The coming morning waking them from their nights rest. They didn’t actually sleep. Not anymore, at least. Something about the cool night air calmed the rage and they became more docile. But docile didn’t mean less dangerous.
The light cascaded rapidly across the decaying ruins, illuminating scars marring the buildings. Black and gray spikes of burnt cement stretched like fingers up the sides of stone structures, slabs of asphalt jutting up into the sky from the blasts decorated in the bones of the first to fall. The government had tried to quell the rapidly spreading disease, but ultimately they failed, taking with them not only the dead, but the survivors who prayed they would be saved.
After the military and government fell, people banded together, deciding to save themselves rather than hope their benefactors would whisk them off to safety. Communities rose from the same simple desire. To survive. People flocked together, erecting walls, planting seeds, rationing food, and nominating a leader. For Carrol, that person was Babel. Even though she hated the position, Babel was the right one for the job.
The satchel at Cleo’s side was laden down with letters of negotiation from Lake port. She didn’t have to read what the letters said to know Babel wouldn’t be happy with the response. Mike was kind and apologetic, but firm in his standing. Their community was nearly twice the size of Carrol and in need of everything they had and more.
For two years Babel had been in communication with the other communities, attempting to open up a trade route between them. Lake port had access to Lake Michigan which meant they had fish and a potential trade route to Wisconsin. Hella’s was a religious community, but they had the muscle and ability to make bullets. And Carrol had all the staples. Artisans, survivalists, crafters, doctors, and farmers.
The horizon blossomed with the rising sun, making the undersides of the clouds golden and inviting. Mornings were Cleo’s favorite in the wastes. It reminded her of simpler times when it was just her and her sister Evin out here. The day Carrol’s people found them, Cleo had thought she lost Evin, finding her on the roof of the house they commandeered nearly four years ago, watching a sunrise.
”It’s going to be a good day.” Evin said.
Cleo’s thumb ran over the place on her arm just below her elbow where a zombie had bitten her. The scar still ached from time to time, reminding her of the sacrifice she was willing to make. Anything to keep Evin safe. Standing on the precipice of death had changed Cleo as much as the bite itself. Being out here, amongst the ruins left behind, she felt safe. Back home, she was simply the messenger, a pariah in the eyes of Carrols people. The one who didn’t change when everyone else did. No volunteers stepped forward to assist her on these runs, but that was fine with Cleo. They didn’t want her, and she certainly didn’t want them.
Home. Cleo thought. It was time to get moving. Evin was expecting her return.
Glancing down into the shadowed early morning streets, she could see a dozen wanderer’s, making their rounds. It was the same group she saw at this corner every time she came through here, having been pinned in years ago when the barricades went up.
Though she was nearly twenty stories up, Cleo knew who was who by the way they moved. Putting them down would have been the smart choice, seeing as how this was a part of the future trade route, but they had grown to be something akin to a welcoming committee. Knowing it was a bad idea, she had given them all names.
In the front was Albert, leading the pack. Followed closely by his lady love, Barbra and her gaggle of hens. A quick count of the rocking heads told Cleo one was missing. Old Gerald wasn’t with the group. Maybe he’d gotten stuck or had finally succumbed to the frailty of his bones and found his final resting place. She knew she shouldn’t care about something that would sooner rip her to shreds, but Gerald’s disappearance concerned her. They were, after all, kin.
Slipping her hands into a pair of worn leather gloves, Cleo leapt off the side of the building, catching a drain pipe on the way down. Darting back and forth between buildings, her fingers caught the edges of window sills or the rungs of a fire escape, propelling her down the side of the building. Swinging her legs, she launched across to grab another pipe, slowing her momentum enough to land with a dull thud on a dumpster.
Hopping down into the alley, Cleo pulled the hood of her leather duster over her eyes and waited. Each hand held a finely honed weapon. In one, a knife held against her forearm remained concealed while the other gripped the handle of a machete. It’s dark metal dull and lifeless in the shadows. The noise she made propelling down the buildings would draw the attention of Albert and his crew, but Cleo wasn’t worried.
Squaring her feet, hands tightening on the handles of her weapons, Cleo exhaled slowly, calming her racing heart and ragged breath. Albert was the first one around the corner with Barbra and the hens not far behind. Their faces contorted in rage, screams ripping out of their throats, they charged towards her. Just remain calm. It felt like playing with fire.
Whatever ran through her veins granted her a modicum of invisibility with the dead, but only if she acted as one of them. Standing perfectly still, Cleo knew she couldn’t react. Heart in her throat, wondering if today was the day the immunity would wear off, Cleo waited as Albert and his ladies rushed towards her. Gnashing teeth and broken bloody fingers clawed at the air, searching for their meal. Bracing herself, each corpse sprinted past, ignoring her still form. As long as she acted as though she were one of them, they never noticed her presence. Too bad the same couldn’t be said about the living.
Slowly, she took a step forward. Heel toe, heel toe, as quietly as she could. It was stupid, she knew, to wander into their space looking for Gerald. But despite him being a flesh eating zombie, she cared about him. It wasn’t long before she located what was left of the old man. An old leather boot, scuffed and stained from years of wandering these streets lay abandoned and scattered amongst his skeleton. Pieces of him littered the bloody street, torn apart by hands and teeth. The living didn’t dare consume the flesh of the dead. Only they could have done this.
A theory blossomed in her head. Though she carried the disease, zombies would still attack her if they recognized her as living. But why attack and consume one of your own? As far as anyone could tell, the dead never went after animals, but would they be beyond consuming one another? The way his body was parsed out on the street said they wouldn’t.
“You bastards.” Cleo tisked, disappointed. “I mean, I know you’re hungry, but he was your friend.”
The welcoming committee had returned, unsuccessful in their search, to wander the streets once more. She knew what had to be done. Should have done it ages ago, considering how close they were to the safe route. But she had grown to rely on their consistency over the years. One last glance at the slick red bones of old Gerald made the decision for her. They were weaker than others, having survived the initial blasts from before. Their bodies damaged from the bombs made them slower, less of a threat.
Taking them down was easy. Albert managed to bite the sleeve of her duster, but a quick twist and kick to his chest sent him to the ground giving Cleo time to take out his ladies two at a time.
Saving Albert for last, she wanted to confirm her theory. Fresh blood stained his mouth and hands. His flannel shirt was ripped and caked in a new layer of gore. One final swing, a silencing of a groan, and not an ounce of remorse felt for Alberts eventual death. She had to stop thinking of them as people. Yes, they shared the same disease, but they were not her family. Evin was her family. The people of Carrol… Well, they tolerated her existence at most. But the dead? They were just dead. Monsters in the shape of people.
Getting them all into a pile, she emptied what was left of her accelerant onto their bodies and lit them on fire. Convincing Shay that she needed more would be a challenge, but he understood her reasoning for burning them. Wishing she could have a proper burial for Gerald, knowing full well he never really existed, Cleo scattered his bones across the pyre and headed home.
The large wooden gates, reinforced by metal bars, loomed before her. It had been over a week since Cleo had left for Lake Port and she was eager to see Evin. Carrol, as always, seemed to move like molasses. Nothing had changed outside of the guards on the towers or in the crows nests outside of their city. Only about two hundred people called Carrol home, but it was by far the smallest surviving community left standing.
Some would see their lack of people as a disadvantage. And perhaps it was, but everyone here had a name and a reason to keep the place standing.
A small door off to the side of the gate swung open, permitting her entry into the checkpoint. Shay’s broad grin and equally broad shoulders greeted her from inside the darkened room. Behind him stood a metal locker holding the entirety of their weapons, the guns being the only ones covered in dust. Ammo had run out for Carrol years ago, but if the negotiations with the people of Hella’s went well, they would soon be back in business.
“Ah! Cleo! Babel will be glad to hear of your return!” His thick accent was somewhere out of the middle eastern countries, having moved here before the outbreak to make something of himself in the free world. Reaching a calloused hand across the table between them, he crushed Cleo’s in his grip. “Run into trouble?”
Everyone was bound to run into trouble outside the walls. It was expected for shit to go sideways at a moments notice. Recently those moments had increased exponentially for the scavenger teams. Crowds of undead gathered like flies around their slow growing community, causing delays in acquiring goods. More and more people were coming home injured or not coming home at all. Everyone, except Cleo, had experienced set backs.
Because she stuck to the same routes and understanding of the landscape, including the various safe houses she had set up, Cleo could traverse the wastes with little to no issue. Raising a brow at Shay’s question, she glanced down at herself, surprised to see blood staining the lapels of her duster and a dull red patch where Albert had sunk his teeth in.
“Just the dead getting a little too grabby, is all.” She tried for nonchalance, but feared she edged on smugness. Most people hated the ease in which she wandered the wastes, she tried not to rub their noses in her difference.
“I thought they don’t bother the bitten? You’re supposed to be immune, I thought.”
An envelope on the wall caught her eye. Her name along with two others was printed across it. Normally she would get her missives directly from Babel herself, considering she usually had a letter to pass along to the community Cleo was going to, but this envelope was tucked in with all the other scavenger missives.
“Exaggerations made by people who are afraid of me.” She said, ripping open the envelope. Heart skittering in her chest, eyes flashing across the words scrawled on the page before her. Cleo vaguely heard Shay say something, but his words never quite reached her ears. “Yea, ok. I gotta… Go.”
Anger boiled up under her skin as she raced off in the direction of Babels’ office. She had never had to deal with partners on a run. In fact, Cleo preferred to work alone. Others just slowed her down and made slipping through the wastes unnoticed more difficult. Babel had mentioned before Cleo left for Lake Port they would discuss the possibility of people joining her on the next run, but she thought it was going to be a conversation, not an order.
If Babel thought anyone else could do her job better, then let them try, but let them make that attempt without Cleo having to babysit them through the wastes. Let them figure it out on their own, just like she had to. Cleo practically built this job from the ground up to ensure their place inside of Carrols walls. Now Babel wanted to take that away from her? Fat chance.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of “We are the Monsters” my zombie novel. This is still a work in progress, but if you want more, let me know down below. Thanks for reading!
Wow Caitlin! I’m shocked! I didn’t know you like to write. I’d like to read more as you go. So proud of you!
Thanks Auntie!! Writing has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, but I was never brave enough to try. All the love I’ve received because of this series has shown me there’s something special there and I should keep going.
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