Text copyright © 2017 by Beau Johnston
I woke early the next morning, still leaning against the wall. I stood and stretched, trying to ease the stiffness from my muscles. I looked outside, grateful to see the early morning sunlight pouring across the northern paddocks of our new home. I was still shaken by last night’s nightmare. I pushed it to the back of my mind and reminded myself it was just a bad dream.
I hastily dressed in yesterday’s bloodstained clothes, put on my weapon belt and back quiver then crept out to the kitchen. My family were already seated around the kitchen table, quietly eating breakfast. They looked up and greeted me over their bowls of cereal. I lit the fire in the potbelly stove and put the kettle on to boil before sitting at the table.
“I’m sorry for last night’s disturbance” I said as I poured myself a bowl of cereal.
“Don’t worry about it. Nightmares are to be expected; especially after the things you’ve gone through” Dad replied, carefully picking his words.
As I glanced over at Ben I saw a large dark bruise underneath his right cheek.
“It wasn’t your fault” Ben said, shaking his head. “It was stupid of me to grab you like that”.
Ben didn’t harbour any resentment for his injury, but that didn’t ease my guilt.
“We need more information about what’s been happening in the area” I announced between mouthfuls of cereal.
Each member of my family glanced at me, but remained silent as they continued eating.
“After breakfast, I’m making a quick run into Nowendoc. I reckon one of you might be able to decipher the horrible handwriting on the last page of that notepad I found in the police station. I was being far too cautious when I decided to leave it behind. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest if the information on that list wasn’t left lying around for the next group of scavengers to find” I said as I finished my cereal.
“What good is a list of names to a stranger?” Mum asked, sounding mystified.
“The list on its own? Not much” I replied. “But..... if you match the names on that list with the surnames in the local phone book, you have a database for the location of supplies”
“What do you mean?” Rebecca asked, sounding just as puzzled as Mum.
“I assume the names on the list were local people, because the list specified people with useful practical skills. It also indicated which people had access to firearms. What if some of those people had to abandon their gear during the evacuation? Perhaps one or two of them left their firearms and ammunition behind. It’s not likely, but it’s possible” I said, leaning back in my chair.
The group instantly understood the dilemma and looked uncomfortable with the idea of that information falling into the hands of a lunatic like the Short Man.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Ben asked, his deep voice breaking the silence.
“No thanks. It’s a simple pick-up from a known location. I shouldn’t be gone more than thirty minutes” I replied, already planning the trip. “But when I return from Nowendoc I’m heading to Gloucester to collect food and other supplies. I need you to come with me on that run”.
This announcement was greeted by raised eyebrows and curious stares.
“I don’t know how much time we have before the next raiding party arrives in town. If we’re lucky, there won’t be another one. But, I don’t put my trust in luck. We need to collect as much non-perishable food as we can get our hands on and bring it home. I’ve worked too hard to just leave the supplies there for someone else to take” I explained, looking each person in the eye as I spoke.
“Which vehicle are we taking?” Ben asked, accepting my invitation.
“The removalist’s van” I replied. “I want to move as much food as possible in one trip”.
“Is there enough room for three in the van?” Rebecca enquired.
“Not really, the van doesn’t have a bench seat. I suppose you could sit on Ben’s lap” I replied.
My family laughed at the impracticality of the suggestion. I would like to have Rebecca accompany us on this supply run, because a third person would make the job a lot safer. One person could guard the van and watch for trouble, while the other two searched for food and supplies. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room in the front of the van. I didn’t suggest riding in the cargo area, because sliding around on the smooth metal floor would be dangerous at any speed. I toyed with the idea of Dad and Rebecca following us to Gloucester in one of the four-wheel drives, but I didn’t want to leave Mum here on her own.
“I’m about to head off. Ben, can you have the van ready to go by the time I get back?” I asked as I finished eating.
“Yep” Ben replied, with a subtle smile.
I was genuinely surprised Rebecca hadn’t objected when Ben agreed to come with me to gather supplies. I was even more surprised when she volunteered to accompany us. I suppose she was more at ease now that the Short Man and his crew were dead.
“You’re in a hurry love, just leave it in the sink” Mum said, referring to my cereal bowl.
I kissed her on the forehead and gave her a hug to say thank you. I retrieved my shotgun, backpack and garden fork from my room then headed outside. After securing my gear to the carry rack on back of my quad bike I slipped my helmet on, climbed onto the seat and turned the key. The motor roared into life; its deep rumble echoed back at me from the surrounding trees.
I sped across the lawn to the gravel driveway, slowing down as I rode through the woods that shielded our farm from prying eyes. As I reached the other side of the thicket I stopped to check for trouble, but it was too late. The road in front of the farm was infested with ghouls; dozens and dozens of them. The herd was migrating north from Gloucester. An icy hand gripped my heart as every single zombie turned its head to look for the source of the noise coming from the bush track. In unison, the entire horde staggered toward me through the knee-high grass.
“RUN AND HIDE! ZOMBIES!” I shouted over my shoulder, towards the house.
I revved my motor loudly to ensure I had the herd’s undivided attention then spun my tyres in the gravel. The stones and dirt kicked up by my tyres formed a thick curtain of dust, concealing the track behind me. I hoped my family had heard the racket I was making, because I was running out of time. The ghouls closest to me had already halved the distance between us. I turned off the driveway and sped north through the grass, angling toward the road in front of the herd.
Most of the ghouls had changed direction to follow me; but a few continued lumbering toward the driveway. After reaching the tarmac I rode ahead of the mob then stopped in the middle of the street. I revved my engine again and whistled loudly to draw the attention of the few ghouls still shambling toward the gravel track. For some reason, they were mesmerized by the driveway. I aimed my shotgun into the air and fired twice. The shotgun’s thunderous roars echoed through the treetops as I reloaded my weapon and pocketed the spent shells.
The driveway was instantly forgotten. The attention of every ghoul was now focused on me. I slipped my shotgun into the rear carry rack and slowly rode away, keeping at least twenty metres ahead of the herd. Dad would probably think I’d wasted the ammunition by shooting into the air; but this tactic grabbed the zombies’ attention without injuring or blinding any of them. I slowly lured the ghouls north, occasionally glancing over my shoulder to make sure none of them had fallen behind or wandered away from the herd.
When were far enough away from the farm I extended my lead to fifty metres, forcing them to work harder to keep up with me. Three kilometres south of Nowendoc I sped away from the mob. I couldn’t ride north indefinitely, I needed somewhere to hide. As I arrived at the outskirts of the village I slowed down to look for shelter. I saw several farmhouses on the way into Nowendoc, but from the road there was no way to tell if they were safe. I didn’t have enough time to clear a building before the horde caught up with me. Inspiration struck. I realised where I might find shelter.
I sped north past the Community Hall, continuing up the road to the Police Station. I rode up to the front of the building, parking several metres away from a huge muscular corpse lying face down in the grass. The behemoth’s red flannelette shirt and torn blue jeans looked familiar. I dismounted from my bike and approached the cadaver with my garden fork held ready to attack. The revolting injuries to its left knee and the deep wound in its neck confirmed it was the same ghoul I’d incapacitated during my previous visit.
I left the body where it lay and scouted around the weatherboard building to ensure it was still unoccupied. The only feature on the north side of the police station was a small, bar-covered window at the top of the wall. Around the back of the building there were no windows, only a reinforced door in the middle of the wall. I stood to the side of the door and gently tested the doorhandle. I wasn’t surprised to find it was locked. I continued around the southwest corner and was disappointed to see a tiny window that was identical to the one on the north wall. There was no easy access into the back of the building, and there was no indication which side of the building held the station’s strongroom and weapons locker. The only way in was through the front door. I returned to the front of the building, opened the door and peeked inside the abandoned police station.
An eerie silence permeated the front office. I looked behind me to make sure I was alone then snuck inside. I peeked over the top of the tall wooden service counter that separated the public space from the office area. The papers and notepad were still on the desk and the caster chair was where I’d left it; nothing appeared to have been touched. I ran outside to move my quad bike behind the building before the herd of ghouls arrived. The sound of snapping branches drew my attention to the scrub across the road. As I looked up from my bike, seven scratched and bloodied zombies pushed through the thick wall of lantana and bracken.
The pack growled and moaned as they staggered across the road toward me. I glanced at the eastbound road only half a block south of the zombies. I could easily ride around the fiends and lure them away from Nowendoc, but I would be in serious trouble if they were the forerunners of a larger herd heading west. Riding south was not an option. I could continue riding north; Walcha was only seventy kilometres away, but I had no idea how many survivors and ghouls remained in the tiny settlement. I slipped the keys into my pocket, grabbed my backpack and shotgun from the carry rack then ran inside, closing the solid wooden door behind me.
As the door clicked into place I stared in disbelief when I saw that it couldn’t be locked without a key. I glanced at the windows on either side of the door and realised they weren’t reinforced with security mesh. A wave of fear washed over me when I saw how vulnerable the front office was to attack. I vaulted over the counter and ran to the two steel reinforced doors at the back of the office. Both were locked, and unlikely to be jimmied open with a crowbar. It was too late to flee into the bush. My only escape was up.
I climbed onto the office desk, dragging the caster chair behind me. I flipped the chair upside down and rammed its solid metal base into the ceiling. The noise was horrendous, but it didn’t matter; the ghouls already knew where I was.
The first hit cracked the plasterboard then bounced off. I tensed my muscles and rammed the chair into the ceiling again and again, each hit widening the cracks a little further. The noise reverberated through the building as small pieces of fibro and fine white powder rained down on my head. I briefly hesitated when I realised the powder was asbestos dust, but pushed on regardless. If I was still down here when the zombies broke in, developing asbestosis would be the least of my worries.
The door shook and rattled loudly in its frame as the ghouls bashed their fists against the front of the building. Adrenalin surged through me as I rammed the chair through the weakened fibro sheet, into the roof space. I waited for a moment for the dust to clear then looked up at the large hole I’d made. After dropping the chair I quickly pulled away any loose pieces of fibro from the edges of the hole. I poked my head up into the inky black roof space; unable to see anything I drew my torch from my belt and swept its piercing white light around the dark cavity.
Old, broken cobwebs hung from the rafters, dangling inches above dusty wooden roof beams. The attic smelled as dirty as it looked. As I bent down to collect my gear the window on the left side of the door shattered inward, showering the floor with shards of glass. Hideous moans filled the police station as a tall emaciated ghoul fell through the empty window frame, landing heavily on the bare wooden floor. I grabbed my gear and the notepad then shoved everything into the ceiling cavity. The ghoul scrambled to its feet and slammed into the service desk as I hoisted myself through the escape hole I’d made.
More glass crashed to the floor as another two zombies smashed through the remaining window. Their hungry cries followed me into the cramped, dark roof space. After slipping my quiver from my back I lay it on top of my gear then adjusted my position, distributing my weight across the roof beams. I flashed my torch around the attic, hoping to find an access hatch that led to the back of the building. Instead of an access hatch I found a reinforced timber barricade which separated the front of the building from the roof space above the station’s strongroom and holding cells. I turned my torch off, returned it to its pouch and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.