“You remember where to shoot ‘em?”
“In the head! Always in the head!”
“Good girl.” He tousled her blonde hair. It was short and cropped so that it couldn’t get caught on anything. Short hair also mean that nothing could grab it very easily, either. “Did you remember to do it?”
A guilty silence. Her eyes looked shiftily from side to side. She didn’t know what he was talking about. She’d forgotten. “Lara…” He sighed and started the sentence again, careful to keep the note of exasperation from entering his voice. He was rather new to this whole parenting thing. “Remember?” he said, pointing with his eyes towards the pistol she held in her hand. Her finger was resting on the guard outside the trigger, which was good. But… “Remember?” he prodded again. “The sssss…” he began the first syllable, dragging it out, wanting the girl to answer, as opposed to him simply telling her. He thought she’d remember it better, that way.
Her eyes opened wide, ashamedly. “The safety!” she cheered. Then, with mock tentativeness she’d probably learned from observing him, she clicked the safety on. Charles grinned again and tousled her hair once more. He wasn’t sure how to show affection to a child, particularly a small girl, so the hair tousle was his go-to gesture.
Charles didn’t want to take the gun from her; he wanted Lara to have it on her at all times. Better to teach her gun safety than to lock it away, in case she needed it and he wasn’t… well, in case was no longer able to retrieve it for her. “Very good, Lara! Very good! Remember, always keep the safety on unless you intend to shoot it. Remember that, Lara, okay?”
“Always keep the safety on unless you intend to shoot it!” The way she repeated his sentence word for word made him chuckle. She grinned up at him, clearly proud of herself. Hell, he was proud of her. She’d even hit the target today. He looked across their makeshift range. Feathers were haphazardly scattered from the pillow he’d held in front of the muzzle of the gun to dampen the sound. The roughly sawed piece of wood painted with (an admittedly terrible) depiction of a humanoid shape had three bullet holes in it. Not bad from seventeen shots. Especially considering that she was still of the age at which most kids learn to read and write.
Whilst they were on the subject of things for her to remember… “And where should you never go?”
“Into the woods!”
She stood there, looking up at him with her baby blue eyes. She frowned. The expression was adorable and heart-wrenching all at the same time. Lara stuck her bottom lip out. “I—I don’t…” Her voice trailed off, as she eyes scanned around. “Because the dead people are there?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
Charles nodded, and crouched down, resting his elbow on his knees. “Because the dead people are there,” he said, echoing her exact words. “That’s right. It’s full of the dead people. And it’s also easy to get lost in there. If there’s one place you never want to go, it’s into the forest. You remember that, Lara. Do you understand?”
The little girl nodded vigorously, in the hyper-animated fashion only seen in small children. “Mustn’t go into the woods because it’s full of dead people and it’s easy to get lost and if there’s one place you never want to go it’s into the woods!” she said, not pausing for breath.
It took Charles a moment to think about what she had said, the barrage of words coming out of her tiny mouth all at once. He laughed. “Yep, that’s exactly right. Now, that’s enough target practice for today, hm? What say you that we go inside and have some hot chocolate?”
Lara’s crystal blue eyes lit up at the promise of the tasty beverage. She nodded her head enthusiastically again. “Yes, please! Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Yes, please, Charlie!”
“All right, race ya inside!” The little girl heard this, pulled an expression that seemed to say, Oh, here we go! and then set off at a full sprint that seemed to involve her entire body, tiny arms flailing. Charles let her win the race. He always did. But he put the pressure on her, jogging just behind her. He wanted to make sure that she kept in good shape and was well-practised at running.
They drank their hot chocolate and chatted about nothing in particular. Charles didn’t know much about the development of a child, but he thought it was probably somewhat important for a child to remain a child for as long as possible. So, even in spite of the gun training, lessons and drills, he read to her as he put her to bed. Sometimes he made up a story off the top of his head, but most of the time he stuck to the old classics. Tonight, was Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
By the time he’d wound down the story, Lara was sound asleep and snoring softly, cuddling the small teddy bear she’d found in the closet. She’d named him Jeeves. It made Charles think of the little fluffy animal as a stuffy English butler. The thought made him grin.
After Lara had been put to bed, Charles went out onto the stoop of the cabin and looked around. He listened to the lapping of the lake and the cries of the birds. There were also some small squeaks and squeals from tiny mammals that rustled in the undergrowth. With the exception of the wildlife, the place was still. And that was just how he liked it.
Charles walked around the solitary little cabin, eyes scanning the treeline in the distance. There was no movement there. He stood and stared, eyes adjusting to the dark. And still, nothing moved. He nodded to himself and returned to the stoop once more and sat down.
He sat there for some time, listening and staring across the lake. The air was cool and chilly, and when he exhaled, he could see the vapour from his mouth rising in a cloud. He knew he wouldn’t sleep that night. He rarely slept, these days. And on the rare occasions that he did drift off, he had terrible nightmares.
The lake was motionless and dark, illuminated slightly from the full moon that sat in the sky; plump and pregnant. It was a fairly large body of water – that was why Charles had thought finding the cabin had been a rather lovely stroke of luck. It meant he only had to worry about the other side of the house; he didn’t think they could swim.
Truth be told, he wasn’t entirely sure if the woods were full of them or not. He just remembered that frantic night, running, running, running… Skeletal branches of the trees tearing at his skin, the warm trickle of blood intermingling with his sweat. The tiny hand he held, clutched within his own. And the moans of the dead. Their shuffling feet, eerily rustling the brushwood. Their vacant eyes, somehow sorrowful and longing. Their hungry mouths, slack-jawed and gore slaked. Their reaching, clutching, grasping hands.
They’d run until Lara could run no more, and then he had carried her, trying to shield her from the worst of the offending tree limbs. He’d gone on like that until he burst out from the treeline like a bullet from the barrel of a gun. This had been on the other side of the lake. He’d seen the silhouette of the cabin, sitting quietly on the far side of the trembling water. Charles had sprinted towards the shelter, throwing panicked glances over his shoulder, seeing nothing but shrub and gloom.
When they’d found the place empty, he’d laid the little girl, grimy and freshly orphaned, down on the bed. He spent the entirety of that night awake, patrolling the cabin in circles, eyes checking the trees for those shuffling figures. In the pitch black of the night, where even the stars feared to shine, spectres and phantoms danced in the recesses of the vegetation and at the periphery of his vision. But whenever he spun around, raising the rifle to his shoulder, he saw nothing but swaying trees, waving in the evening breeze. Charles felt their eyes upon him, watching him, mocking him. You can’t save her, whispered the trees, as the wind gently rocked them in a chilly lullaby. You can’t save her.
That had been almost three and a half months ago. Summer had been and gone, the trees had dropped their autumnal offerings and now winter was slowly creeping in, its icy fingers caressing his cheeks and nose. He had no winter jacket, and neither did the girl. They had no gloves, and no woolly hats, either. They also didn’t have boots. All that Lara had were the tatty children’s trainers she’d been wearing on the night that he met her. Charles knew that it was a conundrum he needed to solve. And soon. The cabin lacked proper heating – just a wood stove, which he did his best to keep fully stocked.
He sighed to himself. There was so much to consider, he felt as if he were on an island surrounded by anxieties. After a while, he got up with a groan, joints popping, and went back inside, turning off the lights as he did so. He might not be able to sleep, but he could lie in bed and rest for a bit, at the very least.
Charles didn’t see the figure at the far side of the lake, lumbering into the shallows of the water, creating ripples in the glassy reflection of the moon.
The horde of moaning shadows emerged from the trees, shuffling and swaying. Harsh gasps and groans whispered out of their decaying lips.
With quiet plinks and splashes, they began to wade into the lake. Charles was correct; the dead couldn’t swim. They didn’t need to. Their rotting and deflated lungs took in no air and expelled no waste. As their mangled and twisted faces slipped beneath the polished surface of the water, no bubbles escaped their parted mouths.
On the other side of the water, a light had just been extinguished in the small wooden cabin.
Onwards they walked.
For the first time in the better part of a quarter of a year, Charles’ eyes closed immediately upon his head heavily hitting the pillow. He didn’t lie there, wide awake, staring at the ceiling intently. His eyes didn’t adjust to the gloom and trace the knots and swirls of the natural wood above his head.
His ears didn’t remain alert; listening for a cracking branch, a crunching footstep, a snaking growl. Would it have made any difference, anyhow? It’s hard to say. All that can be said for sure is that sleep took him almost straight away. Perhaps that’s fair, considering that Charles would never see another night again. His final sleep was deep and all-encompassing; the warm darkness wrapped Charles in its soft embrace one last time. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
The first banging against the cabin’s single-paned windows did not immediately wake him. The shattering of the glass did, however.
Charles sat bolt upright in bed for a moment, glancing over at the sleeping bundle that was Lara, her breathing steady, her slumber uninterrupted. He sat there, heart hammering, listening. He could hear the howl of the wind. Only it was somehow louder than usual – it seemed as though it were in the cabin itself. And there was another noise. A deeper noise. A collective noise. A chorus of moans.
He leapt out of bed, feeling sick to his stomach, feeling the hairs on his body stand on end, feeling an icy chill rippling through his body. Let me be wrong, he internally pleaded, as his bare feet slapped the wooden boards. Please, let me be wrong. He skidded into the lounge, grasping the door frame to stop himself. What he saw paralysed him. His mind barely registering what he was observing, just the understanding that it was bad.
Charles stood there in the lounge doorway, frozen with dread, staring at the writhing mass of bodies outside. One of the dead was already beginning to climb through the broken window, seemingly oblivious to the shards that tore his skin to ribbons. Charles wanted to shout, to wake the girl, but he couldn’t make a sound. A pitiful sigh escaped his parted lips, like the squeaking of a mouse.
And then, as the adrenaline surged into his veins, he was moving and screaming. “Lara! Lara! Get up! Wake up!” He spun around on the spot and sprinted for the bedroom, passing the cabin’s front door where his gun was propped up. Charles grabbed his rifle. He’d made a promise to a dying woman, and he was damned well going to keep it.
Charles burst into the bedroom where the little girl was sleepily sitting upright, rubbing her eyes. “Lara. Get your pistol. As we practiced. Wait here. Do as I say, now, y’hear me? Move!” She needed to know that this wasn’t practice or play. “Lara, do you understand?”
“Yes, Charlie,” she responded woozily, yawning.
“I’m moving, Charlie, don’t shout at me.”
And then he was sprinting back into the lounge, not knowing that that’d be the last proper exchange of words they’d ever share.
The first one was already in the room, staggering towards him, arms extended. One of his eyes was gone, and a maggot was squirming out of the ruined hole. Charles’ first shot went wild, careening off into the frame of the window, splintering the wood. Charles snapped the lever down and a casing pinged out. He raised his Winchester into the crook of his elbow, exhaled gently and fired again. This time, he didn’t miss. The man’s rotten head exploded in a cascade of blood, brains, and bone. The gore splattered the floor and wall behind him. A snarling woman who was trying to crawl through the window had her features painted with everything the man had ever thought, dreamt and loved. It gobbed onto her face like snot.
Charles hit the lever again and another casing flew out of his 88, bouncing onto the floor with a metallic tinkling. He was about to fire another shot when he heard two distinct noises. The first was the sound of hands pounding against the front door and the side window. The second was a simple question from a frightened little girl: “What’s going on, Charlie?”
He glanced over his shoulder at Lara, stood in the oversized nightgown they’d found in a drawer, a Beretta 92FS clutched in her hands. As he took in the heart-wrenching sight, there was another crash of glass from the other side of the lounge and the front door rattled violently in its frame. They were being surrounded.
“Go to the bathroom, Lara! Lock the door! Out the window! Go! Go!”
He spun around and fired another shot. The bullet hit the woman in the chin and took most of her lower jaw away. But it didn’t put her down. She kept on coming. Charlie swore and stole a glance over at where Lara had been, but she was running for the bathroom. He hit the lever and expelled the third casing, counting his shells.
He was about to take another shot at the woman when the front door splintered open. A flurry of movement. The dead poured into the cabin. Somewhere down the hallway, Lara was screaming. He raised his rifle at those that were swarming in and then faltered. He couldn’t risk hitting the girl. Instead, he ran at them, striking the first in the head with the butt of his rifle. Before he knew what was happening, he was wrestling with two of the dead, trying to not lose his grip on the Winchester.
He didn’t see the man with the burnt face coming at him from the left, from out of the side window.
Teeth sunk into the tender flesh of his throat. The dead man tore away, a chunk of Charles’ neck in his teeth. Charles felt the powerful jet of blood squirting from his severed artery, spraying across the cabin’s wooden boards with an audible patter. Charles dropped his rifle and raised his hands to his wound, trying to stem the flow, already knowing it was too late. He tried to scream but found he had no voice. Charles dropped to his knees as they swarmed him.
In a brief moment in time, when the world seemed to freeze, he locked eyes with the child. As the microseconds tick-tick-ticked away, he thought of all that he wanted to say to her but never would. Go, he willed her with all of his strength. Go, Lara. Go.
And then she was gone; obscured by the flurrying corpses that fell upon him like vultures. The agony was unbearable as they tore him apart. Charles prayed for it to be over quickly, but his final wish was not granted. Hands and teeth were all over him; ripping, tearing, taking, consuming. His final moments of existence were reduced solely to the phenomenon of insufferable pain.
Let’s sit here a while, you and me.
Let us watch the small girl scramble from the rear window. Let’s watch as she runs into the forest, where shadows are pooled at the bases of the trees. Watch as she disappears into the murk. Will we see her again? Who knows?
Let’s listen to the sound of several rapid-fire gunshots. Pop! Pop-pop! Pop! Let’s watch as the crows scatter into the sky, their rusty caws angry and indignant. And then, let’s watch as the woods settle back down into their slumber.
But let’s not sit for too long, my dearest friend, for the dead are drawing nearer.
20th November 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest