It shambled across the green field, falling apart bit by bit as it went, but not really noticing.
Two men watched from the farmhouse compound, secure behind the stretch of chain link fence reinforced with chicken wire erected about three acres from the main house. Behind them, tents dotted the front yard. Wash hung from lines strung between poles. Fires burned under boiling pots. Vegetables grew in plowed fields behind the house; pears and apples dangled from the trees. Uncontaminated water was drawn off the well. Tools were forged, mended, and maintained in the barn. Men, women, children, all went about their business, their new normal after the plague.
Beyond the fence, though, it shambled, drawn by something it didn’t understand, but knew.
They watched it, the two of them, rifles slung on their shoulders.
“Well,” the tall one named Charlie said, drawing out the word to twice the number of syllables. “What do you think?”
His guard partner, a shorter, older guy named Dan shrugged his shoulders.
They watched it stagger in the sunshine, stop, sway in the breeze a minute, smelling something other than the sweet grass, and then start to walk towards them again.
Dan looked back up the sloping lawn to where the community went about its business. None of them apparently noticed it. They were too busy dealing with the needs of daily life.
“You think that’s the last one?” Charlie asked and Dan looked back towards it.
“Could be,” he said in a tone that suggested he should have punctuated his sentence by spitting.
During the initial stages of the plague, even the rural town of Harris saw their share of them. The cities had more people so they naturally had more. They also ended up with more casualties. People in the cities panicked like cattle trapped in a burning barn. People in the sticks just stocked up, boarded up, loaded up, and waited. They watched the plague on the news until the news stopped transmitting and then they knew the plague was on its way. They took them out as they came, methodically, no panic, using rifles from high perches. Sometimes the corpses were left to rot. Other times they had the opportunity to burn them, taking great care not to touch them, wearing masks so they wouldn’t breathe any of the stench. They didn’t want to risk any infection.
The first waves were thick with them, dozens at a time, sometimes a hundred in a day. After a couple of weeks, though, the numbers began to dwindle. Bits and pieces picked up from radio stations that still found a way to operate said that things were still bad in the cities, but the numbers were diminishing. Nature was taking its course. Dead things rot, whether they walk or not, and that’s what was happening more and more. Fewer and fewer new ones were around.
Charlie and Dan watched theirs shamble closer to the fence. It was still a good distance away, maybe seventy-five yards. The movement was too jarring to keep it intact. Its left arm dropped away, but it didn’t notice.
“Guess we better shoot it, huh?” Charlie said.
“I’ll wait until it gets a little bit closer.”
“Good idea. You only want to use one shot on it. Ain’t worth more than that.”
There were several compounds like theirs around. Small towns banded together like that. It wasn’t always so cooperative. The plague didn’t kill everyone that died. Not everyone handled the pressure of such a sudden structure change, such a drastic shifting of normal, well. Some folks didn’t handle it at all and it ended up with them being thrown on the body burn piles. No judge would convict anyone of murder; it was all in self-defense of the group. Still, it was something to weigh on the conscience.
“Don’t let it get too close,” Dan said. “That one will rot fast in the heat. Don’t need it rottin’ right up next to the fence.”
“I’ll get it,” Charlie said, swinging his rifle down from his shoulder and chambering a round. He glanced over his shoulder, up the slope. “I’m just waiting for it to get a little closer.”
“You’ll be waiting all day the way it’s going,” Dan said. “Just shoot it.”
Charlie raised his rifle with a sigh, pressing the butt of the stock firmly against his shoulder, pushing the barrel in a gap left in the chicken wire for just this purpose. He sighted it and his finger touched the trigger.
Looking down at Dan he said, “Do you think it’s the last one?”
“Does it really matter?” Dan asked. He sniffed once and then he did spit. “If it is, do the honors. The sooner it’s done rottin’, the sooner we can get things back to normal. It’ll be nice not having to shit in an outhouse for a change.”
Charlie sighted it once again. He pulled the trigger.
The sound of the shot raced the bullet, bringing a momentary halt to the activity of the compound. People stopped to look, but most weren’t quick enough to see it struck and watch it fall.
Charlie lowered his rifle and Dan clapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on,” he said and Charlie slung his rifle over his shoulder. “Let’s make our rounds.”
Dan walked past him, leading the way that would take them around the entire perimeter fence. Charlie hung back a minute, looking out at the corpse. It lay unmoving, waiting for the vultures to pine for its rotting flesh, wishing it were pure. Animals were smarter than humans in that respect. They were smart enough not to eat the infected, no matter how hungry they might be.
But they might not have to worry about that anymore. There might not be any more infected corpses to leave rotting in the sun. There might not be any more of them walking around.
That one out there, the one that Charlie shot, might be the last one.
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