Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Thank God It's Not Me...

by Ray Prew



My name is Frank Curry, my friends call me Riff. This is not only my story; it's the story of those so unfortunate as to still be alive, alive in a world of the walking dead. I'm writing this journal to both keep my sanity, and to leave a record of life here in the settlement -- of life without death.

I left my girlfriend's room, walking down the streets of the settlement back to my own room. As I passed by one of the barriers that kept the stenches from getting inside, I could hear them clawing at the barrier trying to get in. Atop the barrier the sentry kept watch to insure there were no breaches. Tomorrow it'll be my turn to do sentry duty. I hate the job; it's both heartrending and unsettling. The sight of some of these poor wretches is horrific.

It's only been two years since this began, two years since society went to hell. Sometimes art imitates life, this time life imitated art. Like all those left living, I remember where I was when it began.

I was eating at a Chinese buffet, reading a comic book and listening to the radio on my headphones when the first news reports started coming in. The radio announcer was reporting how dead bodies across the country were rising from autopsy tables and funeral parlors, and much like a Romero movie started attacking people.

No one knew why this was happening, but it was. Anyone they bit soon died and rose as one of them -- a stench. (If you've ever been downwind of one, you'd know why that name became universally accepted: to a human nose, there are few worse odors than the smell of decaying human flesh. It's probably hard-wired in the DNA -- dead people equals danger, something to be avoided. Of course, it's hard to avoid something that comes looking for you…)

There was no treatment and no cure; even a nip that barely broke the skin was fatal and triggered the change. Within three months, all law and social structure broke down. Cities became warzones.

I survived on the road for about six months until I found this settlement. Survivors had become clannish very quickly. Some would let in only certain religious types, others only those with military skills. I saw one that only let in gays. These groups were very exclusive, letting in only those they wanted. I was lucky to find this place. They only required that you be willing to fight and to have your own gun.

Prior to this, I had never hurt anyone or anything in my life; so far, I've dispatched easily fifty stenches. It didn't matter much, they were already dead. I've also killed at least a dozen living people, defending my van and what little I had. They'd have killed me just as sure as a bite from a stench if I'd let them steal my supplies, my gun, and my ammo…

That's how I met my girlfriend. Six men were trying to rape her. I killed all six. I had no choice; by this time there weren't any cops or courts left anymore. It was every man for himself, or for those he cared about.

As I passed some young men on a street corner smoking a joint, I thought how precious a commodity pot was, along with decent food. Occasionally a group of us would take a few vehicles and guns and raid an abandoned food market in a nearby town. There wasn't much left by now; other raiders had gotten some of it, rats got the rest, the rotting perishables and dry goods, rice and beans and pasta and cereal. I never in my life envisioned myself having to eat rats, but now I know several recipes by heart.

There are different types of stenches, depending on how long they've been dead and how they died. Some have horrible dripping wounds, others are missing limbs. Some look almost alive -- maybe embalmed before they rose -- others look like pus and hamburger on legs. But all of them stink. Dead people equals danger, remember? Little did God or random evolution know just how much danger…

As I turned the corner to my street, a couple of boards fell off the barrier and a stench started climbing through! I knew if that thing made it inside others would follow! The sentry was on the other side of the settlement, so I'd have to deal with it myself, and I didn't have my gun with me. No one carried weapons inside the settlement; there was no need, supposedly.

The poor bastard looked horrific. He was missing an eye and part of his left forearm. One of his ears and part of his cheek had clearly been bitten off. I was both frightened for my safety and filled with pity for him. He might be a stench now, but he was once man like me, with family and friends, now he was walking around like this.

There are only two ways to kill a stench, destroy the brain, or burn them up. He was still half in and half outside the hole, so I had an advantage. Behind him, some of the others were gathering trying to get in. I picked up a board and smacked it in the head. No effect, it just tried to grab me. I swung again. It bobbed down and came back up, its head looking dented. I swung again and knocked it back outside. My shouts and the noise brought the sentry. Between the two of us, we put the boards back and reinforced the barrier.

I went back to my room wondering if mankind would ever recover from this problem. From short wave radio broadcasts I had heard, the problem was worldwide. The governments of other nations had broken down as well. Anarchy had swept the planet. If there were any scientists anywhere studying this, I was unaware of them.

Every friend or family member I ever had from before all this, had either turned or were missing. Nighttime was the worst; no one slept peacefully anymore, nightmares and insomnia were now the norm these days. At least I was still alive, but was that lucky? Usually under very harsh and hopeless conditions, the living envied the dead. However, the dead no longer stayed dead, or at least they didn't lie still. These days the dead were up and walking around. Sometimes I thought thank god it's not me. The first stench I ever killed was my own mom; she had been bitten by her boyfriend. When I blew her head off my life, or what was left of it, changed forever.

My room was on an upper floor which gave me a view of the settlement and some of the surrounding area. On any given day, I could see at least a hundred stenches trying to pierce the barrier at different points around the settlement.

There were only fifty of us. Everybody had a job; I was the cook. I prepared the meals for everyone. My girl was the nurse. People without job skills weren't welcome here or anywhere. One poor woman had to be the settlement whore; she had no skills at anything. Therefore, she had to make herself available for any man that wanted her. She couldn't even charge for her services, money no longer had any value or meaning.

Some of the survivors I've met here have clear and obvious mental and emotional difficulties, but, under the circumstances, it was difficult to hold judgment over anyone. The world we knew was gone, reality was different. It was hard to say what was sane or insane anymore. We now lived in a world where spraying a crowd of stenches with a machine gun was common place. And then, there was the ever present threat one of the other survivors might go postal.

I showered and changed my clothes for the meeting tonight. We held meetings once a week to discuss needs and make plans. There were two particular members that always fought. We all agreed one day they'll kill each other. We nicknamed them the bloodbath twins.

One of them wanted to network with other settlements and join forces to retake a whole city. The other wanted to burn the city down altogether, drive out the stenches, and rebuild. Both of them were crazy.

Their usual debate began and as usual grew in intensity, until they had to be separated. Since no one would second either plan, they didn't even get a vote.

A plan was formed to raid a store two towns away. It was dicey, the store (a very big store), was so deep in stench territory, it's unlikely other raiding parties had touched the place. However, that was also the disadvantage; it was very deep in stench territory. The store was part of a mall so there were other stores there, among them a gun store. The gun store might have extra weapons and ammo. The other stores would have clothes, shoes, tools, batteries... It was an irresistible target. It might be a bit picked over but we were desperate. Any supplies were needed.

We had a touring bus that we had modified into a tank to get us safely through the stenches on longer trips. It was armored all around against human raiders. It had gun port holes all the way around. Additionally it had slots along both sides for chainsaws. My favorite part was the twin horizontal lumberyard buzz saws that extended five feet from the front of the tank. We called them our speed racers.

The raiding party included me, the bloodbath twins -- so called because they'd thought of mounting the saws on the bus -- and three others. We set out at daybreak to give us as much light for as long as possible. Some of the others stood atop the barrier throwing Molotov cocktails into the throngs of stenches trying to get in, others were picking them off with rifles, until they cleared a path for us to open the gate and drive out.

I guided the tank through the gates and into a throng of stenches, the speed racers cutting a wide path through them, blood and limbs spraying in all directions. Once we made it to the open road it was a bit easier, they were a bit more spread out. We ran over a few but not enough to slow us down. It took us an hour to reach the town. Along the way, we saw burned out and boarded up houses, all of them empty of human life. No one was left; there was no sign of life anywhere. I brought along a music c.d. so I could drown out the bickering of the bloodbath twins. My other three traveling companions were happy for the distraction.

Up ahead we saw the mall, but its parking lot was full of stenches, and some of them were wandering in and out of the mall through broken windows and pushed in doors.

The question was how to get in, get what we wanted, and leave without getting overwhelmed. We decided the bloodbath twins and I would make the raid, the remaining three would guard the tank. We started out, me pushing a large wheelbarrow, with the twins armed with pistols guarding my flanks.

Fortunately, stenches move slowly so out running them was easy enough, but the sheer number of them proved a bit daunting. The market still had enough food left to fill the wheelbarrow and three backpacks in two trips. This amount would last a couple of months.

The inside of the mall itself was full of stenches on both levels. We were able to fill the wheelbarrow with guns and ammo. We started back but were cornered by a small group of them. We shot our way back to the tank, but at a horrible price, both the bloodbath twins were bitten. They would turn in less than twenty four hours. I knew it and they knew it. I had to execute them on the spot. To not execute them meant they would become stenches. They welcomed the bullets.

"Do it, man. No fuckin' way I want to be one of them." His 'brother' -- for the life of me, I don't know if they were actually related at all -- nodded, and they both lowered their heads so I didn't have to look into their eyes. Two shots and they were both down, half the contents of their skulls spattered on the ground behind them.

We started back to the settlement leavening the twins lying on the ground. There was nothing we could do for them now. As we drove away the stenches started devouring them. Despite my disdain for the twins, all I could think was thank god it's not me. We drove back to the settlement in silence, mourning the loss of the twins. I ran over every stench I saw on the road. It was a useless gesture, but it made me feel better. It wouldn't bring the twins, back but at least I was putting the poor wretches out of their misery. Given the circumstances, I'm sure they'd rather be destroyed than walking around like that.

Our hearts sank as we as we approached the settlement. The gates were open and stenches were wandering in and out. We stopped and looked around. Small clusters of stenches were huddled around bodies lying here and there. They must have gotten over run. Some of the vehicles were missing indicating some of the survivors had escaped. I called on the loud speaker, asking if anyone was left alive. No one responded, my girl was nowhere to be seen. I could only hope she made it out with the other survivors.

There were only four of us now. We decided this place was history; our only hope was to find another settlement. With all the food, guns, and ammunition, we were certain to be welcomed somewhere.

We left the settlement; there was nothing left anymore. We headed out onto the interstate, going west into the late afternoon sun. We had no idea which way we should head or where we would find help. The world had changed, perhaps forever, our lives had changed forever.

I ran over a stench, putting it out of its misery. Maybe the stench was the lucky one his suffering was over now. However, despite that, I thought thank god it's not me.

THE END


© 2011 Ray Prew

Bio: Ray Prew's stories have been published in alienskin magazine, s.n.m.magazine, horrorbound magazine,aphelion magazine, (Immortality Bites, July 2010), the online cynic magazine, and spine tinglers magazine (twice).

E-mail: Ray Prew

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