Episode 19: Warning: Graphic Content
Maple Leaf Zombies - A free zombie illustrated web novel
The next day for Leo's new group is spent checking out a few more stores and vacated houses, and destroying a half-dozen stinking plague monsters waiting for them. They manage to get a few useful things in the dreary ghost town. It's around mid-day when the group drive by a high school.
Cars with doors open and litter is scattered throughout the overgrown grass field. They get out to decapitate one undead that's milling around before taking a quick walk around the premises. There's no other filthy plague monsters but who knows what's inside the school. It could be a death trap...or.....there could be desperate survivors holding up, waiting for help. It's too quiet, something they all know can change in an instant.
Nervously scratching his beard often lately, Brother Dave asks Big Gregg to hurry up.
Then, suddenly, Julia gasps, thinking she sees something....yes, it's definitely something! Gotta be! She spots what appears to be a kid, perhaps a teen, looking out a second floor classroom window. A girl…yes a girl! Can't be a plague monster, the face looks too normal, but who knows for sure.
Only way to tell is to check it out, something Leo isn't so keen on doing but knows they can't stop being who they are in this scary planet. They begin to cautiously approach closer, finding all the doors and windows locked. They even try knocking on the front door, feeling a little silly, but what the heck!
No answer. A determined Julia then grab's the dude's hand and takes him to the window where she could have sworn she saw someone and begins calling out, hoping for a response. A fidgety Leo looks around expecting all the racket to draw the attention of unwanted ghouls. There's a large group just a few blocks away but the dude doesn't have to worry about them for a while as they're busy feasting on an elderly couple who had risked leaving their basement. Too bad there's not much meat on those old bones.
While there's no biters in sight outside the school, neither is any sign of life in the place. It's so frustrating…maybe Julia was mistaken....maybe not.
Perhaps there is someone in there but they have no intention of showing themselves or trusting anyone, even though Leo's group wants to help. No matter, the group has to make tracks because it's way too risky being out in the open. Too bad there's no storybook rescue.
As they begin to depart, there’s indeed someone inside that secondary school. The girl Julia had spotted remerges to look out the window again to see the strangers exit the scene. Julia looks back one last time to see the teen starring back at her, but this time Julia doesn't say a word.
After Leo’s group is gone, the girl leaves the classroom once again and meets several other teens in a hallway. She wanted to say something, since those people seemed all right, but she was told to keep quiet by a slightly older boy who imposed himself as the leader of this young bunch. There isn’t an adult in sight.
"They looked OK. Why are you doing this? We can't just stay here forever. We have to trust someone eventually," she tells their leader.
She’s not the only one restless and feeling the same way, but they reluctantly follow the young man’s lead.
"I've got this, just relax," their Charles in Charge fires back. "I told you that we can't trust anyone, just each other. We're all we have. It's just us, nobody else. Even if they didn’t try to rob our stuff or kill us, they wouldn’t help us if something went down, just their own. That’s what we’re doing. Quit talking like a kid, you’d better grow up!"
Leaning against some lockers, another teen, a boy no older than perhaps fifteen, nervously steps forward, saying “I just want to go home, I just want my life back. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
The leader shakes his head and walks away. He convinced most of them the army or police will come to get them sooner rather than later and things will settle down….good luck with that kids!
Later that afternoon, Leo group spots a quant comic book and sports card shop on Scott Road where they can stay the night.
A good little spot that smells like bubble gum. That evening, Gregg and the rest of the group sit around a table eating pork and beans, sardines and salty crackers, while trying to figure out why the leader of that other group they encountered the previous day didn’t give them a chance.
He seemed like a good guy. Did he think Gregg’s group is a liability and couldn't survive? Did he think nobody else could be trusted? Didn’t Hemingway write that the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them? Oh well.
"So Leo, tell me a bit more about this island. And Archie. What’s it like over there?" the vivacious Julia asks. Sitting next to the dude, whose beard is starting to fill in nicely again, Julia twirls her crucifix and seems genuinely interested in what Leo did before all this crap happened, as well as what makes him tick. He could tell right off the bat that she's fiercely unique, independent and determined.
He doesn’t mind her deep and sincere faith, nor her intense fish breath, and engages in a little small talk, but is self-effacing since he didn’t exactly chalk up many accomplishments in his life.
She’s kind of cool, Leo concludes and the two continue their conversation at the table after the others leave for another room.
Did we mention she’s gorgeous too? Before everyone goes to sleep, Big Gregg injects some enthusiasm by predicting tomorrow they’re going to find a boat. Nice!
Julia later lays next to the dude behind boxes of hockey cards. A big pile of Fred Hall rookie cards makes a decent enough pillow.
The bleary-eyed Julia tells Leo as they’re about to nod off, "I'm not afraid of dying anymore. My faith will guide me to…well, there is a heaven, you now."
What is she, some kind of nut job?
Leo folds his fingers over his chest and looks up, barley making out the water stains on the ceiling tiles, and not sure how Julia will take his perspicacious take on the subject.
“Don’t think there’s an omnipotent guy with a long white beard looking down on us, but you’re right that there’s a god out there, everywhere but nowhere. I’m thinking it’s the universe itself, one massive consciousness beyond what we can comprehend, get it? That’s why I’m not afraid of kicking the bucket, either, because there’s something more waiting for us. I’d be scared and dreading dying, too, if this is all there is and reality is a cold, sterile thing. Get what I’m getting at?”
He turns to see the redhead has dozed off, perhaps exhausted from the dizzying insight. Oh well. He just met this hot number and this is going a bit fast, but he’ll pick up what she’s puttin’ down.
He'll leave out, for now, those occasional dreams in which he's hanging out with Jesus, a chain-smoking, beer-loving hippie who's a mere fabrication by the cosmos to give Leo something to comprehend, because what we perceive as reality is constrained by our sensory capabilities, by physics and physical laws. Too bad Leo can't remember all that well those complex, yet brilliantly straight-forward, messages the unkempt deity has been trying to convey. He does recall, though, being told something about leading men and women who will follow with suicidal obstinance. Weird, eh?
The mood is shattered by an awful scream outside, a man begging for help. It’s accompanied by a multitude of dead growling for a snack.
Leo’s grabs a hatchet and bolts for the front door, only to be grabbed and wisely held back by Big Gregg.
"No, don’t, we can’t help him. Just keep quiet. Don’t want them coming down on us, all right?"
The big guy then quietly makes his way to the front of the darkened shop and peeks out the window. Doesn't know why....it's like you have a carton of expired milk in the fridge and you just know you have to smell one more time before chucking it.
He can’t see anything, and it’s quiet again. He shakes his head, knowing it was the smart move not to blindly run out to help, but it doesn't make Gregg feel any better.
They take the risk at the high school but then leave some poor sap to get mutilated outside. He also knows he had a momentarily lapse in judgement when he opened the door for Leo, and wonders if he would have done that again. Was George really that bad for leaving those girls to save his own skin?
This is all a bit confusing. Are they slowly turning into hard, cold people? Is everyone else still alive in the country becoming like that? What's it like in the other cities? Best not to dwell…time for sleep.
The following morning has that typical sickly haze in the sky but nobody takes notice anymore. Leo admires his new warrior look in a mirror: bowler hat, overalls, heavy-duty boots and big machete. It's like he's a movie character.
Things are looking up, even though there’s a huge bloodstain just outside the store but no body. Looks like the plague monsters made their meal to go.
Today the group will find a boat, preferably a fishing vessel, but not before one last bit of business. Feeling somewhat jovial, Big Gregg smiles and points out something they’ve all missed that’s just down the street: a big garden supply store. It could have tools they need for growing stuff – rakes, shovels, stuff like that, and maybe even seeds.
There’s a couple of vehicles in the parking lot too. Brother Dave, a mechanic, knows how to start cars. Leo, machete in hand, and the two Daves volunteer to check the place out with dispatch. Julia offers to accompany Leo but the dude tells her they’re all right. Here we go…….
After a short walk, Leo and his Dave crew bust open the lock on the fence and enter cautiously. Just a quick check. Wow, one of the cars left here is a stunning baby blue 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air - a two-door hardtop. Brother Dave will definitely be commandeering that!
The three make their past the outside tables cluttered with dead plants and bust their way into store, getting hit with a pungent wave of compost.
They have to ensure no foul monsters are lying in wait and proceed ready for action. After a few uneasy moments, sure enough, six, no...seven, gory things emerge from the back and slowly shuffle toward them, their faces bent and disfigured to the point they no longer resemble anything human.
Leo leaps into action like a machine, slicing the top of a couple of heads off and dicing a couple of other mushy ones in half.
He doesn't get a clean decapitation on another, so it's stumbling around with its arms extended and head hanging to one side. Another hack and the noggin comes off and rolls away. Silent Dave, meanwhile, once again proves to be a master with the hammer, smashing four more creepers that appear. His crunching of skulls is a job well done indeed.
When they're done, and out of breath, the two stare at the greyish head that rolled away…its hostile eyes are still blinking…weird. Then they hear something odd and turn around to see Brother Dave urinating against a wall while yawning.
"You guys done yet?" he laughs.
"Ya, we are now, thanks for the help," Silent Dave replies, trying to rub black slimy chunks off his plaid shirt.
"Like, really, don't get yourself too tired helping us out here. I wouldn't want to put you out!"
"You didn't," Brother Dave quips. "Now let's look around."
Leo notices a nice big bottle of hand sanitizer - excellent. After he slathers his hands, the guys find a few tools and a couple of boxes of vegetable seeds.
Not a bad score but there's nothing else of value here. The three place their haul next to that vintage car and Brother Dave pops the hood to check out the sweet ride. Might just need some gas, he suggests, and heads back to the comic store to get the jerry can while Silent Dave and Leo wait at the garden shop. Leaning against the car, the two get into a little small talk.
"Anyway, do you really think we're going to make it to this island? Your friend going to be there?" Dave asks.
Leo has to think a bit on that one.
"Gotta try, no? Too much death, way too much going down. Look around us, end of the world. Would never have dreamed of this stuff. We made it this far," he comments for the placid one.
The dude decides to sit on the ground with his sweaty back leaning against the old car. He reveals something else to his new friend, describing how that evil woman murdered the others.
"You know, I never was much for fighting or hurting someone, but I can't get it out of my mind and don't want to. Nope. After we get to that island, I'm heading back to kill her. Not sure how yet, but there's no way she can live. I'm going to kill her."
This is unfathomable for Dave. He pauses before seating himself next to Leo, offering sage advice.
"Umm, ya, guess we can't stop you. But you know, Leo, revenge is a weird thing, not so cut-and-dry. It's actually like, complicated. Once you enter, you can easily get messed up, eventually coming out the other end not the same, like you lost something. No going back to get it either. Just sayin' in case you wanted to go through with it."
Wow, Dave is kinda deep, Leo observes, which is really cool. Too bad it's just unavailing introspection.
A few minutes later, a honk of an unfamiliar horn draws their attention. They go to the street to investigate and a shocked Leo immediately pushes Silent Dave back into the parking lot. It's something dreadful outside the comic shop and they can’t be seen!
"What's going on dude? What are you doing?" a puzzled Dave asks.
What Leo sees up the street sends him into full-blown panic. Something bad, really bad, is crossing his mind.
"This can't be, not again....no...please....no,no,no, no!"
Leo urges Dave to follow him up an alley. They then hide behind bushes across the street from the shop, like little frightened mice. What the dude sees sinks his soul. A few familiar vehicles and that sickening dirty white cube van.
Men in clean dress shirts and slacks holding hunting rifles, including that tubbo with the curly hair, are milling about. Damn it, if only Leo and Dave had real weapons! A fancy black sedan arrives and stops in front of the business, its rear passenger window rolling down to reveal that Lillian witch. Her top henchman goes to her window to provide an update. She smiles and nods, most pleased about their latest haul. Her vehicle departs after tubby hands her something - Julia's crucifix.
Lillian is followed by ruffians driving the commandeered vehicles. The dude feels utterly helpless as the cube van departs in the other direction. The remaining thugs get into a final car to follow that truck, leaving the memorabilia store doors wide open and occupants gone. It was a quick and efficient raid. Yea, it happened again.
"No, no…..Dave we’ve gotta get a car, we’ve gotta find a car and go now…before it’s too late…….Dave!" the dude shouts in desperation as he runs from the bushes, then in circles holding his machete.
"Man, what’s going on, who were they?" a startled Dave inquires. "They took our stuff, our people. Why?"
Leo becomes more hysterical. He’s really losing it!
"Man, we don’t have any wheels. No gas. We don’t have a car," Dave adds.
Leo dashes down the street to check out a couple of abandoned cars, the windshields completely obscured by dirt and grime, yelling for Dave to help him, help him save the others. Silent Dave just stands there dumfounded, though. Gregg, Julia and Brother Dave have been taken!
"Hey man, it’s all right, take it easy…Leo calm down dude," a voice calls out. "Everything is going to work itself out, just hang in there, OK? There's a reason for it all."
Who’s that? Leo turns around to see Big Gregg emerging from the store….what relief!
"You’re all right! Were you hiding? You OK? Is Julia OK? Everyone OK?" Leo demands to know. Leo continues to ask why the raiders didn’t abduct them, but Gregg just stands there with a goofy smirk. Why did he take off his Gonzaga sweat jacket? Suddenly, the big guy is a plague monster too.
"Uummm, dude, who are you talking to?…..Ummmmm…what are you doing?" Silent Dave skittishly asks.
What? Leo turns back to Gregg but he’s gone. The devastation is overwhelming, like a million bricks crushing him. This is too much......way too much....Leo begins to go in circles again. He can’t breathe….his chest is tight and head light. The machete feels like a thousand pounds and is dropped.
Dave can’t believe what he’s seeing. Then, that awful sound begins and a dozen dirty plague monsters emerge from a side yard, immediately setting their glazed eyes on them.
A poisonous red and yellow intestine hangs from one ripped open creature.....just lovely! Those things with their arms out and mouths wide open seem to be moving faster than normal. Damn it! The silent one grabs the machete and stands ready for a battle. Yup, Dave is one brave, or stupid, dude. He should run, but the bugger doesn't even hesitate. It’s the smart play to save yourself when it’s looking grim, no? But nope, he’ll try to save Leo even though it’s not looking so good. That’s just who he’s always been.
Everything sounds muffled for Leo who drifts into a deep sleep. Night, night, pleasant dreams.
Just a few miles away, other survivors are patrolling the streets looking for supplies. It’s the group travelling in that light beige motorhome. They arrive at several businesses and, holding only a novelty sword and pipes for defence, begin peering through windows.
There’s nothing they need at a sex shop and are about to walk away, but a terrible sound draws them to the front window. The floor is covered in a large pool of blood and there's red spray all over the adult items on the shelves.
Something is moving around in the back but they’re not going to stick around to find out what.
Unbeknownst to this group, meanwhile, the irascible biker Head Snapper and his gorgeous gang watch silently from a nearby rooftop. The circumspect nomads actually saw their own numbers increase briefly but now it’s trending in the opposite direction. Having had their fill of ravenous corpses and vicious, desperate marauders, they’ll be keeping quiet and observe, avoiding any further disastrous forays.
Story by Sandor Gyarmati
Comic art by Jess Soares (HouseofBlackArt.com)
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