Cold. Cold and stiff, his muscles small, tight knots like crab apples left to winter frost. Greg’s throat was raw and his eyes grainy, as if the world around him were made up of tiny newspaper print dots. Even his internal voice was wrong, muffled as if his head were stuffed with cotton batting.
Sitting up set off an explosion in his head, igniting the cotton and exploding his eyeballs –Dammit to hell! What was I doing last night?
Greg leaned forward, moaning into hands heavy as lead. The ground shifted beneath him, a crackling assaulting his ears even as his bare rear was abraded. Making small whimpering noises at the unrelenting pain, he dropped his hands to the floor beneath him. Only it was not a floor of wood or carpet as he might expect, but dry leaves and cool soil.
Looking about as his neck protested with painful pops, he realized his room was farther from him now than a sense of propriety from those who’d ordered this drop.
There! It was a drop. Too near a homestead, he’d thought, but hadn’t said. Better to keep quiet, to do his job. And he’d seen something strange among the deaders. Someone he knew. Then he’d gone on to the next stop, where he’d gotten into trouble and been brigged for insubordination. He wasn’t sure what he’d done, only that it involved shooting. Had he shot someone, someone fully alive?
He shook his head slowly, mindful of the pain even as he tried to drag forth more of the memory. He couldn’t concentrate.
The woods were free of birdsong. At least there was that.
Curling into a ball on one side, he shivered and tried to keep from vomiting. He probed his denuded memory as the cold of the leaf littered floor seeped into his bones. The details seemed to matter less and less. As cohesive thought became more difficult, Greg became aware of piercing hunger.
He didn’t think he’d lain there long before being kicked.
He screamed, looking up to find the offender. He began moaning again as soon as he caught sight of his tormentor.
Les Michaels towered above him, drooling from one side of his slack jaw. Les, who’d played Poker with him at Corporate. Les, who’d made him welcome in a strange place, and whom he’d seen in the last drop of plague victims.
He knew now what must have happened to him. At that moment, he knew his punishment. The details mattered not at all. All that mattered was the pain, the pain of the early morning glow hardening into daylight.
Les kicked again.
Greg stood, whimpering at the soreness of his thigh. He followed Les.
They trekked through the woods, coming out at a small homestead, the one Greg had wondered about when he’d dropped Les along with the other deaders, as ordered. They walked to the coolness of the dark barn.
With great relief, Greg moved out of the sunlight and into darkness.
A small woman who’d once been blonde gnawed at the bones of something partially obscured by old, moldy hay and shadows. Goat carcasses lay around her as flies lit and buzzed, attracted by the blood on the carcass, the woman’s hands and face, and what was left of her hair.
The once-man realized what it was laying face down in the hay. This homestead had indeed been inhabited by the living. Once, but no longer.
Greg looked at all this without fear. As the barn door shut behind him, closing out the painful daylight, he stepped toward the homesteader, all thoughts of propriety and his prior existence forever obliterated. He dropped to his knees and fed.