Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Girl in the Tower

The villagers walked the streets day and night now. They were searching for food. The birds no longer graced the sky but the reason for their absence was unknown. Some surmised that they had fallen victim to the sickness while others believed they had simply navigated to a place in the sky that didn’t smell of decaying flesh and the utter absence of hope. A stranger might see the town square at a distance and venture in expecting to converse with the locals and grab a pint at the tavern but he would quickly regret his decision to enter this place. The villagers that now canvassed the pavement had no interest in conversation anymore. They had only one driving force and that was the need to feed on the living. The people of this village were trapped in that place between the living and the dead. In essence, they were undead.              
The true nature of the infection was unknown but the survivors did have an understanding of how and when the illness took hold. John White and his children were the first in the village to become sick.  Since John was a hunter, it was believed that he fed his family meat from an infected animal. The small children were the first to become feverish and weak. They refused to eat and thinned quickly. Then, they started to lose their hair in clumps and eventually lost consciousness. They remained feverish and comatose for several days before they were pronounced dead and the screams of their father could be heard throughout the village. It wasn’t until the children left the house that the villagers realized that John White’s screams were not the result of his mourning. They were screams of terror. His dead children had risen and dined on his left arm. The infection took John quickly once he’d been bitten and the cycle of infection changed. Seemingly healthy people died in their sleep and left their beds to feast on the flesh of their families and friends. 

The few inhabitants that were lucky enough to escape the village bunkered down in the surrounding forest. They were on constant alert now as the supply of fresh meat in the city dwindled and the undead were beginning to pick up their scent and venture further from the walled city to feed.  These people were accustomed to conflict and had survived multiple raids by rival villages, but this was not the same. This time the raiders were a perverse transmutation of their former friends, lovers, and neighbors and the only way to prevent them from killing the group was to remove their heads.

As with most groups who have lost their leaders, these survivors hungered for someone to take command and add a sense of order to the chaos that had been thrust upon them. There were several men who wanted the task but they were known as men of greed with faulty moral compasses and a natural order began to form under an unlikely leader instead. He was the son of an Army captain but he had never been a soldier. This man, Troy, was tall in stature. His ice blue eyes sat deep in his fair face. His sleek body was well developed and his hair shined blue in the sun. His striking appearance had made him the chosen suitor for the village’s most sought after maiden. Had the infection not taken hold, he would now be married to the governor’s stunning young daughter, Rapunzel. 

No one was certain what had become of the governor and his family. It was believed that they may have packed up in the night and left the village. If this were true, they would likely have headed to the tower fortress in the east. It was a grand stone tower erected in an early time to provide refuge for the monarchy during the Great War. Troy sat alone each night and looked to the east in search of a sign. He vowed that should he see a light to the east he would head for the tower and reclaim his bride, but the sky remained dark and with each passing night his hope faded further. 

The morning routine at the campsite was always the same. Because the nature of the infection remained undetermined, the group would form a line each morning and undergo an inspection of their hair. Rapid hair loss was the one symptom that seemed constant with the undead and checking for hair loss was the most efficient means of determining if a survivor was infected. When the inspection was over, the women would tuck their hair away under caps or in hairpins believing the undead could identify the living through the presence of hair. 

On this morning, Troy happened upon a group of men huddled near the edge of the camp. He approached and asked, “What are we discussing this morning?” The men bowed their heads in silence. John Rogers, a portly man who had been balding rapidly before the outbreak stepped forward and spoke. “We were talking about our present state of affairs.” he said, and then he added, “The undead are traveling further into the forest now and we’ve had far too many close calls with the children and women here. This place is no longer safe for us. We were wondering why we shouldn’t head east to the tower and take shelter there.”

Conflicted, Troy replied, “We’ve had this discussion before. First, the trip will take several days and we have no idea what we might encounter along the way. We would need to cross several large clearings and we would have no cover when we camped for the night. We’d be sitting ducks. Second, we don’t know how far east the infected have wandered. If we were to survive the trip and take refuge in the tower we could find ourselves surrounded by the undead. We lack the ability to collect enough supplies to bunker down for any long duration and would need to venture out frequently to collect food. Which of you would be willing to face a hungry mob of the undead in order to do that? We could save ourselves from the flesh eaters only to starve to death in the tower. No, we’re safer out here. The forest provides us with some camouflage and we can move about freely to collect food and, if necessary, defend ourselves. I think it’s better not to confine ourselves like trapped prey.”

Michael Billings, a shaky little man, was the next to speak, “I would just like to sleep with both eyes closed for a change and that tower was built for just that purpose. Wouldn’t you like to sleep through the night without fearing that you will turn into some kind of a monster by morning?”
Troy replied, “Yes, of course I would, but sleeping in the tower would not offer me that peace of mind. Just because no one in this group has been spontaneously infected yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I will remind you that we still don’t know how this infection spreads. Would you really sleep well knowing that one of your companions may change during the night?” He didn’t want to confess to them that he’d often considered sneaking off in the night. That he still might leave them behind as he embarked on a solitary journey to the tower. He longed desperately to know if his true love had survived the initial outbreak. He prayed she would be in the tower scanning the surrounding terrain for some sign of him and he hoped she hadn’t given up on him. It would be easy for him to give in to the will of the group and travel with them under the pretense of seeking shelter in the tower fortress but he feared that this large group might act as a moving target for the undead leading them to the tower and dooming his true love. It was a risk he was not willing to take. How could he be expected to lead these people when he was so willing to sacrifice them all in the name of love? They may be better off without him but he felt a sense of duty to them.

Rapunzel and her mother were busy covering the windows so they could light the oil lamp before the sun went down. The tower was damp and cold but the governor feared the smell of a fire might attract the undead so they spent their nights huddled together in blankets. Just twelve days after the outbreak they were running low on food. The governor set out at noon, shotgun in hand, and had not yet returned. Rapunzel and her mother were concerned but neither would speak of it. They lit the lamp and sat together on the floor wishing they could sneak a glance out the window.
Troy covered his head with his blanket and was sleeping in a matter of minutes.  He found himself drifting up off the hard ground and floating slowly through the air. He opened his eyes and scanned the terrain just a few feet below him. Though he was moving at a snail’s pace, time moved swiftly. He had traveled from the base camp to the tower in just a matter of minutes. He wanted to lay his feet on the ground and make a run for the door but he had no control over his body and found himself moving up the side of the tower toward a window above.  The window was covered with dark fabric. ‘That’s why there’s never a light” he thought.  Stirred by the sounds of shuffling feet and muffled voices, he tried desperately to remain asleep if only to catch a fleeting glimpse of his beloved but the sounds were drawing closer and he awoke in a frenzied state.
“Undead are in the woods.” Someone whispered.

There was no light save for the dull illumination filtering through the trees from the full moon. The group slept in a tight formation and his was the only bedding that still contained a body. He stood up and joined his companions.  He listened hard to determine what noise, if any, had generated their fear. At first there was nothing, then, a soft moaning came from the north.
“Do you have your weapons?” He asked quietly.

“We do, but it will be difficult to take aim with anything but a bat or an axe without lighting our torches. They’ll need to be right in front of us and we have no way of knowing how many there are.” The man who Troy could now identify as Michael Billings was incapable of masking the terror in his voice. 

“Let’s just try to stay calm. Make sure the children are close to their parents and for God’s sake keep them silent.” Troy responded, as the moaning grew louder and closer. Then, the snapping of twigs beneath the weight of a body caused one of the women to gasp loudly. Troy held tight to the breath within his lungs and waited. The woods stood silent for an instant then sprung to life with the clamor of horrifying groans from trotting corpses.  

“Scatter and head to the east!” Troy screamed. He did not have a large weapon and had no choice but to flee. If he were to be attacked, he would have to rely on the nine inch knife on his hip for protection. The group had prepared for this scenario and knew to fan out in a wide formation. They screamed loudly back and forth so the sounds would come from several directions and, they hoped, confuse their mindless pursuers. 

“They got Billings!” Someone screamed. “They’re right behind us!”
“Just run! Don’t look back, don’t stop for anything!” Troy called back. He was running at a good pace. He knew that he would reach the first clearing soon and would try to take a quick headcount when his companions were visible again. He feared that some would fall behind, particularly those who were carrying children. The moon shone brightly in the clearing and seeing it caused him to quicken his pace.

The terrain under him changed quickly and he caught his foot in the long prairie grass and tumbled to his knees.  He rolled over and righted himself just as six of his companions came in to view. He could see them more clearly now and was pleased to see that two of them were holding children.  They drew their weapons and turned to face the trees. They were in a good place now. They could see anyone who emerged from the forest. Four more survivors arrived and took up arms with their companions. 

 The last of the living to come forward was an eight year old boy. His chest rose and fell hard as he wept and gasped for breath. He stepped toward the group and was thrust into the air at the hands of a tattered, grey corpse. Troy threw his knife with swift precision and caught the monster square between the eyes. It staggered backwards and dropped the child who scurried on hands and knees to the arms of his screaming mother. The battle was on and the unmistakable popping of gun fire echoed and bounced off the trees as a precession of undead slithered into view. Men with axes ran at the writhing corpses and they were all separated from their heads.  

When the fighting was done and the headcount concluded, the group of twenty had been cut down to twelve; three women, three children, and six men. Dazed and exhausted, they could travel no further. Troy knew that he could make the rest of the journey to the tower on his own and the idea tempted him, but he couldn’t walk away from these people now. Not after seeing the terror in that little boy’s eyes. His dear Rapunzel would have to wait because if he chose her over that child, he would no longer be the man she loved.
Rapunzel woke with a start and shook her mother fiercely. “Mother, wake up! I fell asleep too. Did father return?” Her mother looked up at her as the reality of things slowly washed over her expressionless face. “Oh God, I don’t know.” She muttered.

 Rapunzel moved toward the window praying that she would see the moon when she removed the rag tag curtain but rays of sunlight danced across the room and glistened on the stone wall behind her.  “We’re going to need to check outside.” She said with hesitation. “He may have come back while we were sleeping. We might not have heard him at the door.” They were certain to bolt the door from the inside after he had left and they would have had to let him back in.
“I don’t think I can go out there.” Her mother said as tears began streaming down her pasty face.
“We have to, Mother. He may be asleep in the doorway.” Rapunzel demanded. 

The thick wood door was equipped with an intricate locking system comprised of a large steel arm that slid across the door and into a slot that was carved in the stone wall on the other side. It took the strength of both women to free the bolt from the wall and would take the force of a massive battering ram to break through it from the outside.  They pulled at the bolt with great force and the tip slid free from the wall. The thickness of the door and walls made it virtually impossible to hear anything coming from the other side. If the undead were lurking near the door they would not be visible from the window above and by opening the door, the women were inviting potential danger inside. Rapunzel pulled at the door until sunlight began streaming through it. She put her eye up to the crack and strained her neck to scan the landscape. 
“Father is there!” She shouted. “He’s sleeping under the tree.” She threw the door open and took flight bounding down the entry stairs. Her mother was on her heels and the two reached the figure under the tree in tandem. They were standing before him when Rapunzel noticed his grey complexion. He hadn’t been stirred by their cries and her mother dropped to her knees and wept.

“Mother, move away from him. He may not be dead. It might be the infection.” Rapunzel said, placing her hand on her mother’s shoulder.

“He’s your father.” Her mother pleaded.

“I know, but it’s not safe. We need to go back inside. I’m sorry.” The girl said and wiped her own tears.

She helped her mother to her feet but her progress was halted by her mother’s cries. She felt the woman’s hands slip from hers as she tried desperately to cling to her. Her father pulled his wife to the ground and climbed on top of her. Rapunzel reached for her outstretched hand but it was too late. Her father had already sunk his teeth into his wife’s exposed throat.
“Run!” her mother cried and Rapunzel obliged. Low on food and missing her father’s weapon, the girl returned to the tower alone. She would spend the next desperate hour attempting to bolt the door.

It was three days after the survivor’s camp had been overrun, and they were well on their way to the tower fortress. Troy estimated that they would reach the tower by dusk and that realization was the only thing willing him to continue. He wanted to hope for a happy ending but even if he were to find Rapunzel alive and well in her tower, their world would still have gone insane. We’ll do our best to survive it, he thought. If we’re together we will find a way. His foot came in contact with a soft, squishy, mass that burst with a pop under his weight. He raised a hand so the group would stop. Examining the grass beneath him, he discovered the first bird he’d seen since the outbreak. It was a rotting black bird. 

“There’s one over here.” Someone said, then another and another. The grass was thick with them. Robins, jays, starlings, and crows were all lying together as if they had just fallen from the sky and the thought of them caused Troy’s sorrow to inch closer to despair.

There was a kind of amnesia that came with this plague. When the dead awoke, their brains were washed clean as if doing so were necessary to erase their humanity. Rapunzel’s mother rose from her slumber and sniffed the air picking up the residual scent of her daughter but she didn’t turn to the tower in search of her. She had no memory of her or the stone structure that had recently been their refuge. She simply followed the lead of her husband and wandered in to the woods.

Rapunzel watched them from the top floor window. Her attempts to bolt the door had not been successful so she resigned herself to know where they were at all times, at least until the sun went down.  She was thinking about her beloved Troy. She wondered if he had made it out of the village and if he was still alive. There was a part of her that believed he had made it. He was braver, smarter, and stronger than anyone else she had known. She’d wondered why, when the panic broke out, he hadn’t found his way to her and her family. Her eyes were glued to the window when they rolled out of town just as they were now. She prayed she would see him running up behind them but he didn’t come. She prayed that she would see him standing in the clearing below this window and this time, her prayers were answered. Troy and several other people were coming out of the forest. She leapt from her seat at the window but her elation turned to panic when she remembered her parents. She turned in haste to run to the stairs and knocked the oil lamp to the slick concrete floor in an eruption of shattering glass that she met while in full stride. Her feet came clear off the floor and she landed hard on her face. 

Troy looked up and discovered that the window from his dream was not covered. He called out, “Governor, sir are you here?” but no response came. Weapons drawn, they inched closer keeping a keen watch on both the forest and the tower door. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel are you here?” He screamed but still there was no answer.

“There’s something moving in the trees.” A woman cried and the group turned their attention there. A low moaning resonated just inside the forest. They readied their weapons and watched as the governor staggered in to view. He bore his teeth at them and quickened his pace. He was driven by the need to feed. The first shot was fired and propelled him backwards. The second shot pierced his temple and sent him to the ground. A man with an ax stepped forward to complete the task. He raised the ax high but dropped it to the ground as a bullet passed his ear. He turned to see the governor’s wife falling lifeless behind him. He steadied himself and raised the ax again. 

The door was closed and would be locked if anyone alive were inside. Troy shouted again, “Rapunzel, are you there?” She has to be in there, he thought. If she wasn’t she would be out here like them. His thoughts were disturbed by the loud groan of the heavy door. Rapunzel’s pale hand was pulling it with great difficulty. Her eyes were small slits in her pasty face. Blood rolled down from her forehead creating a stark contrast to the color of her flesh. She stumbled into the light and tried to speak but the throbbing in her head made forming words too difficult. Troy took a step in her direction but another man caught him from behind.
“She looks like she’s changing. Don’t go over there!” He said.
“She may just be hurt.” Troy replied pulling himself free of the man’s grip. He took another step toward her and the man shouted, “If you go over there I’ll shoot you where you stand. It will save us the trouble of having to use the ax later.”

She descended the stairs and the group cocked their weapons. They were ready to fire when Troy cried, “Wait! You want to know if she’s infected, right? Rapunzel! Rapunzel let down your hair!” He screamed. 

She tilted her head trying to clear the ocean sounds that filled her throbbing ears.
“Rapunzel, if you’re still human, let down your hair!” Troy begged and this time she understood. She reached up and tugged at her hair pins. Her long, golden locks fell free and ran down her back to her ankles. The men lowered their weapons. Troy ran to her and she fell in to his embrace.

As the daylight faded on the tower, Troy tended to Rapunzel’s wound and she recounted the story of her parent’s devolution.
“Do you think we can survive this?” She asked. “Will things ever go back to the way they were?”
“I don’t think things will ever go back to the way they were, but I have faith that we will be safe again.” He replied.

“What gives you faith?” She asked.

“A few things cause me to have faith. First, we both managed to escape the infected, and though we started out in opposite directions we ended up together here. Second, look over there.” He said, pointing to the meadow lark that had landed just a few feet away.                                                                                            

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Real life kicked me off my writing wagon!

Children to support, no husband anymore, mortgage to pay ... the list goes on! Inevitably, my writing ventures, like most writers, did not make me an overnight sensation and I needed to go back to a "real job" in the "real world". Don't  get me wrong! I am grateful that I found one that I can really enjoy, but that emptiness in my soul has returned. It's that hole that develops when you aren't doing what you're meant to do. Back to feeling selfish because I want to write but have limited quality time with my now single parented children so I don't.

I got a wake up call the other day. Suddenly, an article that I'd placed on a content source site a while back sold. I felt that spark again. That little voice said, "Someone found your work and connected with it enough to spend money on it. They believed YOUR words would add value to their web site."

Now, I'm making it my mission to climb back in my wagon. Slowly, but surely, and this post is my affirmation and first step!