Lurkers: The Almond Orchard #1
By E. C. Henry
Left to the California Central Valley climate, the almond orchard withered. Neat rows of ghost trees remained, their branches twisted into a low canopy. The grass was tall and golden-brown.
Danny did not want to leave the road here. The gray branches against the darkening sky made this “forest” eerie but the tall grass was the real danger. His other choice was the bridge that crossed an irrigation canal. The canal was half full of thick black water, with something moving in it. Mosquitoes wafted up with the air. Not gonna risk getting in that drink. A rusted bridge spanned the canal. It was soft, for metal. His cautious toeing produced a squeal.
Danny backed away from the bridge and scowled. He listened for the pitter-patter of zombie feet, but didn’t hear anything. He would need to be vigilant this evening.
It might be safer to stick to the road and go back, but there had been those guys roasting a human leg. They might not have killed the person. Plenty of ways to die from not-murder, but it made a terrible first impression. He didn’t want to risk encountering them again.
That, along with his inborn hatred of backtracking decided it. He would head north along the canal tomorrow. It was a long ways to Boulder, and time to make camp for now.
Spear in one hand and flashlight in the other, he stepped into the thigh-high grass and ducked into the first row of trees. Moving with care, he spotted a suspicious mound. He prodded it with the butt of his spear.
He found a place where he was satisfied that he and his gear wouldn’t be seen from the road. Danny then got out his bedroll and kitchen.
He had a state-of-the-art filtration system and tubes he could use to retrieve and purify water from the canal if necessary. He really hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. The best camp cooking equipment money could buy had been his at the low low price of zero dollars.
No worries about food, either. California is an excellent place to live off the land—most of it anyway—and with the drastic reduction in the populations of animals and birds, insects were plentiful. If he couldn’t find what he needed to survive on the road with the tools he had, he wasn’t looking hard enough. Tonight he had one of his favorite dinners: fried honey-vinegar ant patties. Oranges for desert. He took care with his cooking. People used to say, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
He thought that when he next met another person who wasn’t a cannibal or a creeper, he would introduce himself as Daniel. He was grown now, after all. He wasn’t sure exactly when that had happened.
Until then, Frannie and Nick from The Stand were his friends. His actual friends wouldn’t have understood his life now. He wouldn’t want to burden their sweet ghosts, even in his mind.
Daniel woke to a metal squealing sound. There were zombies on the fricken bridge. It would hold after all! He made his way back to the road to check and sure enough, zombies were pouring across the bridge.
Lots of zombies.
Some of the group made him and started towards him. He sighed in irritation and grabbed his spear. The group of zombies approaching was too large to fight all at once. He headed for higher ground.
The zombies pursued him with their customary impassive faces, silence, and slow-and-steady pace. The skin of these older ones was hardened, like they’d grown a layer of fingernail over their faces. Hunting by hearing alone and unable to run, they were nowhere near as formidable as they used to be. Staying ahead of them would be easy if he could see his feet better.
Daniel took his usual interest in seeing people and wondering how they ended up there. For some time now, he’d noticed that crowds seemed to be composed of people from all walks of life, as if zombies diffuse like farts. He giggled, but his disused throat produced no noise.
He tried not to fall into wishing they weren’t all dead again.
The trees were not tall, but their sharp dead branches started at waist level. It was hard to get under them without hitting his head. The branches snapped noisily off with ease. What idiot planted these trees parallel to the road? They’d be so much easier to access perpendicular.
Daniel stopped suddenly, his foot hanging over a lurker, previously a dark skinned young girl, now a calcified zombie. Impossibly fast and silent, she grabbed his boot and bit it. He drove his spear into the top of her skull and lunged back as an old man in flannel grabbed for him. Daniel’s spear butt caught one behind him on the jaw. That was lucky.
More lurkers waited in the grass, saving their strength. So many seemed to have run out of steam here, curled up like horror fetuses. He found it oddly endearing.
He continued on and started to get ahead again. He cut to the left to start circling back. The orchard ended abruptly and he saw a mobile home and tended crops in a fenced and fortified yard across a field. For a moment the want so deep within gripped him, clenching his stomach and stinging his eyes.
It would be imprudent to leave his things behind, but it would be even more prudent to go back for them in the morning. He pushed through the brush at the edge of the field, almost tripping over a mound of dirt. Fantasies of a middle-aged woman greeting him with a blanket and soup and a “You poor dear” playing in his mind.
The grass-covered mound grabbed his ankle, pulling, and he fell sideways and back onto his bottom. It was a boy his own age wearing a Jamba Juice uniform. “Jared,” according to his nametag. Where was there a Jamba Juice out in the sticks like this?
The pain as Jared tore a chunk from his calf was immense, the force of it causing him to vomit. Slimy, shredded flesh hung at the edge of the wound. Daniel couldn’t get his spear up. He kicked the creature in the head with his other leg, trying to crawl away. Jared stopped to chew, but the other zombies wasted no time. Daniel turned over and got up.
Two steps were all his bad leg would support. He thrashed in slow motion as they fell upon him. It was no use. He stopped fighting the crowd.
His brain gave up in a puff of dopamine and all he felt was touching.