Chapter 11 - Entry 2
September 14th, 2021
September was a time of celebration and dread. It marked the harvest as we reaped what had been sowed in the short growing season. It also marked the beginning of brutally cold winters still touched by the pall of Yellowstone’s eruption a decade before.
We were forced to adapt to the new weather; growing crops indoors for all but the few reliably warm months of summer once the sun’s light finally became strong enough to support life. June through September was a frantic time of hard labor, made moreso by the lack of gasoline. What little usable diesel fuel remained powered the generator when winds and sun failed to charge huge battery banks that kept our electricity functional.
The marathon ended after a single, meager harvest scraped from the land had been stored and preserved. For three years we’d celebrated by bringing tables out to the freshly-turned earth at the field’s center and lining them with a feast far larger than anything we’d manage in the long, cold months that followed. A last hurrah before the snow and ice trapped us indoors.
Music blared from speakers set around the clearing as I walked along its outskirts with Mal on my back. His white eyes took in everything over one shoulder. Warm breath tickled my ear when he laughed and cooed.
The others had grudgingly agreed to let us stay until the spring. We moved out of the main building and into a small cottage that lay furthest from the rest. There Mal and I settled into a lonely, isolated routine broken only by the occasional visit from Mary and her twins. My son and I were outcasts in all but the truest sense of the word.
Of the nearly one-hundred faces gathered around the feasting tables, only Mary’s shone with brightness at my appearance. She ushered me to her table and together we sat, talking quietly about gossip and the utterly mundane.
There were no speeches or lofty words spoken during the celebration. No leaders stood on tables and asked for silence. By and large it was more akin to a block party, back when such things were held. Only a few men with rifles abstained from the festivities; unlucky guards who drew short straws.
A single bear lay roasting over an open firepit. Few large animals had survived the volcanic winter. Fewer still when zombies began devouring any living thing after their main diet, humans, had grown too scarce. Still, the scent of its meat made my mouth water in longing for rare tenderloin steaks and fat, juicy hamburgers covered in cheese.
Jacob, the head of our group’s technology committee, sat down across the table from Mary and I, nervously chewing his lower lip. He was a tall, skinny blond that had grown up fast over that last ten years. Part of the group of college students Jaeger, Maliqe and Mary had rescued from Moodus. Along with me.
“Marley? Hi. Ummm. Listen. This may not be the best time but there’s something I think you need to know.” He spoke as he spread out a map of the United States on the table, sweaty hands leaving damp spots on its faded surface. One long, delicate finger pointed to several red circles that ran from northern Maine down to Virginia and across to western North Carolina. “It’s about Jaeger.”
“What’s up Jacob?” Mary asked beside me. Together we looked at the map.
“Well. Once everything fell apart, HAM radios were about the only means of long distance communication left. So a bunch of the survivor groups set up a kind of network to stay in touch and share news. Pretty much covers east of the Rocky Mountains.”
I nodded and watched Karl watching us from a distance over Jacob’s shoulder. He frowned when our eyes met, turning away just as Jacob started speaking again.
“Anyway. Basically these circles are where Jaeger’s been spotted over the last eight years. Each place had a know White-Eyes.” Here he paused and offered an apologetic grimace. “Ummm. You know. Someone changed. Like Jaeger. And Mal there.’
“I understand Jacob. Don’t sweat it. So there are others?”
He nodded and cleared his throat, huge Adams Apple sliding up and down nervously. “There were. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Everywhere on here was where Jaeger showed up and a White-Eyes disappeared.”
“Are you saying Jaeger killed them?” Mary asked.
Jacob shrugged. “I don’t know. Half of these places stopped radio comms after Jaeger was spotted. The ones that didn’t stop reported their White-Eyes had disappeared.”
I looked down at the map and counted nine red circles. Four of them had X’s through them. “Why are you telling me this Jacob?”
Again he paused, swallowing loudly before glancing over his shoulder as if looking for anyone who might be eavesdropping. “Because some of them were babies. Like Mal.”
Dread washed over me as I processed everything Jacob was saying. The communities were keeping track of their abnormal offspring, even going so far as to label them White-Eyes. Information was being shared along the east coast. It begged a question.
“Does anyone outside of our group know about Mal?”
Jacob’s expression of sadness gave me my answer. A look over his shoulder towards Karl gave me another.
The sun was about to set when a single, terrified scream ripped through the air. A woman, her face obscured by shadows, stood near the clearing’s edge with one arm raised, pointing towards a seething wave of blackness that swarmed towards her.
“What is it?” I heard someone yell. Guards ran towards the darkness while everyone else moved away or stood frozen in place. A few more screams and cries of fear joined the first.
It undulated, rolling forward in sporadic, jerky motions like black smoke carried along by an irregular breeze. No sound from its mass could be heard over the music that still blared from speakers nearby. Only screams carried into the night air broke the rhythm. Until guards started firing.
The gunfire broke my paralysis and I quickly grabbed Mal from his tabletop blanket nest. Mary had already left with her twins. I ran towards my cottage, leaving Jacob alone where he stood staring at the black wave. My path cut perpendicular to the approaching cloud of darkness as it rolled and boiled towards the clearing. It wasn’t until I reached the cottage’s door that I understood what my eyes were seeing.
Crows. A vast, unliving, murder of crows.
They crawled and hopped along the ground in a wave of greasy black feathers broken only by milky white eyes, gaining speed as the distance between them and their prey grew steadily smaller. People ran, frantic and terrified when realization dawned, and dashed madly towards the main building where window coverings and barricades were already being set into place.
Like the others, our cottage had been fortified to withstand an assault by zombies with sturdy walls, thick doors, and windows protected by metal storm shutters and bars. We never anticipated undead birds. The siren used when outer walls had been breached began to sound as I laid Mal in his cradle and hurried to secure the building.
I was too late for the bathroom window. A pair of crows, their bodies swollen and bloated, wedged themselves beneath the metal storm shutters and windowpanes. Milky white eyes rolled around in their sockets as they pecked, sending spiderwebs across the window’s surface. No ghastly caws sounded from their beaks; sickly purple tongues had engorged and kept their mouths from fully closing.
Mal cried as I slammed the bathroom door and dragged a bookcase across the room to hold it closed. It felt as though the entire cottage shook beneath the crashing wave of a thousand clawed feet and black beaks. Each peck and scratch against the metal roof overhead rang out like heavy hail landing with earth-shattering force.
Utter darkness filled the tiny living room as the sun set and swarming bodies blocked scant rays of light from the moon overhead. My heart thundered, threatening to erupt from my chest as I pulled Mal into my arms and huddled beneath the small dining table. His cries slowly faded when my tears struck his face and a tiny hand clumsily reached out to grip my chin.
Smiling, I dipped my face down to his and rubbed our noses together. He cooed happily despite the maelstrom of sound that shredded the air around us. We stayed that way for hours, our eyes locked onto each other in silent communion, until sleep eventually carried us away from our nightmare.
I woke up close to dawn with Mal crying loudly beside me. Beaks were worrying at the thin bathroom door, pecking relentlessly as we slept. A cyclone of bodies pounded against the cottage’s exterior while its interior remained shrouded in darkness.
My hands fumbled around until they found the cord of a small desk lamp and a wave of relief washed over me when the bulb flickered on. At least we still had electricity. Mal cried louder at the sudden light. Wincing, I pulled him from his nest beneath the table and sat down on the couch for a feeding.
Surreal. That simple life-giving act performed while surrounded by literal death. I felt so tiny and insignificant. Barely a flickering candle flame on a lightless ocean of darkness. But I wasn’t alone. Mal cooed softly as he nursed, white eyes staring up at me with the peace and wisdom of innocence.
There wasn’t much food in the cottage. We ate meals in the cafeteria where supplies could be stretched to feed the whole community rather than be wasted on the individual. Small scale Communism had let us survive.
Not knowing if the water system was in danger, I filled containers from the kitchen sink and moved everything of use into the bedroom. Each cottage had been retrofitted and bedrooms converted into safe rooms with thick plywood sheets behind the drywall, metal security doors on reinforced frames, and lattice-work metal grills over the windows in addition to the storm shutters.
Sunlight strobed around swarming bodies through gaps in the shutters and beneath doorframes by the time I finished in the bedroom. I had enough food and water for a week. Mal would make due on breast milk as long as I could produce.
A black beak wormed its way through the bathroom door close to noon. Others joined it, turning the thin wood into Swiss cheese as some tipping point was reached. I drank as much water from the sink as I could before stepping into the bedroom and securing the door. The birds broke through half an hour later and my world grew smaller still.
After that, there was nothing I could do but wait for either rescue or death. Given how the group felt about Mal, I assumed we’d be pretty low on the list of people to save. A strange calm passed over me that night as Mal lay sleeping on my chest.
If the birds didn’t kill me, it was likely Jaeger would. Assuming what Jacob had said was true. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why she’d hunt down others like her. Couldn’t understand what threat she felt compelled to destroy. Not that it mattered. Nothing could stop Jaeger. I’d seen that with my own two eyes.
And as I laid there in bed, surrounded by a murder of undead crows, I silently wished she’d come around and do the job before I starved to death or the walls came crashing down.