Chapter 11 - Entry 4
September 28th, 2021 - October 16th, 2021
I used a wheelchair to wander the lower floors for a few days until my legs were strong enough to walk again. The upper floors followed after that. Each step, each trembling footfall, led me to a baby’s cry or the muffled laugher of children playing. I felt a swelling emptiness as though the place where Mal had grown for nine months ached for his return. A full week passed before I could return to the cottage.
The crows had been disposed of; piles of little blackened bones filled a ditch beyond the gates where bodies had burned. Gashes and scratches covered the walls. Gouges marred metal shutters over each cracked window. Something had leaked in the living room, leaving wet puddles and the scent of mildew heavy in air grown stagnant.
The bedroom door hung off its hinges where someone had torn it free to reach me. Greasy black feathers littered the floor and stuck to spots on the harrowed walls. A window in the bedroom had been opened to air the place out but the reek of human waste, sweat and fear still clung stubbornly to every surface as I stepped inside. Heedless of the soiled sheets, I laid down on the bed and cried.
In my mind, I could still feel Mal’s warm weight against my body. Could still smell his scent and hear his soft, gurgling coos. A pillow took his place for the moment, crushed against me as the overpowering sense of loss crashed down without mercy or end. In grief, my mind slipped into madness.
“Oh Marley. You shouldn’t be here. It’s too soon,” Mary whispered from the doorway.
I barely heard her voice above the sobs that wracked my body. The emptiness inside felt like a black hole, sucking all light and joy from the universe into its bottomless depths. Hands stroked my hair as I felt the bed shift from her weight. We sat like that forever.
The tears stopped eventually and my voice returned enough to speak. “What am I going to do Mary? What can I do?”
She shook her head and used a finger to wipe tears from my face. “I don’t know Marl. Heal? Wait for some time to pass and have another child?”
“I can’t give up hope that he’s still alive. I need to know for certain or else I’ll never be able to move on.”
“I know. I know.” Mary whispered, squeezing my shoulder before leaning down to kiss my forehead. “You still want to go to Jaeger’s woods?” She asked.
“I have to.”
“We’ll go as soon as you’re strong enough.”
That took another week. A long, agonizing week spent eating, sleeping and trying to regain enough strength to walk unaided. No volunteers stepped forward when I asked for help one night at dinner. Karl all but forbid me from going.
Jacob tried to hail Jaeger on the HAM but no answer came. Only silence and static. In the end, Mary and I chose bikes and carried the handguns Jaeger had given us a decade before. We left the next morning just as the sun began to rise with a crowd wishing us luck and waving to our backs. None expected us to return.
It was the first time all but a few had left the fenceline in five years.
The world had changed without sunlight. Earthquakes. Volcanic ash mixed with water to form something heavier than cement. Zombies. A lack of human hands maintaining all that had been built. It was barely recognizable.
Forests of dead trees stood in leafless clusters surrounded by fields of gray mud and broken buildings. Weeds had only begun their return a few years before and grew in scraggly, isolated patches. Fallen trunks and limbs lay rotting, strewn about when winds finally sundered brittle wood and sent them tumbling.
Mary and I peddled in silence along cracked roadways buried beneath mud, dirt and debris. Cars lay rusting to either side, tires long since deflated and paint faded or peeling free of pockmarked metal. Few windows remained intact. Mummified skeletons still reclined in rotting seats here and there.
Occasionally we’d spot a zombie shuffling about aimlessly or gnawing on saplings that had somehow survived and begun to grow once more. A cluster huddled near the roadside, scooping handfuls of mud into their rotting mouths. We peddled faster as they rose and gave chase for a few minutes. Eventually they stopped and returned to their search for buried insects and algae.
We kept heading east towards Jaeger’s forest, skirting the lake and river’s eroded banks where neglect and time had worn away man’s efforts to contain the water. Buildings lay toppled everywhere; broken and shattered initially by earthquakes before weather and decay worked their misery from within.
Everything was gray. Everywhere was gray.
Bleak. Ruined. Dead.
Until we spotted Jaeger’s woods.
Rich, vibrant shades of green seemed blinding as Mary and I stopped our bikes where one roadway’s remnant met another, staring at the forest in shock and disbelief. Before the world had ended and the internet brought videos of distant lands to my living room, I’d seen places like Jaeger’s woods before. Jungles in exotic lands like the Amazon. Not here in Connecticut. Not here where no sunlight had sustained life for ten years.
But there it was. Lush, verdant and so violently alive. A thick, heavy mist or fog crawled outwards from the forest’s edge. Creeping vines snaked their way across the ground in a living carpet until those thick mists faded and seeking tendrils ceased their expansion.
The road itself served as the boundary; half covered by those vines and mist to leave one side dead yet passable and the other seething with life. Underbrush and smaller trees formed a wall between that road and the older growth beyond, mostly obscured by the same rolling mists and dense, heavy fog. No cars or buildings marred the wild and feral landscape. Only the road itself hinted at anything beyond nature left untamed.
Ironically, the sight of nature unbound seemed completely…unnatural.
We paused to rest and eat a light lunch, watching in silence for movement within the dense growth. There was none. Nothing. Not a single sign of life beyond the trees and plants themselves. Only the mist moved, hypnotic and swirling as it crawled along the ground.
The sun reached its highest point before we started again; riding single-file along the road’s passable half. Water pooled among the vines, whose leaves and stems glistened wetly despite the cool, dry weather. Colors began to take shape, noticeable once our eyes grew accustomed to the shades of green so dominant. Molds, mushrooms and fungus clung to every tree and branch. They coated the ground in vibrant carpets. Everything seemed damp and slick with moisture.
“Marley, look.” Mary whispered from behind.
I stopped and turned to where she was pointing. Ahead sat a tunnel of sorts where trees lined the sides of a path and branches lay interwoven overhead. A dense carpet of thick moss coated the ground as the path disappeared into darkness beyond.
Riding the bikes proved nearly impossible on the spongy trail so we left them at the entrance and proceeded on foot. The same thick, rolling fog rose above that rich green carpet moss to reach our waists as we stepped inside. There was barely enough light to see and the air grew warmer, humid, and filled with rich scents of churned earth and life. The forest swallowed all sound except a soft tinkling of metal tickling metal.
I saw its source overhead. “Chains,” I whispered.
Mary nodded, looking up to the branches where thousands of chains moved gently above. “And bones,” She replied, pointing towards skeletons held to tree trunks on either side of the road by nails and wire.
We cautiously followed the path deeper into the woods, full of fear and wonder at it all. Chains clinked softly overhead, seemingly suspended on every branch and dripping water onto our heads like rain.
Bodies stood as a gruesome, silent honor guard that flanked the trail all along. Most had decayed to mere bones. Others still held patches of rotting skin and tufts of hair. Men, women and children of all shapes and sizes. All sported holes in their foreheads and a coating of mold like colored flesh.
The path snaked its way through the woods, turning abruptly here and there at sharp angles and twisting turns. Time and distance was hard to calculate in the seemingly alien landscape as we traveled through a giant’s artery towards the heart of Jaeger’s domain. We never reached that heart.
Jaeger found us first.
She rose from the mist like a ghostly spirit and blocked the path some twenty feet away. Her clothing, hair and skin matched the steamy fog; all shades of gray and white. It was hard to tell if she was even real. Until a black gun rose from her side and a little dot of red light settled onto Mary’s forehead.
That single, raspy word drifted across the distance. It crawled down my spine and sent shivers along sweaty flesh. My heart thundered. Lungs barely seemed to work. With hands raised, I swallowed and began walking slowly towards her. The gun’s barrel slid my way.
Her hair had changed; grown longer and wild. Like my aunt, Jaeger wore her white locks in a tangled mass of dreads, braids and wavy strands. Unlike my aunt’s, there were bits of bone and black beads woven into the mess that framed her face.
The pants she wore reminded me of urban camouflage. Cargo pants in shades of gray and white. A black sports bra covered her breasts, leaving ample scarred white flesh visible. Corded muscles slid effortlessly under the pale skin of her frame. Bare feet with glossy black nails stood in sharp contrast to the rich green moss beneath.
Aside from the hair and many new scars, Jaeger’s body hadn’t changed in eleven years. Not one single bit.
“Did you take my son?”
Jaeger’s head cocked to the side like a puzzled dog after I’d spoken. Her nostrils flared, white eyes unblinking as she stared at me in silence for a full minute. Abruptly the gun lowered.
“Not me. Frank.”