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The Death of Fear
The sky was blue, the clouds were few, and the sun shone down warmly on the tree tops. A soft breeze filtered its way through the leaves, bringing the spicy, sweet scent of wildflowers and magnolias. A young woman of about twenty years was walking cautiously toward a lonely creek bed. She had a brass bucket swinging by her side for the purpose of collecting water. Her gray eyes darted to every sound, like a deer surrounded by unseen predators. Careful where she placed her feet, she avoided sticks and leaves that looked too crunchy. She didn’t want to make a sound. Sounds brought unwanted attention. She bent low over the stream and dipped the bucket in to gather water for cooking. Bradley had told her they were running low on water back at camp. She wouldn’t know because she liked being in the woods where there were no people getting too emotional. There had not been an attack in weeks so she did not understand why some would be so worried. No one had even died the in the last one.
The woman picked her way slowly through the trees back to camp, the bucket heavy with water. The camp was not very big. It held about fifteen people from the ages of twelve to fifty-four. There were two that were in their twenties, Bradley, who was twenty four and herself. She did not mind being the only girl her age; she did not get along with girls much anyway. In fact, she would say she did not get along with anyone very well.
She hated how humanity had gotten. Many people seemed to think it was someone else’s responsibility to take care of them. And if they were not given everything they thought they needed, they would complain saying that nobody had the right to do that to them. They seemed to forget that the rights you get are the rights you earn. She did not think that others were worth her concern; it was hard enough taking care of herself during these times. The only reason she stayed in this group was because she knew she would not make it by herself. Strength was in numbers. Zombies could easily destroy one lone woman, but it was harder for them to kill more people who were ready for their attacks.
The camp itself was in a small clearing surrounded by woods with a cliff at the back. She did not like where the camp was placed because they could very easily get trapped. But even though zombies might make their way through, they still could be sniped by those on guard duty just as long as there weren’t a swarm of the things. Zombies seem to have no purpose except to consume humans. They do not think; they just attack without planning or strategies. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. Because they do not think they do not learn from their mistakes, you can pick them off easily. But they do not feel emotion or pain. You cannot scare them away and you cannot cause them to feel so much pain they are too consumed by it to fight.
They also had to watch out for looters. Looters are made up of two different kinds of people: those who are desperate to live, and those who just do not care. You might be able to help the ones who are desperate if you can get around their insanity. The ones who just do not care are the hard ones. You have to be willing to defend yourself by all means necessary because those looters will not stop for anything.
She made her way through the clearing, not stopping for the tentative smile the twelve year old boy gave her. Matthew was his name. He seemed to adore her, but she had no time to spare for simple admirers. She needed to get the water to Bradley before it got too late to cook.
Bradley was bent over a table looking at a map. The map had some water damage from when it fell in the creek. Matthew had been carrying it for them while they were running from the first wave of zombies a couple weeks back. He had accidentally dropped it in the water. At least the current was slow-moving so they could pick it up before it was swept away. Bradley now always kept it with him. A map was too precious to let a boy handle it these days. Bradley looked up at her.
“Maddy, you got the water? Good, come here and look at this map.” Maddy set the water down on the table with a heavy sigh. All Bradley ever wanted to do was to look at maps.
“See, look here. We didn’t notice this entrance before! The zombies could come in here anytime without us realizing it!” She looked over his shoulder and shook her head. She had noticed it the very first time they made camp, but when she tried to point it out, nobody had listened.
“Of course I saw it. You just don’t listen.” He still did not listen; he just stayed bent over the map with his eyebrows drawn together. Smacking him lightly on the head, to which she got no response, she turned around to go back to the woods. Matthew stood right behind her and she almost tripped over him. Swearing she caught herself and stared questioningly at the boy.
“Well?” She asked while his face flushed with embarrassment and excitement.
“Ma’am please, can I go with you? Into the woods?” He was practically begging. She smiled cynically.
“Your momma would mind too much, kid.” Ress did not like Maddy so she could use that as an excuse for why Matthew could not go with her. She claimed from the very beginning that Maddy was too harsh, that she had no feelings. Maddy never argued with her; in many ways it was true. But it wasn’t that she did not have feelings, she just didn’t show them. They were impractical and did not help much in the way of survival. Matthew’s face screwed up defiantly at her words.
“So? What does that matter for?” was his reply. Laughing lightly, she bent down to his height.
“Honestly kid, I am not too fond of people hanging around me. You would make too much noise and possibly attract attention. If you do that, we’d have zombies at our camp in hours. Do you want that?” He still had that rebellious look about him, but he hung his head.
“Well, I promise to be really, really quiet…” he looked back up staring pleadingly in her eyes. She saw there what she felt herself; a need to get away, a hunger to live and to actually do something about it. He did not have in his eyes a look that suggested fear or boredom. That is what led many to do crazy things. No, in his eyes he had the look of a survivor. But there was something more, a something she could not define. Her amused smile slipped away and a calculating look took its place. She glanced quickly around for Ress and saw her standing idly by her tent. Maddy grimaced. Ress did not do any work around camp. She sat there expecting everyone to do what needed to be done to protect her and Matthew. Ress always complained about how the government could not have fallen and how the authorities should be trying to help them. It had been months, and she still held on to the hope that others were there to protect her. Well, Maddy surely would not protect her.
Now determined, Maddy looked back down at Matthew. She did not know what she was determined about exactly, but she knew she had to do something to teach Matthew how to live, how to survive. Slowly she nodded her head. Instead of looking overjoyed or excited, he looked determined too. As if he knew what she was thinking, he said “I know I have lots to learn. If we humans have any chance of survival, we will need to learn how to do that-- survive. We need to learn to take care of ourselves and not sit around waiting for something to happen to save us. Like my mom does…” He glanced over at her sadly.
“Well, with kids like you, I’m sure we’ll make it.” Maddy said with quiet certainty. She stood up and took his hand, leading him to the woods.
They had to sneak around Ress’s tent so she would not see Matthew leaving camp. Matthew was an expert sneaker; he slinked around the tent like he was just a shadow. Maddy smiled dryly. At least he can really be quiet. Maddy walked casually by Ress.
“Hello Ress.” She got a glare in return. Maddy grinned quietly to herself and started making her way to the woods. She wondered where they should start. Handling a gun would not work; the shot would attract zombies from miles away. Maybe she could start with how to set traps for game and how to use plants for food and medical purposes. Yes, she nodded to herself, that’s where we’ll start. Matthew was already waiting at the edge of the first beech tree. He was studying a small trail of ants working their way along the ground. Three of them were working together to pick up a large crumb of bread. Matthew looked up at Maddy, his eyes filled with wonder and determination.
“I want our camp to be like these ants, all of us doing our part to keep us alive. If one ant stops holding up that crumb, the whole ant hill will be affected because the two left over would not be able to carry that load all by themselves,” Matthew observed. Maddy looked down on the ground. What he said irked her. Working together?
“I don’t see how our camp could work together. Not everyone will do their part.” She said. He looked up at her with a sad look on his face.
“Yeah, not everyone has yet…. Maybe, maybe someone should teach them to.”
“Good luck with that.” She laughed to herself, but then stopped, feeling like maybe that was not something to laugh about. He looked a little hurt. “Oh, come on kid. We’ve got a lot to do before it gets dark.” She looked at the position of the sun in the sky. It seemed to be around four in the afternoon so they had a few hours to get things done. Hopefully his mom would not notice him missing for a while.
Maddy spent the first two hours teaching him knots to use in trapping. At first he seemed really interested and did very well, but after an hour of going over the same knot he got bored. Next she started showing him the different types of plants that could be eaten or used as medicine. Matthew was fascinated with the idea of one plant being used to save someone’s life so he spent the rest of the hour memorizing the different berries and roots used to stop infections. The sun started going down so Maddy decided it was time to make their way back to camp. They followed the small stream that wound through the trees like a pen stroke on paper. Matthew stopped in his tracks.
“Maddy,” He whispered in a frightened voice, “Maddy, do you hear that following us?” Maddy strained her ears listening for a sound. There, she heard it, the shuffling of feet and then a low moan. Her heart stopped. Looters would not make so much noise if they were tracking someone and only a zombie would make that characteristic moan.
“It’s alright Matthew, it’s just one of them…” she hoped anyway. She pulled the hatchet out of her belt and held it in her hand. Silently, she grabbed Matthew’s arm and pulled him to a tree. She pointed up. He nodded once and slinked up the towering beech. Maddy turned and looked in the direction of the clumsy sounds of the zombie’s movements. She saw it. Part of the thing’s face had rotted away and one of its legs was mangled and bent at an unnatural angle. Its eyes were dead, staring off unseeing, uncaring into space. In her heart she felt in a fear she never let surface before. She felt a fear of the creatures, zombie and human, that lived for no purpose but to consume other people or destroy their work, a fear of becoming one of those creatures herself. Maddy lifted her hatchet ready to decapitate the rotting corpse making its way slowly towards her. Finally, the thing caught her sent and lifted its dead eyes towards her own. A fierce anger filled her, anger at people like Ress, anger at herself for not doing her part to protect those type of people. The moaning of the zombie made her heart pound with a heady determination. She would do her part to protect the human race, even those like Ress who did not deserve it, Ress who glared at her for no reason other than being there, Ress who tried her hardest to stand in someone else’s shadow, Ress who taught her boy nothing about living for himself. The zombie was suddenly in front of her, grasping, reaching with its long, grey arms. Its rotting stench made its way up to Matthew hiding in the tree. Maddy did not smell it; she did not even see it clearly. She only saw her fear, anger, and bitterness towards herself and what she had become. And that is what she killed. With one move the hatchet went straight through everything she despised. She did not notice the blood stains on her shirt as she stood there panting. She did not see Matthew practically falling out of the tree to get to her side. Maddy only felt the strong reassurance that she was free, that she was able to go on living because she was no longer the woman who did not care for others. She would protect those around her not only because if she lived by herself she would die, but because she would lose her humanity without those who remind her of it. Suddenly she remembered the ants. Humans need each other. Not only in the sense of survival like the ants, but also in the sense of companionship. Without companionship humans would lose what it means to be human. Maddy looked at Matthew standing beside her.
“Come on kid, let’s go teach our camp how to work together.”
“Like those ants?”
“Like those ants.”