I seldom write or read horror, but several years ago I was given the opportunity to write a horror short story for an Anthology, Off-Kilter 2, put together by my old writers’ group (I miss you guys!). I’m sure you’ll note the various opportunities I took to inject a bit of science into it.
This being horror, I must preface this story by saying there is some adult content! That said, I do not condone or wish to make light of any of the violence or suggested violence in this story. This story is about self-control, a defining attribute of our humanity, and what might happen if a virus stripped that away.
By Philip A. Kramer
She breathed. It was all she could do. The cold made every breath ache within her chest and each exhalation appear before her as a frosty white plume against the black night.
It was too dark for him to see her, she was sure of it, but if he came any closer to the thicket of bushes she hid within, he might catch her scent or hear the rattling of her breath as her body sucked it in.
Rebeca did not know where the two men had come from, but they had seen her within the ransacked mall, rooting through the remains of trampled clothes for something to her liking. She didn’t hear them enter the department store until she saw one of them staring at her as she tugged a blouse over her head.
They stared at her for only an instant before their eyes glazed over with that look of desperate lust she had come to fear. Had she her baseball bat handy, she would have taken it to their heads then and there, but her pack lay against an empty shoe rack a dozen feet away. So she did the only thing she could do, she bolted and could hear them stumbling after her a moment later.
She had outrun one of them, a blonde man with a hobbled gait. As she had emerged from an alley, though, the second man had seen her and given chase.
Now here she was, a mile into the back woods of some small town, hiding within the dense brush with no jacket or weapon to speak of. Rebeca looked down at the orange blouse she wore, her only barrier to the cold, and wished she had had the sense to find something that would serve as better camouflage.
It was impossible to tell an infected from a looter in a town like this, both were just trying to survive, but where most looters avoided one another, once an infected saw you, you were only safe if you carried nothing they wanted.
She was seventeen when the hoarding first began, a long-legged, lanky thing who perpetually wore a baseball cap and the jersey of her high school team. As soon as news of the muggings, abductions, and burglaries hit the news, her family packed their bags and drove to the family vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina. Her uncle had arrived a week later and it didn’t take long for them to notice his strange behavior.
It started with the disappearance of their meager food stores, which had later turned up in her uncle’s room. Then other things began to disappear: her mother’s jewelry, her father’s watch. Then the sickness took him fully, and he began to take anything and everything he saw that he wanted. A look would overcome him, a lustful expression at the sight of the glimmering silverware, the feel of a scarf.
He could not contain himself, none of the infected could. The sickness stole all self-control, overwhelming them with an irresistible urge to possess anything they desired. The feeling would only leave them the moment they hid the item away in a place they considered safe, a hoard, as she’d begun to call them. That long ago life ended the moment he saw her mother, his sister-in-law, and tried to take her.
Her mother had always been a beautiful woman, and when the virus ran rampant through her uncle’s brain, he could no longer resist having her.
Rebeca still remembered her mother’s screams and the sound of her father bashing at the door to her uncle’s room with her baseball bat.
Her mother and uncle died that day, the latter bludgeoned to death by her vengeful father. Her father was never the same after the incident. For days, he wept, leaving her to fend for herself. She knew something was wrong when he began to steal the food she made, taking it and the silverware to his room. He never ate all of the food, but left it to rot under the bed. He would become angry and frantic when she tried to clean it up. Later, he would apologize, not knowing what had come over him. She knew. She had seen that lustful gaze before, the involuntary dilation of the pupils accompanied by a sharp indrawn breath.
He was infected too.
She had to leave then, not because she feared him, but because she knew it would destroy him entirely if harm came to her by his hand. If Rebeca ever came between him and something he wanted, he would only discover that he had hurt her when he regained control of himself.
The men that pursued her were different; they wanted her.
She glanced down at the blouse she wore. She could take it off, bury it to keep her invisible, but taking clothes off was the last way to avoid a hoarder taken by lust. She was no longer the same lanky girl of her youth, she had grown, matured, and like her mother, she was pretty. She knew better than to drop her unflattering disguise, to wash the mud from her face, unbind her breasts, and put on something pretty for a change. Just this once, she had told herself. Idiot.
A shuffling pair of feet plowed through the blanket of dry autumn leaves just beside the brush in which she hid. She clamped her hand over her mouth, biting her finger in order to stifle the scream that threatened to emerge. Her mouth was flooded with the taste of moss, dirt, and blood.
She hoped the man would move past her, but the rustling of disturbed leaves stopped. Through the foliage, she could make out his wide eyes and the wolf-like flare of his nostrils.
He stepped closer.
Just as she considered bounding out of the bush to begin her run anew, a second pair of feet came hurdling into view. That would be the second hoarder, she thought, but as she stared at the black and white, mud-caked sneakers, she knew they were too small to fit a grown man’s feet, and this hoarder didn’t hobble.
The first hoarder whirled to face the newcomer and an unintelligible growl issued from his throat.
A sizzling sound preceded a blinding flash and a deafening howl of pain. The hoarder stumbled back, his thick boot landing mere inches from Rebeca’s hiding place.
Whimpering, the hoarder fled.
Rebeca blinked away the image of branches and twigs that had burned into her retina. She made to run, but the person she saw as she scrambled to her feet was no hoarder at all. A girl, a young teenager at most, stood a few yards from her, her black hair cut short, ending at a straight line at her jaw. She wore a pair of goggles, shaded black such that her eyes looked like two large gaping holes. She held the casing of a utility light aloft like a lantern, and smoke rose up from the empty wire cage.
“Magnesium powder,” the girl said, pushing back her goggles to reveal a set of light blue eyes. “Scares the shit out of ‘em.”
Rebeca blinked, several warped lines obscuring her line of sight.
“Your vision will come back soon, unless you looked directly at it,” she said as Rebeca continued to blink. “You didn’t, did you?”
Rebeca shook her head, still uncertain what to do. Her instinct told her to run; avoiding contact with people was her one and only rule, but the girl standing before her looked so harmless, without so much as a gun or knife for protection.
“Who are you?” She said. The sound of her own voice was strange to her. How long had it been since she had spoken with someone?
“Tam,” she said, shaking the glowing ashes of the magnesium from the casing and onto the ground. She extended an arm.
Rebeca didn’t take her hand, instead looking around her for any evidence that the hoarder was still near.
“He won’t be coming back,” Tam said as if to assuage her fears.
“There was another one too,” Rebeca said. After a minute of listening, but hearing nothing, she returned her gaze to the girl.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
“I’m not by myself. I have my grandpa with me.”
Rebeca looked around once more.
“Not here. About a mile back at our camp.” The girl looked her up and down while idly flicking a lighter open and closed. “Why don’t you come on back with me, you look terrible.”
Rebeca was quiet for a time, considering her options.
“I should be going. I need to go back for my things before someone takes them.”
“In the dark, half-frozen, weaponless, and with a hoarder still out there somewhere? You are either very brave or very stupid.”
Rebeca bristled, but found herself rubbing her cold arms and conceding the point. It was stupid.
“Have it your way.” Tam continued when Rebeca failed to respond. The girl hooked the utility light to her belt and began to turn away. “If you change your mind, we have food.”
“Wait,” she calling out to her. “Food?”
Food was, in truth, the one thing that had driven her to the mall in the first place. All she had managed to come up with were some saltine crackers and some ketchup packets. She had consumed them shamelessly.
The girl nodded.
Rebeca breathed in relief. She could always return to the mall tomorrow to collect her things, and by then the remaining hoarder would have forgotten about her.
Tam set off into the dark woods, and Rebeca mustered enough courage to follow. The sudden flicker, flare, and then quenching of the flame from the girl’s lighter gave her the impression she was following a firefly.
As she trailed behind the girl, she longed for the feel of her wooden bat in her hand and her thick jacket around her shoulders.
“How did you find me?” She said to fill the unnerving silence.
“I was scouting the perimeter of our camp when I saw the hoarder. I thought he was on his way to his hoard so I followed him. You can find some useful things there.”
Rebeca knew the truth of that. Some of the more successful hoarders had squirreled away more food than they could ever possibly eat, while others had mounds of jewelry that would put a pirate’s hidden treasure to shame. Half the items in her pack she had found in such hoards. They were not always easy to find, and it was dangerous to be caught looting through one by its owner.
“What were you doing in the town in the first place?” Tam asked in a tone that suggested she already knew the answer or just didn’t care.
“Looking for some food and clothes. I didn’t think anyone would be there. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone.”
“I guess you haven’t been to the right places. Pops and I were in a town two weeks ago and there were hundreds of people milling around.”
Rebeca’s eyes widened.
“Aren’t they afraid of being infected?”
The girl snorted.
“I take it you haven’t heard. The virus is gone. People are coming together again.”
This was news to her.
“That can’t be right, I see infected all the time.”
“No, you misunderstand. The virus is gone. Eventually when the population thinned enough, and people learned to avoid each other, the virus just petered out. The brain cells it infected though, the ones that control impulses, those stay dead forever. My grandpa was a professor, so he can explain it better than I can.”
Rebeca stared at the passing ground ahead, her thoughts as scattered as the fallen leaves. Hope filled her for the first time in years, hope that life could return to normal. But no, the girl said it herself, the infected could never return to normal. She could never return home to her father.
The silence extended around them like the darkness as they walked. After what felt like hours, a dim glow appeared in the distance.
As they approached, Rebeca identified the source of light as a well-kindled campfire. A grey-haired man sat next to the campfire on a mushroom-laden log. He seemed to value the warmth of the fire more than the illumination it gave. A thick piece of cloth encircled his head, obscuring his eyes. They were well within the circle of the light provided by the fire before the man registered their arrival. He stumbled to his feet and brandished a walking cane.
Rebeca did not feel the wariness that typically came over her when she met new people. Her sense of ease might have been the man’s age, but more likely, it was his blindness. She was invisible to him.
“It’s alright, Pops. It’s me.”
Tam’s words did little to pacify him. He hefted his cane higher and motioned in Rebeca’s general direction.
“There’s someone else with you,” he said, his voice was grating and weary, like the shuffle of feet over gravel.
Rebeca stopped short of the fire and the wavering point of the cane and glanced at Tam with uncertainty.
After a moment, it became apparent that the girl did not intend to introduce her, but then, Rebeca had never given her a name.
“I’m Rebeca,” she began, watching as the man’s blindfolded head swiveled toward her. “Tam rescued me from a hoarder.”
Slowly, the point of the cane lowered to the ground. The old man chewed his lower lip as if considering whether his granddaughter’s deed was noble or reckless.
“That’s why you took so long?” He asked, the question directed at Tam.
The girl had dropped her gear beside the fire and was rifling through another pack that lay against a squat tent.
“It wasn’t that long. I was hoping to follow him back to his hoard, but he was just after her.”
The old man sputtered. “I have told you time and time again not to be snooping though hoards. It’s dangerous. What if he’d caught you? You can’t expect an old man like me to rescue you.”
“I had my mag charges,” she said in a resigned voice that suggested she had indeed heard this many times before.
“Which aren’t easy to light in a hurry. What if you didn’t get your goggles in place? You don’t want to end up like me do you?” He said, gesturing to his eyes. “And how do you know this girl isn’t one of them, and won’t get all crazy-eyed the moment she lays eyes on our food?”
Rebeca took a step back to stay out of reach of the cane, which swung back and forth with the man’s every gesture. Tam had retrieved a pot and several cans of food from her pack and returned to the fire. Tam gave her a suffering glance and rolled her eyes.
“She’s seen our food, Pops. I think we’re safe.”
Had Tam been aware of the surge of longing Rebeca felt at the sight of the food she might have reconsidered her stance. Rebeca found her hand pressed against her stomach in a futile attempt to stifle its growling.
“And if she’s drawn to my alluring figure?” the old man said with an odd sway to his hips. He leaned in Rebeca’s direction. “I wouldn’t blame you, dear; Tam’s had to fend off hundreds of hoarders from me.”
Rebeca coughed and felt blood rush to her cheeks. He had to be kidding. The man’s long white hair fell over the edges of his blindfold in a dirty mass, and his clothes were hardly more than rags covering his twig-like arms and legs. She did recognize smile lines among the countless crags of his aged face. Her mother had had those lines.
Tam mimed putting a finger down her throat.
“I…I think I can resist.”
“Hmmmm,” he said, his expression doubtful.
Tam stabbed a knife into the lid of one unlabeled can and began to saw it open. The brown sauce that clung to the knife from the can’s mysterious contents made Rebeca’s mouth water.
“Then let’s eat,” The man proclaimed, throwing his hands into the air.
Rebeca flinched at the sudden sound but breathed deeply to calm herself. If society was reforming, she had better start getting used to people again.
Tam and the old man sat beside the fire, but even as Rebeca joined them, she felt unsettled, knowing that at any moment the second hoarder could materialize from the blackness and grab her.
Tam upended the can over the pot and a thick gravy drizzled out, carrying with it lumps of potato and chunks of meat. She placed the pot into the center of the fire, casting a swarm of sparks into the air.
Temporarily, the nervousness twisting in Rebeca’s stomach gave way to hungry anticipation.
“Where did you get the food?”
“Traded for it at the last settlement we traveled through,” Tam said, her mouth forming into a frown.
“Why didn’t you stay? At the settlement, I mean.”
The old man shifted uncomfortably on the log.
“They weren’t very nice,” Tam explained. “They said everyone who stayed had to work.”
“I can work just fine,” the old man grumbled. “I built this fire without anybody holding my hand.” She could not see his eyes, but it was hard to miss the anger in the set of his mouth.
“And he’s brilliant,” Tam said. “Aren’t you, Pops?”
That devious smile returned.
“I’ve been known to dabble at the brink of genius,” he said, shrugging one shoulder.
Rebeca raised an eyebrow.
“Tam said you were a professor once?” She said around a mouthful of bread.
“He was,” Tam said. “He was the one to come up with the magnesium powder. We’ve been raiding chemistry labs for the stuff ever since.”
“Why not use a gun like everyone else?” Rebeca asked.
“Because a single mag charge can take out a whole crowd of hoarders, leave them stumbling around blindly,” Tam said. “The infected can’t want what they can’t see.”
“Guns,” the old man interjected. “They put you in danger as much as keep you safe. These days everyone wants guns or ammo, so if a hoarder sees it on you, they’ll come after you, heedless of injury. I guess it has its own dangers though, he said, gesturing to his blindfold. Didn’t get my goggles on fast enough. On the bright side, no pun intended, we have loads of the stuff and nobody wants metal shavings.”
Rebeca nodded. “I use a bat. Most hoarders won’t fight you for a bat.”
“Smart girl,” the old man said, tapping his temple with a crooked finger.
Tam declared the stew finished a few minutes later and handed Rebeca a small bowl and a bent metal spoon. She burned her tongue on the first bite and forced herself to slow down despite the blissful taste. It sure beat saltine crackers and ketchup.
She finished her food long before they did and sat in silence while they ate.
She felt exposed in the light of the campfire. At first, she was contented by the dozen yards of illumination in every direction, but as the fire dwindled, the constricting black dome of darkness came nearer. She imagined a hand reaching out from that dark shroud to grasp her. The sounds of leaves rustling in the wind and bare branches rattling against each other heightened her unease.
She asked if they had a spare tarp and, after a moment of sniffing the air, the old man declared it wouldn’t rain and told Tam to gather the rain tarp.
Sitting beside the fire, Rebeca wove the strings of the rain tarp into a single cord on either end. It was no great substitute for her old hammock, but it would serve. She glanced into the trees for a perch.
Tam was picking something out of her teeth when she followed Rebeca’s gaze.
“You’re gonna sleep up there?”
“I haven’t slept on the ground in years. You would be surprised how few people look up,” Rebeca replied, smirking at the incredulousness on the girls face. She preferred trees for the cover they offered, but found streetlamps and billboards equally effective when no forest was near.
“I don’t think Pops would enjoy it.”
“I can be spry when I want to be.” He demonstrated this by leaning back on his log and clicking his heels together.
Rebeca smiled and stood, then stepped close to a promising tree near the tent.
She stared up the trunk for a few moments, judging how well she’d be able to scale it.
With the fire behind her, she felt the chill seeping in through her shirt. She rubbed her arms.
Tam stood and withdrew a sweatshirt from her pack. She held it out to Rebeca who took it with uncertainty. It was a grey sweater, tattered at the cuffs, but clean.
“Keep it,” she said.
“You two have been kind enough already. I can’t accept it.”
Tam bit the inside of her lip and glanced at Rebeca’s thin blouse.
Rebeca looked down to the orange blouse smeared with dirt. A sweatshirt was infinitely more valuable to her with winter approaching than a gossamer thin blouse. She could not deny she needed it, even just for the night.
Rebeca nodded and set down the rain tarp. She glanced at the blind old man. Content that he was well and truly blind, Rebeca lifted her shirt over her head and shivered as the cold air met her skin.
“That’s why they were after you?” Tam asked, her hand raised to her chest. Apprehension clouded her eyes.
“Bind them,” Rebecca whispered. “When they start to fill in, bind them tightly with cloth. It’ll help you go unnoticed.”
Tam gulped and nodded.
Rebeca handed her the blouse and pulled the sweatshirt on over her head.
Tam absently rubbed a bit of dirt from the blouse.
“You can stay with us if you want.”
Rebeca paused, her hand on the rough bark of the tree.
“I…I don’t know. Avoiding people has kept me alive so far. I don’t think I know how to be around people anymore.”
Tam looked to the ground.
“It’d be nice to have another girl around,” she said softly. “Pops is great, but he doesn’t understand the stuff I’m going through.”
“What about your parents?”
“They got infected a few years back. We tried to keep them away from any triggers, but eventually they both saw something they wanted and, well… you’ve probably seen what happens when two hoarders fight over something.”
Rebeca cringed. What could she say to that? Sorry your parents tore each other apart over a can of baked beans? She opted for changing the subject.
“I will think about it.”
Tam shrugged one shoulder and wiped her sleeve across her nose.
She bent to sit on the ground next to her pack and began to scrape the plates and pot clean with a spoon.
With years of practice, Rebeca scaled the tree nimbly, her fingers clinging to every knot and branch for purchase. When she reached a height of about twenty feet, she lifted her leg over a branch and sat for the space of time it took to tie the cord of the rain tarp. She scooted down a few feet to tie the opposite end of the tarp to the branch before testing it with half and then all of her weight. It held. Rebeca climbed into the makeshift hammock.
The branch above her bisected the star-strewn sky. Beyond it, countless other branches swayed like searching fingers trying to snuff out the flickering stars.
The tarp was cold, but after a few minutes, warmth slowly stole over her with the aid of the sweater and the fire below. Weariness weighted her eyelids, and she drifted off into sleep to the sounds of the old man humming a soft tune. She had nearly died earlier in the day, but now, for the first time in years, she felt safe. Maybe, just maybe, she would stay with them.
* * *
When she woke, it was not to the sight of sunlight creeping through the trees, but to the sound of leaves scattering before shuffling feet.
It was still dark.
Her fatigue forgotten, she strained to listen. Surely it was the old man going in search of a place to relieve himself. Despite her own reassurances, she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she knew. She sat up and surveyed the campsite.
The red embers of the fire gave an eerie red cast to the trees and the tent beneath her.
It was not until the sound of disturbed leaves began again that she saw who’d caused it. The man was not old and blindfolded, but had youthful pale skin and sandy blonde hair. His gait was disturbingly familiar; the gait of man with one leg slightly longer than the other. It was the second hoarder from the mall. A red gash was centered on his forehead, probably dealt to him by the other hoarder as they pursued the same quarry.
Rebeca stared wide-eyed as the man continued toward the tent. He was still in a lustful trance. She knew this even without seeing his eyes. It was in the way that he bent at the knee as if ready to pounce, and most tellingly, in the eager expression he wore now that the object of his desire was so near.
It would be fine, she thought. He would see that she was not there and move on. He could not see her up in the trees.
The world became silent except for the pounding of her blood in her ears.
The hoarder stood with his head cocked as he looked at the tent, his face illumined by the pale red glow of embers from the fire.
He stiffened as the sound of movement within the tent and then took a step forward as the tent flap was pushed open.
He lunged, and Tam screamed.
Rebeca nearly fell from her hammock as she bolted up, barely keeping her hold on the branch above her.
The old man began to curse and shout.
Rebeca saw the hoarder emerge from the small tent, dragging Tam out by a leg. The girl flailed her arms in all directions, reaching for anything that would give her purchase. She caught the corner of the tent and it buckled as the support rods yanked free of the ground. The old man thrashed beneath the canvas as he sought the tent opening.
Tam wore her orange blouse.
“Tam!” she shouted. She leapt from the hammock to the trunk of the tree, her feet and fingers biting into the bark to slow her decent as she slid down the trunk. The bark scraped her hands raw and tore through her jeans and into the flesh of her inner thighs.
She fell the last few feet to the ground, and her legs collapsed beneath her.
“Tam!” she yelled again the moment she pulled in enough air.
The girl’s screams continued in the distance, beyond the fringes of the embers’ glow.
The old man nearly tripped over her as he finally escaped the folds of the tent, his cries cutting through her like a knife.
This was her fault. She had brought the hoarder here, and the man had mistaken Tam for his real prey, who’d once worn the same orange blouse.
Rebeca came to her feet and searched for her bat before remembering she’d left it at the mall.
“We have to find her!” The old man barked in her direction.
Rebeca tore into a pack and found the utility light casing and several cotton sacks filled with what felt like sand. Magnesium powder. The old man continued to scream helplessly into the trees.
“Shut up and hold this,” Rebeca told him, shoving the magnesium and utility light into his chest. He stumbled back, clutching the items in quivering fingers. Do you have any other weapons,” she asked, even as she came to the bottom of the pack.
“No,” he said in a distraught voice that rasped out of his raw throat.
Growling incomprehensibly, Rebeca found the lighter by the fire and gave it to the old man.
“You’ll help me find her?” he asked, sounding hopeful.
“He’s probably taking her to his hoard. He won’t do anything to her until they get there. We have to catch them.” What would become of her if they didn’t? She was just a kid.
“What’s your plan?” The man asked.
“You should just stay here,” she said, thinking furiously. The last thing Rebeca needed was to babysit this blind man the whole way. “You won’t be able to keep up with me.”
The old man sputtered in disbelief.
“Right, and you’re going to light the magnesium yourself?”
Rebecca was about to take the magnesium and lighter from the man’s hands but this brought her up short. She didn’t have goggles on her and if she did it incorrectly she would be just as blind and helpless as this old man.
“I can find another weapon,” she said with a bit of uncertainty.
“No time for that, they are getting away,” he said, his voice dropping to a growl. “Lead the way and I will follow. I won’t slow you down.”
“Fine,” she said, dashing off in the direction she had seen Tam disappear. The old man, to her surprise, stumbled after her.
Tam had left deep gouges in the dirt where she had been pulled by her attacker, her struggle not ceasing for several hundred yards. After that, the hoarder’s footprints become deeper where he must have lifted her from the ground.
Rebeca slowed her pace to ensure she did not veer from course, and the delay made her grind her teeth in frustration. The man said nothing, but she could tell that he wanted to.
They proceeded at the slow pace for what felt like an hour. They had gone at least a mile before she saw a glint of moonlight against something in the distance. She stopped and the old man ran into the back of her.
“Quiet,” she hissed.
He settled to the ground on his knees and pulled the bag of magnesium powder from his pocket. He stuffed the sack in the base of the utility light fixture and held it aloft, lighter at the ready.
Maybe he would be useful to have around after all, Rebeca thought as she crouched beside him.
She searched the area again and saw what had reflected the moonlight. It appeared to be a metal serving tray, its mirror like quality interrupted by some filigree and a handle. On further inspection, the tray rest on a heap of other objects. Sacs and shopping carts of every shape and size were filled to the brim with clothes, bottles, and cans.
It was the hoard, but there was no sign of the hoarder or Tam.
Rebeca leaned closer to the old man and outlined her plan. She would circle the hoard and locate Tam. She would then distract the Hoarder and lead him back into the open where the old man would blind him. The plan felt wrong to her, and it took a moment to realize why. It was a plan that required her to rely on someone else. She was not accustomed to placing her trust in anyone.
She left his side and darted from tree to tree for cover.
She didn’t fully appreciate the size of the hoard until she narrowly avoided stepping on a bag of instant noodles. She peered around the tree and saw that she stood on the edge of a massive mound of loot. This hoarder had been active since the beginning, she realized. That was the only way he could have amassed such a wealth. Hundreds of unopened cans and bags of food stood nearby and Rebeca began to reassess the plan. They would save Tam of course, but if they took out the hoarder, they could keep it all to themselves.
The moment of distraction was nearly her undoing as the sound of breaking glass punctuated the feel of something crunching beneath her foot. It was all she could do to keep from sprinting in the opposite direction. She pressed flat to the tree, feeling the rough bark against her lips as she whispered a silent prayer that the hoarder had not heard.
After a moment of complete silence, Rebeca glanced down to the offending object, a crystal decanter with a golden rim. She lifted her foot hesitantly and stepped free of the remains, taking care to pay more heed to her footing.
The sparse illumination from the waning moon above the canopy offered little aid as she skirted the hoard. When she believed herself to be on the far side of the mound from where she had started, she knelt behind yet another tree to take in the scene before her.
Had she not followed their tracks here, Rebeca would have doubted they had ever been there, so still was the hoard, so foreboding the silence.
The sound of a whimper brought her eyes to the hoard’s center and made her heart thunder. At the summit of the mountain of objects, a makeshift fort of lopsided lamps and slanting carpets stood in testament to the hoarder’s activity and dedication. Few objects escaped this hoarder’s desire, and the current object of his desire lay at the center of it all. Thick, knotted ropes bound Tam’s hands and feet.
Stamping down her desire to run to the girl’s rescue, she searched for the hoarder. She hoped he had woken from his trance to find Tam was not the girl he had been after. But if that were the case, why would he bind her? No, she had to work under the assumption that he was nearby and would be capable of anything if he found her trying to steal his hard-earned prize.
Rebeca had gone long enough without a weapon.
Keeping low, she took two long steps into the hoard, stepping over a porcelain platter with the half-eaten remains of a cake now desiccated and covered in leaves. She grabbed the first blunt object at hand, a polished brass candleholder, its heft and balance reminding her of her bat.
Steadily, she made her way into the hoard until the clutter became too thick. She restricted her climbing to objects that appeared sturdy or soft enough to support her weight without giving her presence away.
She had just scaled a mass of decorative pillows, soggy from a recent rain, when a hacking cough issued from the center of the hoard. She froze where she was, feeling the tracery of the candleholder bite into her palm. She was close enough now that she could see Tam’s frightened expression and wide eyes. She desperately wanted to call out to her, tell her she was not alone, but a pair of arms parted the curtains beside the prone girl. Tam pleaded in a voice that lacked her usual hard maturity as she stared up at the shadowed figure. The whine transitioned sharply to a scream as callused and dirty hands fell to grip her orange blouse at the shoulders and tugged her further into the fort at the center of the hoard.
Rebeca scrambled off the pillows and clambered atop another pile of odds and ends, heedless of all but the sharpest objects as she rushed toward them.
“Tam,” she called. Her plan was falling apart. She could not hope to distract him now.
She plowed forward through a hanging carpet, brushing it aside with an arm and flourishing her candleholder in preparation to cave in the hoarder’s skull.
The sight of several bodies lying within the fort, all in an advanced state of decay, thwarted her headlong assault. Tam lay against one corpse, her limbs twisting against her bonds.
Rebeca stumbled into the middle of it, her hand coming to her mouth and nose in a futile attempt to block out the stench of putrefaction.
Another carpet exploded inward to her right and the hoarder was atop her, his hands gripping her wrist and slamming her to the ground.
Rebeca threw every free limb at him in a desperate attempt to be free and bludgeon him, but behind his strength was not only that of a well-fed man, but one who fought with the depth of passion only the fervently deranged could achieve. The irises of his bulging eyes were just a thin ring around a massive pupil.
She only became aware of her screaming when the man grasped her throat, causing the shrill sound to abruptly end. Dimly, she could sense Tam’s struggle to become unfettered and aid her. It was too late; the man’s fingers were closing around her windpipe. Her free hand clawed ineffectually at the man’s sweaty face. Soon even the darkness that made up the night became even darker, and her flickering awareness faded.
“Close your eyes!”
Before all sense was lost to her, Rebeca registered the characteristic rasp to the voice, and her eyes slammed shut.
The blinding light the ensued was visible beyond her eyelids as a flare of red and still her eyes ached with the intensity of it.
Within moments, the hand that encircled her throat fell away, and Rebeca forgot everything but the bliss of a lungful of air.
The hoarder roared and rolled from atop her. Her immediate instinct was to curl into a fetal position, but the sounds of another struggle brought her to her knees, gasping.
Somehow, the old man had made it to the center of the hoard and ignited the magnesium charge. The smell of smoke was only a brief reprieve to the stench of death.
A singular splotch of white filled Rebeca’s vision, and she struggled to blink it away.
Just feet from her, atop the lumpy, carpeted mound of sparkling jewelry and other treasures, two men wrestled and grappled for dominance. The grunting of the old man suggested it was a losing battle.
Rebeca came to her feet and wavered as her newly restored vision swam around her. She was surprised to find that she still gripped the candleholder in her hand.
With one last effort of will, Rebeca gave all her strength to a swing of the heavy, brass candleholder and heard the crack of bone as it fell atop the hoarder’s head.
Rebeca fell to her knees again and shook her head, the sudden silence making her fear that she had finally lost consciousness. The pain of her throat seemed her only anchor to reality.
The sound of Tam’s whimpering came to her, and Rebeca shuffled toward the girl, finding her bound hands and feet and beginning to untie them.
As the numbing fear and adrenaline began to subside, Rebeca felt relief overtake her. They had gotten Tam back and they had won themselves an immense hoard, unparalleled in size and riches.
“You’re safe,” Rebeca told her, and the girl sniffled and sobbed. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m here to stay.” She meant every word. No longer would she be alone. If Rebeca couldn’t have her old family back, she would find a new family to call her own.
The old man cursed as he pushed the hoarder from atop him, mumbling incoherently as he felt around and came to his knees.
“No…” Tam said in a disbelieving whisper. “No no no no…”
“What is it?” Rebeca asked, her fingers fumbling at the tight knots of Tam’s bonds.
She looked over her shoulder to see the blind man, a hand searching his head for the now absent blindfold.
The infected can’t want what they can’t see, Tam had said.
Her blood went cold as she locked eyes with the old man.
His pupils dilated, and he pulled in a sharp breath.
I hope you enjoyed reading “Want” originally published in Off-Kilter 2 in 2016. If you like this story, you’ll love the others in the Alabards anthology. Click the image below to be directed to the Amazon page.
A shout out to my friend, Matthew Goodin, for the anthology’s cover art. You can find his website by clicking here.
Until next time, Write well and Science hard.