To those who have been reading this story thus far, thank you so much. I’m honestly still not sure how long its particular legs are, but, for the time being, it’s got enough juice to get another chapter. If you want to catch up before reading this, you can find the prologue here, and chapter one here. Now let’s go with chapter two.
Dakota’s head was throbbing. The sun had been almost unbearable for the past three days, and she was severely rationing her water, not wanting to trek back towards the river until she made it further downstream. It had been almost a full week since she had encountered the collapsing man, but she saw every instance in the moments where she allowed herself to close her eyes. At night, the wind seemed to carry his words to her across the empty prairie, and she had to push herself to the point of exhaustion every day to try to drive away the dreams at night. She wasn’t even sure where she was going at this point; all she knew was that she needed to leave the city, and that man’s final gasps, far behind her.
Her eyes scanned the horizon, looking for anything that could provide some shade, at least from the hottest part of the day. Spying a copse of trees a few hundred yards off, Dakota started making her way towards them. She didn’t necessarily relish the idea of being where something could sneak up on her, but she knew that her body would give out if she didn’t. Besides, the last thing she needed right now was heat exhaustion, especially if she was right about the fever lurking in her system. As a child, she’d learned that lesson the hard way, and had been forced to spend a few weeks in the hospital before she was considered healthy enough to leave. Now, with no real medical care, it wasn’t a risk she was willing to take.
Moving through the tall grass, Dakota kept her eyes focused on the copse of trees. A nagging voice at the back of her mind told her that they were a trap, meant to lure foolish travelers to an early demise, but she kept pressing on. As she neared the area, she listened intently, hoping beyond hope to hear a bird sing or perhaps the rustle of a rabbit nearby. No sounds emanated from the thicket, and the humid air hung heavy all around her. The copse itself was a dark thumb, jutting up against the sunbathed land around it. The shadows carried a promise of cooler air, and, perhaps, maybe even some edible roots or berries to help replenish the exhausted young woman approaching.
As she reached the first tree, Dakota rested her left hand lightly against its bark, her right slipping down to unclasp her knife. No sound wasn’t always an indication of a vacant space, as Dakota had learned, and she didn’t want to be caught off-guard. Sliding her knife from its sheathe, Dakota began inching around the copse, keeping the trees to her left, eyes scanning quickly for any movement. It wasn’t until she had completed the full circle that she relaxed her tense muscles, slipping between the trees to the shaded space they provided.
Hidden from the blazing sun, Dakota ran her fingertips along the ground. It was a habit she’d originally picked up as a child; one that carried fond memories of digging for worms to go fishing with her father. Now, she almost did it subconsciously, relishing in the feel of the cool dirt beneath her hands. She eased herself into a sitting position, her knife across her thighs and her back against one of the more centrally located trees. As good as it felt to rest her muscles, she knew that she needed to stay vigilant. She’d run across too many bodies left behind by those who had dropped their guard for an instant. Her head still ached, but the pain had subsided somewhat when she had entered the copse, and she allowed herself a few extra swallows of precious water, hoping to keep full dehydration at bay.
The sound of scratching near her foot jolted Dakota out of a small catnap. She tried to force her eyes into focus, gripping her knife tightly. Her vision sharpened enough to pick out a squirrel, emaciated and with bloodshot eyes, digging at the dirt nearby. Dakota cursed herself for the brief nap, and inspected the squirrel, not wanting to make any movements to startle the creature
One back leg hung useless from the hunger-stricken body. The squirrel’s teeth were jagged and broken, and she thought she could spy worms writhing in its belly. This close to the end, she thought, and it still struggles to survive. The squirrel was clearly intent on the ground, and hadn’t yet seemed to really acknowledge Dakota’s presence. Cautiously, she positioned herself as best she could, and, from her sitting position, let her knife fly through the air.
The blade flashed through the air, piercing the squirrel in the side. One pitiful shriek and approximately 10 yards later, the animal lay on its side, panting heavily, a small pool of blood forming around it. Dakota rose, retrieved her knife from where it lay, and approached the dying squirrel, prodding it gently with her foot. Lacking the strength to do much else, the squirrel gazed up at her, taking in oxygen in shorter, shallower breaths. From this vantage point, Dakota could clearly tell that the squirrel was diseased, but, sometimes, meat is meat, and even what little there was would be precious to her. Crouching down, she plunged her knife into the squirrel’s head, snuffing out the remainder of its life.
Working precisely, Dakota stripped the squirrel of what little meat she could find. She prepared a small cook fire, and sharpened a sturdy stick on which to roast her meal. The meat sizzled as it cooked, and Dakota hoped that she was able to heat it enough to burn away whatever sickness the squirrel had been carrying. Her mind wandered back to her first experience eating squirrel, the hunting trip with Cynthia, and the surprising joy she had discovered cooking and eating something she had caught herself. That joy was gone now, replaced by the need to survive, but the memory was a strong one, and Dakota felt the pang of loneliness yet again.
As she ate what she had salvaged, she peered through the trees out to the prairie beyond. The sky was starting to darken slightly, and it appeared as though there might be clouds moving in from the horizon. Clearly, she’d been asleep longer than she’d originally thought, and that meant it was time to get moving again. Ever since the creatures had first arrived, humanity had been forced to take on a quality of the shark; keep moving or die. Dakota kicked out the cooking fire, slipped her pack back on, cleaned her knife against the earth at her feet, and left the copse of trees behind.
She walked through nightfall, continuing to move northwards. The setting sun on her left had long ago been obscured by the approaching cloud cover, and she almost found herself hoping for rain. As a child, she had hated being caught out in any sort of foul weather, but now feeling rain on her face reminded her that she was still alive. The rains carried hope with them, and Dakota felt herself clinging to the last vestiges of that.
Another mile passed before Dakota noticed something that broke up the monotony of the plains. A large dark shape loomed ahead of her, almost another half mile away. Dakota stopped moving, sliding her pack off of her shoulders, and dug around until she found the worn and cracked binoculars. Even after they’d cracked, she’d kept them, knowing that even a broken advantage was still an advantage.
Peering through the lenses, Dakota was able to get a slightly better look at what she was walking towards. The dark shape was actually two shapes, and appeared to be a farmhouse and barn. The night was too dark, and she was too far away, to discern if there was any movement, but there certainly was no firelight coming from the buildings. Putting the binoculars away, she looked to her left, trying to see where the cloudline had reached. The clouds were still about a half-day away at their current pace, but she didn’t know if they carried anything more than a simple respite from the sun’s blazing rays, and didn’t want to take the risk of getting caught in a raging storm. Dakota replaced her pack, and started to move towards the buildings ahead of her, hoping they were still intact enough to provide shelter.
Covering the distance carefully, Dakota approached what she presumed had once been a well-manicured yard. However, with nobody to assert man’s will over nature, it was now impossible to tell where the yard ended and where the fields and crops had begun. Fencing had long been obliterated, and Dakota could only discern where the driveway had once been thanks to the garage’s location. Gotta be close to where a road was, she thought to herself. Could mean water nearby, too. She knew she was down to maybe one more day of severely rationed water, but hoped that maybe she’d stumbled on some good luck.
Dakota inched up to one of the windows at the front of the house. She peered in, seeing the front room in disarray, mostly from neglect. A wave of dizziness hit her, and she rested her head against the wall. Clearly, the fever that had been lurking throughout the past day was threatening to overtake her now, and her options were running thin. She bolstered herself, moving to the front door of the house. Her hand rested on the knob, and it turned easily. However, the door remained firmly closed. She mustered up her strength and threw herself against it. The heavy wood shook, but didn’t budge. Feeling along the doorjamb, Dakota felt what appeared to be nails stuck through. Smart, she thought. Irritating, but smart. Didn’t help them, though.
With the front door a non-starter, Dakota moved towards the back of the farmhouse. She toyed briefly with the idea of breaking a window, but she had already exerted herself more than the threatening fever really allowed, and she didn’t relish the idea of leaving a point of entry completely open. She didn’t relish the idea of only one exit, either, but that point would become moot if the back door had been prepared in the same way.
Luckily for her, Dakota found that the back door had not been nailed shut in any way. Unluckily, it was left ajar, and appeared as though someone, or something, had broken the lock. She secretly hoped that it had been the creatures who had done so, because scavengers all too often left behind nasty traps for their own protection. It was still a better prospect than the barn, however, so Dakota carefully pushed the door open further, and stepped into the abandoned farmhouse.
The back door lead into the farm’s kitchen area. Cast iron pots and pans were scattered across the floor and counters. An old, 1970’s refrigerator stood in one corner, complimented throughout the rest of the kitchen with an even older stove, and, almost inexplicably, a practically brand new dishwasher. The cupboards hung open, stripped bare of any foodstuffs. Dakota found a closed door that lead to a small pantry, but that had been emptied as well. Clearly, she wasn’t the first one to find this place.
Moving on from the kitchen, Dakota entered the dining room, and then into the main living space. Stairs reached up into the darkness of the second story, and, from here, Dakota was able to confirm that the front door had been nailed shut, in a fairly hasty manner. Another dizzy spell hit her, and she put her hand to her forehead. Burning up, she thought, knowing that the fever would hit with full force sooner rather than later. Looks like I’m going to have to hole up here longer than I’d hoped.
A scurrying sound came from above her, the distinct sound of rats scrambling across the upper floor. Carefully, Dakota mounted the stairs, wanting to make sure that the house was clear of anything more than vermin. The stairs creaked under her weight, and she walked as gingerly as she could, knife at the ready. At the top of the stairs was a short hallway, with only three doors, all firmly closed. With trepidation, Dakota opened each door in succession. Behind the first was a small washroom, and clearly what the rats had claimed as their own. None of the animals were visible, but she could smell their fetid odor in the air. She felt herself gag, and closed the door quickly, hoping to do what she could to block out the scent. The second door opened into a well-appointed office, complete with a balcony to look out over the farm. Rotting papers were strewn about the floor, and Dakota gathered some that looked like they might still be useful before she opened the third door.
What greeted her eyes took her a step back, against the office door. The master bedroom of the farmhouse had been converted into some sort of mass grave. Bodies were strewn about the floor. Some had clearly died mid-coitus, and were still connected in death. Others looked almost placid, despite the ravages of decomposition. The most concerning thing, to Dakota’s eyes, was that none of the bodies appeared to have been there for more than a few months. She started to back away from the room slowly, feeling dread echo through the pit of her stomach. One too many steps, and she tumbled backwards, arms pinwheeling as she tried to catch herself while she fell down the stairs. Her head thwacked heavily against the bottom landing, and a wave of darkness threatened to wash over her. She tried to push herself back to her feet, and yelped in pain, her left arm hanging at an awkward angle. Blood fell from a cut in her forehead, and her vision started to cloud.
The last thing Dakota saw before the blackness overtook her was a pair of heavily booted feet, approaching from the kitchen.