Tabletop Tuesday: It was the Dead of Winter…
I could see them.
Even in the growing dark, I could see them. Flickers of flame from the fire threw their shadows against walls of peeling paint.
Stupid. Really stupid.
The old school was not a place of refuge. It was a haven for them. They gathered here and we’d never tried to clear them out. There weren’t enough of us.
There were better places to scavenge for food, medicines, fuel and other items the colony needed. The family shouldn’t have come here. The police station was mostly clear. The garage had some stuff if you looked hard enough and a few blocks further on was safety. Marginal at best, but safety of a sort.
I turned away. There was nothing I could do. A father and mother, by the looks, and two small children. What had they been thinking? Where had they come from?
They’d been dead the moment they’d set the fire and settled down for the night. The orange glow and sounds of movement had drawn me as it had drawn them towards the family. The wet sucking sounds of flesh being torn from the bodies was the music of my nightmares. On the bright side, it wasn’t my flesh. Small mercies.
Picking my way with great care through the rubble of civilisation lest a kicked can, a scrape of metal or the clatter of stone on stone give me away, I left them. It wasn’t the first time and morbidly I prayed it wouldn’t be the last. Snow fell and hid my shame from sight.
I’d taught there, years ago. Chemistry to school kids who’d laughed, joked, swore, fought and engaged in all the high drama of teenage life without a care for the science I’d tried to teach them. They weren’t laughing now. No one was.
Being out in the dark was dangerous. Daylight wasn’t much safer, but it was a little warmer. I tucked my gloved hands inside my coat pocket and clutched the material close to my body. On my back the pack was heavy with rusting tins of unlabelled food, a small canister of camping gas, and a first aid kit I’d found in the rusting skeleton of an old Ford. Slim pickings. Better than none.
In the years since the plague had struck, since society had collapsed and the world had gone to shit, it was getting harder and harder to find the supplies we needed. The colony I’d joined was dwindling in numbers. Some were lost to the zombies, just like the family in the school, some had left for the promise at a better life, some just couldn’t take it anymore and taken the quick route out, and others we’d thrown out to make their own way in the broken world beyond the chain link fence. No one went easy.
And there it was, home. Converted containers encircled an old truck stop that’d been gutted and converted into a shelter, hospital, school, storeroom, kitchen and any other damn use we could put it to. All surrounded by that chain link fence that kept them out and us in. It marked the line between life and death, civilisation, our twisted version of it at least, and the wild. We’d created our own prison, our own little death row, and just tried to live for as long as possible. I’m not sure why. Existence had no point any longer, but we clung on to it with ripped fingernails.
Electric spotlights illuminated the gates and surrounding area. Crowded around the perimeter were the hordes of zombies. Drawn to the light, to the rumble of the old generator and the sounds of life, they clawed at the fence. They were always here. Day and night. We couldn’t hide our presence from them, but we could hold them at bay. When the hordes became too great we culled, clearing the perimeter for a time but raising an awful stink in the process. It made the scavenger runs tough. Getting in and out was always a risk. Without us the colony would die.
It was beginning to look like we needed another cull. I’d yet to see a semblance of thought cross their faces. Simple creatures whose only purpose seemed to be to kill. Once we were gone, the last remnants of the once innumerable human race, what would they eat? Would they rule the world or would they die for lack of sustenance? Whatever it would be, I wouldn’t be around to see it.
I stopped at the edge of the killing ground, out of the pools of light and away from the zombies. This was the hardest part. Getting in. I was on my own and no one inside would know I was coming back. I drew my gun, a Glock I’d scavenged off the corpse of woman still draped in the torn remains of a cop’s uniform. There’d been bullets too, but this was America, what was left of it, there was ammunition everywhere. Bullets lasted with little attention. The gun I kept cleaned and oiled. In return it kept me alive.
Breath clouded before my face. Droplets of water condensing out of the warm exhalation before dissipating into invisibility. I checked the straps on the backpack once more and took off at a sprint. All thoughts of stealth gone. Gun held out before me, safety off and finger resting on the trigger guard (no point tripping over and shooting myself), I raced towards the gate with the fewest zombies surrounding it.
Two turned, their dull thoughts distracted from the chain wall before them. They were slow, lethargic, thoughtless, and in the way. I was still twenty paces away from the gate and running hard, my breath rasping in my throat.
More turned. Three more. Five more. Ten more. They were moving towards me, blocking my access. I ran faster. Feet pounded the snow and slush covered mud. I ignored the cold. Put aside the fear and focused. The gate was there. Not far.
“Open the gate,” I screamed, wasting precious air and energy. “Open the fucking gate!”
A shape moved in the shadows beyond the lights and there was a rattle of chain. Thank god someone was awake and on guard duty.
A zombie staggered into view to my right and I swung the gun around, pulling the trigger once, twice. Loud barks lost to the night. The smell of gunpowder, sweet and acrid. The nose of the Glock twitched upwards with each shot and the zombie stopped in its tracks, half its head blown away and grey brain matter seeping down its face. I was three steps past when I heard it hit the ground.
Another to the left, three more to the right, the gate straight ahead. So far away despite all my efforts. I pulled the trigger again and again. Missing with some, hitting with others, and on they came. A soft hand fell on my shoulder and I twisted away before its fingers could take a firmer grasp. Another caught me on the arm and I jerked away. Running onwards, vision tunnelling to the gate.
Hands clawed at me and the Glock barked again, three times more before clicking on an empty magazine. Not far to go. I used the gun as a club, fighting them off. Panic gripping every part of me, fear rising in my throat, spilling out in a scream of terror and rage.
Gunfire from inside the colony. Starbursts. Fireworks. The sounds of war, salvation. Once I’d feared guns, now I welcomed them. The more firepower the better. Blast those zombies. Destroy them. End their existence. A smile stretched my lips over the few remaining teeth.
I stumbled through the gate and heard it slam behind me. The gunfire ceased. Saving their bullets. There were always more zombies at the gates.
“You made it then,” Loretta, the Colony’s current leader, said.
“Just,” I looked up and smiled into her cold eyes. Grey hair, cut short above her eyes,gave her the appearance of a grandmother. A cold-hearted, stern and unforgiving one. No small child would ever rush into her arms with a joyous cry of greeting.
“Food?” she said.
“Some tins, a gas canister and a few bottles of pills,” I answered. My voice was shaky and I recognised the tide of adrenalin was webbing away. I took a breath, forcing my lungs hold it for a moment before releasing.
“You’re hurt?” Loretta said.
“No,” I answered heaving in another breath. “It’s their blood, or whatever you want to call it.”
“Good,” she answered without emotion, “you know the rules, Edward.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. Always the same question, the same reminder. You get bitten by a zombie and you get shot. I gave her a smile, forcing the expression. “Can’t risk the plague spreading.”
“Go and put the food in the stores, then get some rest,” she turned away as she finished, heading back inside.
Dead of Winter is a co-operative, puzzle solving, tactical and strategic game where 2 to 5 players work together to survive the Zombie Apocalypse and achieve a group objective. To add flavour and danger, every player has a secret objective and one of them might be working against you. On every turn more and more zombies arrive and simple roll of a dice can kill you, or turn you into a plague carrier.
Do you go for more supplies or defend the colony? Who do you want to lead you? Should you find food or help clear the trash out of the way? A bus load of terrified families turns up at your door; do you help, or turn them away? Life is tough in the Dead of Winter… and cold.
If you’ve got some good friends to play with, this game is fantastic! With different objectives for each person and many group objectives there is a lot of replayability (is that a word?). My friends all turned on one of our group, accusing him of being a traitor and sending him into exile. (Of course, I didn’t vote for exile. I’m way too nice.) Oh, and he wasn’t the traitor.
I did as Loretta asked, carrying my pack to the stores and putting the tins on the shelves. The storeroom door was shut, but I checked anyway, making sure, before lifting up the sleeve of my right arm. A semi-circle of deep impressions, blood congealing and scabbing over already, marred the skin. My stomach turned and I shook with more than the cold.
Maybe with the medicines I’d just found, I could find a cure. I’d been a chemistry teacher after all.
And I still had my gun.
Title image by fdasuarez.