The Short Story Experience: LIVING THINGS

You were running through the trees. You were far in the middle of the woods, your usual track long lost. You wouldn’t give up, though. You were decided you wouldn’t go down without a fight. Or, at least, a last attempt at fleeing.

Your lungs were burning and you could smell their stench—they were getting closer. That was when you stumbled upon a clearing, a tall building sitting in the middle of it. You didn’t have time to assess what it looked like or whether it was safe to enter. You just rounded it until you found a hole through which you could slip inside.

You ran through the mess of debris, already hearing their grunts. You threw your body against what was left of a door, ending up in a narrow corridor. You knew it would be either your salvation or demise. You also knew there was no turning back. Running was difficult now, but before you could pause and assess your options, a hand grabbed the collar of your ragged jacket and pulled you in.

It was dark, you could only hear the door shutting and being locked. You screamed, plunging forward against whoever it was.

“Don’t hurt me, I want to help!” a voice shouted.

You stopped. Not because you believed the voice—these days you couldn’t believe anyone. That is, when you even had the bad luck to meet another person. But you couldn’t breathe, your heart was pounding hard against your ribcage, your leg muscles were quivering. So, you stopped. You knelt on the sticky floor, fighting to recover. And you waited.

The voice didn’t speak for the longest time. As your eyes got acquainted with the dark, you could make out the person’s silhouette against the door. Listening. Also waiting for the others to catch up. You sincerely hoped they wouldn’t.

When you felt you could hold it on your own, you got up. Clutching tightly to your ax, you approached the stranger at the door. The shadow tensed up, you noticed. Still, they let you lean beside them, ear against the door.

“They’re inside,” you whispered. Shit. There would be no time to get to know this human. You’d be both dead pretty soon.

“They’re few,” the voice whispered back. “They’ll leave, they can’t smell us in here.”

Your companion didn’t sound scared, which made you equal parts suspicious and reassured. Also, the fact that they seemed certain about your safe distance told you they must live here. Not in the building, though, exposed as it was. Maybe in this room. You looked around, trying to make out what type of place it was. You couldn’t gather much information in the dark, though.

You were about to ask the person’s name when the sound on the other side got louder. And closer.

“Shit,” you cursed out loud. The other person said nothing.

You both waited until it was right outside. It could certainly smell you now.

“It’s only one,” the voice said.

You scoffed. Yeah, it might be only one, but it was still one trying to eat you alive. And you were locked in and the only weapon available was seemingly your ax.

“You open and I get it,” you said. You could tell they stared at you. You wondered what kind of expression they were making.

“I have a better idea,” the voice said after a while.

The person walked away and you didn’t know whether you should follow. Was there another way out? If there was, why didn’t they mention it before? Why have you both been standing at the door waiting for the others to go away?

Before you could make up your mind, though, they came back. They were holding what looked like a big box. There was a tube coming out of it, like in a vacuum cleaner. The person positioned the tip of the tube right at the knob. After pressing something, the thing came alive. It emitted a faint green glow and a vapor.

Shit, you thought again. This person is crazy. It was hard enough to get rid of those things, how would you get rid of a human? You couldn’t kill them, you were not about that. But you needed out of that room, quick.

As you were pondering your options, the sounds on the other side of the door changed. The grunts started to sound a lot like coughing. And then the clearing of a throat. And then… then…

“Hello?” the thing outside asked. “Where am I?”

Your heart started to stampede again. It couldn’t be…

“No!” you yelled when the crazy one grabbed the knob to open the door.

“It’s safe now,” they said.

“There’s… there’s a…” you stuttered, not sure of what was going on.

“Let me show you,” the voice said, turning the knob and throwing the door open.

You jumped back, bringing your ax in front of you protectively. The owner of the mysterious voice stepped outside—into the light and right in front of the thing.

“Hi,” it said. You blinked hard. It couldn’t be talking. Could it? “Can… can you help me?”

“Yes,” your companion said. “You’re dead.”

“Wh-what?” the thing stuttered. Then it looked down at itself. A look of horror crossed what was left of its face, its putrid skin making wrinkles around its dead eyes. Dead. It was dead. Yet… “Oh, lord! Oh, lord!”

“Calm down,” the stranger took a step towards the thing, resting a hand on its shoulder. The thing looked them in the eyes.

“Are you an angel?” it asked.

“No,” the stranger answered. And, with a soft blow, they pierced the thing’s head with the sharp tip of their contraption. The thing was dead. Twice dead.

You knew you might be looking scared, but you couldn’t shake off the expression. What you just witnessed… what the hell did you just witness?

“I think it’s safe to get out now,” they turned to you with a warm smile. They didn’t look crazy.

“Who are you?” you asked, still braced to your ax.

“Oh, my name is Dee,” they said, holding out a hand to you. “I’m a scientist.”

You stayed.

The doctor explained what they had discovered—a sort of perfume that temporarily brought the undead back to consciousness. It was hard to believe at first, but Dee demonstrated it over and over again. The temporary nature of the invention also became clear—not only it wore off after just a few minutes, but it also stopped working after a few tries.

“And what do you intend with it?” you asked. “I mean, they’re dead. Making them conscious won’t change it.”

“I know,” Dee sighed. “It’s not about them, though, it’s about me. I need a bigger purpose than just survive.”

You understood. You needed that, too. So, you stayed.

You helped as you could, mostly staying out of the doctor’s way and taking care of the practical stuff—hunting, cleaning, capturing the things to be tested. You wrote most of the reports, as well. Dee conducted interviews with the temporarily conscious dead people, and you wrote them down. For the most part, it wasn’t useful information, but you discovered you enjoyed the stories. You couldn’t remember what the world was like before, so you lived vicariously through their memories.

You also wrote down their age, gender, place of birth, ethnicity. After a while, a pattern started to become clear—they were all young, 30 years old at most, and they were all from not farther than 800 miles. Neither you nor the doctor had ever been that far, either.

“Do you think…” you dared ask once. “Do you think there’s something… different… beyond?”

Dee’s eyes sparkled. They didn’t need to answer for you to know what they thought. “There’s only one way to find it out, isn’t there?”

So, the planning began. It had to be detailed, you had to account for every possible occurrence. Neither of you knew where you were. There were no maps. There was nothing.

As the doctor started to produce their perfume on a large scale, you started to explore a bit farther around. You took notes, you marked the ground, you paid attention to the weather. It all felt useless, but you did it anyway.

After a few months, a few more interviews, and an improvement to the longevity of the perfume’s effect, you decided it was time.

“As soon as the rains subside,” Dee said. “Humid air is best to carry the smell.”

The waiting and the planning were almost over. You spent your nights rereading the interviews you wrote down. It wasn’t lost on you that after months of living in that warehouse, you knew more about the dead than you did about the doctor. Granted, they didn’t know much about you, either. You wondered what you would find out beyond. That is, if there was a beyond. Maybe there was just more death, just a different kind.

The departure day arrived.

You had to make a choice—travel light or travel slowly. You and Dee disagreed about the best approach, so you played a best of three rounds of rock-paper-scissors. What a way to decide your fate, you thought. And you lost. Travel slowly it was.

You walked for two days without stopping. On the third, you had to camp in the woods. You didn’t rest, you didn’t sleep. The doctor’s contraption proved to work wonderfully, though—it kept the danger at bay. Dee kept running the interviews as much as they could, and you kept recording the data. You wanted to make sure the pattern would remain consistent.

After a week, you stumbled upon an ancient town. You had never seen one. That is, after the plague. Dee decided to find a safe building and spend a few days there. You feared that would attract too many of the undead, but it didn’t. The city was pretty much empty. Yet, you felt strangely more exposed here than in the wild.

On the thirteenth day, the doctor’s invention was challenged—you were surrounded by a large group of the dead ones. You took refuge at the top of a tree while the machine worked its magic—or its science, as Dee would like to argue. It did. It caused a different type of chaos, though. Upon seeing each other after regaining consciousness, the poor rotting things despaired. They attacked each other. You and your companion watched, perplexed, as they ripped and clawed at themselves without you having to move a muscle.

“Human nature,” Dee remarked as you climbed down to gather your stuff. “You should write this episode down.”

After a month, you started to ration the perfume. If you could avoid crossing paths with the things, you would. If you could flee, you would. If you could hide, you would. You and Dee decided you’d stop at the next safe building to manufacture more of it. There was only one problem—you didn’t know when that would be. The only city you’d passed through was more than two weeks behind.

“Maybe we should go back,” you said at the start of another day.

Your companion considered it for a moment. You followed their gaze out to the nothingness around. You didn’t want to go back. Deep down, you didn’t want to even survive anymore.

“Maybe we should,” Dee finally replied.

You moved forward.

And then, a few days later, the unthinkable happened.

You were cleaning out your stuff down at the riverbank. It was only the second one you found on the entire journey. It felt like a good omen at the time, a sign that forward was really the way to go. Well, until a third living being joined you both at the other margin.

It saw you right away. Maybe it had been watching you even before you noticed it. It hesitated. You couldn’t look away.

“Is that… is that…” you stuttered.

“It looks like a tiger,” Dee said quietly.

A fucking tiger. A living tiger. In the middle of nowhere. It was the first animal you had seen in years.

“It’s a good sign,” Dee continued. “Maybe things are not so dead around here anymore.”

You started to laugh. Both Dee and the tiger cocked their heads as they observed you.

“What’s funny?” one of them asked.

“It’s funny,” you said between snorts, “it’s funny because we won’t have time to find that out.”

“You don’t know that,” the doctor argued. At that same moment, the tiger entered the water.

“Do you think your perfume thing will work on it?” you asked.

“Oh, my friend,” Dee rested a hand on your shoulder. “I think that’s what attracted it here.”

Of all the unbelievable things that happened to the world that could have killed you, that was the one variable you didn’t account for.

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