A mother tests her daughter about survival in a decomposing world.




Tia Witherspoon (United States)

Deconstruction always started with a cough.
It happened the same way back at camp when Joe nearly hacked up a lung. It was the same when Lisa popped a blood vessel in her eye from coughing so hard. I had ignored it then, ignored the implications the coughs brought, just like how I had ignored it ten minutes ago.
“Taylor!” My eyes snapped in the direction of the voice. “It’s alright, Sweetie, just give me the gun,” Mama whispered.
I gripped it tighter but dropped my arm so that the barrel of the gun pointed downwards. I could still see their faces when it happened. Doug had been keeping watch over the company parking lot while Mama searched for our papers. Proof that we hadn’t been compromised. Rabbit had been keeping to himself. That was when I had heard it, the coughing.
"You had no choice." Mama stepped forward cautiously. "If it weren’t for you, we would both be dead."
Was that true? It had all happened so quickly.
When we slipped into the abandoned office building of Skyline Beverage Company after a blast attracted a horde of walkers, Rabbit began to act funny. He started to keep to himself, and his breaths had turned ragged. That was when I realized his already pale complexion had turned milky white.
“You alright?” I asked him.
“Yeah, fine.” He answered gruffly. But he wasn’t fine, and I had known. I ignored it until it was too late until he—it—forced my hand.

Mama took a cautious step forward, trying to soothe me.
“You did the right thing.”
Did I?

Doug’s back was turned when Rabbit attacked him. It wasn’t like the movies where zombies jerked and lumbered, no, he moved swiftly, he was almost nothing more than a blur. Rabbit yanked Doug’s head to the side, exposing his neck and made quick work of him with one savage bite. I could still remember the gurgled screams and the wet sound of blood painting the wall and window. We watched in sickening awe as Rabbit lay atop his former friend, gnawing at him and ripping his flesh from his body like a lion would a gazelle.
Suddenly it stopped and lifted its nose to the air. It paused and inhaled deeply. It shuddered as if it were in ecstasy and hopped to its feet. Slowly it turned to face us, training its cloudy eyes on me. It growled, and I aimed my gun in response. With a jerk of its head, it charged at me, as I stood frozen in place, gun quaking in my grip.
“Shoot it!” Mama yelled. When she realized I was too paralyzed to act, she snatched her machete from the desk to the side of her and dove at the Walker with the agility of someone half her age. With incredible strength, the Walker batted her away, barely sparing her a glance. My finger twitched against the trigger as he grabbed me by the shoulders, and slammed me down onto the desk behind me. The impact sent the gun sliding away from me until it teetered on the edge of the desk.
I used my legs as leverage to keep the walker from ripping me to shreds. His jaws snapped, and rancid saliva dripped onto my shirt and neck as he clawed at me. The gun, where was the gun?
Turning my head to the side, I saw it was just within reach. Mama groaned, she was slow to get up, trying to steady herself enough to gain her bearings. As Mama struggled to right herself, I noticed Doug’s corpse had begun to stir. Fear and rage boiled inside me. If I didn’t do something, we would end up just like Lisa and Joe back at camp, slaughtered. There was no way I could allow that, so I did what needed to be done.

Mama reached for the gun and slowly slipped it from my sweaty hands.
“The world isn’t what it used to be, baby. It’s decrepit, corrupt, and now on top of that, it’s infested with the dead. We are going to have to do terrible things to survive, and there are going to be a lot of tough decisions ahead of us.”
Decisions I would rather eat glass than make.
“I just want to make sure that if anything happened to me, you’d be prepared to do what needed to be done. The only thing that gives me any peace is knowing that you and your brother will have each other and will be able to fight to survive when I’m gone.” She held up her hand as I groaned, “I know you don’t want me talking like that, but one day I won’t be here. I just needed to know that you’ll be fine without me.”
“Is that why you brought me with you on the supply run?”
Mama nodded.
“I know it will be hard, but you can’t let this follow you around,” she gestured toward the bodies of Rabbit and Doug. “I’m not asking you to turn stone cold and lose your humanity, but you can’t let it make you naïve to reality.”
I nodded, exhaling deeply. I didn't trust myself enough to speak without stuttering. Even so, I knew Mama was right. And even though I knew it, that didn't erase the guilt. That didn't change the faces that loomed at me from my mind’s eye. It definitely wouldn’t rid me of the blood and brain matter that covered my clothes like a second skin. But if we were going to make it back to the rest of the family, I would have to suck it up and hold it together long enough to get to the evacuation zone alive.
I held out my hand for the gun, making sure to hold Mama’s gaze. “Don’t worry, Mama, I’ll be alright. I promise.”
Mama watched me as though she were trying to detect any falseness.
As she handed me the gun, she said, “You’re stronger than you think, don’t ever forget it.” A sad smile spread across her face as we stood and surveyed our surroundings.
“It won’t be long before this place is overrun. I just need to find our passes so we can go."
It wasn’t safe anymore. With as many shots I had let off it was a miracle the walkers hadn’t gotten to us already. I stood watch by the window, being careful not to step on Doug’s maimed corpse and glanced down into the employee parking lot. It was filled with walkers and more cars than necessary from when company employees all had the same bright idea to hide in the warehouse. The pile of bodies was answer enough as to what had happened there.
“Gonna have to make it quick, Mama. The herd is getting antsy.” A few more minutes and they would be breaking through the glass door and streaming into the office building.
“Already done,” Mama said waving our test results, our passes for easy evacuation, at me before slipping them into her backpack.
After blocking the office door with the desks and chairs and securing our medical masks, we climbed out of the window and down the side of the building using the lattice. As we touched down on the asphalt, I heard the sound of glass shattering.
“Just in time.” Mama shook her head and led the way out of the parking lot weaving in and out of the cars as we dodged stragglers. We had only been walking for a few minutes when I noticed movements from in front of us. I grabbed Mama’s backpack to stop her.
A man appeared from behind a dumpster and walked toward us slowly.
“Heading to the E-Zone?”
We said nothing.
“Mind if I join you? I just lost my group on the way there. Didn’t feel safe walking out in the open without a group, though. Safety in numbers and all that.”
I watched Mama for a signal. The man was as pale as a porcelain doll, and his eyes were a dull and watery gray, but his skin color and eyes weren’t definitive signs to shoot him over.
“If you’re headed in the same direction we’re not stopping you, lead the way,” Mama said, waving in front of her. The man smiled sheepishly and began to walk. As the bridge came into view, later on, I heard a hard, hacking cough come from in front of us. I pretended to be interested in my feet as the man slyly wiped his nose and mouth with the dirty sleeve of his flannel shirt. With a quick glance, I noticed his sleeve was wet with fresh blood.
Mama caught my attention, machete in hand. As we continued to walk, I unclipped my holster.
Maybe he was just sick?
Even so, I switched off the safety on the gun, prepared for what was to come.
Everyone knew that deconstruction always started with a cough.

Competition: Friendly feedback, Round 2



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