Dale hopped up onto one of the empty cafeteria’s central tables. He sniffed the air and smelled food, though most of that scent was rotten. It was a good bet that there was still fresh food, though. There had to be some things still in wrappers somewhere, maybe some canned stuff.
Brittney hopped up next to him, lowered her nose to the table, and sniffed around. More than likely, she was smelling the same garbage he was, but Dale was not concerned with her at the moment. He was busy struggling to remember something.
“K…K…Kitchen…” he grunted.
Brittney grunted in return and hopped down from the table Dale was still crouched upon. She made her way around the weeks-old corpse of a college student, hopping over the body with practiced ease. Dale followed her because he knew she was headed toward the kitchen place he had dimly recalled in his memories.
He skirted around a number of dead bodies, students who had suddenly died from the bad time three weeks ago. He had dim memories before that time, memories of himself and Brittney in something called a “dorm,” maybe an “apartment,” but that life was a million years gone in his mind, so those memories no longer mattered.
He watched Brittney snatch up a donut still freshly contained within its protective plastic shell. She greedily tore open the wrapper, but Dale could not allow her to just wholly devour such a prize.
He jumped upon her a second later, and she spat and clawed at him, but he bared his teeth and growled until she laid back and exposed her bare throat in compliance. He snatched the donut away from her as she whined in protest, but he tore it in half, intent on sharing.
They both wolfed down that prize and continued onward toward the kitchen. Such a morsel was rare anymore, true, but there were greater treasures lying in wait for them within the cafeteria-kitchen place, the place where the old times had prepared food.
Brittney ran ahead of him on light toes and nimble fingers, running on all fours as she hopped over rotting bodies here and there. Dale was used to the smell of corpses, and he knew Brittney was as well; they had been avoiding bodies for weeks now.
Their clothes had seen better days, but at least they still knew how to wear clothes, and this was good, because it was difficult for Dale to think clearly about anything anymore. Neither one of them wore shoes; there was no longer any need for footwear. Besides, he couldn’t feel the ground beneath his feet while wearing such strange things.
Brittney hopped over the serving counter, and Dale followed her into the stainless-steel emporium that had once been the cafeteria kitchen. A quick survey of sight and smell revealed a few staff bodies in the place, but there was edible food here; Dale could sense it.
Brittney stopped halfway into the kitchen and perked her head up in surprise. She waited in stock silence, her bright eyes wide, her dyed-blonde hair a wild mess around her beautiful face.
Dale growled as he took in the strange scent, that scent of a rotting corpse but not quite rotted enough, a sweet but dead smell that spiked his adrenaline and swiveled his head toward the threat.
A corpulent lunch lady of middle-aged years stiffly moved from her position against the corner of the kitchen, that corner to Dale’s immediate right. This woman’s face was a mass of dissolved flesh, her nose missing, chunks of cheek and forehead hanging loose, the eyes white orbs of dead calm, that perfect calm that only came from the rotting ones.
This walking corpse trundled toward the pair in a groping, wobbly stance upon two fat, rotting legs. She reached forth with her disgusting, melted arms, those arms ever reaching outwards, the white of bone visible upon them.
They were on the fat corpse in a heartbeat. Dale took towards the legs of this woman as Brittney dashed upon the serving counter and then leapt upon the lunch lady’s putrefied head and shoulders.
The melting zombie was knocked down in a flash of fury as Dale swept out both fat, gross, decaying legs from under it, pulling back with primal strength as Brittney’s momentum and weight took the disgusting thing to the tiles of the kitchen floor. The corpulent woman hit the tiles with a heavy thud, and then the pair tore into her with clawing fingers and instinctive rage.
Dale ripped across the stomach of the lunch lady, pulling apart her dirty smock and the stained white shirt beneath it, and then he tore into the soft, melting flesh beneath that. Brittney tore at the neck as she used the weight of her bottom to keep the right arm off of her, her clawed fingers tearing and pulling into dead flesh softened by time and ravaging disease.
Entrails spilled out and were pulled forth as Dale savaged the midsection of this walking flesh pot, and Brittney grabbed the thing’s left arm, swiveling it down toward its own gnashing, biting teeth.
This once living person chewed upon the dead flesh of its own left arm as the wild pair tore it apart in like fashion. These things were difficult to kill, but once they had suffered enough punishment, they stopped moving for good. Dale knew this, and he knew Brittney knew this, so they worked in unison for this ultimate outcome.
They growled, grunted, and barked as they turned the lunch lady into a pile of irony’s own cafeteria mystery meat.
Dale reached into the bloodless cavity he had ripped open and cracked the spine just above the pelvis, pulling some of it forth as he did so. Brittney hopped forward, spun so that her back was against the wall, placed both bare feet upon the fat shoulders of this thing, and pulled on the head until it came free, the fat, grotesque left arm still inserted in the now bodiless head’s gnawing mouth.
The corpse stopped moving after that, and both of them left it there, uninterested now that this threat had been disposed of.
Dale sniffed the air, but he was covered with the sweet and sickly scent of the grotesque former lunch lady, so picking up the scent of food would not be possible until he bathed in the outdoor fountain again. They both bathed in the fountain quite often; their natural stink was offensive to both their sensitive noses.
Nevertheless, they searched the kitchen anyway. There were large cans of food here, huge things that were meant for big crowds, so they grabbed a couple of cans and ran, intent on taking their prizes home. Food was difficult to find anymore, so this was a boon for them both.
They made their way back to their safe haven, the promise of food already at hand.
Dale still knew how to do some things, though he did not know why. One of these things involved opening cans with his can opener, something he had learned to do a long time ago. Even so, opening the huge can of refried beans with his can opener had taken some work, but he had managed it.
He and Brittney were now back in their room, and they ate out of the can with their spoons, something they also still knew how to do, use spoons, mainly because it was not as messy as eating with their fingers.
They would eat as much as they could before the contents of the can spoiled. There was no refrigeration anymore, but that was fine. They would find more food somehow. Life was all about finding food and having a safe place to eat that food, and they had both, so this was fine…for now.
Dale walked over to the device he had kept and not smashed. Some things he had smashed, but the device he had not. The device made sounds, comforting sounds, and he liked to listen to those sounds after he ate. It helped him sleep.
The device worked because of these small cylinders he could put in it, things he knew were called “batteries,” but his device was old, so he was careful when changing them out. He had plenty of these batteries…They were easy to find in many abandoned places. Nothing but the dead existed in those places now.
He knew that he had gotten this device from his father a long time ago, and his father had acquired it when the man had been young like Dale, so this device was very old, but it still worked, and that was all that mattered.
He turned on his device and played with the knobs on it until he heard the comforting sounds he liked so, those sounds called “music.” The sounds were sweet, soft, and soothing, and such sounds worked wonders on Brittney. The young woman did not remember as much as Dale did when it came to the old life and the old ways, so keeping her calm was a priority.
Brittney fell asleep on the floor a couple of minutes later, the young woman clutching a soft blanket close to her chest.
Dale sat back on his sleeping space and rested his head on his hands, content to just listen. The sounds brought back strange memories, times from another life, but they also brought back good feelings, and that was why he listened.
He closed his eyes for a second, but they snapped back open as the comforting sounds turned to talking sounds. They sometimes did this, but he ignored them…The soothing sounds would come back on their own after a short while.
“And now for your midday survival information,” came an older male voice over the device. “Remember to travel along backroads when heading toward your nearest shelter. Avoid major cities, and do not attempt to visit a hospital, clinic, or pharmacy. The infected dead congregate in these areas.
“The shelter closest to you provides food, medicine, and supplies. For directions to your closest shelter, contact…No, wait. We are receiving reports of a new mutation within the virus. Some people that are infected are carriers that have not become the walking dead. These people have regressed. They’ve gone feral. They should be considered extremely dangerous. I repeat, some people are infected carriers, and we do not yet know if contact with them will spread this new mutation…”
Dale ignored the voice until the comforting sounds played once more. He knew these sounds were called “music,” so he closed his eyes to them in order to drift off into some semblance of restless sleep.
Dale’s eyes snapped open at the sound of a shout, and Brittney hopped up from her sleeping position on the floor and growled. Something was going on outside.
Dale leapt up from his sleeping space and peered out the window of their little room, their little room on the third floor of an apartment building on what was once a college campus, designations that were meaningless now. Their little room was their safe haven, and that was all that mattered anymore.
Dale carefully studied the debacle going on outside.
A young couple in their mid-twenties was in the street below, but they were on the north side of the building, and that side was swarming with the dead, the dead ones that smelled wrong. Dale and Brittney never went to the north side for that very reason, but now they definitely had a reason to.
Dale barked out a command as he zipped to the door of their little place, and Brittney followed him without argument. They had not seen any others since their internment with the dead here, that time three weeks ago, but now…now was different.
They rushed down the stairs, Dale in the lead. It was going to be tricky getting to the couple outside, because the dead, though slow, were persistent and always hungry.
They hit the ground floor running, pattering along the carpeted hallway on bare feet. There was no way Dale was going to let this opportunity pass them by; there was no way he was going to let the dead waste this gift set before them.
Dale barked out another command as he opened the heavy metal door that led out into the street. He already knew Brittney knew what to do, because they had used this strategy before. It was a skirmisher tactic, one meant to confuse, slow, and/or halt the enemy.
All they had to do was herd the couple back to the doors of their building. The roaming dead, the ones who smelled wrong, only attacked what they could sense, so once this couple was inside the building, then the dead would go away.
Dale dashed into the street, targeting a line of individual dead that would open up a path for the couple to retreat through. He chose his first target, a male, a shambler dressed in a grey suit, a grey suit tattered by neglect and the environment.
Dale rushed behind the walking corpse and used both arms to sweep the thing’s legs. It fell to its back as it was struck at high speed, the back of its head splattering open all over the asphalt of the street as it impacted the ground with severe force.
He could see through his peripheral right the swift shape of Brittney leap upon the back of another of the dead ones, the young blonde using the full weight of her body to bring it to the ground. That corpse slid upon the pavement, leaving a gross trail of melted flesh as Brittney momentarily surfed upon its back.
It was easy to ambush these things when their backs were turned to you.
Dale swept the legs out from another one, and then another, and then another, and those walking corpses fell one after the next as he cut a swath through the crowd, making a beeline for the terrified couple in the street.
The male of the couple in the street swung a large green backpack at a swiftly encroaching zombie, but then he took to running, pulling his female mate with him by her hand.
The strangers ran through the gap that Dale and Brittney had cleared, so Dale pitched into a run back towards the building, that building that declared safety, Dale leading the couple towards his and Brittney’s own brick and glass haven.
Brittney zoomed ahead of Dale, flung open the heavy metal doors to the building where their haven lay, and then all four of them disappeared within, disappearing into the carpeted hallways that made up this forgotten campus architecture.
The male of the new couple turned and peered through the heavy glass square that constituted a small window set in one of the metal doors.
“They’re backing off,” he panted out. “They’re confused. They’re…They’re going away.”
Dale already inherently knew this. He had known the dead outside would lose interest once everyone living had disappeared from sight.
The male stranger turned and eyed Dale for a brief second as he spoke, but what he saw did not register in his brain before it was too late.
“Thank you,” he said as he caught his breath. “I’m Eric. This is Tawnya…Oh…Oh, my God…”
These two did not look like Dale and Brittney. These two did not have dark, animal noses, they did not have sharp teeth, and they did not have a sheen of fine fur covering their pale, peach skin.
Dale had been like Eric once. He had sported the pale, peach skin and the eyes that did not see well in the dark…but that was before the time three weeks ago. Now Dale had a sensitive nose that was dark and bumpy around the nostrils, he had yellow eyes that could catch the slightest glimmer of light in the dark, and he had a coating of light-brown fur all over his once furless, peach body.
The female of the couple did not look like Brittney, either. This female, “Tawnya,” had the light, furless skin like Eric. She was not like Brittney, who had a coating of black fur over her own once-peach skin.
But that could be remedied.
Dale was on Eric in the fraction of a second. Now was the time to catch them off guard, especially the male, as the new couple was not expecting an attack.
He leapt upon this “Eric,” slamming him against the doors, only to fling him to the blood-orange carpet below. He bit down into the male’s left wrist, bit around the cuff of a dark-blue jacket in order to taste flesh, just enough to draw blood, just enough to mix that blood with his own saliva, but not enough to crush bone.
This “Eric’s” blood tasted clean, untouched by disease, something Dale had been looking for ever since he had awakened to new instincts three weeks ago.
The female, Tawnya, screeched as Brittney bit into the left side of the young woman’s exposed neck. Brittney bit deeply enough to draw blood, just deep enough to taste it, just enough to spread her saliva through blood as well.
The new female ran down the hall after that, Brittney chasing after her.
The male of the rescued pair struggled to his feet and ran after his own mate, Tawnya.
Dale eagerly chased after him, feeling the thrill of the hunt race through his veins. These two strangers needed to be herded toward/rounded up into a safe space in order to give the bites time to do their work.
These two, this new male and female couple, would become like them, like Dale and Brittney, wild and free. The male would learn to hunt for food like Dale, the female would learn to sense danger like Brittney, and they would all form a small pack that could search beyond the confines of this limited campus ground.
Of course, the pair of strangers could simply die before they changed. If that were the case, Dale knew they would not become the rotting dead like the ones outside. No, they would simply die, and that was a source of fresh meat neither Dale nor Brittney could pass up.
Yes, Dale would lead the other three toward more of these “clean ones,” and then their pack would grow. Their pack would grow, and then that pack would carve out a territory of their own, one free of the still-moving dead.
This was an easier form of procreation, one that involved a faster means of getting what Dale needed. To hunt and to reproduce was what drove him now anyway.
It was, after all, animal instinct.
Animal Instinct Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott