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12STORIES by David Moody


September 2023

I gave away the opportunity to appear in a new AUTUMN short story for the release of the LONDON TRILOGY omnibus edition. My plan was to write the winner into one of the UK-based stories I was already working on. But when Leslie Schneider Beard’s name was pulled from the virtual hat, the project went in a completely different direction. Leslie lives in Warrenton, Missouri, and the events of AUTUMN would have played out in a very different way over there…

Excuse the imposition. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. My name is Leslie Schneider Beard, and I live in Warrenton, Missouri. Writing things down in letters like this makes it easier for me to make sense of what’s left of my world. I know you’re never going to read this – I don’t even know who I think I’m sending it to – but it helps me all the same. Other than Angel, my dog, I don’t have anyone else left to talk to. Putting it all down on paper makes me feel less alone, like someone’s listening. Does that make any sense, or am I going out of my mind? Tell you the truth, I’m not sure anymore. So much has happened over the last couple of months, and even though I know you’re not here, telling you these things is helping me come to terms with it all. More has happened in the last seventy days or so of my life than happened in total in the almost sixty years previous.

I sometimes think I shouldn’t still be here. What do they call it? Imposter syndrome?

I mean, why me?

How did I manage to survive when so many other people died?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself over and over and over, but I’m no closer to finding the answer than I was when I got up on that first morning and found everyone else dead. I used to read a heck of a lot of apocalyptic fiction – I had a bit of an addiction, I think – but I never imagined for a moment that I’d be the last living person on the planet. You assume it’ll be the action heroes, or the military, or the preppers . . . not someone like me.

Thing is, you can plan, plot, and prep as much as you like, but in the end, survival comes down to nothing but luck. And heck, I’ve been luckier than most. I’m a fifty-nine-year-old grammy with a bad knee, about as far removed from your typical survivor as it’s possible to get. Ollie and Sammy, my grandkids, used to tease me about my book collection. I always joked with them that I’d be the last one standing. ‘With your knee, Grammy?’ they’d always joke back.

Sorry. Had to stop for a moment then and get myself together. It’s hard thinking about the family these days, knowing I won’t ever see any of them again.

Where was I? Ah, yes.

Luck apart, I was surprisingly well prepared for the apocalypse. Like I said, I’ve been reading and watching apocalyptic stories voraciously for as long as I can remember, and though none of that fiction turned out to be particularly accurate (and I’m quite happy about that, thank you very much) it at least got me into the right mindset. I had Armageddon on my mind a lot of the time. I think we all did back then, when the stories on the news were getting worse and worse, and everything felt like it was always on the verge of falling apart. I made sure I was prepared. I didn’t go anywhere in the car without my bug out bag, and I was always thinking about where I’d go and what I’d do if – when – it finally happened. I guess what I’m saying is, I had a plan, and it paid off.

Turns out I was wrong about a lot of things, but in spite of everything, I’m still here and I’m still going strong. That’s a lot more than can be said for just about everyone else. I’ve had to cope with the loss of my nearest and dearest, and that’s been so tough as to seem almost impossible at times. However, I’m thankful that whatever happened here – and everywhere else, I’m assuming – happened in the middle of the night. That meant that when the dead got up and started walking about again another couple of days later, the majority of them remained safely shut away indoors and out of the way. So that was where I left them.

It’s a little bit easier to cope with the pain of bereavement knowing that that people who mattered to me are still at home. Obviously, I couldn’t stay with them, but I had plenty of options.

In case you don’t know Warrenton, it’s a city off Interstate 70, some forty miles west of St Louis. Times past, there was mining and some other industry here, but those days are long gone and more recently the city had become more of a pitstop for folks on their way through. The relatively small size and the location of Warrenton have been advantageous to me. I’ve had easy access to pretty much everything I could want and need, but to get it I haven’t had to deal with too many of them. And that really matters, because although the dead are slow, with my knee I’m not much faster. And I’m learning that the undead are becoming increasingly violent and increasingly likely to be triggered by noise, so using the car is getting to be less and less viable.

I have to keep telling myself, things could have been much, much worse.

I hate to think what it must have been like elsewhere. In England, I reckon it would have been early morning when it began, the start of the school day and the working day. And I’ve never been over there (never will get the chance now), but I’ve heard that everything’s supposed to be packed in so much tighter – they don’t have the huge open spaces we have here. And in other places – I’m thinking about places like Japan, China, Hong Kong – there are even more people, and it would have been later in the afternoon or early evening when they all died. Can you imagine how many folks would have been up and about at those times? Makes me go cold just thinking about it. Makes me grateful to be all the way out here.

Apart from the occasional dead person wandering through (I’ve taken to calling them drifters, can’t bring myself to say zombie just yet), the place is all but deserted. I know I shouldn’t, but I sometimes chuckle to myself when I think about all the dead folk stuck in their houses, wandering from room to room to room in their jammies. Never mind The Walking Dead, here in Warrenton it’s more like The Sleeping Dead that I’m having to contend with!

I based myself at the county courthouse. It’s where I’d always pictured myself heading to at the end of the world. As you’d expect, it’s a very heavily reinforced building. There’s a basement, two floors, and access to the roof which is an ideal spot for keeping an eye on what’s going on in town. Aside from that, my husband is – sorry, was – the Circuit Clerk, and he had keys to all the doors in the courthouse, that I’ve now acquired. The place wasn’t designed for living, but I managed to make it homely enough.

With everyone else gone, it was just me and Angel. She’s an American Staffordshire, by the way, such a good girl. She might not be the fastest or the fittest, but she’s smart and she’s loyal and she’s been right at my side every second of the days and weeks since this all happened.

I have to confess, staying alive has been nowhere near as straightforward as they made it out to be in all those books and movies. I’ve had more than my fair share of close encounters with the living dead since day zero, and I can say with confidence that there are whole different layers to them that they never talked about in those stories. They used to be people, after all, and quite a few of them I know and recognise. They’re made of the same stuff as you and me, and sure, they’re starting to get a whole lot messier and smellier, and they’re not as strong or as controlled as they were, but there’s still a lot of weight there. You can’t just cut them up like they do in the films (believe me, I tried, and it turned my stomach). Worst of all for me, I can’t use a gun because that’ll make too much noise, and all that’s gonna do is get more and more of them riled up and interested in what I’m doing.

Here, I have to mention Angel again.

There are usually a couple of drifters around whenever I’m out and about, but I’m okay with that because my girl takes care of me. When she sees them getting too close, she growls and she barks and she does whatever’s necessary to get their interest and lead them away. I finish up and go back indoors, and once she sees I’m safe, she shuts up and races back to our place. They don’t have a chance of stopping her. She’s low to the ground, and she’s fast and agile and . . . and, well, they’re not.

I don’t know what I’d do without Angel.

Here in Warrenton, the summer heat drops away fast as you head into fall. I don’t imagine that things are going to change much for me and Angel now, so I’ve been doing what I can to get us properly set up for the winter months. Sometimes I wonder if there’s any point, but I know there has to be. One thing I know for sure is I’m not the kind of person who just gives up. That’s not in my nature. I haven’t seen another living person for more than sixty days, but there’s got to be other people out there somewhere, doesn’t there? This solo survivor life can be awful lonely at times.

I took a trip out to the Walmart at Warren County Center and spent a few days gathering up all the things I’m going to need to keep me and Angel safe and alive. I’ve hoarded more food than I think I’ll ever be able to get through. I can fish and I can garden, and I know how to preserve a lot of produce, but I gathered up cans and bottles and boxes of things I know I won’t otherwise be able to source for myself. It’s not just food and medicines. I swear, Walmart has been my Aladdin’s cave. Hardware, solar-powered generators, clothing, yarn, shoes, vitamins, energy foods . . . so much I didn’t know I needed! I risked the engine noise and borrowed a truck to move it all, then switched to golf carts from County Lake that still held their charge. Being electric, they didn’t make anywhere near so much noise and didn’t attract so many drifters. I used them to split my haul and stash it in several different locations, just in case. I think I read to do that in a book once. That way, if anything happened to one of my stockpiles, I’d still have the others and I wouldn’t have to start again from scratch.

All in all, I’ve got enough to keep me going a long time. Months, definitely. Years, probably.

I also spent a while clearing out the gun shop a little further down the road, locking everything away in the courthouse. It’s not so much that I felt I needed to be armed to the teeth, I was just happier knowing they weren’t there to be taken and used by somebody else. I kept a few knives and other items for myself though, just in case.

Other than that, to keep myself busy I’ve started doing what I can to keep the part of town where I’ve based myself looking nice. It’s a big job for little old me, but I think it’s been worth the effort so far. I’ve mowed the lawns and swept the leaves and generally kept things clean. Having a place that still looks the way it did helps me to cope with what the rest of the world has become. It’s a little oasis of normality for me in an absolute ocean of hell.

It’s not just about getting things looking nice, though. Doing this work makes me feel better about my situation. They give me something to do and help me keep my mind occupied because, other than writing to you and walking with Angel, I don’t have anything else. It’s funny (actually, it’s not funny at all), but it’s gotten so I can’t do anything that reminds me of the beforetimes, because it hurts too much. Don’t want to read books. Wouldn’t want to watch TV, even if I could. Can’t go online, and I don’t think I’d want to do that either, because everything on there would be frozen at the same moment in time – the moment everybody died but me.

Have to stop thinking like this. Can’t be feeling sorry for myself.

Seriously, though, I think you’d be impressed if you could see how hard I’ve worked here. I should get an award from the city for being so neighbourly, I think.

People arrived in the centre of town yesterday. First living folks I’d seen. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but they wasted no time making themselves at home.

Angel heard them arrive first thing. She barked when she heard their motors, but I shushed her and she shut up quick, because she’s seen enough of the drifters to know that staying quiet around them is your best defence. The invaders – if that’s not too strong a term – were still a way away from where I’m based, but everything’s so quiet that the dog heard them from a way off. I think they must have come off the interstate at 191 then driven in past the cemetery. I don’t know what they were looking for (I mean, I can hazard an educated guess), but I don’t think they found what they were expecting. I’ve taken my time doing things right around here, getting the place set up how I want it, and I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve done it too well? I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but assuming the rest of the country has been left to rot and ruin, a couple of well-tended streets in the middle of a city like Warrenton must look awful suspect. Silly, really, but I just like things nice. In any event, things looked different enough that they stopped to check the place out.

I think you’ll have gathered by now that I’m not your typical apocalypse survivor (if there even is such a thing). In the movies, it’s never people like me that survive. It’s usually the fittest or the fastest or the most aggressive, and I’m none of those things. Folks like me either get ignored completely or killed off in the first few scenes. We’re the bit players who end up getting hurt so the heroes can stay alive.

Not this time.

I wasn’t going to give up on Warrenton without a fight.

They stopped a little way down from the courthouse. I used binoculars I’d taken from the gun store, and me and Angel watched them from the roof. I was thinking I should maybe try and talk to whoever it was and persuade them that pretty as it is, there’s nothing worth hanging around in Warrenton for these days.

Truth is, I abandoned that idea pretty damn quick.

There was a whole pack of invaders – somewhere near twenty in number, I reckon – and they were already causing havoc downtown.

Now, for every cliché I personally don’t tick, these new arrivals were checking them all. I’m sure they must have seen some awful things during their time out on the road, and no doubt that was shaping the way they were acting, but they were also taking a lot of cues from the worst of the horror stories I remember. They were like kids running wild, rebels without any kind of cause. All they seemed interested in was destroying. Their trucks were battered and bloodied. The lead vehicle had barbed wire attached along both sides, and metal spikes on the bull bars. It was hard to make out details from a distance with my eyes, but there were things hanging off those spikes that could only have been bits of dead people. There was a sedan in the line with rows of skulls – human skulls! – mounted on the hood.

Fortunately, they moved on a little. We held back and watched from a distance. They gravitated towards Walmart (no surprise – I did the same) and blocked all the routes into the parking lot with vehicles, then set up camp. I gave thanks for having had the foresight to take everything I needed from there beforehand, but the fact I’d done that began to worry me too. What if they realised stuff had already been taken? What if they thought they might have competition in Warrenton, and they decided to try and track me down? I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Fortunately, for most of the day they were kept busy. The ruckus they were making attracted more random drifters than I’d seen in a while (I guess they’d followed the noise of the invaders to get here). It fair turned my stomach how they dealt with the dead. They were cutting them down like it was some kind of spectator sport. It was brutal. Savage. Unnecessary. They set a huge fire in the lot to burn all the body parts, but all that did was make more drifters drift towards them, if you follow my meaning. They were just making the situation worse.

I’ll admit, I’ve always loved zombie stories where they get cut up and blown up and shot and chopped to pieces and whatever but . . . but I’ve come to realise that I feel different about them now. And yes, I know full well how weird that must sound, but it happens to be true. I don’t feel the same as I used to. I mean, they still scare me, and I do everything I can to stay away from them, but I’m not inclined to kill them (kill them?) just for the sake of it. That doesn’t feel right. The dead people shut away in the houses around this place are the people I used to know. The people I cared for. The people I laughed with. The people I loved. They’re not to blame for what’s happened to them.

I’ve had some tough questions to answer. What do I do? What can I do? It broke my heart to see them trashing my town, undoing all my hard work. But what hope do I have against twenty crazed and vicious brutes?

I kept thinking, I’m a fifty-nine-year-old grammy with a busted knee, what chance had I got? But then when I looked around at everything I’d achieved so far, and everything I’d built for myself here in Warrenton, I realised that who I was didn’t matter anymore, it was who I am now that counted.

I can’t recall if I ever mentioned my grandsons to you before? They thought it was strange how their grammy was always reading about horror and the apocalypse. They said if it ever happened, they couldn’t see me lasting more than five minutes. I promised my grandsons I would. I told them I’d be a kick-ass survivor.

Last night, while those fuckers were ransacking Walmart, I woke up the sleeping dead.

Angel and me, we went from house to house, opening all the doors and setting hundreds and hundreds of corpses free. Took a while getting around, but even with my knee I was still faster than the quickest of the dead. I planned a route that took in as many residential streets as I could, then walked just less than a mile along North State Highway 47, ending up at Walmart. After being shut away for so long, the shufflers all followed me in a single massive herd. I led them between Applebees and McDonalds so as to avoid where the entrances to the parking lot had been blocked. Once I’d got them close enough so that the noise coming from Walmart was more of a distraction than anything I was doing, I disappeared. The living dead were so damn quiet, and the invaders were too busy partying and pillaging. They didn’t see the crowd getting close until it was too late, and they didn’t see me getting away either.

Just before I left, I sent Angel in to stir them up a bit. My good, good dog stood right outside the entrance to Walmart that the invaders had busted down, and she barked and barked until I called her away.

By then, the looters were spooked.

By then, the dead were on to them.

Angel scurried away, weaving through all those unsteady dead legs. She raced straight back to me and the two of us headed home in one of the golf buggies. I figured it didn’t matter so much if we made a little noise at that stage.

And that’s the thing, you see . . . I’ve come to realise that surviving’s not always about the one who makes the most noise or causes the most damage. In fact, in my experience, you have a better chance of staying alive if you keep your distance from any trouble.

I stopped the golf buggy on the elevated section of the highway to watch how things went down, and my point was proved. Someone in the supercenter started another fire, presumably to get rid of the dead, but there was so many of them coming in that they blocked the way out.

The whole building – and everyone and everything in it – went up real fast. We stopped and watched for a while longer, and we didn’t see a single soul come out. If anything, there was more movement towards the fire as the heat and light and noise attracted, and destroyed, even more drifters.

So that’s what’s been happening here.

How are things where you are?

I hope you don’t mind all my letters. I took a whole load of paper and pens from Walmart before all the trouble I was just talking about, so I’ll keep writing if that’s okay with you.

It’s quiet and peaceful here in Warrenton now.

It’s so good to talk.

Thanks for reading

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