Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Karl Has a Bad Day

*Updated... Since the contest is over... I can expand this a little more, like I wanted to.*

This was in response to a new Flash Fiction Challenge @BonyFingeredLimbs -
We were given a picture of a deserted area and asked to write a 1,000 word story that tied-in to the picture.
My original entry tied for first place, but there were other shorts by other authors that I found better than mine (isn't that sometimes the case?). I digress. If you've seen this before, please take another gander. Mayhap you'll find something you like.

Karl Has a Bad Day
By Frank D. Vincent

Midwestern U.S. - exact location unknown

 The cricket chirped next to Karl's ear, causing him to grimace with frustration. Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a deep breath and forced his jaw to relax. Grinding his teeth didn't change his situation any and he needed to clear his head and try to think of a way out of the bind he found himself in. It didn't help that his nose had begun to itch and desperately needed to be scratched. It had begun with a slight tickle, on the left side of his nose, where the side of the nostril meets the cheek. The tickle had slowly and lazily stretched its way toward the bridge of his nose and then crept under and up into his left nostril. He wiggled his nose, blew air upward with his lower lip and shook his head slightly, but the itch remained and became more insistent, with every passing moment. The cricket chirped again. Karl sent a quick breath out the side of his mouth in the cricket's general direction, but he didn't think it would make a difference. The creature was taunting him. If he could move his arms, he would smash that bug with one hand and scratch his nose with the other, at the same time. But, his hands were tied to the trunk of a dead oak tree, so he could not use them to smash anything, or scratch the itch now burning up his nose. His head was also fettered to the tree, by means of a rope that looped around his neck and forehead, so he could not even rub his nose on his shoulder. His legs were free however. Although, taking the weight off of them, increased the pressure of the rope against his neck. He had nearly blacked out and hung himself, right after those two, no-neck thugs had tied him here, and left him to die. At least they'd removed the dirty cloth they'd gagged him, before they left. He'd struggled against the roughly hewn rope, straining to free at least one hand, but without success. Each hand was bound at the wrist, both of his arms were pulled around the tree and then tied together. He felt like he was giving the tree a reverse hug. The straining against the ropes had abraided his wrists. He could feel the raw and torn skin, slick with blood, slide against the ropes; the newly exposed nerves cried out with every slight movement he made. If he believed in god, maybe he would already be praying or even begging for some kind of intervention. But Karl never believed in any of that. Life here on this spinning circle of dirt was a one-time-only, one way ticket kind of thing. And it seemed to him, that he was going to find out just what there was after this life (if anything). He had been sentenced, blindfolded, bound and gagged, dragged into the midst of the enemy and soon, he'd be dead.
  A soft breeze carressed his sweaty face, like the hand of a long lost lover. The exertion to struggle out of his bonds had left him breathless and sweating. The kind of sweat, that ran down his back and through the tangle of hair on his chest, to curve gently down his prodigious belly. A working man's sweat. He wasn't exactly what you would call, a handsome man. A bad case of the chicken pox as a boy had left him with a pock-marked face. The pox had taught him that he couldn't stop from scratching, even if it meant he'd end up bleeding and scarred. He had been a husky lad, with no friends. He wasn't any good at sports and he held no interest in the outdoors. Always the last one picked for soccer in P.E., he would simply lumber straight down to the goalpost and stand there, hoping the other team would never make it that far. He had discovered solace in food. He found that the emptiness inside him was filled when his stomach was. He craved that full, contented feeling you get after a large meal. The near uncomfortable feeling that makes you want to sleep. His boyhood taught him, that a hearty meal was better than any disappointment. Some folks get an itch, and they can ignore it and it goes away. But with Karl, that itch would drive him mad given long enough. The cricket chirped again.
  To take his mind away from both the itch and that foul insect, he tried to think about what lay ahead of him. As far as he could tell, he had two options and neither option was desirable. Firstly, he could wait until he either saw or heard the slobbering groans of the Unsatisfied and wait for them to tear into his soft flesh and devour him as he screamed and begged for death to take him. Or at the first sign of them, he could throw is feet into the air and hope that he choked to death before they reached him. He didn't really care if they feasted upon him, just as long as he wasn't alive for the feast. A shudder ran down his spine as he thought of what it might feel like, to have teeth bite into him.
  He took in the view in front of him, for the thousandth time, trying to stave of that damnable itch in his nose. A barb-wired fence stood directly in front of him, nearly ten feet away. If he looked to the left he could just make out a support post that had fallen over, on his side of the fence, leaving a gap for anyone (or anything) to come and go as they pleased. There was a small dead tree of some sort in front of him, but slightly to the left, so as not to entirely block his view. It's branches scrambled toward the sky, in what turned out to be, a futile effort to find nourishment. In fact, every plant, every bush on his side of the fence was either dead or dying. Little comfort to a man who presumed that he too would join them soon. Just one more decaying lump of organic material to feed the dirt, for future generations of plants, he thought. The field beyond the fence seemed to be made of clumped earth, patched here and there with long dried grass. After 150 yards or so, an embankment rose up out of the ground, where a blacktop road had been constructed. Small bushes and plants grew at the base of the embankment, where water tended to be more abundant. The cricket chirped again, but this time, it sounded higher than before. Perhaps the bug was finally going to leave him alone.
  Karl could make out the grey cylinder of a transformer on one of the power poles that ran alongside the roadway. On the blacktop he saw, an SUV of some sort, a sedan and what looked to be a late 50's Chevy Impala convertible, all abandonded long ago. He wondered what horrors lay within those vehicles. Were the occupants able to get away safely? Were they overcome by a horde of the Unsatisfied Dead? Did their gas run out? Most likely the latter, he thought. There were no obvious signs of carnage that followed in the wake of an attack, so they must have run out of gas. He didn't see any dark smearings of blood on the side panels, no mysterious lumps of flesh clustered on the road. Just empty, lonely vehicles, biding their time, 'till rust or a new owner took them on their way.
  Since joining the colony, he hadn't been assigned, nor had he volunteered for the hunting party. He had no interest in the foragers group either. He had tried to lay low and was found more often than not, within earshot of the women as they washed clothes in large plastic containers, or cooked simple soups in the metal half-barrels. So it was, that he was very unaware of the lay of the land, as well as the number of the Unsatisfied, or their likely whereabouts. He tried to dredge up what he remembered from the time before his arrival at the colony, but his memory was encased in fog. Raymond had told him one evening over the fire, that his mind had blocked out the tramatic events. He called it Post-Tramatic Stress, or something like that. He tried to fight through the fog of his hazy memory. Fragments of violence swam uneasily in his mind. A bloodied hand with gaping stumps instead of pinky and thumb fingers, reached out of the darkness for him... A dead man, with no lower jaw and a railroad spike in his throat, ripped the left sleeve off of Karl's shirt... A car, a blue Ford Focus, burned brightly in the dead of dark. As the flames leapt into the sky, a horde of the dead stumbled past the torched vehicle. Moving toward him, they each burst into flame as they shuffled through the car fire... A red brick building, with boarded up windows, washed forward from the abyss of his memory, but the image melted into the woman in the sundress; laying on her back, blinking in the bright sunlight. She had shiny auburn hair and cornflower blue eyes. He remembered her eyes. He remembered them pleading with him. Begging for him to help her, but she was unable to give voice to her need; as a child, no more than 8 or 9, dug his teeth into her throat. Karl swallowed and tasted bile. He closed his eyes and tried to shake the image of her from his mind. He took in a deep breath through his nose and filled his lungs as full as he could. Then he pursed his lips and slowly blew it out. Another breath, in.... and out.... In.... and out.... He opened his eyes again and spent a moment counting the number of barbs on the top wire of the fence in front of him. Post to post, he counted 19.
  A branch snapped behind him and somewhere to his left. His heart began to race as he strained to turn his head. His eyes darted to the left and searched for signs of movement, but he saw nothing. The rope prevented him from turning his head more than an inch or so. The cricket chirped again, from right above him. Again the cricket chirped, louder than ever before, it seemed. It was calling out to them! Karl began to panic, the cricket was telling them where he was! Another branch snapped and his racing heart now began to gallop. Fear seized him and his breath came in quick gasps. He needed to get control of himself, or he was dead. Maybe they would shuffle past him. Maybe they wouldn't notice him there. If he could be quiet and still, he might yet live. The cricket chirped again. Another branch broke and Karl could hear shuffling footsteps. A soft whimper escaped his lips as he felt his bladder let go. He closed his eyes and gathered his strength. Two quick short breaths and he flung his legs into the air, as high as they would go. He felt weightless for a moment, but then gravity had its way with him and the rough strand of rope around his neck became a noose.
  He felt the rope clawing its way into his fleshy neck. His heels slammed into the hard ground, but he held his legs straight, as his whole body began to shake. The back of his head burned, where a patch of skin and hair had been torn away by the oak's rough bark. The rope dug into his neck, and his head felt swollen. The pressure in his face increased as his brain kicked into overdrive to fight for its survival. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of his frantic heart, swelled in his ears. His lungs screamed for oxygen. His head pounded as the pressure continued to increase. His eyes bulged from their sockets and he bit down on his swollen tongue inside his mouth. Drool mixed with blood, spilled out from between his lips and down his chin as the life was strangled from him.  His last thoughts were of her cornflower blue eyes. She was pleading with him. As his body twitched against the rope, he saw his own hands reach out and push her away from him and toward the throng of shuffling dead. He saw her fall down to the ground and roll as the boy leapt onto her, reared back and gnashed his teeth into her neck. He saw her eyes plead with him as the Unsatisfied swarmed over her and began to devour her. He saw her eyes as he turned his back to her and ran. He saw those cornflower blue eyes and they watched him as he died.