Flash Fiction Friday

Posted: September 2, 2016 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Friday
Tags: ,

This month’s story was inspired by the mash-up of “Zombie Apocalypse” and “Grimm’s Fairy Tale”, which led to “Luck”:

    The sound of his boots crunching through the snow served to keep Mark’s mind from drifting, to stay focused on the present moment, as he stalked through the forest.

    It was the only sound under the naked branches and the canopy of pine needles: no wind blew, no bird sang, no animal chittered. All there was was the crunch, crunch, crunch of Mark’s footsteps. His breath plumed in small, misty clouds before him as he walked, his head minutely turning a few degrees side-to-side as he kept his vision unfocused, letting the motion-sensitive peripheral vision dominate. He was far from the reinforced cabin that he and Karen had been calling “home” the last several months, the available game having gotten more and more scarce as the winter wore on.

    Movement a hundred yards off forced an immediate stop in his steps and reflexive tightening of his gloved fingers around the grip of his bow. Fluidly he withdrew an arrow from the quiver hanging from his belt and nocked it, bringing the bow up quickly but holding off from letting the arrow fly. Mark felt his heart rate increase even as his mind consciously processed that it wasn’t a threat, but instead prey. A doe looked at him warily from beside a bare-limbed ash tree, blinking its dark eyes as it him. He loosed the arrow just as the doe turned, the metal head burying itself in the deer’s haunches as it fled further into the forest.

    Mark swore softly under his breath, reflexively drawing another arrow from his quiver as he gave chase. The wariness and trepidation that had guided his movements earlier was gone as the instinct to hunt, to capture food took over his actions. He ran through the forest, keeping the doe in his field of vision and shooting arrows at every opportunity that presented itself. Several soared wide and rebounded off of tree trunks or rocks, but one more sank into the doe’s flank and, finally, one embedded itself into the animal’s chest.

    The doe crumpled and slid across the snow-covered ground into a clearing ringed by bare-limbed trees and slowly dying, brown-nettled pines. Mark stopped dead a few yards from the edge of the clearing, his mind processing what his eyes were showing him.

     Standing in the middle of the clearing, more than three dozen yards away, were two children holding hands. The both of them – a boy and girl – were dressed not too dissimilarly from Mark: old, layered clothes, thick winter jackets that were patched with duct tape and had seen many better days in the ancient past. As he stood there, trying to slow his breathing that was pumping steaming mist into the frigid air, he saw that their gazes were upon the fallen and quickly dying deer. Swallowing reflexively, Mark’s eyes darted around the edge of the clearing, searching the distant tree-line for the adults that had to be accompanying them.

    He saw no one.

    Mark’s gaze flicked back to the children and saw their eyes upon him now.

 

    “We were born of a fish.”

    They were huddled around a tiny campfire on the second floor of a decrepit mausoleum of a farmhouse that Mark had made within an old iron pot he’d found in the remains of the building’s kitchen. He looked across the low flames at the boy and girl, Jacob and Wanda they’d said their names were, who couldn’t be more than nine or ten years old. The firelight played across their pale faces, both of which were lightly tinged with a golden color which Mark had initially thought had been a sign that both were suffering from well-advanced scurvy. But as he’d slowly crossed the field, the sun’s light illuminating everything into pristine brilliance, he’d seen that both children had irises of gold as their eyes stared unwavering at him.

    “A…fish?” Mark replied. He was trying to be polite and gentle with the two, the first living humans he’d seen in months aside from Karen. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep a tinge of skepticism from his voice.

    Fortunately, though, neither child seemed to pick up on it.

    “A golden carp,” Wanda confirmed with a nod of her sandy-blonde head. Once inside the farmhouse, the pair had removed the knit caps they wore revealing, not surprisingly, identical blonde hair: Jacob’s was waving and the tips curling around his earlobes and the base of his skull, Wanda’s had been pulled up into a loose bun under her hat.

    “That’s what our father told us,” Jacob continued. “He’d caught the carp and wished upon it for children – our parents had long been unable to have any – and finally, after some time, our mother grew pregnant with the two of us.”

    Mark couldn’t help but smile and the innocence of the children. He’d heard this fairy tale in his youth and obviously either their actual father had spun some tall tale incorporating it or the twins had dredged it out of their own memories to deal with the possible trauma of the world they now lived all alone in. “Ah. I understand now,” Mark responded. He took a sip of the canteen of water he had and passed it to the girl, who cradled it in her small hands and sipped.

    Wanda smacked her lips and dried them with the back of her ungloved hand, passing the water to her brother. “We were their lucky gifts,” she said. “Always lucky, lucky, lucky!” She smiled toothily at that.

    Even surrounded by that decrepitude and huddled around a meager fire to keep the cold winter night’s air at bay, Mark couldn’t help but return the girl’s smile with a small one of his own. There was something about the two that lifted his spirits simply by being in their presence that buoyed his spirits.

    “How long have you guys been on your own?” Mark asked, feeling the weight of seriousness drape itself back over his shoulders like a heavy mantle.

    Jacob shrugged. “A few years now.”

    Both of Mark’s eyebrows raised. “A few years…?”

    The twins nodded. “Yes,” Jacob continued. “Our parents died about the same time the…you know…things happened.” Wanda nodded solemnly in confirmation as her brother spoke. “We’ve basically been on our own.”

    “Really? How?!” Mark said, taking the offered canteen back from the boy.

    Jacob shrugged again. “We’re lucky, I guess.”

    Mark blinked several times in silence, staring at the placid-faced boy and his sister across the fire. He thought about pressing the issue, but decided that force wouldn’t be wise. They’d tell him how they’d survived on their own – if it had truly been on their own – when they were ready. Nodding softly, he dug out the pouch of jerked venison from within his jacket and shared it around the fire.

 

    They’d spent the night in the farmhouse, curled up on the dirty floor around the glowing coals of the fire still burning bright within the iron pot keeping them warm. Mark slept fitfully, his body and mind warring between the needed rest that both required, but also staying alert for any kind of danger. When dawn came, they rose, ate quickly, then retrieved the body of the doe from its spot hanging high within the branches of an old elm tree that stood in front of the farmhouse.

    Wanda sang soft songs under her breath as they walked and Jacob would occasionally whisper stories describing fantastical creatures and their adventures in these very woods. Initially the feral part of Mark that had grown stronger and sharper, both in tooth and mind, these past few years wanted to aggressively and urgently hush both children, to make sure that even the softest and smallest of their noises didn’t attract unwanted attention. But, that harsh, survival-oriented part of him was quieted itself by a more paternalistic part that Mark had never really known before. The children weren’t truly harming anything: nothing they said or sang or did while they hiked through the forest, their goal firmly set on the cabin and Karen, could’ve been reasonably heard by anyone more than a few feet from their little trio.

     Besides, the susurrus of song and speech and quiet laughter was a welcome change from the long and silent walking, each step tense with the possibility of danger around the next tree, that Mark usually endured.

    The sun was closer toward west than its zenith in the cloudy, winter sky when they first truly heard the moaning. Wanda had been humming an upbeat tune and occasionally adding some words, but her song petered out as the distant chorus of strained vocalizations reached their ears.

    “Shit,” Mark hissed sharply, shifting the weight of the doe’s corpse on his shoulders so that he could move faster and more easily. “Come on, kids. We need to get the hell out of here.”

    Immediately, he increased his pace and covered about twenty yards before pausing to look to either side of him. The twins weren’t there. Mark half-turned and saw the children placidly ambling along at the same pace they’d been for the previous hour. He opened his mouth to yell at them, to exhort them to move, but movement in the distance drew his gaze passed them. Among the bare trees he could see the shambling forms of rotting and decaying human corpses, mindlessly marching their way across the blasted winter wasteland of the forest.

    “Run!” he barked at them, whirling around and stopping in his tracks. There were more of them ahead, moaning and stumbling their way between the trees toward the trio. Mark turned right, then left, and instinctively backpedalled as he saw even more of the monstrosities. They were surrounded.

    He let the doe’s corpse slide from his shoulders to the ground, where it landed with a dull thump! and an explosive puff of powdery snow into the air, while Mark pulled an arrow from his quiver and knocked it as he raised his bow. Wildly, he looked around, spinning on his right heel, trying to find the closest target, but before he could fire, he felt Wanda’s gloved hand on his left arm. Flinching but not letting the arrow fly, he looked down at her, surprised by the sudden contact. The golden-eyed girl smiled beatifically up at him.

    “It’s okay.”

    “No, it’s not–” he began to retort, but cut himself off as he saw Jacob move a few steps ahead of him in his peripheral vision. Turning his head, Mark watched as the boy removed the glove from his right hand and took a knee as the moaning of the undead horrors grew louder with their decreased distance. Jacob silently pressed the tips of his fingers onto the snow-covered ground. A second later a deep, sustained bass note filled the air and Mark could feel the earth vibrating under his booted feet. Confused he glanced back at Wanda, inhaling sharply as he saw the smiling girl’s golden eyes begin shine with their own inner radiance. His gaze was drawn past her, though, when he saw the corpses moving closer toward them through the trees suddenly stop, then drop to the ground, motionless.

    Mark whirled around, taking a full circle as he saw that all of the approaching creatures had collapsed upon the snowy earth. It was strangely, eerily silent then, now that the moaning was gone and the sound of the three of them moving and breathing in that silence seemed preternaturally amplified to Mark’s perception.

    “H-how…?” he asked weakly, his mind reeling from what he’d just experienced, as Jacob stood and replaced his glove, before brushing the snow off of his one knee and continuing along their direction of travel.

    “It’s like I said last night,” the boy replied, speaking over his shoulder. “We’re lucky.”

    Mark stood there silently with his knocked bow still in hand, watching the strange boy walk away through the wilderness.

    “Come on!” Wanda said enthusiastically, briefly tugging on the arm of Mark’s winter jacket before jogging to catch up with her brother. “I can’t wait to meet Karen!”

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