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Ashes in the Mouth (Zombie Apocalypse Series Book 3)
 

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Ashes in the Mouth (Zombie Apocalypse Series Book 3)


  Ashes in the Mouth

  Zombie Apocalypse Series 3

  Jeff DeGordick

  Contents

  Copyright

  Foreword

  Prologue

  1. The Road

  2. Rained Out

  3. Bonfire

  4. Whispers on the Wind

  5. Sojourn

  6. Tableau Vivant

  7. In the Hole

  8. Cabin Fever

  9. The Best Laid Plans…

  10. …Often Go Awry

  11. False Alarm

  12. Fire Sale

  13. Psycho Killer

  14. At the End of Her Rope

  15. Shopping List

  16. The Hospital

  17. Showdown

  18. Burn Ward

  19. Retreat

  20. Hunting Party

  21. Ashes in the Mouth

  22. New Beginnings

  Afterword

  About the Author

  Copyright © 2016 by Jeff DeGordick

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Cover images copyright © Shutterstock

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  Or visit my website:

  www.jeffdegordick.com

  Say hello on my Facebook and Twitter page:

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  Other books in the Zombie Apocalypse Series:

  The Fall of Man

  A Rising Tide

  In Shadows

  Coming soon:

  Scourge of Evil

  Prologue

  A sudden noise startled him out of his sleep. It was familiar—something he hadn't heard in many years. The noise came again, echoing through the mall.

  His eyes shot open and were immediately accosted by an alien sensation. His pupils shrunk and his head pounded. He raised an arm to shield himself from the harsh light, wondering how the sun was beaming down on him.

  He sat up on his cot and the grimy blanket fell to the floor. He was in the same maintenance room that he fell asleep in, and, looking up, realized the fluorescent tubes attached to the ceiling above him were glowing, filling up the room with an artificial light that he hadn't seen for longer than he could remember.

  The strange noise entered the cramped room again, and he swore it sounded like the shutter snapping on an old camera. There were voices too, muffled and far away. One phrase was spoken louder and he didn't know what it meant, but he caught it clear as day: "Noah's Ark!"

  He opened the door and it slammed into the plaster wall next to him, denting it, and he shuffled out onto the second floor of the Valley View Mall. He was groggy and the itching in his head was bad today. He could feel it crawl through his blood and make his craving real bad.

  A loud noise echoed from somewhere below him in the mall, like hard wheels bouncing across the floor. There was a quick flash of a red wagon as he reached the railing overlooking the ground floor, then it was gone. Somehow, the mall's power was on and long-forgotten lights shone brightly, highlighting the ruin and decay that had consumed the building years before.

  He made his way down to where the wagon had been and saw something on the ground next to a photo booth. He picked it up and inspected it.

  It was a photo reel from the booth, and it showed four tiny photographs of a blond woman, maybe late thirties, with what looked like her son—short brown hair, eight or nine.

  The boy he didn't care about, but the woman... he liked her; the way her pretty hair flowed; the roundness of her cheeks; the fullness of her lips. He ran his fingers along the thin sheet of photos, tracing it like he was tracing the contours of her face. His fingers came down to the last photo and he looked closer.

  In the final portrait, she was holding up a little card with a drawing on it. It was very simple and easy to understand, though he didn't know its meaning. A brown boat sat atop crashing waves of blue water. He studied it carefully, then looked at the entrance to the mall next to him, thinking of the mother and her boy running off, thinking what the pretty features in the photos would look like in-person.

  His craving grew intense and he felt every cell in his body light up in anticipation.

  "Noah's Ark," one of them had said...

  1

  The Road

  Sarah walked down the highway, thinking of all the people she'd killed. Their faces floated in front of her like solemn apparitions fading in and out of the gray landscape around her, and they all shared the same expressionless countenance as her. She didn't look at them directly and kept her eyes on the road ahead, but she was aware of their presence. They came and went as the days drifted by and she found that she no longer had anything by her side but time, and time and loneliness created strange illusions of the mind. The most vivid faces of all were the people she had indirectly killed—the ones she cared about most. The sounds played along with the images, and she heard the munching coming from the zombies' stuffed and greedy mouths as they fed on her son; she heard the gunshots, the gasps and the screams as Mark was gunned down in the hallway at Noah's Ark while his family watched. She thought about Jenny and the kids being tossed out of the camp by Kenny and wondered where they were. She liked to imagine they were relaxing on the beach of a deserted and tropical island, but she knew the road gave her lots of time to fantasize.

  She dragged a hand across her dry lips and felt skin sticking to skin. She was parched and would need water soon. It had been a month since she left Noah's Ark, and the small amount of food she took with her was long gone, leaving her to forage from the land and the critters that crept across it. All she had left on her was a small bag of clothes she threaded through a belt loop on her jeans, the hatchet, and the bow and arrows. She still didn't know where she was going or what she would do when she got there. Images of the coast kept popping into her head and she wondered if it would be better to get out on the water, but the endless blue supplanted the endless green, gray and brown she saw now, and she knew it would just be changing one color for another. For now, she traveled wherever the wind blew her, and the December wind was fierce. But it was warmer than it should have been for the season, and she was thankful for that.

  The highway curved and winded through the dense forest on both sides, leaving only slight visibility ahead or behind. Once in a while she would pause and glance around, thinking that she'd heard a noise, only to discover it must have been a phantom in her mind.

  A thicket of evergreens leaned into the road ahead and covered her view past the slight bend in front of her. Just as she approached it, she heard screaming. It was distant and it was accompanied by other sounds, like banging and vicious snarls.

  Sarah trotted up the road, keeping her eyes ahead and trying to be as quiet as possible. She kept her hand on the hatchet hanging from her hip, ready to pull it out.

  When she passed the bend, she saw a tiny rest stop consisting of just two washrooms down the road on the left shoulder with a few abandoned cars sitting next to it. A zombie stood in front of one of the closed restroom doors, angrily hammering on it, trying to get in. When Sarah got c
loser, she could tell the screams were coming from inside; someone was trapped.

  Her first instinct was to rush ahead and save the desperate person, but suddenly she faltered. Her gait slowed and she nearly came to a full stop, stricken by indecision. All the guilt and trauma she had felt washed over, and a very selfish thought came to her: maybe it would be better to just sneak past and continue down the road; just block out the screams and the hungry groans—cover her ears if she had to—and just walk on by. It seemed like everyone she tried to help or protect just got hurt anyway, so what would it matter?

  Her feet started up again and she moved along the road. Her legs sputtered here and there, sure of her decision one moment, then unsure the next. She tore herself between keeping along the right shoulder of the highway—maybe even hopping over the guardrail and skirting along the woods below—and heading for the rest stop on the left.

  The zombie didn't pay any attention to her and her erratic movements in the middle of the road, and finally she wrestled herself into running for the cars next to the small building for cover. There was a silver SUV closest to the building and she hid on the other side of the engine from the zombie, rising and peeking over the hood.

  The door to the restroom started to buckle as the screams inside continued. With every slam of the zombie's hand, it moved inward an inch or two, like the person hiding inside was leaning their bodyweight against it.

  Sarah grabbed the bow slung over her shoulder, but she didn't take it off. Her whole arm shook, and she couldn't understand what was coming over her. The swelling feeling paralyzed her and finally she had to sit down on the ground with her back leaning against the SUV just to catch her breath. Her chest rose and fell rapidly and her head felt faint. Her muscles were fatigued, her lungs constricted.

  The screams and groans and bangs were loud behind her, and she knew she wouldn't have long to act. Her paralysis was incomprehensible and she forced herself to fight through it.

  Each movement felt like she was in deep water, trying to move her limbs against a crashing tide. She turned and planted one foot flat on the ground and hoisted herself up, then she removed the bow from her shoulder and pulled an arrow out of a secondary quiver she acquired—a small leather pouch—for arrows that were dirtied with zombie blood. She leaned forward against the hood of the vehicle and steadied her arm on it as she placed the arrow against the bowstring and pulled it back. Her arms were still shaking, but she held her breath and used all of her focus to aim.

  The zombie's side was visible to her, about twenty feet away. It wouldn't be a hard shot to make.

  But then the door finally burst inward and the zombie's weight was hurled into the restroom, disappearing from Sarah's sight.

  She stood against the SUV in shock as the pressure she applied on the bowstring lessened.

  A series of short and quick screams came from inside the restroom, more frantic than ever before. The zombie yelled in a frustrated groan, followed by the most bloodcurdling scream amplified by the small room, shooting out and echoing around the wilderness. Then everything went quiet.

  Sarah slumped back down onto the ground, letting the bow and arrow fall by her side. She sat on her butt and leaned her elbows against her hiked knees, pressing her face into her hands and weeping. She only cried for half a minute, though, finding herself running out of tears. Every spell of guilt and depression on her latest journey had drained her ability to feel things more and more, as if some receptor or function of an organ inside her had been damaged and no longer operated. What was intense sadness a moment ago was now utter apathy, and she remained with her face slumped against her open palms, staring through the cracks in her fingers and feeling nothing.

  When her quiet sobs had ended, she could hear the faint and almost tender sounds of munching drifting from the darkened restroom behind her. The sounds filling and highlighting the sereneness of the nature around her was almost peaceful, as if she were half-listening to an old nature documentary on TV.

  She got up at last, knowing there was nothing more for her here. She had once again made the errant decision to intervene in something that was no business of hers and was met with a familiar old result, almost as if the scene was constructed for her to stumble upon in mockery of her; available to help, but totally impotent to do so.

  She returned to the center of the highway and continued on, passing the restroom, when she heard another groan, this one less amplified from the cramped confines of the room. She turned and saw the zombie standing in the doorway, fresh blood oozing from its mouth and down its chest. It stared at her with blank eyes, considering its next meal. When Sarah saw it, her heart jumped in her chest and it gave her a terrible scare; she knew that zombie. It was Jenny.

  She wore the same clothes that she had on the day Mark was killed and Kenny tossed her out with her children. Her skin took on the same diseased, gray tone as all the rest, but she hadn't yet been exposed to the prolonged rigors of the older zombies that shredded their moldy clothes and ripped at their leathery flesh.

  Jenny froze in the doorway, an action uncharacteristic of zombies. For the longest moment, all they did was stare at each other, both seemingly sharing the same shock. Finally, Jenny walked forward. Her mouth opened and more dark blood seeped out. Her arms started to rise in the air, her fingers curling like the stem of a plant bending for the sun. She broke out into a very slow trot, never seeming to reach the speed of a normal zombie.

  Sarah's body found the ability to produce another short burst of emotion and tears streamed from her eyes. She took a few steps back as Jenny approached her, and all she could think about was how sorry she was... sorry that she didn't help Mark when she asked her to... sorry that it all came down to this. The hopeful fantasy in her head of Jenny relaxing safely on a deserted island with her kids and eking out a life for them shattered in front of her, pierced by the dull whites of Jenny's very eyes.

  Jenny slowly closed the gap and Sarah pulled the bow off her shoulder and took out the same arrow she had aimed at her before. She mounted the arrow against the bowstring and reluctantly drew it back. She backed up until her calves bumped into the guardrail and she had no more room to retreat. She was struck by what almost seemed like recognition in Jenny's eyes, though she didn't know if it was real or imagined.

  The fletching at the end of the arrow felt heavy against her fingers, but still she couldn't let it go. It was pointed right between Jenny's eyes, but those eyes told her not to.

  Jenny let out a soft and raspy sound. It wasn't angry or hungry. She didn't know what it was, but it cooed to her, as if even Jenny's corpse was persuading her to put the bow down.

  And in that moment, she considered it; she was visited by the thought that maybe it would be better to close her eyes and let Jenny take care of everything. She wouldn't have to worry anymore; she wouldn't have to be afraid or wonder where she would go or how she would get there; she would finally be put to rest and join the rest of the crazed world, no longer a walking shadow damned to flutter through its decrepit annals. It was nature's gentle way of telling her that humanity's time was over.

  Jenny was only a few feet away. Her hands reached out for her, and Sarah knew that this was it—her time had come. Sarah squeezed her eyes shut, pressing out her final tears as sadness and fear clutched her chest. She let out a gasp and then held her breath. And she let go of the arrow.

  Her eyes stayed closed for a long moment, then she took a deep breath, joyously feeling the fresh air fill her lungs again. She heard a heavy thump on the ground in front of her and her arms lowered the bow and she took a moment to just stand there and compose herself. When she felt that she was calm, she returned the bow over her shoulder and turned to her right, starting to walk along the road. Her eyes were still closed the entire time and she waited until she was a good dozen paces before she opened them. She didn't want to look back and she didn't want to retrieve the arrow. She wanted to immediately put the episode behind her with all the rest and never l
ook back again—on any of it.

  When she had rounded another few bends in the highway and the rest stop was far behind her, she stared blankly ahead, feeling dead inside. A few minutes ago, she had been ready to accept her fate and cross over to the other side, but something in her wouldn't allow it to happen. Whatever it was was hidden deep inside, unknowable and veiled. And it was damnable and wretched; an evil worse than all the rest around her, tasked with prolonging her torment for as long as possible.

  The dull green trees swayed around her and a heavy scent hung on the air. It reminded her of that old, rich smell of burning firewood, but she knew there was no one around and nothing was burning. It was just another phantom on the wind, taunting her with comforts that were no longer there. But the smell was bitter and so strong that she could almost taste it, like ashes on her tongue, and she suddenly pictured arches of burning wood and blackened walls collapsing into ruin in flames all around her. The imagery was vivid and felt similar to déjà vu, but she got a powerful sense that it was associated with the future.

  After another mile down the road, the clouds bunched up densely to each other and it started to rain. It was light at first, but, looking up at the sky, she knew it would soon start to pour.

  The woods on her right had been shored up into an even elevation with the road and she could see a trail up ahead cutting through the trees. It would get dark before long, but she didn't want to get soaked in the cold weather and freeze in the night; at least the canopy of evergreens would provide some cover.

  She left the road at last after a full day on it and she ducked along the trail into the woods. She noticed suddenly that her feet were really starting to get sore and that she should rest soon.

 
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