By M.A. Kastle
Carly looked at the bank of windows as the early afternoon sun started over the library. She shifted her gaze to the stairs, found them empty.
Of course they are going to make me wait, she thought as she leaned against the car, that’s what a sorority does. After spending the week playing their puppet and passing their tests, her patience was beginning to thin.
She turned her face to the sun and couldn’t help appreciating the cool summer breeze, azure sky, and the fat white clouds. There weren’t any signs of a storm, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t change.
“In a heartbeat,” she mumbled. Like the day Mother Nature used a tornado to turn her world to hell. With a nervous sweep, Carly moved her shoulder length auburn hair away from her neck.
There was a time when a tornado sent a rush through her; a sick fascination wrapped in fear, excitement, and the destruction it promised. And the sounds; the wind crashing through the trees, making the limbs bend and hiss, and then wrapping around the house causing the wood to groan. Hearing the rain and hail as it, too, promised to punish everything it touched. But that day, it had been different.
Carly had raced to her room for her backpack when, behind her eyes, a swirling started; a building pressure that felt like it might burst through her skull. She had leaned against the doorframe for support and waited for the feeling to pass. It felt like hours, but she knew it had been only seconds before she dared to open her eyes. And when she did, she had been staring at her shotgun.
At the same time, thunder rolled across the sky, the cyclone was shredding its path toward them.
She had considered taking it with her. It should have been a hint.
“Carly,” Heather greeted.
She jumped, instantly feeling stupid for letting herself slip back to a life better off forgotten, and met Heather’s gaze. The woman smiled as she closed the distance between them.
“Madam Heather,” Carly responded as she straightened.
“All right, ladies. You two have passed each test leading up to this moment, however, the final test is still ahead. Are you ready?” Heather asked, her hazel eyes almost glowing in the sunlight.
“Yes.” They answered together.
“Let’s go get’em, girls,” Mandy said hitting the button on the key fob to unlock the doors.
“That’s code for ‘get in the car.’” Veronica said with a grin.
“I’ll sit in the middle, if you don’t want to,” Carly offered, looking at the other girl. She picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.
“No, thanks,” Sandy replied. She smiled and opened the car door.
Carly waited while Sandy scooted to the center of the bench seat next to Veronica. After getting in the car, she placed her pack between her feet, and buckled her seatbelt. With her nerves working overtime, Carly smoothed her sweat damp hands down her thighs. The weather wasn’t cool, but the decision to wear jeans had been a good one. Like deciding to wear her running shoes instead of the hiking boots she had considered.
Without a word, Veronica opened the car door, quickly got out, ran around to the back and hit the trunk twice.
Mandy pulled the lever and at the same time gave Heather a sideways smile. Carly noticed and wondered what had passed between them. At the same time, an uncomfortable feeling stole over her. Am I jealous, or worried about the test?
“Sorry, I almost forgot the water,” Veronica said.
Sandy took a bottle and gave it to Carly, then grabbed one for herself.
“Thanks,” Carly said.
Veronica took her seat, scooted closer to Sandy, and leaned between the two front seats. “Madam Heather, Mandy.” she said as she handed them each a bottle.
“You’re so kind,” Heather said over her shoulder.
“Yea, thanks, Veronica,” Mandy said as she started the car.
“Time to go, I’m sure the pledges are dying to get this over with,” Heather announced, snickering.
Carly and Sandy shared a look while everyone laughed with Heather.
It isn’t funny, Carly thought.
Anxiety opened the wound and her thoughts went back to the Surge, the weather event that had swept across the nation, hungrily snatching victims into its current. The destruction had churned for weeks, leaving a massive wake of broken, distorted victims that were empty shells of their former selves.
Around her, the girls continued to laugh. Carly, struggling for control, faked a smile and turned toward Sandy. When Mandy started the car, music blared from the speakers causing her to jump.
Carly cursed under her breath, but didn’t feel as stupid knowing Sandy, shaken from the blast of music, felt the same way. Their nervousness prompted another round of laughter that filled the car and drowned out the music. Adding insult to her already injured ego, Mandy hit the steering wheel several times with her hand, before gaining control and turning the music off.
“Nice job,” Heather mumbled.
Mandy giggled, put the car in gear and started out of the parking lot.
Carly’s anxiety continued to crawl over her, and whether it was from her memories or from watching them, she didn’t know. She understood that she had to get a grip. This was the final test and she didn’t need anything to distract her. With determination, Carly worked to calm herself and took a sip of her water.
Carly met Mandy’s gaze in the rearview mirror for a second before Sandy scooted closer to Veronica. While she was thankful for the extra room, Carly couldn’t help thinking there was an ulterior motive.
It’s in my head, she thought, I’m being paranoid.
Carly leaned closer to the window and gazed at the overgrown bushes swallowing the remains of a neighborhood. Crowded by thick pine and cedar trees, the road stretched out in front of them like a foreboding story with no end. Until I reach the corral, she thought.
“I heard you lost your dad in the Surge?” Heather asked. “Hello- Carly.”
“What?” Carly sat up and met Heather’s dark hazel stare.
“Your dad. You lost him in the Surge?” she repeated.
“Yea,” Carly answered. A flash of her dad’s lemon-lime colored eyes and the bulging vein across his forehead filled her vision. With nervous movements, she unscrewed the cap and took a drink of water.
Mandy accelerated into the next curve and what space there was between them vanished when Sandy slid into Carly smashing her into the side of the car.
“How did your mom handle it?” Veronica asked. “Is she a shadow?”
“No,” Carly replied quickly. She isn’t a shadow. The shadow virus settled in the minds of its victim’s, waiting to reveal itself. With equal coldness, the infected were given a printed warning label. Forever marked with a tattoo. Forever infected. Carly knew there was disgust in her tone, and there was nothing she was going to do about it. “After my dad got sick, he attacked her and died. She hasn’t been the same since.”
The dimly lit room, the smell of burning cigarettes and stale whiskey drifted around her memory. On the rare occasion Carly confronted her, her mom gave her the same excuses while her eyes held unsaid accusations. Guilt filled her, Carly knew her mother needed the escape. Part of her hated her mom for it. It was cowardly. Part of her wished she, too, could give in and simply exist.
“He attacked her? Were you there?” Mandy asked. She glanced in the rearview mirror, her bright sapphire eyes glittering.
“Yes,” Carly answered. “He almost killed her.” The image of her mom’s scar joined in the torture of the conversation.
“You were a kid,” Veronica replied. “That sucks.”
“She’s the reason, I moved out here. I couldn’t stay there any longer,” Carly admitted. “Too many memories.”
“We’ve all been there,” Heather began. “Not many people made it through the Surge untouched. The ones that did, crashed when they found out about the shadow virus. The virus divided the entire country.”
“Infecting some and turning the others into monsters,” Veronica added looking at Carly. “Damn shadows.”
“Shadows,” Carly mumbled. The walking, talking, infected.
The road lowered, then rose to a rolling hill causing Carly’s stomach to touch her throat. It was all she could do to swallow, take several deep breaths, and hope to stop herself from getting car sick.
“Are you two getting nervous?” Heather asked as she turned around.
“A little. This road isn’t helping.” Carly answered first. After taking a small sip of water, she looked at Sandy who was staring forward past Heather and out the windshield. “How about you?”
“Nervous.” Sandy answered. She gave a tight smile that never reached her eyes, and with a nervous laugh returned her attention to the road.
The eerie feeling from earlier came back and warned her there was more going on than a sorority test.
No, she thought, I have commitment issues. She could thank her mother for that.
Carly shoved the feeling away as the car slipped into silence.
After humanity had successfully fought and gained control over the deviants, it faced the problem of having to contain the braindead murderers. Simply putting them down had been an idea, but was quickly rejected as inhumane. The answer came in the form of the corral. As if she needed a reminder, the sign for Crystal Lake Corral glared at her from the side of the road.
Thirty miles and I face the deviants. Exactly, what I hate, she thought. Carly had never wanted to go see what happened behind the walls. Never wanted to see who was behind the walls.
“Since we have about twenty minutes, we’ll go over the history and the importance of our beloved Bane Society chapter,” Heather announced. “Carly, when did the Bane Society advance from being a colony to an established chapter?”
“On the eight year anniversary of the Surge. The first madam, Annette Hughes, signed the license in front of the regional president,” Carly answered.
“Sharp as a tack,” Heather replied. “Sandy, what is the core dictum of the Bane Society?”
Carly swore Sandy physically shuddered when Heather asked the question. With everyone’s attention on her, Sandy hesitated a second, started to answer and then grew quiet. When Carly decided she would answer instead, Sandy cleared her throat, interrupting her, and began mumbling.
“Being part of the sisterhood that builds a foundation but does not rest on one. I am bound by honor and the oath to inspire others knowing we are all individually unique, but as a sisterhood, we are complete.”
“Damn, that was fantastic,” Heather said.
Carly couldn’t tell if Heather was mocking Sandy or was being serious. Not that it mattered. The feeling she was on the wrong side of the group started in again. Carly recognized the feeling and didn’t like it, not one bit. It was the same unnerving tinge that had driven through her when her parents had finally joined her at the cellar door.
As she made her way down the stairs, her dad held the door open. Carly paused when thunder rumbled and turned around, wanting to see the lightning's flare streak across the sky. Instead, she saw her father staring down at her. His squinted eyes barely visible under his hand that was pressed against his forehead. When his hand slowly lowered, she saw pain digging into the lines around his eyes and mouth, twisting his face. She hadn’t recognized him. His eyes stared at nothing, and that’s when the fear built up and began to invade her veins. She had never feared her dad. But at that moment, with the wind howling, thunder crashing in the sky, and the rain pounding the ground, she wished she could have pushed him into the storm and closed the door.
“Hey Carly, you with us?” Heather asked, laughing. Her hazel eyes had changed color; now dark green stared at her from the front seat. “You seem to have something on your mind.”
“The test,” she answered automatically.
“Don’t go weak on us now. Right, Sandy?”
“Right,” Sandy quietly replied. She didn’t look at Carly, rather, she stared at Heather.
“The first group of women to be honored with becoming part of the Bane Society stood together against the hatred the uninfected humans held for the shadow people,” Heather explained.
“The hatred?” Carly asked. “They spread a disease. They are the disease.” She hated the shadows.
“It’s not their fault,” Mandy said disagreeing.
“As I was saying, ladies. When a shadow was near death, they would bring him or her here to the corral. The Bane Society would keep vigil until the shadow died and turned,” Heather finished.
“Does that still happen?” Carly asked. She wasn’t going to coddle a shadow in their final moments.
“No, the shadows are delivered after they change. And it’s against the rules to hang-out at the corral. Someone could get hurt- so says security,” Veronica answered with a frown. Meeting Carly’s eyes, she shrugged her shoulders, huffed, and sat back in her seat.
Carly was beginning to think she should have researched the Bane Society before being part of bid day, and then signing on to be a pledge.
Too late now. Having felt alone since she arrived at college, she was desperate to be part of a group. It wasn’t a surprise, when Sandy asked her to visit the Bane house, Carly jumped at the chance. It’s fear, she told herself, I might not make it.
“I wanted to say thanks for this, for including me,” Carly said. They could like the shadows all they wanted. She just needed a place to belong. And everyone had their hang-ups. God knew, she did.
“That’s what we’re here for. We’re a sisterhood,” Sandy replied.
“A sisterhood,” Carly repeated. Did she see a shadow pass in Sandy’s mocha eyes?
“We’re all from somewhere that’s not here,” Mandy said staring at her in the rearview mirror. “Do you have anyone in a corral?”
“No. Thank goodness,” she answered. “Only child.”
“Me… too.” Veronica chimed in. “I think it’s better that way, you know, if there’s another surge.”
Carly knew she was lucky. Not having anyone to worry about made it easier. Not totally, I have mom, she thought. The idea of another surge, and if her mother would survive on her own or at all, created guilt that felt like stones in her middle.
While the tornado intensified and wreaked havoc outside, her dad’s attack grew worse. Adrenalin had driven through her, pushing Carly to pull her mom down the stairs, despite her protests. Carly pushed on the cellar door and when it opened, the wind caught it and pulled it from its hinges. Her dad sluggishly gathered his balance and stumbled after them. His boots, heavy with his weight, thumped each wood stair warning them of his approach.
“Be warned, Carly, this isn’t Sandy’s first time,” Heather said pulling her from her memories. “If she fails today, she’s out.”
“Really?” Carly asked.
“Yes,” Sandy mumbled. Her attention on her running shoes.
Carly almost felt bad. Heather’s tone had changed from casual, fun, to stern with an edge of meanness that ran through her words. Sitting back, she thought she should have understood the tension between them and the nagging feeling bugging her. Maybe, the task at hand was beginning to take shape. Yes, of course, she convinced herself, they were pledges and were about to go through their final test.
Mandy turned off the main road, sending everyone to Veronica’s side of the car. The tires hit the dirt kicking gravel up and the sound of rocks hitting the undercarriage drowned out their conversation. No one talked. Heather didn’t turn around and Sandy tried her best not to touch Carly.
“Nice driving,” Heather commented.
“I can’t help it when I see dirt,” Mandy replied, giggling. She slowed the car, drove between two bushes and stopped.
“Everyone out,” Heather ordered.
Carly grabbed her pack, inhaled, and paused before opening the door. Using it as a shield against the branches, she carefully got out and scooted down the side.
“If you’re scared, you can back out,” Heather offered. “Sandy? Carly?”
“No.” They answered at the same time.
“Are you sure?” Heather’s tone cut through their decision and mocked them. She turned her head, her blonde shoulder length hair moving over her sun bronzed skin. The amber yellow sunlight shone through the tree limbs bringing attention to the scar that stretched down her arm.
“I’m good,” Sandy answered.
“Yea, me too,” Carly replied.
“I’m sure you are,” Mandy challenged. No one missed the sarcasm wrapping around every word. “You know, when I had to do it, I was scared to death. Just the sounds they make are disgusting.”
“Right. All that grunting. And holy shit, don’t get me started on the smell,” Veronica said with disgust. “And the flies. Their bites leave open sores behind.”
“They’re the rotting dead. They’re going to smell,” Heather said looking at Veronica. “Yea, the flies are almost worse than the deviants.”
Carly rolled her eyes. Yes, she knew the sounds they made and knew they smelled, she didn’t need to be reminded. She hadn’t known about the flies. Did it surprise her? No. Any bug feeding off an infected, walking, decaying corpse had to be bad. Determined to get it over with, she brushed her hair off her shoulders. Taking a hair band out of her jean pocket, she pulled her hair into a ponytail.
Heather took the lead and started walking away from the car. When everyone else saw her, they chased after in an attempt to catch up.
Except Carly. She waited for a second, took the bottle of water out of her pack and started after them. The memories of her parents and the Surge following her.
“Get it over with,” she mumbled.
“We could stick to the road,” Sandy suggested. Leaves, branches, and stones crunched under their footsteps as the five of them made their way deeper into the forest. “It’s creepy back here.”
“We could. And we could get caught by security. Do you want them asking us why we’re here after hours?” Heather shot back.
“No,” she answered weakly. “I guess not.”
“Anyway, this adds adventure to it and it gives you two time to think about things.”
The pine, cedar, and oak trees soon thinned allowing the late afternoon sun to shine down on the manzanita bushes and scattered wild flowers. The air smelled earthy and fresh, the soft breeze a cool caress.
Carly took a deep breath and watched Heather as she made her way over rocks and fallen limbs. With the thicker limbs, Heather had to stop, shift her weight and then step over. Carly wanted to ask what happened, but never did because she wouldn’t give up her own secrets.
Her eyes shifted from Heather to the direction of their destination. Ahead of them, shrouded by trees, sat the corral. The name alone was wrong. It gave the impression they were cattle and not virus infested man-eaters.
Despite the sun shining on her, a chill raced down her spine and over her skin.
It isn’t right, Carly thought. Her stomach churned making it feel like there weren’t butterflies, but a flock of pterodactyls beating her insides.
“How do you feel?” Heather asked over her shoulder.
Carly waited for Sandy to answer and when she didn’t, figured she should.
“Great. I just want to get this over with.”
“Have you ever been to the visiting area?” Veronica asked.
“No,” Carly responded. “I’ve never wanted to see this place.”
“You didn’t come up here to check it out?” Sandy asked. “To see what you would be up against?”
“No. I didn’t think about it.” Carly looked around the woods and back at Sandy.
“You’ve never had anyone get sick? Ever?” Sandy asked.
“My dad was the one and only.”
“You don’t know anyone that got infected from the shadow virus?” Mandy asked.
“We lost contact with family during the Surge. After my dad died, my mom shut down and pushed everyone away. She said we were better off by ourselves.”
“You don’t like the infected or the shadows. You blame them for how things are, don’t you?” Heather asked.
“They carry the disease, threatening to spread it, and when they die they turn into those things in the corral. Why would I want to be around that?” Carly said defending herself.
Sandy’s question, you didn’t check it out, drifted through her thoughts. She wasn’t purposely going to see the decay of humanity living behind a wall.
“We’re closing in ladies,” Heather said. With a quicker pace, she hiked through the woods.
Part Two: Test Time
They continued walking in silence, the wind through the trees reminding her of the tornado. Carly’s attention left the corral and drifted to her mother.
She had sat on the floor of the living room crying and trying to stop the bleeding with a dish towel. He had bitten her several times, leaving teeth marks over both shoulders, but the worse had been the chunk taken from her chest. The hole bled freely, staining her white and blue checked apron a dark crimson.
His brown eyes had been glazed over, clear liquid seeped from the corners while yellow goo leaked from his ears. When she saw his dark form standing over her mom, she yelled at him to stop. Begged him to stop. He ignored her as if she hadn’t been there. She understood the man threatening them was no longer her dad. Somehow, he had died.
“Are you going to be all right? You look lost in thought,” Sandy asked.
“I think you need to worry about yourself, Sandy,” Heather advised, before Carly could answer.
“Yes.” Sandy nodded. She slowed down and looking at the ground, let the group pass her.
“The Crystal Creek Corral is the tallest wall in Northern California because the inmates are the most violent. They think it’s the extreme changes in weather, but who knows,” Veronica started. “Other places dig down, sixty feet or so, then build up and around, eliminating any chance of escape, but they couldn’t do that here because half of the facility is on the side of a mountain.”
“How tall is the wall?” Carly asked. She didn’t care, didn’t want to care.
“Seventy-five feet tall, all cables, wires, and steel. The posts go almost a hundred feet down, and there are miles of concrete making sure they stay there. It was featured in a magazine once,” Mandy offered.
“The concrete goes up twenty feet, but on the inside, there are steel slats. If one of the deviants try to escape by climbing out, their fingers and feet are sliced off,” Veronica added. “And you know what the smell of blood does to them.”
“The deviants go into a blood rage. Like sharks go into a feeding frenzy,” Mandy said. “They attack and eat like animals.”
“How do you all know so much about this place?” Carly asked. She quickly realized, she was the only one who didn’t know anything about the wall or the corral.
“They’re sick. We’re the Bane Society, the name means plague. And I know a lot of things, some good, some bad,” Mandy answered.
After that, no one else said anything. Carly went over the conversation, trying to understand their obsession with the corral and the ‘better off dead.’ It wasn’t her fault, she didn’t have a fixation on the stupid thing. She shook her head; she was defensive because they knew more than she did about a topic she didn’t care about. Well done.
“Tick-tock, Carly. We’re getting closer,” Heather said, singing the last words.
Carly didn’t respond for fear of saying something that might ruin her chances of passing the test.
They all continued onward. When metal shined in the sunlight, the sight stopped her. Her time had come. She was going to have to prove she was Bane Society material.
Was she really Bane material? The doubts about being part of a sorority with the name meaning plague wrapped around her fear. She did want to be part of something. However, that need was beginning to weaken as the corral grew closer.
Together, they walked across the empty parking lot. No one paid attention to the warnings; they would face prosecution if they were caught after hours and the victims in the corral carried a million diseases as well as the shadow virus.
“Here we are,” Heather announced. She stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and took a bottle of water out of her pack. “The Crystal Creek Corral in all its bloody glory.”
“Wow, it’s bigger than I thought it was going to be,” Carly mumbled looking at the monstrosity.
Concrete rose up and out of the ground making it impossible to see inside. Most of the wall was hidden by trees and flowering bushes as if they were trying to make it as serene as possible. Further down the sidewalk, there was a gate. Behind it, a set of stairs ascended to what she guessed was the observation deck. Who the hell would come here?
“Everyone says that the first time,” Veronica responded. “It’s worse than a prison when you think about it. They had to build it strong enough to keep a cannibalistic, diseased, and dying population from getting out.”
“It’s awful,” Sandy said. “And sad.”
“Is it?” Heather asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Not the corral. The families,” Sandy answered quickly. “The families who have to come here for a chance to see what’s left.”
“Good. Wouldn’t want things to change, would we?”
“No,” Sandy agreed.
Carly paid them little attention. She looked down and saw her hands were sticky with drying blood. Shaking her head, the imagined blood disappeared. She knew what she was going to do, what she needed to do.
“Snap out of it, Carly, you’re up,” Heather said looking at her.
“Me first?” Carly asked and looked at Sandy.
“Yes, you first. Sandy, here has things to think about,” Heather replied.
“Fine, I got this.” Carly met Heather’s gaze for a breath before her eyes darted to the wall.
“That’a girl. All you have to do is go inside and get an article. It’s up to you, be it a hand, foot, finger, but it has to be something we can recognize as belonging to one of them,” Heather explained. “Don’t let them touch you, diseases and the virus, you know. Off you go.”
She wasn’t worried about the diseases and the virus. If she was close enough that they touched her, she was going to be dead. Or part of the population, she thought grimly.
“You can’t take your backpack,” Veronica added.
“Why not? How am I supposed to carry the article out if I don’t have a backpack? Plus, I need my hands free,” Carly argued.
“We don’t believe you would cheat by having human pieces in your pack, but I do love a challenge,” Heather answered. “No pack.”
Carly waited to see if Heather was going to change her mind. When her hazel eyes narrowed and her hands went to her hips, Carly knew it was a losing battle. She regretfully took her pack off, set it on the ground, unzipped it and with a shaking hand shoved her empty bottle inside.
“The later it is, the more active they become. You might want to get a move on,” Heather advised.
“I’m going,” Carly replied as she stared at the concrete wall.
With her past alive in her head, she turned away from the group and started toward the stairs. When she was several feet away, she stopped, her mind racing through a dozen scenarios and none of them good.
“You don’t have all day; or night.”
She wouldn’t turn around and acknowledge Heather’s sarcastic tone, not with fear etched on her face. And she really didn’t want to see the smug look of satisfaction on Heather’s. She inhaled a deep breath and continued. If her mother knew what she was doing, she would kill her.
Carly put her hands on the locked gate, balanced, swung one leg over and hopped down. She walked down the short walkway and to the stairs.
“This is stupid,” she mumbled.
“It’s OK to quit,” Heather yelled.
“Dammit.” Making the first step, a chill raced down her spine contradicting the sheen of sweat on her skin. Step after step, she couldn’t stop the thousand reasons why she should ditch the Bane Society.
She reached the top and surveyed the benches, the scattered bug bodies and the trash cans overflowing with empty cans of bug spray. With a crunching sound under her running shoes, she ignored the scene and continued to the railing. The breeze blew around her, giving her faint hints of what was brewing on the other side. Carly held her breath, gripped the edge, and leaned over. There was no sign of a deviant, but it was still early in the day and she hadn’t invaded their territory.
It had to be enough. She could be in and out without getting their attention. Carly backed up to get a better view of the cyclone fencing around the visitor area. It had been built to keep people from climbing over, like her. She walked around to a gate marked, security only and searched. It was lower and less guarded, and once inside, she would be able to climb over and into the corral.
“We can see you. You can beat half dead people, can’t you?” Heather yelled.
“Yea, yea, bitch,” she mumbled. She wished Heather would shut-up. “Half dead people. I can beat half dead people.”
Who knew the barometric pressure would fuck up a person’s brain, turn it to jelly and create the Surge? No one.
Carly climbed up and over the gate then down the other side. When she reached the guard’s station, she turned around and searched the corral. The same cyclone fencing surrounded the entire platform protecting the guards from the deviants, and maybe the visitors. In the corral, clusters of trees and brush stopped her from seeing deeper into the woods while the moans and cries echoed.
“Shit, shit, shit.” If she waited, it was going to get worse. She had to be quick.
With icy apprehension, she stared down and wondered if she jumped, would the landing kill her, or worse, would she break a leg and become dinner. Without waiting, because if she did she would change her mind, she turned and started to climb. She reached the top and went down the other side until the fence ran out. Once there, she clung to the platform. The muscles in her arms burned and when her hands started to cramp, she closed her eyes and dropped.
Carly landed hard, her knees buckling, and fell backward. Lying on the ground, she stared up at the sky as a thread of exhaustion weaved through her body and a buzzing sound filled her ears. She released the breath she had been holding and inhaled. The sharp smell of spoiled ground, the sour scent of human waste and decay joined the bouquet of odors bringing her stomach to her throat. She breathed in through her mouth, hoping to swallow the rising nausea.
After willing her stiffening muscles to move, she got to her feet and turned around to face the woodline. The silence ended when a growl vibrated from the woods, sounding too close for comfort. She looked up. When she didn’t see anything, she focused on her search.
“How hard can it be,” she mumbled as she started walking.
She counted her steps, stopped, listened, and hearing nothing, bent down, and picked up a stick. After thirty yards and not finding anything, she turned around and headed back to where she had started. Mumbling curses the entire time, she walked with her head down, searching the ground for anything that might serve as evidence.
She stopped. With the stick, she started poking a pile of rags and then a clump of grass. The rags fell over, beetles crawled from the grass, and she cursed. Nothing. Half dead people and no body parts. Frustrated, Carly continued walking while keeping watch of the woodline.
She stopped, frozen where she stood and fighting the urge to scream. She stared at scabbed, dirty feet sticking out from thin ankles. Wet ribbons of skin hung from its left shin while flies crawled in and out of the ragged wounds. Nausea bubbled up, threatening her throat, with the sight. She slowly raised her head not wanting to make any sudden moves, and looking up, automatically took a step backward.
It- he- didn’t matter, stood inches in front of her, slightly swaying, with its mouth hanging open showing broken teeth, black gums, and half a tongue. The bones of its shoulders hunched inward, caving in while darkened blood seeped from cuts and scrapes soaking through a blue t-shirt.
She met its bulging eyes and saw a darkness swimming in insanity. Whatever the eyes were staring at, it wasn’t her. A guttural moan gurgled out of the slack mouth, releasing a mass of tiny bugs that moved as a wave up and over its ashen cheek. The next moan sent fear cascading over her as it sounded more alive than dead. And loud.
It sounded loud.
Carly started walking backwards, too afraid to take her eyes off him. With each step, she feared going too far from the platform.
“There’s only one of them. There’s only one of them,” she repeated, like the mantra was going to help her.
“I bet you thought you were going to make it.”
Carly’s head jerked up and she saw Heather standing on the guard’s platform with Sandy and the others beside her.
“What the hell is this? Get me the hell out of here!” Carly yelled.
“Um, no,” Heather replied.
“Come on.” Carly looked away from Heather to watch the man lumber closer. “Get me out of here.”
“No!” Heather yelled. Her voice rising to a squeal.
Fear sat in the shock of Heather’s answer, causing Carly to look up at her. “What is this?”
“Initiation, Carly,” Heather replied. “How are you feeling?” She stood with her hands on her hips, her lips curved in a grin.
“Like I want out of here.”
“Let me think… No.” Heather bent down and sat on the platform, her legs folded in front of her. “You’re not Bane Society material.”
“What?” Carly stopped. Her head spinning with having to split her attention between the deviant and Heather.
The nagging feeling came back, only this time, she invited its warning. Sandy. She stood her ground beside Heather but denied Carly eye contact.
“You guessed it. Sandy is the pledge. And to be accepted into the Bane Society, she had to get someone, like you, in the corral. That was the test. Boy howdy, there for a minute, I thought you might run, turning the table and forcing us to toss Sandy over. But damn, you jumped right in.”
“Someone like me?” Carly asked.
“We’re shadows, Carly. And you’re not.”
Carly was having a hard time wrapping her mind around the words coming from Heather. Her concentration riddled with the deviant, escape, and the threads of exhaustion gripping her body.
“You never answered my question. But you don’t need to. I can see the results of the drugs written all over your face.”
“Drugs,” Carly mumbled. Her thoughts swam in a sea of fatigue and panic. Shadows. They trapped her.
“That’s how we roll,” Heather said. “It paralyzes you. We can’t have our entertainment running away. I mean, we have to be able to watch.”
“You all are sick. Traitors!” Carly yelled. “You’re murderers.”
“No, they are,” Mandy corrected.
Carly watched two more decaying bodies emerge from the trees, their slow shamble creating enough noise to attract others. With the threat of facing more of them, she had one choice.
“She’s going to go for it,” Veronica said. “I think, I miss calculated the drugs.”
“It’s enough,” Heather replied.
“If she would have visited, she would know there’s no way out.” Sandy offered. “That’s poor planning.”
Carly looked up at Heather then at the approaching deviants. She needed to make it to the slats, climb up and get to the platform. Easy. Once she was out, she was going to toss every one of those shadow bitches to the deviants. Carly inhaled, choked down her fear and started running straight at the man. When she was beside him, he raised his ragged arm covered in bugs and tried to catch her. Carly didn’t stop, she ran as hard and fast as she could and then leaped to the thick strips of metal.
The first bites of pain were drowned out under the adrenaline pumping through her veins. It quickly spread and the searing fire raced into her wrists and arms. At the same time, a sharp sting invaded her feet, ankles, and travelled up her calves. Before she understood what was happening, she was falling backward, leaving the skin of her fingers hanging on the steel plates. Chunks of her running shoes and slices of her feet fell to the ground. With raw pain engulfing her, she saw white bone covered with a thin sheen of crimson stuck out from her wrists.
“Oh damn, that was ballsy,” Mandy said with approval.
Carly’s scream stopped when she hit the hard packed dirt and her breath rushed from her lungs. Around her, the footsteps of the deviants thundered with her heartbeat and she began to frantically gulp for air. As if it had pulled the muscles from her body, a chill seized and paralyzed her. Carly’s eyes burned as tears soaked the sides of her face.
She stared up and watched the concrete wall fade and change into her mom’s house.
Carly wouldn’t risk going for help. She wouldn’t leave her mom with… her dad. She had raced to her room, grabbed her shotgun, and headed back to the living room. The wind howled as she tucked the shotgun on her shoulder. Her father turned to look at her with pieces of her mom’s skin hanging from his mouth.
Carly pulled the trigger. Flesh and blood erupted and he stumbled backward from the force. She didn’t know how he did it, but he gained his footing and narrowed his gaze at her. She reloaded the gun and waited. He stumbled toward her and with a slow inhale, she fired again. His chest exploded and he hit the floor with a heavy thud.
“I’m sorry, mom,” she whispered. Her mom was completely alone now.
The image dissolved, the sounds faded, and Carly’s thoughts stilled as the golden light of the sun sank behind the mountains. The deviants moved in, taking her view of the sky as their multiplying footsteps forced the flies to abandon their meals.
“How many times did we have to say Bane, before she connected it to the virus? She didn’t even get it,” Mandy said.
“No, she didn’t. But who would guess a couple of shadow girls with serial numbers tattooed on their necks, would have a club,” Heather responded.
“It’s one thing to want to be a Bane Society member and another to give to the society,” Mandy said.
“Well said,” Veronica offered.
“Sandy, you are officially a Bane Society member. Congratulations, sister,” Heather announced.
Sandy heard the word traitor float through her thoughts. “Thank you, it is an honor,” she replied.
“Hey, they got her,” Veronica’s voice had risen with her excitement.
Carly’s screams, as they tore at her flesh, drowned out the cracking of breaking branches and the shuffling of feet as dozens emerged from the woodline.
“Sisters, together we are complete,” Heather said as she put her arm around Sandy.