Free Fiction: The New Meat
Continuing my recent trend towards sharing older stories I have long since had published , here’s a twisted tale I originally sold to Alban Lake, who included it in an issue of their terrific publication Disturbed Digest about four years ago. It’s currently available as part of my first collection.
With “The New Meat”, I was attempting to turn the tables of the standard zombie cliches’. By the time I began working on this piece, zombies were flooding both the literary and cinematic markets. Things had reached a saturation point, with it becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate one story from the next. Not that many of those stories and movies weren’t well crafted – they were – but you can only see/read the same plot points so many times before craving something different.
With that in mind, I set out to turn things on their head. I think it came out fairly well (well enough for the good folks at Alban Lake to pay me for it, at least) , and in the process I was able to incorporate a bit of fun, B-movie level Sci-Fi.
So here for your reading pleasure is my one and only foray into the world of zombies.
Catch you on the flip side.
The New Meat
At first glance, Benning thought the shack might just be a mirage.
That certainly would have been in keeping with their recent run of bad luck. Benning and his companions were being pursued through the heart of the Northwest forest (after being forced to hide for several hours in a tiny, aluminum tool shed not designed to house four bodies) , on the run from a horde of the Hungry who had picked up their scent.
Additionally, there was Jacobs misfortune with a hidden bear trap, said device having snapped onto his forearm while they’d been crawling through some brush earlier that day. The group had managed to free Jacobs and evade capture, only to discover they’d lost their bearings and had no idea how to get out of the woods.
After spending an unknown amount of time desperately looking for some sort of path out of the forest, the group had hidden themselves among the massive roots of an ancient Banyan , perched atop a gently sloping hill. On the other side of the tree, the ground dropped into a sharp incline.
With all they had been through, it was too easy for Benning to assume the tiny structure he had noticed at the bottom of the drop was the product of wishful thinking, not good fortune.
He raised his head over one of the thick roots and peered down. The sharp slope on the other side culminated in a hollow at the bottom. Years of summer rain had mixed dead leaves, pine needles and fallen branches into an organic soup, transforming the ground down there into a soggy bog of mulch.
The muddy quagmire stretched for about a dozen yards before being divided by a small, cloudy stream running east to west through the heart of the forest.
On the other side of the stream, the floor of the forest solidified into a dusty mat of sandy topsoil, broken only by the occasional weed. In the center of this open stretch, several yards from where the trees again converged, stood the small, wooden hovel.
Benning fixed his good eye on the dilapidated shack, reassuring himself that it was real.
The structure was in bad shape: The walls were composed of rotting planks that had been hastily nailed together, the roof was little more than two pieces of aluminum siding some industrious soul had bound with several rolls of duct tape and mounted atop the structure. Given the way it was listing slightly to one side, it seemed a foregone conclusion the next storm to blow through the area would tear the hovel apart.
As far as Benning was concerned, it might as well have been the penthouse of a four star hotel.
He lowered his head and looked at Jacobs. His companion was clutching the stump were his arm had been up until an hour ago. Benning nodded toward the ragged, empty sleeve. “That hurt?” he asked.
Jacobs shook his head. “No,” he said. “Damned bear trap.”
“They’re getting better at this.”
Benning and Jacobs glanced over at the source of the comment.
Sitting directly across from them, resting with his back against the trunk of the tree, was Daniels. His face was frozen in a permanent grin, yellowing molars visible above blackened gums in through a cheek torn open by the sharp end of an errant branch earlier that day.
“You think?” Benning asked.
“Yes.” Daniels answered. “Remember when it all began, in the first weeks after the solar flare soaked the planet with that unknown radiation? When we all started to come to?
“That’s about all I do remember,” Jacobs muttered sullenly.
“So?” Benning said, sounding unintentionally sour. Daniels had a tendency to come off as fairly pompous. That, combined with an itch that had begun to develop around Benning’s empty eye socket and was intensifying, put him in a foul mood.
“So,” Daniels replied, “when people first became aware of what was happening, there was the requisite panic. It was like something out of the movies, with all of those PSA’s admonishing the public to destroy to the brain by means of bullets or blunt objects. None of it worked of course, but it was what it was.
“Then that incident involving those two drunken assholes and the transient in Jersey happened and suddenly there was a whole new variable added to the mix that no one had counted on.”
“What’s your point?” Jacobs demanded, more than a little testy. Benning suspected Jacobs wasn’t particularly keen on Daniels either.
Daniels issued an exasperated sigh. He shook his head and, in that moment, Benning (who had begun to scratch at his vacated eye socket vigorously) would gladly have knocked his head off. His only saving grace was that -of the four who remained- Daniels’ brain was the most functionally intact, allowing him thought processes more complex than basic communication and motor skills.
Put simply, he was the one whose ability to reason skewed closest to that of a normal human being. When he spoke, the others tended to listen.
“The point, Jacobs,” Daniels answered testily, “is that since it was discovered that the radiation alters the genetic structure of decaying human tissue, giving it nutritional value, the attacks on our kind have grown more sophisticated.”
Daniels leaned forward, jerking his head in the direction from which they had come. “In the early days of this debacle, that bunch out there would have been stomping through the woods, randomly spread out and following us armed with guns, knives and even torches. Scary, but limited and erratic in execution, ” he said, his eyes locking onto Jacobs. “Now they’re intelligent enough to know to lay traps for us as a precaution. They’re adapting to the effects, retaining more of their cognizant skills as the hunger overcomes them.”
“Bullshit,” Benning retorted. “What happened to Jacobs was just bad luck and you know it, Daniels. That trap had probably been lying there for weeks, months even, forgotten by the hunter who set it. Jacobs was just unlucky.”
“There’s a term with a rapidly broadening meaning,” Jacobs snorted. “We’ve been unlucky since the moment our eyes opened and we realized we were somehow conscious again. Why don’t you ask Patti there what his take on luck is?”
Both Benning and Daniels exchanged a guilty look before staring down at the pitiful creature nestled in the crook between two of the larger roots.
Frightened eyes stared back at them from above a gaping cavity where his lower mandible had been. His tongue, purple with rot, spilled haphazardly from the exposed depth of his throat. Incomprehensible gurgling sounds drifted to their ears as Patti attempted in vain to articulate a thought.
He had no limbs, having been reduced to four stumps by the time they found him lying in a ditch while on the run. From the look of it, those arms and legs had been forcibly torn off at some point.
None of them knew his real name, but some anonymous wit had plastered a temporary name tag (the type one might see worn by a college student taking their first tour of a campus) to the breast pocket of his moldy, blue button-up shirt. The faded rectangle of sticky paper had been there so long it had melded with the decaying fabric. Written in washed out marker across the paper (in barely legible cursive) was the word “Patti”, the “i” adorned with petals so it looked like a flower. In the absence of a proper name, it had stuck.
“I’ve been meaning to address that,” Daniels answered, the usual degree of pomp in his voice replaced by uncertainty. “I think we need to consider leaving him behind.”
Patti lurched forward, pushing away from the tree with his back and toppling forward onto his chest. He wriggled toward Benning, attempting to push himself forward, but the four ragged stumps wouldn’t catch the ground and he flopped around.
Benning watched with pity, reminded of a hooked fish convulsing in a desperate struggle to breath. Patti’s yellowing eyes bulged in terror as he shook his head violently to and fro, the quick motion causing his tongue to whip back and forth.
“No way,” Benning snarled. “We don’t leave anyone behind.”
The itch in his eye had reached infuriating proportions and Benning, his patience spent, reached into the empty socket and began to scratch vigorously. He was surprised to feel something squirming around, fine hairs brushing against his fingertips.
Benning clasped his fingers around the mystery object and drew his hand away from his face. It took him a full second to realize he was holding a large, brown spider, one with a body the size of a quarter.
He grimaced, tossing the arachnid to the floor of the forest. The spider quickly found its bearings and scurried into the brush.
Jacobs moaned, staring after the spider with horrified fascination. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said softly. He lifted his eyes to Benning. “Daniels is right, Benning. The trap that took my arm looked new. It didn’t even have any bait in it. What would hunters think they could catch in a trap with no bait?”
“Maybe some…some…uh…some.. thing…took the bait….” Benning allowed the sentence to trail off, as he struggled to think of the word. He looked at Daniels and Jacobs and saw that they were staring back at him expectantly. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember. A flutter of panic shot through him.
“Just give me a second. I’ll get it,” Benning told them, but he didn’t think he would. These blank spots had been happening at random since that terrible morning he had come to inside an autopsy room. He was fairly certain they were the result of tissue damage caused by the brain cancer which had originally killed him. Basic concepts such as certain common nouns would arbitrarily slip beyond his grasp, at times leaving him less mentally capable than an infant.
“God, you’re having another one of your blank outs again, aren’t you?” Jacobs asked. “Jesus, this gets worse every minute!”
“It isn’t important, just a forgotten word,” Benning snapped. Then his eyes brightened. “Animals!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers excitedly. “Maybe some animals took the bait out of the trap without triggering it.”
“Animals?” Daniels sneered. “You had trouble remembering the word animals?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Benning shot back, scowling. “I know your brain works better than mine, Daniels, but I still say you’re reading too much into this. That trap was probably left by a hunter who forgot to look in on it. It wasn’t left for us.” He pointed into the woods. “And in any case, we are not leaving Patti behind to be served up as dinner by those nut jobs out there!”
“Okay,” Daniels answered, his voice calm. “Who gets to continue carrying him? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Jacobs is down an arm.”
“What about you?” Jacobs asked, leveling Daniels with a look that was pure contempt. “Why don’t you step up and do something other than acting like a holier-than-thou ass for change?”
“Because I refuse to be a part of this travesty.” Daniels turned, pointing at Patti, who was now cowering behind Benning. “This is a creature with no reason to continue existing. Not only is he back from the dead, not only is he without limbs or even a lower jaw, but he’s also been transformed. Haven’t you noticed it yet? Look at his skin.”
Benning leaned down and took a closer look. A combination of regret and horror surged through him when he realized that Daniels was correct. Patti’s flesh had taken on the light olive shade and toughened texture which signaled the transformation.
He was fit for human consumption.
Jacobs, who had managed to get on his feet, walked over, sniffing the air. “I can smell it,” he informed them. He offered Patti a sympathetic smile. “Sorry Patti. Not trying to be rude, but the aroma is pretty pungent.” He glanced over at Benning. “I’m surprised we didn’t pick it up earlier.”
“We were being pursued through the forest and not all of us have the use of our senses. At least, not the way we did before,” Daniels pointed out. “Besides, I think he only recently finished changing over.”
Benning swore under his breath, never taking his eyes off Patti. He didn’t want the others, particularly Daniels, to know just how exhausted and out of ideas he was.
It had been Benning’s idea to flee town and head into the surrounding forest when those people had sighted them hiding in the shed. Since then, all he had been able to think of by way of a plan was to keep running from the mob currently scouring the woods.
Now there was this. Benning hated to admit it, but Daniels was right. Patti’s body was clearly in its post-transformation state. That meant it was emitting a scent which, when picked up by living human beings, would send them into a frenzy.
Discovery of this of this bizarre fact had come earlier in the year, when two drunken college students in Tom’s River, New Jersey had decided it would be the height of humor to make sport of a homeless man they had happened upon in an alley.
By the time this encounter took place, the solar flare (now known to be the source of the crisis) had already saturated the Earth with its radiation, causing the dead to rise.
Unlike the zombies of horror fiction, however, none of these walking corpses demonstrated a desire to feed on the flesh of the living. Neither did damaging the brain -so often the solution in zombie cinema- have the slightest effect.
With the theories of Hollywood now debunked, the recently resurrected became a nuisance, an inconvenience that had yet to be dealt with.
According to the story (as Benning had heard it), the homeless man had begged the fraternity brothers for something to eat. As it happened, one of the dead had been stumbling around at the opposite end of the same alley. By way of response to the man’s pleas, the students had managed to subdue the zombie.
As a sick joke, the college kids had set the walking corpse on fire. To their astonishment, immolation had proven successful in killing the reanimated dead man. Realizing the zombie wasn’t going to rise again, they’d offered the cooked remains to the transient as food.
By now the whole planet knew the story. Not merely because it was so hideous, but because of what had happened next.
Rather than shrinking away in disgust, the homeless man had grown ravenous, literally drooling as he ripped at the seared corpse. Even more incredible was the effect consuming the twice dead body had on the man. He seemed to grow stronger and healthier with each bite, as if devouring the body was curing any ailments he might have been suffering.
As it turned out, that’s precisely what had been happening. The two college students had reported the incident to the police, who had taken the man into custody. Eventually he was turned over to a team of biologists , funded by the government to study reanimated bodies.
Benning remembered clearly (one of the few things he could still recall with much clarity) the sinking feeling he had felt in the pit of his stomach when the scientists announced their discovery. They had discovered the mysterious radiation had not only raised the dead, it affected genetic change in their tissue, causing it to transform into a protein which promoted cellular reconstruction and vitamin production in living human bodies. It also boosted the human immune system.
In short, as long as the zombie in question had transformed, cooking and eating the dead healed the living and could add years to the average lifespan.
Hearing Jacobs shout his name shook Benning out of his thoughts. He offered the others an apologetic look. “Sorry,” he offered sheepishly. “I was just thinking about John Lowe.”
“The homeless guy they call Diner Zero?” Jacobs asked. “Why?”
“Just thinking that if those stupid college kids hadn’t gotten drunk and found him that night….” Benning trailed off as a wave of despair overcame him. Maybe what Daniels had said regarding Patti applied to them all.
“Get over it,” Daniels snapped. “This is no time for daydreaming. We need to decide what we’re doing and I mean ten seconds ago.” He pointed toward the forest. “Listen.”
Benning listened carefully and a shiver ran down his spine as the sound of several bodies charging through the brush floated back to him, followed by voices calling out their positions to one another. The Hungry were almost upon them.
Without saying a word, Benning knelt down and wrapped his arms around Patti’s chest. Daniels stared at him incredulously, the remaining side of his face turned down in a tight frown.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Daniels cried. “We don’t have time for this, Benning!”
“You do what you want,” Benning spat back. “I’m dragging Patti down to that shack with me and locking us in until those people are gone. And hey, shout a little louder next time. In fact, just walk over and tell those guys where we are. It’ll be quicker.”
Daniels looked to Jacobs for support and was mortified to see Jacobs preparing to follow Benning’s lead. “Jacobs,” he seethed, “you can’t be thinking of going with them. That’s insane!”
“I guess you made your point a little too well, Daniels,” Jacobs said, the contempt returning to his eyes. “If trying to carry on is a dumb move for Patti, then it isn’t much smarter for any of us, is it?” He pushed his fresh stump toward Daniels to embellish the point. “I’m almost where Patti is now. If I’m going to end up as food anyway, then I’d like to spend the rest of this second, shittier life with people I at least like.”
They were interrupted by loud snaps as branches cracked and heavy footsteps stomped along the forest to the west. The predators were very close now. Soon they would be able to spot the foursome. Although bullets would not take the dead down, the men tracking them could still disable any one of their group by taking out a kneecap or hip with the rifles they carried.
Daniels took a step back, throwing his hands up in disgust. “Fine,” he snarled. “If you two idiots want to take the future buffet item and lock yourselves in that shithole, be my guest. I’ll pass.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Benning chided. “Just hide in there with us until they leave, then you go wherever you want. You’re dead. You can’t afford pride, Daniels.”
“It’s not pride, Benning,” Daniels said, his tone acidic. “Just common sense. They’re laying traps for us and they knew enough to follow us in this direction. Not to mention they can almost certainly smell Patti by now. That shack is a one way ticket to their gullet, nothing more.”
The sound of the hunters moving through the forest was closer now. Benning shot an alarmed look towards the trees , then back at Daniels. “Time to stop talking and start moving,” he said flatly. “Go on alone if you want, but we’ve got to move right now.”
Daniels stared at Benning and Jacobs silently for a moment, then sprang forward, the stiff muscles in his legs popping as he launched himself over the roots and down the embankment on the other side.
Benning watched Daniels tumble down the slope like a blonde rag doll, landing in the mud on their side of the stream. For a moment, it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to make it back onto his feet. Eventually he did, the aging sweater he wore now covered with thick, watery earth and rotting leaves.
Daniels stumbled across the stream and past the shack without even slowing down. Within moments he had disappeared into the flora on the other side of the hollow. That was the last they ever saw of him.
“Son of a bitch really left,” Jacobs muttered as Daniels was swallowed by the forest. He offered Benning a tight smile. “Ah well. Fuck him, right?” he said, then threw himself down the hill.
Benning tightened his hold on Patti’s waist then backed up to the root he had been taking cover behind, dragging the limbless creature with him. He had to turn his upper body slightly to the right to peer over his shoulder and down the hill with his remaining eye.
He saw Jacobs lying close to the spot where Daniels had landed, flailing about in the mud. Benning initially thought Jacobs was having difficulty getting to his feet because the ground was soft and he only had one arm. A sick feeling came over him as he realized that Jacobs was sinking.
Fighting a surge of panic, Benning hugged Patti close to him and launched them both backwards. The world turned end over end, first trees, then Patti, then the ground filling his vision as the two of them plummeted down.
Propelled by Patti’s extra weight, both of them hit the base of the slope, the force of the impact launching them in opposite directions. Patti landed in the stream, rolling side over side until he came to a stop on the more solid topsoil, closer to the shack.
Benning spilled onto his back in roughly the same spot where Daniels had landed, mere yards way from where Jacobs was now chest deep in the quicksand pit. He flipped onto his stomach, feeling his ribs shift beneath his skin as he moved, realizing that at least half of them had broken in the fall. He crawled toward Jacobs, who by now was only visible from the neck up.
“Grab my hand!” Benning called, stretching out his arm.
Jacobs shook his head, his face the picture of calm as it hovered mere inches above the surface. “Forget it,” he said, the passive tone of his voice sending chills down Benning’s spine. “You tried, man. I appreciate it, but I think I’m just gonna let this happen.”
“That’s crazy, ” Benning said weakly, surprised to hear himself sob.
“Is it?” Jacobs returned. “It’s been one misery after another since I woke up, beginning with having to claw my way out of my own coffin. I never wanted to live again. I’d rather just stay down here and decompose under the ground like I was supposed to. Besides, this sure as hell beats going the only other way we can be destroyed, by fire. At least this is quiet.”
Jacobs sank a few more inches, until all but his eyes, nose and mouth were covered. Those eyes shifted in Benning ’s direction, the colorless dead lips crinkling in a small smile. Jacobs winked.
With a soft gurgling sound, he was gone.
Benning stared at the surface of the pit for a long moment, until the sound of the hunting party reaching the Banyan tree captured his full attention.
He staggered to his feet, hopped the stream and picked up Patti, lunging toward the shack.
As he cleared the distance to the ramshackle door of the structure, Benning could hear one of the Hungry shouting he could see something moving down in the hollow. That settled any doubts about holing up inside.
With only him left to carry Patti, the best he could hope for was to barricade the door and buy them some time to come up with an escape route. There was no way he could evade the men at the top of the incline if he continued to drag Patti through the forest.
Benning backed through the door of the shack, relieved to discover that it wasn’t locked. He scrambled inside, laying Patti on the ground, then turned and slammed the door shut.
There was no lock, but he noticed a large, metal gas can -the rusted lip stuffed with an oily cloth- resting in the corner to his left.
Benning leaned over, intending to grab the can and prop it against the door, when the smell hit him full on. Only one substance had that specific stench. Gasoline. Given the intensity of the odor, there had to be a lot of it.
Benning lifted the can off of the ground. Whatever hope he had been holding onto was extinguished when he felt how light it was.
A soft whine drifted to him and he turned around. Patti stared back at him with eyes that had taken on a haunting quality of resignation. The hapless creature jerked his head toward one of the walls.
Benning took a step closer, peering closely at the ragtag assemblage of boards. He could tell almost immediately the planks had recently been saturated with fuel.
As he realized this, Benning heard through the door the sounds of men closing in on the shack. A coarse voice shouted “They did it! They went for the shack! Shoot a flare in there and light it up!”
Benning knew it was all over. He locked his gaze with Patti’s and mouthed an apology. As the quick rush of air and accompanying whistle of the flare echoed through the forest, Benning saw in those eyes calm acceptance, but no more fear. Nor did he see accusation. Only gratitude. For that, at least, he was grateful.
Their world became fire.
By the time the shack had been reduced to glowing embers, day had given way to night and a crescent moon hung like a silver dagger in the clear night sky. Nearby, a pit fire blazed, casting an eerie glow over the faces of the hunters as they greedily devoured their servings.
Stationed at his makeshift serving post, the company cook turned the hand crank, slowly rotating the spit so as to evenly roast the mounted body. He paused, catching motion among the shadows beyond the reach of the flames. Moments later, two figures emerged from the outer perimeter of the camp. It was a man he recognized as one of the hunters, accompanied by his young son.
As the new arrivals approached the serving post, the father prompted his son to step forward. The boy did so, holding his plate out. He trembled as he stood before the cook, who eyed him warily for a moment before breaking into an inviting grin.
“Ready for some new meat, boy?” the cook asked, adopting a tone which suggested this was a matter of utmost gravity. He offered a sidelong wink at the father, who covered his smile.
“Answer the man, son.”
“Yes sir,” the boy told the cook, nodding. The grizzled old man’s smile widened as he picked up a large serving fork and a fillet knife from the station.
The cook jabbed the tines of the fork into the side of the body, puncturing the roasted muscle running along the ribs , slicing through it with the thin, razor-edged blade. He made quick work of it, carefully dropping a slab of meat onto the boy’s plate. This was accompanied by a high-pitched sizzling as drops of juice fell from the cut into the flames.
“Thank the man, son,” the hunter instructed. The boy mumbled a solemn “Thank you”, staring at his father and then the cook with questioning eyes. The two men exchanged an amused glance.
“What’s wrong, son?” the cook asked. “You never tasted the new meat before?”
“No sir, I haven’t,” the boy answered softly. The cook let out a belly laugh at this. Several of the men encamped around the fire joined in, raising their beers in his direction.
The boy looked up at his father timidly. “Is it safe, Papa?”
The man smiled, clasping his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was proud of him. This had been his son’s first hunt using live ammunition and the boy had acquitted himself wonderfully. “Not only is it safe,” he explained, “it’s your right, son.”
“Well, you helped to track the new meat down, so you have an equal right to it.” He glanced over at the cook, who was nodding in agreement.
“He’s speaking the truth, son,” the cook added. “You did a damned fine job out there today. Any party would be lucky to have you help ‘em track game. You earned that meat. Now eat up.”
The boy stared at his plate for a long time, lost in thought. Then he looked to his father again. “Is it true what they say, Papa? T hat it tastes like chicken?”
The entire company laughed uproariously at this and the boy’s face brightened. “It surely does, son,” he was assured. “It surely does.”
The boy shrugged. If Papa said it was okay, then he believed it. Papa was smart about this sort of stuff. Besides, his stomach was growling, he hadn’t eaten all day and chasing the game through the woods had been hard work. The food smelled delicious.
Smiling, he picked up his portion of the new meat, taking a bite.