Early symptoms of the infection had been mild enough to go unnoticed. They included; headaches, fever, insomnia, dizziness, vomiting, and irritability. Later symptoms became more grievous in nature. Irrational anger, dilated pupils, blood excretions from the mucus membranes, coma, paranoia, and mental instability were the final stages.
Those infected were reported to have committed extreme acts of self-mutilation, murder, rape, and cannibalism. The infected lost the ability to rationalize or communicate. It was almost as though they reverted to being predatory animals and had forgotten nearly everything that made them human.
Scientists coined the term “Kuru” to describe those who had fully succumbed to the infection. It was a new strain of the original “Kuru” disease. This new disease was caused by an infectious protein similar to the one that had originated from cannibalism. Its neurological symptoms were inexplicably altered, and it was unknown if it had been a lab grown disease or natural mutation.
Within a matter of months, survivors became few and far between. I can remember details, but nothing that could be called a coherent memory. Amnesia took most of my past, leaving me with a few useless dregs.
1- FADING TO BLACK
My eyes opened. Trying to focus on my surroundings, I felt disoriented. Mental pain—like a bad hangover—crept into my thoughts, bringing a swifter return to clarity. In the lingering haze, I struggled to remember what had brought me here. Sorting my thoughts, the silence in the vehicle quickly became unnerving.
As I felt the flecks of dried blood that stubbornly clung to the enamel of my teeth, memories began piecing themselves together.
How long had it been since our fall?
Unbuckling my seatbelt was the first thing I could think of. I knew I had to get out of the RV. It seemed straightforward enough, but with the vehicle resting on its side, there was too much of my weight pressing against the seatbelt to unlock it. Straining with my thumb didn’t so much as shake the belt’s button. After a few moments of futile struggling, I gave up. Whoever had engineered the seatbelt hadn’t considered not being upright while unlocking it.
As the narrow strip of fabric dug into my stomach, it caused further pain. It had been comfortably fastened during the drive. Now it felt as though it dug into every internal organ.
I remembered that we had been driving down the highway when there was a sudden attack by a pack Kurus. The front windshield quickly became covered by several of their diseased forms.
As they clung to the exterior, trying to smash their way inside, little could be done to prevent the RV from wildly swaying under Phil’s attempt to drive us clear.
The roads had still been slick from what remained of the melting snow. It wasn’t as though we’d been speeding. Instead, the drive had been slow.
Seeing the Kurus just before they struck, a jarring dread began to well up deep in the pit of my stomach. In what seemed like moments later, we’d careened into a guard rail. A few feet might have made the difference. Had we been further along the road, we would have missed the drop and could have continued pressing forward, in spite of the Kurus.
After only a few brief seconds, the quick flash of memory ended. Rallying myself to do something, I took in a deep breath and struggled to shift my weight, hoping to loosen the seatbelt. When I tried to push myself upward on the arm rests, a pain surged from my forearm. It washed out everything in a darkness that threatened to rob me of consciousness. The pain forced a sharp hiss of air out of my mouth while nearly taking my breath away in a scream. My thin thread of rational thoughts was stretched near to breaking, adding to my confused disorientation. Ignoring the pain in my forearm, as well as the throbbing ache from my skull, I turned my head. The ground moved beneath me, sending everything into a nauseating spin. It took a dozen deep breathes before my vision finally cleared.
The interior of the RV was nearly unrecognizable in its post-crash state. Items that I remembered having been neatly put onto shelves and cupboards were now scattered haphazardly around the compact space. No windows were intact, and their broken glass was thoroughly strewn around me. Everything from pots and pans to plates and silverware had been roughly spread throughout the living area.
Bringing up my working arm, I tried to rub some clarity into my still blurred vision. A few fingers brushing against my cheek brought another sharp wince of pain. Gingerly prodding the area revealed a chip of glass embedded in the flesh.
The glass beneath my skin stung with a sharp, burning pain. When my fingers reached to prod the shard, the pain only increased.
As my shaking fingers tried to pull the small glass shard out, they slipped on the still wet blood. The blood was now dripping down my face, rather than coming out in a steady trickle.
My fingernails were able to pick at it far enough to pull it free. Tracing the fingertips farther along my skin revealed even more pieces embedded into the flesh.
While clearing small pieces of broken glass from my face with the uninjured hand, I tried to get my bearings. Most of the glass fell away, but several jagged pieces still remained lodged into the skin.
After picking out the larger chunks, I looked around. Much of the damage could be explained by the next flickering memories that seemed to be coming unbidden.
The RV had lurched in a steep downturned angle before we plunged into the precarious ravine. The sounds faded as our wheels left the ground, but returned as Bernice howled out shrieks of terror.
Dozens of scattered bushes did little to slow our decent as we struck them on our way down. Their feeble roots were torn from the earth or disappeared under the RV.
Kurus were knocked down from their clinging purchases, only to be pulled under the wide vehicle’s frame. The noise of their crushed bodies hadn’t been noticeable in the awful din.
As we raced dangerously downhill, a larger, more substantial obstacle got into our path. It might have been a large boulder or tree. From where I sat, I couldn’t see.
Bernice’s screams had been cut shockingly short and replaced by shattering glass and groaning steel. All that remained was a hallow ringing in both ears.
My seatbelt had kept me from being flung about the RV while my upper body slammed into the console and interior under the centrifugal force.
The metallic taste of old pennies filled my mouth while something fell from an overhead cabinet. My upraised arm kept the impact from shattering my skull by taking the brunt in its place. Pain had erupted in a liquid fiery torrent from the outstretched appendage.
We had slowed long enough for the rear to swing around, which then sent us tumbling sideways the rest of the way.
A vicious blow to the back of my head was the last memory I had before everything faded to black.
Debris had landed all around the far wall, which was now the floor. I couldn’t reach anything to cut myself loose. Nervously looking for something sharp, I saw a long shard of glass that still hung loosely from the rubber window gasket.
Reaching over, I wrenched it free. Using the tips of my fingers, the glass’s serrated edge quickly cut through the seatbelts fabric. As the last few inches were parting, I realized my mistake.
The threads ripped all at once. It dropped me the rest of the way down. As I collided with wooden storage shelves, the impact knocked the wind out of me.
My injured arm landed above me, but the pain in my forearm now felt worse. It was difficult to tell under my jacket, but the fabric felt tight under my arm’s swelling. Trying to move it proved nearly impossible.
As I tried to climb to my feet, the sharp smell of leaking propane and gasoline penetrated my nostrils. Body shaking, I tried to see a way out.
The door would only open to the ground. It was useless. The front end was completely smashed in.
Terror struck when my eyes were met with a scene I’d vainly sought to deny. Blood had been splattered on the roof of the RV, trailing down to the front seats. Phil had been driving with Bernice sitting in the passenger’s seat. There wasn’t much time to think. Body shaking, I called Phil’s name.
There was no reply.
“Phil?” I called again, trying to crawl over piles of provisions that littered the ground. “Bernice?”
The silence in the RV brought shivers up my spine. What was I expecting?
I knew there wasn’t much time left, but I couldn’t leave them there, not without knowing if they were still alive. Maybe they were just unconscious.
The smell of propane was getting worse. Trying to slow the trembles in my hands and legs, I took slow breaths.
For all I knew, the RV could be surrounded by Kurus, or was close to catching fire and exploding. I had to be careful, but move with haste and stealth.
It was difficult to make much out inside the crushed vehicle. Although it was a risk, I reached a hand into an inner pocket. Using the penlight I’d brought with me didn’t do much to penetrate the dark. If it was fast approaching dusk, I must have been out for longer than I thought.
Kicking aside a few cans, I finally made it to the front.
Phil was still in the driver’s seat. His hands were still tightly affixed to the wheel. It had been pushed hard enough during the impact to drive it into his chest. Blood had dribbled down his mouth and chin, staining his formerly white plaid shirt.
Trying to stomach the sight of his lifeless body, I quickly looked towards Bernice. The windshield’s glass had cut her once kind face to pieces. One large shard was still lodged partway through her neck, but the blood that flowed out of the cut had stopped long ago. She was no longer recognizable under the gouges and gore.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I abruptly breathed in. Body now in trembles, I opened my eyes. I saw that there was no way I would be able to get out through the windshield.
It had been damaged to the point where anything trying to climb though would be cut to ribbons. Besides, I would have to climb over Phil to even try. That was when I remembered the windows that had been smashed. It would be an ideal way out if I could remove the remaining glass.
Stumbling away from Phil and Bernice, back the way I came, I tried to figure out where we had ended up.
We had been driving through a heavily wooded part of the highway when the Kurus had attacked. If I had to guess, I’d say there was about another ten miles until we would’ve reached the bottom of the mountain.
If we hadn’t been driving so slowly, the Kurus wouldn’t have been able to latch on the way they did, but the road had seen better days. Winter storms had knocked a few large branches across parts of it, which made Phil slow to a crawl while maneuvering past them.
Bringing my wandering thoughts to focus, I scrambled to the exit. The window I had been sitting near was small, but the others were as well. A few glass shards still remained.
Knowing time was limited, I grabbed the small kitchen rug out of a pile of debris, then laid it over the window’s frame. I hoped it would keep the loose shards of glass from cutting into me while scrambling outside of the RV.
Through the shattered window, the sun was thankfully still visible. The bright light filled the surrounding area, which was more than enough to make me feel safe to climb out.
Taking one last look outside, I tried pulling my body through the opening. The window was higher than I could manage with a single good arm.
The acrid odor of propane assaulted my nostrils. Hurrying, I piled the loose shelves into a makeshift step. The few feet made the difference.
My center of balance shifted as my upper body cleared the window. The weight drove one of the remaining shards of glass through the rug, digging into my side. Panicking, I swung the rest of my body out. Tumbling through the air, I slammed onto the ground. My breath forced from my lungs with enough speed to barely allow a groan of pain. Struggling with the lingering disorientation, I tried to squint to block out the light.
The exterior of the RV looked as though no one would have survived the crash. The frame had been twisted, with large gouges torn out of its siding. The smell of propane and gasoline was rife in the air.
Realizing that the vehicle was now at risk of catching fire or exploding, I turned to get away. As I ran from the RV, in my haste, I tripped. My legs shook beneath me as I tried to get back on my feet. Breathing heavily, heart still pounding in my chest, sweat began to run down my face.
With each blink, the still image of Phil and Bernice flickered through my mind. Bruised and in pain, I kept going, heading up the ravine.
As I continued on, there was an unsettling fear that I hadn’t been going in the right direction to reach the bottom of the road.
I wasn’t sure what I had expected of the day. I was more curious than anything. Now I began to regret leaving the campground in the first place. We’d exhausted most of our supplies, but waiting a day or two would have been nothing compared to what had happened.
Rachael, Simon, Rosie and her baby had been in the SUV behind us. Were they looking for us? The fall had been too far and steep from the road. A hike down would have been near impossible without the proper equipment. Maybe they kept going. We hadn’t had much ammunition left, and they wouldn’t be able to stop in the dark confines of the overgrown forest. They would have stopped where there was enough light to keep the Kurus away.
Thinking about weapons made me realize how helpless I was. There had been things in the RV I should have grabbed, but it was too late now. With the propane and gasoline, it wasn’t worth the risk.
Reaching tentatively up towards the painful place on my head, my hand became wet. Looking down, there was a small amount of blood quickly cooling on the tips of my fingers. It was already clotting, but every injury added up. The medical kit in the kitchen was something else I hadn’t remembered to take. If I kept making mistakes like this, I wasn’t going to last long.
A sound to my left brought my attention up the ravine. It could have been something that had jarred loose from the cliff and rolled down the steep slopes, or it could’ve been Kurus. The thought of those things stalking me brought the hackles in my neck up. Feeling a form of paranoia creep into the forefront of my mind, I knew I had to keep moving.
My forearm screamed in pain if I did more than a fast walk. A quick trot was possible by keeping it tucked in close, but it wasn’t nearly fast enough. Large rocks and what looked like sand made up the canyon floor. It must have been a stream or a river at one time.
Every time I would take my eyes off the ground, a stone seemed to be in just the right position to trip me. After the third stumble, I made it a point to focus on where my feet were landing.
After a few minutes of further walking, the ravine sharply turned. I could no longer see the RV, and what was worse, I couldn’t see the road either. It had been several months since driving up the road, but I had hoped it would swing back my way.
The rocky terrain turned again a few hundred feet farther down. My footing became more tenuous as the loose earth and rocks were intermixed with small boulders. They were scattered here and there before becoming more difficult to avoid. With my arm, it was hard to keep moving in a straight line. Each detour around a large rock added minutes to my trek.
Despite the bright light that was streaming down from the sky, I feared a Kuru would leap out from behind a rock. Shaking these images from my mind, I focused on the task at hand.
I wove my path through the twisted path between boulders and large stones. Taking in my surroundings, I looked towards the darker section of the forest.
The tightly clustered trees appeared to be motionless, yet an air of menace clung to them. I wasn’t sure if it was because I hadn’t been alone in a long while, but the feeling of being observed lurked.
As I continued on, a strong breeze briskly ran through the forest. It whipped through the narrow ravine. As I pulled my jacket in closer to myself, I could feel the wind numbing the surface of my skin.
My attention was drawn to a sudden noise. I looked up towards the sky, where a large bird called down at me from overhead. After several languidly flown circles, it seemed to grow bored and flew away.
I hadn’t seen many animals throughout the winter. It made sense that they would return with the spring. I just hoped the blood clinging to me wouldn’t attract a bear or wolf.
The sudden spurts of wind died down as quickly as it had started. Although the sun was warming, it seemed as though the cold still clung to me. Pulling my jacket tighter did little to keep out the frigid temperature.
My feet quickly became sore. It had been a while since I was this active. I’d been sitting more than I liked. With each step, thirst struck and remained in the back of my mind.
I wondered if I’d run into any of the Kurus in the forest, then wondered if there would somehow be less of them in the city. Phil believed after winter, the city would be less chaotic.
I had seen the Kurus eat their own if they had no other source of food. With the lack of survivors, it was likely that their numbers would be dramatically reduced by now. Maybe it was just Phil’s optimism rubbing off on me.
The further I walked, the more anxious I became. I hoped Rachael and the others were alright. If they finally made it down, there would be several small homes they could find shelter in. I knew Rachael well enough to know that if she couldn’t find me, she’d wait somewhere at the end of the road for us to arrive. That brought a mixture grim determination and worry.
Phil and Bernice had seemed as good as family to all of us. It would be strange to not have them around, especially after spending so much time with them.
* * *
As the sun began to slowly set, I knew I couldn’t go further. I’d have to set camp somewhere I could easily escape or defend myself if the situation arose. Where?
Eyes searching, I shook my head in frustration. Nowhere seemed safe. If I could just get through the night, I was sure I would reach the end of the road by midday tomorrow.
The Kurus had been in the forests to my left, which meant I wouldn’t last long if I tried to find shelter there. There hadn’t been any sign of them since the accident, though, but the dense foliage could be concealing anything. Better to try the other side. The trees were less dense there. They had lost most of their leaves, unlike the overwhelming evergreens on the left. The only other option was to stay in the open area of the valley. It wasn’t the safest place to spend a cold, dark night. Making up my mind, I turned and chose a narrow passageway that offered a decent chance to climb up without breaking my neck.
Several times a patch of loose gravel nearly brought me back down to the ravine floor. The boots I wore kept my feet warm, but did little to help my climb. With one arm tucked into the jacket, the other was barely adequate to help pull me up. The jarring movements it took to reach the ridgeline sent spikes of debilitating pain into my arm. Gritting my teeth, I forced each movement.
By the time I’d reached the top, a cold sweat covered my face. How much was from the exertion and how much from the pain was up for debate. My forearm was still swollen. I’d hoped it was just a fracture and not a full break.
While kneeling at the top of the ravine, I took a good look at my surroundings. I couldn’t see the road. Glancing ahead, the gorge I’d been following ended a few miles in the distance.
Getting back to my feet took more effort than I would have liked. Weariness and injuries had taken their toll. There hadn’t been a great deal of physical exertion while we were staying at the camp. With the large amount of canned goods, there was little need to leave the campground’s dining hall.
Keeping my bearings became more difficult as I walked deeper into the forest. There were no landmarks, only bare trees that had nothing to distinguish one from the other.
I tried to swing left after several minutes of heading directly into the forest. It would be difficult enough to find another way to reach the road without becoming more lost. Finding my way was more of an instinctual guess than based on anything around me. I knew little of hiking or navigation.
Winter had fully set in by the time we reached the campgrounds. Even if we had reached it sooner, I had never felt comfortable in the woods. The forest was a haphazard conglomeration of nature. In urban areas I knew where I could find food and shelter. Here I was out of my element.
Pine needles that were faded from age littered the ground. An occasional stick cracked underfoot, but that was the only noise I could hear in the forest. There were no sounds of birds or beasts.
Every hundred feet or so, I would stop. Keeping still, my ears would try to pick out any distant noises. The light had been gradually fading, but too slowly for me to notice.
There wasn’t a great deal of time to find someplace to spend the night. I’d guessed there was probably less than an hour of adequate daylight remaining. I hadn’t seen anywhere that looked safe enough. Climbing a tree would be nearly impossible with my injured arm, even if there had been low enough branches to reach. Stumbling through the dark with little to see would be a good way to break a leg.
My pace quickened due to the new urgency I felt. Trees passed to my left and right, but none had seemed likely candidates for a safe night’s rest.
The terrain was now hilly, which kept me on my toes. Trying not to take a tumble, I had to watch where my footing was. Some large rocks were now amongst the trees. Many had sections covered by dead moss, but most were a dull, foreboding gray. Several were piled near each other. A dead tree had at one point fallen over it. Now it was just a shadow of its former self. It wasn’t the most secure or defendable location, but it was the best I was likely to find. It was out of the wind. I hoped it would keep me safe for the night.
The small space between the rocks gave me just enough room to lay down, if I curled up in a fetal position. What needed fixing was the entrance. It was partially obstructed by the fallen tree, but anyone who walked by would easily see me there.
Searching nearby, I drug several more fallen branches to lie to either side of the dead tree. They formed a lean-to that would be sufficient for the night.
Before the sun set, I found a slightly jagged stone. It was roughly the size of a softball. Carrying it to my temporary shelter made me feel safer, but not by much. I would have preferred a gun or a knife, but it was better than fighting bare handed.
Finding a comfortable position was difficult in the confined and nearly pitch-black space. Sharp stones painfully pressed into my skin.
As the sky darkened, my heart seemed to beat harder. Anxiety began to once again pound away at my thoughts.
My shelter kept me from being seen, but from the inside, it did little to allow me to observe my surroundings. I felt confined and isolated. My body kept the small space bearably warm, but the occasional gust of wind blew, which caused a few cold chills. Every breath I took seemed to be louder in the space. I began holding my breath while trying to listen. Darkness had taken the forest. What was silent before was now filled with noises. There was nothing overt, but I could practically feel the forest coming alive. Reminding myself that the night would soon pass did little to alleviate the paranoia. I didn’t think the movements I heard were from Kurus, but there was always a possibility. Listening to the quiet, there was no snarling or growling. Once a mournful howl reached my ears, but the distant sound was something natural. Every second of the night seemed to drag on in an endless loop. Fear continued to keep me from sleeping. Insomnia quickly turned to a panic. For a moment, I’d almost felt as though I was being watched.
Distant echoes of more howls surrounded the open landscape. Maybe it had been wolves or coyotes, but it was impossible to know for sure. I was surprised I hadn’t seen or heard any all winter.
As the night dragged on, my thoughts were once again fixated on Rachael. How long would they have waited? Would they come back, or is it more likely that they assumed we had all died in the accident?
Not knowing only made things worse. I’d hoped she hadn’t tried to search for me. If something happened to her, I would feel at fault. Should I have just stood near the crash site? Conflicted with my decisions, I decided either way, when the sun rose, that I was going to keep going.
My lips were dry and cracked from the exertion and thirst I’d felt. There had been no water in the forest. No food either. I hoped to come across a stream tomorrow. Food was practically out of the question, mostly because I didn’t know which plants were safe to eat. If I tried to eat something at random, I might end up sick or dead. Hunting was also out of the question. I had no weapons, other than the rock that sat next to me in the dark. It wasn’t likely to help me bring down a rabbit anytime soon. Though hunger began to restlessly claw at my stomach, I’d eaten several hours before the crash. A day or two without a meal wouldn’t kill me. I’d gone longer without having something to eat.
I tried to remember how long we had to go before reaching the bottom of the mountain, but I knew it would have been nearly another hour. On foot that could easily turn to several days, especially across rough country and having to set camp before sunset.
A loud snap in the dark nearly made me jump out of my skin. It sounded as though someone had been creeping nearby.
Startled, my heart raced as I tried to slow my breathing once more. Something was nearby. It could be anything, but with the luck I’ve had lately, it was out there looking for me.
Laying in the confining darkness, I tried to keep calm. What was it? The sound of movement and branches breaking underfoot brought more fear. I’d hoped I’d make it through the night unnoticed, but hadn’t counted on it.
My hand strayed to the rock, tightening its grip. There was little light in the forest. The few visible stars did little in addition to the pale glow of moonlight.
As soon as the movement stopped, I knew whoever or whatever it was had come to a halt directly outside the opening of my shelter. To my horror, two large circular eyes menacingly met my gaze. They had an inhuman twinkle to them that nearly glowed in the nearly non-existent twilight. They held perfectly still, looking like nothing I had ever seen before.
Neither of us moved. While those eyes bored into mine, I was rooted to the spot. It seemed to be waiting for me to make the first move. Perhaps it couldn’t see me well enough to know what was lurking in my sheltered hole.
In a quick motion, I got to my feet with my rock in hand. Before I could do anything else, the shape sharply turned and fled.
Through the flits of moonlight, I could finally make out its form. Four strong legs brought the deer bounding away from me. As it disappeared into the night, the rock in my hand shook. As relief took hold, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or sigh.
2- THE ROAD AHEAD
Exhausted, I’d drifted in and out of sleep for the remainder of the night. Each time I awoke, it became more difficult to stay aware of my surroundings. Nearly sightless in the gloom, every sound in the dark became a reason to hold onto consciousness a bit longer.
The temperature had steadily dropped and remained low until dawn. When the sun finally began to rise over the horizon, I decided to begin my trek once again.
As I walked, the frigid chill stubbornly clung to me. I’d hoped the physical activity would force new warmth into my limbs. My legs and feet ached with every strained step that I made. After five or ten minutes at a steady pace, the cold withdrew its icy hold.
There was a light haze covering the sky to the east. With any luck, it would burn off once the sun became more prominent in the later hours. Until then, everything seemed darker and drabber under the shaded morning sun.
Hungry and thirsty, I’d have to find something to calm the pain and emptiness that steadily grew in my stomach. Unsatisfied acids rolled and gurgled as my intestines writhed in protest. Even with starvation as a non-immediate problem, another night in a makeshift shelter was out of the question. I would need a fire, or at least a manmade structure to keep out the elements.
There had been no signs of Kurus, despite the strange sounds I’d heard throughout the night. The illusion of safety that the empty forest provided was no reason to lower my guard. For all I knew, they had migrated from one side of the forest to the other.
I had tried to keep my path parallel to where I imagined the road to be. This became more difficult as I continued. Second guessing became a habit every time I had to swerve around a more overgrown area of the forest. With how far I had come from the crash in addition to the distance the RV plunged off the cliff, it would be a miracle if I was still going in the right direction.
The trees began to thin out after an indeterminate distance of walking. This wasn’t due to a lack of growth, but more from man’s steady encroachment. The organic flow of nature was interrupted by small sections of the forest that had been cut down. The sections were spread out, but all that remained were stumps cut roughly two feet high.
Past the area of clear-cut forest was a narrow dirt road. It looked somewhat overgrown, but it was going in the same direction that I had been headed towards. If I was lucky, it would meet up with the main road.
Of course, there was always the possibility that it would lead to a dead end. Maybe that’s why it hadn’t been maintained or used in such a long time. Either way, it would be easier to take than going straight through the uneven forest.
Hoping that the dirt road would lead back to the main road, my pace quickened over the cleared path.
Although some small plants and brush began growing into the road, the majority of it was still barren, save for deeply packed earth and rocks. Large tires had worn deeply into the road, causing two depressions that gouged its relatively smooth surface. There were several deep potholes that had to be avoided in the dirt, but it was much easier than forcing my way through the sometimes patchy and often overgrown underbrush. Although my new path was less strenuous, the physical activity over that last day began to take a heavy toll on me.
Cold sweat clung to my skin. Each time I slowed my pace, the chill seeped deeper into my body. I knew that slowing down would only make it harder to continue, so I pressed on.