Peter Ferguson Swarr

The June Chosen Writer is Peter Ferguson Swarr

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by Peter Ferguson Swarr

The ones they’d let them kill were nothing like the ones in their stories. When the old men gathered them around the fires, their tales had been filled with bloodthirsty monsters, cries for help, buildings about to collapse under the weight of the hungry dead, mad dashes for freedom, whole cities left to burn and, over and above all, the warning that anyone, family or foe, young or old, overly cautious or proudly reckless, could become one of them if they got bitten.

Corolla and his friends always pumped the elders for every last gruesome detail, much to their mothers’ dismay. Which body parts were missing? Did they keep crawling after you? How many swings did it take to bring them down? When they played Hunters and Horde on the beach, Corolla always kept their stories close at hand, in case someone went down too easy or made like they were untouchable. They had to be ready, as fearless as their forebears, acting as one or dying as all.

One day, when they were almost men, they’d have to prove themselves at The Farm.

And that day finally came.

The young men followed the youngest elder into the hills beyond the shore, hiking for the better part of a day, all in single file. Corolla’s heart had pounded with joy when the wire fence came into view, with the dilapidated house and immaculate barn sitting like toy models above the fields of cattle. He held his bow close, as if it might fly away if he lifted even one finger from it.

When they gathered in the corral behind the barn, he braced himself, arrow at the ready, expecting to hold his life in his hands in a matter of minutes. His brothers stood with knives and clubs primed for combat, stone-silent as the elder climbed a rope ladder up the side of the barn. The doors opened, as if by magic, and a yell from inside brought a pack of miscreants staggering out of the shadows and into the early morning light.

The three degenerate men gurgled and whined as the sun stung their eyes. Two turned back towards the barn, but the light from an insistent torch drove them out again. They meandered about, looking like wide-eyed infants, and betrayed not the slightest sense of awareness. Taking a quick head count, Corolla realized, with a stabbing sense of disgust, that he and his brothers had them outnumbered by more than two to one.

A moment later, one of his brothers charged forward with his club held high, directly blocking his line of fire. The rest followed close behind and within an instant, all of the undead lay on the ground, with blows and thrusts raining down on them as they moaned. Corolla kept his arrow drawn as they congratulated each other. He wished for one last beast, a real beast, cunning and hungry, to sneak up behind them, so that he could let his arrow fly and snatch someone’s life from the slavering, rotted maw of death. He wished it all the way back to the shore and all through the feast they found waiting for them, because now they were the new men of their village.

For the next moon’s turn, he spent his days outside the field alone in the woods, honing his aim and bringing back more game than his family could eat. At first, he simply followed the coast, certain there would be a small pack of undead that the elders had missed in their day. He saw himself galloping back into town on the plow-horse he’d begged his father to lend him, dragging a sack of heads behind him. He’d throw them into the square, right at the elders’ feet, haughty satisfaction radiating off his face like a halo. Yet every fisherman he hailed regarded him with the restrained incredulity reserved for babbling children and the men in the towns turned him into a laughingstock before sending him on his way. No more undead, they loved to say. Only dead.

Be the time the first snowflakes beat against his cheeks, he reached the shore of a wide river, beyond which stood woods as thick as thatched straw, with rolling mountains beyond. Standing at the water’s edge, he felt a strange sense of certainty, as if he’d stood at this spot sometime in the dim past.

Suddenly, he remembered. The stories that the elders told led to a river before the mountains. They drove the undead into the cold rapids with fire and camped on the shore for three days and three nights, waiting for them to return.

He felt joy surge up inside him for the first time since leaving home and urged the plow-horse into the shallows. The old steed balked and bucked, shrieking from fear. Corolla cursed him and dug his heels into his side, but the horse refused to budge. Undeterred, Corolla leaped down and led the horse by the reins, step by step, into the rushing current. The water rose up to his knees, then to his waist, then to his chin. The reins stretched taught, but the horse held steady, calm and silent. Corolla studied the dark spaces between the pines, one finger on the bowstring that ran across his chest.

Just as they passed the halfway point, a howl split through the roar of the rapids.

Corolla heard his horse scream before the reins pulled him back under a whitecap. He pulled desperately against the reins as the water around him grew cold and dim. Panic pumped through him and his lungs began to burn as the current battered against him. When he finally broke the surface, gasping and flailing, only twisting rapids and lonely rocks returned his anxious gaze.

He worked his way from rock to rock and crawled onto shore like a starved dog. His legs felt like they ended at the ankles and he shivered violently, as if an evil spirit lived inside him. He grabbed a branch, pulled himself upright and headed into the woods, numb feet struggling for balance and leaving him feeling like he was floating in midair as panic rekindled inside him.

Beyond the river, he found an enormous tent made of a strange, slick material sitting under a tree, with a fire pit and an empty chair sitting off to the side. Looking inside the tent, he found tussled blankets, a pillow, a plastic box crammed full of water bottles, a bag full of wool clothes and, more importantly, a pack of matches.

Corolla had never handled matches before and even if he had, his hands refused to stop shaking. After hurling several onto the ground in frustration, he managed to pull a flame from one and stared at it in amazement, wondering if anyone back home would believe this twist in his tale. As his fingers began to singe, he grabbed the pillow and let the tiny flame leap onto one of its corners without a second's hesitation.

He threw the pillow into the fire pit and heaped twigs and branches on top until the air around him felt dry as old bones. Slowly, his toes returned to him and his clothes stopped clinging to his flesh. He inched closer and closer to the blaze, savoring the raw burn on his cheeks and goading himself onward. Fate had smiled on him, both in the river and here in the woods. What could lie ahead, except fortune and glory? He was ecstatic.

Corolla took out his hunting knife and hacked off every branch he could reach to feed the fire’s hunger. Rested and refreshed, he tramped off into the woods with his bow in hand and his head held high, ready to take on an entire horde, if any horde still roamed the earth. He imagined himself riding home with a trail of decapitated heads stretching all the way to the horizon.

Riding on what? he suddenly wondered, though only for a heartbeat. The way his day was going, his mount would probably be waiting for him when he returned to camp.

The woods proved an easy conquest as the sun passed over him. He stumbled across wildlife of every stripe and size, from rabbits and foxes to hawks and snakes. The undead, however, proved elusive, though he knew they were around somewhere after he found a heap of their remains.

The undead lay in pieces, strewn all across a clearing, each limb gnawed almost to the bone, as if a giant had feasted on them and tossed the leftovers down from the clouds. He combed through every inch of the mass grave, but found not a single head worth displaying. All ecstasy he had experienced just minutes before vanished. He began to seethe with frustration, and it drove him deeper into the trees.

He emerged from the woods and found himself at the foot of a mountain just as the sun was kissing its crown. Perhaps he should keep going north until every last undead beast fell victim to his aim. He savored this dream as he ran his fingers across his bowstring and surveyed the open terrain. As if in answer to his wish, a staggering bulk of an undead caught his eye less than two hundred yards away, just at the edge of the trees.

Even from a distance, Corolla could see that he stood a head taller than him, and that his limbs were not only intact, but still possessed the heft they’d known in life. His clothes, which looked wholly appropriate for the wilderness behind him, betrayed signs of struggle from every possible angle, despite being more-or-less intact. Were it not for the chilly pallor of his skin and the jerky rhythm of his steps, he could have been taken for a man walking away from a battlefield, having just vanquished an entire army with his bare hands.

When Corolla had closed the gap between them to less than a hundred feet, heart pounding for joy and arrow primed and ready, the beast stopped short and turned to face him, eyes alight with hunger as he sucked at the air. Corolla took a step back just as the monster took three towards him. Corolla released his grip on the bowstring without raising it back to his eye. The arrow buried itself up to the feather in the undead’s chest and stirred up an angry, vengeful moan inside it as the beast broke into a run.

His pride escaped him. Despite his self-image as a mighty warrior, he now felt nothing but fear and he ran. Corolla tore through branches and over fallen logs without looking back. Hungry screeches, almost close enough to be felt, turned his legs into pistons, furiously pumping against the ground. They began to grow stiff before long, as if the entire day was finally pressing down on them, and his stomach became a pit that widened its brim with every step.

With one last primal burst, Corolla turned sharply, headed for a fir tree whose branches scraped against the ground and suddenly pulled him upward until he’d put fifteen feet between himself and its roots. His bow hung tight against his shoulder, though he had no memory of it leaving his hand. All of him began clenching up and calcifying all at once as he hugged against the tree and waited for the groans to stop.

It was as if the tree threw him. When he finally returned to the earth, the light had grown thin and howls echoed from one corner of the wilderness to the other, like lost souls calling out for homes. He stood straight and knew it was over; he was not the zombie-hunter he had imagined. Instead, he was overwhelmed with fear and wanted to go home.

But how to get there? Every one of the encroaching shadows hid a beast and every noise betrayed advancing doom. He wondered if he should even consider sleeping tonight. For a moment, he considered trying to move his camp across the river as soon as he found it again, but he told himself not to be such a child, that camp would have to be moved in the morning, that he was a fool to even consider such an absurd notion. He would keep the fire going all night, gather his strength and track the magnificent beast in the morning, then he would be on his way, ready to outrun winter as he made his way back down the coast.

No one would have to know the truth. To his villagers, he was still the hero of this tale and if he suffered setbacks, it would only make his triumph that much more satisfying.

When the camp came back into view, it appeared to no longer belong to him. Something else occupied it.

Beside the ashes in the fire pit, facing away, as if he were resting before heading back to the river, the beast stood still as the sky, as if he’d always been there and was just now being noticed. Oddly enough, the campsite felt somehow complete now, as if his presence filled a hole perfectly shaped for him. Corolla puzzled at this as he raised an arrow to his cheek and lined the tip up with the the beast’s neck, ready to tear the hole open once more.

The first wolf came into view off to his left, ducking out from behind a tree. The second and third appeared off to his right, weaving between trunks until they’d joined the first and began advancing towards him. He turned around and found two more behind him, just as teeth dug into his heel.

He whirled around and let his arrow fly without taking aim. It clattered against a tree as he swung his bow around him like a scythe. The pack retreated until they were just out of his reach and as long as he kept spinning and swinging, he had them at bay. Before long, the world began to tilt off-balance and he closed his eyes to try and right it. When he opened them again, the wolves were gone.

Fighting to keep his balance, he looked back towards camp and found the wolves gathered around the undead. The wolves bared their teeth at the beast and advanced cautiously; crouched so low they nearly touched the ground. The monster bellowed and moved about without warning, dragging the pack to and fro, as if they were joined by strings too fine to see. He lunged at each animal in turn, grabbing at their snouts and snarling back at them.

The undead stumbled and fell as one of the wolves danced away from him and the pack fell on him, sinking their fangs into his legs and ripping at his neck. He howled and bit back at them, gurgling pitiably. His torn clothes became rags in their mouths, leaving his cold flesh exposed for the taking.

The fear left Corolla. Instead, he felt an odd, trickling of sorrow, cool and steady. It grew into a stream as an arm came loose and nearly blinded him to the pair of hungry eyes that had turned back towards him.

His arrow brought one down and sent the other into the trees. A moment later, two more lay bloody and still atop the flailing beast. His last shot missed the tail of fifth wolf as it disappeared behind a trunk. Corolla let out a long sigh as relief mixed with a sense that he wasn’t really standing here, that it must be him on the ground and in their bellies.

The undead sputtered and coughed as Corolla approached him, his eyes still sparking with life. His legs hung limp as logs below him, but he pulled himself out from under the carcasses with his one remaining arm, clawing at the earth relentlessly. He slavered as he inched his way towards Corolla, tasting him in the air. Corolla shook his head as he looked into his eyes and felt the tender bud of gratitude inside him change to disgust.

The undead followed him all the way to the camp as he built a fire and Corolla watched him struggling through the dirt. Who had he been? He couldn’t have been one of the beasts from the elders’ tales. He looked fresh, like he’d fallen to earth only a day before. And his clothes, they had been worn, but not rotten, and nothing like the clothes people wore in the towns. It was almost like the creature meant to be up here. Like he’d come hunting.

The undead was lying by the fire, with a shaft pointing straight to the sky, when Corolla left the next day. He crossed the river with the wolf pelts stored inside the tent, feeling like he was walking into the beginning of his story, rather than nearing its close. He wondered what sort of tale a hiker would make for him, the undead lying alone with an arrow in his neck, should one happen by before the wolves returned. Even if they did find him, there would be no camp, no clothes, no sign of the hand that let the arrow fly and no one to tell them what had gone before. Only he could tell his tale, and even then, all he knew was the end.

All down the coast, he hiked until the sun set and slept wrapped in the furs while the fires stood sentinel outside the tent. He killed what he could, yet his belly never felt truly full. He trudged along, thinking only as far as his next step, yet consumed and driven onward by an animal sense of purpose.

When he finally staggered up to the gates of his village, wrapped in his furs and too exhausted to speak, he felt like a man standing before his final judgment. Before he could find his voice and announce himself, the gates flew wide and familiar faces rushed him into the square, proclaiming that he’d come back to them from the dead. He found himself surrounded by bodies and prodded by hands, as if he were being pulled back to life by everyone he’d ever known.

Peter Ferguson Swarr is an aspiring writer whose interests run the length and breadth of the Dewey Decimal System; yes, including Reference. He studied Film and Media Arts at Temple University and is working on completing his first screenplay, which he hopes to sell before the viewing public gets terminally oversaturated with zombie flicks and moves onto Robot Monsters, Killer Shrews or other assorted bizarrities. His formative influences (or at least the ones he likes to shamelessly name-drop) include Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and Cormac McCarthy.

He currently resides—physically, if not always mentally—in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You may have seen it in the classic Harrison Ford suspense thriller Witness. You may also have seen it in the classic Basic Cable dumpster fire Amish Mafia.

Are Amish Zombies the next Big Thing? Is our hero hard at work on a reality-show-turned-zombie-siege pitch that’s sure to wow the kids and have the grown-ups seeing green? Has Woody Harrelson already agreed to do a cameo?

Tune in next time to find out!