The cities were lost to the Grendels and most of the human race was dead. The early news reports Neville Smith heard said that the disease had been introduced to Europe and the Americas by groups of refugees from Somalia, but the conspiracy theory websites released documents stating that something got away from the CDC and it was their own staff that spread the infection causing a global pandemic.
The last report before all telecommunications and the electric grid went down was that up to 94% of the human race had died. Only one percent of humanity was immune. That left the Grendels, well, that’s what Neville called them. Human beings who were mutated by the virus becoming…what? In the poem “Beowulf,” Grendel was cursed as a descendant of Cain from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The creature was said to devour live warriors and in the real world, the mutants consumed the dead.
But that was over three months ago.
He survived because his friend and neighbor Charlie Howell was as paranoid as you can get without being locked up for it. They lived on the outskirts of Mora just south of Boise, Neville because he was retired and enjoyed his quiet and Charlie because he wanted a defensible home when the government decided to lock him up.
He also figured that between the President and the North Korean dictator, they’d end up in a nuclear war pretty soon. That’s why Charlie bought the fallout shelter and had it buried in the field behind his house.
Charlie trusted almost no one, but he liked Neville, both because they were of a similar age and because they collected vintage firearms and did their own reloading. Charlie taught Neville fly fishing and Neville taught Charlie gardening and how to raise his own food.
The infection spread like wildfire and almost no one knew what it was at first. By the time it got out west, whole populations died within days. It was horrible to watch. People were advised to stay in their homes. The Emergency Broadcast System was used to disseminate information. Charlie, in an unanticipated act of generosity, invited Neville to wait out the crisis in his shelter.
Charlie didn’t make it. Grendel, which is what Neville also called the disease, acts incredibly fast. His friend had probably contracted it the day before, but as his neighbor was handing Neville the last carton of dried goods to add to the shelter’s food supplies, he foamed at the mouth and then collapsed.
The fact that Neville wasn’t dead the next day told him he was among the one percent who was immune. He wanted to bury his friend, but even in his small community, there were enough of the Grendels nearby to make that dangerous. The old man closed the disguised hatch to the shelter and waited.
Sooner or later his supplies were going to run out, but solar panels provided electrical power and he had a small transmitter Charlie had taught him how to use. That’s when he heard the message of hope.
A group of survivors had created a community in the mountains to the Northeast. They called it “Sanctuary.” Only the immunes lived there and they were trying to reach people like Neville. The Grendels had long since swept the area around Mora and cleaned it of all the available food including the dead. According to Sanctuary, they were now concentrated in the cities where they had the greatest supply of rotting corpses.
That meant Neville had a chance.
Charlie kept a hidden store of food buried in addition to what he had stockpiled in the shelter. Neville recharged the battery on his older Jeep Wrangler, mounted fresh tires, filled the tank and loaded extra fuel in jerry cans. He had his 30-30, Charlie’s 12 gauge, a 9mm Glock, and the .357 revolver he’d bought nearly forty years ago plus just about all the ammo he’d need if it came to that.
He could drive most of the way, but there’d still be a three-day hike. Sanctuary by design wasn’t particularly accessible.
Neville took one last look around. They’d even eaten Charlie’s bones. “Sorry, old friend. You deserved better, especially because you saved my life. Now it’s time for me to go live with what’s left of the human race.”
That was a week ago. He left the Jeep at the base of the trail, its gas supply exhausted, and started his climb. He was in pretty good shape and had been an avid hiker before the pandemic, so he didn’t anticipate any problems. He camped out the first two nights without incident, figuring he could make Sanctuary by noon the next day.
It was so beautiful here, so peaceful, like he was the only person left on Earth, which tragically wasn’t far from the truth.
Sanctuary had sent people to the outskirts of Boise and some of the other nearby towns. With flying drones, they kept track of the Grendels and discovered to everyone’s horror that more than just 5% of the people mutated…a lot more. That’s how Sanctuary knew some of them had branched out into the wilderness. They were evolving or developing new skills. Turns out they liked to hunt.
When Neville was close enough to reach Sanctuary using his walkie-talkie, they warned him a troop of Grendels were in the area. He had to hurry. Even armed as he was, he couldn’t fight off more than a few out in the open before they overwhelmed him.
He was climbing toward the summit, sunshine filtering through the trees. The morning was cool but he was sweating both from effort and because he could hear them coming. If he could clear the last hill, an armed patrol would meet him and provide cover until he could get inside the fortification.
But he had to get that far on his own.
They were snarling, like wolves. He could hear them getting closer. If he turned now to fight, he’d never make it. His only hope was to keep climbing, to run. His heart threatened to burst in his chest and he couldn’t catch his breath. Even being in good shape, he was still sixty-three. A younger man would probably make it no problem.
“Help.” He tried to call out, hoping the patrol would hear, but it came out as a whisper.
Just a few more yards, just a few more feet. He was almost at the top. They were too close.
Neville spun, got down on one knee and unshouldered the 30-30 intending to take down as many of them as he could and praying the patrol wouldn’t stay on their side of the hill.
He pulled the trigger and the first one fell. Then he heard another shot coming from behind.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Woodland #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her photos as a challenge for her readers (or anyone actually) to author a poem, short story, or other creative work based on the image.
I thought about using the photo as a prompt to continue my story about the Davidson children but decided against it as I need to firm up the outline for their adventures.
Although the scene is idyllic, I thought it could also be used as a counterpoint to menace, a dystopian world depopulated of humans but holding something sinister for the survivors. This is the theme for a lot of novels and movies, but I particularly mined the 2007 film I Am Legend starring Will Smith, which is based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name. The book was also the inspiration for the 1964 film “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price and the 1971 movie “The Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston.
When I looked up the character Grendel from the epic poem “Beowulf,” I discovered he ate people, which gave me a way to eliminate many of the corpses left because of the pandemic.
If I had allowed myself more time for research, I could probably have added more detail since no doubt I’ve left some pretty big holes in my story, but I don’t want to develop this into something huge.
Does Neville make it? I left it ambiguous but hopeful.