Last time, Dani and Jimmy discussed plans regarding the storage yard’s future. They also spoke briefly about Edgar’s recent scouting project. This week in the Haunted MTL Original The Dead Life, we catch up with Edgar and see what he has been up to – and how useful an ax can be.
This is a serialized novel of post-apocalyptic zombie survival. Learn more about the story and setting at the series hub and take advantage of a complete list of installments.
Edgar had been scouting the district office for a couple of days now. The entire premises was locked up, and all gates had been padlocked shut in a hurry except for one rolling gate that had nearly been demolished by a school bus that had burst through. The tires were shredded now, and unmistakable brown trails of dried blood marked the dusty yellow surface and the windows inside. Behind one of the brown streaks, there was motion… one of the undead was still wandering inside, seemingly pacing up and down the aisle, content with its small domain.
Despite his size, he had managed to stay low on foot, crouching and crawling between vantage points around the block and always warily turning his gaze around. When these creatures were not alert and moaning, they ran eerily silent. He had nearly had a close call as he crawled past the front office and not seen a ghoul walk out from between a pair of abandoned sedans. That had been the first day of scouting, and it had rattled him so much that he shouted and alerted a few more in the area. He had fled back to the storage lot for safety, and he and Bob had picked up the trio of stragglers that had followed from within the safety of the metal gate.
Edgar would not make such a mistake again.
Based on Edgar’s observation, the only point in and out that was walkable was the busted rolling gate, but that area also had a pair of wandering ghouls in addition to the ghoul within the bus.
It was manageable, but what concerned him most were the sounds he had heard from inside, echoing out between the building of the district campus. Periodically there was shouting and the clanging of pipes and slamming doors, punctuated by a series of moans from the ghouls.
Edgar was unsure of the disposition of the survivors, but the clamor was great, and he was sure it was more unknown people he was willing to deal with on his own, especially given the incident with the police car.
The good news was that the patterns the ghouls seemed to follow were aimless but also felt almost regular, as though they would reach some boundary, invisible or not, and reverse course. Today would be the day he would test that and work his way into the district grounds to see what he could find.
He came in low, practically on his hands and knees, following along the side of the bus, out of sight of the closest ghoul. When he was close enough, he squeezed himself under the bus. If it hadn’t been due to starving, he would have been unable to do that, he thought. It was a small comfort. He shuffled quietly on his belly under the bus, toward the front, and watched desiccated feet shuffled back and forth; the sticklike legs were in tattered slacks, and one foot was socked but without a shoe.
He watched the ghoul’s motion until it came close enough. He pulled a small camping hatchet from the back of his pants and grabbed at one of the legs, tugging hard. Instead of dragging it under, the leg snapped off, and the ghoul fell to the ground.
“Fuck,” he whispered. He scrambled out from under the bus and grappled at the waist and back of the ghoul as it trashed. With an overhead swing, he brought the ax blade to the back of the skull, cracking it open before the ghoul made a sound. Pausing for a second to see if it was done thrashing, he scrambled to his feet to the other side of the bus, peeking out from the front, wary of any movement.
That hadn’t gone as planned. Edgar glanced down at the tire of the bus, noticing it was shredded and not an easy fix. He wondered what the possibility was of replacing it but realized where he was in relation to the bus. Sure enough, Edgar stood in front of the open door. He couched and held silent for a moment. The ghoul inside must have been in the far end because there was no sign of it.
He took his ax blade and tapped the handle at the first step, crouching against the side of the bus. The wait was long for the ghoul to spill forth, enticed by the sound. When the creature arrived, it tripped down the stairs, crumbling into a dusty, rotten heap. Edgar pinned it down on the ground with his knee on its back and gave it a couple of violent thwacks with the blade.
The facility would take a long time to clear at this rate. With no ghouls in sight, and his exit seemingly opened, he pushed forward, taking a low run toward the first building, which appeared to be the bus depot.
The building was a small outbuilding combined with what appeared to be a large carport meant for bus maintenance. There was no sign of a wandering ghoul, so he ducked into the small office that seemed to operate as a dispatching area. The place was a wreck, but there were no signs of life except for some smears of blood on a table. Peering out from the office, he saw the prize of school buses. There were three parked in a large lot, and there was a lone bus in the bay that was mid-operation. Other busses had been out on the job when the place had gone into lockdown. But the remaining three were just what he was hoping to find if they were still operational.
He turned his attention back to the small room. There were a couple of computers on desks, a couple of phones, a small table and some chairs. Little else, but he checked behind the desks anyway. He was surprised to catch sight of a minifridge but then realized what was in there had probably become little more than sludge.
Curiosity won out, however, and he crouched down, opening the door. The scent of rot punched him in the face, nearly knocking him onto his ass, but the sight of a sealed can of cola won out. He snatched the can up and slammed the refrigerator shut, gagging all the while.
After a few moments where he could collect himself, he studied his can of cola. It had picked up a little odor from the fridge’s contents, and he ineffectually attempted to wipe away any grime on his pant leg.
He turned the can over and saw it was a diet soda. He grimaced at the idea of a diet soda but also realized there wasn’t much of the stuff left in the world.
He checked the label, and sure enough, it was good. He cracked the tab and took a sip of the sickeningly sweet cola. Content, he took it down in a series of huge gulps.
He finished the last sips and set the cat beside him. There was no sound coming from anywhere outside of the office. He rose to his feet, glanced out the door, and made his way to the closest building, which seemed to be some sort of administrative spot. He kept his creeping, crouched movements and went to a glass doorway. He noticed that things had been piled up against it on the other side, serving as a barricade. There was just enough room near the top of the door for someone to look out from. Edgar kept out of sight and approached the door, placing his ear to it.
Sure enough, there were voices.
Edgar scrambled away from the door, falling over a couple of times, dashing his way back toward the garage area.
Sure enough, dreadful moans seemed to echo all around, and the sound of muffled gunfire from inside continued to pick up. He ducked around the corner into one of the bays and watched as shattering glass scattered over the walkway where he had just been, and office furniture and boxes tumbled out with a pair of people.
Edgar watched as they ran for their lives, a man and a woman. Both were thin. A third man spilled out of the same doorway and fruitlessly pulled a revolver trigger over and over. Out of ammo, he picked up his pace like a crazed beast and overtook the woman grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the ground.
Edgar saw him climb on top of her and club her with the revolver; the other man, who had been running from the gunman, whipped around to come to her aid.
Edgar threw himself out from behind the wall of the garage and ran toward the scene as the two men struggled over the woman, but four ghouls had begun approaching them from behind some parked cars.
Edgar waved and cried at them, but the two men played out their drama, ignorant of him. It was too late; the ghouls converged and fell upon the struggling men, tearing them apart.
Edgar watched in horror as greasy fingertips slashed at the gunman’s neck, and hot blood burst. In a second, another pair of hands grabbed at his scalp and began pulling out clumps of bloody hair. The other man hadn’t been as fortunate with two ghouls falling upon him and sinking rotten yellow teeth deep into the neck and shoulder. Edgar was shocked at how strong and quickly the monsters moved at the prospect of fresh flesh.
Each man was stripped of skin and tissue by teeth and fingertips. Edgar had never seen the things feed. He felt like he was about to vomit, but Edgar swallowed down the acidic bile that rose in his throat and cautiously approached the group to see if he could at least help the woman.
The ghouls were distracted by their eating frenzy, and the sounds of the men’s screams masked Edgar’s heavy steps. As he was within a few feet of the gruesome scene, he noticed the woman moving. Her face, however, told a different story and amounted to little more than a bloody bowl. The revolver had smashed her nose and teeth, and she was drowning in her blood. Her gargles terrified Edgar. He had nearly drowned once himself, but that was at the beach.
He closed the gap between them and, tears in his eyes, brought the ax’s blade down on her face, smashing what was left of her head into three wet chunks. He cried as he put her out of her misery and, when finished, whirled around and smashed at the skull of the closest ghoul.
He flew into a rage, striking any head he saw in a pile, and after a few moments and a couple of near bites, had brained every single one of the ghouls and the men for good measure. He instinctively grabbed the revolver and absentmindedly pulled the trigger, hoping at least a single shot was left.
He tucked the gun into his pants and noticed the commotion had begun to pull in a few stragglers. He sighed and ran for the administrative building, hoping he could find a way to wait out the storm.
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Nightmarish Nature: Cannibalism
Let’s return to explore more Nightmarish Nature, shall we? This segment focuses on cannibalism, as we generally find it icky / taboo and because it’s more common than you might think. There are many different reasons that different creatures engage in cannibalistic practices. Energy waste doesn’t last long in nature; gaps are filled as things evolve to utilize whatever resources are available to meet their own needs. C’est la vie (light up another cigarette). In any case, the challenge to the cannibal lies in determining kinship and not accidentally erasing their own line or progeny, thus decreasing their likelihood for survival over generations. Oh, and in avoiding those pesky prion diseases…
Resource Driven Cannibalism
Resource driven cannibalism can occur when competition for resources is high. This may be due to scarcity, with individuals taking to eating each other to avoid themselves starving to death (with those consumed either still alive and killed to this end, or eaten after death of other causes). Or it may be outside of the cannibal’s control, considering the spread of Mad Cow Disease from feeding beef meal harboring the prion disease (and parts from other mammals like sheep) to growing cattle to save money, ’cause it’s not like the cows were allowed to order whatever they wanted. Or it may be due to direct conflicts with other groups of the same species, either due to competition for resources, mating rights and/or territory. These behaviors have been noted in mostly male chimpanzees raiding other groups, which have even been documented as all out wars against other males in neighboring bands, campaigning to eradicate all outside of their ranks.
Thinking about chimpanzees, males are also documented to gang up on alpha males seen as too controlling or sadistic, with groups of younger males attacking and rendering the alpha male to pieces, often consuming his flesh and blood in the process. This can upend established hierarchies to replace them with new structures, for example with a new male taking on the role of leader. But cannibalism can also be used to reinforce existing hierarchies, as seen in African Wild Dogs wherein the dominant pair will kill off any offspring that other dogs may have birthed so that the pack will focus on raising only the alpha pair’s pups, thusly reestablishing and enforcing social structure while ensuring the best survival chances for the pups raised by channeling all resources to the one brood.
Infanticide & Filial Cannibalism
Like African Wild Dogs, other parents may also eat their offspring, or better yet their rivals’ offspring. Stillborn or unhealthy offspring may be consumed, or just any that they can get their hands on at birth. (Again with the young male chimpanzees…) Some creatures enter into cycles wherein smaller individuals are more vulnerable to predation by larger ones both within and outside of ones own species, as is seen among many fishes with eggs and smaller fishes playing an important role as prey to larger ones. Other creatures may engage in these practices to reduce competition (for themselves and/or their offspring) and/or increase opportunities to mate. Male cats are notorious for killing kittens that are not their own in order to bring females into heat again sooner, potentially increasing the likelihood of mating with said females themselves while decreasing future competition. Win-win! Female cats must take great care to hide their kittens in order to protect them from males as much as other predators, and can have kittens by different fathers within the same litter in order to increase their kittens’ overall survival as a group with father cats more willing to accept kittens when their own kin are present.
Mantids and spiders are especially known for sexual cannibalism, with larger females consuming males during copulation, but this is not always linked to vast size differences and does not appear in every species. Females who engage in this practice may have healthier eggs in larger clutches, thus increasing the survival likelihood of more of their offspring. Sometimes the risk to the male suitor of being mistaken for another species by an aggressive would-be mate is high, and various rituals have developed within certain species to help avoid such mistakes and entice the female to mate. Male spiders are known engage in elaborate dances, movements, tapping and silk spinning rituals to avoid being eaten pre-copulation or at all. It’s a hell of a lot more involved than a good pick up line and a well-timed drink, as you can see here.
If the above video doesn’t load, you can find it on PBS YouTube here.
Thank you for joining us for another exciting episode of Nightmarish Nature. If you enjoyed this, please feel free to check out these previous segments:
Nightmarish Nature: Worrisome Wasps
This time on Nightmarish Nature we are examining wasps. Wasps are truly terrifying, and not just because some of them sting or are aggressive, though those are often the first ones we think of because we as humans come in conflict with them more directly. No, wasps are extremely varied and some are just outright bizarre… stinging doesn’t even begin to touch on the worst horrors they can inflict.
Now many wasps are actually very helpful to us humans. They act as pollinators and keep pests under control. But if you are another insect, especially a large or fleshy one bulking up, watch out. An encounter with the wrong wasps can mean an untimely and horrible death. A few wasp species will disassemble and eat insects bit by bit but that’s just the start of it, others do even more sinister things.
There are parasitic wasps that will lay their eggs in or on a host insect, like a large beetle, a cicada, a spider or a big juicy caterpillar – there’s pretty much a wasp for everything… A female may sting said insect to subdue it while she acts out her nefarious plans for the next generation (I once watched a spider hanging out in an outdoor potted plant whose fate was sealed, unaware of the horror that awaited it as a female wasp flitted on and around it, stinging and laying eggs before flying off again). Different wasps have different host insects and strategies for this, but the result is pretty much the same. Essentially, when the wasp’s eggs hatch, the larva will eat the creature from the inside out, either saving its vital organs for last or waiting until the time is right.
Caterpillars are especially susceptible to this in all stages of development: egg, caterpillar and pupa. Some species of wasps will lay eggs among caterpillar eggs, others will lay them within the caterpillar eggs, and still others will target the caterpillar itself, or even its pupa. Most build upon the host’s voracious appetite and ability to grow in mass so quickly, waiting until the opportune time to engage in their own frenzy of consumption. Some wasps will even target other wasps that target caterpillars, and this can go like four layers in – it’s like Inception level consumption from within.
And weirder still is the mutualism found between fig trees and very small wasp species. Both are dependent upon one another for their reproductive cycle to be complete. It’s very complicated and I won’t do justice to the cycle trying to explain it, so I recommend that you check it out here on the US Forest Service site.
Anyway to make a long story short, eating figs can even result in eating wasps. Crunch. Crunch. It isn’t actually all that terrifying though; the fig breaks down much of that matter (especially from the original female insect) to use itself as it ripens. And honestly a lot more foods contain insect parts than you may be comfortable with already, they’re pretty much in everything… So that horror aside, the coevolution of figs and wasps that has gotten them to this point is really quite remarkable.
Wasps are truly extraordinary. Many species are super specialized in their life and reproductive cycles. There are over 900 species of fig wasps alone, each dedicated to a different species of fig tree. And the parasitic wasps are also very specialized, with different species targeting different hosts at different stages of their development.
Nightmarish Nature: Freaky Fungus
Now I’m not talking about your aunt’s mushroom pate, I’m talking about mind-controlling tendrils of terror. They aren’t animals, they aren’t plants, they aren’t yummy mushroomy goodness, they aren’t magical (at least not the good kind of magic) and they’re actually kind of terrifying, especially if you’re a bug.
Essentially there are whole subspecies of cordyceps fungus (as well as others) that spread through insect hosts, and no, it’s not like a bad dinner party where your guests just don’t take hints but more a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Well, more specifically like The Last of Us. Variants of these fungi are very targeted to specific bugs, and certain species of ants, beetles, spiders and even mantids can find themselves afflicted by this. The results aren’t pretty, and it’s also called zombie-ant fungus for good reason.
So the fungus spreads its spores through the air where they comes in contact with new host insects of its selected type and are absorbed into the body. Once they find an appropriate specimen they begin the takeover… An insect affected by the fungus will begin to behave oddly as the fungus signals its brain to act in ways that the fungus needs it to in order to complete its own life cycle. The host will not engage in its normal buggy activities while the fungus drains it of nutrients and prepares it for the next wave of terror. The fungus can even grow tendrils to control muscle movement, puppet-mastering the host’s body.
As the fungus grows and prepares to send forth spores, it sends signals to its host to climb as high as it can, perch atop a plant or blade of grass or whatnot, and clamp down with its jaws in a death grip, to contort itself into a perfect spore-dissemination cannon. The fungus will grow long tendril blooms out of the insect’s body to rain down more terror on new unsuspecting hosts going about their buggy business. If the insect is a social creature (like an ant), it’s nest-mates may also try to drive it as far from their home as possible out of fear of what will soon come to pass. As these spores implant themselves in new host insects, the cycle repeats itself.
Here’s a link to National Geographic, not for the feint of heart. This is enough to strike terror into the heart of every ant, among many other bugs.
So essentially here’s yet another reason to be glad you’re not a bug. Because you don’t want to fall victim to a zombie body snatchers fungus takeover. Frankly, I’d prefer the sneaker-squash to the slow and confusing death that this sort of thing brings.