~Updated by DG August 2022 ~
Hello all, and welcome to Afflicted Part One! Below is what I am calling the ‘final’ version of Chapter One. While the book itself has a Prologue section that introduces you to the larger world and beginning of the Affliction, Chapter One is the opening chapter of the ‘main’ storyline of Afflicted, introducing you to the world through the eyes of the main Point-Of-View (POV) character Ben Colefield.
Fair WARNING: Swearing and graphic content ahead 🙂
~PART ONE: OLD WORLD BLUES & NEW WORLD TERRORS~
~ CHAPTER ONE ~ BEN ~
Ben Colefield gripped the passenger side door as the uncharacteristically warm late autumn sunshine beamed down on the ancient pickup truck, making his legs sweat uncomfortably against his chipped leather seat. The lukewarm breeze whipping through the open windows did little to ease his discomfort, and the constant, subtle reminders that the world had ended only compounded the anxious tension simmering within.
That’s the anxiety of knowing you’re careening blindly into the new world, his inner voice chided. The tension shattered as Ben’s companion, Jay, slapped his leg enthusiastically as a new song began to blare from the truck’s antiquated tape player. Ben sighed, irritated that something so innocuous had given him a jump scare.
“Ohh Lordy, now this, mmm-hmm, this is a song! You feel that Benny-boy? That old timer angst at a world gone crazy? Damn fine slice of country if you ask me.”
Ben eyed Jay as he leant back in the frayed driver’s seat that was now more cloth than leather. He dangled a muscled, heavily tattooed arm lazily out the window. Even over the wind bustling through the open windows, Ben could hear him tapping his gloved hand along to the atonal banjo solo currently assaulting his ears.
“So whaddaya say?” Jay pressed. “Don’t tell me you don’t like some good ole’ George Strait now?”
“The only country I ever listened to was Gangstagrass,” Ben shrugged.
“Hah,” Jay barked. “That ain’t country, shit, that’s barely even bluegrass!”
Ben couldn’t hide his surprise as Jay ejected the tape and fished out another from the glove-box, and put on the band he’d just mentioned. He felt himself sway, falling into the rhythm of familiar beats and lyrics that belonged to a dead world.
“There you go,” Jay encouraged. “I can feel you shakin’ in your boots over there. I always like a bit of music before a fight. Clears my head, gives me somethin’ to get lost in.” Jay’s natural tone was deep and coarse, and his accent was sprinkled with what he proudly called ‘my vague, Redneck ancestry’.
Ben closed his eyes. You can neeever go home agaaaiiiinnn…he hummed in his head. How fitting. He breathed deeply, each gulp of air waging war with the swelling tornado of fear and nervous energy within.
Jay was forced to slow down as they approached the remains of the outer quarantine checkpoint leading into Philadelphia. The wind rippled through flaps of torn, discolored tents marked with various agency and medical logos, while burnt out vehicles pockmarked the highway leading to the shell of the main gate. The cars that weren’t burnt out husks had cracked windows tinted maroon, or doors left hanging open by a long dead hand, revealing only a hint of the carnage that had taken place at the height of the panic. Some even remained sealed, forever entombing the unfortunate souls trapped within. The road through was riddled with craters, and green weeds and grass had begun to crack it further.
“Jesus,” Ben whispered, feeling an eerie chill envelop him as he eyed the countless sets of stripped bones that lined the highway; remnants of the people who died here a year ago to the Afflicted when the quarantine broke. A quote from one of his favorite books came to the forefront of his memory.
“As we trample upon the remnants of our forbearers, so someday someone will trample on us,” he whispered.
“What you mutterin’?”
“Nothing,” Ben gulped, feeling the tension build up in the form of sickening bile. “I just.” He paused, gesturing around him. “This is a lot, you know?”
He forced himself to look ahead as they cleared the gate. Even with the sun piercing the scattered clouds, Philadelphia looked bleak. Ben couldn’t decide whether his own deep sense of foreboding was coloring his vision, or if the city itself was attempting to subconsciously warn him to tuck tail and run while he still could.
“Be grateful,” Jay said finally, his tone becoming serious. “Everythin’ snowballed so damn fast. Didn’t matter there were hundreds of National Guard and just as many regular Army. When the Flicks broke their shackles, boy, I tell you, that was a sight to see. Weren’t a power in the damn universe that could have stopped ‘em.”
“You were here?” Ben asked, feeling his curiosity spiking.
Jay tsk’d, cocking his head. “Ain’t it one of our patron’s rules that we talk lightly about our pasts?”
Ben felt his stomach lurch as he felt the challenge of authority. “Fuck that,” he whispered. He looked over, satisfied to see Jay’s eyes wide with surprise.
“Verne isn’t here, and we’re not on the farm, so his guidelines can go to hell.”
“Hah!” Jay barked a laugh, nodding. “A guideline. I like that. It ain’t bad though, a lot better than some of his other shitty ones. Least this one quits people tryin’ to start a conversation, and stops the bible-thumper from hollerin’ at me. Hell, I’d take a Flick over that woman any day of the apocalypse.”
Ben exhaled, trying to shake the jittery tension curling around his muscles. The closer they got to the city, the more ineffective every anxiety quelling exercise he knew became. The realization that the comforting safety of the farm was long gone, coupled with the knowledge that he was about to face the deadly creatures that had brought the human race to the brink of extinction threatened to overwhelm his psyche.
Flicks. People that had survived the initial wave of the Affliction virus. Instead of recovering, they had been transformed into a twisted, mutated version of humanity; a violent, unrelenting hunter of anything not its kind.
“Where’d you come up with Flick anyway?” Ben asked, his mouth shuddering as he spoke.
“I sure as hell don’t know but its good ain’t it? Other people call the bastards freaks, or infected, I don’t know, just seemed unoriginal. Ain’t no one heard of a Flick before, and what’s better than bein’ able to claim loudly and proudly that you came up with the best name for the sons of bitches that destroyed our world and hunt us at every Goddamn corner?”
Ben huffed, his nervousness briefly subsiding at Jay’s blunt, enthusiastic humor. In that moment he felt a pang of envy towards him; his attitude towards the beings that ended humanity, and his ability to remain seemingly nonchalant towards the danger all around them within the new world.
The road had been relatively clear going in to the city, in contrast to the opposite side that was jam-packed with ruined vehicles, but as they exited onto Columbus Boulevard their progress quickly stalled. Jay weaved carelessly around the remnants of humanity left in Old City, crashing cars and obstructions out of his way at will, even driving through Independence Park at one point to get around a roadblock. He flung an obscene gesture at the one way sign and turned onto Chestnut Street, muttering about how there was no one left to stop him.
Ben gazed out of the window in a daze, his mind struggling to comprehend that he was really back in the city he grew up in. He felt like a ghost of himself was hovering above, whispering that this wasn’t really reality, that he was just reliving a fantasy he’d had over and over again ever since the quarantines went up. Streets he’d walked a thousand times now felt like decrepit strangers, and every corner held vestiges of a life that no longer existed.
“You ain’t never seen a Flick up close, have you?” Jay said, lighting a cigarette as he eased the pickup through the narrow street at a snail’s pace.
“No,” Ben said. “Only what was on TV and the internet way back when. Even on the farm, never up close.”
“Well now,” Jay slowed the truck to a crawl. “What do you think, do they look bigger in person?”
Jay waved his hand out of the window, cursing as a clump of cigarette ash fell on his lap. Ben’s eyes followed and, as he saw what Jay was pointing at, he was hit with awe, fascination and terror in equal parts.
The Flick moved slowly, aimlessly, like a person with amnesia who’d forgotten where they were heading. Ben remembered the early days, when the word zombie was being thrown around and debunked a hundred times a day. As he studied the Flick, he could see the subtle differences. Through tattered clothing he saw firm muscles underneath flushed, hot pink skin. Its veins were pronounced, and dark, purplish blood pulsed beneath, reminding him of rivers latticing a map. It still looked oddly human, but its head looked slightly too large, like a cartoon bomb prepped to explode. The eyes were what set it apart from the dead. Though they looked milky and bloodshot, the irises moved, the Flick alert to its surroundings in a way the dead could never be.
As the truck crawled closer, Jay shifted the gear into neutral and revved the engine. The Flick turned sharply, sniffing the air as a feral wolf might. Its eyes found the truck and, cackling an enraged growl, it bull-rushed the pickup truck. Ben shied up against his seat, his chest clenching in unbridled terror.
“What?” He rolled his eyes.
“You didn’t answer my question: does it look bigger in person?”
“Are you fucking serious?” Ben shrieked as the Flick came within striking distance.
Jay grinned maniacally. His hand moved deftly, swiping the combat knife from its concealed leg holster and bringing it up to the window in one smooth motion. Ben gasped, seeing the blade was easily almost a foot long, and as the Flick bore down on them, Jay thrust the knife forward into the center of the Flick’s forehead, stopping it dead in its tracks. Dark, blueish-crimson blood began running down its eyes as its mouth screamed a high pitched, inhuman wail, and as he retracted the blade, it collapsed to the road beneath. Jay hooted, flicking his cigarette butt at the downed Flick, and floored the accelerator.
“Jesus Christ!” Ben said, his breath coming in panicked gasps. “What the hell was the point of that?”
“To see how you’d react,” Jay growled, his levity quickly forgotten. “Now look it; this here’s your first walk on the wild side since the Flicks came to party, so I doubt you understand the grave nature of our little road trip here. You want to survive today? You saw me just then, OK, that’s rule one: you can’t hesitate. Flicks may still be livin’ folk but you can’t see them as human no more, because they ain’t. Only thing they care about is tearin’ you apart. They’re a more cunnin’, relentless, and downright fuckin’ brutal adversary than you’ll ever face. You only got two choices now. Either you meet them head on, or you die whimperin’ in a corner. It’s that simple.”
Ben nodded, audibly gulping.
“Have I scared the shit out of you yet?”
“Good! You do what I say, when I say it, how I say it, and you might have a shot of makin’ it back in one piece. Now listen here. Soon as they’re riled, Flicks’ll come after you with a fury like nothin’ you ever seen. They’re fast, strong, and one drop of their blood gets inside you; whether in your mouth, eyes, or an open wound: its game over. Doors and corners are your friends as much as your enemies; Flicks can’t turn a key, and they ain’t got great agility, but they do appear when you least expect them. Don’t think, just act. That’s how we make it back with the medicine so Verne and little Emily die a little slower. That’s how you earn your place. You get me?”
As they drove deeper into Washington Square, Ben couldn’t help but feel the same, unnerving feeling as he had at the quarantine checkpoint. If leaving the farm was the raising of the curtain, the world around him so far had been a stage where the play was already finished, and only the hints of the performance remained.
“How come it’s so empty?” Ben asked.
“The city? What, were you expectin’ packs of roamin’ Flicks out in the wild ready to pounce the truck the second we turned wrong?”
“Kind of, yeah. All the ones we’ve seen barely noticed us, except for your little stunt earlier.”
Jay chuckled and took a long drag from his cigarette, savoring the smoke like a fine wine before exhaling.
“In the beginnin’, I was told that they run on instinct when they’re not bothered, especially if they’re alone. Their eyes don’t work too good because of the brain swellin’, but their other senses are heightened. Shit, I bet one of them could tell your blood type from fifty yards, and my revvin’ the engine? Probably sounded like three times as loud to that Flick earlier. It all overwhelms the front of the brain see, and that’s what controls our anger, our hunger, and the human need to survive. One Flick’ll rush you, maybe kill you, but get a group of ‘em all riled up and oh boy, all bets are off.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s tough to explain, and hopefully we don’t see it, but if you get a group of ‘em, say, over ten, and they know you’re there, they start to get that pack mentality, you know? They get a little smarter, a little more cunnin’. I don’t rightly know how it works, I do know that they’re strong enough to take out a vehicle. A second too long hearin’ the engine, or maybe they catch a whiff of us, and boom. Game over. Why you think we’re bein’ a little quieter now?”
Jay tapped the stereo. When had he turned that off? The windows were up too, and as he watched the city pass him by he noticed a carefulness and precision in Jay’s driving that was previously lacking.
“So, if we stay out of their orbit long enough, they won’t register us as a target?” Ben asked.
“Mmmhmm. That’s my theory anyway, shit,” Jay shrugged.
“How do you know all this?”
“I was in the wild for months before I hooked up with y’all. I know things, and I seen enough to know the things I know ain’t wrong,” Jay gestured, nodding his head forward. “Looks like this be it.”
Ben recognized the area, yet didn’t. He knew what it should have looked like, in a time before the Affliction, and once again he found himself struggling to accept the reality before him.
The Accident and Emergency wing of Jefferson Hospital looked like a poorly funded backdrop from a Lovecraftian play. Weeds grew through cracks in the ground, piles of stripped bones lay scattered, and an entryway that should have been pristine white was covered in dirt. Bloody shutters lay over a trio of double doors and torn, stained gurneys blocked the entryway on both sides.
Ben reached for the automatic slider for the window, as if it would peel back the mirage and reveal the image he’d seen every day he’d walked to work for two years. A quick slap to the back of the head stopped him, and Jay shook his head, pointing to his nose.
“Are you tryin’ to get us swarmed? Jesus H. I know it looks clear, but these fuckers are like Goddamn homicidal New York roaches. Don’t assume you’re safe just because you can’t see any Flicks nearby. They’ll come out of the woodwork soon as they catch a scent worth chasin’, got it?”
“Sorry,” Ben muttered, flushing from his naivety.
“Every action you take in this world can have a nasty re-action to it,” Jay scolded. “Everything has consequences. Ev-er-y-thing,” he sounded out with extra patronization. It had the desired effect, and Ben felt his cheeks flush red. He bit his front teeth down into his tongue, trying to repress the sting of humiliation so familiar throughout his early life.
Jay crawled the truck around the side of the building, into a wide alley marked ‘Emergency Vehicles Only’. A sea of stained gurneys with locked wheels were pushed to the sides, as if they had already been shifted there by a prior force. Jay pulled into the cul-de-sac, around some abandoned ambulances, and slid the truck to a halt. It took Ben a moment to see what was different here than the main entrance, then he saw the discarded chains and broken padlocks littering the ground in front of the doors.
“Why Jefferson?” Ben asked. “There’s other hospitals. Why here?”
Jay turned the ignition off, but made no move to remove the keys. “I know the layout pretty good, which means we can direct our movement, know where to find what we’re lookin’ for, and we can hopefully be out of here before any of them ever see us comin’.
Jay removed the pistol from his holster, checking the magazine and cocking the hammer.
“A man can dream. You got the list?”
Ben nodded, removing the folded piece of paper with the list of medicines they needed to look for. That’s why we’re here, remember?
“Good,” Jay nodded. “Let’s move.”
“Aren’t you taking the keys?” Ben questioned.
Jay chuckled softly. “Last time I checked, Flicks were pretty far off passin’ their drivers’ ed. You got that pistol on you?”
“Yeah,” Ben said, feeling the weight of the weapon as it sat idle in the shoulder holster.
“I probably should have asked this already but…you ain’t got a clue how that there beauty works, do you?” Jay asked, nodding at the pistol.
“Uh,” Ben stuttered, fumbling at the holster latch and handling the pistol clumsily. Shit. “Kind of?”
“Figured,” Jay sighed, snatching the pistol from his hands. “This thing is the safety. Click it down and the hammer goes down too. Point, and fire. You need to reload, press this button to eject the mag, then slam in a new one and do this,” he cocked the slide aggressively, and handed the gun back to Ben. “I don’t want you doin’ any shootin’ unless absolutely necessary.”
Ben nodded, feeling the pressure of the moment catching up with him as Jay dumped the pistol in his clammy hands.
You can’t hide anymore now, his inner voice goaded him, and you’re all out of excuses. Ben swallowed hard, exiting the truck, the scorched building looming forebodingly above him, threatening to swallow him whole. Ben bit his tongue again, the sweet pain pushing the fear away, steeling him for his first venture into the Afflicted world.
Let’s do this.
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