Thank you all for your interest in my work! This is a re-written publication of my first chapter after taking in feedback from the people who read the original. I was never truly happy with Chapter One, and part of my motivation for posting it was to get some different feedback from new readers. It was always my intention to re-write this chapter. I think part of being an adult is learning to view all feedback as constructive, and I am eager for as much as I can get – positive or negative. Chapter One is the most important chapter of the novel because it is all agents and companies ask for these days in queries. So you could write the best book ever, but you only get the one chapter to impress.
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.
Feedback is always appreciated, and you can give me feedback directly by posting on Reddit, or contacting me directly on the Contact page of the website. Thank you again, I hope you enjoy. Fair WARNING: Swearing and graphic content ahead 🙂
~PART ONE: NEW WORLD TERRORS~
“Extraordinary afflictions are not always the punishment of extraordinary sins, but
sometimes the trial of extraordinary graces.”
– Source: Matthew Henry
“The fire of affliction reveals the quality of our faith”
– Source: John Calvin
“It was good for me to be Afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees.”
– Source: Psalm 119.71
~ CHAPTER ONE ~ BEN ~ PHILLY BLUES ~
The last few days had been unseasonably warm for this time of year. Ben Colefield was grateful that, while they were on the highway and traveling fast enough to avoid danger, they could have the windows down.Of course it would be an Indian Summer’s day, he thought to himself. The rest of the world has already gone mad, why not the weather along with it?
A late autumn breeze blew blissfully though the ancient pickup truck, kissing the sweat from his forehead and doing its blessed best to obscure the country music playing on the antiquated tape player. Bright midday sunshine beamed down on the truck, uncomfortably heating Ben’s legs through his jeans. It revitalized the cream leather and chipped sky blue paint of the old Ford Ranger, somehow giving it a new lease on life while highlighting the imperfections caused by its many years on the road.
The bright, warm atmosphere was a stark contrast to the darkness within the scores of abandoned vehicles littering the highway. Some had smashed windows or doors left hanging open by an undoubtedly long dead hand, revealing only the suggestion of carnage and death that had taken place at the height of the Affliction. Others remained sealed; sarcophaguses entombing the unfortunate souls who’d become trapped on the highway when all hell had broken loose.
Up ahead, even with the sun piercing the scattered clouds, the city of Philadelphia looked cold and 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.
“Eee-yew, now this here’s a damn fine track of music if I don’t say so myself!” Ben’s companion, Jalen – or Jay, as he preferred – yelped as a new song began to play. He leant back in the frayed drivers seat, now more cloth than leather, and dangled one heavily tattooed arm lazily out of the window, gloved fingers tapping along to the downbeats of the atonal banjo solo currently assaulting Ben’s ears. Much to Ben’s chagrin, Jay appeared to suffer from none of the gut wrenching anxiety and primal terror that were currently doing a number on his own nervous system. Ben both envied and idolized Jay’s apparent nonchalance towards their new world and, considering his demeanor, you’d never guess that they were careening headfirst into what Ben only assumed was a post-apocalyptic nightmare. A city populated only by ghosts, painful memories, and bloodthirsty, murderous Flicks.
Flicks. Jay had claimed, loudly and repeatedly, that he had coined the term ‘Flick’ as a shorthand for the Afflicted creatures that now haunted every step of the remnants of human civilization. It was his, and no one could say otherwise.
It had been almost a year since the world had collapsed under the weight of the Affliction, the deadly virus that had brought humanity to the brink of extinction, and in all that time only two people had ever been more than a mile away from the rural Pennsylvanian farmstead that the small group of survivors called home. Verne, the stubborn old oak who ran it, used to venture out once every couple of weeks to scavenge nearby towns for supplies. One day, he returned not with food and medicine, but with Jay, who promptly took up the old man’s charge. It was an unwritten rule of the group that you didn’t ask about someone’s past and, true to form, no one ever questioned what had transpired that day. It was just accepted that the farm had gained another survivor. Verne had been happy to pass the dangerous responsibility of venturing out into the new world to him, though Ben had noticed the increased tension between certain members of the group had begun to wear on him lately.
“Crazy, ain’t it?” Jay spoke. His natural tone was deep and coarse, his accent vaguely sprinkled with what he called ‘redneck ancestry’.
“What?” Ben said, catching a frog in his throat at the unexpected interaction.
“All this,” Jay waved his arm around, signaling towards the haunting remains of civilization that flew past at forty miles per hour. “Didn’t take more than a few weeks for Flicks to erase two thousand years of human dominance. Shit, we never stood a Goddamn chance in hell.”
He maneuvered deftly around the wreckage of their species. Aside from the abandoned cars, old trash heaps seemed to pop up at random, the stench strong even now. Half destroyed bicycles and luggage had been carelessly discarded in the panic, left to sit untended until nature reclaimed them. Every so often Ben would catch a glimpse of corpses in varying stages of decomposition. Jay was forced to slow down as they approached what Ben recognized as the main outer quarantine checkpoint leading into the city. The wind rippled through flaps of torn, discolored tents marked with the letters ‘FEMA’ that stood off to one side, while burnt out vehicles pockmarked the highway leading to the remains of the main gate.
“Never been so close,” Ben said, feeling a chill travel up his spine as he surveyed the area. “Only ever saw this place on the news back then.”
“Be grateful,” Jay said, eyeing the remains of a semi-destroyed guardhouse. “Everythin’ snowballed so damn fast. Didn’t matter that there were hundreds of Guardsman and just as many active duty soldiers. When the Flicks broke their shackles there weren’t a power in the damn ‘verse that could’a stopped ‘em.”
As Jay cleared the roadblock the song changed seemingly on cue. He cooed at the opening guitar riff, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel with renewed vigor. Ben found himself wanting to push the conversation, but a tight crunch of anxiety wrapping around his windpipe stifled the words before they could form.
Jay rarely willingly volunteered to speak to anyone outside of private bourbon drinking sessions with Verne late at night, or when the old man convinced him to teach the others some survival skills. Never guns though. The only thing Ben had ever overheard Jay actively pushing was to let him teach the others about guns, to which Verne had always put his foot down. The only times the pair had ever really interacted one on one before today were during chores, and even then Jay rarely volunteered more words than necessary. He was an enigma, and the admiration Ben felt for his companion’s attitude towards the apocalypse was peppered with a healthy sprinkle of intimidation. Whether it was an intentional gambit or just instinctively who he was, Jay always seemed to establish himself as the alpha in a given situation and, combined with his imposing physicality, Ben usually found himself frustratingly receding into the background. Facing a character as large as life, and much more worldly than him, reminded him of being a freshman in high school; the new kid who hadn’t hit his growth spurt trying to blend in with aged veterans of the schoolyard who could shove him into a locker at a moment’s notice.
A quick pump of the brakes to avoid a pile of black body bags removed Ben from his reverie. They sailed down the exit for Colombus Boulevard and headed into the metropolis proper, weaving around more remnants of humanity as they progressed. Jay turned the wrong way down Spruce Street just, Ben assumed, because he could without consequence.
“We’re actually here,” Ben muttered in disbelief. Home.
His stomach seared white hot, twisting in knots as he peered out of his open window at the remains of the dead city beyond. The fact that he was here did not feel real. He felt like a version of himself was hovering over him, watching, questioning his reality. Had he really volunteered to accompany Jay on his self-described “most dangerous supply run yet”? He struggled to remember the series of events leading up to his standing up and accepting the offered pistol, shouldering an empty duffel bag, and riding shotgun into the jaws of danger. Jay had been looking at me when he spoke, right? He’d felt challenged in the same way he would when, in another life, an opposing lawyer would attempt to intimidate him.
“You ain’t never seen a Flick up close n’ personal yet, have ya?”
Ben glanced over, seeing him lighting a cigarette as they eased their way down narrow streets, often climbing curbs and scraping vehicles, the roads filled with more than the city had ever been designed to accommodate.
“No,” Ben admitted, his throat cracking slightly. “I saw hints on the news, way back when, and that one time when one ventured onto the farm…” he trailed off.
“Is that right?” Jay said. “Well, what do you think Benny-boy: do they look shorter in person?” He gestured with his cigarette out the window. Ben’s stare followed it, his brain equal parts awestruck and terrified.
The Flick was moving away from them. From the back it almost looked normal – except for the tattered clothing – but for the deep, purplish red of its bulging, muscular arms, with darker veins pulsing beneath. It lacked the shuffling gait of a ‘traditional’ Romero zombie. Instead, it moved slowly, aimlessly; like a person with amnesia who had forgotten where they were heading, and couldn’t decide whether to turn back or continue on due to a lack of a reference point to go to. Flicks aren’t zombies, he reminded himself. They’re still alive. They’re still people…really sick, changed, deadly people…
As the truck approached it, Jay briefly shifted the gear into neutral and revved the engine. The Flick turned sharply, sniffing the air as a feral wolf might, and rushed at the pickup truck. It still looked oddly human, but with the same reddish-purple skin tone as the arms, and its head looked too large, like a cartoon bomb getting ready to explode.
“Jay!” Ben cried, shying up against the passenger door as the Flick eyeballed him for its next meal.
Jay rolled his eyes. “You didn’t answer my question: does it look bigger in person?”
“Are you fucking serious?” Ben cried, the Flick almost within striking distance.
Jay cackled, a knife appearing in his hand from out of nowhere. Ben watched as Jay thrust his arm out the window, the knife leaving his hand, and settled dead center in the Flick’s forehead, sending it to the ground with a high pitched, inhuman scream. Jay hooted, Flicking his cigarette butt at the downed Flick, and floored the accelerator, bouncing them up onto the curb again, the shock rattling Ben even further.
“Jesus Christ,” Ben muttered, his breath coming in rasps. “Verne was right; you really are insane.”
Jay whooped again, slapping his leg with amusement. “He said that, did he; that I’m insane?! Well shit, if I’m insane, what in the hell does that make you Benny-boy? As I recall, you didn’t even ask questions this mornin’. Now I admire your gumption, but I gotta ask. Why’d you do it? Huh? Why are you here?”
Good question, Ben thought.
Thinking about this morning while cradling his new pistol, Ben’s memory began to return, forcing its way through a barrier of anxiety. He had been out doing one of his chores – milking their only surviving cow – when he heard a commotion in the house. An argument had started. He remembered walking into the living room, seeing people crowd Jay as much as they dared as he declared that he was not their ‘errand boy’, and he wouldn’t be “done in takin’ dumbass risks that don’t benefit me.” Ben soon found out that Verne’s supply of heart medication was close to exhausted, and he had asked Jay to see if he could find some more, along with the medication Emily needed for her Crohn’s disease. The dwindling medical and food supplies, along with the knowledge that a harsh East Coast winter would make supply runs to farther out spots impossible, had been a source of underlying tension recently, and in that moment it was all coming to a head. Jay declared that all the local clinics and hospitals had been picked dry, either by him or other unmet survivors. The only option he saw was to venture into Philadelphia itself. He picked up a pistol from the table, holding it in the air, and demanded that unless someone volunteered to come with him, he wouldn’t go at all.
Ben remembered how silent the room fell, and how irritated Jay had looked as he berated them all for “being cowards when the chips were down.” Clark spoke up, saying he’d go, then his wife Melissa reminded him their children needed a living father. Leah had stood in the corner, silently fidgeting with her retractable spear, while Verne’s daughter Imogene attempted to guilt her husband Derek into stepping up to the plate. Ben remembered the tightness in his chest as he stared at the gun in Jay’s hand; the crushing fear and anxiety that accompanied the very idea of leaving the farm. The rest of the memory was a blur. He hadn’t thought, or considered, the repercussions of striding though the bickering group and clutching the pistol from Jay’s hand. Hell, I wasn’t really thinking at all. Ben hadn’t said a word while doing it, taking only a moment to meet Jay’s eyes and pick up the empty duffel bag on the table before walking out to the pickup truck.
Why did I do it? Because I’m sick of spending humid days in a dark basement when Flicks show up while others do all the work. Because you’re the group’s best hope of surviving the winter. Because when I went into that living room I could tell the buffer between you and everyone else was getting thinner. Because seeing Verne looking so Goddamn tired, worn out from playing months of peacekeeper, was terrifying. Because this is what I always do when people around me fight. I volunteer to take care of the problem, no matter how out of my depth I am.
“Well?” Jay asked. “You just gonna sit there with your hand on your nuts, huh?”
Ben gritted his teeth. “Someone had to step up, and I seemed like the least offensive choice.”
“Hah!” Jay barked a laugh. “That’s it, huh? Well, shit, I’ll tell you what: I’ll make you a deal. This here’s your first walk on the wild side since the damn Flicks came to the party, so you’re pretty much a blank slate. You listen to me, you do what I say, when I say it, how I say it, you good with that?”
“Of course,” Ben replied. “I mean, I’d be an idiot not to be, right? Like you said, I’m a blank slate. God knows how you survived before Verne found you, and you keep coming back from supply runs in mostly one piece, so you must be doing something right. More than I can say for myself.”
“Good,” Jay said, nodding to himself with satisfaction. “Good. Stick with me, and maybe we’ll make it through this in one piece. Hell, who knows, maybe you might learn a thing or two.”
They drove deeper, passing streets and venues Ben recognized from almost a lifetime of living in the city. He couldn’t contain his surprise at how empty the streets were. In his mind he had thought that the streets would be filled with roving packs of Afflicted, but in reality they had only seen five in total; all of them alone and isolated, huddling in corners or standing motionless in store windows. It was unnerving how human the fleeting glances made them look, save for the color of their skin and their eyes, which were often yellow and bulging from their swollen heads. The passing sound of the engine made them glance. Out of the five they drove past only two seemed to take notice, but none gave chase the way the earlier one did.
“What’s the difference?” Ben finally asked. “Why aren’t these Flicks trying to get us, compared to the one from before?”
Jay chuckled and lit another cigarette. He took a long drag, savoring the taste as if it were a fine wine, and slowly exhaled before responding.
“You ever been so angry you couldn’t think straight? Don’t answer right away – really think about it. I’m talkin’ about being so angry you got that tunnel vision: that one thing you’re so mad at its all you can see, and you can’t hear anything around you like people tryin’ to talk you down because the adrenaline’s pumpin’ and reason itself takes a vacation from your brain?”
Ben turned the idea over in his head. He felt like a bizzaro version of Harry Potter – instead of summoning a powerful happy memory to create a patronus in order to banish the negative thoughts, he plunged deep into his psyche to find the worst possible memory he could fathom, in order to try and give him an insight into the mind – or lack thereof – of a Flick.
Middle School bullying was a vague memory at this point, more of a feeling than a rage-inducer. Cutting remarks from law school professors had hurt at the time, but he’d proven them wrong the day he got hired by a prominent, world renowned law firm. At the very thought of that his gut twisted. He felt as if in freefall, the seat ripped out from under him, leaving him falling into a blackened pit of hopelessness. He would never walk those hallowed halls again, never glow in the praise of the managing partners as he won case after case that came his way, and would never become one himself. The Affliction had destroyed his entire world, and cruelly ripped away a life he had worked hard for; one that had cost him nights and weekends away from family and friends, holidays spent studying or working, and countless relationships that fell by the wayside because ‘there would always be time for that later’. Everything he had ever sacrificed had been for nothing. Within the darkness he felt a bubbling of anger from that thought, especially with the realization that all the sacrifices he had made had been in vain.
No, he thought. This isn’t everything. Yeah, I’m angry that the Affliction happened, but what makes me furious is that it may not have needed to happen.
During the third week of the collapse, when enraged monsters began to pour out from hospitals, there was a rumor: the Affliction wasn’t a natural phenomenon, not a virus stored in permafrost or hidden in some remote jungle, but rather that it was man made. It was completely unsubstantiated, but that didn’t stop it from being shared widely on social media platforms and the internet. The theorized perpetrators behind it were popular culprits; doomsday cults, terrorist organizations, extremists both religious and political, and private corporations losing control of their experiments. Being himself, Ben couldn’t find himself supporting any claim without sufficient actionable evidence, but it had always been at the back of his mind.
As a mental exercise, for now, he allowed himself to entertain the theory.. He pictured faceless Dr. Frankenstein wannabes huddled around a corpse injecting it with bubbling concoctions of vibrant colors, each of them marveling at their own brilliance and invention. He saw corporate boardrooms full of blank faces, discussing how best to profit from this horror. The thought that billions of lives – the very fabric of his species – had been lost and destroyed because of arrogant people attempting to either play God or milk the world for profit was enough to drive him insane with rage.
There, he thought, fists clenching. That’s what Jay’s talking about.
“I’ve definitely been that angry,” Ben finally replied to Jay through gritted teeth.
“That’s how Flicks feel when we bother them, or if they catch our scent for more than a couple of seconds,” Jay said. “They can’t think of a damn thing else – and it’s magnified by the hunger. You saw that fucker walkin’ down the road before we came along all lost and aimless? He probably walked that way to work, or to his favorite pizza joint.”
I was told, in the beginning,” Jay continued. “They run on instinct when they’re not bothered, or they just shut down. Their eyes don’t work too good ‘cus their brains are swollen and there’s too much pressure on their optic nerves, but their other senses are heightened. Noises you and I don’t think much of are deafening, and their sense of smell – why, I bet if they could spare the brain power they could tell your blood type from fifty yards. All of that, combined with their brain damage, overwhelms the one part of the brain remaining – the front. The Id. The anger, hunger, the base human need to survive; it makes them want to tear you apart and eat you for dinner.”
“So these Flicks that we’re passing, now; they aren’t chasing us because we’re effectively not in their orbit for long enough for their rage to register?” Ben asked.
“Yessir,” Jay said. “They hear the truck, maybe get a slight whiff of us if they’re really payin’ attention. A lone Flick’ll still kill ya, but a group of ‘em will tear you up. Hence why we’re keepin’ a little quieter now.”
Jay tapped the stereo. When had he turned that off? Ben also noticed the windows were now up, and that Jay’s driving style had become much more precise than his seemingly previous reckless sideswiping against other cars and obstacles.
“So, how do you know all that?” Ben asked. “The news wasn’t exactly forthcoming on the Affliction.”
“Like you said Benny, I was in the wild for months before I met you guys. I just know things, and I’ve seen enough of these fuckers to know the things I know ain’t wrong. Jay paused, shifting his eyes to look at the building in front of them. “Look like this be it,” he said, easing the truck to a crawl.
Ben looked around, recognizing the area, yet not. He knew what it should have looked like – an entrance to a hospital – and yet it looked like a Lovecraftian set piece from a poorly funded play. Weeds grew through cracks in the ground, piles of bones lay scattered, an entryway once pristine white was now covered in dirt. Bloody shutters lay over the trio of double doors, and torn, stained gurneys blocked the entryway on both sides. Ben pressed the automatic slider for the window, hoping that the view of Jefferson Hospital was just a mirage, and that when he peeled back the curtain it would look just as it always had when he’d walked past it everyday to work. A quick slap to the back of his head startled him as Jay reached over and put the window back up. He shook his head, pointing to his nose.
“Are you tryin’ to get us swarmed?” He rasped. “Jesus H.”
“Sorry,” Ben muttered, feeling ashamed of his naivety. “It’s just that, well, we’ve only seen five Flicks total. Where are we going to get swarmed from?”
“Oh, Benny,” Jay sighed. “Just you wait-n-see. These fuckers will come out of the woodwork soon’s they catch a scent worth eatin’, like a Goddamn swarm of homicidal roaches. Here’s a lesson for you: don’t ever assume you’re safe just because you can’t see no Flicks nearby. Got it?”
Jay crawled the truck around the side, 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. “Why Jefferson? ‘Cus we have an advantage here. I know the layout pretty good, which means we can direct our movement, know where to find what we’re lookin’ for, and be out of here before any of them freaks ever see us comin’. 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 gonna’ take the keys?” Ben questioned.
Jay chuckled softly in response. “Last time I checked, Flicks were pretty far off passin’ their drivers’ ed.” He shook his head, making Ben feel a little foolish. “Now listen here; we get out, leave the doors on the latch – don’t go slammin’ ‘em now – and get through them doors double time. Less time in the open, less time any nearby Flicks have to catch our smell, you get me?”
Ben nodded, and fumbled clumsily with the pistol he’d taken, trying to move it from his lap to the shoulder holster Jay had given him.
“I prolly should’a asked this a while back but…you know how to use that thing?” Jay asked, nodding at the pistol.
“Uh,” Ben stuttered. Shit. “Kind of?”
“Fuck,” Jay sighed, snatching the pistol from his hands. “This thing is the safety. Click it down and the hammer’ll go 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, you got it?”
Ben nodded grimly, trying his best to ignore how out of his depth he felt, and steeled himself for the task in front of them.
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