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Just a reminder, this is unedited, a rough draft, is the product of too much caffeine and CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WHITEOUT AND DOWNPOUR. You have been warned!
Links to previous chapters: Prologue,
2. The Clinging Dead
The first thing to note about the clinging dead is that they are far different from the restless dead, and while mostly made up of the recently dead, they are not exclusive. The clinging dead is made up of a subset of souls that don’t realize they’ve died, and just continue on living as if nothing had happened. They’re completely harmless, aside from carrying various corpse-related diseases, and only tend to be short tempered when confronted with the state of their own decay.
Stanley, was a member of the clinging dead, and one of the worst cases I had seen in a long time. I dropped the piece of driftwood I had been carrying and instead opened the book. The section on the clinging dead was short, and as many of the chapters, unhelpful. It was mostly a diatribe about an ex-boyfriend who refused to move on after being hit by a subway carriage, and continued to show up, lower torso in hand as if nothing was wrong. Not a single sentence about how to cure the condition.
“James,” I shot out of the corner of my mouth. “Get over here.”
“And James too!” shouted the corpse of Stanley. “Happy days.” He shambled his way along the beach towards us.
James got to me first. “What is it?”
“He’s a member of the clinging dead.”
James took a look at the man trying so desperately to reach them on bloated, rotting legs. “Yeah, makes sense. What do we do about it?”
“Good question.” I had been trying to come up with a solution as well. “Fact of the matter is, we still need a guide.”
“You’re not intending to travel with a corpse are you?”
“I’ve already got one.”
James socked me in the mouth, knocking me into the sand. “Say it again and I won’t punch as high. You might have saved me from the Land of the Dead, but I think we’re square by this point.” His eyes were filled with a deadly fire that I had not seen before.
“Jesus.” I rubbed my throbbing jaw with a rough, sandy hand. “Alright, point taken. Problem is, corpse or not, we need him. I think our best option is to just pretend nothing is wrong.”
“Pretend nothing is wrong?” James was speaking in a terse whisper as Stanley continued to inch closer. “His entire arm is off.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that.”
“Isn’t there some way we can help him?”
“There’s nothing in the book and I’m fresh out of ideas. Blame the inhalation of seawater.”
James was about to protest again when a clammy hand gripped his shoulder. “Friends, I am so glad to see you.” As he spoke, seawater dribbled from the edges of Stanley’s mouth. His clothes had been torn to shreds, and there were several areas where it looked like something had tried to take a bite out of him. His eyes were a milky white, but still somehow expressive.
“We’re glad to see you too Stanley,” James said, resolutely.
“But even better news my friends.” Stanley’s voice grew excited again. “We’re not alone!”
“Oh shit,” I muttered as behind Stanley’s back, I got a look at the beach.
Walking out of the surf were lines of dead men in various states of decay. Some were wearing military uniforms with stars somehow still maintaining their polish, and some were just clothed in whatever tattered rags remained. As they continued to march onto the beach, Nick noticed that a few of them looked like pirates, with large triangular hats, a few even sporting eye patches or peg legs.
“Don’t worry,” reassured Stanley. “They look rough, but they are quite nice. They pulled me from the wreckage of the boat at the bottom of the ocean…” Stanley trailed off, as if for a moment realizing how unlikely he was to survive such a situation, but as quickly as it had come, it was gone, replaced by the same blissful ignorance as before. “Why don’t we go and meet them eh?”
“Sure…” I didn’t think we had much of a choice, and there was no way James and I were fighting off an army of dead men, dehydrated, near death, and with no weaponry to speak of.
James looked at me as if to ask if I’d lost my mind.
“You have any better ideas?”
“I guess not.” James shrugged and began walking in the direction of the corpses.
As we got closer, Stanley took the lead. “Let me talk to them first, might be easier you know?”
“Hey guys!” said Stanley, waving his arm in greeting.
The line of the dead stopped, and everyone turned to face him.
“These are my friends, they were on the boat with me when I crashed.”
“Hello,” I said, awkwardly. “Any of you know how to get off this island?” It seemed obvious that by virtue of them being shambling corpses that they didn’t, but it was worth a shot.
A surly looking pirate dressed in all black stepped forward. The skin around his face sagged nearly to the bone, giving him more the appearance of a skeleton than a person. When he spoke, it was low and rough as if straining the last possible vibrations on his vocal chords before they would snap. “Maybe I do, but I’ll tell you this. We never talk to strangers without having a drink first.”
The pirate smiled, revealing a set of bejeweled teeth that had survived the decomposition process surprisingly well.
“Did you say drink?” My hopes had gone from rock bottom to sky high.
James looked like he would be sick all over again.
“Of course, I did. How else do you think we pass the time?” His laugh was like the sound of stones scraping together, rough and ragged. He motioned for them to follow and then the line was moving once more.
“Good job on that one,” said Stanley. “I thought maybe he was going to kill us!”
With that, we were moving off of the beach and into the dense jungle foliage that lay beyond it. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have followed a bunch of walking dead anywhere, but they had proffered me a drink, and there weren’t any better options. Above us, the sky still hung grey, almost as if recovering from the storm that had shipwrecked us. It was unclear how much time had passed, but judging by the fact that we hadn’t died, and I wasn’t feeling brain damaged, it couldn’t have been that long.
As we walked, I was able to get a better look at the men and women in the line. The military uniforms that some wore looked old, and reminiscent of the styles used in World War II. Some wore flight suits, others more common military jackets, but all of them wore pins indicating they were some sort of pilot.
The smell of them was godawful, but I was curious, so I moved a little closer. The man just in front of me was wearing a pair of cracked aviator goggles and his jacket was emblazoned with the image of a flaming skull.
“So, how did you get here?” I asked, trying not to directly mention the man’s death. While in his state of decomposition, he might have fallen apart with a simple tap, I had no desire to try my luck with the whole line.
The man turned over his shoulder to reveal two empty eye sockets and several places where flesh had melted to the bone. A cold, gurgling rasp came from his mouth as it fell open. For a minute it looked like the man would stop, but a woman next to him put a gloved hand on his face and turned it back forward.
“Albert doesn’t talk much anymore,” she informed, slowing her walk to be alongside me. “Lost his eyes to the critters at the bottom, and the rest, well, chalk it up to the crash I guess.” Her face was also clearly mottled, but it almost resembled that of a living person. Had it not been for the stretched quality, I might have just thought her to be sickly.
“Eesh,” muttered James from behind.
“Rude,” I chastised. This was doubly surprising given the fact that he too had experienced the decomposition process at one point. It seemed to just be a time that he would have rather forgotten. “So what about you then?” I asked the woman.
“Me?” She flipped the straw hair that still clung to her head casually. “It wasn’t all that interesting. I was flying a supply run taking off from Florida. Halfway across my instruments went dead and then everything just went black. When I woke up, I was sinking to the bottom of the ocean.” She put her palms up as if there were nothing that could be done about the matter.
I supposed that was true. “I’m sorry to hear about it.”
“No you’re not,” she smiled. “You’re a young thing, plenty of life still left in you. Some of the others,” she gestured with a crooked finger to the line in front of them, “They don’t have such a cool handle on their situation.”
She reached out to touch my arm, sending unpleasant prickles up it.
“But me? I know I’m dead. Have known for some time, but I just can’t bear to leave this place. Sure, it smells, and the company is rotting away, but it beats the uncertainty of whatever comes next.” Her voice sounded far away and drifted as though the thought of it had her lost. “Maybe someday…” she said airily, “but for today I think I’ll settle for one more drink.”
“Where do you get the booze from?” I asked changing the topic away from an uncomfortable subject.
“Ships go down in the seas around here all the time. More than a few of them have spirits aboard.” She paused, noting the wording. “Both types of course.” She laughed with a slight rasp to it, like a smoker.
“Where are we heading to drink it?”
“The last good bar in hell. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” She pointed her bony fingers forward once more and sure enough, we were approaching a clearing.
When we stepped out of the dense foliage it was into a cleared circle of land with a stone hut in the middle. The original construction looked almost medieval in nature, likely belonging to some of the pirates, but a few noticeable improvements had been made along the way. A thick metal roof had been put on top, likely salvaged from one of the many wrecks. Inside, a dull light glowed.
“Not bad,” admitted James.
“That depends on what’s on tap,” I replied and followed the crowd inside.