There’s an abnormal silence in the air.
Silence isn’t something Webster’s always noticed. It was always regarded as something natural; something that happened when you turned off the radio or stopped pressing a pen to paper or when the final hour of a party dwindled down to the final minute and finally to you, left alone in your house, ghost echoes of laughter and music.
That’s what he’s hearing.
The phantom firing of guns and the phantom screams and the phantom rattling of tanks and shuffling of feet.
It’s quiet, too quiet, when Liebgott drives an elbow into his ribs. Says, “think they’re still out there?”
Eyes on the tree line, on the shuffling figures just outside the perimeter of their make-shift base, set up in an abandoned town that smells like death and gun powder. Webster’s not in the mood to talk so he sighs, off-handedly says, “where else would they be?” and Joe shrugs.
They were everywhere, if Webster really wanted to think about it. Any spot he pointed to on the crinkled, bloody surface of the map. Any dot of a town a dirt-caked fingernail landed on. They were there, those men with shot off faces that got up and kept walking, that ripped a human body to shreds right in front of him, shoving bloody bits of pink muscle and dark-red organ past blue-tinted lips. Webster thinks he ought to know what they are, but he doesn’t.
None of them do.
All they know is They’re spreading. Reports flood back from home, of businessmen that woke up to get their paper to find their streets littered with bodies and buildings on fire and their ears serenaded by the dragging, shuffling sound of what could only be called the living dead.
The title makes him laugh, makes him roll his eyes and dig his nails into his palms. They weren’t living, they weren’t dead, they only were.
“Ended the goddamn war, didn’t they?” Guarnere says. “’Least we ain’t fightin’ the fuckin’ Germans anymore.”
“Nope,” Webster says and his lips are chapped when he licks them, “now it’s us against them.”
What he has with Joe doesn’t end when They come. The two of them still meet – though, and it’s laughable to think about, it’s even more dangerous to sneak off then before – when they can and to where they can. Kissing is still savage, fingernails still scrap, and grips still bruise.
Joe’s still Joe.
“Where do you think they came from, Web?” he asks, lacing his boots with precision. His words are punctuated with a shot, a blast in a chilled night, but neither of them jump.
“Hell, maybe,” he answers, and even though there was maybe a time where he doubted if Hell was even an actual place, Webster can’t think of any place else that could have fastened those Things. Those Things that hobbled toward them – dressed in peasant clothing – on a routine march, the ones that grabbed Jackson and had his throat ripped out with their teeth before anyone could think to act.
At least it hadn’t taken long for them to figure out, while Jackson was screaming and dying and being eaten alive, that a shot to the head would do the trick.
Webster grits his teeth and locks his eyes on the man in front of him. He doesn’t like to remember.
Joe snorts and grabs his gun, a clank of metal and the stamp of his feet against the ground. “Hell made Hitler,” he says, steals the cigarette from between David’s fingers and takes a slow, burning drag, and exhales when he speaks. “Those things don’t got shit on him.”
On the twelfth day of Their existence, a German soldier is eaten right outside of their barrier. It’s vicious and bloody and rotting hands and faces tear into a living thing that screams garbled, blood-choked German.
Web thinks it’s a little like art and he hates himself for it.
When They’re finished all that’s left are the scatters of half-eaten organs and a body that’s now a shell. Heffron’s panting beside him, urking noises in the back of his throat, wet and on the verge of sickness and when he finally gives into it, loses precious food in a half-digested mess on the ground, Webster closes his eyes.
The smell is worse than the one that hangs over the town, worse than the dying noises of the German, and he almost appreciates the irony.
Those around him, himself, they were men who had lived through war; men who had watched their best buddies die in droves around them and they were reduced to cowering behind a weak wall of scavenged wood and scrap metal, throwing up at the sight of blood when they had all been painted in it before.
“You okay?” he asks, finally, after the same pushing, drooling nausea that hit Heffron subsides in his own stomach.
“Fuck no,” Heffron rasps and spits on the ground near Webster’s boot.
Fires burn everywhere at night, to aid what little artificial light they have left, but it’s not the light that keeps everyone awake. They don’t moan, They don’t groan, but They shuffle. The scuffing of American and German issued boots, kicking against dirt and cobbled roadways. Webster spends part of his nights reading, part of them writing, and the rest with Liebgott.
The circles under his eyes are a rich bruise, a heavy sand-paper feeling each time he blinks.
He couldn’t sleep even if he wanted to, though, and he envies the way Joe snores beside him and he doesn’t think it was all that wise to let him fall asleep but he doesn’t have the heart to wake him.
Instead he goes to the window, lights a cigarette, and watches a stumbling shadow pass by a few feet away.
“Don’t suppose we’ll ever see home now,” David says, to no one in particular, when he’s with a group that’s sent to check what food they have left. The supplies are dwindling and the weight is on Winters’ shoulders. David knows that the Major knows that soon enough he’ll have to send a patrol out, a group of men risking their lives to bring back abandoned k-rations and round up any livestock that’s still around.
“Home?” Guarnere laughs, throwing aside a rotting potato before facing him, “you ain’t got a home anymore.”
It’s truth in a gruff Philadelphia accent and it makes Webster cringe.