Carrie Michaels reclined in the dry dirt of the lakeside, watching water spiders skitter across the green-tinted water. Just below the surface, silvery minnows shot back and forth, crisscrossing in the water like slivers of living light.
Thoughts of netting one of the tiny fish and casting a baited line into the lake darted across her mind and were gone as quickly as the minnows when one tried to scoop them up.
Fishing was tightly regulated, and only a select few were given access to the lake for the purpose of catching fish.
But that was life at Lakewall, doing your job. When your job was done, the day was yours to do whatever you pleased. Usually that meant reading, or sitting by the lake, for Carrie at least.
Standing, she took a moment to brush the dirt from her pants, though the effort seemed somewhat futile. She didn’t think her clothes would ever be truly clean again. She missed clean clothes. She missed comfortable sweat pants, a large pizza and action flicks on Sunday evenings. She missed Tom.
Missing Tom always brought back memories, ugly, bloody memories of hiding in her apartment when the cutters came. Sad, heartbreaking memories when Tom had faced the cutters, defending her and his home. Violent, soul-crushing memories of Tom being cut down as she watched from her hiding place wedged into the cabinets under the sink. Stomach-churning memories of the cutters disemboweling Tom, cutting him to pieces and cooking him on a fire they made in a stock-pock on her kitchen floor.
Thomas Walingford Wanderpaw Michaels, the sweet, caring, daring German Shepherd she had rescued from the shelter when he was just a puppy. Tears began to burn her eyes and she sucked in a deep breath, blowing it out slowly, holding the water-works at bay. She had doted on the dog, and now he was gone. Carrie hated when someone suggested that he was “just a dog”. Tom had been her best friend.
Carrie turned in place, watching as the inhabitants of Lakewall went about their lives, envious of Drake Pillman as he rowed out toward the center of the lake and dropped his line into the water.
It was her day at the gutting station, to clean and gut whatever the fisherman or hunters brought in. Though she didn’t care for the job, it was better than washer-duty. Cleaning other people’s soiled, stinking, filthy clothes was far worse than tearing the guts out of a squirrel or deer.
The gutting station was kept at the far end of the longer section of the palisade wall, furthest from the main camp. The 150-yard-long section of wall stretched from the mid-point of the lake shore to butt up against a limestone rock outcrop that ran for several miles to the north.
The other section of wall began at the midpoint of the opposite side of the lake and ran to a sloping drop-off 65 yards from the edge of the water.
A single narrow gate on the long side, near the shore, was the only way in or out. Nothing wider than two people standing shoulder to shoulder could fit through the entry.
With the lake acting as a barrier to those wishing entrance into Lakewall, for good or ill, the split wall allowed residents direct access to the water and a more open view that helped to quell feelings of confinement.
The wind was coming from the northeast, and fine ash drifted down like bleak snow, covering everything in a powdery gray shroud.
Carrie hated the gritty, faintly slippery feel of the ash. It got into everything, and under her clothes it made her skin crawl unpleasantly. It clogged the sinuses and left a thin, bitter paste on teeth.
The ash was also a constant reminder that the city, even though it was almost 70 miles away, still burned. But it was only one of a number of cities that burned, along with large swaths of countryside.
Carrie walked up to the gutting station, took a deep breath and resigned herself to what she thought of as the pit-stink. It was a smell of fire and ash, of animal guts and unwashed people, and the dead bodies that had been piled up far outside the wall and burned.
“Hi, Devlin. How’s it look today?”
The thin, sweating man looked up from the cutting table and grinned. “It looks like a heaping pile of guts, girl. Hunters’ve been busy. Got another deer, four squirrels, three rabbits and a pheasant. Can you believe it? A pheasant, for cryin’ out loud.” Devlin tossed his head, throwing a long tangle of sweat-dripping hair out of his face, only to have it slide right back to the same place.
“Wow, they have been busy. They’re gonna hunt those woods clean if they keep it up.”
“Probably 700 acres of woods back there,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the woodlands that made up the back side of Lakewall, “I wouldn’t worry too much.”
Carrie glanced at the five-gallon buckets situated on either side of Devlin’s feet, one for offal, the other for trash to be carried outside and burned. A bowl was kept to the side for any trimmings that could be used as bait.
“Lots of mouths to feed around here,” Devlin said.
“Just over forty people now, I think.”
“And every one of them working hard to keep this place safe and operating smoothly. Burns through a lot of calories.”
“Hey, did you hear that Gordlick is working on making a mounted arrow throwing thing for the wall? I can’t remember what he called it.”
“Yes, that’s it!”
“He’s pretty crafty. Lucky that one came early.”
Carrie nodded in agreement. “The wall was half-way done when I showed up. He and the others made quick work of it.”
Devlin finished stripping the skin and fur from the rabbit he was working on, setting the carcass on the pile next to him on the long table. He laid the pelt out carefully.
Carrie said, “Rich is gonna be busy, too. He’s back in the woods, building another mud-brick hut.”
Devlin grunted with disapproval. “He’s not making survival videos for the internet now. Those huts are nice and all, but these things won’t wait. He needs to start showing some others how to tan hides.”
Devlin stepped back from the table, stretched and pulled off the handmade leather apron the gutters used, passing it to Carrie over the table full of animal carcasses.
“Gee, thanks, Dev,” Carrie said with a smile, “just what I wanted.” She slipped the strap over her head and tied the thong around her waist.
“I’ll take the offal to Dan and Nancy for the stew-pot. Shouldn’t be anything else today, other than what’s left there.”
“I saw Pillman rowing out. He might have something later.
Devlin nodded as he scooped up the offal bucket. “If he does, he does.”
Carried reached beneath the table and pulled out a clean bucket for the offal she would collect, though it wouldn’t amount to much.
“Ok, girl, you don’t have too much…”
The clang and peal of a bell cut Devlin off, and his mouth snapped shut, his head whipping around to look in the direction of the gate. ClangClang-Clang.
“All hands. People approaching,” Carrie said, recognizing the sequence. Her eyes grew wide, fear creasing the ash clinging to her face.
The last time the bell had rung that pattern fourteen attackers and three people inside Lakewall had died.
Carrie reached beneath the cutting-table and slipped a pump shotgun from where it always hung on old bicycle hooks. She stepped around the table and stopped, turning back to grab the heavy cleaver they used for breaking down deer and the rare pig.
She slipped the handle of the cleaver into the leather thong tied around her waist and turned back toward the wall, now moving with a purpose.
After eight months of living in Lakewall, Carrie knew one thing for sure.
Sometimes, wildlife wasn’t the only thing you had to gut to stay alive.
About the Author
John L. Davis IV has been writing, in one form or another, since he was 14 years old. He is a bibliophile that lives with a bunch of awesome females (Wife, 2 daughters and a dog, Pixie) and thousands of books in Hannibal, Mo. Along with the American Revenant zombie survival series, John dabbles in horror and science-fiction, mostly in short stories. He has also written several short screenplays.Enjoyed the story?