's 2012 Horror Write-off:

"Infestation: 17 Herbs and Spices"

Submitted by Olita Clark

>Be Ken Flectcher
>Once upon a time you ran a large construction company.
>After The Leak you reverted back to your roots as a carpenter.
>There was plenty of work for you in the numerous small settlements that began to appear.
>Even those living in the skeletons of once great cities required your assistance.
>You quickly learned to work with scrap metal as well as wood.
>You can't count how many skyscraper windows you've expertly resealed with a sheet of tin.
>The number of small yet efficient hovels you've erected must be in the hundreds.
>You spent the first few years roaming the drier parts of the West Coast.
>You'd  build a few things, collect a ration of gasoline and food, then move on to greener pastures.
>Until Vegas.
>It was in Vegas that you met Rosie.
>You glance over at the passenger seat lovingly.
>She's sound asleep, strands of her dirty blond hair scattered across her face like a cobweb.
>You think she might have been a stripper before those scientists in Kansas destroyed the world.
>She certainly has the body for it.
>Or she did a until few months ago.
>A swelled baby bump doesn’t look attractive on any woman.
>You loath to move her in this condition, but Vegas is no long safe.
>The hastily constructed system is beginning to break down.
>The final straw for you came two weeks ago.
>A contaminated can of food managed to pass through quarantine.
>Some poor sucker had his face eaten off by Spam, of all things.
>It was pure luck that they managed to find the corpse before it started spreading spores.
>There have been other incidents too.
>Like the one Hound who held the “mayor” hostage for a larger share of gasoline.
>He'd had no chance but to comply with the mad woman's demands.
>People willing to head out into the Wet to fetch supplies were hard enough to come by.
>The city simply couldn't afford to put down one of their best over a payment dispute.
>Even if she had gone rabid.
>No, Vegas was not where you wanted your child born.
>At the rate things were going the place would collapse completely in another year or so.
>The survivors would spill out across the land like locusts.
>Sure, most of them would die, but there would still be hundreds left to flood the nearby settlements.
>Begging for food.
>Attracting the Infested.
>It would reach the point where strange persons would be shot on sight.
>They were more useful as a source of meat than another mouth to feed.
>You saw it happen before, in the early days.
>You knew that  it could easily happen again.
>It was far better to leave now and avoid the rush.
>With your skills you could find a new home easily.
>There was always a demand for someone who knew how to put up four walls.
>Or keep existing walls from tumbling down in the middle of the night.
>Hell, if you were so inclined, you could even hole up on your own.
>Find a nice dry spot close enough to a settlement to trade.
>But far enough away that you would be spared if they got swarmed.
>The more you thought about it, the more you warmed up to the idea.
>Just you, your wife and your baby.
>The three of you against the monsters of the world.

>A sharp pinging yanks you roughly from your thoughts.
>You know that sound all too well.
>It's the battered PT's ways of telling you its tank is almost empty.
>You have a few cans of fuel sitting in the trunk that could fix the problem.
>But you'd rather try to scavenge some gas first.
>You're cruising down a stretch of highway evenly dotted with stations.
>Better to save the cans for when you're on one of the more lonely stretches of road.
>You check the reflective green signs for the next off ramp.
>One and a half miles.
>Ok, you can make that, no problem
>You flick on your blinker and slide over to the far right lane.
>Some habits die hard.
>As the car glides from the interstate’s smooth black ribbon to a cracked surface road, Rosie stirs.
>You reach a hand over and stroke her head, reassuring her.
>It's not enough to put her back to sleep.
>She groggily asks what's wrong.
>You tell her that you need to refill the tank.
>She nods and falls silent.
>You pull into a Shell with practiced precision.
>Huh, look at that.
>This was one of those fancy stations that had an attached fast food joint for hungry travelers.
>A KFC, instead of the usual McDonald's or Subway.
>You honestly never cared for the Colonel's cooking.
>You're more of a burger person.
>Well, you were, back when burgers existed.
>Rosie sees the KFC and perks up.
>She asks if she can go inside while you're checking the pumps.
>You ask if she has a craving for chicken.
>She responds with a playful punch to your arm.
>Rosie explains that it would be nice to lay down on something resembling a bed for once.
>You both sleep in the PT, in case something finds you during the night.
>You let her have the back seat, but you admit it's rather uncomfortable.
>If some of those padded bench hadn't gone moldy or become roach hotels...
>It could take you awhile to check all the pumps.
>Maybe a half hour.
>Even longer to pull out whatever gas you find and get it into the car.
>But it could also be dangerous to let Rosie out of your sight.
>She's in no condition to fight or even run right now.
>If some of the Infested came upon her, asleep and helpless...
>You don't even want to think about it.
>She's giving you those puppy eyes you could never resist.
>With a dull screech, the PT shudders to a halt in front of Pump #9.
>You drum your fingers on the worn steering wheel, thinking.
>Finally you announce a compromise.
>You'll let her nap in the palace of poultry but only after you do a sweep of the building.
>If it doesn’t look safe, she'll just have to make do with the back seat.
>Rosie quickly agrees.
>You do a quick check of your person before climbing out of the car, as always.
>Gas mask properly secured-check.
>Clothing layered so no scrap of skin is exposed-check.
>Small spray bottle of diluted citric acid to check for spores-check.
>Strictly speaking, all the safety gear wasn't necessary.
>Spore clouds no longer saturated the air as they had in years past.
>Not to mention the fact that it was currently early Autumn.
>Daytime temperatures still soared in this part of the world.
>Storm clouds wouldn't make their appearance for another month or so.
>You don't care.
>It was better to be cautious than dead.
>You twist your body and snatch your tool belt from the back seat.
>It's a bit awkward to snap it on in the confines of the car, but you manage.
>Finally, you reach under the seat for the flare gun.
>You could shoot and dismember an Infested all you liked.
>Their various parts would still keep crawling towards you, spitting spores.
>The only solution was to reduce the whole thing to ash.
>The so-called “zombie jockeys” learned that the hard way in the first weeks after The Leak.
>They'd happily blow out their neighbor’s brains and pose next to the corpse.
>Only to have it spring back up in the middle of the picture.
>The shooter's friends would pump round after useless round into the Infested.
>All it accomplished was to release the deadly white spores inside the thing's body.
>The bold hunter of undead would be mauled or strangled or choked by a hand down their throat.
>He would rise back up in 24 hours.
>His friends would succumb to the spores in their lungs and go mad.
>They would be driven to climb to the highest point they could find.
>The Infestation would burst from the back of their necks in a tall stalk.
>After 24 hours of releasing spores to the wind, it would disintegrate into dust.
>And the new Infested would fall from their perches to begin the cycle anew.
>With these dark thoughts in your mind, you cautiously step out into the still night air.

>Rosie tells you to be safe.
>You promise, then slam the car's door shut.
>Loose gravel crunches beneath your boots as you approach the restaurant.
>The faded Colonel on the sign leers at you in the quarter moon's dim light.
>You flick on your flashlight and play it across the building’s facade.
>At some point in the past it must have served as a survivor's dwelling.
>Various scraps of wood and thin metal are haphazardly nailed over the windows.
>It appears as if they've been there for some time.
>Holes have rotted through the barricade here and there, laying bare filthy patches of glass.
>You reach out with one gloved hand and test the door.
>Not a problem.
>You place the flashlight on the ground, using a rock to angle its light up towards the door.
>Your trusty crowbar takes center stage.
>It's the work of a minute to pry the rotting boards from the door and smash the glass beneath.
>You knock out the larger shards, reach around the frame and feel for the metal tab.
>The door protests mighty as you swing it inwards.
>You scoop up your flashlight, drop your crowbar back in its scabbard and proceed inside.
>The interior is surprisingly dusty for a sealed building.
>Spores, perhaps?
>After all, there was quite a bit of meat stored here once upon a time.
>You give the air and counter a few spritz of Lemon Pledge.
>There are several tense seconds as you wait for the acid to work.
>But there's no tell-tale appearance of blue in the tested area.
>If there are spores here, they dried out long ago.
>Feeling more confident, you proceed through the dining area.
>A few of the benches are spitting forth a torrent of stuffing, but you spot some that will suit Rosie.
>After a good wipe down, anyway,
>Back into the kitchen, then.
>This is where the highest danger is.
>If there are any Infested lurking in the building, they would be hiding here.
>You bathe every shadowy corner, cabinet interior and fry pan in your flashlight's beam.
>You thought you saw the shrived corpse of a rat laying in the open door of the freezer.
>It made your heart jump into your throat as adrenaline began to flow.
>With a speed that would have been impossible in your past life you draw the flare gun...
>...And nearly waste a round on a paper bag.
>Christ, you feel like an idiot.
>After insuring that the freezer's shelves were indeed empty, you head back to the car.
>A small nod is all Rosie needs.
>She squeals in delight as you help snap on her gas mask.
>She hates wearing it, but you refuse to let her go bare faced into the outside world.
>You grab an extra flash light and a towel and help her waddle over to the KFC.
>She selects a seat toward the back of the restaurant.
>You lay the towel across the bench and place the flash light on the attached table.
>Rosie laughs at her night light but seems grateful for it all the same.
>With the windows covered the inside of the building is as dark as a tomb.
>You would leave her the flare gun as well but she was always a terrible shot.
>More likely to set her hair on fire by accident then hit any Infested attacking her.
>You've been looking for a weapon she could handle on her own.
>So far, nothing has come up.
>After a minute or two of fussing and small talk you finally manage to wrench yourself away.
>The walk back to the gas pumps seems to take an eternity.
>Once Rosie give birth you'll teach her how to do this herself.
>Then the lesson will be passed on to your son or daughter, once they're old enough.
>You're not sure they'll even be any gas left at that point though.
>You heard that some clever folks down south managed to get a few oil rigs working.
>And you know for a fact there's still a refinery or two pumping away in California.
>Vegas would receive convoys from them every now and again.
>But that doesn’t change the fact that there's more vehicles than fuel to power them.
>Rouge military convoys that still pretend to represent the long dead US of A.
>Gangs of roving raiders atop their squealing motorcycles.
>The small fleets of Hound vehicles kept by any sizable settlement.
>And folks like you, random wanderers across these once great lands.
>You give it three more years, tops.
>By then everyone will have to figure out how to run cars on a crude alcohol mixture.
>Or try to find, raise and maintain a herd of non-Infested horses.
>Fat chance on both.
>Falling into the near-mindless trance associated with monotonous work, you begin on the first pump.

>You don't know how much later it is when you hear the scream.
>For a minute you stand there dumbly, a nozzle hanging from one limp hand.
>Your brain struggles to process the sound piercing the night air.
>It couldn't be.
>You checked the building.
>You checked the building!
>There was NOTHING!
>The nozzle falls to the ground with a clatter you don't register.
>You half run, half stumble towards the KFC's door.
>It flies open from the force of your kick, banging against the wall.
>It jumps back with a vengeance.
>But you're inside by that point.
>You can smell copper.
>You can taste it on your tongue, coating the inside of your mouth with in indescribable foulness.
>It penetrates the gas mask with frighting ease.
>Nothing could keep that stench out.
>The screaming is high pitched, more urgent.
>There's a harsh gurgle underlying every note.
>The world is filled with a scuttling scraping sound.
>Wet tearing sounds.
>Bone-hitting-flesh sounds.
>You don't want to see.
>You don't want to turn towards the crazily flickering light in the corner of the room.
>The corner where she is.
>But your body forces you to turn anyway.
>Your eyes widen and you unleash a scream of your own.
>Chicken wings.
>Or what's left of them.
>Their thin, dried bones are overcome with a grey growth of fungus.
>The small stalks sway with each unnatural movement.
>The ropey “flesh” itself crawls with its own life.
>The wings use their unnaturally sharp ends to burrow through Rosie like maggots.
>Her protective clothing was no match.
>It hangs in limp, blood stained strips.
>You can see the dark tunnel underneath where they entered.
>And exited.
>Her skin bulges unnaturally as they crawl inside her body.
>Several thigh bones have jammed themselves into her mouth.
>More writhe inside her throat.
>As you watch, the delicate skin and muscle tears.
>They all come spilling out onto the floor and table.
>They're soaked in her blood.
>They're already absorbing it.
>Red disappears into grey and the roll end over end back to the feast.
>Her eyes are gone.
>Two empty sockets stare at you pleadingly.
>A wing pokes out from one.
>Thin strings branch out from its sides.
>Already buried in her brain.
>Drawing nutrients.
>Her belly is torn open.
>Its contents lay in a bloody heap on the floor.
>They swarm over it.
>An ever shifting pile of softly clinking bones.
>You catch a small glimpse of soft pink flesh.
>Part of a face.
>Its skull is already exposed.
>The delicate bone splits and crumples under the assault.
>Your son or daughter is consumed.
>Your wife is consumed.
>They ignore you.
>Why would they bother with you?
>They can smell you are healthy.
>You carry a flame maker.
>They know in their own collective way that you would not destroy them all.
>A few would escape.
>They always do.
>They would likely Infest you before the battle was over.
>But Infesting is not their priority right now.
>They had been locked up for so long.
>So, so long.
>They had been dormant, hibernating, waiting.
>Your scent awoke them.
>They waited.
>And you delivered them a long awaited meal.
>Gift wrapped.
>A choked sob escapes your lips.
>They are swift.
>They are efficient.
>Rosie's skull grins at you.
>She's mocking you.
>She's accusing you.
>She's beckoning you.
>Why not?
>Till death do you part.
>You were never properly married.
>Vegas' numerous chapels were all converted into squatter hovels.
>But you were hers and she was yours and baby makes three.
>Would have made three.
>Now baby makes snack.
>A brief interlude in the main course.
>They begin to finish with she he it.
>They move away.
>You see the gleaming white.
>Collapsed, pathetic.
>Like a crumpled paper bag.
>Picked clean.
>The blood absorbed and drained.
>The cranium lays in five six twelve parts.
>But the toothless jaws grin and grin and grin and laugh and scream and accuse.
>Daddy why didn't you save me daddy why did you leave me daddy daddy daddy
>daddy i'm dead she's dead we're all dead here and its your fault
>you missed them and you gave us to them and now we're dead and you'll never hear me laugh
>never hold me in your arms
>never hold her in your arms again
>cold and dead now but we'll be back and we'll come for you so you can be with us again
>but why would you make us wait haven't you done enough already
>come down here on the floor let them have you join us
>together again a happy family
>it will only hurt for a little while then we can be together
>you deserve to suffer for this daddy
>yes dear you deserve to suffer but we'll forgive you if you just lay down
>And they've taken notice of you now.
>The first few begin to crawl and roll towards you.
>You collapse.
>Your head hits the tile hard but you don't care anymore, can't care.
>With a single rough jerk you remove your gas mask and toss it aside.
>Your face and flesh lay bare for them so you can be together again a family.
>Your vision goes dark as they pierce your eyes and you can hear them rattling down your eye sockets.

>Blackness. Nothing.