Here’s the deal, kids: I have to be out of town for the next couple of days because a certain best friend of mine has chosen to make Valentine’s Day even more of a hassle than ever. When I get back, I’m going to be busy taking tests and working on projects and doing all kinds of other stupid shit for higher education.
So the bad news is, I probably won’t be back around these parts much in the next week or so. The good news is, I’ve got this gigantic-ass story that was supposed to be five pages and ended up being thirty. I know, I know—you don’t have time to be reading stories of that size.
But listen to this: I’ve been picking up a few gimmicks in my web design class to help me out around here. Case in point: I learned how to link to specific chapters in the story. This is beginner stuff, I assure you, but I’m feelin’ pretty proud about it. Between this and the monkey I made out of keys, I’m beginning to think that this college thing might be worth the money. Of course, then I remember about algebra and change my mind.
Anyway, so it’s a huge story, but it’s broken down into chapters for you, so you can read it one piece at a time. Like a daily inspiration calendar. Plus, it’s just in time for Valentine’s Day, and with the word “Love” right in the title, it’s got to be happy, right?
Read it if you want, enjoy it if you can, and I’ll see you in a while.
Running; Here Comes Danny; Uncle Butch Calls It; Saying Goodbye To Mom
We’re both running, running like crazy. It’s a beautiful day, the patches of sun warming my face as I run through them. The air is cool and crisp and clean, and for a moment, I’m transported back to my childhood. We used to play hide and seek together, her and I, in these same woods. They’ve changed, and we’ve changed, but for just a moment, it doesn’t matter.
Then I see one of the things racing in from the left, and the moment is over, my childhood kicked from my mind by fear.
“Look out, look out!” I scream at her, my pointer finger jutting out in front of me, bouncing as I run. I’m reminded of a boner with no one to fuck, and for a split second, I marvel at my ability to be extraordinarily crude even under incredible stress.
We were friends as children, the three of us. Best friends. And then we got old enough for the other feelings to bully their way in and beat out the innocence. There was jealousy and anger, and instead of a friendship with three people, we ended up with a bizarre sort of love triangle. She picked him, and I pretended to be supportive, but as high school graduation grew nearer, I grew further away.
By the second semester of college, we weren’t even emailing any longer. Sure, I’d put a checkmark by their names when I was forwarding a joke, and they would check mine when they were making an announcement to everyone, but it was nothing personal. Eventually, even that stopped.
I hadn’t thought of them in years until they showed up at the family reunion. My cousin and his wife. My best friends through childhood.
I was too shocked to speak at first, and then he told me the mandatory, “You look great” thing, and I told them that they both looked great, too. Only I wasn’t lying. Tri-athletes, or some such shit. They were both muscular and trim and tan and beautiful. I was pale and thin and sickly-looking. I don’t get out during the day much. They live on the West Coast, I live on the East. Our bodies, as well as our personalities reflected this.
I tried to make small talk, but they were just too damn bubbly. I tried to reconnect to the people I lost so long ago, but there didn’t seem to be any remnants of those people left, so I just went and poured myself a plastic red cup full of bourbon.
Every year, our family reunion is held in the same place—there’s this clearing in the woods, almost right in the center of where most of the family land converges. See, our family hasn’t spread much over the years. My great-grandfather had three kids, and left them each a section of land. Those three bought up more of the surrounding land, and then divided it up among their children, respectively. Most of my family is content to live in die in the remote Colorado woods, making their living through ranching. Those of us with bigger dreams run until we hit water, apparently, but surprisingly, there haven’t been that many of us over the years.
So imagine this circle graph, divided up roughly into thirds. Right where they all met in the center, that’s where my folk have leveled a bunch of the trees and built fire pits and picnic tables, and that’s where the annual family reunion is held.
I don’t usually go back—either too busy, or I just don’t feel like making the trip. They were going all-out this year, though, and my mom guilted me into it. I repaid her by smashing her head in with a chunk of burning wood.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was actually having a good time, and was sort of amazed by the fact. I’m not sure if it was the booze, or the never-ending stream of dirty jokes coming out of my Uncle Gary’s mouth, but the reunion wasn’t going nearly as terrible as I had expected.
And then someone screamed, out in the woods, and the entire gathering stopped what they were doing and looked in the direction of the cry. Aunt Louise was the first one to move.
“Danny!” she yelled. Danny’s her kid. Was. Just as she reached the edge of the clearing, someone came bursting out. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew he was a distant cousin of some sort. He looked to be about sixteen, and had long blond hair—judging by the Grateful Dead shirt and the marijuana pipe in his hands, he was going through his rebel hippie stage.
“Bradley, what happened?” Aunt Louise asked him, grabbing him by his shoulders. That’s when I saw that the entire right side of his body was covered in blood. “Are you hurt? Where’s Danny?”
“We were out in the woods, just lookin’ around, and this guy, he comes out of nowhere, and bites Danny right on the fuckin’ neck! Just like, ‘Crunch!’ and blood sprayed all over me, and Danny screamed and the fuckin’ guy, he just, like, drops Danny and starts comin’ for me.”
“Danny!” Aunt Louise screamed, tears already running from her eyes. She started into the woods, but a few of the men folk grabbed her and pulled her back.
“We’ll find ‘im, Louie, but let us go look, first,” Uncle Butch said. He was a great big bear of a man, a beard the size of a regular man’s chest, and his hair so unkempt that it covered what the beard didn’t. You know how they make those big cowboy hats? Uncle Butch’s beard always reminded me of what a novelty ninja mask would look like, if they made them, and if they made them out of hair.
Just as he turned to head into the woods, Danny came stumbling out. There was an enormous hole in the side of his neck, and blood was still bubbling out of the wound, but he didn’t even seem to notice. He stepped into the clearing and headed for the nearest person—me.
I stepped back. I’m not sure if it was because I could immediately tell that something was very wrong with him, or if I just didn’t want to get blood all over me. I know, I’m kind of an asshole.
Aunt Louise broke away from the family members who had been holding her, and rushed towards Danny.
“Danny! Oh, Danny, are you okay?” She went to wrap her arms around him, and he bit her in the face. I mean, like, right in the face. He tilted his head just a little, so he was able to bite some of the skin off of both her cheekbones, as well as take off her nose. She screamed and backed away, and Danny lunged on top of her, taking a bite out of the side of her face as they fell. He must have hit a vein or something, because blood sprayed up out of the side of her neck, covering a picnic table, hissing as it hit the fire.
For just a second, it was almost completely silent. You could hear Aunt Louise gurgling out blood as she tried to breathe, and you could hear Danny chewing up her cartilage, but that was about it.
And then everyone started screaming.
Everyone was so busy running around—trying to pull Danny off of Louise, trying to make sure that Bradley was okay, and kind of just freaking out in general—that they missed it when the other guy came stumbling out of the woods. I yelled at Uncle Gary, who now had his shirt off and was trying to use it as a bandage for Louise, but he didn’t hear me over the noise. The guy just flopped onto Gary’s back and took a chunk out of his shoulder. Gary screamed and reached back, and the guy chomped down on his hand, biting off three or four fingers.
I started to run to help, but there were already several family members already offering assistance. I figured I would just get in the way. Danny had managed to bite another few people, but they finally got him secured. I flipped open my phone, completely expecting to find that it had no service. Instead, I had the maximum number of bars.
I breathed a sigh of relief and dialed 911. I got a busy signal.
“Somebody call 911! Somebody call 911!” It was my cousin Andrea, flipping out in her customary fashion. I mean, sure the last minute and a half had been like something out of hell, but the rest of us were dealing with it relatively well. There was a little bit of hysteria, but for the most part, we were keeping cool. Andrea always was a drama queen.
“Quit your fucking screaming,” I yelled at her. “I’m calling right now. It’s busy.”
“What do you mean, it’s busy?”
“Do I really need to explain this, Andrea, or have you used a damn telephone before?”
“It can’t be busy—it’s 911. Are you sure you did it right?”
“Get the hell away from me. Seriously, like, right now. Just…turn around, go be stupid at someone else.”
She gave me a hurt look and wandered away.
“She’s not breathin’! Shit, come on, Louie, hold on!” Uncle Butch was leaned over her, his hand on her wrist. “She’s got no pulse! Who knows CPR? Who knows CPR?”
It would have to be Trent, of course. My perfect, triathlon-running cousin from Cali, with his outstanding body and his outstanding tan and his outstanding wife. “Move aside, Butch, I’ll see what I can do.”
Trent crouched down above my aunt, and Sharon—his perfect wife—crouched down beside him to assist. With nothing else to do, Butch walked over to the stranger who brought this all upon us.
“Stand ‘im up,” he said to the two men holding him down.
“Butch, we stand this sunuvabitch up, he’s likely to sink his teeth into a few more of us before we can get ‘im back down!”
Butch reached down and grabbed the stranger by the neck and pulled him to his feet. The guy tried to bite him, snapping at his wrist and arm as Butch held him. The crazy bastard had balls, you had to give him that. Face to face with Uncle Butch’s angry side, most men just soil themselves and pray.
“Calm down there, mister,” Butch said. The stranger paid no attention, just continued to try to bite. Butch gave him a good shake, and the man’s teeth snapped down on his own tongue. It hung out of his mouth, just a tiny strand keeping it connected to the rest of his mouth. The man slurped the end of his tongue back in and swallowed it. The guy standing next to Uncle Butch immediately puked.
“Butchie, maybe you ought to just give that guy’s brainpan a knock and leave him unconscious until we can get the cops out here,” I told him.
“I just want a couple of questions answered,” Butch said, never taking his eyes from the man. “And you’re gonna answer them, aren’t you?”
The guy groaned and stared back at Butch. For the first time, I noticed that his eyes were a sickly yellow color, like rotten milk. I also noticed that his skin was pale gray. Oh, and he had shit his pants.
“The guy shit himself, Butch—I don’t know if he’s in the frame of mind to do much answering.”
The thing—I had stopped thinking of him as a guy—suddenly lashed out, raking his dirty fingernails down the side of Butch’s face. Butch drew back his free arm and punched the thing in the side of the head. Its neck made a sickening crunching sound, and its head turned around almost a full 180 degrees. Instead of dying, which would have been the right thing to do at this point, the thing tried to bite at my Uncle Gary, who had been standing behind it. Gary flinched back, stringing together several syllables of curse words. It moaned at him and snapped its teeth.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Butch asked.
I had no answer for him, but it didn’t much matter just then, because that’s when Trent stopped working on Aunt Louise. “There’s nothing I can do—she’s gone.”
And then she sat up and bit a rather large portion from his forearm. He screamed and jumped away from her, and she immediately went for Sharon. Sharon was a little more prepared for the attack, and was able to leap backwards to avoid getting bitten. Andrea, who had been hovering over everyone, being annoying, wasn’t quick enough. Aunt Louise grabbed her ugly flower-print dress and yanked her to the ground. No one had time to intervene before Aunt Louise ripped out most of Andrea’s throat.
Butch looked back at the man he held by the throat, and then he turned to look at me. “Zombies.”
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” I whispered to him.
“You got a better explanation?”
I dialed 911 again, something I had been doing continually since this madness started, and again got the busy signal.
Without further conversation, Butch carried the creature to one of the picnic tables and commenced to bash its head against the wood until there was nothing left but white-specked mush. “That’ll work for that bastard, but I don’t think family’s gonna let me get away with killin’ any of us,” Butch said to me. “This shit’s about to get nasty, though, and I’m gettin’ out while I can.”
“Are you serious? You’re leaving?”
“If I thought anyone’d let me, I’d kill everyone who got bit, and solve the problem right now. Way I see it, that’s the only good I’d be if I stuck around. And since that ain’t happenin’, there’s no reason to hang around ‘till I get bit.”
“You can’t honestly believe that this is zombies.”
“Yes, I can.” He turned and walked out of the clearing.
If I had any good sense, I would have followed him. I mean, the man’s the most down-to-earth member of the entire family. Not to mention the toughest and the most practical. He was in the military for a while—one of those guys they drop off in the middle of nowhere with, like, a pocket knife, and he has to survive for a week. Even though he hadn’t been in the service for years, Butch still did that once a year, just to keep in practice. I should have followed him.
Instead, I went to try to contain the violence that seemed to be erupting from everywhere. Danny had managed to get loose, and had attacked someone else. I wasn’t sure who, because Danny had managed to get most of the skin off of her face before anyone could stop him, and I didn’t recognize the outfit she was wearing. Louise had finished off Andrea, who—continuing to annoy me—sat up from the dead and began attacking other family members. Trent wrapped a strip of shirt around his wound and stood protectively in front of Sharon.
My mom walked into the clearing with a plate of raw hotdogs—she had gone up to the house for more supplies—and Aunt Louise bit gum-deep into that soft spot just above the collar bone. My mom screamed, dropping the plate of hot dogs, and I grabbed a chunk of wood from the edge of the fire pit and tore-ass across the clearing. Aunt Louise was going for another bite when I crushed in her skull with the still-burning log.
My mom looked at me like I was the one who had gone crazy.
“What’s going on here?” She asked, tears running from her eyes.
“I don’t know, Mom, but it’s bad, okay? What we need to do right now is get you to a hospital.”
“You just killed my sister. Louise. You killed her.”
“Yes, I know that. It had to be done, Mom. Trust me—I wouldn’t have done it if I thought there was another way.”
“What’s Danny doing, biting everyone? What the hell is going on here?” She was beginning to weep.
“Mom, I’ll explain it all later. Can you get up? I need you to get up, and we’re going to my car, okay? We have to get you to the hospital.”
“I was gone fifteen minutes.”
“I know, Mom, I know.” I glanced down and saw the dirt-covered hot dogs on the ground, and for some reason the image almost my heart. I fought back tears, and looked back over my shoulder at the chaos that had overtaken my family reunion.
It looked like at least half of them were biters now. Zombies?
“Mom, we really need to get you out of here.”
I dropped the piece of wood and pulled her to her feet and out into the woods. It was slow going at first, because I practically had to drag her, but eventually, she started using her legs. She kept asking what was going on, but since I had no good answer, I just kept telling her to come on, we’re almost there.
We got to the car before I realized that the keys were in my jacket…my jacket that was draped across a picnic table in the clearing. I patted the pockets of my jeans furiously, refusing to accept that I had been such a dumbass. Aside from my wallet and cell phone, there was nothing. I patted myself down once more. And again.
“Kindred Mathew Daniels!” My mother shouted from inside the car. “Are you…masturbating?”
I stared at her. Leave it to my mother to be even more surreal than a zombie attack at a family reunion. “It’s Kenny, Mom. And no—I’m looking for my keys.” Back in the day, my parents were quite the hippies. They made it to the water at one point—San Francisco, actually—before deciding that that kind of life wasn’t really their cup of tea. Unfortunately, I was born during their transition back to the land of the sober and sane. Hence, the name Kindred—you know, because they were kindred spirits or whatever. My dad ended up running off with a younger, less child-having chick two years after I was born, kind of killing that theory. Unfortunately, my name remained long after my father had bolted. Introducing myself as Ken always brought to mind the dickless, emasculated Barbie counterpart, so I go by Kenneth or Kenny.
“They’re in your jacket pocket. You put them in there when we were in the kitchen. I told you quit jangling them, and you put them in your jacket pocket. I asked you why you didn’t just put them in your pants pocket and you said that they poked you if you did that.”
My mom worries constantly about memory loss, so she’s always overcompensating. “All right, listen—I have to go back to the clearing for my keys. You just stay in the car, all right? Just duck down and wait for me to get back, okay?’
“Kenny, I don’t think that’s th-”
“Mom, I just need you to trust me, okay? I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do or not, but it’s the only option. Unless you have a spare key for the truck?”
My mom had a work truck, but I had used it to haul firewood earlier in the day, so the keys for it were also in my jacket.
She shook her head. “Uncle Greg was parked down the road there, but I think he went into town for more beer.”
“I don’t see his pickup. So just wait here, all right? Skooch down in the back seat, lock the doors, and don’t open them for anyone, okay? Just stay hidden. When I get back with the keys, I’ll get us to the hospital. I need you to promise me, okay?”
“Okay, Kenny, I promise.” She sounded slightly exasperated. It’s weird how quickly terror can transform into irritation. But at least she had promised.
“I’ll be back,” I said, and headed back towards the woods. Just before I got to the edge of the driveway, I turned and came back. She was already positioning herself in the backseat.
“I love you. I just wanted you to know.”
She smiled. “I did. I love you, too.”
“Okay. I’ll be bawk,” I said, doing a horrible imitation of The Terminator.
I headed back to the clearing, much more cautious than I had been while lugging my mom to the car. Because I’m somewhat of a rational human being, I wasn’t ready to accept that zombies had invaded my family reunion, but there was definitely something up, and I didn’t want to go bumbling back for my keys and end up being somebody’s snack. I expected to hear the sounds of Armageddon when I got near the clearing, but aside from an occasional scream, the woods were quiet.
I stepped slowly into the clearing, and suddenly wished that I hadn’t dropped my burning log when I pulled my mom up to her feet. I glanced across and saw it on the ground, the flame extinguished. I heard a scream and a gunshot, from somewhere in the distance off to my right. It didn’t take my family long to break out the firearms. I dashed across the clearing and grabbed my jacket. I made sure that the keys were still in the pocket and then turned to go back to the car. That’s when I noticed someone stumbling out of the woods. I leaned over and pulled another log from the fire. A hint of gasoline reached my nose, and I realized that this piece had soaked up a lot of the fuel that we had dumped in before igniting the fire pit.
“Darlene? That you?”
“Yeah, Kenny, it’s me.” To be honest, I’m not real sure how Darlene fit into the family. She married a cousin of a cousin, or something. The guy was a real loser, but everyone took a shining to Darlene, so when he went to jail for knocking over a Denny’s, the family immediately adopted her. She divorced him six months later, but by then, she was already an accepted part of the family.
“Are you okay?”
“I was expectin’ aliens. Aliens, I could handle. Not this, though.” She had her arms wrapped around herself, like she was cold. It seems like people always act cold when they’re afraid.
“You watched the wrong kind of movies, I guess.”
“How can you make jokes at a time like this?” She stared hard at me, and I saw the tears pouring down her face.
“It’s either make jokes or go insane. I’m not ready for the nuthouse just yet.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Up in the car. I had to come back for my keys. You wanna come with us?”
“Better not,” she said. She uncrossed her arms and held them out to me. Blood poured down her forearms and wrists, dripping from her fingertips onto the ground. There was a chunk of flesh missing in the crook of her right elbow, and another piece missing from her left wrist.
“It hurt like hell at first, but then the pain started goin’ away. I can barely feel it anymore. I can barely feel…anything.”
“Oh, no, Darlene.”
“You better go, Kenny. I always liked you, and I’d hate to think that you’re the one that’s gonna get stuck with the task of killin’ me.”
“I’m so sorry, Darlene.”
I turned tail and ran, forgetting caution. At least I didn’t drop my burning log. At one point, I heard a gurgling moan from the woods, and it didn’t sound all that far away from my head. I didn’t look, though, didn’t slow down at all, just kept running, wanting to get as far away from this nightmare as possible.
I paused when I got to the edge of the trees, though, wanting to look around before I busted out into the wide open driveway. My mom lived in a wooden cabin, and one side of her house overlooked a tree-covered canyon. One of my favorite things about childhood, and about coming to visit her, was to get a cup of coffee and sit on the back porch, looking out over what seemed like the entire world. You could see for miles, all the way down to the river that cut through the canyon floor.
On the other side, you had a gravel driveway, and the trees that I had just ran through. Not nearly as good of a view, but better than what I ever saw living in the city.
I hid behind a tree and peeked out, forgetting that the piece of burning wood in my hand killed any chance I had at being discreet. Fortunately, everything seemed to be on the up and up. I crept out to my car, keys in hand.
“Mom? It’s just me—don’t freak out.” I scuttled up to the car, trying to be stealthy like a ninja, but probably looking more like a retarded penguin. “Mom?”
I glanced down into the back seat, and saw her tucked under the pile of coats. I stuck the key into the door and she launched herself into the window, smashing her nose against the glass and causing me to piss myself a little.
I jumped away from the car, screaming out swear words in a high, girlish voice, more startled than afraid. I stared up at the window as my mother beat against it, shrieking with rage and petulance, like an infant from hell who wants its bottle.
At first, it didn’t register. I just stared up at the creature striking the window, unable to make the connection from this thing to my mother. Sure, it was wearing her clothes, and her watch, and sure, the haircut was the same. But this couldn’t be my mom.
My mom was a sweet lady, quiet and shy and adorable. This thing was an abomination. A monster. A zombie?
The thing in my car continued pounding on the windows, clawing at them, until her fingernails broke off, and the bones of her knuckles protruded from her ripped flesh.
I stood up slowly, unsure of how long the window would be able to hold up against her assault. Two seconds after I had the thought, her fist crashed through the safety glass. It didn’t make a shattering sound, but more of a cracking, ripping sound, and I wasn’t sure if that was just the gummy safety glass, or it was some of her bone giving way. Whatever it was, it made me scream again.
Her skin was already that weird grayish blue color, and her eyes were milky yellow.
She yanked her fist back and then smashed her head through the hole in the window, snapping at me. My tears dripped onto the gravel as I reached to pick up my piece of wood—I had dropped it when my mom scared the hell out of me. I raised the log above my head, closed my eyes, and swung it down to crush her skull.
In a movie, it would be this serious, dramatic moment. Or at least a horrible, gory moment. In real life, nothing works out like it’s supposed to, though. Because my eyes were shut, I missed. The wood skidded off the remaining window glass, and I lost my balance, falling against the car and banging my ear on the roof. Also, I hit my shin with the piece of wood.
For a moment, the thoughts of a normal world took over, and I couldn’t decide if I should be more humiliated by the fact that I had missed, ruining the dramatic moment, or because the swing—the one that was supposed to demolish my zombie mom’s head, therefore bringing to her eternal peace—hadn’t done more to my shin than bruise it a little.
Then she shrieked again and lunged further through the window, the skin on her arms shredding against the glass. Adrenaline rushed through me, and I was on my feet before I knew it, bringing the log down on her head again and again, not thinking, not feeling, just reacting.
Even after the creature stopped moving, I continued to beat on it. Whatever it was, it wasn’t my mom, and yet it had taken over her body, ruined her face and her skin, and my memory of her. It enraged me, and I swung the log over and over and over, until my arms were sore, and my stomach hurt from sobbing.
When I was done, I dropped the log and fell to the ground, unthinking.
Fighting With Sharon; The Newscast; Making Amends
I’m not sure how long I sat like that, on my knees, right out in the middle of the driveway. If zombies had come out of the woods right then, I’m not sure I would have moved. It was like my body was on total system shut-down. Funny how bashing your mom’s skull in can do that to you.
I probably heard grunts and moans and screams and gunshots, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. I just sat, staring at the gravel, and at the blood splatter on my pants.
“Kenny?” If it had been anyone else’s voice, I’m not sure I would have responded. But it was her. My first love and one of my best friends through childhood. I looked up at her.
“Sharon?” Her cheeks were flushed bright pink, and although her hair had a couple of leaves in it, she still looked like she had walked from the pages of a magazine. Her shirt was torn a little, and she looked like a cliché starlet from any number of horror movies.
“Are you…did you get…um, how are you?”
“Been better, Sharon. If you mean am I going to change into one of those things, no—not yet, anyways. You?”
“None of them have touched me yet. Is that how it happens? Touch?”
“I’m no expert, but it looked more like through biting to me. Probably saliva or blood. I’m not ruling out the idea that it might be contagious by touch, but it didn’t look like anyone changed until they were bitten.”
“Gah, can you believe we’re even having this conversation? I mean, on the way from the airport, Trent and I thought that the worst thing we’d have to worry about would be listening to Gary’s dirty jokes for hours on end.” Her eyes were quickly filling up with tears. I didn’t really feel like consoling anyone, but I figured I better get ready, all the same. I stood up. “I mean, we’re just sitting there, and now…now…I mean Trent is…he got bit and he just wandered off. I lost him in all the chaos. What the hell is going on here?”
Sure enough there were the water works. I couldn’t really blame her, though. It was hard for me to imagine anyone liking Trent enough to get worked up, but she apparently loved him, and I could see how it would be a hard thing to witness your dearly beloved transform into a zombie because of some CPR gone wrong.
I put my arm around her. “Calm down, Sharon, it’s gonna be okay.”
“How can you say that? How can you say it’ll be okay? They were eating people, Kenny!”
“It’s not like I believe it—I was just trying to make you feel better.”
She shrugged my arm off and shook her head. “I don’t know what happened to you—you’ve changed.”
I bit back a remark about how I hadn’t changed nearly as much as her husband, who was probably already looking for a person to munch on. “Everybody changes. I mean, what the hell happened with you and Trent? Went out West and became poster children for flaky jocks.”
“This isn’t helping our current situation,” she said, stepping away from me. “Instead of bickering, we need to figure out what’s going on.”
“I’m thinking we should go in and see if there’s anything about it on TV. See if it’s going on all over, or if it was just that one guy or whatever.”
“I can’t stand the idea of thinking this is going on all over. Surely it was just that one guy, right? Like a government experiment gone wrong?”
“Beats me—let’s go in and check the TV.”
“What is it, Kenny? What’s going on?”
“Like I said—beats me.” I started walking towards the house. “Uncle Butch thinks it’s zombies.”
She scoffed. “Zombies? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Why not werewolves? Or vampires?”
I stopped walking and turned to look at her. “Because werewolves are covered in hair and only come out under a full moon. Because vampires don’t come out in the day time. And because zombies come back from the dead and eat people—which, in case you haven’t noticed, is exactly what’s happening. The people that get bitten turn into zombies themselves. You want to track down Trent and ask him if he thinks it might be werewolves?”
“Yeah. Come on, if you’re comin’.” I walked up the driveway to the house. After a few moments, I heard her footsteps crunching on the gravel behind me. I also heard her sobbing.
We got to watch about eight minutes of an emergency broadcast before the screen turned to static. It was enough for us to see that this was a global thing, and that there wouldn’t be help. Instead of rushing out to help, the National Guard was called in to protect the important politicians in Washington. The rest of the armed forces were ordered to lock down their bases until the situation was further investigated. People deserted, of course, to go home to their families for the end of the world. In the six hours since the zombie epidemic had become known, the President had already ordered that deserters be shot on site, no questions asked.
“Can he do that?” Sharon asked.
“I don’t know. I mean…I don’t know. When this blows over, he’s gone, I guarantee you that. Americans won’t abide a panicking lunatic as our leader. But for the moment, I…I don’t know.” I shook my head, amazed at how strange the day had become. The President’s decree added a bizarre sort of surrealism to the equation. Sure, there might be zombies running around, and sure, you might have to crush in your mother’s skull with a log. But this was America, dammit, and shit like what the President was ordering didn’t fly ‘round these parts.
The newscaster ran through the list about what we should do—stay inside, barricade doors and windows, make sure we didn’t get bit—and then switched to a live feed. The picture was suddenly sideways, and it took me a second to realize that the camera had been dropped on the ground.
The anchorwoman, apparently unable to see the video feed, and oblivious to the fact that things had gone terribly wrong for the on-the-street-reporter, asked a question about what’s the situation like out there, Bill.
You didn’t need Bill’s commentary to know that situation was pretty fucking bleak. The camera was focused on a wet, fleshless skull, and there were out-of-focus rivulets of blood flowing down the lens. It looked like most of the right side of the head had been ripped off; most of the shoulder and some of his chest had been torn apart. His blood-soaked clothes were ripped to shreds, like a candy bar that a fat kid couldn’t open fast enough, eaten while still inside the wrapper.
“Bill? Are you there? Sorry, ladies and gentlemen—it seems like we’re having a problem with out audio and video. Bill, are you there?”
The remaining eye blinked, and the exposed muscles started writhing as the remains of the thing tried to stand up. Slowly, it stood, so the only thing the camera had to focus on was a partially eaten calve sticking up out of a blood-spattered loafer. The audio kicked on, and the room was suddenly filled with the sounds of people screaming.
“Bill, we can hear screaming in the background! Can you tell us what’s going on around you?” There was a wet snap as the bones in the creature’s leg slipped from the muscle, and the creature slumped down on top of the camera. “Bill? Okay, folks, it looks like we’re going to be getting video here in a second. Let me just warn you that this is live, and might be too intense for younger viewers. If you have children, you might want to take them out of the r- Holy fucking shit!”
Apparently, she was finally seeing what the rest of us had been watching. The screen split in two, so that we could see the anchorwoman in the studio, as well as the raw bloody mess as the zombie pulled itself off of the camera and crawled out of the scene. The camera auto-focused on the background, at a school playground, where a zombie was eating the intestines out of a small body. The anchorwoman threw up on herself, and the technical difficulties screen came up.
Shortly thereafter, the broadcast turned to static.
“So what are we supposed to do?” Sharon asked. We were standing around in the living room, trying to figure out what to do next.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure if this place is safe, though. The entire back side is glass, pretty much. We could try to barricade ourselves in, but I don’t know how good of a job we’d be able to do. We might better off trying to cross over to Aunt Mary and Uncle Kevin’s. Their place is an old, sturdy ranch house, and I know for a fact that they have enough food in their cellar to last at least fifty people through the next year.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I waited for her to say more, to offer another solution, but she just looked at me.
“And?” I asked.
“And nothing—I don’t think that’s a good idea. We have no idea how many of those things are out there. It’s going to be dark soon. We don’t even know if Kevin and Mary made it home. What happens if we get there only to find that it’s locked and we’re stuck without any shelter at all?”
“So you want to stay here?”
“Not if it isn’t safe! I don’t want those things getting me!”
“Okay, Sharon, here’s the problem—you’re shooting down all my ideas without coming up with any of your own. We basically have two options—we leave or we go. Which do you want to do?”
“I just want to be safe.” She flopped down onto my mother’s couch. “I’m just…I’m not very good at this kind of thing.”
I stared at her, wondering if by “this kind of thing,” she meant “zombie attacks.” Because anything else, it just doesn’t go in the same comparison column, you know? Being unable to decide what’s for dinner, finding an angle to pitch the new advertising to your boss at work, applying for a home-equity loan—none of this shit stacks up next to “zombies trying to eat me.”
I considered asking her how often she found herself needing to be good at “this kind of thing,” but then decided that my energy would be better spent trying to find a way for us not to die.
“Okay, what we need to do right away is barricade ourselves in. Even if we aren’t gonna stay here, we need to make sure we’re relatively safe until we decide our next course of action. There’s some plywood in the garage, we can bring that in and cover the glass at the back. We’ll just have to use whatever else we can find for the windows.”
“I don’t want to do all this work if we’re just going to leave,” she said. Her voice had a whiny note to it that made me want to punch her in the throat.
“Sharon, I’m going to say this once. Only once. Life as we know it has changed. I just crushed in my mom’s head. Your husband is probably running around trying to eat people. Most of our family has been slaughtered or turned into zombies. If you want to part ways right now, that’s fine. But if you’re gonna stick around, you’re gonna knock off the spoiled, whiny, Orange-County-Wife bullshit right now and you’re gonna pull your fuckin’ weight. Do you understand me?”
“Just who the hell do you think you are?” She screamed, standing from the couch.
I grabbed the fireplace poker and pointed it at her. “I’m the guy that’ll bash your brains out your ears without a second thought. It’s important that you understand that. And keep your voice down—you’ll attract those things.”
She stared at me, tears spilling from her eyes. “You’d kill me?” I looked back at her, but didn’t say anything. “What happened to you, Kenny?”
“Life. Now are you with me, or is it time to split ways?”
“You gonna throw me out?”
“Nope. You want, you can stay here and I’ll leave. If you’d been listening to me a second ago, you’d know that I don’t think this place is particularly safe. Maybe this is the New York cynic in me talking, but I think we’re all gonna wind up food pretty soon, anyways.”
“You really believe that?”
“If these things really are zombies, and if they don’t find a way to cure it quick…yeah.”
“It must be terrible to live inside your mindspace.”
“Rent’s cheap and you get all the adult channels.”
She smiled then. And then she laughed. It was a quiet laugh, but it was a laugh, and that’s all we needed. Soon, I was laughing too, and then the fireplace poker was on the floor, and we had our arms around each other, laughing and crying in that way that’s so intermingled that it’s hard to tell which is which at any given moment.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Me, too. Me, too.”
“Believe it or not, I’m usually not like this. So useless, I mean.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes. “Sadly, I’m always this useless.”
“Do you always make jokes?” She wasn’t being malicious and she wasn’t irritated—just curious.
“Yeah, it’s kind of like my self-defense mode. When things get crazy, it’s either makes jokes or go crazy along with ‘em.” The explanation seemed repetitive, and I suddenly remembered telling Darlene basically the same thing just a little bit ago. It seemed like that was months ago.
“I don’t want to die.”
I stared at her, wondering what kind of response I was supposed to have for a statement like that. “I promise you I’ll do whatever I can to keep it from happening.”
More tears swelled from her eyes, and I thought she was about to start bawling again. Then the corner of her mouth turned up in a half-smile. “I think I like it better when you’re making jokes—when you get serious, you sound like a love-struck junior high kid.”
“You’ll know I’m love-struck when I start popping bra straps.”
Securing The Fort; Discussing Differences; Sharon Goes To Sleep
My mom had an attached garage, so we were able to haul in the plywood without having to risk going outside. She had been planning on renovating the basement during the long, cold months of winter, so she had more than enough wood to cover not only the glass doors on the back of the house, but also most of the ground floor windows. We reinforced everything with two-by-fours, and with the help of my mom’s rechargeable power tools, we were able to get the job done well before dark.
When we were done securing the place, we did a rough inventory, checking first the fuel supply—propane, gasoline, firewood—and then the food and ammunition. When I thought about it later, I found it slightly amusing that we had procured our creature comforts—warm water, artificial light, and music—before we had focused on what should have been necessities such as food and self-defense.
We had enough propane to keep the house warm for another two months or so, and enough firewood chopped to keep us going after that. The giant gasoline tank that Mom used to fill up her farm vehicles was still half-full, so we’d have fuel if we needed to drive somewhere or if we decided to run the generator.
The generator was loud, though, and I wasn’t ready to start running it until we knew more about what would bring the creatures. We decided to hold off using it until later.
“The house is heated with propane, so we’ll have hot water and hot food for a while,” I told Sharon, “But the electricity is run from the generator, so we’ll be left in the dark after sundown.”
“That might be for the best, considering that those…things…might flock to a lit up house like moths to light.”
“That’s a good point. Maybe tomorrow, we’ll make sure all the downstairs windows are completely light-proof. That way, we could seal off the upstairs and have light if we wanted. I’m not real fond of sitting around in the dark for twelve hours a day.”
She shook her head. “Is this life from now on? Is this how it’s going to be?”
“Part of me keeps thinking that they’ve got to have a way to fix this. Whoever ‘they’ are. I mean, sure they never found a cure for AIDS or cancer, or any of the other shit that kills us.” I sat staring at the dead fireplace. “Damn—I just talked myself out of believing that anyone can fix this. How long have they been working on a cure for cancer?”
“So your short answer would be, yes, this is how it’s going to be from now on?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t wrap my head around that answer. Maybe it’s because I’m spoiled into thinking life has to be more fair than that, or maybe I’m just optimistic enough to believe that humanity can overcome this. Or maybe the idea of struggling through the rest of life in a zombie-filled world is just too terrible to contemplate.”
“Yeah.” She shivered and hugged herself. I knew it wasn’t caused by the cold, but it reminded me that we needed to find some blankets before it got too dark. Once the sun sets, the mountains cool down pretty quick, so even if it’s warm enough to hang around a fire pit eating hotdogs during the day, the nights can still get down to freezing.
“We better round up whatever stuff we’re going to need tonight. Blankets, flashlights, guns, whatever.”
“What’s the plan for tonight?”
“I really don’t know. We should sleep in shifts, probably—isn’t that what they always do in movies?”
“I hate that we’re having to base our tactics off of films where 98% of the cast dies.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of a drag. But look at it like this: you know when you’re watching those movies, you’re always thinking, ‘I wouldn’t do anything that stupid,’ and there’s like a hundred times that you’re telling the main character not to do that? Well, maybe we’ll learn from their mistakes, and we’ll get through this with a much better survival rate.”
“So aside from sleeping in shifts, how are we doing this?”
“We can either sleep on the first floor or the second floor. The good thing about the first floor is that we’d immediately be alerted to them if they broke in, plus, we’d probably be able to make it out a little easier. The bad side is that they can get to us that much quicker, and if they surround the house, we’re screwed.”
“And the second floor?”
“They could maybe get in without us knowing until they’re right on top of us. There’s only one staircase to the second floor, and it’s enclosed, with a door at the top. So we’d be kind of safe, depending on how long it takes us to get out a window. Our escape routes would be limited. We could climb out just about any window onto the roof, but there’s only one or two ways to get down from the roof. We might end up trapped out there.”
“I think we should set up warning systems around—like cans on a string, or glasses piled up in front of the doors. We could do that around every potential entrance down here, so we’d know if anything got in. Then we could stay upstairs. The idea of trying to sleep on the same level as those things freaks me out.”
“Sounds like a plan. If we hurry, we’ll have just enough time.”
We got all of our primitive alarm systems put up and hauled up blankets, snacks, water, flashlights, and guns.
By the time we finished, the sun had settled behind the mountains, and we were left in the dark. I cracked a window and listened to the night. Aside from the wind blowing the trees, none of the normal sounds of nature were present. No crickets, no owls, no wolves howling. The silence was almost enough to drive me out of my mind, and the only thing worse was when it was broken by a gunshot or a scream.
“Are you tired?” Sharon asked.
“Not really. Worn out, but not sleepy. You?”
“I feel like I just drank three pots of coffee—there’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep.”
“I’m guessing you’re still juiced on adrenaline. Once it passes, you’ll probably zonk right out.”
“We’ll see. I hate to think about sleeping while those things are out there. I feel so vulnerable, you know? Like food left out for the bears.”
“Well, we’re locked up pretty tight, so I think we’ll be fine. Maybe it won’t be so scary once we know a little more about them.”
“The flesh-eating zombies? Is that what you’re talking about? The ones that rise from the dead? Those are the things that won’t be so scary?”
“Okay, when you say it like that, is just sounds like I’m an idiot.”
“I know, right? All I’m saying is, maybe we’ll find a weakness. You know that book War of the Worlds? Where they just got sick and died? Maybe it’s something like that. Or Wizard of Oz, where water will do the trick.”
“And here I thought you were a pessimist through and through.”
“Oh, I am. Tomorrow, the first thing I’m gonna do is get that old pack of cigarettes out of my car and start smoking again.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Smoking’s so gross.”
“Spoken like a true CaliforNazi.”
“Don’t call me that,” she laughed. “It’s a filthy habit. It makes you stink, it turns your fingers yellow, it ruins your voice, and it destroys your lungs. How does thinking that that’s gross make me a Nazi?”
“Thinking that it’s gross doesn’t. Forcing me to accept your thought for your own, that’s what makes you a true CaliforNazi. First you outlaw smoking, then it’ll be something like meat, and the next thing you know, you pussies will be trying to make it law that everyone has to work out and look beautiful. It’s only a matter of time before the entire state is made up entirely of blond-haired, blue-eyed, tan-skinned, muscle-toned genetic freaks. They’ll all have giant smiles and a handbag full of headshots. CaliforNazis.”
“Did you just make that word up?”
“All the cool kids use it.”
“When they’re out behind the school, smoking, eating meat, and being pasty?”
“With leather jackets made out of real cow.”
“What do you have against cows?”
“Too docile. Look at us, man—things trying to eat us, we aren’t just going to sit around and take it. We’re gonna fuck ‘em up!”
She shook her head and laughed, like when someone tells an off-color joke that you don’t want to laugh at, but you just can’t stop yourself. “You’re beyond help.”
I laughed, and realized that it was a quiet laugh. Already, I was adapting to life in a world of zombies. That thought made me stop laughing. She noticed my abrupt halt, which caused her own. She looked out the window.
“It’s weird how quick laughter can die in this version of the world, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess the days of laughing for fifteen minutes because someone farted in a business meeting are long gone.”
She smiled. “Mature.”
“Don’t act like that kind of thing doesn’t crack you up. I mean, I don’t want to watch a half-hour sitcom about it, but when somebody lets one slip in church or something? Shit’s funny, and you know it.”
She laughed again. It didn’t last long enough. “You know, you aren’t such a bad guy.”
“I have my moments.”
“I’m sorry about before.”
“Listen, we were stressed out, there was all kinds of stuff going on—it’s better if we just move on an forget about it, you know? I mean, we both said things we didn’t mean, right? I think that given the circumstances, we should call automatic do-overs and start fresh, right?”
“I mean before all that. Before the…zombies. Even before that, I was being a bitch. You weren’t around to hear it, but I was. I was judging you, being a snob about it, you know?”
“It’s cool, Sharon. I was doing the same. Like I said—water under the bridge.”
“I wish Trent was here. To see you, I mean. To get to know you again. I wish he could see you as the person you became, without the bullshit snobbery. I wish we could have all been friends again.”
“I think about you guys a lot,” I told her. It surprised me, because I was expecting myself to make some sort of smart-ass comment. “Sometimes, I’ll just be sitting there in my apartment, a bottle of wine mostly emptied, and I’ll miss you two. You have no idea how many times I’ve dialed your number into my cell phone and then stopped just before hitting the ‘send’ button.”
“What stopped you?”
I laughed. A quiet, bitter laugh. “That movie Breakfast Club.”
“Oh my gosh. Remember we used to watch that movie, like, all the time? That one summer, we watched it almost every day!”
“I remember. We used to say that we were all Brian—geeky kid without much of a personality, but still the funniest motherfucker in the movie.”
“But then we grew up, and we weren’t Brian anymore. You and Trent, you were Claire and Andy. And somewhere along the line, I became Bender. Despite what those movies would have you believe, Claire and Bender never could have gotten along after that day of detention.”
“Shit, man, you put a lot of thought into this movie analogy.”
“No, I didn’t—that’s the sad thing. People grow up, they grow into things, into personalities. And sometimes, no matter how close you were before, you grow into things that aren’t compatible. It just happens. You and Trent fading out of my life, it’s the same thing. We didn’t have compatible personalities anymore, that’s all.”
“Sounds so fatalistic.”
“Does it? I don’t know. Whatever it is, that’s what kept me from hitting the ‘send’ button.”
“Is there anything that isn’t depressing to talk about?”
“The Wayans brothers probably won’t be making any more movies.”
“Almost enough to make you wish that zombies had taken over ten years ago.”
“No shit.” We sat in silence for several moments. She scooted over by me at the window and curled up against me, wrapping herself snug in her blanket.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Me, too.” I put my arm around her, thankful for her warmth and for her companionship. “You know, it’s going to sound lame, but if you really need a positive side to look at through all of this mess, you can focus on the fact that at least you and I get to be friends again.”
“Yeah,” she whispered, her voice sleepy. “There’s that.”
I stared out the window, into the darkness, but it didn’t do any good. If there was anything out there, I couldn’t see it. The light of the moon caused the shadows to move and twist, and I quickly creeped myself out. I turned away from the window, careful not to wake Sharon. My legs were already going numb, and I knew that I’d have to change position soon, but for the time being, it was nice to just sit there with another person.
Waking Sharon; The Dream; The Waking; Making A Dashing Escape; Traffic Accident
I ended up having to wake her up around five the next morning. My eyelids were heavy, and I was afraid that deep sleep lurked behind each blink. I woke her as quietly as I could, hoping that she wouldn’t cry out.
She opened her eyes, and I saw the look of fear and confusion. It lasted just for a second, before she remembered where she was and what was going on. The look of confusion went away, but the fear just nestled in.
“Sorry to wake you, but I’m not going to be able to stay awake much longer. I don’t want to pass out and leave us unguarded.”
“What time is it?””
“How’d I get into bed?”
“I put you up there after you fell asleep—we might have to run, and I didn’t want your legs all cramped up.”
“Good thinking. Is that coffee I smell?”
“Yeah. I had to sneak down and make some around three.”
She sat up in the bed and looked around. “It scares the hell out of me that you were able to do all this stuff without even waking me. I figured that with everything going on, I’d wake if there was any sort of noise at all.”
“I’m like a ninja.”
“Yeah, that’s the first thing I think when I see your bony ass. How’d you even manage to lift me up?”
“Do you want to take this coffee, or do you want to sit around insulting me?”
“Let me get that coffee, and then I can think up some good insults.”
“You do that—I’m going to sleep.” I handed her the cup and crawled into the bed. “I had to pace to keep myself occupied. Stay out of the sewing room at the end of the hall—every freakin’ floorboard in there creaks, and they sound like gunshots in the quiet.”
“Will do. Anything else?”
“When it gets light, you’ll probably want to stay away from the windows. I mean, peak out if you want, but make sure that anything out there can’t see you. I’d like to get as much sleep as possible before having to get up and fight away the zombie hordes.”
“You keep talking about ‘em, you’re going to freak me out, and then you’ll have to stay awake and keep me company.”
I smiled. “You’ll do fine. Wake me up if you need anything.”
“All right. Thanks for the coffee.”
“No sweat. I left it on the counter if you want to make some more.”
“Thanks for watching out for me, too, Kenny.”
“Don’t mention it.” I put my head down on the pillow and felt sleep closing in immediately. “So long, sucker,” I said, and fell asleep.
In my dream, I was on a beach. I was running along right where the water met the sand, and it almost felt like I should be in some romantic movie. You know that kind, where the guy is rushing to meet the girl, and they run right into each other’s arms, and instead of smashing face-first into each other and ending the moment with broken noses and chipped teeth, like would happen in real life, the guy picks the girl up and spins her around while they kiss.
There wasn’t any girl, though. Just me, running along the empty beach. And then I realized that I was running from something. I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I knew that I couldn’t stop running and I couldn’t turn around.
I could hear drums from somewhere, and I figured they were coming from the jungle towards the middle of the island. I couldn’t see the jungle, though—just sand and ocean—and wasn’t sure how I knew it was an island.
The drums grew louder and faster, not keeping any kind of rhythm. Louder and faster, louder and faster, and I knew that whatever was chasing me, it was catching up to me as the pace of the drums increased.
I tried to run faster, but couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t pump any harder, and my feet wouldn’t touch the ground quick enough. I knew that it was about to catch me, and I spun to defend myself.
It was a giant duck—a bright yellow rubber ducky, like you see in bathtubs. It was chasing me, and as it followed, the sand turned to wood. I suddenly realized where the drum sounds were coming from—the duck was wearing oversized bowling shoes, and as they clomped down on the boardwalk, they made the awful banging sound.
Just before the giant rubber ducky could attack me, a woman screamed, and I woke up.
My eyes shot open and I tried to sit up. I had somehow managed to turn in my sleep, though, so instead of sitting up, I slammed my head into the wall beside the bed. I cursed and rolled across the bed, rubbing my forehead as I climbed onto my feet.
Then I remembered the scream, and rushed out to see if Sharon was okay. She was running up the stairs as I turned the corner.
“They’re here, Kenny! They’re almost inside!” She spun around and slammed the door to the top of the stairs. She flipped the lock on the little door, and I wondered how much that would do if all the planks we had nailed up yesterday had already forced her up here.
“What the hell happened?” I yelled at her.
“I don’t know! I was just sitting there at the table, drinking coffee. I heard something at the window, and I snuck over to look out, and one of those things was peeking through a little space between the boards we covered the windows with. Next thing I know, there’s noise from all over, like they’ve surrounded the house. I heard a bunch of glass breaking, and now they’re just down there beating on the wood. It’s already starting to give in a couple of places!”
“Okay, just calm down for a second, okay?” I held her by the shoulders. “You know those camping backpacks we packed last night? Go grab yours and put it on. Grab your shotgun and your bullets, too. And put your shoes on.”
I glanced down and realized that I didn’t have my shoes on, either. I hooked them up off the floor as I walked to the bedroom window, and pulled them on before stepping out onto the roof. The entire house was surrounded by a covered porch, so I couldn’t see anything directly by the house without climbing out and looking down. I sprawled flat on my belly and scooted out to the edge of the roof.
At first, I could only stare. They were shoulder to shoulder, sometimes two and three deep, and all them were banging against my mother’s house, tearing down chunks of wood and shards of glass. I recognized several of my family members, but there were also a lot people I didn’t know. All of them were in various states of death—some were so recent that they hadn’t even turned that weird blue-gray corpse color, while others had been rotting so long that their clothes were in tatters along with their ragged, decayed flesh.
I scooted away from the edge and ran to the other side of the house to investigate. I glanced down on the kitchen side of the house, and saw a similar situation. Only over here, they had already torn out a pretty good-sized hole in the wood, and it was only a matter of minutes before they were able to get inside. I ran back the bedroom and found Sharon waiting for me, decked out in her gear.
“How bad is it?”
“It’s bad,” I told her. “We’re surrounded. And it’s not just our family, either—apparently, some of the townspeople made their way out into the woods after dying. We have to get out of here.”
“I brought your stuff.” She pointed to the end of the bed, and I saw another shotgun and another packed backpack. “Thank God we decided to pack that stuff.”
I almost made a bitter joke about how I didn’t really feel like thanking God for much at the moment, but decided that, given the circumstances, I’d be better off with my mouth closed. I strapped on the oversized backpack and grabbed the shotgun. Then I felt in my pocket to make sure I still had the keys to my mom’s truck.
“Okay, here’s the plan: We lure ‘em to this side of the house, and then we’ll double back around to the other side, jump down onto that little shed, and then make a mad run to the barn. Once there, we get my mom’s truck and get the hell outta here.”
I climbed out the window, catching my oversized pack against the frame. It took me several seconds to get it off, out the window, and then back on. The size of the thing was necessary, especially if we were leaving my mom’s for good—the stuff in our packs was all that we had until we scavenged some more—but I knew that it was going to be a mad bitch running from zombies while weighted down with everything. Sharon handed her pack out to me and then climbed out onto the roof.
“So how do we lure them where we want ‘em?” She asked as we made our way around the house.
“I don’t know, really. I guess we’ll just, like, hang our heads over to get their attention, and scoot around from one side of the other on our bellies until we get them where we want them.”
“Does that seem like a terrible idea to you? I mean, I understand that it’s our only option at this point, but if you were watching us in a movie, would this be one of those times where you slapped your forehead?”
“Maybe, but like you said—it’s our only option at this point.” I leaned down over the edge, building up my courage. I looked around for a minute and then scooted back up on the roof.
“I think they’ve gone inside.”
“Is that good news or bad news?”
“Good news, if they stay in there and downstairs until we get out of here. Bad news if they make their way upstairs and out here onto the roof.”
“Do zombies do that? Climb out onto the roof?”
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t—it’s not like they’re afraid of heights or anything.”
“We need to get moving.”
I stood up and looked at the little shed in my mom’s yard. It had looked a lot closer when I was inside formulating this plan. It wasn’t much—just a little aluminum building she used to house her power tools and her riding lawnmower—and looking at it in the light, I wasn’t even sure it would hold our weight.
“We’re gonna have to go one at a time,” I said.
“As much as I hate the idea of being stranded alone for any amount of time, I think you’re probably right.”
“I’ll go first, so that I can try to get to the truck, okay? I’ll hit the top, jump down, and then haul ass over to the truck. You come right after me.” We had discussed our evacuation plan the night before, and had decided that even though she was in much better shape than me, the extra weight would probably slow her down more, which is why I was the one with the keys. If she did end up passing me, I was to hand her the keys as she went by.
She nodded her head. I took a deep breath and looked at the gap between the roof and the shed. The drop from the house roof to the shed roof wasn’t that bad—maybe five feet or so—but the distance looked much wider than it had when I didn’t have to jump it.
I nodded back at her, took a couple steps back, and then launched myself off the roof.
Instead of landing on top of the shed and prancing nimbly to a stop, I dropped like a rock. I hit the side of the shed with a thunder-like ruckus, and knocked the entire fucking thing over. The sound of an aluminum shed full of metal tools being knocked down onto a riding lawnmower is not a quiet thing. Adding to that, my shotgun flew from my hands and hit the packed earth, discharging and firing two rounds directly through the plywood we had erected over the windows the night before. My arms caught the edge of the shed roof, and as I fell, my shirt and underarms were torn by the rough metal. I hit the ground in a bloody daze, and the weight of the pack caused me to roll towards the house, where zombies were already exiting.
I stood up on shaky legs, and tried to run. I tripped and busted my ass. The zombies, even though they were lurking pretty slow, were already about to get me. “Run to the other side of the house!” I yelled up to Sharon. “I’ll bring the truck around!”
She gave me a thumbs-up, but I could tell by the look on her face that she was already thinking about how to get out of here once I got myself killed. I grabbed my shotgun with blood-slippery hands and took off towards the barn where the truck was parked. According to the plan, I should have stealthily landed and made my way to the truck before the bastards even knew I was gone. Instead, they were right on my ass.
I glanced back and saw that some of them weren’t doing that zombie-lurch thing that they were supposed to. Some of them were actually jogging behind me. I loaded two more shells into the shotgun as I ran, and turned to take out the joggers. The good thing about a shotgun is that if shit’s close enough, you don’t have to be much of a marksman. The bad part is, if things are too far away, the shotgun doesn’t do as much damage as you’d like. When you’re talking about zombies, you generally want them too far away to use a shotgun.
This wasn’t the case with me. I leveled the gun and blasted the closest one. His head exploded into a cloud of shit. I thought it would be a fine red mist or something, like you always see in movies. Nope. All kinds of clumpy, nasty-colored brain tissue. Bits of skin still clinging to pieces of skull. Clumps of matted hair whizzing off like a maniac’s Frisbee. I puked in my mouth, spitting it out as I ran.
I made it to the barn with about ten yards between me and the other jogging zombie. I waited until he was close enough, and then fired. I caught him in the neck, taking off most of his throat and a good portion of his chest. His head tried to escape, but there were a couple pieces of muscle keeping it attached, and instead of flying off into the distance, it bounced around like a balloon on a string. The zombie was still jogging, but without coordination. It stumbled off to the left and then crashed onto the ground, where the force caused the last bit of muscle to snap apart. I watched for a couple of seconds as the head rolled into the woods, leaving a trail of goo as it went.
I opened the barn door and ran to the truck. I was backing out when the wave of creatures started lumbering through the door in to the barn. I clicked on the four wheel drive and blasted out of the barn, trying to ignore the fact that I had just run down several of my family members, trying to ignore the squishy sounds and the feel of the bodies crunching under the vehicle.
What I saw as I drove up the driveway almost caused me to stop the truck and burst into tears. The entire roof was crawling with the monsters. They had crashed out through several of the second-story windows, and were roaming aimlessly around on the porch roof. Sharon was nowhere to be seen.
Then I heard a shrill whistle and looked up at a tree in the front lawn. She was high in the branches, clutching the trunk with one arm and waving wildly at me with the other. I continued to back up the driveway, towards the tree.
There was already a group of zombies gathering around the bottom of the tree, watching Sharon as hungry cats will watch a birdhouse. I slowed down, but not much. The back of the truck slammed into the tree, crushing several zombies, and bending the back bumper and the tailgate.
Sharon dropped down into the bed and rolled towards the cab. Even as I pulled away from the tree, she was un-slinging the gun from her pack and taking aim at the few zombies that were clutching the ruined tailgate. I tried to drive fast enough to escape, but slow enough so that I wouldn’t fling her out of the truck. I was quickly learning that life is almost the exact opposite of movies. Instead of clutching to the side of the bed and killing a pile of zombies while I hauled ass down the road, Sharon would probably be tossed from the truck where I would promptly run over her. So I took it kind of slow.
Once she had killed the zombies clutching to the truck, she knocked on the windows on the back of the cab. I opened the latch and slid the window open as I drove, careful to keep my eyes on the road. She slid the windows the rest of the way open and slid though into the back seat, leaving her pack in the bed of the truck. She tried to wrestle her pack inside for a minute, but quickly gave it up as a lost cause and closed the window.
She crawled into the front seat and slumped into the passenger seat. She expelled her breath hard enough to cause her bangs to flutter. “Nice freakin’ job, Graceful.”
“You’re in the truck, aren’t you? That was the plan.”
She laughed. “Sweet merciful fuck! I have never been so scared in my life!” I saw that she was shaking, and then I realized that I was, too.
Fucking with zombies is scary.
I slowed down and stopped the truck.
“What are you doing?” She asked, her voice high and tense.
“I have to stop for a second. If we see any of them, we’ll start going again, but I don’t want to crash us, you know? Look at me, man—I’m all shaky. Holy shit, that was terrifying.”
“It was,” she laughed. “It really was. I mean, I thought I was scared before, you know? But damn!”
She kept laughing while she was talking, and it seemed like I had seen on TV that when you start doing that kind of thing, it means you’re kind of hysterical. I needed to try to calm her down, but I was in no condition to calm down anyone.
Fake it ‘till you make it, though, right? I put the truck into gear and started driving. “It’s cool, man. We’re safe for the moment. We made it out, we’re good. Let’s just try to cool out a bit, yeah?”
She laughed again. It wasn’t quite as hysterical-sounding this time. “Don’t even try it, Kenny.”
“What? What are you talking about?’
“‘Ooh, I have to calm down the damsel in distress! Time to play it cool.’ If anyone’s going to stop us from going into hysterics, it’s me.”
“I didn’t realize it was a competition.”
“I’m a liberated woman—everything’s a competition.”
“So it’s okay for me to crawl into the floorboards and cry, then? Because, frankly, I’ll gladly give up the macho role.”
“Oh no you don’t.”
“I can’t win.”
“I wish I had some ice cream.”
I looked over at her to make sure that she wasn’t going into shock or something. She saw my concern and rolled her eyes.
“I like exercising, I really do. It feels good to be healthy. But there are some things you deny yourself because it’s not good for you, you know? I haven’t had ice cream in two years, man. Two years! And now here I am, probably going to get killed by monsters, and never going to get to have ice cream again. It sucks.”
I stared at her. “We’ll get you some ice cream, okay?”
“Yeah, why not? I mean, it’s not like a have a clue about what you’re supposed to do during the Apocalypse. Getting ice cream is as good a mission as any, I suppose.”
“So instead of looking for survivors, instead of trying to reestablish society and rid the world of zombies, that’s what we’re going to shoot for? Getting ice cream?”
“Well shit, it’s not like we’ll be able to do that other stuff, anyway. Besides, we can try to accomplish those things while we look for ice cream.”
“So where to first?” Sharon asked.
“I guess over to Aunt Mary and Uncle Kevin’s. That’s the closest place to us. Maybe some survivors made it there before…” I suddenly realized that the “survivors” I was referring to were my family members. People I had grown up with. People I had loved and who had loved me. The tears were so sudden that they were spilling from my eyes before I realized I was going to cry. I wiped them away quickly, angry and ashamed.
“It’s okay,” Sharon said, and touched my hand. I looked at her, willing her to understand the ridiculousness of her statement. “I don’t know how, but I have to believe that.”
I turned my attention back to the road just in time to plow into a group of people in the middle of it. My grip on the steering wheel was tested as the tires bounced over the bodies, and even over the combined screams of Sharon and I, I heard the bones cracking under the truck. I yelled—mostly curse words, but also just some inarticulate noises that a fifth-grade girl might emit when surprised by a spider—and slammed on the brakes.
“Were those people?” I asked Sharon. “Were those real people?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know! I mean, it was so fast, oh shit, what did you do?”
I stared down at the steering wheel, afraid to look into the mirror. Then my imagination kicked into gear, showing what would happen to us if those weren’t real people. If they were zombies, they wouldn’t be stopping to examine their lost comrades, they wouldn’t stop to make sure they were all okay. They would be coming for us.
My fear of being unsuspectingly attacked won out over my fear of being forced to realize that I had killed a person—or several people—and I glanced up into the mirror.
None of the group was moving.
It wasn’t a pile, exactly, but that would be the quickest way to convey the idea. Bodies, scattered, but also on top of each other. Twitching and splurting, but none of them climbing back to their feet to come terrorize me. Ripped and bloody and disgusting, but not zombies.
“None of them are moving,” I said.
And then one stood up. It was wobbly and leaking, but it was standing up. And then another. And another.
“Thank you, God,” I whispered. Sharon looked at me like I was crazy.
It’s a strange feeling, to be glad for zombies. Because if they catch you, they will rip you apart and eat you. But I just couldn’t handle the idea of killing the first—and only—survivors that Sharon and I had found since all this shit started.
More zombies were shambling out from the woods on both sides of the road. I threw the truck back into gear and took off.
Parking Job; Getting Ice Cream; Choosing Again
The house looked deserted.
I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, it might mean that there were people inside who were safe from zombies. On the other hand, it might mean that nobody made it safely to Aunt Mary and Uncle Kevin’s.
Another possibility—one that I hated to consider—was that the zombies were already inside.
It’s odd how many trivial decisions become deadly serious when the world has been populated by the walking dead. For example, you go to someone’s house, right? You pull up, turn off the car, get out, go in.
When you’re concerned about zombies eating your brains, you have to weigh your options more carefully. Do you pull up directly to the door? If zombies show up, the vehicle is right there, so you don’t have to do a lot of running. Of course, if they’re inside the house, they’re able to attack that much sooner. You open the door, step out, and they’re on top of you.
Do you leave the vehicle running, or do you turn it off? If you turn it off, there’s a chance that it won’t start at a crucial moment and you’ll end up as food. If you leave it running, the noise might attract them.
Do you walk in together, or leave someone to guard the vehicle?
I quickly realized that habit beats out thought any time. Even as I was considering the options, I pulled into the driveway and killed the ignition.
“Shit,” I muttered.
I explained to her my internal contemplation about our parking options.
“It’s probably better that you just made a choice, even if you didn’t mean to. If we start over-thinking everything, we’ll never be able to come up with a decision.”
“So do we go in together, or leave someone to stand guard?”
“I think we should go in together, do a quick sweep to check for survivors or monsters, and then someone can come outside and guard the truck.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I opened the door and stepped out. The creak of the door hinge seemed like it was blasted through a bullhorn, and I cringed. Sharon, out of habit, slammed her door as she stepped towards the house. Her cringe was even more heartfelt than mine, and she looked at me apologetically.
I shrugged—too late to worry about it now—and advanced towards the house beside her.
“So what’s the proper etiquette in a post-apocalyptic world?” I asked. “Do you knock, or is it socially acceptable to just sneak into someone’s house in order to not alert the zombies?”
“I think it might be okay to sneak, considering we’re family. Otherwise, I believe you’re supposed to formally announce yourself, as well as bring a nice dessert for the host.”
“Good to know.” I tried the door and found it locked. “And if the door’s locked?”
“Shit. Let’s try the back.”
I examined the windows as we walked. “None of the windows are boarded up. Probably rules out any survivors inside.”
“So it’s either empty or filled with zombies?”
“Probably.” I guessed that if any zombies had been inside, they would already be coming out for us, but I didn’t let myself believe it for fear that I’d let my guard down. Better to err on the side of caution, right?
The back door was locked, too, but we quickly found the key hidden under the fake rock in the flower bed. We entered as quietly and as quickly as possible, and kept silent as we crept from room to room, until we established the house was empty.
“Nobody here,” Sharon said. “Now what?”
“Seems to be the question, doesn’t it? Do we try to hole up here, or will it be just like at my mom’s, where we end up barely escaping? And if we leave, where do we go? We have a full tank of gas, but the mileage on the truck is for shit, so we’ll only be able to drive for four hours or so before we have to fill up again.”
“Can we even get gas, or does that require someone with know-how?”
“I don’t know jack shit about gas stations, honestly, but I’ve done my share of siphoning over the years, so as long as we can find an abandoned car, we’re okay. We ought to grab a piece of hose to add to our supplies, though, now that I’m thinking about it.”
“We should probably go, but that leaves the question as to where.”
“Yep. Here, come on.” I opened the door that led to the cellar and flicked the light on.
“What are we doing?”
“Getting you your ice cream.” I started down the wooden stairs. “Then, we either need to come up with a plan or go out and make sure that we aren’t being surrounded.”
The cellar was one of those weird hybrids of man-made and natural that seemed to be all the rage when the older generation of my family was home-building. The wooden stairs led down to a poured concrete floor, but all of the walls were dirt—like a big hole with cement poured into it and a house built on top of it. Various wires and pipes—as well as a series of naked light bulbs strung throughout for lighting—hung down from the floor overhead. Shelves lined the room, stocked with jars of vegetables, fruits, and preserves—all grown and canned by Kevin and Mary.
In the corner, I saw what I was looking for—what my family members always referred to as deep freezes. When you live in the mountains, you have to plan ahead in case you get snowed in during the winter months. So what you do is, you get all kinds of canned stuff, and you buy these big horizontal freezers for perishable items. Meat, cheese, butter, ice cream, stuff like that.
My mom never really saw the need for a deep freeze—the way she saw it, if she ran out of meat, she could eat fruits and vegetables until the roads thawed out. “Besides,” she once told me, “If I get hungry enough for it, I can always kill something out in the woods to eat.”
I opened the freezer closest to us and saw that it was filled with meat and cheese. I lowered the lid and opened the second deep freeze. This one was full of frozen dairy products. I pulled out a tub of ice cream and held it out to Sharon.
“You want chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry?”
She laughed. “At this point, I don’t think it even matters.” She took the ice cream from me, opened the top and scooped out a glob with her finger. She lifted it into her mouth and moaned. “Ohhhh, so good. Being healthy is way overrated.”
“That’s what I’ve always maintained,” I said, making my way towards the stairs. I opened the door just in time to see a zombie pass by the kitchen window. I pulled the door shut quickly, hoping that I didn’t draw its attention, and took a step down the stairs, bumping into Sharon. “There’s one outside.”
She had another glob of ice cream on her finger, and it stopped short of her mouth as I told her the news. “Just one?”
“At least one.”
The blob of ice cream slid from her finger and landed on the wooden steps with a wet thump. She looked down at the tub of ice cream. When she looked back up at me, there were tears in her eyes.
“I just want a few minutes of normalcy. Is that too much to ask? I just want to be able to pretend for a second, you know?”
“I know.” I felt awful, like it was my fault that there were zombies roaming the woods. “I’m sorry.”
“We both know it’s not your fault. It just doesn’t seem fair. I’m sure there are about three billion people on the planet saying the same thing, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Maybe it was just passing by.” I inched open the door and saw that the zombie had stopped at the kitchen window and was looking in. There were three others with it. “Fuck.”
“How many?” Sharon asked, tossing the tub of ice cream down to the cellar floor.
“Four that I can see. They’re at the window right by the back door. We haul ass, we can make it through the front door and into the truck before they’re on us.”
“How the hell can you do this? We just got caught by zombies, and you’re just taking it in stride. Why aren’t you having a mental breakdown?”
“I live in New York City, babe. Zombies taking over the earth only merit a seven on the weirdness scale after you’ve clubbed your way through the back-alley after-hours parties in the Big Apple.” I didn’t get the laugh I was hoping for, but she cracked a smile for just a second.
“All right,” I said, “So we’re going out this door, taking a left through the den, and out the front door. Don’t shoot unless you have to—if there are others around, I don’t want to alert them to the fact that we’re here. I left the keys in the ignition, so we’re good there. Am I missing anything?”
“We’ll find out, I guess.”
“Damn straight. On three?”
I looked at her for a second, glad that we had gotten to know each other a little bit again after all these years. Waiting for a three-count doesn’t seem like it would take much time, but I didn’t want to wait, either. Something about counting, building the suspense, it seemed like it would make you lose your mind before you could get to three. Even though the two of us had gone our separate ways, even though we had grown apart, we still had that base composition. At the core, we were still the same people who had been friends as children. Stupid what you think about when you’re about to face down a mob of walking corpses.
I knocked open the door and rushed out, glancing towards the window. As soon as they saw me, the zombies shoved their arms and heads through the glass. The one that had been pressed against the glass was all sorts of decayed, and that’s when it really sank in that this wasn’t something affecting only the recently deceased, or the bitten. The dead were rising up out of their graves.
The one in front, his fingers were down to nubs, either rotted away by time, or scraped away as it pulled itself out of the ground. It was dressed in the tatters of a suit, as well as a layer of mud and some sort of mold. The eyes were gone, and the holes in its skull were filled with worm-squirming dirt. No eyes—that surprised me. How did it see us? I filed the question away to think about later as I turned the corner and ran towards the front of the house.
I looked over my shoulder to make sure Sharon was following me. She stood at the cellar door, transfixed. The decayed zombie had been pressed against the shattered glass until the sharp edges sawed through whatever muscle was holding it together. Its legs were still outside, pumping against the bottom pane of the window, but the upper part of its body had tumbled into the kitchen. As I watched, it pulled itself towards us with the remains of its arms.
I grabbed Sharon and yanked her out of the kitchen.
I jerked the doorknob and almost popped my shoulder out of its socket, screaming a string of curses. I unlocked the door and tried again. This time, it opened.
They weren’t on the porch, so it could have been worse. They surrounded the truck, though, so it could have been much, much better. One of them had Sharon’s pack, was tearing through the fabric with its teeth. Another had broken through the driver-side window and was biting the steering wheel.
Sharon screamed and they all looked up.
I took aim with the shotgun, and was about to shoot when I saw the rest of them. At least twenty, but maybe more, all staggering up the driveway towards the house.
“We have to get out of here!” I yelled at Sharon.
“How? They’re eating our truck!”
“We have to run! Move!” I pulled her after me as I ran to the end of the porch and jumped down into the hedges. I scrambled out of the shrubbery, still pulling her, and ran into the woods.
“Where are we going?” She yelled.
“I don’t know, but we have to get some distance between us and them. They aren’t very fast, so once we get far enough ahead of them, we’ll be able to think things through.”
We’re both running, running like crazy. And I suddenly realize that it’s a beautiful day. The patches of sun are warming my face as I run through them, the air is cool and crisp and clean, and for a moment, I’m transported back to my childhood. We used to play hide and seek together, her and I, in these same woods. They’ve changed, and we’ve changed, but for just a moment, it doesn’t matter.
Then I see one of the things racing in from the left, and the moment is over, my childhood kicked from my mind by fear.
“Look out, look out!”
It’s him. It’d almost have to be, wouldn’t it? I mean, the old ones, they can barely manage to stumble towards us. Even the recently dead have a hard time keeping up with the running living. But him, he was in his prime. Worked out five hours a day, ran twenty miles, never ate red meat or polluted his lungs with cigarette smoke. His muscles, his lungs, even dead, they’re in pretty good shape.
“Trent?” I feel her lag as she asks the question. Instead of running alongside her, I’m suddenly pulling her.
“That’s not Trent, and you know it!” It’s incredibly difficult to speak in long sentences as I run full-tilt, especially at top volume.
“Oh, God, no! Trent!”
She’s slowing me down, and as she does, I see the Trent-zombie closing distance. Even dead, he’s in better shape than me.
“Sharon, it isn’t Trent! If we stop, he’s going to kill us just like any of the others would. Run! Please!”
I glance back and see tears dumping from her eyes. I also see Trent-zombie even closer than a second ago. I pull harder, try to pump my legs faster.
My legs are burning, and my heart feels like it’s taking up most of my abdomen, but I run faster, I pull harder.
And then I feel her let go.
“Trent!” She yells
“Sharon!” I yell.
For just a second, I manage to hold her hand even though she has released mine. But then, either because of the sweat or the blood, our too-slick hands slide apart, and she’s no longer with me.
Once again, she has chosen him.
He’s on her in a flash, and before I turn away, I see them both tumble to the ground, his mouth already tearing at her flesh. Her scream follows me into the woods.
Life, As It Is
I outran her scream and I outran the zombies, and I wandered around alone, just like before. Life with the zombies isn’t all that different as life before them, if you want to know the truth.
You have to stay on your guard, but if you were smart, that’s what you were doing before. There are all kinds of chances to get yourself killed, but there’s also all kinds of ways not to get yourself killed.
It didn’t take long for the living to band up and start kicking the shit out of the living dead. Small communities turned into larger communities, and once there were larger communities, there were armies. Once there were armies, the threat of zombies decreased exponentially.
The president finally came out of his cave, ready to rule this new world. The new president had him fed to the zombies. Some thought it was a little extreme, but not many.
I’m back in New York. It was a mess for a while, what with the majority of the population being zombies, but they eventually cleaned it out. It’s an island, so it’s pretty easy to protect. The zombies don’t have a problem with submerging themselves in water to come for you, but as it turns out, marine life loves decayed flesh.
Every once in a while, you’ll hear a story about a corpse meandering out of the East River, barely enough tissue to keep it together, but you heard those same kinds of stories before the zombies.
So things are different but the same. I still wake up some nights, wishing I had another chance with her, wishing that she had picked me instead. In some ways, though, it’s better than before, because I don’t have that bothersome aspect of hope to contend with.
If I ever see Sharon again, I won’t have to worry about what to say to her. I won’t have to try to impress her, and I won’t have to wonder if there’s a chance that things aren’t going so well with her and Trent. I won’t have to wonder if there’s a chance for us.
If I ever see Sharon again, I just have to wonder if she can get to me before I can get to my gun.