I used to wonder. I'd see things on the news, stories about gun control or gun safety, and I'd wonder. Accidental killings, shooting someone you love because you thought they were an intruder. How do you live with that? How can you ever hope to recover?
I didn't know it was him, how could I? The blood. There's so much of it, it seems like it got on everything. My husband, the man I've been in love with for twenty-four years. I killed him.
How do you live with that?
It's been all over the TV, you've seen it, no matter where you look, there it is, all this talk about "viral cell reanimation" and "unwarranted biological locomotion." Big words, big words and bullflop and it's enough to make you crazy.
Because what they're saying is "zombies." They're there, twenty-four hours a day, telling you to watch out for the symptoms, showing you footage that you never wanted to see.
David always told me to calm down and not to take it so serious. He figured it was just people acting goofy because of a fever or something. He figured the media was blowing it all out of proportion. "It's a phase, just like everything. They talked about earthquakes for a while, and there was an earthquake happening every damn place. Same with hurricanes. Remember when everyone had bird flu? Remember when everyone had swine flu? They had that period where everything was all about the ozone layer. The oil spills. The rain forests. They always have something to scare us with."
I tried to explain to him that the rain forest never tried to bust through our living room window and eat us, and he explained right back that neither had zombies.
And he was right. As much as everyone was talking about zombies, I hadn't ever seen one in real life. Barbara from next door said that Tom and Louise from down the street had smuggled their daughter out in the middle of the night because she had been infected, but I never heard anything for sure, and Louise had been talking about going up to take care of her mom, so I couldn't say for sure one way or another.
So far, most of it was in the big cities, according to the news. One station said it was spreading, one station said it was contained, it was like they didn't care about giving us the facts at all, as long as they got to argue.
David said that was par for the course, too. "That's how you know it's just another bullshit thing," he said. "If there was a real zombie apocalypse going on, don't you think these morons would pull their heads outta their asses and actually report on it? Do you honestly believe that if there was a crisis that size, people would still give a damn about politics?"
That settled my nerves. Just goes to show you how naive I was, and David, too. Of course there would still be politics. The larger a problem is, the more un-fixable it is, the more the politicians are going to argue. I learned that as the days passed. If they can't take credit for fixing it, they'll settle for blaming the other side for causing it.
David didn't hardly want to watch TV. He'd listen to the emergency broadcast station on his radio--the one that mostly told you to stay in your house and wait for the authorities to fix the problem--and he'd work on his model trains and he'd drink his beer. It was a vacation, he said, a government-sanctioned vacation.
There was talk about federal funding paying employees for the missed days, but nobody really believed it. People who didn't have vacation time, they still went to work, mostly. Kimber--Tom and Louise's daughter--had used it to convince her parents to let her stay home, but after a few days of sitting on the couch watching TV and playing with her fancy phone, Louise got sick of it and made her go back to working her job at the convenience store. It was usually just an after-school job, but all the schools were closed down. Like summer vacation come early, if you were a kid.
People who still needed to pay the rent, they went in to work. They didn't have any hope that the government would reimburse them for missed days of work.
David had a backlog of vacation time that he never got to take, so he figured this was a good excuse for it. They couldn't fire him, not with the government telling him to stay home.
So he'd work on his model trains, or read a book, or mow the lawn, or make love to me. I was amazed at what a different person he was when he didn't have to center his life around his job. He woke up late in the morning, happy. He took his time about things. He smiled more. It wasn't like a weekend, and it wasn't even like our annual vacation. It reminded me more of a child missing a day of school because of snow.
He couldn't make plans, because he might have to go back to work any day, but until then, he was free.
It was a good time, I suppose, but there was always that fear. He could ignore it, because he didn't really believe it. My David was always a little bull-headed, and when he set it into his mind that something was ridiculous, that's just how it was.
He didn't think there was any real zombie outbreak--these were just freak occurrences that were being reported because that's what people wanted to hear about. Tomorrow, it might be E. Coli in spinach, and then he'd be back at work, and the world would be back to normal, except nobody would eat spinach, because the government told them it wasn't safe.
He believed that, so he could relax and enjoy his vacation.
We weren't hurting for food: we had a giant deep-freeze down in the basement stocked with all kinds of food, and three shelves full of canned and dry goods. Costco shoppers, and we couldn't' pass up a bargain.
For the most part, I enjoyed it, too. But there were nights I woke up, nights that I heard things. Moans from outside, or screams that carried on the wind. Subtle, ever so quiet, but there. I never told David about them, because I knew he wouldn't believe me.
He wouldn't laugh, not exactly, but he'd kiss me on the cheek and explain to me what a big joke it all was, what a trick, and I'd feel stupid, and even worse, he'd feel like I was stupid.
And maybe I was. In the morning, with the sun shining in, and the weather outside beautiful, the idea of zombies seemed ridiculous. Moans? Screams on the wind? Silly. Overactive imagination.
Besides, if they were that close, someone would have seen them by now. Even before all this started, our neighborhood was pretty closely watched by its inhabitants. We were a pretty tight-knit community--even nosy, you might say. There couldn't be zombies in our neighborhood--we'd know about it.
That's what I told myself, and I listened to David as he disregarded the media, but deep down, I still feared.
Then the day came that he did, too.
He was outside, piddling around. It was a beautiful fall morning, and he just wanted to be out enjoying it. I watched him through the window for awhile, and his good mood was contagious. He walked around the fence, checked the flowers in the corner, sipped his coffee, smiled up at the sun. I smiled out at him as he appreciated life. We didn't have time to do that often. I was about to join him, but he opened the gate and walked out into the back alley. Probably a short walk around the neighborhood. He did that quite a bit these days, walked around gathering news from whoever had it.
One thing about the latest terror, it had brought our little community together. We all checked in with each other, kept each other updated. Of course, there wasn't really much news.
I watched him leave through the gate, and then I went back to washing the dishes from breakfast. I usually earned extra income by substitute teaching, but with all the schools called off, I was free to stay home with David.
I expected him to meander back in through the back door when he was through with his walk--that was his usual habit--but instead, he came in through the front, startling me.
I was on the couch, half reading, half napping when he entered the house. He didn't exactly burst in, but there was an energy to him. Groggy as I was, I noticed that he locked the door behind him. That's not something we had to do in our neighborhood. If we left the house, and at night. But during the day, when we were both home?
"What is it?" I asked. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing to get too excited about. Dan Hadley down the street was at WalMart earlier today, he saw one of them things."
"One of what things? A zombie?"
"Yeah, it was pretty tore up, wasn't anything like a virus or whatever. It was a dead man walking around trying to eat people."
"Oh my gosh! Did it...did he see it get anyone?"
"Couple fatties, yeah. On their little scooters, you know those scooters they got there, with the baskets on the front. Couple of ladies crashed into each other, got hung up on each other's baskets. They panicked, started reversing and forwarding, hoping to get untangled. I guess it didn't occur to them to just hop off the scooter thing. Zombie got the first one, and the other one fainted. Once he finished chewing on that first one, he moved on to the other."
"David! How can you just be so impersonal about it?"
He shook his head, and looked so sad. All that happiness I'd seen the past few weeks, it was gone, just like that. He was no schoolboy anymore. He looked older than his age, right then, determined, haunted.
We met when we were barely more than kids. He had just got back from fighting in the Gulf War, and although he was generally happy and playful, there were times when I saw him just like this. He sometimes looked like a man who knew too much, and it always broke my heart a little.
"I'm sorry, sweetie, but the time for being anything other than impersonal might be over. If I'm blunt, it's because you need to know. This situation just moved a helluva lot closer."
"But that's still out in Junction County."
Our little town wasn't quite big enough to boast a WalMart--for that, you had to drive thity miles to the town of Junction County. It was the closest "big town" to us, and it was where most of us went to do our regular shopping.
"Junction County isn't so far. And neither is this...thing. We need to get ready for whatever's headed this way, you understand?"
"You're scaring me, David."
He looked at me, then, and that's when I noticed that up until this point, he hadn't been. He had been looking at windows, at doors, and the stairs that led to our second-floor bedroom. He looked at me, and his eyes were so deep and clear, it's like they could have swallowed me.
"I love you, Brenda. I love you with all my heart. I hate to scare you, but you have to believe me--it's for a good reason. I was wrong. Wrong about everything. These things, they aren't some media hype. They aren't gonna pass. This is real. And, baby, you need to be scared."
I didn't want to cry, I told myself I would be strong, that I would take this all in stride. Even as I told myself, though, I felt the tears leaking out of my eyes.
"But why?" I asked. "How do you know this? Maybe he was confused, maybe he's lying."
"Dan had one of those fancy phones. He whipped it out at the first sign of trouble, and video recorded the entire thing. He showed us just now."
"But some guy attacking people in WalMart, that doesn't mean there's zombies."
As much as I had worried, I now found myself defending reality. There couldn't be zombies, no matter what the news had said. It had to be like David said before, just some random people with some sort of an illness. Hype. Sensationalism.
It had to be.
David sighed, and he sat down on the couch beside me and he took my hand. "Sweetie, it wasn't some guy. It was some dead guy. And it wasn't just some dead guy that convinced me. It was the fact that he killed those two fat ladies. I won't get into details, but he killed them messy. I've seen enough to know that they were dead.
"What convinced me to come home and lock the door was the part where the dead fat ladies got up and started looking for snacks of their own."
I cried then, I don't mind saying. When your husband tells you it's time to start worrying about the dead trying to eat you, I figure it's okay to go on a crying jag.
He pulled me close, and he petted my hair and he told me ssh ssh ssh, it's gonna be all right. I didn't believe him, as much as I wanted to. He continued to hold me, he continued to promise me, and when I looked into his eyes, I did finally believe him.
"We've been through shitstorms before," he said, and kissed me on the forehead. "And we've always recovered."
I went numb after that, a little. Like I was on autopilot. We packed emergency kits: suitcases and things in case we had to leave in a hurry. I cooked supper, even though neither one of us were very hungry. We took our showers and made love and went to bed.
"We'll start getting you ready tomorrow," David said. "We'll get the guns out, I'll show you how to use them. Maybe go to the general store and stock up on canned goods and other stuff that won't go bad."
The general store was packed, even though we were there right after it opened, and just about everyone who had heard about Dan's experience had the same plan as us. Greg Martin, the owner of the store, had hung up a sign saying that anyone who got rowdy would be thrown out, and there was a ten-item limit on all purchases. My heart sank a little that we would only be allowed to buy a fraction of what we wanted, but on the other hand, I admired Greg for trying to be fair in a crisis. I was also impressed with my neighbors--no one was jostling or being rude or fighting or arguing. There wasn't much conversation, either. Just friendly smiles and an occasional nod as they gathered their items, paid, and left.
"This isn't going to be enough," David said as we drove home. "I'm gonna have to head over to Bethsala."
"David, you can't!"
"I have to, babe. We've burned through a lot of our stuff in the past couple weeks, and it doesn't seem like there's gonna be much chance to restock after this. There haven't been reports about anything in Bethsala, and if this...whatever it is, if it's moving west, it should be safe. It's only an hour drive. I can leave right after lunch, I'll be home by supper."
"But what if that's not the way this thing works? I mean, they've had reports from California and New York both. Obviously it's not just heading west."
"I'm guessing someone took a trip or something. Babe, I don't know. But I know we're gonna have to baton down the hatches here shortly, and we won't make it through the winter with what we have now."
I fought with him about it all the way home, and as we unloaded the car, and as he loaded his rifle and as he locked it into the gun rack in his truck. I tried to talk him out of it as we ate our sandwiches, and by the end of lunch, I had nothing left but pleas and tears.
I followed him out to the truck, and he took my face in his hands and he kissed me on the lips, even though they were probably covered with salty tears and salt.
"I love you, Brenda. I'll be back, don't you worry."
"I love you, too. Please don't go."
"Have to. I'll be back."
He called from a payphone outside Costco and told me that the place was crazy, and he wasn't going to be back nearly as early as he thought.
Night fell, and my fear rose. Why hadn't I made him borrow Dan's cell phone before leaving? Why hadn't I gone with him? Was he okay? Surely he would have called by now, even if it meant stopping at a gas station on the way back.
I tried to read, but couldn't focus on the words. I didn't dare turn on the TV--I knew it would only show me the things I feared had happened to my husband. By eight, the solitude became overwhelming, and I decided to go across the street and see if maybe Barbara wouldn't mind having some coffee and conversation with me.
I made it about halfway over when I noticed that only her bedroom light was on, which meant she was probably already getting ready for bed, probably curling up with a book for the night. I knew I should just toughen up and head back home, but when I looked back at my own house, dark and empty, I couldn't make myself do it.
I continued across the street and knocked on the door. I knocked hard, hoping the sound would carry upstairs to Barbara. What I didn't count on was the door being unlatched. It swung in as I rapped on it, banging against the little spring on the baseboard that kept it from scratching up the paint on the wall.
The hairs on the back of my neck sprang up, and my heart started beating hard. "Barb?" I called out.
There was a noise from the back of the house, a scratching sound, and a slight groan. I suddenly imagined Barbara hurt and alone in the dark. She wasn't old, exactly, but she was getting up there, and took unnecessary risks when she worked around the house. Once I came in to find her standing on a chair changing a light bulb, the chair precariously balanced on her kitchen table. I had warned her a hundred times that she shouldn't do things like that, but she always just laughed me off and told me when it was her time to go, it was her time to go.
I rushed through the house, and into the kitchen, clicking on the light as I went. I stopped and looked around, but saw nothing. Then I heard the noise again. That scratching sound, accompanied by a soft groan, almost like the wind blowing through trees. It was coming from the back door.
The white, wooden door was open, revealing the metal storm door. Most nice days, people around here leave the main door open, latching only the storm door (that's what David always calls it--I still refer to it as a screen door, even though they're no longer made of screen mesh like we had when I grew up). They lift up the little glass partition to let in fresh air from outside, but the screen still keeps out the bugs.
I couldn't see outside because of the kitchen light reflecting off the glass, so I crossed the room and cupped my hands on the glass so I could look out.
The thing lurched against the door, cracking the glass, and I screamed. I stumbled back across the kitchen and slammed into the table hard enough to cause a placemat to fall. The thing slammed against the door again, and the glass cracked a little more. I wasn't thinking straight, so when I turned off the kitchen light, it was pure instinct. I could see the creature silhouetted in the darkness, but just barely.
I stood perfectly still, and it did, too. Then, it wandered away from the door. I couldn't stand not knowing what it was doing, so I rushed over and turned on the outside porch light.
The creature glanced up at the light for a moment, but then turned around and walked to the corner of the yard. The entire yard was surrounded by an eight-foot privacy fence, and in the corner was the gate that led out to the alleyway.
The creature didn't understand how to open the gate, so it just walked back and forth in the general area, scraping the wood with its hands and making that groan sound.
The hands. I suddenly realized that the thing was wearing Barb's gardening gloves. Then I realized that the thing was wearing Barb's entire gardening outfit--her baggy pink shirt and the pale blue coveralls that she wore any time she spent the day outside.
Then I realized the thing was Barb. I noticed the corpse in the back yard, and everything fell into place.
She had been gardening, and had probably heard something at the gate. When she opened it, the zombie must have been on her immediately, tearing at her face, her neck, and her shoulders. She must have been holding her gardening trowel, and she planted it deep into the zombie's head, killing it. I don't know if she died and then came back, or if she had simply changed into a zombie (the news said that a bite alone could do it, but people who died also came back).
Since then, she had been trapped in her back yard, dead but walking, unable to perform tasks as simple as the latch on a gate.
"Oh Barb," I whispered. I knew I needed to alert the rest of the neighborhood, but how many of them had been infected? I had no way of knowing. I might try to warn others only to find this same scene. Or perhaps I wouldn't be so lucky next time--instead of being in the back yard, perhaps the zombies would be waiting at the front door.
I took the stairs slow, listening for any foreign noises, but all I heard was my own footsteps, and the quiet moan from the back yard. Maybe I didn't even hear the moans--that could have been my imagination.
I pulled the revolver from her nightstand table--she'd told me countless times about how she kept it there because ever since her Harry died, she didn't feel safe at night, even if this was a nice neighborhood.
I checked to make sure it was loaded, and then I went back to the kitchen.
I clicked on the light, and the Barbara zombie turned around immediately and began making its way towards the screen door. I waited until she was right up against it, and I turned out the light.
I crossed the kitchen quickly, and put the barrel of the gun right against the glass. Her head was mere inches away. I pulled the trigger before she lost interest and went back to the gate.
The glass shattered, which startled me, even though I should have been expecting it, and I flinched back. I quickly regained my composure, hoping that my carelessness wouldn't get me killed. I was a bit blind from the flash of the gun, but I could see enough to know there wasn't a zombie about to fall onto me.
I crept to the door and looked out. She was sprawled out on her little concrete patio, unmoving. Most of her head was gone, and for some reason, that looked more like my best friend than the zombie had.
I sat down on the floor and cried. Barbara had lived across the street ever since David and I bought our house. She had been the first to bring over a welcome-to-the-neighborhood basket. She had come to our birthday parties, and we had come to her Christmas parties. We had shared in each other's lives, and we had been friends, and now she was gone. Some crazy monster had torn her apart and then I had blown her head off.
I cried and I cried and I cried, right up until I heard a noise from the living room.
I suddenly realized that I hadn't bothered to latch the door. At the time, I was more concerned about Barbara being injured than I was about something coming in to get me. At the time, zombies had still been a far-away fear.
I grabbed the pistol from the floor and made my way silently to the kitchen door.
I looked upon my second zombie silhouette of the night, but this one was much easier to see, due to the street light outside.
I remembered the news saying that you had to shoot them in the head. I aimed, and breathed just like David had always told me. And then I squeezed the trigger--don't pull it, that causes barrel-lift, you have to squeeze--I could hear his voice in my head.
I fired, and I heard my husband cry out.
The noise was brief--probably half a second--but that was all I needed to identify his voice. I clicked on the kitchen light and rushed into the front room.
I didn't know it was him, how could I? The blood. So much of it, like it got on everything.
He was on the ground, clutching his neck. I had missed his head, thank the lord. I couldn't remember what side of the neck that main artery was on.
"Oh David, I'm so sorry! I thought you were a zombie! Barb turned into a zombie, I had no idea it was already here, and I was so scared, and-"
"Babe, we need to get something to try to stop the bleeding." His voice was quiet, too quiet, but still strong.
"Okay, I'll get some towels, hang on."
"Don't talk, sweetie, don't talk. Just be still, we'll get you fixed up."
"Brenda!" More forceful this time. I stopped talking and looked at him. "I love you," he said.
"I know, sweetie. I love you, too."
"Remember that, if something happens, remember that I loved you 'till the end."
"I will." I could feel tears dripping off my face, I hadn't even realized I was crying again.
"Also remember that you have to aim for the head. No matter how bad you don't want to. Aim for the head."
"Oh hush, don't talk that way. I'm going for towels."
He smiled and winked at me, and I couldn't help smiling back.
It was all going to be okay, this was a major goof up, but we'd get through it. We'd been through S-storms before. And we've always recovered.
I gathered up a handful of towels and turned back to the living room, and there he was. He was no longer bleeding, and I sighed with relief.
"David, you shouldn't be up walking around. Just go relax, I'll bring them in."
As he stepped into the kitchen, I saw that his eyes were no longer the deep, sweet blue that I loved so much. They were pale, milky. Dead.
I almost fainted, but I heard his voice, telling me he'd love me forever, telling me to aim for the head.
I pointed the gun, only to realize I didn't have it in my hand. Instead, I had a fist full of towels. The pistol was out on the front room floor.
"No! Dear lord, no!"
Seconds. That's all it had taken to realize this was no longer my husband; to point a hand full of towels at him; to realize I had no gun. Mere seconds.
But those seconds had cost me. I could have used them to run out the back door, or possibly dodge around him in the front room and escape out the front door. But now I was cornered, nowhere to go.
I glanced behind me for a weapon, and saw an entire dish rack full of them. Barbara never trusted automatic dishwashers, so she had meticulously washed each and every dish she used, and then let them air dry.
I picked up a skillet and smashed it against my husband's head. He fell.
When you hit a living human being, you expect certain reactions, if you smash a cast iron skillet into someone's head hard enough to knock them down, you expect them to be dazed. He was down, but he was not dazed. he was relentless, reaching for me, with arms and teeth.
I stepped backwards and tripped over a drawer that hadn't been closed all the way.
Stupid. One of those things that I did a million times in my own kitchen--grab a pan or some aluminum foil, and you kick the drawer closed, but don't really pay attention to the fact that it's still a quarter of the way open. Doesn't matter, because you'll kick it the rest of the way closed next time you walk by.
Only Barb never got the chance to walk back by.
He was on me then. Faster than I expected, and just so hungry. The dish rack came down with me when I fell, raining silver and glass and ceramic all over us. A knife bounced on the linoleum tile, and I grabbed it, plunged it into my husbands head.
He stopped moving right away.
So that's that. I killed my husband. Twice. How does somebody live with that, how do you recover? I don't know, I really don't.
And the worst part is, that's secondary on my list of things to worry about.
Because as I sit here, surrounded by blood and corpses and silverware, I realize something. I'm covered in scratches. Scrapes. Cuts.
I don't know how any of this works, I don't know if it's contagious through blood or saliva or air or what. Honestly, I don't even know if these injuries are all from the falling cutlery, or if maybe I got bit during the skirmish.
All I can do is wait, and wonder about recovery. Any minute now, I'll get up. I'll start walking. I'll either do it as a living, hurting person, or I'll do it as a zombie.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure which I prefer.