I AWOKE TO find a lone zombie underneath my little hideaway. The tree house I had spent the night in was poorly constructed—the bottom was just a square of plywood, reinforced with a couple boards, with plywood walls on three sides and the fourth one open. It had no roof, but the sky was clear, so no bother. All the pieces were irregular and unpainted, with big gaps between them in many spots, and the walls were only between two and three feet high. But it was higher up than most, a good twelve feet off the ground (the kid’s mom must’ve been one of the ones we always called a “cool mom,” to allow such a dangerous playhouse), so I was even more surprised to see my unwanted visitor.
I scanned the surrounding field and trees and saw that the zombie and I were alone; my heart slowed down. In a few moments, my situation had gone from peaceful morning reverie, to possible or near-certain death, to minor inconvenience. In that respect, this was a typical morning.
Tree houses, and any other little platform above the ground, were my favorite places to catch a couple hours of sleep at night as I made my way across the country. Going inside a building required a careful search, and later on, as you tried to sleep, you’d start to worry that maybe you had missed some hiding place, from which the real Boogie Man, who doesn’t need sleep, would rise up during the night. And building the necessary barricades on the doors and windows often made so much noise you could end up with a growing crowd of the undead, whose moaning and clawing at the doors would probably keep you up, on top of the danger they would pose when you tried to leave your shelter in the morning. Unless you were in a group, a building was not a good choice for your little motel in hell.
Little platforms above ground, on the other hand, were ideal. Not comfortable, but ideal. You usually had to lash yourself to them so you wouldn’t fall off in the night, and you almost always had to sleep sitting up, but that was nothing for a few blessed hours of relative peace of mind. The undead are by nature incurious and almost never look up, so the chances of being spotted once you were in your little eyrie were low. For exactly the same reason that hunters once used them, back when humans were the hunters rather than the hunted, your scent wouldn’t usually carry down to the creatures below, either. The tree houses always made me a little sad, ’cause they reminded me of my kids, but what could you do? All in all, my little sky boxes were the best places I had found to spend the night, so long as the living dead were afoot. But best, of course, had never been the same as perfect, and that was infinitely more true now.
One reason the zombie and I were alone this morning was that it lacked the ability to make sound. Like so many of its kind, its throat was torn open, leaving its windpipe a ragged hole, and the front of its suit stained brown with blood.
It looked up at me with its listless, cloudy eyes that lacked all expression—not hatred, not evil, not even hunger, just blanks. It was chilling in its own way, like the stare of a snake or an insect. Its look would never change, whether you drove a spike through its head, or it sank its yellow teeth into your soft, warm flesh; it lacked all capacity to be afraid, or to be satisfied. Its mouth, however, had a great deal more bestial expression to it, for it was wide open, almost gnawing at the bark of the tree as it clawed upward.
I stood looking down at it for a few moments. It was times like this—and there had been several in the last few months—that I had always wished that I smoked. In a few seconds, I would fight this thing and one or both of us would cease to exist—“die” is obviously the wrong word here—and just to stand here and contemplate that inevitability cried out for some distraction, some mindless and sensual habit like smoking, to make it less horrible. I guess I could’ve chewed gum, but that would make the whole scene ridiculous, when it was really as serious, overwhelming, and sad as any that had ever occurred to a man.
With nothing to distract me, I just felt the full weight of a terrible and necessary task, and the tediousness and unfairness of it. I had just awakened from a relatively peaceful sleep, and I already felt a crushing weariness coming over me. Again, it was developing into a pretty typical morning.
People had come up with lots of names for the walking dead in the preceding months. While we weren’t fighting them off or running like hell, we usually came up with humorous labels. “Meat puppets” was a popular one. Somebody came up with “Jacks and Janes,” like they were just some annoying neighbors from the next circle of hell, or as a variation on “Jack-offs.”
Sometimes, when they’d get especially noisy and rambunctious, but didn’t pose any immediate threat, we’d call them “the natives,” as in “the natives are restless.” Maybe that was a little racist, I don’t know. “Walking stiffs” was pretty accurate. But mostly we’d go for the tried and true—zombies. That’s what they were, and we’d always be one breath away from becoming one—a mindless, shambling bag of flesh.
My zombie this morning looked to have been a middle-aged man in its human life, slightly graying, average build. Its suit was intact, and other than its throat wound, there were no signs of further fights with humans or other zombies. Decay had taken its toll, and it looked more desiccated than gooey, a brittle husk rather than the dripping bag of pus that some of them became.
At first, I looked it over to size up its threat and plan my attack, but that quickly turned into contemplating its human existence. Maybe his kids had built the tree house, and that’s why he’d been hanging around here, almost as if he were protecting it, or waiting for them to come back. Or even worse, maybe his kids had been the ones to tear out his throat, when he had rushed home in the midst of the outbreak, hoping against hope they were still okay. Or, just as bad, maybe he’d been bitten at work or on the way home, only to break in to his own house and kill his kids.
My mind reeled, and I clutched the wall of the tree house. I’d heard of soldiers in other wars having a “thousand yard stare,” a blank look that signaled they were giving in to the hopelessness and horror around them, soon to be dead or insane. As for me, I was suffering the thousand yard stare of the war with the undead: once you contemplated the zombies as human beings, once you thought of them as having kids and lives and loves and worries and hopes and fears, you might as well just put your gun in your mouth and be done with it right then, because you were losing it—fast. But, God knows, if you never looked at them that way, if they were just meat puppets whose heads exploded in your rifle’s sights, then hopefully somebody would put a bullet in your brain, because you had become more monstrous than any zombie ever could be.
I shook myself free of my paralysis. I’m not exactly sure why, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I tossed my backpack beyond where the zombie stood. It turned to see where it landed, then immediately looked back up at me. Its head lolled from side to side, and I was again glad that it couldn’t vocalize, as it was clearly getting worked up and would’ve been making quite a racket if it could.
You never used a gun if you didn’t have to, for its noise brought lots of unwanted attention, so I pulled out a knife, the one I carried with a long, thin blade, like a bayonet, as that would work best. I stood at the edge of the plywood platform. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking right in the zombie’s eyes. “Maybe somewhere, deep down, you still understand: I’m sorry.”
I took a step forward and started to fall. I tried to hit it on the shoulder with my right foot, but its arms were flailing about, and my boot hit its left wrist, sliding along its arm. I sprawled to the right and then rolled away as the zombie was shoved into the tree.
As it turned to face me, I scrambled up, took a step forward, and drove the knife into its left eye. Its hands flailed about, either to attack me or to ward off the blow. The blade was long and thin enough that it went almost to the back of its skull. The whole attack was noiseless, without so much as the sound of a squish or a glitch as the blade slid through its eyeball and brain.
As I drew the blade out, I grabbed the zombie by the hair and shoved it downward to the side, where it fell to the ground and lay motionless.
And that was that. Like everyone, I always used to imagine deadly fights would be much more dramatic. But in my experience, there were seldom any Chuck Norris flying, spinning kicks, or any Matrix-style running up the wall while firing two guns on full auto. If anyone’s ever around to make movies about the wars against the undead, maybe there will be such moves in them, I don’t know. But usually, like this morning, there were just a couple of savage, clumsy blows, and it was over.
I was barely breathing at all, let alone breathing hard, the way I felt someone should when they kill something that was somehow, in some small way, still human. A few months ago, I would’ve at least felt nauseous, but not anymore. Looking down at the creature from the tree house had been much more traumatic than delivering the killing blow.
I bent down over my would-be killer and cleaned the blade on his suit jacket. I then reached into his pocket. It was a little ritual I still followed when I could, though the horrible exigencies of a zombie-infested world usually made it impossible. I pulled out his wallet and got out his driver’s license. Rather than look at the bloody horror at my feet, with its one undead eye and one bloody, vacant socket, I stared at his driver’s license picture—smiling, happy, alive, years and decades of life ahead of him. I cleared my throat to speak clearly. “I have killed Daniel Gerard. I hope he’s somewhere better now.”
I cast the wallet and license on top of his motionless body, scooped up my backpack, and hurried away.
It had been close to a year since all the worst parts of the Bible started coming true. Armageddon. Apocalypse. The End of Days. God’s righteous judgment on a sinful humanity. Whatever the self-righteous jerk who railed at you once a week from a pulpit used to call it. Well, he might have been self-righteous and a jerk, and now he was probably lurching around like most everyone else, drooling on himself with half his face torn off, but it sure seemed as though he had had some inside information that we all wish we’d gotten a little sooner.
For most people, I assume it started like every other day. Brush your teeth. Kiss your spouse without any feeling. Go to work. Grab whatever it is you grab to eat on your way to work. Eat it, not really noticing or enjoying it. But then at some point that blessed, kind, comforting routine goes horribly awry and someone—maybe your neighbor, or coworker, or worse, your kids or your spouse—staggers up to you with a blank look and tries to tear your throat out with his teeth. If he gets you, then you don’t have to worry anymore, because you’ll be dead, and then you’ll get up and wander around like him, with no more thoughts or feelings, just shuffling around trying to bite people. If you get away from him, then you’d be one of the survivors, at least for a little while, and then you’d have lots of worries, and your only feeling would be fear. Either way—welcome to hell.
Theological assessments aside, the automatic assumption was that the dead were rising and killing because of some infection, and the infection was spread by their bites. The next logical assumption—since there was not much reliable evidence of zombie infestations before the 21st century (horror movies notwithstanding)—was that we had tinkered with viruses and DNA and had brought all this shit on ourselves.
Here again, a theological assessment was hard to avoid. We had created a hell on earth through our own arrogance and ignorance, and now we were reaping what we had sown—with a vengeance. Worse than any couple who ate an apple or any bozo who slapped some brick and mortar on the Tower of Babel, we’d messed with The Man’s prerogatives, and either He’d given us the biggest damn smack down of all time, or we’d just set off something that only He could control. Shit, you didn’t need to believe in the Bible to see how much sense it made. You remember that crazy Greek myth you read about in fifth grade—Pandora’s box. Same damn thing. A box full of walking cannibal corpses who wouldn’t let you close it once it got open.
Now, how that box got opened, that was a hot topic of debate among survivors, when we weren’t fighting to prolong our miserable existence and could afford the luxury of conversation or discussion. Outright warfare or a terrorist attack was probably the least popular theory, though it had vigorous proponents. I don’t know why more of us didn’t subscribe to that hypothesis. I suppose it’s funny to say, but I think we didn’t because it was the least comforting of all our speculations. It was too horrible to imagine that even terrorists could unleash the hellish plague of undeath on the whole world, even their own people, including women, children, and the elderly. And at the same time, the theory made it too pat and simple, like it was just some crazies who did this, some tiny band of malcontents—horror of this magnitude seemed to require a more powerful, far-reaching source.
That’s probably why more people bought into the paranoid, conspiratorial theory that the disease had been released by our government or someone else’s as a horribly botched attempt to test it on a real population. Proponents of this theory almost delighted in its vindication of every real and imagined form of government-sponsored terror, from Andersonville to Tuskegee to Gitmo to putting fluoride in the tap water. Their tales could almost be the bedtime stories of the apocalypse, lulling us to sleep with some tiny and bizarre shred of hope that even now, the world made some weird kind of sense, that undeath was not a new and incomprehensible kind of evil, but just a continuation of this world’s madness and brutality, like Jackie scrambling on the trunk of the Lincoln to grab the big chunk of her husband’s head that was sliding around back there, or like bulldozers pushing mountains of emaciated bodies into pits in Dachau. Strange comfort, that, but it was often all we had.
But the most popular theory—the one I personally advocated, though without much conviction—was simply that there had been a horrible accident. Nothing malevolent or calculated, just plain old human error. Somebody dropped a test tube somewhere. A lab monkey bit through somebody’s glove. The kind of thing that happens a thousand times a day for thousands of days with no fatal outcome. It was the most blackly humorous theory, I suppose, for it made the misery and violent deaths of billions of people just the result of a stupid mistake, but it had its own cold comfort. If all this was just some blunder, then maybe, if we could ever shoot every zombie in the head—the only way we had found to kill them permanently—or if they would just eventually rot and fall apart—what everyone had hoped for initially—then we could go back to life like it used to be. We weren’t evil, just stupid and clumsy. Like poor Pandora.
That’s how some of us theorized that it had begun. But whatever had happened—and I’ve left out the more exotic theories, like an extra-terrestrial source of infection—we ended up in the same place. Almost one year after the first corpse rose, the world was ruled by the undead, who wandered about with no discernible goal other than to kill and eat living people. The undead were everywhere, the new dominant species that took the place of the old, extinct one. Places where there had been large human populations were especially thick with the walking dead, though they never took any notice of one another.
The living, meanwhile, as was their wont, almost always congregated in little groups. The government or society or culture had imploded or disintegrated with terrifying speed as the infection spread. Within hours, there had been no telephone service, no police or rescue response to the terrified calls for help. Within days, there was no power or television. And within weeks, the last organized military and government resistance collapsed, at least in the U.S.
But groups of survivors quickly came together into little groups, little communities with a pecking order and rules and authority, but also some of the little perks of being around other people—companionship, conversation, sex, someone to hold your hand when you die, someone to put a bullet in your brain when you went to get back up as a zombie. (And if you’ve ever seen a zombie—and God love you, I hope you haven’t, but if you’re reading this, I suspect you have—then you know that last perk is by no means the least important one.) You didn’t have to be a damned philosopher to know that we’re social animals, and would be till the last zombie bit the last human and dragged us all down to hell, which, judging by the zombies, looked like it was going to be the most unsociable place imaginable.
Yes, humans always build their little communities in order to survive, and in order to make surviving a little more bearable. Except me. I was alone. And it sucked. It was dangerous and it sucked.
By midday, I was moving closer to what looked like a small-sized city. I had thrown my maps away a few days ago when I had failed to find my family. After that, I figured, I didn’t have much need for maps: if I didn’t have any place to go anymore—and I had decided that I didn’t—what difference did it make where I was at the moment? Besides, the end of civilization had wreaked a lot of havoc with the things depicted on maps: I guess the rivers and mountains were still there, but cities were gone, roads were clogged with wrecked cars, bridges and tunnels and dams had been blown up to try to stop the rampaging hordes of the undead. So long as I was out of reach of those things, and had one bullet for myself if it came to that, I was in about the best location I could hope for.
It was a late spring day, bursting with a sunshine that didn’t make it hot, but just made things seem better, brighter, more alive than they were on other days. I still had the instinct to call it beautiful as I looked around and forgot the obvious shortcomings of the day for a moment. One shortcoming I couldn’t forget, however, was the gnawing hunger I felt.
Never one for breakfast, I had definitely been put off from eating anything this morning after killing Daniel Gerard, a man who, after all, had only been looking for something to eat, just as I was. I had some supplies in my backpack, but if I was near an area where I could forage for more and conserve what I had, that would be the much wiser course.
The undead weren’t exactly afraid of sunlight—they weren’t afraid of anything—but they did seem to avoid it unless aroused and provoked. Maybe it hurt their skin or eyes, or maybe they could sense that it was speeding their decay and that brought them some discomfort. Whatever it was, during bright daylight, you could walk through places where the walking dead were nearby without immediately attracting a crowd, so long as you were quiet and downwind. Still, I never went too far into an urban area. Right now, I just wanted to find some food and get back out to the sticks before nightfall.
From what I’d seen, many cities had burned more or less to the ground, once fire crews were no longer there to put out the inevitable fires. But here, for whatever reason of wind or rain or luck, many buildings were still standing. Some were gutted or damaged by fire, and all had the usual marks of looting, ransacking, and the final, desperate battles between the living and the dead. There were few unbroken windows.
In the street, wrecked or abandoned cars were everywhere. There were a few bodies and pieces of bodies in extremely advanced stages of decay, and paper and dead leaves rustled about on a light breeze.
The sight of the burnt-out remains of a city was almost as overwhelmingly depressing as the human wrecks that wandered everywhere as zombies: this place should be bustling and alive, and instead it was—quite literally—a graveyard.
I always wondered why there weren’t more animals around now, since zombies didn’t eat them, but everywhere I went, it always seemed like there were even fewer animals than when people had ruled the earth. I almost never heard a bird sing. I seldom saw pigeons or squirrels. It was almost as though even the animals fled from such horror, fled when the ruler of the animal kingdom died, and left the king’s mausoleum in peace, until it could completely crumble away and they could reclaim it after a suitable mourning period. I know it seems almost delusional in its anthropomorphism, but sometimes you can’t help thinking like that when you’re alone in these dead places.
I checked the remains of a couple stores, barely venturing inside the darkened buildings, for fear of the dead hiding in ambush. The inventories of a clothing store and a jewelry store were barely touched: it was funny how quickly things had been re-prioritized in the final, chaotic days of the human race.
I looked at what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of diamonds, now mixed in with the smashed glass of the cases that had once displayed them: both sparkled in the sun, but their value had been radically and traumatically equalized a few months ago. I imagined that during last winter—the first winter of a world that would now remain more or less dead in every season—the snow too had sparkled just as brightly when it blew in and covered the diamonds that, in better times, would’ve adorned hundreds of brides.
A quick look into a liquor store revealed much less remaining stock—human nature and appetites being what they are—but there was a bottle of some bad bourbon just a few feet inside the door, so I reached in and grabbed it. I didn’t know when I’d be able to drop my guard enough to partake, but since I wasn’t carrying that much, it made sense to take it.
I knew I was getting too far into the dead city, but on the next street was a convenience store where there might be food. It was facing perpendicularly from the stores I had examined, so at least it would be brighter inside. The big front windows were still intact, but the glass of the front door had been smashed. Looking up and down the street and still seeing no movement, I went inside.
I was looking for snack cakes. When the final crisis of humanity had begun, people had instinctively stocked up on canned food: I guess Spam is forever etched in our collective consciousness as the foodstuff of the apocalypse. People at first had bought up everything canned, and then, within just a couple days, as cash became utterly worthless and stores weren’t even open, the stronger smashed and grabbed from the weaker. I had never seen a can of food in a store since I had started foraging: you could only find cans in people’s houses, and even then they were getting pretty rare at this point. So, for now, snack cakes were the way to go. What I would do when those finally went bad and the last few cans ran out—that was a question still a few months off, and therefore way beyond any reasonable contingency plans.
I don’t know if all the old urban legends that Twinkies and those pink Snow Ball cakes could survive a nuclear explosion were true, but they and their kind definitely had a shelf life well over a year, if the box wasn’t opened and you weren’t fussy, which I clearly wasn’t at this point.
There was a treasure trove of them in the second aisle into the store, and I smiled when I saw there were no chocolate ones: I guessed some priorities remained effective right up till the last gasp of humanity. I made my way quietly to them, tore open the boxes, shoveled a bunch of the wrapped ones into my backpack, and proceeded to gorge myself on what I couldn’t carry. I was licking white créme filling off my fingers when I heard the crunch of a shoe stepping on broken glass.
© 2006 Kim Paffenroth