By James Wood
Somewhere in the darkness, a twig snapped.
It wasn’t a loud sound, but it was enough. I scanned the tree line looking for the source of the sound. By sheer force of will I tried to pierce the black. My ears were straining for another clue, but the competition of my pounding heart was making their job near impossible. My vision started to dance with stars before I remembered to breathe again. No more evidence followed the initial sound, so I settled back down to the job of cooking.
Come to think of it, “cooking” might be a generous term for what I was doing. Burning. Scorching. Charring. Those would be more accurate.
Through more luck than skill I was able to club a jack-rabbit. I’ll never forget that stunned moment we both shared when he popped his head out of a hole not two feet from where I was standing. We froze for a moment, both unsure of what to do. Something inside me, some primal survival instinct, propelled my motion before my conscious brain could respond. The rabbit was only stunned by the first clumsy attempt, but somewhere between the third and fifth smack with my bat, he stopped screaming.
The screams of a rabbit are eerily human. I wish I didn’t know that.
I pulled my crumbly, black rabbit-flesh out of the fire and started to munch on it. More because I knew my body needed the calories than for any desire to eat. I might not ever want to eat again, but my wants and my needs are separate things. I wished for something to drink as I choked down the meat and I thought about screams.
I think the worst was the piercing scream of my grandmother. She’d broken her hip. But it wasn’t the pain that made her scream. It was rage. She couldn’t move fast enough to get at what she wanted. She couldn’t attack anyone and make them like her. So she screamed. She was still screaming and dragging herself along as I left her. I may never stop hearing that scream.
The day had started off so well. I woke up to a full house. My family was all in town for a reunion and my place had become the landing zone. Some were on couches, some were on the floor and, of course, grandma had my bed. I slept in a tent out in the yard. I stumbled into the kitchen and started making a pot of coffee, barely noticing anything else. While I was occupied with the beans someone crept up behind me.
I’m not too proud to admit that I screamed like a little girl when my brother shouted my name. He laughed like he always did and then helped me to clean up the beans that had scattered all over the floor when I jumped. Jerk. Or, he was a jerk, I should say.
“Move over, dude. I’m makin’ breakfast for the family.”
“OK,” I said, “But when did you go shopping?”
“Pshaw, why would I go shopping? You’ve got plenty of food right here. What was that?”
“Uh. Nothing, I just said that…my pooch could be a trucker.”
“Um, OK. Maybe you should get that coffee going.”
So I made the coffee while my brother raided my fridge. Slowly the rest of my family got up and joined us in the kitchen. Coffee was consumed and then made afresh. Before too long, slices of bacon and pancakes were being distributed to those conscious enough to consume them. I was on my second or third slice of bacon when the air raid siren started going off.
I don’t know that I’d ever heard the thing in the eight years I’d lived at that house. So we all filed out front to see what was going on. Nothing. There was nothing that we could see in the blue skies to justify the siren going off at 8:27 AM on a Saturday morning. I think it was my mom who thought to turn on the TV to see if there was more information. Lo and behold that damn emergency broadcast system was finally doing something besides interrupting my favorite show.
“… calm. Stay in your homes. Do not venture outside. The National Guard has been deployed. Anyone found outside will be shot on sight.” And then the message simply repeated on a loop.
“Holy shit! What does that mean?” my brother asked.
I replied, “Dude, how should we know? We have exactly the same amount of information that you do, dumbass. Why don’t you try Googling it to see what’s going on?”
“Give me a sec … OK, here it is … wait … what?”
“Dude! Tell us something!”
“Um … it says here that, uh, that. Shit. It says here that there’s some sort of virus or something that’s making people, um, it’s making people go, well, kinda, um, crazy, I guess.”
“A virus has made people National-Guard’s-gonna-shoot-you-on-sight kinda crazy?”
“Yeah, dude, yeah.”
“Well, where the hell did it come from? What are we supposed to do?”
“Hold on . . . huh . . . um . . .”
“Sometime today, dude!”
“Sorry, sorry. It says that it may have come from, like, an asteroid or something. But then there’s this one guy commenting saying that it was a government lab and some other dude thinks it’s the effin’ Ruskies.”
“And . . .”
“Well, that’s about it I—“
“What are we supposed to do, moron.”
“Oh, yeah. Um, they just say to stay inside. Well, the commenters think that we should, like, go all Bubble-boy and stuff, y’know, like plastic over the windows and everything.”
I sighed and then looked around at my family. My brother, I’m pretty sure he was stoned already, was going to be little help. Grandma was looking at me sweetly with that I-have-no-earthly-idea-what-the-two-of-you-just-said expression she wore so well. Mom and dad were glaring at each other as if one or the both of them were to blame for this mess. Not much help anywhere. So I decided what we were going to do in the face of a mysterious virus and a trigger happy National Guard.
“Screw it, we’re going to have a family reunion! Call everyone and tell them to come over here. We’ll just have the party inside.”
“Um, dude, you have, like 500 square feet of space,” my brother observed.
“It’s actually closer to 650, and that’s not a problem. We’ll just move all the furniture back against the walls. It’ll be fine. And since when are we the kind of people to let the damn government tell us what to do?”
“Yeah,” they all observed with differing levels of enthusiasm and commitment.
“So, get calling.”
Thirty minutes later we had nearly the entire extended-family crowded into my tiny house. We were making the best of it and having a good time. Funny how food, music and beer can make any gathering into a party. Along about my third, or maybe fifth, beer there was a knock at the door. I squinted and scanned the crowd. It looked like everyone was there, but maybe I was missing someone. I couldn’t get a proper head-count with everyone moving around.
I yanked open the door to see, well, I guess it was the first of them that I’d ever seen. The infected. He was about six foot, maybe six-one. He was an older guy, balding and with the kind of suit that screams: Salesman. The tie was supposed to be a “power tie” with its bold red color and diagonal striping. But all that was incidental, to the look in his eyes.
Hunger. Ravenous hunger. I can’t think of anything else to describe it. I shudder just thinking about how deeply that hunger burned in his eyes. In that frozen moment I took in all the details of his face. His teeth were chipped, almost every one of them, and there was blood lining his gums. I would have thought he was an Englishman for the terrible condition of his teeth, but his lips were pulled back in a feral grin. At some point, his nose had been broken and the blood ran down his face and stained the front of his shirt a muddy orange-brown.
He took one step toward me and started to say – something. I reacted, I didn’t think, I just reacted. I leaned back and drove my right foot into his chest with a hollow thump. As he stumbled backward I slammed and locked the door in his face. Within moments he was up, pounding and clawing at the door.
I blinked. Once. Twice. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“What, dude?” my brother asked.
“We’re in an honest-to-goodness horror flick.”
“Nah, dude, you’re just overacting.”
“Really? We’re locked down because the National Guard is shooting people dead in the streets because of some virus that makes people crazy that came from space or China or the government and outside on my damn lawn is a goddamn, fucking zombie!”
“You watch your mouth, young man!” grandma snapped.
“Sorry, grandma,” I said with a sigh.
“So, dude, what are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know, Idunno. I. Don’t. KNOW!”
Why did they look to me? Maybe someone else could have saved them. Maybe uncle . . . but he’s dead now too. They’re all dead. Or worse.
“We have to move,” I said, “We can’t stay here; not with all of us in such a small space. We’ll run out of food and we’ve already run out of, ahem, sanitary options.”
“Sorry, how was I supposed to know you didn’t have a plunger?” my uncle asked.
“I haven’t needed one until now. But never mind that. We need to get to a place we can hole up. The grocery store up onMain Streethas plenty of food and we can hide out in the offices in the back.”
“How do you know there are offices we can hide in?”
“Let’s just say that the assistant night-manager and I had some, er, business meetings in the offices. I have a key to the back door.” I was blushing. That can’t have been good for my leadership image. “Just grab something you can use as a weapon. I’ve got some baseball bats in the closet. Break apart a chair or something. We just need to be able to get past this mo-fo on my front porch and keep anyone off us until we can get inside the store.”
They got to work making weapons. I don’t know, there were maybe twenty of us in that tiny house. I looked around and counted up the fighters, me, my brother, my dad, my uncle and my two cousins. Just six of us who could do any damage. My mom and aunts and the kids were all finding “weapons” but they wouldn’t do much good. Grandma just sat there with that same sweet expression on her face.
“Alright. Here’s the plan. I’ll go first and then I want the guys to back me up. Dad, you’re bringing up the rear. Keep any stragglers close to us and sound off if we’re being followed. Got it?”
A generally assent mixed with a lot of doubt was voiced in more of a grunt than any real words.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
I yanked open the back door that Captain McSaleman-Zombie hadn’t noticed yet. I charged out with my bat held high and came around the corner of my house. He should have looked surprised, but the only thing in his face was that same, consuming hunger. I didn’t hesitate. The bat caved in the side of his face. I kept pounding away until he was down on the ground. I was vaguely aware of hands pulling me off of the – the pile that was left.
“Yeah,” it was all the eloquence I could muster.
I took off at a brisk walk toward the grocery store. Every so often I’d glance behind to make sure that everyone was following along. I kept having to slow down so that grandma could keep up. I was doubting whether the mile from my house to the store was going to be too much for her when I saw movement behind us.
She wasn’t making any attempt to hide or sneak. She was just running, full bore-sprint, right for our family.
“Dad! Behind you!” I yelled.
He spun around to see the woman running toward him and brought his bat up in a ready stance. I couldn’t help but remember when he taught me to swing a bat for the first time. The woman was closing quickly. She was too far away for me to see clearly, but her eyes must have had the same hunger burning in them. She was, maybe twenty-five and was cute, once. She had short, brown hair that was cut to frame her round face. She had on one of those spaghetti strap tank-tops that showed off her figure quite well. But the skin that once would have turned me on was now revolting. It was covered in dirt and blood. I don’t know how much of it was hers. It was streaked all over her body as if she’d rolled in it.
I saw my dad rear back to swing as she neared his range and then. Then his shoulders slumped. I could read his mind in that moment. He’d taught me how a man is supposed to treat a woman and one thing he made clear is that a man never, ever hits a woman.
“No Dad, she’s not . . .”
I never got to finish. She smacked the bat aside and leaped onto him. He stood up for a moment and held her at arm’s length with his left hand. She struggled and snarled like a trapped wolf. Then she just went for the expedient thing and bit the hand that was holding her. She didn’t bit it like a kid in a fight will bite, to wound. She bit with fervor and when she lifted her mouth, her teeth were still closed on the flesh she’d claimed from my dad’s arm. He bellowed in rage, but still he didn’t raise the bat against her. Damn him and his morals.
By this time my cousins were next to him and they beat the shit out of that woman. She fell down on the ground after the first dozen blows. They didn’t stop for quite some time after that. My dad collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. My mom was at his side in an instant and found a handkerchief in her purse to press against the wound on his hand. He put his arm around her shoulders and I could see the look of thanks he gave her, along with a weak smile.
The look transformed. I saw my dad die.
The smile was the first to go. His lips hung slack like he’d just gotten a shot of Novocain. His nose started twitching, almost like a dog’s. Then I saw his eyes. The look of love and thanks was like paper with a flame behind it, it was breached, consumed and then destroyed. The arm around my mom’s shoulders clenched until he had her by the throat. She screamed out horror and confusion.
Then I watched as my dad bent down and ripped the throat out of my mom with is teeth.
Her scream ended in a wet gurgle as she died.
Rage like nothing I’ve ever felt descended on me. I don’t know how I traveled the fifty yards from where I was watching to where my dad was kneeling over the corpse of my mom and drinking the blood spurting from her veins. I was standing over him before he knew I was there and I rained down all my fury through the bat. I didn’t stop swinging until the bat was broken and my brother was dragging me away.
I dropped to my knees and wept. I realized I was howling when my throat started hurting. I shook my head and looked around at my family. They were in shock and everyone was staring at me. Why did it have to be me?
I climbed to my feet and I felt the weight of everything drop on my shoulders.
“Move, dammit! We’ve got to get off this street. You see what happens when you stop, when you hesitate,” I pointed with the splintered handle of my bat at the wreck that used to be my dad’s face and the bled-out corpse of my mom. “This is what happens. Don’t slow down. Don’t show mercy. Don’t stop running. Now, follow me or you’ll all die.”
They all died anyway.
I don’t know if they can smell blood or if it was just the wrong moment, but they came shrieking down the street toward us. It looked like they used to be a sports team of some sort. There were remnants of uniforms on them. Number 37 was in the lead.
“Mother Ffff—“ I stooped and grabbed the bat that had been my dad’s weapon, “Let’s do this!” I shouted to the remnants of my family. My cousins spread out on my left and my right. Behind them my uncle and brother joined me. “Alright, go for the head first. Incapacitate as many as you can and then we’ll go back and kill them once everyone is down.”
They made various sounds of agreement as I broke into a trot and then a run. There were about a dozen of the teammates coming toward us. They were in no order as they ran, they weren’t a team anymore. One stepped into the path of another and the offended creature lashed out in frustration. Those two tore each other apart before we ever had the chance. Make it ten.
Over the last ten yards I broke into an all-out sprint straight for #37. I didn’t slow down as I ran by him, but my bat did separate his jaw from his face. Too soon there was another one in front of me so I brought the bat from left to right in a vicious back-swing. This blow glanced off a shoulder and up toward the thing’s ear. We grunted in unison, mine in frustration, his in pain. My second swing crushed his eye socket and sent him spinning to the ground. The one behind him took three swings before he succumbed to the Louisville Slugger’s inexorable might.
I spun around to see how I could help my family. My cousins had each dispatched a zombie and were, together, circling a third. My uncle had two of them at his feet and a broken table leg in his hands. My brother. Oh, my brother. He’d taken the first one cleanly, but the second one had caught his golf club and was wrestling him for it. I ran up behind it and crushed its skull. I checked again to see my brother, cousins and uncle were all safe. Then I scanned the area around us and saw—
One zombie had gotten past us and was running toward the women.
My aunts stepped up to protect the kids and my grandma. They wielded their chair legs with murderous intent. They swung their cudgels wildly as the former-athlete stepped within reach. I’m pretty sure they both had their eyes closed. He slowed and grunted under the barrage. But he grabbed one of the chair legs and bit through the wrist holding it. My aunt screamed as her muscle and skin were eaten off of her arm. My cousins were there by then and clubbed the zombie to the ground. Then they turned to their mother, my aunt. Her arm was clutched tightly to her chest.
“Kill her! Do it now!” I bellowed. They either didn’t hear or couldn’t bring themselves to do it. My other aunt started swinging her chair-leg only to be stopped by my uncle. He was, I guess he thought, defending his wounded wife. But while he was facing his sister-in-law, his wife-no-more took a bite out of his shoulder.
I turned to my brother, “Can you do this?”
He swallowed hard, “Yeah, dude. Yeah.”
“Ok, then, let’s go beat the shit out of our favorite uncle.”
We ran toward the scene that was getting worse by the minute. By the time we arrived, both my aunts, my uncle and one of my cousins were – changed. They were fighting over my other cousin, which is the only reason he’d lasted so long. I broke the spine of my uncle, just below his ribs. He fell over twitching. Next I shattered the cheek of my aunt and then I caved in my cousin’s nose.
My brother tried to save my other cousin, but he was just a breath too late. So he beat him to a pulp instead. For all my brother’s faults, I will say that he was very thorough. Unfortunately that left my aunt free to ravage through the kids and finally infecting my grandmother.
I thought my heart had broken when I had to kill my dad. What was left died when I took the head off of a seven year old girl who was trying to eat my face. After that I chopped wood. It wasn’t the youngest of my family anymore, it was only dead matter that needed destroying. They fell easily, not willingly, but easily. Over the corpse of my five year old second cousin I looked at my brother as he finished pummeling – I couldn’t recognize who it was. I told you, he was thorough.
So, thorough that he didn’t notice grandma hobble up behind him. She bit him hard on the arm.
“Ow! Grandma! Damn!” He shouted.
I sighed in resignation. Now I would have to kill my brother. As he turned to shove our zombie-grandma away I saw the mark on his arm where her mouth had been. The wet, gum-print bore testament to her inability to feast on human flesh.
“Dude, you’re ok,” I said with relief, “I thought grandma had you. Good thing she left her teeth at home.”
“Yeah, good thing, dude. It’s like, one bite and you’re gone, dude.”
Neither of us saw our cousin dragging himself along the ground until he had bit through my brother’s Achilles tendon.
My vision narrowed to a tunnel and my bat started swinging. First I destroyed my cousin, and then I turned to my brother. His eyes didn’t have the hunger. They just had a pleading look. That was the last thing I remember of my brother. That pleading look. I didn’t stop swinging my bat until his body ceased twitching on the ground.
I glanced at grandma and saw that she’d fallen. Then I looked around at the carnage. Most of the bodies were motionless, but some of the teammates were starting to stir. There was blood everywhere on the street. It was time to leave, quickly. I reached down and retrieved the Bic lighter from my brother’s pocket and I discarded his baggie of weed. As I trotted away to the sound of grandma’s enraged screams I muttered under my breath, one last time, “Sorry, grandma.”
The grocery store was bare when I arrived. There was no food left and ample evidence of scavengers. I decided to not stick around to meet the next crowd. I took the side street down to the edge of town. I hid in the doorway of the barber shop for twenty minutes as I was waiting for people to stop wandering around. I’m guessing that they were infected, but I didn’t bother to ask. Just as the sun was touching the western horizon there were no people left in sight. I ventured out of my questionable shelter and ran for the woods. I was wheezing and cursing my time playing video games when I crossed the 200 yard field. I immediately turned to see if I’d been followed or spotted. There was no sign of movement. I waited another five minutes just to be sure. By this time the sun was setting in earnest.
I broke a trail for the first hundred feet or so before I came across a game track. I vaguely remembered something about woodsmanship from my time as a scout so I followed the trail. Before long I arrived at a stream. I drank my fill. Giardia be damned, I had bigger concerns at this point.
Not long after that I came across the rabbit and then built a fire to cook the poor, crunchy bastard.
I think sitting silently is worse than moving with a purpose. I could kill my brother without thinking in the heat of the moment, but now I can’t stop thinking about it. All of it. They’re all dead and they relied on me. I don’t know if anyone could have done better, but I doubt they could have done much worse.
There was the sound again. Closer this time. My fingers searched for the bat while my eyes scanned the darkness.
The shape that came crashing out of the trees wasn’t vicious; there was no hunger in the movements. As she emerged into the light I recognized my cute little assistant night-manager. I felt a genuine smile dawn on my face and I saw the reflection in hers.
“It’s ok. You’re safe. It’s just me,” I said.
“Oh, I am so glad to see you.” She fell into my arms and I hugged her tight. I could feel her heart pounding against my ribs.
“Were you followed?” I asked.
“What?” she mumbled through her hair and my shirt.
“Were you followed?” I repeated with a bit more urgency.
I held her away from me and looked into her eyes. “Were. You. Followed?”
“I…um…I don’t think so…”
“Did you check? Do you know?”
The explosion of sound answered my question. I heard them coming from all around.
“Damn,” I muttered, “Can you swing a bat?”
“They followed you. Here’s a bat. Try to knock them out, if you can.” I handed her the spare bat I’d thought to retrieve from the earlier melee. “Hey, I should have told you this a long time ago, but, I guess I was just too scared. I love you.”
I just smiled at her and hugged her again. Then they came from all sides. Everywhere I looked they were boiling out of the darkness at the edge of the firelight. My bat started swinging on its own. I still had that silly smile on my face as they surrounded us.