Chapter 01: Zombie movies
We don't talk about what we left behind. The kids do, but the adults don't, and us teenagers, well, we want to be adults. We're so desperate to grow up in this crazy world, we pretend we're adults when we're not. With all we know about famine and disease and death in the zombie apocalypse, I wonder, what's the rush?
There's an unspoken agreement among the teens that it's not cool to talk about the things we left behind, so I play it safe and don't say anything, but that doesn't stop me from thinking about hot running water or the smell of muffins baking in an oven. I think it's funny, really. We live in a world overrun by zombies and yet we're more worried about what someone's going to think of us than Zee stalking us in the woods. It's as though opinions matter more than being eaten alive by some crazed inhuman monster. It's silly, but to me that contradiction is the epitome of human nature. Perhaps emotions are all that separates us from Zee.
“I'm going in the marauders,” David says as a bunch of us teens sit on the edge of a rocky outcrop watching the sun set over the distant hills. Warmth radiates from the rocks as the air temperature drops around us. It's hard to tell if its late summer or early autumn, but the leaves haven't started changing color yet.
Steve says,“Dad won't let me off the farms.” He sounds dejected. It's not his real father, of course. There's only a handful of kids our age that still have biological parents. I do. I'm lucky. Most parents have been assigned by the commune. Steve's father is keeping him on the farms to keep him alive, but Steve doesn't see it that way. He's being told what to do and he doesn't like it.
“Mom's teaching me how to use the loom,” Jane says.
I love Jane as a sister, but like the others, she's too accepting of her fate.
My turn comes to talk about the menial work that's supposed to define and consume my life for the next forty or fifty years, zombies and bacteria not withstanding, but I can't bring myself to say anything. I hate this. Out of everything we left behind, this is the worst of our losses—the freedom to choose. Any response is an admission of defeat in my mind, so I don't speak up.
I swing my legs back and forth, feeling the rough rock beneath my bare thighs. Looking out across the valley, it's hard to believe raising crops and dodging zombies is all there is to life. Birds still fly through the air, singing to each other and chasing insects. Flowers still grow in the meadows. The sun rises. The sun sets, just as it has for billions of years.
Sunsets are cruel, I think. They're just as beautiful as they've always been. It's as though nature didn't get the memo. The apocalypse has come, but the natural world hasn't noticed. I know evolution is cruel and indifferent, but it's like Earth never even noticed the rise of Homo sapiens, or their fall. Apparently, we won't be missed. Blood crazed zombies stalk the land alongside squirrels burying nuts. I think that's mental.
Smoke drifts from the ruins of the distant city. Someone's fighting down there. Someone's dying and in pain, but to us it's a spectacle, a curiosity. Like my soft bed, my X-Box, my guitar and my pretty floral dress, they too have been left behind. I feel sorry for them. I hate to think about what's happening to them. Run, I want to shout, but they'd never hear me. The zombies would, but the people wouldn't. Zee hears everything.
“What about you, Haze?” Jane asks.
“Huh?” I reply, pretending I wasn't following the conversation.
“Are you going to join your dad?”
I turn toward her, unsure how to respond.
Steve is sitting on the other side of Jane and David. That's not his real name, but everyone calls him Steve. His real name is Nathan. Marauders found him buried in the rubble of a gas station on I-75 a couple of years ago. He'd been on the run from Zee for weeks. Damn, running from your own family-turned-zombies, that is sick. It's no wonder his brain was fried. He had dysentery. His ribs looked like a collapsed tent, with thick canvas draped over sunken tent-poles.
If a patrol had seen Steve wandering around in the open they would have capped him as a Zee, but they found him crying in a cellar. Zee doesn't cry. Zee doesn't show any emotion other than rage, so they brought him in. Oh, and he told us his name was Steve. Hi, Steve. Welcome to the commune, Steve. Only Steve wasn't his name at all, but no one knew that until about six months later when one of his school buddies turned up and started calling him Nathan, and then he was like, oh, yeah, by the way, my name's Nathan. I shouldn't have laughed as hard as I did, but Steve was so nonchalant about the whole thing, as though names don't matter in the apocalypse.
We all thought it was funny as hell. Even Steve laughed, but deep down, I think he had a point. Like life itself, names are given to us by someone else, usually our parents. And yet over the course of our lives we define our names, and somehow our names define us. Why shouldn't someone want to change their name when changing their life? For Steve, the commune was a new start so he chose a new name. I think that's cool.
Steve peers past Jane. He likes me. Jane and David have been going steady for six months now, which is an eternity here in the dark hills.
“Haze?” he asks, reminding me I should be polite and give a damn about other people's demands on my time. I should answer Jane's question.
“Dunno,” I reply, as though I have a choice in the crappy job that'll be the death of any spark of life within me.
We so desperately want to be adults, and yet to be an adult is to be trapped in a world overrun by zombies. At least as teenagers, we have somewhere to go, something to aspire to. When we're adults, that's it. Till the ground, work the loom, stand guard on the fence, and raise a family amidst the madness, pretending the apocalypse doesn't exist. If you're lucky, you might grow old and die. That's not exactly what I had in mind for my life. It's not that I want life to be exciting. Lord knows, being chased by a pack of zombies is excitement enough for one lifetime. I just have this longing for something more. There has to be more to life, even in the midst of so much death.
“Who do you think's down there?” David asks. He's a born leader, or so my dad says. At eighteen, David is almost six feet in height. If we were in high school, he'd be a quarterback. He's got that muscular physique that seems destined to throw the winning pass. His pseudo-dad shaves his head to keep the lice at bay, but if he let it grow he'd look stunning.
“Dunno,” Jane replies, almost as an echo of my earlier comment. She too seems lost in thought.
Jane is a brunette. If we were in high school, she'd be bugging her parents to buy shares in some company that produces peroxide. Just a little bleach, and she looks like a natural blonde. She's got high cheekbones and a thin frame. I can just see her as a cheerleader bouncing around on the sideline as David rushes the defense, weaving his way between oncoming linebackers to score the winning touchdown.
“Sad,” is all Steve can say about the fighting down there in the city.
Sad is a word out of context. Typical Steve, really. Like David, his hair is cut short to avoid the lice. For some reason, us girls can sidestep the need for a buzz cut, but only so long as we keep our hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. Let it flow, and the lice will come. I'm not sure how they find us, but like zombies, they're always lurking around the next corner.
Steve has a fresh scar running down the side of his face, extending from the corner of his eye to just above his chin. He got careless during the harvest. His shirt caught on the mechanical harvester and he was dragged into the machine and got torn up pretty bad. He's lucky. No infection. The scar on his face is still a little raw. It's pinkish, but not red. If it was red, he'd be dead. We all know what red means—bacteria under the skin. Even with his scar, Steve is cute, in a geeky kinda way. If we were in high school, I'm sure we'd date. Maybe. Who knows? There's so many what-ifs in a world consumed by zombies, but we're alive, and that's what matters.
“Why would anyone go down there?” Jane asks, her eyes looking into the distance at the glowing fires in the city. The sun has set. The cool of night falls along with the darkness. It won't be long now. Zee will be coming. Zee always comes. From where we sit, we can see the night watch with their rifles. They're walking along the trails beside the chain-link fence waiting for Zee.
No one answers Jane, so I say,“For love.”
“Love?” David asks with his quarterback voice sounding too gruff and mean to seriously consider such a concept.
“There's no other reason,” I reply.“Why would anyone go into a hive if it wasn't for love?”
“I don't get you, Haze,” Jane says.“Love might work miracles in the movies, but not in real life.”
Steve's silent. I think he knows. I'm not talking about that soppy romantic love that leaves tears running down my cheeks, but the love of a mother for her daughter, or the love of a best friend for his fallen buddy. Steve's been there. His eyes say so.
“They're crazy,” David says, watching as the countryside slips into darkness.
The trees, so distinct just moments ago, blend together into a black mass in the twilight. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, the shadows come alive, but it's just the wind in the leaves, I tell myself. There's nothing to worry about. Yet.
A large fireball billows into the sky above the ruins of the distant city. We used to see things like this all the time, but these days they're rare. Someone's really giving it to Zee, but the fireball fades and the night wins. Darkness descends. For me, it's strange to see a battle played out in silence. Finally, a distant boom drifts by on a gentle breeze.
“Don't you wonder about the future?” I ask.“I mean, will life always be like this?”
“Nah,” David says, but I know the future he's thinking about. He's thinking of serving on the front line, and the occasional raid into the cities. The accepted wisdom is hunker down and wait for Zee to rot, only it's a strategy that doesn't seem to be working. We grow weaker, while Zee grows in strength and numbers.
“Will we ever go back?” I ask.
“No,” David replies, but I'd like to hear what Steve thinks, or Jane. It seems they agree with David. Either that or they don't want to contradict him.
“I'd like to go back.”
We're not supposed to talk like this. We're supposed to be accepting of the commune, but I can't help myself. If I can't be honest with my friends, what's the point? Life without honesty is hell on Earth. I think it's worse than any zombie apocalypse. Why go through this harsh life if there's no chance of redemption? I don't really care about my X-Box, but it was fun to spend a lazy Sunday morning chasing pirates around virtual seas. I care about being me. I don't want to live like a bird trapped in a cage.
I think the word is subsistence. Apparently, that's what we're trying to avoid by banding together in a community. We're all supposed to contribute and make life a little better, but life will never be the same as it once was. And fanciful dreams destroy the soul. I shouldn't think like this. I want too much. Want drives people crazy, makes them do stupid things. I should be content, but I'm not. I want more.
There's a fire burning where the explosion occurred. I can't hear any gunfire, but I can imagine a distant crack floating on the breeze. Whoever's out there, I hope they're winning. It's only then I realize no one has replied to my comment about going back. I felt sure David would say something, but we're all silent. We can all see how impossible it is, but that doesn't stop the heart from longing, I guess.
Finally, David says,“Maybe it's a prepper,” ignoring my point just as I'd ignored his comment about joining the marauders. It's nothing personal, I understand that. You've got to have thick skin in the zombie apocalypse. Can't be crying because someone was insensitive. There are too many tears shed for the dead without crying over the living.
There are preppers out there. Although preppers is probably the wrong term these days. Once they were prepared. Now they're just survivors like us. They're supposed to be better off than we are, but most of them are sad, lonely, paranoid hermits. Having a stockpile of baked beans and enough bullets to hold off a zombie horde sounds good in theory, but when you treat survivors and zombies alike, I think you've missed the point. Life is about more than survival. Sometimes we hear from the preppers when they want to trade, but mostly they shun us as though we're infected with something worse than Zee.
“I hope he makes it,” I say. Everyone knows what I mean, and yet there are assumptions in just those few words.“He”—He alone. Anything else is inconceivable. Not even the marauders would dare go downtown. At first, we thought there was strength in numbers. There is, but only for Zee. And why he? I guess I can't imagine a woman taking on Zee alone. And as for,“makes it.” Well, that's a euphemism. I hope he makes it where? No one makes it in the end. We all die. The best anyone down there can hope for is to take Zee with them and avoid becoming a traitor to humanity.
Unconsciously, I play with the soft leather pouch hanging around my neck. We all have one, and they all contain the same thing—the last bullet. No one goes anywhere without a handgun tucked into the small of their back with a full clip or six rounds chambered. Not that I've ever shot a zombie. I've only ever fired a handgun twice. Ammo is too precious.
Handguns are a weapon of last resort. Most survivors have a few extra clips stashed on them somewhere, but everyone has the pouch. There's an understanding. You don't fall to Zee. You have one last bullet so you can do one last thing for humanity. And I wonder about him. I wonder how long his ammo will last. I wonder if he's reaching for his pouch. I wonder if there's one last lonely shot resounding through the night.
“Do you know what I hate?” Steve asks. Steve's a bit of a wallflower, in a nice kind of way. He's not arrogant or egotistical, which is refreshing, but I think he should be more assertive, so to hear him pipe up with such an evocative word as hate immediately grabs my attention. This is the kind of Steve I want to see more of.
“What?” I ask, genuinely curious about what could provoke such an emotive word like hate from quiet, gentle Steve.
“Yeah, me too,” says David.
“I never saw any,” I reply.
I was eight when the outbreak occurred. I've spent half my life on the run. We were all just snotty nosed kids when the first Zee stumbled into Mount Sinai hospital in New York. No one took him seriously. Oh, the police took Zee seriously enough, but not as a zombie. They thought they were taking down a meth-head on a rampage. I still remember the news footage showing five officers standing over his writhing body. Taser wires extended from his chest. When it became clear he couldn't be subdued, one of the officers unloaded a full clip into him, but by this time he'd already bitten four of them. Another officer struck him in the throat with another taser shot and that must have fried his brain stem as he finally went still.
Even now, we don't talk of zombies as dying. They're already dead. Nine grams of hot lead through the cerebral cortex simply formalizes the funeral arrangement. Even a fallen, immobile zombie is dangerous. One nick, a tiny paper cut, a popped zit for us teens, and some careless Zee juice is just as bad as a bite from the most rabid runner out there.
“Like never?” Jane asks.“You never saw a zombie movie?”
“Never,” I reply.“I was a little girl. My dad wouldn't let me watch stuff like that.”
“Well,” David says.“You got to see the real thing up close soon enough.”
“I wish I hadn't,” I answer.“I'd much rather they stayed on the screen in some dumb movie.”
“They were dumb movies,” Steve says. He's relaxing a little. It's nice to see the real Steve.“They got so much wrong.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Well, for starters, movies make head shots look easy.”
“Have you?” David asks, and he sits forward. He's as curious as I am. I don't think any of us have ever shot a zombie. David’s been out on patrol with his dad, but I don’t think he’s shot at Zee. Most of the time we use baseball bats or crowbars. Bullets attract zombies from miles around.
We've all seen zombies, of course, but since we joined the commune it's only been through a chain-link fence. Occasionally, a couple of the guards will bring one in on poles. They'll lasso Zee with loops of rope tied to the end of ten foot wooden poles to keep him at bay. It takes two or three of them to control a runner, but using the poles they can keep him subdued. The crazy thing is why. They bring them to school and shoot them in front of the kids. And here I was thinking school was supposed to be a return to some kind of normalcy. Apparently, head shots are supposed to desensitize us. Most of the girls puke. I did. I still do.
“My dad has shot them,” Steve replies.“Myreal dad.”
His real dad is one of the undead. This is the first time any of us have heard Steve talk about his past. Normally, he shrugs when asked about how he ended up so far south and says its no big deal. Seeing your family getting eaten by zombies is kind of a big deal. Being hunted by your own family when they reanimate is kinda even bigger.
“We all had guns,” he says.“Even my younger sister, Lucy. She had a 22 handgun. You've got to be lucky with a 22.”
Nobody says anything. We're hanging on Steve's every word, knowing Lucy wasn't lucky enough with her 22.
“I had a 9mm Beretta.”
“Cool,” David says. Jane slaps his leg softly, wanting him to be quiet. We all want Steve to talk. Talking is good. Talking is cathartic, as Ms. J says in class, meaning the process itself is healing, although I'm not sure that's our motivation. We want to hear all the gruesome details, regardless. I'm intensely curious. My dad and I have been here since the commune began. We had it better than most. I want to hear about what it's like out there on the run from Zee.
“First time I got close to one of them was in one of the camps.”
Them. Everyone has a different term for zombies. I call them Zee because that's the term my mother used before she turned, speaking about the whole horde as though it was just one individual. Ms. J says that's synecdoche, a figure of speech putting a part for the whole, but that makes my head spin. Grammar has no place in the zombie apocalypse, although Ms. J would disagree. She says we have to preserve knowledge for the future.
Steve uses them and they a lot, which I think personifies Zee a little too much. It's as though he can't let go of the fact they were once human. If Steve's choice of labeling them speaks of his past, then what does Zee say about mine? That I too haven't let go of the past? We all left someone behind, and that's not easy to accept.
I've heard Jane refer to zombies as monsters and ghouls. No prizes for guessing she's scared of the dark.
David keeps things impersonal with the classic term zombie. Sometimes he uses Zee, in homage to me. I guess he thinks it sounds cool, but most of the time he’s quite detached about the apocalypse, referring to zombies as the norm. I think this speaks of his acceptance of the apocalypse as though the loss of civilization is somehow okay or was to be expected. I simply cannot think of our lives now as normal. We lost normal a long time ago. David's dad slips into calling them targets and contacts, which is a military thing, I guess. My dad refers to them as creatures, which is perhaps the creepiest notion of all. It's as though he sees them on par with us.
“During the early years, we were part of the civvies camped with the National Guard. The soldiers kept us pretty isolated. We never saw much of them.”
Them—zombies, not them—National Guard, I note.
I can relate to what Steve is describing. Early on in the war, it looked like we were winning. There was a time when Zee was almost eradicated. There were just so many people with guns in the US. It was open season on zombies. There were no holds barred. For a while, capping Zee was a sport.
After the initial outbreak, humanity kicked ass, but Zee won the war of attrition. That's the thing about zombies. You only need one to spoil the party.
For the best part of two years, we thought life was returning to normal. I spent my twelfth birthday boating on a beautiful lake just outside of Kansas City, eating fresh strawberries and sunbathing on the polished wooden bow. There was talk of the government re-forming, not that that meant much to me, and then the second wave came. They say one of the soldiers at the South American choke-point became infected and from there the outbreak began anew. Dad showed me photographs of the front lines in Guatemala. What was left of the US army tried to keep the undead bottled up in South America. They had several lines of defense spanning hundreds of miles in depth. The trenches in Nicaragua look like they were straight out of World War I, but before too long what little remained of the US forces were fighting a war on both sides. Each loss we suffered only added to the army of the undead. There was only ever going to be one winner—Zee.
“A runner got loose in the middle of the night,” Steve says and my heart beats a little faster.“The National Guard turned their guns on the refugees. A stampeding crowd is hardly any different from a horde of zombies, so they opened fire, only thatcaused their ranks to swell.”
A shiver runs down my spine.
Zombies animate quickest in response to a quick death. Watch a slow lingering death, and the living have a few hours, maybe a day before the corpse turns, but fall off scaffolding and the transformation can be complete within a minute. Get bitten real bad and you've got an hour tops.
“So stupid,” I mutter, not wanting to distract Steve but unable to let that response pass.
“Yeah, like I say,” Steve continues.“Zombie movies. I think they made the outbreak worse. Everyone was so damn scared they'd shoot at shadows, and so the poor sap running from them suddenly finds himself joining the ranks of the undead.”
“Go on,” Jane says softly, leaning forward on the rock. Darkness has fallen. Stars shine down on Earth as they have for billions of years, bathing us in their soft light.
“Head shot,” David says, reminding Steve to keep the story on course.
“Yeah, head shots,” Steve replies. His voice sounds distant. He's caught between two worlds, reliving the moment all those years ago while trying to be here with us.“I woke up to see tiny holes tearing through our tent. I went to get up when my dad slapped me across the chest, forcing me back into my sleeping bag. Dozens of holes appeared in the nylon. Swish, swish, swish. I could hear gunfire, but it sounded as though it was a long way off. Whoosh. There was a soft whistle, no, not a whistle, a whisper as each bullet tore through our tent.”
I'm leaning so far forward I'm in danger of slipping off the rock. It's only six or seven feet to the brush below, but I can't help myself. I have to hear every word. The further Steve goes into his dark past, the softer his voice becomes. We're all leaning in, not wanting to miss any detail.
“I could hear them.”
“They were growling. I could smell them. We hadn't seen any of them in months, and now they were right on top of us.”
I know what he means about the smell. One of the first things that happens when someone turns is they eliminate. They poo, they pee, they puke. They stink.
“I wanted to run, but my dad's hand kept me pinned on my back. 'Shhh,' he whispered as another round whizzed by just inches from my head. My mother was counting. 'One, two, three'—whoosh. 'One, two, three, four, five'—whoosh. Dad whispered to my sister and me, saying, 'On one, you run, but you run for no more than five yards and then you drop. Got it?' I nodded. Thinking about it now, I don't know that he could see me nodding in the darkness, but I'm sure my eyes were as big as saucers... One.”
Steve pauses. I hold my breath. I feel as though I am lying beside him on that fateful night. I desperately want him and his family to make it, even though I know they don't. I hope it wasn't there in the camp that they turned. It sounds silly, as we all know they joined the undead and hunted him, but I want them to survive this night. At that point, they're human to me, not monsters. That's the hardest thing about the zombie apocalypse—depersonalizing a zombie isn't as easy as it seems, especially if they're someone you love.
In the soft light, I look deep into his eyes, but Steve doesn't see me. He's looking past me, staring back through time, reliving that moment.
“I barely made it out of the tent when my dad yelled, 'Drop!' I didn't want to, but my foot got caught, tangled in the loose flap of the tent and I went down anyway. Whoosh. 'Go!' My mother yelled, and we were up again and running. Dad was in front. I wasn't counting. My heart was beating too fast. He'd drop and I'd drop behind him.”
David says,“Automated sentry sweeping the area, huh? You must have been on the flank.”
“Shhh,” Jane says, hitting him on the shoulder.
“I guess,” Steve says.“Dad led us between the tents. I kept tripping on guide ropes in the dark. They weren't smart enough to duck, so the sentry would zero in on them. Didn't kill them, but the bullets slowed them, breaking arms, ribs. They were so close I could hear their bones cracking as bullets thumped into them.
“Fires started throughout the camp, lighting up the night. Nylon doesn't burn that well, but everything else inside sure does. People were screaming. It was only when they stopped screaming you knew they'd turned.
“Dad took us sideways. Most of the survivors were trying to get away from them so they ran toward the soldiers and the soldiers mowed them down. My dad was smart. He led us to one side, out into the shadows.”
Steve is proud of his dad, that's clear from the way he's speaking. His dad may have fallen to Zee, but right then, he saved his family, and that is something to be proud of, I think. Most people are ashamed of anyone that's turned. Maybe this is why Steve is so reluctant to use the word zombie. He still loves his dad.
“I could see the trees. I thought we'd be safe there, but they were waiting.”
I swallow the lump in my throat.
“Waiting?” Jane asks.
“They're not dumb. That's another thing that annoys me about the movies. They're stupid in the movies, wandering around yelling, brains, Brains, BRAINS!”
No one spoke.
“Dad pointed at them from behind a fence. Mom was still counting, resetting her count every time a bullet whizzed by overhead. I'm not sure how long we waited there. It was probably less than a minute but with the screaming and crying and moaning behind us getting closer every second, it felt like forever.
“I couldn't see anything. I crawled up next to dad and he pointed at the dark shadows. He slipped his bug-out pack off his shoulder and pushed a pistol into my hand, whispering, 'Head shot.'