When the world as we knew it ended, it didn’t happen the way we expected it to. There was no meteor strike or rapid ocean rising due to global warming or melting polar ice caps. It was a lot closer to those pandemic scares, the ones that we always worried about but that never eventuated. Except that this one actually did. One day the news was reporting that cases of swine flu were starting to cross from Mexico into the United States, and then other cases began to surface in other countries as travelers brought it back home with them as holiday souvenirs you didn’t have to pay for.
As I watched footage of people buying surgical masks and walking the streets like there was a Michael Jackson lookalike convention in town, I turned to my boyfriend Mike and said, “If this thing is as bad as they say, that flimsy piece of material isn’t going to do any good.”
“You are such a pessimist,” he replied. “How often have we been threatened with these viruses? Nothing ever comes of them.”
Mike. I don’t even want to think about him, but I still do. Ironic that he should be the one to fall to the virus, when he thought it was just a scare.
I don’t know how many survivors there are. But there are less than there used to be. You can tell who they are if you see them on the streets; they just have that haunted look on their faces that suggests they’re ready to run. You can’t stay static now. You have to be a nomad.
If you want to keep living.
And boy, do I want to live.
I always thought that if the apocalypse came, I’d rather die straightaway than have to eke out some kind of survival in a nightmarish world without the benefits of the mod-cons I loved. But when the apocalypse came, I fought tooth and nail to keep living.
Literally. Survivors had to become fighters.
I didn’t really think the flu was as bad as they said. But then people started dying. First in the hundreds; then in the thousands. Panic started gripping the nation. Borders were closed; other countries refused to help in case they came down with the illness as well. Bodies were buried quickly, to try and defuse contamination.
But something weird began happening.
There were a number of those who were infected, and died, who came alive again after a day or so. But they didn’t come back the same. Doctors hypothesized that brain damage from lack of air while they were “dead” caused the lack of speech, the stumbling gait, the dead look in the eyes. What they couldn’t account for was their strength, which came in fits and starts. They were uncontrollable, and tended to kill people who got too close to them.
For the better want of a name, they were called “zombies”. That only contributed to the panic, even though they were really nothing like movie zombies. They didn’t want to eat our brains; they tended to raid garbage cans, homes, and stores. That’s why nowhere was safe: the zombies would break in anywhere, and if you got in their way, you likely wouldn’t survive.
By the time this became public knowledge, though, Mike was dead. He had gotten sick; I didn’t. Now that I know what I know, I have to hope that he actually died… that he wasn’t a zombie. Because then that means he would have been alive when he was cremated—
Like I said, I don’t want to think about it.
The cities are now mostly deserted. I think I’m one of the last ones left in this city; survivors seem to head for the country, where they think they’ll be safer. The zombies are everywhere, though. The best thing to do is just keep moving. They’ll eventually come across you if you stay in the one place too long.
At the moment, I’m in a high-rise apartment complex on the outskirts of the city. I’ve holed up on the top floor, with a pair of binoculars I stole from a sports store. I keep a vigilant watch, making sure nothing enters the lobby, which I tried to barricade as best I could. I figured it would give me at least a week. I sleep at night; for some reason, the zombies move less at night. Maybe there’s something human left within their addled brains, who knows?
I don’t know what happened to my family. The last time I got to speak to my mother, she was worried because my father was in bed sick and she wasn’t starting to feel that well herself. Nobody could get hold of my brother; he and his wife weren’t answering their home phone or their cells. And by that stage, nobody liked taking to the streets to check up on anybody. That would come later, when you began to get paranoid and thought you were the only person left alive.
I had seen my first zombie when I emerged from my house a week after the television stations stopped broadcasting. I had run out of food, and was desperate. I tore through my house looking for anything that resembled a weapon; all I found was Mike’s old baseball bat. It would have to do.
As I removed the furniture shoved against my front door and stepped out onto the street, I was disturbed by how normal everything seemed. The birds still sung and flew about, the houses looked remarkably the same, and cars were still parked in driveways and on the street.
But there was a smell. And it was unmistakable. The smell of rotting bodies.
When I turned the corner, I found my first corpse. And I knew him. Pat Devon, the owner of the 7-Eleven just farther down the street. I couldn’t look at him for long, even to try and figure out how he died; the smell was just too bad. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, but I swallowed it back down. Food was too rare to waste.
And then I heard the footsteps.
It was such an alien sound, one I hadn’t heard for so long. And because it seemed so out of the ordinary, it filled me with absolute terror.
I slowly turned around.
He was about two blocks away, but because the street was so quiet, the sound was carrying the distance easily. And he wasn’t human. At least, not human as I used to know it. I could tell by his stagger and the way his hands hung limply by his sides.
My first zombie. Sighted in person.
He moaned, long and drawn out. Immediately, I worried for my brain. After all, I had seen zombie movies my whole life, and that isn’t something you can shake easily. No matter how often they had said on the news before they stopped broadcasting that the zombies weren’t movie zombies, I still thought they possibly hungered for brains.
I started to back away slowly. And of course, tripped over my own feet.
The metal baseball bat dropped to the concrete, the sound ringing, echoing, bouncing off the houses and buildings around me. I painfully got to my feet and picked it up.
The zombie had stopped groaning.
He had zeroed in on me instead.
There had been a report on Dateline on scientists hypothesizing about what made the zombies tick. They could change from shuffling, clumsy dead things in one moment to frenetic attack machines that would put sharks to shame in the next. It could be a current in the brain that switches on, one had said. It taps into the need for violence, it has to get rid of this pent-up energy somehow. We don’t know why.
Conspiracy theorists claimed that it was a form of germ warfare, perhaps of military origin.
But none of that was going through my mind when my life was at stake.
Gone was the lurching. He still moved bizarrely, but at a greatly increased speed. I started to run, but his footfalls were rapidly getting closer behind me. Out of breath from weeks of being housebound, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to safety.
So I stopped and turned.
He didn’t even pause, his desire to do damage was so strong.
I gripped the bat in my hand, hoping I was holding it correctly. Mike was the jock, not me. The only sports I ever deigned to watch with him were the Super Bowl and the Olympics. I was covered in sweat, and my breathing was hoarse. But the zombie’s was louder.
Stupidly, I found myself yelling, “You want my brains, motherfucker?”
My voice was loud, hoarse and jubilant. It sounded a little rusty, as it had been a while since I had spoken. I liked hearing myself again.
“Come and get them!”
As he neared me, so close I could smell the unwashed state of his clothes and the skin beneath them, I struck with the bat. It was just a glancing blow off his shoulder, but it deterred him for a brief moment. So I struck him again, aiming for the head. He hissed, and moaned again, his eyes glazed with anger. My shoulder twinged as I hit him across the jaw, and I yelled with disgust as I heard the crunch of bone.
He fell to the ground, and it was my chance. I hit him again. And again. And again. His moaning became a burbling as blood filled his mouth. The red, viscous agent was flying through the air with each blow. But I couldn’t stop. Not until he was dead for good.
When his skull was opened, and I could see gray matter.
That was when he stopped moving, and no more sound came from him.
The street was silent again.
His blood began to pool on the sidewalk, and I stepped back. The bat was gleaming with his blood and flecks of brain. The bile rose in my throat again, and this time I couldn’t hold back but heaved where I stood, my vomit becoming part of the small river I had created.
I couldn’t believe I had killed someone.
Logically, I knew it was in self-defense. It was either him or me. So why did I feel like shit?
I wanted someone to talk to, someone to tell me everything would be okay. But I knew even if there was someone there to tell me that, it would be a lie anyway.
Was this what my life was going to be from now on?
It was enough to make me wish I had died with everybody else.
But back to the present. As darkness fell, I shook myself back to some semblance of normality and made my way to my old 7-Eleven. The store was almost pitch-black; the power had finally gone out three days ago. I stayed close to the front just in case there was something lurking in the darkness and I needed to make an escape. With my bag bulging, I left and made my way home, making an effort not to look at the now-decaying zombie corpse that lay on the ground. The corpse that was there because of me.
Back at the apartment complex, I barricaded myself back in, opened a can of baked beans, and ate them cold. I then wrapped myself in blankets in the small fort I had made myself in the dining room and tried to sleep.