|Posted by Teo on May 23, 2013 at 4:25 PM|
TWO FEET OF SNOW
Things have changed. I guess youknow that. But not just in the obvious way. Some people accept the way things are now and I guess that's the easiest way to survive. I wish I was like them, but I'm not. Things are different in us, the survivors. A shitty day used to mean a lot of things, none of which mattered in the least. And awful day- that's what you said if someone died before their time, or even after. Grandma died, that was 'an awful day' that was the what used to be normal. But today death is commonplace, and if your best friend is bit by a walker and you have to put a bullet in him, that's just another shitty day.
Before it happened, before awful became shitty and shitty was standard, I was on my way to being a writer. I guess that's why I'm doing this now. So if you're reading this it's because I'm dead and I thought someone should know what happened to us. Maybe it will make a difference. Maybe it won't.
I've been snowed in for the past month, supplies are low. There's no use trying to trek outside, not unless you want to freeze to death. Though that may be a good way to go. The truth is I won't survive the week. Every ounce of energy I have is going into writing this. Some of us will do what we have to to survive. That's not me. It was once,but now I want us all to survive. And the only way to do that is to tell a story and hope people learn from it. This place won't be secret for long- a bighouse in the middle of nowhere, in the spring this will probably be a territory worth killing for, my words will be found eventually, but for now it's a tomb. And this is my last will and testament.
* * * *
By the second month I had lost everyone I had known before it started.That's not to say they all died exactly, some I really did just lose. My sister, for example, she was a financial adviser for a fortune five hundred company in London, but she traveled almost daily. I think she was in the Netherlands when it started here. I don't know where it began really, it seemed to be everywhere all at once. But phones went down pretty soon and I'm ashamed to say I called an exgirlfriend before I called my sister, and one call is all you got.
I used to call her Bambi when we were kids, so I'll usethat name here, Bambi and I were what was left of our family after the divorce, our mom left us when she left our dad. We never forgave her, but then again she never gave us reason to. We were left with a drunk who among other things liked to take his failures out on his children. My sister learned quick that to live outside his rule she'd have to be successful in something. We never had money, so she chose that. Community college and a few math scholarships later she was on her way to a well paying job as an assistant a year after graduation. She moved up the ladder pretty quick, all she had to do was show her bosses that what they were doing was wrong how they could make more money if they followed her advice and it was off to the races for Bambi.
She felt bad about leaving me, like she had inherited some abandoning gene from our mom but I told her to go and live her life, I would graduate soon and by the time I did she would have a place big enough for both of us to share. She'd be traveling most of the time but that just meant I'd pay half the rent on a place I basically had for myself. But when graduation came she was too hot to stop, she had a place in Paris she couldn't give up-living in France was her dream since she was young, and even then she was never there long enough to enjoy it. I told her it was okay, that we would meet up when she came stateside but that turned out to be once or twice a year at the most. She sent me money whenever I was too broke to decline, and she called at least once a month. I can't blame her for succeeding, and I wouldn't want to even if I could. The honest to goodness truth is I was so proud of her for doing what she did, for keeping her head down and just doing the work- for enduring our father until she didn't have to anymore, that I was just happy that she was living the life she'd set for herself. And in a way I was too. I had a studio apartment in downtown Manhattan. I felt like Holden Caufield on his mini vacation after being thrown out of school, or one of Bukowski's barflies. I was living on my own above a bar that never closed, I was smoking cigarettes in my room and staying up all night writing pages and tossing them as soon as I wrote 'The End.'
These are the things that make a writer happy. Not that I was a real writer. More like a professional imitator of styles. If I was in the mood for poetry I'd look at some E.E Cummings and do my best to steal everything he’d written, someone thought I had some potential and paid me an advance to write some generic pieces about being young in the city. I gave him three thousand words on the importance of writing a grocery list before going shopping. I was five hundred dollars in the hole but I didn't care. Debt was just apart of what being a young writer in the city's all about. And that's how it was for a while, just me and my thoughts.
Then, one day, I got a call from a friend I'd known in school. She lived upstate and had asked me to come to her wedding. I didn't even know she was engaged but I told her I'd love to come. I wrote three ten pages essays in an many days for some friends who were going to N.Y.U for the tuxedo money and a graduation speech for the car rental. It had been a long time since I had driven a car- I relished it.
I couldn't get a convertible but I'd been making do with what I had my whole life. What's a convertible compared to a thoughtfully over compensated sound system? I swear just one hour on the road and my throat was fire-red and scratchy from singing full volume by myself. I spent a quiet night at a roadside motel, I guess that could have been when it all started. I was so tired from the road that I didn't even turn the TV on. The next day I knew I'd probably just barely make the ceremony if I left as soon as soon as I got up so I got fully dressed before leaving. I was dreading the conversation with the hotel manager- “Why're you in a tuxedo? Areyou queer 'er some'in?”
But when I went to check out there was no one there. I looked around but I couldn't wait much longer so I wrote down my name and credit card number on a notepad and left. I accidentally took the pen with me-when I got to the car I stopped and almost went back to return it. I decided they probably had plenty of pens, plus I was pretty pissed about not getting any service and feeling justified for having paid at all when I could have just left, the idiot never asked me for an ID or card or anything when I came in, he was almost too drunk to hand me my key. As it turned out, the decision about not returning the pen was what saved my life. And if you think too much on things like that- well if I just did that, or, if I didn't remember to do this-you'll drive yourself mad. Alive is alive is alive. And that's all there is to it. I said I wouldn't go into those first few months but, I guess if I'm to tell you the whole story I should start at the beginning. It was still summer, the hottest I remember. In certain situations, the same questions comes up time and time again, in prison it's what are you in for? Now, when you meet someone new and it looks like you're going to being the same group for a while you ask “Who was your first kill?” but I always lied. I told anyone who asked that my first kill was the motel manager- the one I never saw after I checked in. I only told the truth once, to a girl named Emily. My first kill was a woman, a mother. And she had her children with her.
The car sat leaning half on the asphalt and half on the grass. I drove past it not thinking much- someone probably had to pee or got car sick and had to puke. As I drove by I saw two leaning heads in the car, one in the front seat, one in the back. It gave me pause but not much, not until I saw the little boy sitting alone on the breakdown lane a few hundred feet down the road. I looked at my watch- I don't know why, would I have driven right by if I was late for the wedding? I'd like to think not but that was so long ago, I can barely put myself back into the mind of someone who had weddings to attend and a watch to keep track of time.
I pulled the car over- the boy was instantly afraid of me. If I'd know what he had just seen I wouldn't have been so crass. I didn't yell at him, I knew something was wrong but all I could think of was being where I had to be.
'Is that your mom in that car? Is she okay?' he just looked at me, shaking like a leaf. I wondered if his mother had had a heart attack or stoke while driving- but he wasn't sad or confused,there was just an empty awe in his eyes. Shock. I couldn't tell at the time because I didn't know what that looked like yet. I slipped the cell phone from my pocket as I started to walk towards the car. I got about ten feet away before I saw the blood. I dialed 911 before I knew what I was really looking at. The number was busy. I couldn't believe it, how could it be busy? Then- she moved. Her eyes hadalready begun to fade. There's no explaining it. The way you feel when you see one. First you think maybe she was beaten up. And thenyou get closer and- maybe it's rabies? And then you get close enoughto see it. To smell it. It can't be. You look around for a hidden camera but there isn't one. There are only trees and wind and a scared little boy. After you see enough of them the shock of it drains away, but the pit in your stomach, the thing that tells you something's wrong with the world, that's always there. No matter how many you kill, something's always off about the world now.
The woman scratched at the window. She wanted to get at me, more than anyone has ever wanted anything. The little girl sat stiff in the backseat. Her hair matted in blood and brain. Her motherhad started with the throat and somehow had enough force to break thegirl's skull and tear out what was inside.
The door popped open and the woman spilled out to the road in front of me. I jumped back- there was a car coming in the distance. He was doing about a hundred miles and hour and the fact that I was in the way didn't seem to make a difference. The littleboy saw his mother- the monster that used to be his mother- and ran. He took off into the woods by the side of the road and as much as I'd like to say we became roadside companions, that I was like a big brother who protected him from all things big and scary- the truth is I never saw him again.
I kicked the woman's face so hard I felt her cheekbonecrack under my boot- it didn't even faze her, she grabbed my leg andI fell- the SUV swerved- missing my head by no more than a single inch. The pen dropped from the jacket pocket of my tuxedo and in a move I've mastered since: I jammed it through her eye into and soft sticky parts inside. She fell, dead. Actually dead.
I lay there, elbows up on the road waiting to wake up. If not for the smell to convince me this was real, I may still be there, lying on the road waiting for the nightmare to be over. Maybe if I'd gotten up I could have still found the boy. Maybe. Maybe not.
The next few minutes are a blur. I know I sat in my car for what could have been hours before I had to strength to turn it on and drive. I think about that boy a lot now. But at that moment, my mind was a blank. It was as if I'd just turned the power of thought off. When the fog wore off, I turned on the radio. That's when I knew the magnitude of what was happening. The reporter said New York was gone, they were everywhere. He could hear the screaming from the helicopter hundred of feet in the air. I remembered Liz. She was the first and only girl I had ever really been in love with. Still was if I'm being honest. I called and as soon as she answered she asked for help. She was still in Manhattan and trapped in her apartment. She told me that everyone in her building was turning into these things. But I couldn't help her. I was hours away and even if I did get to the city, I could never had made all the way to her building. So I sat there in my car and listened to her cry. She'd already tried to call her family. Mine was the only phone call that had actually gone through she said. She hid in the closet when theybroke the door down. The next few minutes were silence. I told her I loved her. I whispered all the sweetest things I could think of to say. It sounds stupid now, but at the time it was all there was. She said she saw a cab driver eaten in front of her- she saw others being torn to shreds. She begged for a different fate. She kept repeating it to someone who wasn't there- “Please don't let them eat me.”
After a few moments I said the only thing I thoughtwould help her. “Jump.” I whispered into the phone. I couldn't believe I'd said it. It didn't even sound like me. But suddenly her breathing slowed. I heard her whisper back, 'Okay...” and like any conversation, we ended it by saying goodbye. The phones didn't work anymore after that.
I drove on the empty highway for the better part of the day. It had been six hours since I left the motel. In those six hours I found out I wasn't a hero. I wasn't brave. I was just like anyone else who had their back against the wall. And I thought about that boy, running from his mother, leaving his dead sister behind, and how much he needed someone good and strong to help him but what he got was me.
Before I could let it sink in, I saw something. At first I thought they were walkers, I hadn't thought about what I would do if I ran into any more- and now realized I truly had no idea. I ever wanted to do what I had done with that woman on the road again. As I got closer I saw it was three people waving their arms to me- I thought about driving on, I didn't think I could talk to anyone ever again, the shame of what I'd done was so palpable to me it felt like I'd fallen into sewer water and anyone near by could smell it. I wiped the tears I didn't realize were streaming from my eyes and pulled over. That's when I met my first companions. The leader was Spencer. He had a bloody white undershirt beneath an open blue buttonup. He introduced the mousy teenager behind him as his girlfriend Emily. She seemed too young to be with him- it didn't occur to me until days later how unfocused I must have been to be thinking about that and not the blood on Spencer's shirt or the chunks of bone in the tire-iron he carried.
Ryan didn't speak, no one spoke but Spencer. He asked for a ride though truthfully he was only being polite, if I'd refused I wouldn't have survived to argue. Ryan was in a daze. He couldn't have been older than twenty but I never did find out. They piled in, Spencer told me to turn around. I hadn't realized it but I was still driving towards the wedding.
'Good thing you ran into us, that way's all dead.' Spencer took a gulp from the water bottle Emily was carrying and offered it to me. I took it. I was just this side of shutting down entirely- the water helped. We drove by Spencer's directions. He and Emily grew up around here, he took us down a dirt road which splintered from the highway and into the woods. There was a campsite near Lake Sky. I was just about out of gas so the thought of hunkering down someplace seemed best, at least until the military took over. His words echoed in my absent mind as we traveled the dirtroad to the lake.
But what really turned my stomach to knots was the wayhe said it. Like it there was a flood, like the thing keeping us from being on our way was just something that happens. Something natural.
“What is it? Do you know?” I asked him.
“Rapture...” He said, “Gotta be.”
I didn't argue. Didn't know that I could. That woman's face had burned like a brand in the back of my eyelids. She wasn't rabid, she wasn't angry, she wasn't even there. She'd died but her body kept working. This guy was saying it was the Rapture, and that was as good an explanation I was ever going to get.
There wasn't much to the camp site, it was mostly just a clearing with a few benches and tables set up by the lake. But we were grateful for the clean water and fire-pits. There were also two abandoned tents- Spencer reckoned whoever was staying here had heard about the 'commotion' and took off looking for their family. There was also the possibility that they were whisked off to heaven before anything bad happened to them, 'Only if They's good Christian of course.' Spencer'd told us. By the looks of the tents, I'd put my money on the former. One leaned crooked and bent almost trampled, the other flat on the ground with dirty boot prints running across, fully trampled. And there were supplies left behind all over the place. Power bars and hiking gear, fruits and Nalgene bottles. Good Christians don't leave their stuff scattered out like that, people in a panic do. I didn't have to ask before Spencer offered an explanation for his still being here.
“I don't think the big man upstairs would take me out of the game when there was so much I could do. That'd be like benching your star quarterback before the game even starts. Plus. I'm Christian, but I ain't exactly good.” He said with a wink and asmirk.
My first instinct was to fill up the bottles and ration the food for the week. I knew the military wouldn't be able to clear things up for at least a month or two- not after what I had heard from New York. Spencer's first instinct was to make weapons by breaking the benches and tables and marrying them to the metal skillets in the fire-pits. It made me think of Lizzy in her apartment, about what she'd seen that cab driver go through and howshe dreaded it to the point of suicide. I told Spencer I agreed, weapons first.
There was something about the uncertainty of those first few days, I can still feel it- I remember looking up to the clear blue sky above and feeling like the earth had already died and we were the left over bacteria feeding off the corpse. Yeah, now that I think about it, those first few days were hard. And easy would never come again.
* * * *
We slept in half hour shifts, whoever did the most work during the day, either hunting or searching for fire wood took the first shift to rest. Anyone dealing with the fox-holes (that's what we called the 'bathroom') would take the night off entirely. On this particular day that was me. You'd almost looks forward to that stench, it meant you were sleeping a full four hours. Where once four hours had been a complete drag, now it was a blessing. I was about two hours into the deepest sleep in four days when I heard it. The dead. Their throats push out a lulling droll, it's impossible to mistake it with anything but the vocal chords of something that shouldn't be making any sound at all. The first came at me through the tent- he clawed at the fabric trying to rip his way through. I jumped up and ran out to the rest of the group- Emily sat against a tree, makeshift weapon in hand. She'd fallen asleep on watch. The dead thing rose from the tent and stumbled toward me quicker than I thought they could- I snatched the two by four from Emily's hands and drove the metal pick we'd stuffed inside it through the walker'sfrontal lobe.
Emily woke up with a start- her hands prickled in splinters. For a moment she looked at me like I was a madman. Then it dawned on her. What had happened- what was still happening. Spencer woke up and raised Ryan, they rushed to the cache of weapons and armed themselves. Ryan tried his best to pretend he wasn't about toshit himself.
There were only three left but in those early days that seemed like a lot. One was still fresh, still strong, those are the biggest priorities- Spencer must have seen him too because before I do anything he'd already knocked that one down and put a boot through his skull. The others must have turned when it all started because their skin has begun to dry and rot. Spencer hammered his bat down and blew one of the thing's head's open like a water melon. I did my best to swing as hard as possible for a one hit kill, there's nothing I hated more than having to bash their heads in repeatedly- it didn't go my way. It growled at me and reached, its teeth baring like a shark's. I hit it in the head over and over until it finally popped. Spencer thought it was cute how hard I was working to kill just one.“It's not that easy for me. A month ago the thought of bashing someone's brains in never would have crossed my mind.” I said between breaths.
“Things are different now, killin' is livin'” hesaid, and though I didn't want to admit it, he was right. Killing was a part of life, and the more I wanted to fight that fact, the least likely I was to survive. But I dreaded being in a group with someone who so easily accepted this fact- and the worst part was, because of his callousness, Spencer was the most useful member of the group. That simple fact raised a number of philosophical questions I didn't have time to think about- at least not right then. When it was all over and the area was clear, Spencer came upon on Emily so fast I thought there was a walker near by- he grabbed her by the throat and squeezed.
“You could've killed us!” he shouted and pushed heragainst the tree behind her. For a moment I was quiet, I knew I couldn't beat him in a fight and reasoning was out of the question. Then I remembered the boy running into the woods and I thought about how he would probably be here right now if I had been brave. I pulled Spencer's arm down- Emily collapsed to the ground, eyes watering, neck bruised, “We can't turn on each other, she fell asleep, it was a mistake, it won't happen again.”
He towered over me breathing hell fire from his narrow nostrils. I knew he was still hot from the fight and the pumping blood in his veins fueled his rage- I gripped my weapon tight, then he dropped his.
“Fine. You're on watch then.” He said and went backto his tent, but before he got in he called out- “Emily!”
The tiny girl jumped up an ran after him still rubbing her neck. Ryan walked past me in silence and fixed the fallen tent.“I'll take next shift” He said and went to sleep.
The next day Spencer gathered us all for a meeting.Emily's right eye was black and swollen. It was like living at home again. She was like Bambi, the way she looked to the ground whenever his eyes glossed over to her- the way she only nodded whenever he asked her opinion on something, anything.
“How'd that happen?” Asked her. She looked at me with surprise. No one really addressed Emily direct, you had to go through Spencer first. I knew she wouldn't respond. And I knew what the answer was. But I asked anyways, so it wouldn't be ignored, so Spencer knew it wouldn't be ignored. Like I said, I couldn't take him in a fight, and if he decided it was my time to leave the group I wouldn't have much of a choice. So a seemingly normal question was the only way to get us both on the same page without me signing my own death certificate. Emily only watched as the earthworms dig. Spencer looked at me like I was the guy who tells you the item you're buying costs more than you have.
“Happened in the scuffle.” He said. A lie was more interesting than the truth, it showed he know it was wrong and that]he cared what we thought of him. “This camp ain't safe enough. We either gotta make it safe or go somewhere else.” He scanned mine and Ryan's face for a reaction. The truth is he was right and I told him so. That's all he needed.
Today we would gather up food and anything we needed to head out. Tomorrow we'd be on our way. That night I took first watch, I sat out in the dirt staring at the stars thinking about the future. Living in a world like this would only make a guy like Spencer worse. I knew my time with him was limited. It didn't matter how useful he was when shit went down, if he couldn't control his temper, he was a liability. I wasn't going to let what happened to my sister happen to someone else, especially someone who depended on me to survive just as much as I did on her. But Spencer wasn't leaving Emily, and he wasn't leaving the group, neither was I. Those thoughts soaked in my head until Ryan came to do his shift. As I lay in my tent waiting to go to sleep, I had one very clear idea in my mind, one that stayed until my brain shut itself off from exhaustion. Sooner or later, I was going to have to kill Spencer. And knowing what I know now, it should have been sooner.
The hikers had left a map of the area which gave us a vast layout of the land. It wasn't good. There were woods, woods, and more woods. No place was safe, the dead had already begun to infest the forest as we knew, and hunting became harder and harder. The animals were nearly all gone and we were dangerously low on food, but no one wanted to get that conversation started. Our only option was to look for shelter in one of the surrounding towns. That's when I first heard Ryan's voice. I don't think he'd used it in about amonth. He had to give it a couple of tries before the words came out smooth.
“My high-school's in the next town over, it's right at the edge of forest. There's a broken lock on a second story window, the chemistry lab. The cafeteria's full of cans and stuff.”
“There's probably people there already.” I said.
“Gotta try.” Spencer replied, “Ain't nuttin' else to do.”
And again, he was right. The forest wasn't an option anymore and our food supply would only last another day or two. Soon, we would barely have the energy to stay awake much less trek through the woods hunting for squirrels. I'll skip the journey. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty.
We got there two days after we started walking and had the last bit of rations about ten minutes before we saw the school. The possibility of food almost hurt- and I realized that the point I had made earlier was moot, even if there were people here, we were going to take whatever was inside, anything else would mean our deaths. Spencer and Ryan reached the clearing first. Emily and I fell behind when she had to stop to use the bathroom. I stood guard while the others walked on, I would have told Spencer he should stay with his girlfriend but I would rather have him as far from her as possible. When she came out she thanked me for staying with her,“...You took off your bow tie?” She asked. I had almost forgotten I was wearing a tuxedo. The white shirt had turned yellow and I’d long since ripped off the cummerbund. I took the tie out of mypocket, “I was going to throw it away but thought it might be useful some day. Don't know why I thought that.”
“You should keep it.”
“No reason, I just like it.” She said with a weak smile and walked ahead of me. I had never seen her smile before. It was nicest thing to happen in weeks.
The school sat quiet. We stayed by the treeline for a few minutes before Spencer passed out the weapons. “Ryan'll go in through the broken window and open the back door for us, Emily, you can be the look out in case any wal-” Spencer stopped himself when he saw her. A girl of no more than sixteen, behind her another girl a couple of years younger. They were both in dirty white dresses, their eyes had sunk and they walked on slow frail legs. It took a minute of watching to see that they were not walkers but starving. The eldest girl bent down and picked up two pale yellow flowers from the ground.She put one behind her ear and the other in her sister's hair. They started to walk back, hand in hand but the youngest stopped- they stood for a moment and looked up a the sky. I looked at Spencer, at Emily, no one seemed quite sure of themselves anymore. The girls disappeared into the school.
I gave Ryan a boost- he climbed the rest of the way up himself, he was gone a minute before the door clicked open. “See anything?” I asked him. He shook his head. We went in slow and quiet. We had learned the silent walk technique in the woods. Drytwigs were death traps. We were almost to the cafeteria when we heard the shots.
All weapons went up- the gunfire came from the gymnasium Ryan told us. Five shots, four in quick succession and as pace of about ten seconds until the last one. We had to move fast now, walkers would have heard the shots, we kept the doors unlocked behind us in case we had to run. And if there were walkers in the building- either way we had to know what happened. Ryan had to show Spencer the way and Emily was outside on watch. So I went to the gym alone, I was given five minutes before they would be out of there with or without me. I see it now like I saw it then.
Walking into that gym, that was when I knew. The hope I had for a military rescue, that spark in the middle of your heartthat tells you things will be okay eventually- that things are bad now but a day would come when everything would be like it was before,that was the moment my light went out. Five sisters had come to this school for safety. They'd made it as long as they could, they'd eaten all the food but the world outside hadn't changed. They had no one to take care of them. No parents, no policemen. All they had was a gunwith five shots left inside. The younger ones had lines up, that ten seconds before the last shot- that was the oldest looking at her family and turning the gun on herself. I've thought about that day every day since. I've thought about running from the clearing and telling that sixteen year old that things would be okay- that she could come with us. And I've had dreams when she did, and Spencer was excepting and Emily was like a mother to the littlest of them. In my dreams we were all alive, we all belonged to the each other and when one of us was sick or hungry the others would take care of them. And those girls would play the games that children play.
As I stood there and watched their blood spread out and pool together- I prayed for something to happen, anything that could change what I was feeling. I didn't care if it was a bomb going offor a military parade outside, I just needed to feel something other than that hopelessness. And then something did happen. The youngest of the girls stood up. Her sister had aimed for the heart. We thoughtonly a bite could turn someone, but now I saw that that wasn't true.This wasn't an infection, this wasn't a disease. This was Hell, and it was coming for me in a white cotton dress and flowers in its hair.
“Walkers!” Emily yelled from the front of the school- by then I had reached the cafeteria, Spencer was flippingt ables in a blind rage. No food left. Emily ran in- blind panic in her eyes.
“There's hundreds of them, the gunshots-”
“Who they hell fired those shots?” Spencer turned tome.
“The girls we saw-” I began- but at that moments the glass from the front door shattered and the locks began to break from the force of hundreds walkers pushing hungry against the doors.
“Out the back then.” Spencer said and lead the way, I stayed.
“No, there's...” He looked back at me waiting for the rest but I didn't have time to finished my sentence. Two of the five girls appeared at the far end of the hall. The youngest baring her milk teeth at us, an innocent monster. The other crawled on her arms, the bullet must have shattered her spine.
“What, are you afraid of some little girls?” Spencer laughed and moved toward them.
A second is all it takes now, a moment of hesitation and everything can change. As Spencer rushed those girls without an ounce of remorse even though he, like us, had seen them alive only minutes before I began to feel like things were getting smaller. Like the hallways weren't big enough to fit through- like the ceiling was falling on our heads. The sound of the dead groaning from behind us kept my knees locked, air was suddenly gone from my lungs. Spencer yelled for us to follow him, Ryan ran like a bat out of hell- but I couldn't. I couldn't run, I couldn't even breathe. Emily asked me what was wrong but I couldn't answer. Spencer and Ryan disappeared into the hallway assuming we were right behind them. I heard the others girls snarl and bite at them and the sound of their heads being cracked like eggshells.
The front doors broke and hundreds of dead poured inside. Emily rushed me into the run down refrigerator in the kitchen behind the counter. All the food inside had turned to rot, it took all we had no to vomit. The smell must have kept them away because just outside, the room was filling up with walkers who never tried the door.
Emily and I were in complete darkness. The space was so small we had no choice but be pushed against each other. “I'm sorry.” I whispered, “I froze...”
“It's okay.” The wind of her breath brushed mycheek.
“Thank you for helping me. Spencer will be mad you didn't go with him. But I won't let him hurt you.” She was quietfor a moment, then-
“He's not my boyfriend.” Just then one of the deadthings knocked something over outside- they rushed and swarmed whatever it was with ravenous expectation but there was nothing. I heard them give up and continue to wander.
“What do you mean he's not your boyfriend?”
“He was our neighbor. He used to watch me through the window... and then, when it started, he came to get me in my house. He saved my life. He said if I wanted to live through it I would have to do what he said. I would have to be his.” Her breathing started to change, it became hard and shallow and struggling. She was crying. I took her hand in mine and leaned in close to her ear, “You don't belong to him...” her hand tightened around mine. Her cheek lay wet on my shoulder. “You don't belong to anyone.”
The walkers sounded less and less prominent outside, we knew the oxygen wouldn't last forever but we deiced to a few minutes before trying to escape. She asked about my family. Her story was similar to mine, her brother had died a year before in a car accident and Spencer, she told me, was not far from her father. I told her about my sister, my writing, about living on my own in New York. I told her I was on the way to the wedding of a girl I had loved all my life and how I used to picture her in a wedding dress, looking at me through the veil.
She said she was home from college and that going away to a new place was the first time she realized she didn't have to be miserable all the time. That life got better than what she knew at home, at least it seemed like it would until it all changed. And she told me she actually did have a boyfriend in school, but he lived in Miami and she was pretty sure he didn't get out in time.
It felt like two hours later when we heard the shots but really it was not more then half and hour. Spencer had returned,and now he was armed. Ryan fired off some rounds down the street to distract the walkers while Spencer mowed down the ones who hadn't left yet. He opened the fridge, Emily dropped my hand, and though my eyes hadn't adjusted yet, I could have sworn I saw a flash of pain cross his face. The only emotion he'd ever shown aside from rage.
“Come on we don't have much time.” He said extending a hand to her. He glanced at me for a moment and led us out to the back.
“Where's Ryan?” Emily asked.
“He'll be right along.” Spencer said and pointed to a path in the woods. “Go on that way- he's gonna meet us. We found weapons and a place with some canned food left. Ryan knows this town real good. We're gonna be okay here. Go on.” He told her again.
“What about you guys?”
“We still have to go back and get more guns. Hurry, Ryan's waiting” She hesitated and then started to run, pretty soon she was gone and it was just Spencer and I. “You found food?” I asked him, things were starting to get foggy again, I was lightheaded and weak. Standing in the fridge so long had been more draining than I realized.
“Food, yeah we found food, guns, everything weneed...” He looked around the clearing, “...for the three of us.”
I opened my mouth to ask- before I had a chance he slid the knife just under my ribcage. There was no pain at first. And then it was like someone had struck a match and lit my insides on fire. He lowered me to the ground as the blood began to soak through my designer tuxedo shirt. Spencer walked over to the door and opened it-he put a rock against it to keep it that way and fired a shot into the school. He walked back to me and looked down.
“That'll teach you to touch another man's things.”He cleaned the blood off his blade, took my poorly constructed weaponand left. Blood oozed between my fingers, and as my breathing began to slow I could hear the approaching droll of the hungry dead.
THEMERCY OF LIVING
There was a moment, when Bambi and I were children, that I thought she was going to die. It was the birthday of one of the boys in her class. Bambi and I were invited by his mother, neither one of us had friends because of the way we dressed, white trash poor. She ate a piece of the strawberry cake, and as soon as she put it down, he throat had closed up. We never knew about our allergies because our father didn't know about them. I thought she was kidding at first, we used to make faces at each other when we felt uncomfortable in crowds. Her face got big and red and her eyes wild and confused. She rolled back off the chair, everyone looked-their smiles slowly fading. She should have died that day. The biteshe took was too big and the reaction so severe that she would have been dead by the time the ambulance got the call. She told me later that after the initial panic, after the first few moments of not being able to breathe she closed her eyes and saw something. Shenever told me what it was, but it was then that she knew she wasn't going to die. And she didn't, because on this particular day, the birthday boy's older brother was home from school, med school.
They made me look away so I never did see what he did. All I knew was that her dress was covered in blood and she wasbreathing again. I knew she wasn't supposed to die yet, I could feel it like I had never felt anything before, and that night as I lay to go to sleep I realized that things only happen when they're supposed to. I am going to die, very soon I'm sure. But that day, laying onthe blood-soaked grass, that wasn't my day. I knew it, and so did whoever sent that deer.
It had been weeks since we saw anything in the woods,squirrels were rare, but deers, they were gone. She stepped into the clearing and saw me on the ground. She trotted up to me like we were old pals who hadn't seen one another in ages. I raised a hand to pet her, she licked it. I brushed her fur, and as I did I had the stark realization that nothing is saved unless something is lost. The deer was a miracle, but miracles weren't free.
The dead stumbled absently from the door, most of them had left or were killed but Spencer had left enough alive to see me torn to shreds. About six all together. The deer saw them and triedto run- she tried to break free but I had my hands wrapped around her neck. She had nowhere to go. This time I knew the tears were there. But I'm not ashamed of what I did. I wish I didn't have to do it but you and I and anyone else left in this world knows I didn't have a choice. She fought against me- she too wanted to live, to run into the woods and never look back. The dead were just about on top of us,they saw me just as they did her- I reached down and grabbed her front leg. I pulled hard and it cracked. She crumbed on top of me, the walkers feasted.
I pulled my legs in so I was completely hidden beneath her. Blood rained from above, it covered my face like a warrior's mask. They chewed through her organs, her flesh- they ripped herbones away as one would the wrapping on a candy bar. I closed my eyes and saw what my sister saw when she ate the strawberry that closed her throat. I saw myself after this. I saw Emily laughing by a river, and she looked at me, not the way someone looks at a gravestone, but the way someone looks at their best friend, their partner.
By nightfall, most of the walkers had left. And the drop in temperate along with the blood which had now congealed and stuck to every part of me had begun to make me shiver and shake. The three walkers that stayed simply sat, as if their brains' drive to feed had, for the moment, been satisfied. I had to move or I would die here. Their static state presented me with the best opportunity I would ever have. But I was still wounded, and this wouldn't be easy.I reached around the deer's body and found what I was looking for-one of the bones the walker's had snapped off and left behind. It hada slight curve and sharp edge. Just what I needed.
In a way I guess you could say I did die there.Everything I was died that day, everything I was taught to be. As I pushed the carcass of the animal I had sacrificed to save myself off of me and stood up I could feel I was not myself anymore. I wasn't the kid who cried at the end of sad movies, I wasn't the scaredwriter who let a little boy run off into the woods. I didn't know who I was, but neither did the walkers at my feet.
I hit the first so hard his right eye exploded out of his face and landed in the brush. The other two stood simultaneously, the drive to feed had returned. I wasn't afraid. For the first time I wasn't afraid of anything at all. I jammed the bone beneath the firstone's chin- it went so far up I lost it in his head. The other tried to grab me but I stepped to the side and got behind him, I placed myhand on the back of his head and pushed it into the brick wall of theschool. Over and over I slammed his face until every bone was broken,until all that was left was the scalp I was still holding on to. I went back into the school, first thing was first, I had to stitchmyself up and get myself warm. First stop was the nurse's station. I didn't see any wounds on those girls who were here save for the onesthat took their lives. They probably never had a reason to take the first-aid kit.
Emily would later tell me that she spent that night crying beside Spencer. He told her to be quiet but she couldn't. He beat her as Ryan pretended to sleep. She told me the beating wasn't nearly as painful as the thought of me dying. I spent that night slipping a needle and thread through the ripped gash on my side.There was a window in the nurse's station, anytime the pain was toomuch I looked out hoping the see the moon. It finally came, and seeing it there as I had when things had been okay helped me to finish what I had to do. My hands shook, my heart beat hard and fast.
When it was all over I stumbled to the cabinet and poured rubbing alcohol on it. I moved to the little mirror over thebroken sink and what I saw was unrecognizable to me. First I thoughtit was because of the blood on my face but as I looked on I saw that what I didn't recognize were the eyes that looked back at me. They were not my eyes.
It took about a week for the wound to close completely. In that time I had secured all the doors, killed a few undead stragglers, and found a hidden stash of candy bars and potato chips in the desk of an over-weight teacher. I worked myself up from five to ten push ups a day. Unimpressive if not for the stitches- which came undone a few times in the process. I was getting myself strong again. I wanted to leave as soon as possible of course, knowing full well that every night Spencer crawled on top of Emily it was nothing less than sexual assault. I wanted to leave every minute of every day for that week and the next. But I didn't. I wouldn't do her any goodunless I was good and ready to face him. The skeleton key that opened every locker in the school was beneath the principle's desk in the main office. It took a good while to go through them all but in the end, I had a pocket knife, about sixteen lighters and a hell of a lot of energy bars. God bless cheerleaders.
Two weeks and three days after I had been stabbed and left for dead, I was ready to kill the man who had killed me. All Ryan wanted was to come back to his hometown- it was obvious they would eventually have gone to his house, I was hoping against all hope they hadn't left yet. The town was quiet, it had walkers but no more than anywhere else, no real reason to leave- but, with all the stores in town Ryan knew could get to, they had lots of reasons to stay. The first morning I was at the school I went to the main officelooking for Ryan's file, I circled his address on a map and spent every day since memorizing the way there.
* * * *
I took four hours to move seven blocks, the walkers snapped their heads at anything moving faster than they did. I'd taken the maggot infested beef from the fridge and hung the pieces around my neck using string I found in the art department. Every now and then I would stop to vomit along the road until I had nothingleft to throw up. The sound of it made them turn but the smell wasn't inviting enough to investigate. I also had to stop constantly in abandoned stores and public restrooms to strip myself of all my clothes- I had found nine jackets around the school and had usedpieces from each to make one extremely warm bite proof suite of armor. I tested it by putting a pieced of wood in the sleeve and trying to bite through to it. It was as close to impossible as I was going to get.
* * * *
The house must have been well taken care of in its day, but now the overgrown grass lay dying thick over the front yard. I knew my journey was not in vain, I could see the flicker of fire on the top side window. The moon was blocked by storm clouds- I was nothing more than a shadow climbing the veranda. The slow trickle of rain was also welcome as it helped to mask the sound of my boots oncreaking wood. I peered through the window- Spencer lay beside Emily-his arm thrown across her body as if to say mine.
I lifted the window one inch at a time and slippedinside as quiet as the breeze that followed.
Emily opened her eyes; I got down on one knee beside the makeshift stove they had constructed. My face was lit by momentary flickers of orange firelight, she gave me a small scared smile. I opened the pocket knife so she would know my purpose. She gave the slightest nod and simply closed her eyes again. I moved around her to Spencer's side and put the blade on his throat:
Ryan stood still as a statue at the edge of the room- we looked at each other frozen in our mutual surprise,
“Spencer!” He yelled-
I slashed as best I could but Spencer turned with the motion of the cut suffering a mere nick- he immediately pushed me off him knocking over the stove in the process- its embers scatteredaround the room like a thousand red stars. In about two second it was I under Spencer's control. He grabbed my wrist and smashed it on thehardwood until knife came tumbling out. Emily screamed, pleading for my life-
“How the fuck did you-” he began but let the thought go when the rage of nearly being killed in his sleep took over. “Ryan get me that pistol there.” Spencer said while wrapping both hands around my neck. Ryan rushed to the weapon's cache in the corner of the room- Emily threw herself on top of him, punching, biting, scratching- Ryan almost lost to her ferocity but in a moment of dumbluck he rushed the wall and Emily cracked the back of her head against a bookshelf and collapsed to the floor.
“HOO-EY!” Spencer yelled, “I do believe her skull may have just popped!”
The sounds of the room were fading, all I could hear was a dull pulse thumping slower and slower in my ears. Spencer leaned his weight on me as he lifted a hand from my neck to take the pistol from Ryan. He clicked the hammer back and put the cold barrelhard against my temple. Then, he took it away, “You know what?Better idea-” he aimed the gun back towards the unconscious Emily; the last mistake he ever made.
I couldn't reach any vital part of him which is why he wasn't too concerned with my hands. What he didn't know- what I had forgotten in the madness, was that I had put a small plastic lighter in every pocket of the monster jacket I'd created. I writhed this was and that so he couldn't aim, “Keep still piggy.” he laughed trying to get a clear shot- I slipped a hand into my frontbreast pocket, sparked the lighter on and held it at his wrist- it was only seconds before he jumped back with a start. I snatched the knife from the floor and slashed wildly at his throat.
Blood, everywhere there was blood. Spencer fell against a wall- he slapped both hands on his throat trying to stop it from coming out so fast. Ryan started to back out of the room which was now glowing orange bright as the curtain caught fire. I took thefallen gun and raised it up to his chest.
“Don't. Move.” I said, his pants grew dark and wet with urine.
Turning my attention back to Spencer, I pulled his hands away from the wound. Red spilled out by the gallons. I walked to Emily- the back of her head was cut but the bone was intact.
“Wake up, the room's on fire.” I smiled. Her eyes blossomed open, after a moment of confusion, she stood with me. Spencer's breath grew shallow and soon stopped. Once it did she said,
“No problem.” I replied. Ryan stood like afrightened center piece in the middle of the room.
“Please...” he pleaded, “I was afraid of him... I only did what I had to.”
The fire grew into a blaze around us I turned to Emily,“I was going to leave what to do with him up to you.”
“Leave him.” She said, we left.
We watched the house burn from the backyard. “Where did you guys find all these guns anyway?” I asked. “Ryan's dad had the pistol, police station had a couple Berettas and the shotgun.Army barracks had the knife.”
“Your knife.” I said.
“Yeah,” Emily said with a smile, “...my knife.”she took my hand in hers, and as we walked away from the heat of those flames, we could hear a trapped walkers burning in the second story window.
“Rock paper scissors?” I asked as we knelt behind a mound of Fall-orange leaves.
“No way, it's my turn.” Emily said and jumped up. I turned to Oliver who still had the are they for real expression frozen on his face and said “She's something else isn't she?”
“You guys actually have fun doing this?” He asked, not taking his eyes off Emily or the walker she rushed.
“We're just as surprised as you are.” I told him and watched as Emily slipped the walker's advance and rammed the spearthrough his head.
“How long have you been together?” he asked, Emily waved, we waved back.
“We're not. Why do you think she likes me?”
“I meant together as in, you know just together.”
“Oh. A few months.” I said, a little embarrassed.
“Yeah, she likes you.” He smiled.
It had been ninety seven days since we left Spencer and Ryan to their fate. We found Oliver fighting for his life in the woods two days before, a group of five walkers managed to surroundhim.
“Five walkers?” Emily had said as we watched thechubby man try to outrun the mini horde, “How'd he survive thislong?”
“Let's ask him.” I said and with that we both tookoff, we had learned that guns were a last resort. In the three months we had been living in the woods, we had made all sorts of weapons from materials in our environment. Emily liked long spears and things she could throw, getting too close meant getting the stench of death on your clothes, and the smell of it was the only thing neither of us were quite used to yet.
I liked smaller, more intimate weapons- maybe it was because I used a pen to kill my first walker, or the deer bone that saved my life, or the pocket knife I used to slay Spencer. There was something about being that close and making sure- something about the vibration of a knife crunching a skull... of course I wouldn't tell Oliver any of this, he was an engineer, a homebody- not the kind to survive an apocalypse by being violent, and yet here he was. To behonest, my thrill of killing walkers did give give me pause. It wasn't even a year ago that I couldn't muster the courage to walk to a girl in a bar. But now most of those girls were dead and I was left to make sure they weren't walking too.
Emily and I had stuck by the river, following it north towards Massachusetts. My grandparents owned a farm in Amherst. Grandaddy owned a few guns but that wasn't the prize, he grew up in the time nuclear threat, he was a young man during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and told me on more than one occasion that he would never feel that fear again. Against my grandma's wishes he installed a fallout bunker in their basement where he kept enough canned food and water to last six months, maybe a year. That was the prize.
I had told him to survive nuclear fallout, a year's worth of food and water probably wasn't enough- to which he responded: “Well, it's better than nothing.” and you just can't argue with that, and I'm glad I didn't try. I told Emily this on the first days we were alone and she agreed it was out best bet, no one outside my family knew about the shelter and even if they did, they couldn't get into it without the key, the location of which was also only known to family members. I didn't want to get my hopes up but it wasn't exactly out of the question to think my grandparents werethere now, sitting and enjoying their bunker without worry of walkers or starvation.
So we set out first moving east, it was hard to get your bearings right away but eventually we hit the Housatonic State Forest in Connecticut and from there we put the sunrise to our right and sunset to our left and trekked more or less straight north. Everyday we would hunt and one of us would rest while the other found the nearest source of water. Keeping just one of us strong at all times was the only way to keep the team strong all the time. And we trained rigorously. By the time we crossed the state border we were proficient killers and it started getting fun. There was a routine to the way we moved, the way we stalked our prey be it walkers or animals. For a while we weren't just surviving, I dare say we were almost living again.
Whenwe picked up Oliver we were only about a week from Amherst. Since we did most of the killing and hunting during the day, he always volunteered go ahead of us whenever we found a cabin, shack or abandoned farmhouse along the way to sleep in. If we did find a safe place, he would sing us the folk songs he used to play at open mics. He said he had lost his guitar along the way so we would have to forgive the roughness of it but the truth is he was a great singer. He would teach me and Emily lyrics, though I never sang. I much preferred to watch and listen to Em as she closed her eyes to hit the high notes. He even gave her a notepad and pen and told her if she could write the lyrics, he would make up a melody.
“I'm not the writer of the group.” She told him pulling her head my way.
“Have you tried?” He asked her.
“I used to write poetry, when I was little.”
“Poetry's just music without the rhythm.” He said and gave her a smile. She asked him about his life before, about the music, the open mics, about who his own songs were about. He looked up to the stars and with a soft sad smile he only shook his head.
The next few nights I would pretend to be asleep when she got up in the middle of the night and tried her hand at writing. Some nights the pen would scratch that pad so fiercely I thought shewould rip it to pieces. On others, she just sat tapping and tapping until finally giving up and going to sleep, only to wake up a few minutes later and trying again.
* * * *
I studied the map Oliver had provided us with and made my best guess at where we were, I was beginning to be good at that. By my calculations we were no more than a day or two from the farm, but we had run out of food and the animals had run from the forest. There is nothing scarier than getting a twinge of hunger and knowing there's nothing to eat. We all sat down to discuss a course of action and before long it seemed obvious we only had one choice. Go to the nearest town and try our luck there before moving on to the farm. But the towns were teeming with hungry dead. In the end we decided to try it, we didn't have a choice and at this point and the walkers were becoming less and less of a problem as we learned to defend ourselves better. We taught Oliver everything we knew about killing them but still he hesitated each time. We were always there to back him up, but I told him someday we wouldn't be and his hesitation would cost him dearly. He agreed. He said he would try his best.
I circled the nearest town on the map- the next day Oliver would scout ahead and report back what he saw. We told him we could go but he insisted, saying if he couldn't do this much than he was just holding us back. We relented and got ready to go to sleep but Emily stood awkward in the center of the room.
“Em?” I crooked my head at her, she swallowed hard.I looked around- no walkers, no danger.
“I was wondering...” She started and and took apiece of paper from her pocket. “Can I...?”
Oliver came back and sat down next to me, “Go on.”He encouraged her. She looked at me, her hands shaking, “Please.”I said.
She cleared her throat and put the paper up to her face,“...Not gonna sing it.” She said, and began to read:
The worlds fell away and night came once, and forever to stay. For a time, starlight shuddered at the truth of it, and I, in the middle,was lost.
A happy child with missing teeth,
a pig tailed girl in dry dirty leaves.
And mother who was kind, left on a Saturday and simply died. And father who loved me, sat at home and forgot.
My brother, my watcher, my care taker, never saw the thing that killed him.
And the girl was taken off, never to be seen again.
The worlds fell away, but night was ending and light gave way.
She folded the paper and put it back in her pocket. Her hands were clammy and white, she had never been so scared. Oliver got up and gave her a big bear hug. He said he was so proud, not only that she wrote something so well but that it was personal and hard to read but she did it anyway. I almost didn't say anything, I didn't know how to express what I was feeling. I wrapped my arms around her and slow held them there. “You are so much more than you see.” I whispered in her ear, and then I kissed her. She leaned softly into me and took my hand. We laid down together, our stomachs empty, our hearts a little fuller than before. We went to sleep. Outside, the wind blew riled and uncertain.