|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 theway things are now and I guess that's the easiest way to survive. Iwish I was like them, but I'm not. Things are different in us, thesurvivors. A shitty day used to mean a lot of things, none of whichmattered in the least. And awful day- that's what you said if someonedied before their time, or even after. Grandma died, that was 'anawful day' that was the what used to be normal. But today death iscommonplace, and if your best friend is bit by a walker and you haveto put a bullet in him, that's just another shitty day.
Beforeit happened, before awful became shitty and shitty was standard, Iwas on my way to being a writer. I guess that's why I'm doing thisnow. So if you're reading this it's because I'm dead and I thoughtsomeone should know what happened to us. Maybe it will make adifference. Maybe it won't.
I'vebeen snowed in for the past month, supplies are low. There's no usetrying 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 theweek. Every ounce of energy I have is going into writing this. Someof us will do what we have to to survive. That's not me. It was once,but now I want us alltosurvive. And the only way to do that is to tell a story and hopepeople 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 aterritory worth killing for, my words will be found eventually, butfor now it's a tomb. And this is my last will and testament.
* * * *
Bythe 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 fortunefive hundred company in London, but she traveled almost daily. Ithink she was in the Netherlands when it started here. I don't knowwhere it began really, it seemed to be everywhere all at once. Butphones 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 afterthe divorce, our mom left us when she left our dad. We never forgaveher, but then again she never gave us reason to. We were left with adrunk who among other things liked to take his failures out on hischildren. My sister learned quick that to live outside his rule she'dhave to be successful in something. We never had money, so she chosethat. Community college and a few math scholarships later she was onher 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 herbosses that what they were doing was wrong how they could make moremoney if they followed her advice and it was off to the races forBambi.
Shefelt bad about leaving me, like she had inherited some abandoninggene from our mom but I told her to go and live her life, I wouldgraduate soon and by the time I did she would have a place big enoughfor both of us to share. She'd be traveling most of the time but thatjust meant I'd pay half the renton a place I basically had for myself. But when graduation came shewas 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 shewas never there long enough to enjoy it. I told her it was okay, thatwe would meet up when she came stateside but that turned out to beonce or twice a year at the most. She sent me money whenever Iwas too broke to decline, and she called at least once a month. Ican't blame her for succeeding, and I wouldn'twant to even if I could. The honest to goodness truth is I was soproud of her for doing what shedid, for keeping her head down and just doing the work- for enduringour father until she didn't have to anymore, that I was just happythat she was living the life she'd set for herself. And in a way Iwas too. I had a studio apartment in downtown Manhattan. I felt likeHolden Caufield on his mini vacation after being thrown out ofschool, or one of Bukowski's barflies. I was living on my own above abar that never closed, I was smoking cigarettes in my room andstaying up all night writing pages and tossing them as soon as Iwrote 'The End.'
These are the things that make a writer happy. Not thatI was a real writer. More like a professional imitator of styles. IfI was in the mood for poetry I'd look at some E.E Cummings and do mybest to steal everything he’d written, someone thought I had somepotential and paid me an advance to write some generic pieces aboutbeing young in the city. I gave him three thousand words on theimportance of writing a grocery list before going shopping. I wasfive 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'show it was for a while, just me and my thoughts.
Then, one day, I got a call from a friend I'd known inschool. She lived upstate and had asked me to come to her wedding. Ididn't even know she was engaged but I told her I'd love to come. Iwrote three ten pages essays in an many days for some friends whowere going to N.Y.U for the tuxedo money and a graduation speech forthe car rental. It had been a long time since I had driven a car- Irelished it.
I couldn't get a convertible but I'd been making dowith what I had my whole life. What's a convertible compared to athoughtfully over compensated sound system? I swear just one hour onthe road and my throat was fire-red and scratchy from singing fullvolume by myself. I spent a quiet night at a roadside motel, I guessthat could have been when it all started. I was so tired from theroad that I didn't even turn the TV on. The next day I knew I'dprobably just barely make the ceremony if I left as soon as soon as Igot up so I got fully dressed before leaving. I was dreading theconversation with the hotel manager- “Why're you in a tuxedo? Areyou queer 'er some'in?”
Butwhen I went to check out there was no one there. I looked around butI couldn't wait much longer so I wrote down my name and credit cardnumber 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. Idecided they probably had plenty of pens, plus I was pretty pissedabout not getting any service and feeling justified for having paidat all when I could have just left, the idiot never asked me for anID or card or anything when I came in, he was almost too drunk tohand me my key. As it turned out, the decision about not returningthe pen was what saved my life. And if you think too much on thingslike 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 allthere 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 thebeginning. It was still summer, the hottest I remember. In certainsituations, the same questions comes up time and time again, inprison it's what are you in for?Now, when you meet someone new and it looks like you're going to bein 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 themotel manager- the one I never saw after I checked in. I only toldthe truth once, to a girl named Emily. My first kill was a woman, amother. And she had her children with her.
The car sat leaning half on the asphalt and half on thegrass. I drove past it not thinking much- someone probably had to peeor got car sick and had to puke. As I drove by I saw two leaningheads in the car, one in the front seat, one in the back. It gave mepause but not much, not until I saw the little boy sitting alone onthe breakdown lane a few hundred feet down the road. I looked at mywatch- I don't know why, would I have driven right by if I was latefor the wedding? I'd like to think not but that was so long ago, Ican barely put myself back into the mind of someone who had weddingsto attend and a watch to keep track of time.
I pulled the car over- the boy was instantly afraid ofme. 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 couldthink of was being where I had to be.
'Is that your mom in that car? Is she okay?' he justlooked at me, shaking like a leaf. I wondered if his mother had had aheart 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 atthe time because I didn't know what that looked like yet. I slippedthe cell phone from my pocket as I started to walk towards the car. Igot about ten feet away before I saw the blood. I dialed 911 before Iknew what I was really looking at. The number was busy. I couldn'tbelieve it, how could it be busy? Then- she moved. Her eyes hadalready begun to fade. There's no explaining it. The way you feelwhen 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 hiddencamera but there isn't one. There are only trees and wind and ascared little boy. After you see enough of them the shock of itdrains away, but the pit in your stomach, the thing that tells yousomething's wrong with the world, that's always there. No matter howmany you kill, something's always off about the world now.
The woman scratched at the window. She wanted to get atme, more than anyone has ever wanted anything. The little girl satstiff 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 theroad in front of me. I jumped back- there was a car coming in thedistance. He was doing about a hundred miles and hour and the factthat 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'dlike to say we became roadside companions, that I was like a bigbrother who protected him from all things big and scary- the truth isI 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 singleinch. The pen dropped from the jacket pocket of my tuxedo and in amove I've mastered since: I jammed it through her eye into and softsticky 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 bethere, lying on the road waiting for the nightmare to be over. Maybeif 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 carfor what could have been hours before I had to strength to turn it onand drive. I think about that boy a lot now. But at that moment, mymind was a blank. It was as if I'd just turned the power of thoughtoff. When the fog wore off, I turned on the radio. That's when I knewthe magnitude of what was happening. The reporter said New York wasgone, they were everywhere. He could hear the screaming from thehelicopter hundred of feet in the air. I remembered Liz. She wasthe first and only girl I had ever really been in love with. Stillwas if I'm being honest. I called and as soon as she answered sheasked for help. She was still in Manhattan and trapped in herapartment. She told me that everyone in her building was turning intothese things. But I couldn't help her. I was hours away and even if Idid get to the city, I could never had made all the way to herbuilding. So I sat there in my car and listened to her cry. She'dalready tried to call her family. Mine was the only phone call thathad actually gone through she said. She hid in the closet when theybroke the door down. The next few minutes were silence. I told her Iloved her. I whispered all the sweetest things I could think of tosay. It sounds stupid now, but at the time it was all there was. Shesaid she saw a cab driver eaten in front of her- she saw others beingtorn to shreds. She begged for a different fate. She kept repeatingit 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'tbelieve I'd said it. It didn't even sound like me. But suddenly herbreathing slowed. I heard her whisper back, 'Okay...” and like anyconversation, we ended it by saying goodbye. The phones didn't workanymore after that.
I drove on the empty highway for the better part of theday. It had been six hours since I left the motel. In those six hoursI found out I wasn't a hero. I wasn't brave. I was just like anyoneelse who had their back against the wall. And I thought about thatboy, running from his mother, leaving his dead sister behind, and howmuch he needed someone good and strong to help him but what he gotwas me.
Before I could let it sink in, I saw something. Atfirst I thought they were walkers, I hadn't thought about what Iwould do if I ran into any more- and now realized I truly had noidea. I ever wanted to do what I had done with that woman on the roadagain. As I got closer I saw it was three people waving their arms tome- I thought about driving on, I didn't think I could talk to anyoneever again, the shame of what I'd done was so palpable to me it feltlike I'd fallen into sewer water and anyone near by could smell it. Iwiped the tears I didn't realize were streaming from my eyes andpulled over. That's when I met my first companions. The leader wasSpencer. He had a bloody white undershirt beneath an open blue buttonup. He introduced the mousy teenager behind him as his girlfriendEmily. She seemed too young to be with him- it didn't occur to meuntil days later how unfocused I must have been to be thinking aboutthat and not the blood on Spencer's shirt or the chunks of bone inthe tire-iron he carried.
Ryan didn't speak, no one spoke but Spencer. He askedfor a ride though truthfully he was only being polite, if I'd refusedI wouldn't have survived to argue. Ryan was in a daze. He couldn'thave 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 stilldriving 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 andoffered it to me. I took it. I was just this side of shutting downentirely- the water helped. We drove by Spencer's directions. He andEmily grew up around here, he took us down a dirt road whichsplintered from the highway and into the woods. There was a campsitenear Lake Sky. I was just about out of gas so the thought ofhunkering down someplace seemed best, at least until the militarytook 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 frombeing 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'sface had burned like a brand in the back of my eyelids. She wasn'trabid, she wasn't angry, she wasn't even there. She'd died but herbody kept working. This guy was saying it was the Rapture, and thatwas as good an explanation I was ever going to get.
There wasn't much to the camp site, it was mostly justa clearing with a few benches and tables set up by the lake. But wewere grateful for the clean water and fire-pits. There were also twoabandoned tents- Spencer reckoned whoever was staying here had heardabout the 'commotion' and took off looking for their family. Therewas also the possibility that they were whisked off to heaven beforeanything bad happened to them, 'Only if They's good Christian ofcourse.' Spencer'd told us. By the looks of the tents, I'd put mymoney on the former. One leaned crooked and bent almost trampled, theother flat on the ground with dirty boot prints running across, fullytrampled. And there were supplies left behind all over the place.Power bars and hiking gear, fruits and Nalgene bottles. GoodChristians don't leave their stuff scattered out like that, people ina panic do. I didn't have to ask before Spencer offered anexplanation for his still being here.
“I don't think the big man upstairs would take me outof the game when there was so much I could do. That'd be likebenching your star quarterback before the game even starts. Plus. I'mChristian, but I ain't exactly good.” He said with a wink and asmirk.
My first instinct was to fill up the bottles and rationthe food for the week. I knew the military wouldn't be able to clearthings up for at least a month or two- not after what I had heardfrom New York. Spencer's first instinct was to make weapons bybreaking the benches and tables and marrying them to the metalskillets in the fire-pits. It made me think of Lizzy in herapartment, 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 thosefirst few days, I can still feel it- I remember looking up to theclear blue sky above and feeling like the earth had already died andwe were the left over bacteria feeding off the corpse. Yeah, now thatI think about it, those first few days were hard. And easy wouldnever come again.
* * * *
We slept in half hour shifts, whoever did the most workduring the day, either hunting or searching for fire wood took thefirst shift to rest. Anyone dealing with the fox-holes (that's whatwe called the 'bathroom') would take the night off entirely. On thisparticular day that was me. You'd almost looks forward to thatstench, it meant you were sleeping a full four hours. Where once fourhours had been a complete drag, now it was a blessing. I was abouttwo hours into the deepest sleep in four days when I heard it. Thedead. Their throats push out a lulling droll, it's impossible tomistake it with anything but the vocal chords of something thatshouldn't be making any sound at all. The first came at me throughthe tent- he clawed at the fabric trying to rip his way through. Ijumped up and ran out to the rest of the group- Emily sat against atree, makeshift weapon in hand. She'd fallen asleep on watch. Thedead thing rose from the tent and stumbled toward me quicker than Ithought they could- I snatched the two by four from Emily's hands anddrove the metal pick we'd stuffed inside it through the walker'sfrontal lobe.
Emily woke up with a start- her hands prickled insplinters. For a moment she looked at me like I was a madman. Then itdawned on her. What had happened- what was still happening. Spencerwoke up and raised Ryan, they rushed to the cache of weapons andarmed themselves. Ryan tried his best to pretend he wasn't about toshit himself.
There were only three left but in those early days thatseemed like a lot. One was still fresh, still strong, those are thebiggest priorities- Spencer must have seen him too because before Ido anything he'd already knocked that one down and put a boot throughhis skull. The others must have turned when it all started becausetheir skin has begun to dry and rot. Spencer hammered his bat downand blew one of the thing's head's open like a water melon. I did mybest to swing as hard as possible for a one hit kill, there's nothingI hated more than having to bash their heads in repeatedly- it didn'tgo my way. It growled at me and reached, its teeth baring like ashark'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 bashingsomeone's brains in never would have crossed my mind.” I saidbetween breaths.
“Things are different now, killin' is livin'” hesaid, and though I didn't want to admit it, he was right. Killing wasa part of life, and the more I wanted to fight that fact, the leastlikely I was to survive. But I dreaded being in a group with someonewho so easily accepted this fact- and the worst part was, because ofhis callousness, Spencer was the most useful member of the group.That simple fact raised a number of philosophical questions I didn'thave time to think about- at least not right then. When it was allover and the area was clear, Spencer came upon on Emily so fast Ithought there was a walker near by- he grabbed her by the throat andsqueezed.
“You could've killed us!” he shouted and pushed heragainst the tree behind her. For a moment I was quiet, I knew Icouldn'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 abouthow he would probably be here right now if I had been brave. I pulledSpencer's arm down- Emily collapsed to the ground, eyes watering,neck bruised, “We can't turn on each other, she fell asleep, it wasa mistake, it won't happen again.”
He towered over me breathing hell fire from his narrownostrils. I knew he was still hot from the fight and the pumpingblood in his veins fueled his rage- I gripped my weapon tight, thenhe 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 rubbingher 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 homeagain. She was like Bambi, the way she looked to the ground wheneverhis eyes glossed over to her- the way she only nodded whenever heasked her opinion on something, anything.
“How'd that happen?” Asked her. She looked at mewith surprise. No one really addressed Emily direct, you had to gothrough Spencer first. I knew she wouldn't respond. And I knew whatthe answer was. But I asked anyways, so it wouldn't be ignored, soSpencer knew it wouldn't be ignored. Like I said, I couldn't take himin a fight, and if he decided it was my time to leave the group Iwouldn't have much of a choice. So a seemingly normal question wasthe only way to get us both on the same page without me signing myown death certificate. Emily only watched as the earthworms dig.Spencer looked at me like I was the guy who tells you the item you'rebuying costs more than you have.
“Happened in the scuffle.” He said. A lie was moreinteresting than the truth, it showed he know it was wrong and thathe cared what we thought of him. “This camp ain't safe enough. Weeither gotta make it safe or go somewhere else.” He scanned mineand Ryan's face for a reaction. The truth is he was right and I toldhim so. That's all he needed.
Today we would gather up food and anything we needed tohead 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 hewas when shit went down, if he couldn't control his temper, he was aliability. I wasn't going to let what happened to my sister happen tosomeone else, especially someone who depended on me to survive justas much as I did on her. But Spencer wasn't leaving Emily, and hewasn't leaving the group, neither was I. Those thoughts soaked in myhead until Ryan came to do his shift. As I lay in my tent waiting togo to sleep, I had one very clear idea in my mind, one that stayeduntil my brain shut itself off from exhaustion. Sooner or later, Iwas going to have to kill Spencer. And knowing what I know now, itshould have been sooner.
The hikers had left a map of the area which gave us avast 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 infestthe forest as we knew, and hunting became harder and harder. Theanimals were nearly all gone and we were dangerously low on food, butno one wanted to get that conversation started. Our only option wasto look for shelter in one of the surrounding towns. That's when Ifirst 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 outsmooth.
“My high-school's in the next town over, it's right atthe 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' elseto do.”
And again, he was right. The forest wasn't an optionanymore and our food supply would only last another day or two. Soon,we would barely have the energy to stay awake much less trek throughthe woods hunting for squirrels. I'll skip the journey. It wasn'teasy and it wasn't pretty.
We got there two days after we started walking and hadthe last bit of rations about ten minutes before we saw the school.The possibility of food almost hurt- and I realized that the point Ihad made earlier was moot, even if there were people here, wewere going to take whatever was inside, anything else would mean ourdeaths. Spencer and Ryan reached the clearing first. Emily and I fellbehind when she had to stop to use the bathroom. I stood guard whilethe others walked on, I would have told Spencer he should stay withhis girlfriend but I would rather have him as far from her aspossible. When she came out she thanked me for staying with her,“...You took off your bow tie?” She asked. I had almost forgottenI was wearing a tuxedo. The white shirt had turned yellow and I’dlong since ripped off the cummerbund. I took the tie out of mypocket, “I was going to throw it away but thought it might beuseful some day. Don't know why I thought that.”
“You should keep it.”
“No reason, I just like it.” She said with a weaksmile and walked ahead of me. I had never seen her smile before. Itwas nicest thing to happen in weeks.
The school sat quiet. We stayed by the treeline for afew minutes before Spencer passed out the weapons. “Ryan'll go inthrough the broken window and open the back door for us, Emily, youcan be the look out in case any wal-” Spencer stopped himself whenhe saw her. A girl of no more than sixteen, behind her another girl acouple of years younger. They were both in dirty white dresses, theireyes had sunk and they walked on slow frail legs. It took a minute ofwatching to see that they were not walkers but starving. The eldestgirl 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. Theystarted to walk back, hand in hand but the youngest stopped- theystood for a moment and looked up a the sky. I looked at Spencer, atEmily, no one seemed quite sure of themselves anymore. The girlsdisappeared into the school.
I gave Ryan a boost- he climbed the rest of the way uphimself, he was gone a minute before the door clicked open. “Seeanything?” I asked him. He shook his head. We went in slow andquiet. We had learned the silent walk technique in the woods. Drytwigs were death traps. We were almost to the cafeteria when we heardthe shots.
All weapons went up- the gunfire came from thegymnasium Ryan told us. Five shots, four in quick succession and aspace of about ten seconds until the last one. We had to move fastnow, walkers would have heard the shots, we kept the doors unlockedbehind us in case we had to run. And if there were walkers in thebuilding- either way we had to know what happened. Ryan had to showSpencer the way and Emily was outside on watch. So I went to the gymalone, I was given five minutes before they would be out of therewith or without me. I see it now like I saw it then.
Walking into that gym, that was when I knew. The hope Ihad for a military rescue, that spark in the middle of your heartthat tells you things will be okay eventually- that things are badnow 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 thisschool for safety. They'd made it as long as they could, they'd eatenall the food but the world outside hadn't changed. They had no one totake care of them. No parents, no policemen. All they had was a gunwith five shots left inside. The younger ones had lines up, that tenseconds before the last shot- that was the oldest looking at herfamily and turning the gun on herself. I've thought about that dayevery day since. I've thought about running from the clearing andtelling that sixteen year old that things would be okay- that shecould come with us. And I've had dreams when she did, and Spencer wasexcepting and Emily was like a mother to the littlest of them. In mydreams we were all alive, we all belonged to the each other and whenone of us was sick or hungry the others would take care of them. Andthose girls would play the games that children play.
As I stood there and watched their blood spread out andpool together- I prayed for something to happen, anything that couldchange 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 otherthan that hopelessness. And then something did happen. The youngestof 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, andit was coming for me in a white cotton dress and flowers in its hair.
“Walkers!” Emily yelled from the front of theschool- by then I had reached the cafeteria, Spencer was flippingtables in a blind rage. No food left. Emily ran in- blind panic inher 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 theglass from the front door shattered and the locks began to break fromthe 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 forthe rest but I didn't have time to finished my sentence. Two of thefive girls appeared at the far end of the hall. The youngest baringher milk teeth at us, an innocent monster. The other crawled on herarms, the bullet must have shattered her spine.
“What, are you afraid of some little girls?” Spencerlaughed and moved toward them.
A second is all it takes now, a moment of hesitationand everything can change. As Spencer rushed those girls without anounce of remorse even though he, like us, had seen them alive onlyminutes before I began to feel like things were getting smaller. Likethe hallways weren't big enough to fit through- like the ceiling wasfalling on our heads. The sound of the dead groaning from behind uskept my knees locked, air was suddenly gone from my lungs. Spenceryelled for us to follow him, Ryan ran like a bat out of hell- butI couldn't. I couldn't run, I couldn't even breathe. Emilyasked me what was wrong but I couldn't answer. Spencer and Ryandisappeared into the hallway assuming we were right behind them. Iheard the others girls snarl and bite at them and the sound of theirheads being cracked like eggshells.
The front doors broke and hundreds of dead pouredinside. Emily rushed me into the run down refrigerator in the kitchenbehind the counter. All the food inside had turned to rot, it tookall we had no to vomit. The smell must have kept them away becausejust outside, the room was filling up with walkers who never triedthe door.
Emily and I were in complete darkness. The space was sosmall we had no choice but be pushed against each other. “I'msorry.” I whispered, “I froze...”
“It's okay.” The wind of her breath brushed mycheek.
“Thank you for helping me. Spencer will be mad youdidn'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 swarmedwhatever it was with ravenous expectation but there was nothing. Iheard 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 thewindow... 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 haveto do what he said. I would have to be his.” Her breathing startedto 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'tbelong to him...” her hand tightened around mine. Her cheek lay weton my shoulder. “You don't belong to anyone.”
The walkers sounded less and less prominent outside, weknew the oxygen wouldn't last forever but we deiced to a few minutesbefore trying to escape. She asked about my family. Her story wassimilar to mine, her brother had died a year before in a car accidentand Spencer, she told me, was not far from her father. I told herabout my sister, my writing, about living on my own in New York. Itold her I was on the way to the wedding of a girl I had loved all mylife and how I used to picture her in a wedding dress, looking at methrough the veil.
She said she was home from college and that going awayto a new place was the first time she realized she didn't have to bemiserable all the time. That life got better than what she knew athome, at least it seemed like it would until it all changed. And shetold me she actually did have a boyfriend in school, but helived in Miami and she was pretty sure he didn't get out in time.
It felt like two hours later when we heard the shotsbut 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 todistract the walkers while Spencer mowed down the ones who hadn'tleft yet. He opened the fridge, Emily dropped my hand, and though myeyes hadn't adjusted yet, I could have sworn I saw a flash of paincross his face. The only emotion he'd ever shown aside from rage.
“Come on we don't have much time.” He said extendinga hand to her. He glanced at me for a moment and led us out to theback.
“Where's Ryan?” Emily asked.
“He'll be right along.” Spencer said and pointed toa path in the woods. “Go on that way- he's gonna meet us. We foundweapons and a place with some canned food left. Ryan knows this townreal 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 soonshe was gone and it was just Spencer and I. “You found food?” Iasked him, things were starting to get foggy again, I was lightheadedand weak. Standing in the fridge so long had been more draining thanI 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 slidthe knife just under my ribcage. There was no pain at first. And thenit was like someone had truck a match and lit my insides on fire. Helowered me to the ground as the blood began to soak through mydesigner 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 intothe 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 beganto 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 ofthe boys in her class. Bambi and I were invited by his mother,neither one of us had friends because of the way we dressed, whitetrash poor. She ate a piece of the strawberry cake, and as soon asshe put it down, he throat had closed up. We never knew about ourallergies because our father didn't know about them. I thought shewas kidding at first, we used to make faces at each other when wefelt uncomfortable in crowds. Her face got big and red and her eyeswild 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 havebeen dead by the time the ambulance got the call. She told me laterthat after the initial panic, after the first few moments of notbeing 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'tgoing to die. And she didn't, because on this particular day, thebirthday 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 feelit like I had never felt anything before, and that night as I lay togo to sleep I realized that things only happen when they're supposedto. 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 didwhoever 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 theclearing and saw me on the ground. She trotted up to me like we wereold pals who hadn't seen one another in ages. I raised a hand to pether, she licked it. I brushed her fur, and as I did I had the starkrealization that nothing is saved unless something is lost. The deerwas a miracle, but miracles weren't free.
The dead stumbled absently from the door, most of themhad left or were killed but Spencer had left enough alive to see metorn 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 herneck. 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 butyou and I and anyone else left in this world knows I didn't have achoice. She fought against me- she too wanted to live, to run intothe 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 herfront 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 beneathher. Blood rained from above, it covered my face like a warrior'smask. They chewed through her organs, her flesh- they ripped herbones away as one would the wrapping on a candy bar. I closed my eyesand saw what my sister saw when she ate the strawberry that closedher 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, butthe way someone looks at their best friend, their partner.
By nightfall, most of the walkers had left. And thedrop in temperate along with the blood which had now congealed andstuck to every part of me had begun to make me shiver and shake. Thethree walkers that stayed simply sat, as if their brains' drive tofeed had, for the moment, been satisfied. I had to move or I woulddie here. Their static state presented me with the best opportunity Iwould 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 Ipushed the carcass of the animal I had sacrificed to save myself offof me and stood up I could feel I was not myself anymore. I wasn'tthe 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 whoI was, but neither did the walkers at my feet.
I hit the first so hard his right eye exploded out ofhis 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 Iwasn'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 triedto 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. Iwent back into the school, first thing was first, I had to stitchmyself up and get myself warm. First stop was the nurse's station. Ididn'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 thefirst-aid kit.
Emily would later tell me that she spent that nightcrying beside Spencer. He told her to be quiet but she couldn't. Hebeat her as Ryan pretended to sleep. She told me the beating wasn'tnearly as painful as the thought of me dying. I spent that nightslipping 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, andseeing it there as I had when things had been okay helped me tofinish what I had to do. My hands shook, my heart beat hard and fast.
When it was all over I stumbled to the cabinet andpoured 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 thatwhat I didn't recognize were the eyes that looked back at me. Theywere 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 undeadstragglers, and found a hidden stash of candy bars and potato chipsin the desk of an over-weight teacher. I worked myself up from fiveto ten push ups a day. Unimpressive if not for the stitches- whichcame undone a few times in the process. I was getting myself strongagain. I wanted to leave as soon as possible of course, knowing fullwell that every night Spencer crawled on top of Emily it was nothingless than sexual assault. I wanted to leave every minute of every dayfor 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 openedevery locker in the school was beneath the principle's desk in themain office. It took a good while to go through them all but in theend, I had a pocket knife, about sixteen lighters and a hell of a lotof energy bars. God bless cheerleaders.
Two weeks and three days after I had been stabbed andleft for dead, I was ready to kill the man who had killed me. AllRyan wanted was to come back to his hometown- it was obvious theywould eventually have gone to his house, I was hoping against allhope they hadn't left yet. The town was quiet, it had walkers but nomore than anywhere else, no real reason to leave- but, with all thestores in town Ryan knew could get to, they had lots of reasons tostay. 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 spentevery day since memorizing the way there.
* * * *
I took four hours to move seven blocks, the walkerssnapped their heads at anything moving faster than they did. I'dtaken the maggot infested beef from the fridge and hung the piecesaround my neck using string I found in the art department. Every nowand 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'tinviting enough to investigate. I also had to stop constantly inabandoned stores and public restrooms to strip myself of all myclothes- I had found nine jackets around the school and had usedpieces from each to make one extremely warm bite proof suite ofarmor. I tested it by putting a pieced of wood in the sleeve andtrying to bite through to it. It was as close to impossible as I wasgoing 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. Iknew my journey was not in vain, I could see the flicker of fire onthe top side window. The moon was blocked by storm clouds- I wasnothing more than a shadow climbing the veranda. The slow trickle ofrain 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 themakeshift stove they had constructed. My face was lit by momentaryflickers of orange firelight, she gave me a small scared smile. Iopened the pocket knife so she would know my purpose. She gave theslightest nod and simply closed her eyes again. I moved around her toSpencer's side and put the blade on his throat:
Ryan stood still as a statue at the edge of the room- welooked at each other frozen in our mutual surprise,
“Spencer!” He yelled-
I slashed as best I could but Spencer turned with themotion of the cut suffering a mere nick- he immediately pushed me offhim knocking over the stove in the process- its embers scatteredaround the room like a thousand red stars. In about two second it wasI under Spencer's control. He grabbed my wrist and smashed it on thehardwood until knife came tumbling out. Emily screamed, pleading formy life-
“How the fuck did you-” he began but let the thoughtgo when the rage of nearly being killed in his sleep took over. “Ryan get me that pistol there.” Spencer said while wrapping bothhands around my neck. Ryan rushed to the weapon's cache in the cornerof 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 headagainst a bookshelf and collapsed to the floor.
“HOO-EY!” Spencer yelled, “I do believe her skullmay have just popped!”
The sounds of the room were fading, all I could hearwas a dull pulse thumping slower and slower in my ears. Spencerleaned his weight on me as he lifted a hand from my neck to take thepistol 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 hewasn'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 plasticlighter in every pocket of the monster jacket I'd created. I writhedthis was and that so he couldn't aim, “Keep still piggy.” helaughed trying to get a clear shot- I slipped a hand into my frontbreast pocket, sparked the lighter on and held it at his wrist- itwas only seconds before he jumped back with a start. I snatched theknife from the floor and slashed wildly at his throat.
Blood, everywhere there was blood. Spencer fell againsta wall- he slapped both hands on his throat trying to stop it fromcoming out so fast. Ryan started to back out of the room which wasnow 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 wetwith urine.
Turning my attention back to Spencer, I pulled hishands away from the wound. Red spilled out by the gallons. I walkedto Emily- the back of her head was cut but the bone was intact.
“Wake up, the room's on fire.” I smiled. Her eyesblossomed 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... Ionly 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. “Wheredid you guys find all these guns anyway?” I asked. “Ryan's dadhad 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 ofthose flames, we could hear a trapped walkers burning in the secondstory window.
“Rock paper scissors?” I asked as we knelt behind amound of Fall-orange leaves.
“No way, it's my turn.” Emily said and jumped up. Iturned to Oliver who still had the are they for real expressionfrozen 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 andwatched as Emily slipped the walker's advance and rammed the spearthrough his head.
“How long have you been together?” he asked, Emilywaved, 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 andRyan to their fate. We found Oliver fighting for his life in thewoods 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 monthswe had been living in the woods, we had made all sorts of weaponsfrom materials in our environment. Emily liked long spears and thingsshe could throw, getting too close meant getting the stench of deathon your clothes, and the smell of it was the only thing neither of uswere quite used to yet.
I liked smaller, more intimate weapons- maybe it wasbecause I used a pen to kill my first walker, or the deer bone thatsaved my life, or the pocket knife I used to slay Spencer. There wassomething about being that close and making sure- something about thevibration of a knife crunching a skull... of course I wouldn't tellOliver any of this, he was an engineer, a homebody- not the kind tosurvive an apocalypse by being violent, and yet here he was. To behonest, my thrill of killing walkers did give give me pause. Itwasn't even a year ago that I couldn't muster the courage to walk toa girl in a bar. But now most of those girls were dead and I was leftto make sure they weren't walking too.
Emily and I had stuck by the river, following it northtowards Massachusetts. My grandparents owned a farm in Amherst.Grandaddy owned a few guns but that wasn't the prize, he grew up inthe time nuclear threat, he was a young man during the Cuban MissileCrisis, and told me on more than one occasion that he would neverfeel that fear again. Against my grandma's wishes he installed afallout bunker in their basement where he kept enough canned food andwater to last six months, maybe a year. That was the prize.
I had told him to survive nuclear fallout, a year'sworth of food and water probably wasn't enough- to which heresponded: “Well, it's better than nothing.” and you just can'targue with that, and I'm glad I didn't try. I told Emily this on thefirst days we were alone and she agreed it was out best bet, no oneoutside my family knew about the shelter and even if they did, theycouldn't get into it without the key, the location of which was alsoonly known to family members. I didn't want to get my hopes up but itwasn't exactly out of the question to think my grandparents werethere now, sitting and enjoying their bunker without worry of walkersor starvation.
So we set out first moving east, it was hard to getyour bearings right away but eventually we hit the Housatonic StateForest in Connecticut and from there we put the sunrise to our rightand 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 thenearest source of water. Keeping just one of us strong at all timeswas the only way to keep the team strong all the time. And we trainedrigorously. By the time we crossed the state border we wereproficient killers and it started getting fun. There was a routine tothe way we moved, the way we stalked our prey be it walkers oranimals. For a while we weren't just surviving, I dare say we werealmost living again.
Whenwe picked up Oliver we were only about a week from Amherst. Since wedid most of the killing and hunting during the day, he alwaysvolunteered go ahead of us whenever we found a cabin, shack orabandoned farmhouse along the way to sleep in. If we did find a safeplace, 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 toforgive 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 muchpreferred to watch and listen to Em as she closed her eyes to hit thehigh notes. He even gave her a notepad and pen and told her if shecould write the lyrics, he would make up a melody.
“I'm not the writer of the group.” She told himpulling 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 saidand gave her a smile. She asked him about his life before, about themusic, the open mics, about who his own songs were about. He lookedup to the stars and with a soft sad smile he only shook his head.
The next few nights I would pretend to be asleep whenshe 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 tappinguntil finally giving up and going to sleep, only to wake up a fewminutes later and trying again.
* * * *
I studied the map Oliver had provided us with and mademy 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 knowingthere's not hing to eat. We all sat down to discuss a course ofaction and before long it seemed obvious we only had one choice. Goto the nearest town and try our luck there before moving on to thefarm. But the towns were teeming with hungry dead. In the end wedecided to try it, we didn't have a choice and at this point and thewalkers were becoming less and less of a problem as we learned todefend ourselves better. We taught Oliver everything we knew aboutkilling them but still he hesitated each time. We were always thereto back him up, but I told him someday we wouldn't be and hishesitation would cost him dearly. He agreed. He said he would try hisbest.
I circled the nearest town on the map- the next dayOliver would scout ahead and report back what he saw. We told him wecould go but he insisted, saying if he couldn't do this much than hewas just holding us back. We relented and got ready to go to sleepbut 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:
Theworlds fell away and night came once, and forever to stay. For atime, starlight shuddered at the truth of it, and I, in the middle,was lost.
Ahappy child with missing teeth,
apig tailed girl in dry dirty leaves.
Andmother who was kind, left on a Saturday and simply died. And fatherwho loved me, sat at home and forgot.
Mybrother, my watcher, my care taker, never saw the thing that killedhim.
Andthe girl was taken off, never to be seen again.
Theworlds fell away, but night was ending and light gave way.
Shefolded the paper and put it back in her pocket. Her hands were clammyand white, she had never been so scared. Oliver got up and gave her abig bear hug. He said he was so proud, not only that she wrotesomething so well but that it was personal and hard to read but shedid it anyway. I almost didn't say anything, I didn't know how toexpress what I was feeling. I wrapped my arms around her and slowheld them there. “You are so much more than you see.” I whisperedin her ear, and then I kissed her. She leaned softly into me and tookmy hand. We laid down together, our stomachs empty, our hearts alittle fuller than before. We went to sleep. Outside, the wind blewriled and uncertain.