Order of the Dead: After the Zombie War
Copyright © 2015 by Guy James.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
“The virus runs its fingers over us, grinning at the bloody trail it leaves behind. It speaks through our mouths, pushing pointless gusts of air through a leather bellows with torn lips. Yearning, it delights in the movements of our flesh and bone as it breaks us, over and again, in its relentless push through the world, toward the Equilibrium.”
Brother Mardu, Order of the Dead.
It crossed the tree line, trampling a cluster of fairy ring mushrooms and leaving the branches of a holly bush shuddering in its wake. When it was just barely inside the clearing, it stopped, still out of reach of the spotlights. There it tilted its head skyward, seeming at the same time to lean into the night, as if it were drawing the power of the moon’s sallow gaze into itself by drinking of the ashen glow.
It did this the way you might put a hand against a wall to regain your strength or find courage, and this was when it would have taken a breath to steel itself, were it still a breathing thing, which, of course, it no longer was.
Instead, what the prideful moonbeams lit up was a creature foul and sagging, not alive but still moving in spite of the laws of nature—well, the old laws, anyway. The night was brave and just-hatched, and it knew better than to take account of the past or its rules. The dark had its own way of doing things, and it was keeping score now.
The spell of stillness broke, and the zombie set off on a clumsy lope toward New Crozet.
Senna Phillips, Rosemary Preston, and Alan Rice were inside the perimeter, watching. They were standing on a well-flattened patch of ground that Senna and Alan’s boots knew well, but which Rosemary had never visited before.
Alan’s face was sun-swept, rugged, and, at the present moment, emotionless. The Voltaire II was heavy in his hands, its shoulder strap, which should have borne most of the weight, hanging slack at his side. The weapon was the revamped model of the Voltaire I, the great numero uno of Voltaires, which had been state-of-the-art nine years ago, back when the fine artists had all turned in their trowels for good.
A gust of wind caught Senna’s hair, shifting the long strands about her face, but she gave no sign of noticing. She appeared to be entirely within her element, so self-possessed and calm that even the metallic luster the moon gave her hair seemed like something she’d arranged. Poised inches from her sidearm, her right hand was starting to feel that familiar, tugging itch.
Senna was New Crozet’s best spotter, a master at predicting the break, the critical point when a zombie moved from a state of dormancy to rampage. Few others in the world, and no one in town, could match her skill. She had a gift, and that was why she, and some of those fortunate enough to have been around her, had survived.
Breathing slowly through her nose, she regarded the thing outside the perimeter coolly. It was getting closer to New Crozet’s fence, and nearer to breaking.
And that’s what we’re here for, she thought.
Alan was a cleaner, a former foot soldier of the reclamation efforts that had come after the zombie apocalypse, and some thought that he was the best at what he did, but he believed that ‘longest-lived’ was the more fitting term for it.
He didn’t think there was that much to killing and burning zombies other than being careful about your routine, and, above all else, having the benefit of a talented spotter like Senna. What he did, he knew, was nothing like spotting.
If you asked him, he’d tell you that he’d been lucky more times than any man deserved.
You take what you get, he thought, and you keep on fighting.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alan saw Rosemary’s ponytail trembling, and, as he firmed up his resolve—they were doing the right thing by having the girl here…it had to be done—he briefly took one hand out from under the Voltaire II’s chassis and pushed his black-framed glasses back up to the top of his nose.
The tension in Alan’s body was growing by the moment: his stomach muscles were starting to contract, and his mouth was becoming uncomfortably dry. Though he’d been with the reclamation crews, the rec-crews, for years, the fear had never gone away, and, he was sure, it never would.
Rosemary was nine years old, and, unlike the adults at either side of her, she was visibly nervous, chewing on her lip, shifting from foot to foot, and pulling at the loose strings of her jacket sleeve with the fingers of her left hand.
The girl looked up at the night sky, where thick, wispy clouds were floating dreamily, as out of place on the world’s rim as she felt now, trying to stand with purpose so close to the fence.
The moon yellowed at her as she stared at it, offering up a jaundiced grin, as if it knew the punch line to it all, and thought the joke to be not only funny, but maddeningly so. Having found no comfort in the sky, Rosemary lowered her gaze and looked through the window in the fence.
Following her eyes with its wan, smirking stare, the moon watched the creature stumble closer, stirring up dust and rocks and clods of dirt, uncovering damp soil and setting the worms that had been crawling there to search for shelter deeper in the earth.
Rosemary looked over at Alan, and in his face she saw none of what she herself was feeling. All she could see was the light of an intense focus, what looked to her like an almost-otherworldly determination.
But, under the surface, the pit of Alan’s belly was filled with concern for Senna and Rosemary. The feeling was a gnawing discomfort that lived in the background of his being, like a tunneling animal, and now it was popping its anxious head out of its hole, and in its dirt-clotted paws it was holding a bow-tied gift of dread.
Senna wasn’t Alan’s wife, and Rosemary wasn’t his daughter, but they might as well have been. They were like his family now—no, they were his family now because they were all he had left, and he was all they had left. He would die for either; would endure the cruelest torture to spare their lives.
As he looked at Senna, a familiar longing passed through him, a need to never be apart from her, to touch her and hold her and kiss her scars and listen to her talk about anything in that high, melodious voice of hers. Lust colored the feeling a light shade of red, like a crayon dabbing its essence in between shapely lines and want reached him even now, folding the depth of feeling he had for her into it, and then the physical desire was overturned and subsumed in the fullness of his affection for his everything, his world, his Senna.
She turned and looked at him, appearing to have read his mind, and she probably had, because she was good at that, or at least at seeming to do so. Her eyes accepted his love and want, and returned her own, and her gaze glimmered with a stubborn will to live and love and keep on living, even in a world they didn’t control anymore, a world that was limited to an area inside a fence.
Not a cage, she thought, a home.
The corners of her lips twitched upward, the movement nearly imperceptible, but Alan saw it, or felt it, or something, he wasn’t sure. She turned back to the gate.
Behind the townspeople, the Blue Ridge Mountains stood looming over all of New Crozet, framing the town within great, undulating curves of the muted shades of autumn. Opposite the mountains, the clearing of dirt beyond the gate was glowing under the spotlights, and a twenty yard stretch of road could be seen leading into the forest until it disappeared, swallowed by the tree line and the shadows of wooded limbs that minded the toll there. The forest interior was obscured fully in night, the moon’s forays out from cloud cover unable to reach past the darkled canopies of turning leaves.
An orchestra of unseen insects was now in the third act of its musical backdrop, and Alan wasn’t sure whether complete silence would have been more or less unnerving than the melody, whose eeriness the critters had perfected over millennia. Practice makes perfect, and when you have ages for it, the practice doesn’t have to be perfect, just ongoing.
The drone, a mélange made up of the scrapes of insect limbs and punctuated by staccato wing beats, had fallen off noticeably in the moments before the zombie materialized out of the forest’s gloom, and since then, the insect song had recovered most, though not all, of its previous volume, and was now playing on in muted fashion.
Rosemary’s eyes ran over the pockmarked surface of the concrete slab in front of her. It was one of many blocks that made up the bottom third of the eighteen foot high fence encircling New Crozet. The concrete was there to keep out the smallest zombie animals, which would have been able to squeeze through the chain link that protruded from the concrete’s top like an overgrown hedge, lousy with rust.
The girl’s asthma said a greeting to her then, as she was staring at the fence and trying to grapple with what she was about to do. She drew the air in, but it wouldn’t connect properly, and when she tried again, it still didn’t get to where it was supposed to go.
It was probably fear squeezing her chest, and she knew that, so she tried to calm herself by focusing on the imperfections in the cement seal between the concrete blocks in front of her, on the cracks and rough spots and flecks of dirt. She found a large crack, gazed at it, then shut her eyes tight, watching the image’s afterglow burn in her mind’s eye.
It was closing in on a minute since her last breath had connected, and she could feel the choking, panic tears building behind her eyes, but she couldn’t let them out, wouldn’t, because that would just make it worse.
With her eyes still closed, trying to apply all of her focus to the image of the crack, a jagged, stretched-out, not-quite rectangle, she tried to breathe in again. This time, thankfully, the air filled the far reaches of her lungs with relief, and the tension that had been building up in her slowly-suffocating body loosened its hold.
She opened her eyes, being careful to look only at the fence, and not at Senna or Alan, not wanting to look at them, or more precisely, not wanting them to see her looking, because they might see the horror written on her face.
The noises coming from the clearing grew louder, and she realized that in her terror-fueled asthmatic gasps, the sounds of dirt being scraped and kicked up, the hollow, lung-rattling moans, the feral bleats, they’d all been drowned out, but even so, the relative quiet hadn’t been enough to pretend that this was a bad dream that would unravel upon waking.
She balled up her left hand, the one that wasn’t holding the gun, the one that had been fidgeting and crawling about her body like a spider, looking for loose strings to pick at, into a fist, and that helped her get some control over her shaking.
Alan glanced at Rosemary and saw that she was staring at the concrete. She looked anxious, but she was holding the pistol, identical to Senna’s though out of its holster, in a determined grip, the barrel pointing downward.
Before the concrete, the whole fence had been made of chain link, and that had proven to be bad for business. Mice, rats, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, and small birds, all of the zombie persuasion, as luck had it, had wriggled into New Crozet on occasion, and, because not all of these could be found and killed in time, some had made their way into New Crozet homes, ensuring the town population’s steady decline.
It was fortunate—thank goodness for small miracles—that the virus made its victims into automatons, brainless robots, which staggered and crawled, putrefying as they went, with most of their prior coordination gone. Had the birds held onto their ability to fly after infection, the concrete would have been useless, and all but the underground settlements would have been lost.
After the concrete was finished, the population stabilized, and the people who’d been guarding the fence were freed up for other tasks, and then New Crozet had prospered, in a post-apocalyptic, trapped-in-a-confined-space-until-you-die sort of way.
Locked up for all these years, Alan thought. If that’s prosperity…
He looked at Rosemary again, and this time he frowned because she looked extremely tense, more so than the other children usually did at this point, and on seeing that, a weight of sadness alighted on his shoulders, making the Voltaire II feel instantly heavier. He turned away from the girl, straightened, and tried to force the guilt from his mind.
A fear nagged at him then, as he stared blankly at the ground between Senna and Rosemary’s feet and the fence: what if a zombie burrowed under and got in?
The concrete was buried to a depth of three feet, but that didn’t seem enough when he obsessed over it—no depth did—and although he’d never seen any zombies burrow, the virus could mutate again, and who knew what the next viral iteration would bring? A digging trait, or some return of dexterity, weren’t out of the question.
Alan was sure that if there was another mutation, it would be the last, the end, regardless of what changes it brought.
Though he never spoke about this with the other townspeople, he suspected that they shared his feelings on the subject. The virus had grown stronger with time, and it was poised to take everything, to take all of them. It was simply a matter of when.
He shook his head.
It’s no good to think this way, he thought. Least of all now.
Rosemary, Senna, and Alan were in the narrow alley that began in the westernmost corner of the outer gate and extended away from the town, like a peninsula of fence reaching for the forest. At the farthest point in the alley, at a height of five feet, was a semi-circular window made of multiple panes of transparent, bulletproof plastic.
Like a porthole into the territory of the zombies, this window gave the townspeople a complete view of New Crozet’s entrance.
The alley had in it another, smaller window, rectangular and made for communicating with the drivers of visiting vehicles, which were few and far between, and, normally, restricted to market days. The window was small and high enough that, even when opened, no zombies could get through.
The plastic pane of this window was removable, unlike the curved pane of the viewing window at the alley’s edge and now, the pane was gone, because Alan had removed it earlier, and Senna and Rosemary were positioned in front of the opening. The air in the frame seemed to be threatening, as if it had the power to suck them all through and out of New Crozet’s safety, and was simply waiting for the right moment to do so.
Senna stiffened, and Alan, noting her change in manner, gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the Voltaire II.
There came the first snap, and then the second, and then more in rapid succession that sounded like cannon fire in the night, and, suddenly, the zombie was moving at a blinding clip, its rotten body hurtling toward the fence, heading for the curved window at the end of the alley, not the open one.
They always do this, Alan thought dismally. There was a cold logic in their behaviors, hardwired in them by the virus, and they never deviated from the program. Even the mistakes they made, if they could be called that, were all the same.
It slammed headfirst into the plastic pane, further breaking the bones of its face and head, adding to the disfigurement given to it by years of injury and rot.
Rosemary jumped backward and failed to stifle a gasp. The children were taught from a young age to be quiet, and to stay away from the fence to begin with, but to risk no more than a whisper if the fence was in sight. Now that didn’t matter so much, seeing as how they’d called this zombie here themselves.
The girl’s gun hitched upward, remaining precariously in her grip, and for a moment it looked like she might lose her balance and fall, but Senna caught her by the shoulders and got her steady.
Alan exhaled. He wasn’t worried for his own safety, he’d been in far too many encounters with the zombies for that, and closer ones than this, but Rosemary had never done anything like this before, and though Senna was more experienced than he was, seeing her so close to a zombie again unnerved him.
It was a safe exercise, at least to the extent they could make it one, but it was still dangerous because if nothing else, the virus had proven that, under its influence, the state of the world could be entirely unpredictable.
The zombie staggered backward from the semi-circle of plastic, reversed course, and slammed its head into the plastic again. Then it stumbled back once more, its gait more bent now, more damaged.
Backing away from the perimeter, it threw its head about wildly, as if trying to pick up a scent not with the stump that was left of its nose but with the sides of its face. The virus, it seemed, was looking for another way in.
Alan took this opportunity to move in and crept to the viewing window, ducked, and looked through it, scanning the forest.
His eyes searched for the tree line, and after a few moments of gazing at the darkness past the ground lit up by the spotlights, fixed on it. There, at the tree line, tendrils of shadow were creeping toward the town, venturing toward the spotlights and struggling to find a way into the illuminated clearing.
He stared, and as he did, a puzzled expression bloomed on his face. Something wasn’t right.
A new movement caught his eye and he looked away from the trees to face the zombie directly. It was turning, the wild tossing of its head slowing, as it edged in the direction of the other window, the one that Alan had opened earlier, then it took off in a shambling run.
“It’s coming,” Alan whispered, turning toward Senna and Rosemary and positioning himself closer to them. “Get ready.”
Behind Alan , a piece of sparsely-haired zombie flesh left stuck to the window’s rounded plastic seemed to glare at his back, as if daring him to return. Within the spectrum of viral gore, it was unremarkable, a souvenir of the zombie’s collision with the window, and a minor one at that. It would dry in the sun and fall off eventually, a poisonous jerky.
He moved so that he was behind Senna and Rosemary, who were standing in front of the window, waiting. He adjusted his hands under the Voltaire II and studied Rosemary, who appeared calmer now, more attuned to Senna’s wavelength, which was good.
Then the putrid odor that belonged so completely to the zombies reached them and hugged them tight with its foulness, entering their nostrils and nipping at their skin, coming uninvited and as it pleased, passing over welcome mats and dirtying the rug.
Rosemary’s breath caught, and she began to feel a spell of lightheadedness coming on as the good air was being pushed away from her, displaced by floating particles of rot, and the far reaches of her lungs began to close up in protest again.
The virus very much wanted those lungs for itself, faulty though they were, and the girl in whom they resided, and, if it got its way, it would have them, and her, and the rest of the holdouts who’d squirreled themselves away in the self-imposed captivity of places like New Crozet.
Above New Crozet’s outer gate, Corks clicked off his rifle safety and then scratched absently at a frayed spot on his pant leg. Like Alan, Senna, and Rosemary below him, he was wearing old and practical clothing that was threadbare in places and worn with no eye to matching pieces or catching the latest fashion trends, although the tattered and ill-fitting look was certainly in these days, and they all had that down to a T.
His full name was Corbet X. Noire, but he preferred not be reminded of his former life. The name his parents had given him would get him to thinking about his father, who, even though the ‘X’ in Corks’s name stood for Xavier, had liked to joke that it was pronounced ‘Javier.’ And that would only serve to remind him of his father, who’d died long before his time—thank God he isn’t alive to see any of this—and of the short-lived father-son relationships in the Noire line. The fathers in his ancestry always seemed to die too young, leaving their sons as children in the world, but he’d broken with that tradition, or rather, the virus had done it, by taking Corks’s son from him.
When his father had died, Corks had been left a boy with too many questions, questions that he’d wanted to ask his father, but no longer could, and didn’t have the heart to bring up with his mother. The outbreak had made him realize that he’d also had things to say to his son that he hadn’t raised in time, and now never would. There was a lesson in that, he knew—ask it while you can, say it while you can, ask them what they think and tell them you love them…while you can.
Corbet Xavier-pronounced-Javier Noire looked down at Senna, Alan, and Rosemary, and at the approaching zombie, whose stench of death was being carried to him on the shifting breeze.
It was trying to get in and give that smell to New Crozet, and fulfill Corks’s worst nightmare, which he thought on much and now, there it was again, right on time, that familiar scene coalescing in his mind from the circling vapors of memory and dread, which always found him in moments such as this, and he’d learned with time, resistance was futile.
Superimposed on his vision, he saw the townspeople as pictures of decay, going about their business of aimless, walking death, trapped inside the New Crozet perimeter, dormant in an enclosure that lacked prey. Moments later, his son, Remy, stumbled out from behind the little church where the town meetings were held and with painful slowness he joined the New Crozet zombie horde, and together, they advanced on the town center, drawing closer to the market.
Remy’s full name was Remy Y. Noire, and the middle initial stood for Yoren, the name of Remy’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Corks had joked with him that he had a family duty to give his own son a middle name that began with ‘z,’ to keep the family tradition of alphabetically progressing middle names alive. It could’ve been Zane or Zed or Zarul or Zanuda or Zax or countless others, the possibilities had been happily endless, and it had been for Remy to decide, anyway.
Joking with Remy about middle names had made Corks feel like he was somehow connecting with his own father, understanding the man more and getting to know him in a way he’d never had the chance to do in life.
Remy never had a son, and, though Corks suspected there was something left of Remy somewhere, it wasn’t really him anymore, no, it was…just the virus.
The scene in his head kept developing, like a strip of photographic film taking a chilling, chemical bath, and Corks saw that in the tangle of zombie limbs, Remy wasn’t a man in the prime of his life as he’d been before the outbreak, but a mindless, physical ruin showing break upon break…upon break.
New Crozet is purgatory, Corks’s mind sang to him in the mocking lilt that it had perfected over the last decade. It’s the ultimate punishment for those unworthy even of hell.
That means you, Corks. You. You must’ve done some seriously rank shit to earn your comeuppance, and you’re livin’ it up now, oh yes you are.
Focus, he told himself. Focus on the present, on your job. You have a duty to New Crozet, to your people, to the people who are left.
Shutting his eyes he managed to pull the curtain shut on the vision of an undead New Crozet, and the torturous performance of his synapses was forced into an intermission.
There was a mental sigh of relief…which was cut short when a dragging foot poked out from under the curtain, and then a human shape pressed into the corded burgundy fabric above the foot, and he knew it was only a matter of time until the zombies fought their clumsy way past the shutter for Act Two.
He opened his eyes and looked down. These were his people, and he was charged with taking care of them, and he’d be damned—more so, completely so—if he failed now. Straightening to his full height, just shy of six feet, he thrust his chest forward and sucked in his nonexistent gut, catching a stronger whiff of the rot in the air.
In the days soon after the outbreak, he’d been unable to keep from gagging when the stench that was wafting up to the tower was around him, but now, his stomach held its ground easily.
He aimed, knowing that this was where it could get dicey, and centered the zombie’s head in his rifle sight. He’d been out in the field with Senna and Alan many times in the past, and in spite of this exercise’s relative safety…well, that was just it, it was only relative. And if something went wrong, well…
Corks glanced at the two locked gates behind the people at the fence, catching a glimpse of the town, where a scatter of dim lights was emanating from the shadowy silhouettes of houses. Even with the zombie closing in, the town looked peaceful, unworried, in a quiet and well-earned repose.
Separating Alan, Senna, and Rosemary from New Crozet’s interior and faint, hopeful illumination, were two inner gates, which were locked, and if the approaching zombie or any of its kind found a way through the outer gate, then Senna, Rosemary, and Alan would have nowhere to flee.
The inner gates wouldn’t be opened for them, and if not for them, certainly not for any other New Crozet citizen in their place. They’d be forced to deal with the threat themselves, walled in by gates on a narrow strip of ground, with only the help of Corks from his watchtower.
The three gates could only be opened in sequence, and no two could ever be opened at the same time. Well, technically they could be, but that wasn’t allowed under any circumstances, and this rule, that only one gate be opened at any given time, was the strictest one New Crozet had, and anyone discovered breaking it would be expelled, a punishment that meant certain death.
You could survive outside the perimeter for some length of time, especially if you were skilled at spotting, but, even then, the virus’s progress could only be delayed.
The zombies, even while dormant, always crept closer to you. They were blind and drawn only to noise, but the virus sharpened their sense of hearing so that even the faintest sound was enough to attract them, and the noise you’d make, as an uninfected human, was the best of all, a sensory delicacy that the virus needed to stuff into its hungrily gaping mouth and suck all the juices from.
Of course, the sounds made by your helpless movements were just an appetizer, and the main course was your flesh, and, if the virus was lucky enough for you to be a child, a little boy or girl who’d made it for so long after the outbreak; the special du jour would be your fear, your anguish, your suffering, as it dawned on you that you’d been bitten and were turning, graduating from the zombie boot camp with flying colors.
That…that fear, that knowing anguish, was the most delectable of spices on the virus’s tongue, and of increasing rarity these days, what with so few people left.
The real clincher was that even if you were good enough to spot the zombies, the virus’s legions of feelers, coming, your instinct—that built-in, human instinct—was to run, and if you did, you’d make noise, and the faster you tried to get away, the louder you’d get, and the faster the zombies would come, slipping by degrees out of dormancy until…
And after that, after they were broken, there was little hope left.
If you were like most people, you’d run when you saw the diseased viciousness closing in behind you, and if you hadn’t been a sprinter before the outbreak, you’d learn quick, or not, and that would take care of itself, because the zombies were blazing fast after they broke, like flashes of death running after you while your lungs burned and your muscles cried out for air and your heart for mercy. But the virus’s kind, they didn’t need air, ’cause they don’t need no stinking fuel, no, they want only one thing, and it’s the same thing they run on, too, a mastery of perpetual motion if there ever was one.
All they want, all they need, and wantonly at that, is to put the virus in you, so it can eat you alive.
Senna allowed herself a backward glance, reassuring herself that Alan was still behind her, and, had she needed it, that would’ve helped brace her for what was about to happen, but she didn’t need it, because this was routine and safe, for the most part. They were inside the perimeter, and though something could always go wrong, the elements that could be controlled here, were.
Past Alan, she could see that the town was quiet, encapsulated in a semi-darkness made of night, moonlight, moonlit reflections, and the dim, wandering emissions of lamps from a few of the houses.
The lights were low because it was late, but also because electricity was carefully rationed to avoid overloading the transmission lines. An overload might require Senna, Alan, and some of the other experienced townspeople to risk their lives traveling outside the perimeter for repairs.
A person could be kicked out for wasting power, but it had never been done, even with drunks like Larry Knapp who frequently passed out with their lights on. He was the town’s expert imbiber, after all, and New Crozet looked after its own, such as they were.
People didn’t use that much power anymore anyway, hardly running ACs in the summer or using appliances, as if electricity had gone out of style over the years. Maybe it was because turning the machines on brought the past to life, reminding them all of what was lost for good and it was better not to stir up those feelings, better to sweat it out in the heat of summer without the latest soap opera on the tube than to dredge up idle sharp things.
The zombie had now closed most of the distance to the open window, in front of which the three townspeople were standing. Given the state of its body, its bones, it was a wonder the thing didn’t fall over—you had to give it to the virus sometimes.
Rosemary edged closer to Senna, and Alan took in the movement with his peripheral vision, but his gaze remained fixed on the open frame.
Up in the tower, Corks said, “Here it comes,” letting the words spill out just under his breath. “Hell on earth.” He set his jaw, firmed up his grip on the rifle, and braced himself.
Opting to skip any further introductions, the zombie thrust its misshapen head through the open window, scraping off a scraggly, decay-chewed ear in the frame. The loss of the ear was like a small dead Lego popping off of a larger Lego structure, said larger structure being just as lifeless as the earpiece—no bleeding, hardly any wound, no harm no foul.
Its mouth was working furiously, snapping at the air with the four teeth it had managed to keep unclaimed by the elements, chipped and blackened though they were, each separated from the others by pockets of gum so decayed that the collapsed tooth sockets weren’t visible.
An eye was missing, its empty socket fringed with tattered eyelid remains, and the eye that was left was bulging out of its hole, looking like it had been caught on something and pulled out partway.
Then the zombie opened its mouth wide enough to unhinge its deformed jaws, and its rot-blackened nub of tongue lolled out to the limit, reaching for the girl with the virus’s desperation.
“Now,” Senna said. “Squeeze the trigger, just like we practiced.”
Raising the gun, Rosemary tried to keep the weapon upright and aimed at the intruding, rotten head, which now appeared to be stuck in the window, but her fingers were rubbery and numb and she felt as if the gun might tumble out of her hands.
She’d known what she was going to have to do at the fence before they’d come there, had been preparing herself for it mentally, practicing each step in her mind, but now, in spite of all that, she found that she was more afraid than she’d ever been in her life. Children were kept away from the perimeter so she’d never seen a zombie up close and the sight was more horrible than she’d imagined.
She wanted to turn and run, wanted to get away more than anything else in the world, but she wouldn’t because Senna and Alan were there, and she wasn’t going to be weak in front of them, and as much as the tears wanted to come—they were already there, ready and waiting behind her eyes—she wouldn’t allow it, she wouldn’t surrender to fear.
Senna stepped forward and steadied Rosemary’s hands just as the girl’s own resolve was strengthening, as if she’d known what was going through Rosemary’s head and when to step in for that final push. Probably, she did know, in the same way she knew when a dormant zombie was about to break.
“Do it now,” Senna said firmly.
Rosemary obeyed. Holding the gun steady with both hands, she squeezed the trigger, and the gun coughed, emitting a pathetic noise from its sound suppressor. Though it would have preferred more fanfare, the bullet flew regardless.
The first silenced shot put a hole in the zombie’s nose, to the right of center, the bullet forging a dark pathway into putrefying flesh.
There was a short pause, like a stutter, as the zombie’s head jerked backward, and then it was straining to get through the window once more.
Choking back a whimper, Rosemary squeezed the trigger again.
The second bullet found the empty eye socket and there was another pause in the zombie’s movements, but this time, there was no restart.
The zombie went limp, its head sagging over the window frame, which kept it hanging in place like an accidental gallows.
The girl took a breath, and it felt like the first one she’d had in a long while. Eyes wide and realizing her entire body was shaking, she looked at the gun in her hands with wonder, and then turned and stared up at Senna, whose hand touched down on her shoulder and gave a brief squeeze.
Then Rosemary turned and looked at Alan, who nodded, trying to make the gesture supportive.
After failing to force a smile onto her face, Rosemary looked away, her gaze drawn uncomfortably to the corpse that was hanging partway through the fence. Senna took the gun from her and put it away, and Rosemary was glad to be rid of the thing.
Alan was pleased, and he was so pleased in fact, that he almost smiled, and if the circumstances had been rosier, he might have, because he was happy that Rosemary had fired again after the first shot hadn’t worked, and that she’d done so on her own. Getting the children used to the zombies enough so they could do more than freeze up, so they could take action and fight and get out of harm’s way, was the first step. As Alan and Senna knew well, being frozen by fear did not a survivor make.
Alan went to the limply hanging head, and its stench reached for him, the familiar notes it played on his olfactory nerves recalling scenes from his past, images that he normally suppressed.
Now it was the Voltaire II flamethrower’s turn to work. He hefted it, swung it backward and then swiftly forward, connecting its muzzle with the sagging and disfigured jaws that had sought them all so doggedly moments earlier.
The strike with the thrower was a trained behavior, engrained in him through years of service on the rec-crews, with Senna, and with many others, most of whom were now gone, and not to settlements like New Crozet. Hitting a zombie corpse with a different part of the Voltaire II, one that wouldn’t later be cleaned by the fire’s heat, risked contaminating the weapon and returning to town with a piece of poisoned flesh hanging stuck to the Voltaire II’s chassis.
He hit it again, and one more time, and knocked the grotesque beast back through the fence and out of the town, where it fell on the bare dirt and kicked up a meager cloud of dust around its lifeless body.
From his post in the watchtower, Corks thought the corpse, lit up as it was in the spotlights, made an image that was infernal enough to decorate the cavernous hallways of hell. He hadn’t been religious before the apocalypse, but now that demons had crawled rotten from the nether and occupied the space of the living, faith seemed an appropriate response. And better late than never.
Alan climbed a ladder to the platform that had been sitting, parked in its space against the outer gate, waiting for them to be done with the first part of their work. He went to the edge, aimed the Voltaire II, and fired.
Flames leapt from the flamethrower’s muzzle and spilled eagerly through the chain link, engulfing the corpse and window as Alan swept the Voltaire II from side to side, the stringy muscles of his arms and upper back drawing taut under the strain.
Beads of sweat grew on his face and glimmered in the firelight, which illuminated his brown hair, giving it a reddish tinge. When he was satisfied that enough of the zombie had caught, he let go of the trigger and gestured for Rosemary to join him up on the platform, though it made him near sick to do it.
Was there shame in making a child look at this? Maybe, but what choice did they have?
She had to see it, to be desensitized, gradually, and that was why he’d climbed the ladder and ignited the zombie without her, because she didn’t need to see the full extent of it, not yet.
She’d probably seen more than enough through the fence tonight, but maybe not, and if she saw all of it before the fire could drown it out, there could be questions that were better left for another time.
Why did they look like that? What did the virus do to their bodies, to their bones, to make them look that way?
Yes, it was better to talk about all of that later, after she’d had a chance to digest this fine morsel of experience. It was a wonder there were children at all, and ones who’d grown up in settlements without ever seeing…without ever knowing…
There would be questions either way, he knew, about what she’d heard, what she’d smelled, what she’d done and why. But that would come in the future, when she was no longer too scared to ask them, and that would buy them all some time, for a while, anyway.
Rosemary climbed the ladder and got up on the platform next to Alan. Without being prompted to look, she craned her neck toward the flames while keeping her feet away from the platform’s edge.
The corpse let out a series of pops, spitting embers at the fence, like a poorly-timed salute of moldered fireworks.
Frowning, Alan looked at the tree line once more. There was no movement there other than that of the shadows, which were creeping back and forth as their conductor, the moon, floated in and out of cloud cover.
He looked behind him, making sure Senna was still there, then up at the watchtower, where Corks was, glancing between them and the forest. Something wasn’t right. But that was a matter to bring up later.
Alan turned back to Rosemary.
“You did fine tonight,” he said.
He wanted to ask her if she was alright, and tell her that she’d been brave, but it was better not to weaken the girl’s resolve with talk like that. She could do better than she had tonight, and she should. She would need to be far better if, God-forbid, she was ever outside, or if the perimeter was breached.
“The virus is in the soft matter,” Alan said, “in the skin, meat, organs, and bone marrow and it doesn’t go away when we kill them. It stays there and if we eat the meat or if we have an open wound that comes in contact with the meat, the virus gets in us, and we become like them. That’s why we burn them, and we keep burning them until we can see that the bones are charred and all the soft matter, everything that can have blood or liquid in it, is gone.”
Rosemary was looking from Alan’s face to the burning corpse, doing an admirable job of keeping her trembling down to a minimum and entranced by the image that his glasses were reflecting, that of a burning carcass shooting sparks from its grizzled remains.
“Do you understand, Rosemary?” he asked.
He noticed movement in the periphery, turned to track it, and his eyes found the tree line, but he could still see only the shifting of the shadows there. Apparently, musical chairs in the autumn moonlight was a game they didn’t tire of. He turned around and watched as Senna moved to the window at the far end of the alley and looked through it. After a moment she turned to him and gave a brief, puzzled expression, and he nodded. She’d seen it too.
“All the meat has to be burned away,” he said, turning back to Rosemary and reiterating the point.
The creature’s hide, now a burning patchwork of matted fur and ulcerated flesh, was beginning to show the sinew and bone beneath it. The fire was working its way into the muscle meat, and thin smoke trails rose up into the night air when the flames pressed into a moist spot.
He wondered how there could be any moisture left in the zombies after all these years, but it was no more unlikely than a virus that killed its hosts and animated their bodies after death.
Probably from soaking up the rain, he thought.
A gust of wind snatched up the smoke, lifting it to the platform, and the heavy odor of rotten meat burning made him grimace.
Trying to avoid the smoke with no eye to what was behind her, Rosemary stepped backward and though the ball of her foot was met by the wood of the platform, her heel found only air. She screamed as she began to fall and immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, so much stronger was her training to stay quiet at the fence than her instinct to grab hold of something to stop her fall.
His jaw clenched, Corks saw Alan catch hold of Rosemary’s elbow with one hand, and pull her back onto the platform effortlessly as smoke from the corpse billowed around them.
Alan was only slightly taller than average and wiry, but years of carrying the Voltaire II and his survival gear had made him stronger than his size suggested. Even if Rosemary had been a full grown man, he would have had no trouble.
“Be careful,” he whispered. “No matter how bad the smell may get, no matter how unpleasant the situation you find yourself in, you always have to stay focused. It’s better to hide in the most disgusting hole than to show yourself to the virus because you’re uncomfortable.”
“I understand,” Rosemary said, stammering. “I’m sorry.”
“Now look,” he said, pointing through the chain link at the zombie. “Do you see how the bones are turning brown and opening up in places?”
Rosemary nodded, stifling a cough. Unabated, the smoke was continuing to surround them.
Senna looked on, her face wearing an expression of familiar distaste. She and Alan both knew the girl had asthma, and they were trying to be as quick about it as possible, but these points were vital, and had to be made crystal clear.
“That’s a good sign,” Alan said. “It means that the fire is getting in them and purging the virus from the deepest parts of the body.”
Rosemary wheezed, and Alan knew he had to cut it short.
“It’s hot enough now to burn all the way through without us watching,” he said. “Alright. That’s enough for tonight. You can climb down now.”
The wind shifted, directing the acrid smoke to the tree line and then westward along it.
Rosemary began to climb down from the platform on unsteady legs. Senna stood behind her in case she stumbled, but she managed to climb all the way down without help. Alan descended the ladder after her.
Senna put an arm around the girl and they backed away from the gate. When they were aligned with the sentry’s tower, Senna signaled to Corks, who nodded and began to open the gates gladly, relieved that the exercise was over.
Alan stayed behind for a few moments, looking through the window while the middle gate was opened, watching the flames eat away the zombie’s carcass. The putrid meat had disintegrated quickly, and with it now gone, the bones were winking at him, seeming to want to discuss something. That was all in his head, he knew, but he sometimes got that way when he watched them burn.
The bones, he thought. God, the bones. What the virus did to them, seeing it could drill madness straight into your brain.
The break. The fucking break, over and over and over until they looked like this.
Alan turned away from the flames, and, after closing the window in the fence, caught up with Rosemary and Senna, who were already through the middle gate and waiting for him to catch up. Senna still had her arm around Rosemary’s shoulders, and the girl was trembling. When Alan was beside them, the middle gate closed and the next one opened, allowing them all to slip into New Crozet proper, where they belonged.
Rosemary was walking warily, taking small, hesitant steps, as if she suspected the ground might give way under her feet. There was a wheeze here and there, but her breathing was under control.
“What was that?” she asked, with only a slight tremor in her voice. “What animal?”
“A deer,” Senna said.
“A deer,” Rosemary repeated thoughtfully. She was trying to drown the strain of what she’d just done in rational thought, understand and have everything explained so it wasn’t so frightening anymore, and perhaps less ugly.
She’d been too scared to look very closely at the zombie, or rather, to really see what was there, and that was for the best, at least for now.
She asked, “Did you ever eat a deer, a healthy one I mean, before the virus?” The children had heard of meat-eating from the adults, and knew it was something from the past.
Senna nodded. “Yes.”
Rosemary considered this. “Did you eat all of it, all the parts?”
Senna thought she understood the question, because children born during or after the apocalypse, who’d never eaten meat, didn’t have much of a concept of what parts of an animal were eaten. “Only some of the meat,” Senna said, then shrugged, thought about telling Rosemary that pretty much all animal parts had been eaten or put to some commercial use, but said nothing.
“Was it good?” Rosemary asked.
Alan was walking behind them, curious about what Senna was going to say because he thought she was a lot better with children; he always seemed to say the wrong thing.
Raising his right shoulder as he listened, he tried without success to work the crick out of his upper back.
The Voltaire II flamethrower he was carrying was a light model as far as throwers went, but he felt the strain in between his shoulder blades all the same, and the muscle pain always came with a sharp, poking feeling at the base of his spine. Now, as always, it was the inside of his right shoulder blade that was giving him the most trouble, reminding him of the toll the Voltaire II had taken on his body in the three years he’d carried it after the outbreak.
Ignore the ache was the name of the game, and he played it a lot. He certainly didn’t feel young anymore, not in any sense of the word.
Senna frowned and shook her head. “Not at all. Bitter and tough. Not a bit of fat on it, barely worth the effort of hunting and eating. I don’t miss it.”
Pursing her lips, she glanced back at Alan, and he nodded, understanding that answering with a lie was the right thing to do, and he knew he would’ve screwed that up. She had an empathy that he couldn’t manage, and which he wasn’t sure he understood in the first place.
That’s the problem, Alan thought, I’m too honest. But shouldn’t they know? Maybe not yet. Digestible bits, here and there, one at a time. There had been more than enough to chew on tonight.
Alan remembered meat well, and dreamt of it often. Apple smoked bacon shone through as the one he missed the most, but he’d take anything these days: burnt and stringy chicken, an old egg, blue mold-infested cheese, anything with some animal protein.
Some survivors lost their minds over it, killing and eating the zombie animals and knowing full well that the tainted meat would infect them with the virus. It hadn’t happened in New Crozet for almost five years, but before then, one to two meat-eaters a year had been the name of the game.
We’re due for another one, Alan thought grimly. Past due.
The Voltaire II was radiating a good deal of heat outward, still purring, baby, rolling waves of hot air out through the slits in her heatproof chassis. This feeling of warmth was familiar to Alan, who was holding the Voltaire II at a practiced distance from his body by her insulated bits.
The heat had once been uncomfortable, but not anymore. He’d burned thousands of zombie corpses, and the cooling flamethrower recalled the feeling of walking away from the infernos, intact, more or less unscathed—though far from untouched mentally—and, most importantly, uninfected.
“What about when the others say they miss meat?” Rosemary asked. “Were the other meats better?”
“No,” Senna said, wishing the adults would stop bringing it up with the kids. What the hell was the point of that anyway? “They just say that because they miss the option of eating it.”
Rosemary frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Sometimes, when something isn’t around anymore, we miss the possibility of having it, even if we don’t like it that much. Grass is greener sort of thing.”
Rosemary looked thoughtful. “Oh.” She had the ability, usually reserved to children, to switch gears rapidly, and now that she was focused on the meat eating question, the traumatic experience she’d just gone through felt dulled. Being easily distracted could be a real asset at times.
“Come on,” Senna said, putting an encouraging hand on Rosemary’s shoulder, “let’s get you inside where it’s warm.”
It was past ten, and a fresh autumn chill had entered the air.
“Okay,” Rosemary said, looking somber, but no longer distraught. She’d done what she was supposed to do, and it had been horrible, but, with Senna and Alan’s help, she’d been able to will herself through it. Rosemary hoped that she would never have to do it again, but if she did, she would be more prepared for it than she’d been an hour earlier.
From his post in the sentry’s tower, Corks had nervously watched the trio of townspeople pass through the middle gate, then he’d closed the gate behind them and opened the last one in the sequence, and after that he felt a brief upsurge of calm because Rosemary and Senna and Alan would return to their homes unharmed.
There were holly bushes at either side of the innermost gate, planted there by Amanda Fortelberry and Betty Jane Oswalt, two of New Crozet’s founding stalwarts, with the aid of some of the younger folk, of course. The bushes’ glossy, pointy leaves were drawing luminescence from the moonlight, giving the bushes a faint aura of silver, and when Rosemary, Senna, and Alan had passed through this last gate, Corks saw Rosemary and Alan, who were walking to either side of Senna, pick up some of the holly luster.
Corks rubbed his eyes, and now that Senna, Alan, and Rosemary were well inside, he shut the inner gate and watched them walk away until their forms began to merge with the shadows cast by New Crozet’s dimly-glowing lights. Then he turned back to the town’s entrance and flipped the heavy switch that controlled the spotlights.
The big lights blinked off their beams with only a flicker or two of delay, seeming to say to the seasoned watchman: there’s still a long shift ahead of you and we’re sorry about that, but we’re done so goodnight. He nodded, used to it as he was, and watched the afterglow of the spotlights hang in the air like a wicked half-grin until it was vacuumed up by the advancing dark.
The deer’s burning corpse was casting a shallow, shifting light on the path into the woods. As the fire receded, the darkening skeleton winked up at New Crozet’s gate and elevated watchman, the bones sizzling and gasping almost invitingly when untapped treasure troves of marrow or gristle, or likely both, were licked up by the fire’s diminishing tongue.
The flames wanted more, were asking for more, but there was hardly anything left. The bones that were now being crisped had formed the framework of a living animal once, with ample meat and not an indecent amount of fat for burning, but that was more than a decade ago, before the end of the world.
Corks watched the changing pattern of light play in the clearing, his trained eyes searching the ground for other zombies, but none appeared. He’d expected them to come a while ago, and now, as they kept on not showing themselves, his agitation grew. Squinting at the fire, he knew that Alan’s flare and the charging deer’s noise should have been more than enough to attract others, and the fire’s crackling should have been enough, too.
What did it mean? Where were the other zombies? Market day was still two days away, so it was too early for the traders’ caravans to be attracting the forest zombies.
Corks thought that Alan and Senna had been surprised by the lack of zombies too, but he was too far up in the watchtower to tell for sure. He’d been the night sentry on many nights when children were brought to the outer gate for this exercise, and he couldn’t remember a single time when Alan’s flare had brought only one zombie from the forest.
Definitely too early for the traders to be getting close, Corks thought. Where are the animals? The zombies, he corrected himself.
The more he thought about it, the more it bothered him. Why hadn’t Alan and Senna made more of a fuss? He hadn’t seen any discussion take place, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything, either, because Alan and Senna had been focused on Rosemary.
It wasn’t that he wanted more to come, of course. It was bad enough that Rosemary had to deal with any at all. At her age, she should have been excited about Halloween coming up in just a few days, putting up ghoulish decorations with her family and thinking about the costume she’d wear and all the candy she’d get to eat.
Did she even know that it was October, or what year it was? For that matter, did Senna and Alan know? Sometimes Corks thought he was the only one who still tracked time on a calendar. And was that a strange thing to do now, rather than just live by the sun and seasons?
Shaking his head, he wished that Rosemary wouldn’t have to see any more than what she’d just seen, or to do any more than what she’d just done. But it was necessary, and she would likely be required to kill again in order to survive, in an uncontrolled environment much more dangerous than the practice field to which she’d been brought tonight. Childhood had to be cut short for her to survive, or at least to stand a better chance.
It was something the children had to experience, something they had to see with their own eyes and do with their own hands. Their small fingers had to be the ones pulling the triggers, because that was what it took to really understand the world beyond the fence, and that it and the zombies living there were real, and always trying to get in. If his own son had had such training, Corks knew, he might still have been alive.
His thoughts turned back to the scant response to Alan’s flare, and he decided he might bring it up at the town hall meeting the next day. He told himself that it was nothing, a meaningless coincidence, but trying to dismiss it, unusual as it was, made him even more uncomfortable.
Might as well get settled into unease now, he thought. There was a long shift ahead of him to dwell on what he hadn’t seen.
The thermos of chicory coffee caught his eye and he picked it up. Unscrewing the top to let the earthy smell of the fake coffee reach him, he began to pace.
Aside from the crackling of the zombie deer, the night was sounding only with the rhythmic chirp and wing beats of insects. The watchtower’s dim light was attracting moths, mosquitoes, and their many winged friends, some of whom were unsettlingly large. But Corks was used to that, for the most part.
A moth flitted and fluttered around the glow of the light as he watched. Would the insects be next? The virus had already taken all the other animals, and if it jumped to insects, how could the town be protected then?
Even if insects lost their ability to fly following infection, as the birds had, they’d likely keep their ability to climb. And even though their climbing would become clumsy, they’d probably make it up the concrete and through the chain link after a few practice go’s, and then that would be all she wrote.
The coffee’s smell was wafting up at him, but it gave him no comfort.
That won’t happen, he told himself. It’s been too long since the last mutation already, so there won’t be any more. The insects can’t get it, because they’re too different. They can’t.
It was difficult to rely on that sort of logic, because a great variety of animals had succumbed to infection. After humans, the virus had jumped to other mammals, and then to birds, and then to fish. Corks couldn’t be sure that insects and fish were more different than mammals and birds. Maybe insects were just as different from mammals as fish were.
Perhaps all that was worth knowing was that the virus was smarter than the world and all of its creatures, and where it had found ways of entering new species, it would do so once more.
Briefly, he felt gripped by a panic-fueled urge to exterminate all the damned bugs and insects in the world. His breathing became more rapid and uneven. This was when it always became hard to control.
“I’m watching over the town, over New Crozet, my town,” Corks said as calmly as he could between gasps for air. “I have to keep it together. I can keep it together. I do keep it together. Everything’s under control. Everything’s okay. It’ll be another uneventful night, and New Crozet will go on another day. We’ll go on.”
Hardening his resolve, he stood up straighter and reminded himself of the job he had to do, and that he was going to do it extremely well. He wouldn’t allow himself anything less.
As the wings beat frantically around him, he took a tepid sip from his thermos, and then another, before screwing it up again and putting it back in its place under his chair. He often fell victim to anxiety attacks when he was in the watchtower, but rarely this early in the night. They usually began just before his shift ended, when his time at his post was running out.
The anxiety came to him on most of his shifts at that time, just before first light. The attacks were characterized by an overwhelming feeling that the world was out of control, and that he couldn’t control anything, not even the smallest of details around him, but that he had to try. As the end of his shift drew nearer, this mania would metastasize progressively, causing him to close his eyes for set intervals, reopen them briefly and then close them again, the sight of the reality that surrounded him too much to bear.
On this night, the anxiety took a different turn. Rather than shutting his eyes for counts of five or ten or fifteen as he was prone to do, he found himself staring at the dirt road toward the forest, unblinking and unable to shift his attention away. He felt that the image of the road was burning itself into his mind, carving its dust and gravel into the soft matter of his brain to create an indelible impression there, crisscrossing the folds.
Corks tried to look away but couldn’t even turn his neck.
Beads of sweat formed at the fringes of his receding hairline and ran down his brow, collecting over his eyebrows in preparation for the next leap. Moments later he was hyperventilating, and a sheen of sweat was draping his forehead, then sweat was soaking through his shirt at the armpits and lower back. Although the pressure to wipe his face was great, his arm seemed to be made of lead.
The unmistakable buzz of a mosquito nestled in his ears, and then another, and another, until the movement of the bloodsuckers’ wings was all he could hear. A swarm was surrounding him, attracted by the delicious scent of his sweat, which was seeping out of him in profuse fashion. There was bug spray in the tower with him, just a foot away, and he should have reapplied it, except he couldn’t reach for it, or, for that matter, move at all.
The winged party-crashers closed in and landed and sunk anchors in his skin where the blood was closest to the surface. These were the best tethering points, if you asked them.
They couldn’t get at his ankles, which were covered with socks and pants, and there were some darned good spots there, but they had easy access to his face and neck and wrists, with which they’d have to make do. There was more than enough hitching space, so they docked to him and slaked their thirst while their winged bodies were caressed by the gentle stirring of the unseasonably chill night air.
While something in Corks’s mind, some protective wall that had enabled him to function in spite of what the virus had done, got yet closer to breaking for good, Senna and Alan walked Rosemary back to her house and said their goodbyes.
The girl opened her front door, spilling light from the house onto New Crozet’s carpet of semi-dark, then went in and pulled the door shut behind her, leaving the spilt light stranded on the porch. It could’ve fled to Senna and Alan for comfort, but instead resigned itself to its fate and floated upward, finding a place for itself on the border of one of the moon’s ashier cheese holes, where it would toil until daybreak.
Rosemary said a perfunctory hello to her mother, Elizabeth Clark, who’d stayed up waiting for her daughter. In New Crozet, parents or those serving in that role usually didn’t go with their children when Senna and Alan took them to the fence for training. If there was trouble, the parents would likely only get in the way.
Elizabeth had much on her mind and much to do, responsible as she was for organizing the market, but she’d been unable to focus on any of her tasks while Rosemary was away at the fence, so she’d spent the evening worrying. It would have been easier for her to keep distracted if Tom Preston, Rosemary’s father, had been home, but he was out on a routine perimeter patrol, so there had been no one to fuss over while she waited. Elizabeth tried to engage her daughter in conversation, interested to know how the night had gone, but Rosemary made little attempt at a response.
Dazed and nauseated, and having fended off her mother’s questions, she slunk up the stairs, went to her room, and closed the door.
The Preston house was two stories and spacious, and having her own room was a welcome extravagance for a girl like Rosemary, who valued her privacy and spent much of her time alone. She had a place to escape to, as well as some disused rooms on the second story, and the attic to stow herself in when she really needed to vanish without a trace.
When she was by herself, she liked to think about the world, and about solitude. She wanted to believe that there was a reason for what had happened, and that there was some meaning in it. She always tried to believe that.
The fact that the animals had been taken away from people in particular struck a chord with her. She’d seen pictures in the magazines and books in the library of people with cats and dogs and horses and other animals, sometimes even lizards.
She wasn’t sure if she’d ever seen a picture of a deer before, but it wouldn’t have surprised her if she had. The pictures of animals she saw in books didn’t stick in her mind. They were abstractions, unreal constructs whose images failed to bear them out into flesh and blood concepts for Rosemary.
The creature that she’d killed tonight likely bore only a basic, structural resemblance to its living predecessor. The virus changed animals and people so much, made them so ugly, that they were hardly recognizable for what they’d been before.
It was the breaking. It was all that horrible breaking. Thankfully, she’d been too preoccupied with her fear and focusing on shooting the thing to let her eyes really sink into the details and see all the…
She’d been taught these things early on, had been shown pictures of what people looked like when the virus had taken them. She hadn’t spoken for a week after looking at the first set of pictures. But, with time, she’d grown used to the images, which returned to her throughout her waking life, and when she dreamed.
Seeing a zombie in real life, however, had shaken her in a way she hadn’t been prepared for, and she’d barely even seen it. Why was everything so much worse when it was off the page and moving?
Until tonight, Rosemary had wanted a dog. She’d been in love with the fantasy of having one. According to the books, dogs seemed to be the most fun of the animals to play with.
Cats seemed good, too, but Rosemary had wanted a dog more. She’d known that she would never have one, and she thought the closest she would get to that daydream would be an encounter with a zombie dog, and she would have to kill it, and, if she didn’t, it would kill her.
Now, her recollection of that fantasy was sickening. It seemed somehow disgusting that she’d ever entertained the idea in the first place. There were no dogs, not anymore. It was wrong to keep thinking about it, unhealthy.
The room was sparsely furnished. It was lit by the light of a lamp that was too small to do much good, whose shade had gone missing long ago and rotted away in an unknown somewhere. The wire mesh on which the shade had once sat was tarnished and bent out of shape, and had been that way for a long time.
It was more bent out of shape than it had been when Rosemary got it, however, because she’d dropped it twice. She knew that it had made her mother cross with her, because she could tell those things, but her mother hadn’t yelled or punished her.
A coloring book was on the bedside table at the base of the lamp. The outlines in the book were scenes from fairy tales, most of which no one had read to her, and she hadn’t read herself. She did know about the one with the sleeping princess, but that was the only one, and she wasn’t sure if her version of the story was correct. All the pictures had been colored in by the time Rosemary received the book. It had been a present from Alan for her sixth birthday.
Rosemary sometimes wondered if there was any unfilled picture left in any coloring book in the world, or if the pictures remained unfilled only in the memories of some of the older people, and, when they died, there would be no unfilled pictures left anywhere, in people’s memories or otherwise.
She sometimes wished that she could live in the world before the virus. It seemed so wonderful: the people, the animals, no perimeter fence, buying food at stores. Stores. Can you believe that?
She could hardly imagine a world so perfect. She’d never seen the world that way, and it made her wonder if there was a way to travel inside another person’s memory, so that she could live in some older person’s recollections.
If only there were a way to make the leaves fall upward and turn green again, and to repeat the cycle until she was in a place where the progression of the seasons hadn’t known the apocalypse’s bitter austerity. She would stay there in that place, indefinitely, if she could.
The concept of memory had begun to fascinate her soon after she’d received the coloring book from Alan, but she wasn’t aware of the connection. Did people and animals and events continue to live in memories? Or were they gone forever? Had they ever existed at all if the memories were the only evidence that remained? Were the memories embellished or inadequate or was it different for each memory? If the pre-apocalyptic world did live on in people’s minds, was there a way to restore what was remembered?
They were odd, precocious thoughts, stirred in her by a world that made its children grow up far too quickly.
She spent a few minutes standing by the bedside table and trying to imagine what it would be like to have this night in her distant past. She was moving her perception of her life forward in time, until what she’d done tonight was so far away that she could no longer feel the gun’s weight in her hand, or its recoil, or hear the muffled shots or the sounds made by the thing that had once been alive, or feel the sting of the burning rot in her nostrils and taste its sour and acrid flavor in her mouth, or its stabs deep in her seizing lungs.
She wanted to forget, and realized that she probably never would. She sat down on the floor and leaned her right side against the bedside table and her back against the bed. Her clothes smelled like the burning corpse, and she could still taste the hot air that had risen up to her from the fire. She knew that she should shower, but she didn’t have the strength, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to, either.
Maybe if she drew the feelings in even closer, if there was any nearer for them to get, this evening would more quickly become a distant memory, grey and faded and odorless, like pulling back a string on a bow and letting your arrow fly.
Familiar noises were filtering up through the floor, the sounds of her mother tidying up. Elizabeth cleaned when she was nervous, and that was a lot of the time, so the house was immaculate. On a normal night, she would have been able to sleep with Tom out on patrol, but worrying about both him and Rosemary had wound her up too much to go to bed.
Feeling slightly comforted by her mother’s movements downstairs, Rosemary got up, pushed the curtain aside, and looked out the window. Seeming to be keeping their distance from the moon, there were patches of velvet in the sky where the stars’ glimmers couldn’t reach.
She frowned as she squinted into the darkness. The clouds looked stupidly happy—that was the only way she could think of to describe it—they were fat, fluffy, and unhurried, as if they were strolling leisurely across the sky, without a care in the world. Rosemary pressed her lips into a thin line, and thought of Senna and Alan.
A cloud, the happiest looking of all, was on a course to collide with one of the velvet spots in the night, the darkest Rosemary could see. She stared at it for a moment, unable to imagine a blacker dark, then looked away and closed the curtain.
What would happen when they met? Would the cloud be sucked into the darkness, caught by an unseen vortex and absorbed, spinning, into nothingness? She didn’t want to see it.
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, bit her lip, took one more deep breath, and got in bed with her clothes on. After pulling the comforter, which was a lesson in patchwork and tatter, over her, she turned out the lamp.
Her asthma wasn’t too bad right now, just a bit of trouble catching her breath, which was normal for her. It was a lot better than it had been at the fence, and even that was nothing compared to how it sometimes got in the spring when the air was thick with pollen.
Closing her eyes and pushing her face into the worn pillow’s rough surface, she began to cry silently. What passed for a pillow on her bed was a flattened relic, more like a drab towel. As she wept quietly into it, the feelings and smells that had come home with her from the fence gathered in around her, seeing how close they could get, knowing that she didn’t understand what they were, and knowing that she knew that, too.
Rosemary dreamt her usual dream that night. She was sitting in the shade of an old barn—channeling the past life of the blown-down barn on the way to Senna and Alan’s house, perhaps—listening to a fenced-in herd of cows low.
They were lowing and chewing on grass and swatting at flies with their tails and tromping about and lowing some more.
They were nice cows, pretty and colorful, with wonderful brown and black and white spots, and quite happy in their sun-drenched chewing and lowing, in spite of the tail-flicking that was required. But maybe that didn’t faze cows. It probably didn’t, her dream-self decided.
It wasn’t like she’d ever heard a cow moo in real life, but this was how she imagined cows lived and breathed based on what she’d heard from the adults. There were some movies lying around New Crozet that she could’ve watched for a more realistic portrayal, but neither her parents nor Senna and Alan had watched them with her yet. They were holding off until she got older, so that the stark differences between pre-outbreak and post-outbreak life would be easier for her to process.
She was just sitting there in her dream, watching them and listening to their cow jibber-jabber. They were hemming and hawing, she could tell, that much was obvious. Maybe this and maybe that. She liked that kind of talk, the sort that went in circles around and around and around the answer without touching it.
That way the cows could talk for much longer than if they just spat the answer right out along with their happily green cud. But what would be the point of that? Cud was only digested partway, and therefore required further chewing, and the hem and haw tactic was conducive to just that. There was plenty of time and nothing to rush for, anyway.
The world was perfectly at ease with it, and her and the cows in it.
A precise and swift breeze made its way through the bovine enclosure, perking up the ears of one cow and disturbing the hair of a cow tail that was just recoiling from a well-timed horsefly whip. The horsefly was falling, dazed but still alive, and would resume its flight in just a moment.
The breath of wind dipped under the lowest rail of fence and rippled through the grass until it found its target: a dandelion whose florets were aching to be set free. The wind inhaled and blew to lend a refresher of strength to its fighter jets, and the feathery dandelion parts were let loose to fly and parachute down somewhere, hopefully far, far away, somewhere that, should they find luck in the wind, would become home.
A feathery parachute reached Rosemary, landing softly on the back of her hand.
She was home here, in this dream unreality with the cows. This was a place where animals lived and breathed and had homes to go back to and when they did there was no virus to greet them at their doorsteps.
If she’d been aware that she was sitting in a dream, she’d have wished not to wake.
She heard a new sound then: the singing of birds—there was often a smattering of feathered friends in her dreams too, also imagined when it came to their proper sounds and movements—but she hadn’t noticed them until that moment.
They’d been sitting in the branches of the two tall oaks beside the barn the entire time, and the dream’s magic let her know that. Now they took flight from their posts, and croaked and warbled all the way home.
“Do you think we should find Tom and talk to him about it now?” Senna asked.
“No,” Alan said, knowing what she meant, “it can wait. He’ll want to know what there is to do about it, what action he should take, and I’m not sure there’s anything to do about it.”
“You’re right. Not a whole lot to do when you’re locked inside.”
“They won’t cancel the market for something like this, an undefined threat, if it even is a threat.”
“Call off the market?” Senna almost laughed. “No chance.”
They were walking back to their house, which was the farthest dwelling from the center of town. It was the house past the blown-down barn, the one with a good many traces of it left, like grave markers continuing to hold its place in the world.
The makeshift street on which they walked crossed over patches of pavement and uncovered ground that were all the shades of mud. The pavement was giving up, letting itself be dotted by clusters of weeds and patches of grass. The world was taking back the street, and the street couldn’t care less at this point. As far as it was concerned, it just wanted to wash its hands of the entire matter.
They waved to Chad and Laura Stucky, who were sitting on their porch. Chad and Laura were in their late fifties, which in New Crozet was bordering on elderly, though not quite there. They were two of the town’s original founders, having holed up in their house—the one they still lived in now—when the outbreak first…well…broke.
There were only two people in town older than they were: Amanda Fortelberry, who was seventy-four, and Betty Jane Oswalt, who was eighty-one. Now that Alan thought of it, Chad Stucky was the oldest man in town. Women really did outlive men, apocalypse or not.
Laura waved back, and Chad nodded. He might have waved were his arms not encircling his wife, holding her, and for that Alan liked him, cold in manner though Chad often was in public, where he liked to sport his well-worn frown of extreme disapproval. His wife was a direct counterpoint, cheery and high-spirited, and she dragged him around town on her various errands, which Alan was sure Chad liked. There was a good man somewhere in there, beneath the surface.
The Stuckys had helped let Senna and Alan settle in New Crozet, after all, when it had been put to a vote nine years earlier. Alan didn’t know much about the couple, except that they’d met during the outbreak and saved each other somehow, and though he sometimes wondered what had happened to their families, or to their previous spouses, he’d never ask. It was the same thing that had happened to all the previous families, of course, but for some reason he wished to know the details.
Maybe it would’ve been alright to ask, but Alan didn’t feel comfortable, and he didn’t want to show his hand, even to the town’s elders, who were some of the most likely to understand his obsession. And when he had occasion to wonder about their past, and all those other pasts that had been cut short, and when that thinking got the better of him, he was forced to go out into the fields alone, to be away from everyone, to forget.
Laura and Chad’s eyes were drawn to the Voltaire II and they followed its metallic bob up and down at Alan’s side until it disappeared into the shadows of New Crozet, past the unseen guideposts that marked the way to Senna and Alan’s house.
The Voltaire II had let go of her last shrug, her complaints about the meager taking at the fence having gone completely unheeded. Starved as she was these days, she couldn’t be too picky, but damn it was that all? It wasn’t like the old days with Alan and the rec-crews. It was nothing like the old days. This was so pathetic in comparison, that it didn’t even recall any of her memories of real burning, of good burning. It was just a tease, brought to within a glimpse of the edge, and then thrown back into a box to sleep. Teased and denied, again.
“They took another child to the fence today,” Laura said, as unmindful of the Voltaire II’s frustration as Senna and Chad. Alan suspected it sometimes, that the flamethrower had some kind of gasoline spirit living in it, but there was nothing to do about it because they lived in a settlement now and that meant no more missions and no more bonfires in the name of taking back the world.
“Rosemary,” Laura added, when Chad made no reply.
Chad nodded. “Yeah.”
The dying flames at the perimeter were sending smoke drifting away from them, into the forest.
Laura looked at her new husband, her final husband, she was sure, and nuzzled closer to him.
Maybe eleven years isn’t so new, she thought, but it still feels that way.
Chad took her deeper in his arms.
“Being with you makes me so happy,” she said.
He nodded and kissed her gently on the cheek. There was a frown on his face, as always, but that was just how he looked. He knew he looked ugly and mean, and he considered that to be his lot in life, nothing good or bad or special about it, not in the least.
“I love you,” she said, and to Chad, it was like a dull knife dragging itself across his skin, reminding him of the wife he’d lost, and the family he’d made with her, also lost, and the name rang out in his mind like a chime tolling for pain.
Though perhaps it shouldn’t have hurt anymore, it did, and her name came to him and began to sing in his head. He pressed it back into the place it wasn’t supposed to leave. Stay there, he commanded it. Stay shut up. Please. Over the years, he’d gotten better at keeping it away, and now he succeeded in silencing it.
Their three girls: Anna, named after his mother, Sarah, named after her mother, and Jean, and one on the way, a boy, they were another matter. Maybe the boy would have been a John. Their names he couldn’t put away.
Their names flew tight loops in his mind, night and day, rain or shine or lightning storm. They came to him now, and they became like flying phones, ringing off their hooks, as their knives, sharper, cut into him over and over again. He’d learned by now that their names would haunt him forever, that much had become obvious.
They were dead, but they were unforgettable. Sometimes he wanted to forget all of them, needing it badly, and other times he was ashamed for wanting that in the first place.
They were his. Even though they were gone, they were still his, and he was and always would be theirs. That was just how it was. His mind, his soul, would never be spotless again.
Chad swallowed, looked at Laura and said, “I love you.” It was true.
They sat for some time longer, until the chill pawed them back inside, as if each of them was an unraveling ball of yarn that, when clawed at and rolled about, always left some part of itself trailing behind. And, like all people, that was exactly what they were.
Alan and Senna’s clothes were thick with the smell of burning, and when they got home, they took them off and Senna jumped in the shower first, as she always did, following their routine on nights like this.
Clad only in his boxers, socks, and glasses, Alan went to the storage closet to put the Voltaire II away. It was a prized possession, the thing to which he was most attached, besides Senna and the children, and the only non-living thing he could even begin to care about.
He got to his knees, disassembled, cleaned, and wrapped it, then put it in its bed of rags.
There was a Voltaire III and a Voltaire IV, he was pretty sure, and he’d heard tell of a Voltaire V and even a Voltaire VI, but he doubted the V and disbelieved the VI. Anyway, there were no rec-crews now, not sanctioned ones, at least, and most likely not any left at all, so there was no one to ask, and the traders were worthless when it came to confirming rumors. They just fed and spun the gossip into heavier, stickier yarn.
That aside, it wasn’t like he wanted another one. She was all he needed now.
The small Shell sticker on the chassis, which peeked out from the Voltaire II’s shredded nightclothes, caught his eye. The oil company wasn’t around anymore, not really, not unless the commandeering of its fuel reserves by anyone and everyone who could qualified as still being around. The memory of how the sticker had come to be attached to his Voltaire II threw a quick jab at his mind.
“Allie,” he said under his breath. “I’m sorry.” Allie had put it there, years ago, but he didn’t want to think about her now. Her death hadn’t been remarkable, no one’s death on the rec-crews was anything but expected, but there was one thing about how she’d gone out that he never wanted to think about.
And, of course, it was all he did think about when he remembered her, because that was how those things went. The more you focused on not thinking about something, the larger it grew in your head, until it pushed out everything else, and it was all that was left.
His joints creaking a reminder of the whole getting-old thing at him, Alan got to his feet and backed out of the storage closet. He shut the door, and, still backing away, stepped on something soft. He looked down. It was a sock—his sock, and he noticed that one of his feet was now bare.
I must’ve lost it on my way into the closet, he thought. He shook his head in self-acknowledgment of what a mess he sometimes was. He could burn the zombies, and love and protect Senna, and teach the children of New Crozet what little he knew, and protect them too, but that was all.
Keeping his socks from ending up strewn about was an impossibility. It must have been a failing in his genes, as was finding clean clothes to wear, even though Senna always left them for him in the most obvious places, like the dresser, and the closet. Without her, he had no doubt that he’d be lost.
Letting a half-grin slide onto his face, Alan tromped tiredly into the lightly steaming bathroom and pulled the shower curtain to one side. His heart fluttered.
Senna, wet, half-soaped, and assailed by the spray of water, was standing under the showerhead running soapy fingers through her wet hair. Small white bubbles were gliding down the long strands and down her tanned, elegantly arched back, and lower still.
Turning to look at him, she smiled.
“You gonna take that sock off or what?” she said, pointing down. Alan, who’d forgotten that one of his feet was still covered, quickly pulled the sock off, threw it behind him, and stepped sideways in an awkward lurch to regain his footing.
“I’ll help with these,” Senna said, and reaching out of the shower with her sudsy hands, relieved Alan of his boxers. Then she pulled him into the shower. He joined her, gladly, wordlessly, and drew the curtain shut.
Afterward, they dressed in fresh clothes. For Alan, the smell of burning seemed to linger in his nostrils. Whether it was from the fire that night, or one of the many zombie fires he’d set in his years, or all of them, he wasn’t sure. He often thought he smelled burning when there was in fact nothing on fire. Maybe his sense of smell was off on account of all the smoke inhalation he’d endured, he didn’t know.
Senna went to the kitchen and began making something to eat. Alan watched her for a while—he loved to watch her when she was preparing food. There was something primal about it that made him happy, turned him on, and made him love her even more all at the same time.
At least she doesn’t have her apron on, Alan thought. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.
He walked over to her, put his arms around her and kissed her neck. She moaned softly, looked up at him, and the smile she gave him was so genuine, so open, that he couldn’t help kissing her, and deeply. When their lips unlocked, he glanced at what she was making, smiled, kissed her on the cheek, and let her get back to what she was doing.
He began to pace back and forth across the kitchen threshold, and Senna turned, sensing that he was beginning to do this. It was a habit of his, an overused one, and one that Senna still managed, somehow, to find endearing.
Alan’s hair was wet from the shower, and he was running his fingers through it nervously and pushing his glasses, which kept slipping down slightly from the top of his nose, back up so the lenses were lined up with his eyes. The frames needed tightening, but he kept forgetting to fix the tiny screws. He was bad about pretty much everything that had to do with taking care of himself, and yet he’d managed to get on in life, even after the outbreak.
As part of his pacing route, Alan was keeping an eye on the fire that was burning in the living room hearth, which he’d put on once they’d gotten a thorough cleaning in the shower. The air was too cold for this time of year, and a chill kept wandering in uninvited. The house was old, and the unwanted nip was a reminder that some winter-proofing still needed to be done.
It was nice to have a fire, but it would have been nicer not to have one right now. They needed to save their timber for the winter.
The kitchen was a long, dimly-lit rectangle, and the glint of the living room’s fire lent a wavering glow to its threshold, where the brunt of Alan’s pacing was concentrated. Deeper in the kitchen, the shadows won out for control of the rectangle’s middle portion, until the faint light from a singular and improbably small bulb at the kitchen’s end showed its stubborn force, keeping the shadows back. That was where Senna was, in that lighted alcove, opening and closing cupboards and jars, mixing dried foods together, and pouring water.
Alan thought of how near the town entrance was. Theirs was the closest house to the gate. It made sense, as they were the most experienced at dealing with zombies, the ones that the others would look to if something went wrong.
The house had been a fixer-upper, that was for sure. Alan remembered how much fun it had been to get the dilapidated structure out from under its state of disrepair into a condition that was inhabitable. In those days, busy as Senna and he were in reviving the house and cultivating the farmland that belonged to it, he’d been able, at times, to forget that his life was anything other than that of a normal, small-town farmer, perhaps even one who was living before the apocalypse.
So there was a very tall fence encircling their property, so what?
The work had helped restore much of his mind, which he hadn’t realized was beginning to lapse during his time with the rec-crews. Even his nightmares had ebbed and settled into a predictable rotation that made the nighttime livable.
Making the place their own had been therapeutic for Senna as well. She liked that they’d lain claim to the best arable land in the town on account of the fact that the rest of the people in New Crozet wanted nothing to do with living so close to the perimeter. Besides taking pride in the perceived danger of her property, she discovered a deep love for planting crops and growing her own food.
It gave her a feeling of being connected to the land that she hadn’t experienced before. She ate what she grew, and she traded what she couldn’t or didn’t want to eat for goods that the other townspeople produced, and the things the traders brought.
She’d been obstinate about the plot of land, too, having told Alan where they’d be living. Remembering that still made her smile. She wouldn’t have taken no for an answer, but she also knew that he wouldn’t deny her the indulgence of choosing their home.
Since they’d met, he’d been so kind and sweet that she sometimes thought he’d move the world for her if he could, and, on occasion, she was sure that he did.
They regularly went out at night for walks around the perimeter, saying hello to Corks as they made their way around the town. On nights like tonight, when they went to the perimeter with one of the children and went through the exercise that they’d gone through with Rosemary, they usually didn’t go out again.
Senna thought of Corks. She worried about him from time to time because he often appeared distraught and uneasy, and he’d seemed especially troubled tonight, but that was understandable given the practice session with Rosemary. She wondered if she and Alan should break routine and go for their walk so they could see if Corks was alright.
“Did Corks seem off to you tonight?” Senna asked.
Alan shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“I don’t know, he just seemed more nervous than usual.”
“You think we should go check on him?”
“No,” Senna said, but thinking maybe they should. “It was probably because of Rosemary, and we wouldn’t want Corks worrying about us being worried about him.”
“That would just make him more stressed,” Alan agreed.
Dismissing her worry and filing it away for later, Senna put down the bowl in which she was mixing dried potato flakes and honey. It made that sound that glass likes to make when it settles on a counter. She’d been listening to the footfalls of Alan’s nervous pacing, framed within the crackling of the fire. His presence, as always, was comforting.
Smiling, she walked over to him, put her hands on his shoulders and squeezed, pressing downward at the same time, making him stop in place. She kissed his mouth, then gave his bottom lip a playful tug with her teeth.
Pressing her body against his, she moaned as the longing grew deep in her belly. She kissed him again, and he kissed her back. Then she broke away and walked backward, beckoning for him to follow. Powerless to resist the lilt of her body and the sudden playfulness of her mood, he followed.
She took his calloused hand in her own and led him to the bug bite couch in the living room. She lay down on it and pulled him on top of her, and he threw the frayed couch cushion that was above her head to the floor.
“You need to de-stress, relax a little…let the rest of the tension out,” Senna whispered. “Let me help you…some more.”
Alan looked at her. She had a coquettish grin on her face and her head was cocked slightly, at an angle that was undeniably jaunty.
He began to take his glasses off, but then she put her hands on his, stopping him.
“No,” she said, biting her lip and grinning, “keep them on. You know how I like that. Keep them on…for me. The way they glint in the firelight…makes you look just a bit…evil.”
He did know she liked the black-framed glasses, so he let his hand drop away from the frames and put his arms around her. She moaned, then wrapped her legs around him and squeezed. Alan leaned into her with more of his weight, and she moaned again, her mouth staying slightly open. He bent down and kissed her deeply. They began to move rhythmically, and then she was tearing at his clothes and he was reciprocating, her want igniting his own.
Moments later, they’d succeeded in getting most of each other’s clothes off. A button had been freed of its stitching on Alan’s shirt in the struggle, and was now lying beside the fireplace, inches from the flame-licked timbers.
The exposed flesh of their lean and suntanned bodies was glimmering in the light of the flames, and beads of perspiration were gathering in their usual, strategic places. She pulled him down on top of her, making sure her nails were grazing his skin, and loving the feeling of their toned, sweaty bodies mingling.
Their movements became more sporadic, and in their give-and-take locomotive of pleasure, you could see the desperation with which they lived in the post-apocalyptic world. Their bodies were infused with an awareness that this might very well be the last time, so let’s fuck each other’s brains out, shall we?
Framed in waning firelight, they gave in to an unabashed and unbridled lust.
Alan and Senna were lying on the bug bite couch. The couch was draped in brown, unfinished leather, like a relic from another time, which it was. It creaked beneath them, showing its age and entirely unashamed of doing so.
There were several scatters of bug bites in the leather—on one of the side cushions and the arm opposite it and the back—that gave it a noble authenticity Alan loved. It still smelled faintly of leather, especially in the places where it was stretched and cracked, and there were many such places.
Uninfected leather, Alan thought, beautiful, natural, clean leather. Then he thought of what animals were left that could be used to make leather, only one obvious one really, and his expression soured. You could always hope that the stories of wildlife refuges untouched by the virus were true, but then you wouldn’t be in your right mind, but then again, if you were thinking that, you’d be living after the outbreak, and being of sound mind wasn’t exactly high on the priorities list any longer.
Some people had left in search of those refuges. Six since Alan and Senna had moved into New Crozet. They’d never returned, and probably hadn’t gotten very far, either.
It’d be crazy to leave here, Alan thought, to go back out there, in search of clean animals, or to see what was wrong if something was—thinking of the oddity they’d noticed at the fence tonight—or to search for the answers that had eluded everyone when they were still trying to win the world back.
And though neither of them knew it, Senna echoed the same thought in her mind some moments later. That was how attuned they were to each other.
Unbeknownst to either of them, they’d have to do just that: leave the perimeter very soon, and for the worst reasons imaginable, but, thankfully, that was a thing outside their realities at the moment.
For now they were lovers, elegant in the simplicity of their happiness, and shouldn’t they be allowed that? Hadn’t they earned at least that much?
Their breathing had settled some since their last bout, but not completely. Alan was spooning Senna, and the couch was just deep enough so that he had to hug her tightly to keep her from rolling off. His face was resting against the nape of her neck, and he was breathing in her wildly delicious scent.
“I want you to hold me like this forever,” she said.
He smiled and gently bit the back of her neck.
“I will,” he said, meaning it.
He watched her, lying there in his arms, feeling her warmth and her resilient heartbeat, fully aware that he wasn’t sure what she looked like anymore. What he did know was that she was perfect in every way, made so by the interplay of her beauty and her even more beautiful imperfections.
She drew closer to him, adjusting her hair too keep it out of his face, and sighing contentedly.
In the fireplace, the frantic leaps of the flames had died down to steady hops and caresses. Embers were lighting up in places and glowing like tiny furnaces, smoldering defiantly in the places from which the fire had retreated, saying they were now the lords of their domains.
Alan watched the flames, trying to reinvigorate them with his will, to push them back into the places where they’d feasted hungrily moments earlier, and, apparently, grown sated. There was so much nuance in fire, in its movements and chatter, that he’d become increasingly fascinated with it over the years. It was the only tool they had with which to force the virus from the world, and for that he sometimes thought it was mankind’s only remaining ally in nature.
Cold had begun to enter the room, displacing the fire’s fading heat, and Alan squeezed Senna’s body even more tightly, wanting to keep her warm. In this moment, he knew she was his, and he was hers, and that was all that mattered.
When they were together like this, the reality of the world and the horrors that went on unchecked outside the fence shrank away almost to nothing until it was just the two of them, living out an effortless joy.
“You’re friskier than usual,” Alan said, thinking of her spirited mood of late.
She turned to look at him and gave him a challenging stare.
He grinned. “I’m not complaining. Not at all.”
“That’s right,” she said.
He laughed. “Were you always this feisty?”
“Ha, I go easy on you. Way easy. You’re an old man, after all.”
He laughed again. There was an age gap between them, it was true: he was forty-one and Senna was thirty-three, but you could hardly tell by looking at them. Even with the wear of the extreme stress of outlasting the outbreak, and their sun-cured skin, they each looked the better part of a decade younger than they were, and they were in the best shape of their lives.
What the outbreak had done was give each of them a choice between achieving the limits of their physical capabilities, and death. Alan and Senna’s strength and stamina had grown by leaps and bounds after the virus ran loose, out of necessity.
It had been the ultimate adapt or die scenario, and on top of that, one had to have been lucky to have even had the chance to adapt. They’d been among the fortunate few who got the chance to survive, and they’d taken advantage of it.
Now, there was more than enough physical work to be done within the perimeter, farming and maintaining the town, and with less stress than they’d had on the rec-crews to beat them up. It was as quiet and healthy a life as you could get after the outbreak.
Alan considered this for a moment. Was that why sex with Senna was the best he’d had in his life, because they were so fit? Or was it because their fates had let them give in to each other with the reckless abandon of prisoners condemned to death?
It was probably a combination of the two, he decided, and something else, as well, something that was just beyond their understanding, and outside of what language could describe. They both felt it on occasion, and Alan was feeling it now. It was a higher…something.
He looked with longing at Senna’s naked belly, taking in its subtle curves, and was reminded of how he very badly wanted to have a child with her, and how imagining the way she would look pregnant sometimes drove him near madness with desire.
They’d tried for a while without success, and had given up two years earlier, and that was probably for the best, anyway, given the life the child would have in this world, a life in the shadow of the virus. They didn’t speak of it anymore.
He tensed, remembering what had worried him earlier that night.
“At the fence tonight,” he said, “why do you think more didn’t come? We had to wait a long time for the one that did, and then there were no others. What do you think it was?”
She turned to him, and he saw that all the relaxed contentedness that had been on her face a moment earlier was gone, and at once he regretted disturbing her mood.
“I was wondering when you’d bring that up again,” she said.
She sat up on the couch and looked at him as he propped himself up on an elbow, then she reached over the couch’s side and pulled a down comforter from the floor, drew it around her shoulders and covered Alan with the rest of it. The comforter was mostly patchwork now, and the patched parts didn’t match and had different textures, each more rough than the comforter’s native fabric. Its inside was still soft, however, though more than half the feathers were gone.
“Could it be the market?” she asked.
Alan shrugged. “I would’ve thought it’s too early for that, and it doesn’t explain why there weren’t at least some more animals besides the deer. Even if the market is close already, I don’t think it could be attracting all the animals in the forest. The traders don’t usually travel together, and they move quietly and use noisemakers to divert the zombies.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Looking troubled, Senna pulled the comforter around her and lay down, then closed her eyes and pressed her forehead into Alan’s shoulder.
They remained silent like that for a few minutes, then he said, “Do you think it’s worth bringing up tomorrow, in the town hall?”
She lifted her head. “I’m not sure what it’ll accomplish. It might just upset people.”
“It could be a good sign.”
“I don’t know. Maybe the zombies are getting weaker. Maybe they’re dying.”
“I don’t think anyone will share your optimism,” she said. “It will probably just scare them, and only that. Another mutation, they’ll say. You know how they’ve been lately.”
“I know,” he muttered. “I know. I’m sure there’ll be more talk of it tomorrow, as always.”
“What?” she said.
“Corks was up in the watchtower and he’s sure to have noticed it too. He could say something.”
“I’ll talk to him before the meeting. If he thinks it’s important, we can bring it up with Tom in private.”
“We should talk to Tom about it either way,” he said.
“Right. Not sure what it’ll do, but yeah, we should.”
They were silent for another while, then Senna said, “What do you think about how Rosemary did tonight?”
“She did alright,” Alan said. “It’s always hard, the first time.”
Senna nodded. “That’s true. You know, she talks about traveling with the traders and seeing other settlements, especially the underground ones.”
“She’s a long way off from that,” he said, wondering what there would be left to see when she was old enough, and if New Crozet would still be around.
“I know, and I wonder if after tonight, she’ll still want to.”
“She did fine, and we’ll take her again, and she’ll get better. She’ll get used to those things. She’s a resilient girl, firing that second shot the way she did, on her own without you prompting her.”
Senna nodded. A few minutes later, she said, “Do you miss…the outside?”
“What?” Alan said incredulously. “Do I miss it? I don’t want to see the other side of the fence again for as long as I live. If we never have to go back out there, it’ll be too soon.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Just wondering.”
“I don’t think we’re in too tight a cage,” he said. “If that’s what you mean. And being stuck here with you isn’t exactly a punishment. More like I won the post-apocalyptic lottery, and big time.”
Senna’s face brightened. “Do you want something to eat? You’re all skin and bones, as usual.”
“If it’s as usual,” he said, “why do you think some food will help?”
“I’m persistent, you know this.”
“That you are,” he said, smiling. “I’ll have some of whatever you’re having, within reason.”
“Strict vegan for you, then?” She grinned.
“Please,” he said, suppressing a shudder.
Senna opened her eyes and saw Alan sleeping quietly beside her. They were in semi-darkness, the room lit partially by moon rays stealing their way in through cracks in the blinds.
The night sky had become mostly clear as the dopey puffs of cloud finished their exit stage left. Senna’s gaze caressed the lines on Alan’s face, finding familiar, masculine reassurance in each one, but even the comfort of his presence wasn’t enough to quell the anxiety she was feeling.
They’d made love again after eating, and then they’d drifted off to sleep. And then the nightmares had come, again.
She thanked God that she didn’t scream when she had them. She would feel even worse if she cost Alan his sleep too. That, and she didn’t want him to know she was still haunted by her past.
There were things she wanted very badly to undo and un-see, and remove from her memory. During her waking life, blocking the images was more or less achievable. When she was unconscious, however, it was a different matter.
Dreams made her defenseless, subverting her will, and she hated that. If she could find a way to stop dreaming altogether, to stop the nightmares, she would do just that. Then she’d only have to repress during the day, and that was manageable.
There were sometimes days at a time when she didn’t think about what had happened, and what she’d done, but it always returned sooner or later. She wished it could have been confined to nightmares, but it had been real, it had all been real, and it had happened in front of her, to her, and had affected the course of her life.
I’m one of the lucky ones, she reminded herself, lucky to be alive, lucky to have any nightmares at all.
She looked at Alan and took some comfort in the regular rise and fall of his chest, and the slight noise of his breathing.
You still won’t tell me everything about how you survived, she thought, so you must’ve been through worse.
The thought brought tears to her eyes. A feeling of hopeless dread seized her, bringing with it an inexplicable certainty that something horrible was about to happen, something far worse than she could imagine. The conviction that propped up the feeling made it unbearable. She felt the anxiety on top of her again, crushing, and the more she tried to make herself relax, the worse it got.
After some moments and when she’d gotten close to panic, the feeling lifted on its own, as if drifting off in search of a new victim. Variety is the spice of the anxiety demon, perhaps. She stifled a gasp as it left her.
As her breathing began to settle, she got up and quickly went on tiptoe to the kitchen, not wanting to disturb Alan—she was glad she hadn’t already. She put the kettle on and boiled water, turning it off just when she could hear the water beginning to boil but before the steam became excited enough to blow the whistle, then made herself a cup of chicory coffee and sat down at the table.
Steam from the cup began to rise in front of her face. Her eyes flitted about the room, looking for something out of order, something out of place or dirty that she could set right or clean. There was nothing.
She turned her attention to the surface of the ersatz coffee and her eyes found a silvery sheen on top of it, as if she were looking at a cup containing a black cloud, behind which was a sun of silver whose rays were traveling up the unknowable space between the dark liquid’s edge and the glass’s sides, and then assembling on the cloud’s face.
The thought made her remember something that had been at the tip of her mind’s tongue for some weeks. She thought of Alan, slumbering peacefully in the next room, and she knew that she couldn’t bring herself to wake him.
Then she remembered the dishtowels were fraying, and she got up, took a pair of scissors from a drawer, and began to trim the towels’ loose ends. When she was satisfied that the tattered parts were short enough not to catch on anything, she put the towels and scissors back in their places and returned to the table. She drank the cup of chicory coffee, washed the cup, dried it with one of the towels she’d just trimmed, and went back to the bedroom.
Alan had rolled over onto his side. He was facing the door, where Senna was now framed, and beside him in bed was an empty spot. It looked like he was waiting for her to come back, even though he was asleep.
She got in bed next to him, inserting her body under the covers with practiced stealth, then she turned toward the door, her back to Alan, and pressed her body against his. He stirred, and sleepily put his arm around her. She smiled, brought his arm to her lips, and kissed it.
The reassurance of his embrace was real, the comfort of his touch unassailable, and she hadn’t known that it could be like that until she met him and got to know him. He made her feel like she was the most important thing in his life, just how she felt about him, like they would do anything for each other. To her, he was the perfect man, and she sometimes felt as if he’d actually been made for her, like a custom job, and she for him, as if such things were possible, and, silly or not, she was feeling that way now.
“I love you, Alan,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
He mumbled something that she couldn’t understand.
“I love you so much,” she murmured. “Please never leave me. Never leave me here alone.”
Without waking, he pulled her toward him.
She closed her eyes and breathed in his familiar smell. At once she wanted to do more than just spoon with him, but she didn’t want to wake him. She would have on a different night, she wasn’t shy about such things, but Alan hadn’t been sleeping well lately, and she wanted him to get some rest. She kissed the line of his jaw and snuggled closer to him.
After a time, she fell asleep again, and, shortly thereafter, was back in a dreamland that was ruled by monsters wrought from guilt. Their power in the night was as great as that of the virus’s legions that controlled the world outside New Crozet. From some torments, those of the soul, the perimeter fence offered no protection.
Rays of sun broke through the sparse cloud tufts that were lackadaisically reassembling themselves and beginning to chase one another over the Blue Ridge Mountains. On its way down, the morning sunlight was fractured by branches and multicolored leaves until what was left of it reached a forest clearing, which was crawling with movement.
In the clearing, four-and-a-half miles from New Crozet, robed men and women were moving quickly and with purpose, seeming to slither like serpents. They’d started their work before dawn and now not one of them stopped to look at the rising sun, or to notice that its rays were filtering through to them and alighting on the dark fabric of their robes.
Wordless commands were communicated via nods and gestures, and carried out precisely. Measurements were checked and rechecked and adjustments made. They were quiet and efficient, giving the impression of having done this many, many times before, their proficiency at it resembling art.
The forest-dwelling zombies were watching covetously, leaving dormancy one by one—though to give credit to the robed ones’ mastery of silence, breaking slowly—and trying to enter the cluster of humans. The zombies were surrounding their prey, but were finding their efforts to reach it denied.
The campground was rising out of the dirt and spreading outward, like a boil that had been lanced and was being squeezed persistently in a vice grip, until all it had to offer was revealed. The men and women applied more pressure, and the boil’s rancid contents erupted, poured out farther, found crevices in the ground into which to seep, and took root in those places, sucking from the earth its vitality and converting it to vileness, to a venom more ancient than that of the virus.
The growing expulsion was made up at its limits of a fine netting that the men and women painstakingly moved outward from their circles of trucks. They dragged it along the ground until they reached the limits of its measure, and there they raised it and pinned it up on the trees, creating a shield against the zombies.
They weren’t using noisemakers as diversions. This wasn’t the time to show their hand, not just yet.
Among them were some of the most talented spotters in the world, and they made short work of the zombies that, curious, found their way to the limits of the rising camp.
After the work was done, the men and women retreated from the perimeter they’d created.
One by one, they crept back into the trucks in which they’d come, in which they’d been driving around the night before looking for a suitable spot to set up their base of operations.
In one of the trucks, the one that looked like it was the most cared-for, a dormant zombie stirred, and broke.
Alan was on top of Senna in bed, his arms wrapped tightly around her upper back. Her legs were on his shoulders and her knees were pinned against her. They were playing that regular game of theirs, where she submitted to having her limits tested. She was shuddering now, and her eyes were begging for more, and for mercy at the same time.
Their sweat was mixing playfully into salty cocktails.
He waited for her shudders to die down and the pleading look to leave her face, and then the game’s next round began and new limits were reached and pushed and broken and more rounds were played. As the game wore on, Senna’s trembling grew wilder, as she was losing her mind in sensation, in the complete abandon of it.
When her screams died down to whimpers and her shaking subsided, he would let her free, not right away, though, not until…
The entire scene wavered around Alan. The walls, the bedposts, the damp sheets, even the writhing Senna herself. He locked his eyes on her trembling body, glistening with sweat, and tried to steady his shimmering lover with his will, but he couldn’t.
All that he saw yielded to a brief fit of iridescence that threatened to unravel everything, as if the glimmers that he saw were the frayed ends of a knitted tapestry that encompassed the essence of being, and the tatters were about to be pulled by a force greater than reality itself.
Alan’s suspicion was proved correct. The ends of the weave were pulled by an otherworldly force and the beautifully assembled fabric within which he found himself came undone.
It unwound itself with such precision that he understood it had been made to do so from the start. It had been a watercolor that was from the first splash of color destined for submersion. A wall-hanging that captured the crux of lust and made just for him, but one that from its first stitch was already in line for unthreading, so the stitches, first one and all, were made loose from the start.
He woke, drenched in sweat, and alone.
Alan squeezed his eyes shut and let his mind drift back to the dream. It had been a rendering of a game that Senna and he played often, and the intensity of the imagery had been almost too much.
Shaking off sleep, he honed in on the now-familiar absence of dogs barking and birds chirruping and cars being honked and driven too fast by blurry-eyed commuters in the morning rush, sounds that he’d found annoying back when they came free with every box of cereal, or whatever you chose to eat for breakfast, really.
He opened his eyes and rubbed them, then yawned and untangled himself from the comforter, setting the bed to creaking under his shifting weight. He was no longer excited, and the urges he’d felt in the dream had faded. He stood up and felt the cold floor against his bare feet. It was early in the morning, before dawn.
Smiling groggily, he remembered a prior version of himself, one that was entirely incapable of mornings. Now he was okay at them, moderately competent, at best.
Only mildly competent, he corrected himself, if that.
Before the outbreak, it would have been an impressive accomplishment for him to make it out of bed by nine, and on a workday no less—for some reason the prospect of work had always made wakefulness a greater burden to lift.
Past girlfriends had found it endearing. Some had even called him a ‘morning zombie.’ Imagine the irony.
Past bosses had tolerated it, because he’d been pretty decent at his job, putting documents together. How pointless that all seemed now, rushing to put words on paper in a particular order to close some deal here or there.
Most normal things that people had occupied their time with before the outbreak seemed meaningless now. Survival after the outbreak had to be secured more directly, by fight and flight and food growing, and not by working a nine-to-five for currency that could be traded for something to eat.
Staying alive in post-apocalyptic America was a twenty-four-seven gig, even in a settlement like New Crozet. You could let down your guard some, thanks to the perimeter fence, but if you were a constant worrier, and if you’d survived this long chances were good that you were, you’d call a perimeter breach a ‘when’ not ‘if’ scenario, and you were always on your guard for it, always thinking and obsessing about it.
Not to mention that food growing and preserving and canning could be made to fill all of your waking hours if you so chose. There was good farmland that was still untapped in New Crozet, and it was a potential treasure trove of rations and tradable produce, if only there would be more hands to tend it.
Senna had never had a problem with mornings; she’d always been great at them in fact.
They always got up this way—Senna first and Alan shortly thereafter. He knew that she was probably preparing breakfast for the two of them, but he still was unsettled each time that he woke without her beside him. He’d rather she were there, and they could eat later, but he knew she was too fidgety and energetic to stay in bed after she was awake. Up before the crack of dawn was the name of her game, and she played that one every day.
Beyond the early rising, Senna was his diametric opposite so far as her personality was concerned. He was in the habit of overthinking everything now, even more so than before the outbreak, when he’d already been a serial over-analyzer. Senna, on the other hand, moved easily and instinctively through the world in a way Alan never could.
Maybe that was part of why he loved her so much, because he just couldn’t understand her. They often spoke past each other, and couldn’t quite connect mentally, but perhaps that didn’t matter. They were helping each other survive, and they cared for each other, Senna for Alan in her way, and Alan for Senna in his.
He peeled off his sweat-soaked shirt and let it fall to the floor, then pulled on the sweater and pants of which Senna had relieved him the previous night. Then he put on his glasses and went into the kitchen, throwing his wet shirt into the hamper on the way.
Alan filled a glass with water, drank it, and stepped outside in his bare feet. Day was breaking and the previous night’s cold hadn’t yet left the air. He shivered briefly, then walked around to the front of the house, stepping in dew-moistened grass and savoring the feel of it. It was cold and wet, and wonderfully alive. The hairs on his legs stood up as the cold feeling ran up his body.
As he walked, he stole a glance at the early sun. He pushed his glasses higher up on his nose and squinted, creasing the skin at the corners of his eyes.
The breaking day was beautiful, as it had been before the virus, as it was now, and as it would continue to be long afterward, if there ever was an after.
The sun was invigorating the world with its rays, which were caught by the blades of grass and refracted by the dew that had collected over the previous night. Alan felt as if the wet grass and sun were lending him a natural, ancient strength, and he smiled halfheartedly. Aided by nature or not, no man could overcome the virus. Nothing could.
When he got to the front of the house he readjusted his glasses again—it really was time to get around to tightening those screws.
Jack Hodgins, a painfully thin eight year old boy, was there, sitting on the porch next to Senna. Jack’s half-sister, Sasha Hartley, was there too, sitting beside Jack. She was six, and not nearly as skinny as Jack, but she could have stood to gain a few pounds. Sasha went by her father’s name, and Jack went by his mother’s. Neither wanted much to do with Jack’s biological father and Sasha’s stepfather, local barfly Larry Knapp, and that was understandable, although the man had been getting better of late.
Senna and Alan had taken Jack out to the perimeter fence for training some weeks earlier. He’d done alright, but he’d been more nervous than Rosemary. Even though he was more enthusiastic about the idea of killing zombies than Rosemary was, Alan thought that Rosemary would fare better in a real encounter than Jack would. They were close to the same age, but Rosemary had a little extra oomph, more resolve, something.
Sasha was still too young to go to the perimeter fence to kill her first zombie, but the time for that was fast approaching, and Jack was beginning to coach her so that she was more prepared for the encounter. He’d always taken care of his half-sister, with no help from his father, the renowned New Crozet drunkard.
A smile tinged with bitter notes began to spread across Alan’s face. He stopped it from reaching its full length and tried to look cheerful for the kids. Seeing Jack look after his half-sister made Alan proud, but the situation with his father was a damned shame.
Jack and Sasha shared a mother, Susan Knapp, who’d been Susan Hodgins before she had the pleasure to meet Larry, who at the time he wooed her, hadn’t yet fallen into a bottle. Susan was now deceased.
While Susan was pregnant with Sasha, Knapp thought he was the father. After Sasha was born, however, Knapp raised the question of paternity. At the time, the two year old Jack was the spitting image of his father, olive-skinned and black-haired, short and with a wiry frame.
Sasha bore no resemblance to Knapp, Susan, or her older brother, Jack. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion, a set of features that was rare in town, and owned only by Sasha’s real father, Adam Hartley.
Knapp had long suspected that something was going on between his wife and Hartley, and then it was confirmed not only by Sasha’s features, but by one of Nell Rodgers’s drunken outbursts. As it had turned out, Nell and a number of other townspeople were well aware of Knapp’s cuckold status, and had kept mum for an impressive length of time.
New Crozet was a hotbed of gossip, and that was understandable given the tight space, people’s natural curiosity, and their need to jabber about something while they farmed and otherwise passed the time. That it hadn’t cropped up during Susan’s pregnancy was a testament to…well, maybe nothing, but it went unsaid far longer than most juicy bits of blather in the town usually did.
Knapp couldn’t confront either of the adulterers who’d forced him to bear the weight of this humiliation. Susan had died from complications—blood loss—shortly after Sasha’s delivery, and Adam Hartley had died on a supply excursion outside the perimeter soon after doing the deed with Susan.
But Sasha was alive, and she was the evidence of the treachery that Knapp latched onto. She was someone on whom he could take out his anger. She was a real thing that he could despise.
As soon as Nell confirmed that Sasha wasn’t his, Knapp rejected the girl. The rest of the town took to looking after her and passed her around like a charity case, but they cared for her deeply and treated her well. After Senna and Alan had established themselves in New Crozet, they rose to the top of the list as her stand-in parental units.
When she got a little older and could run around on her own, she stuck more with Jack.
Knapp had softened some over time. Whereas before she’d been entirely unwelcome in his life, now he looked the other way if she slept in his house, though he still didn’t let her eat at the table. Jack snuck food away for her, and the other townspeople continued to help feed and raise her, as they’d done all along. She was doing well enough, all things considered. She was bright-eyed, cheerful, and growing quickly.
Alan thought Knapp should have been more of a man about it, now and before. What Sasha’s mother and the Hartley man had done wasn’t the girl’s fault. Then again, it was an unfriendly world, and Knapp’s heartlessness was hardening Sasha, and teaching Jack to care for his half-sister. Perhaps the children were being taught lessons best learned at a young age, before they could have the chance to hope for something better.
Aside from the contemptible state of his fathering, Knapp drank too much wheat beer to be of any use, besides in trading the small amount of it he somehow managed not to drink himself. He made the beer on his own, from wheat crops that he grew on several plots throughout the town, the largest of which was in his backyard.
No one got into his business as long as he didn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone, and he didn’t except for the occasional loud-mouthed remark or uncoordinated thrown punch, though the fighting had stopped years ago. He was meaner without drink than with, anyway.
New Crozet people, like all the survivors who were left, didn’t like to get into anyone else’s business when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. The world was dangerous enough without starting anything else up. If he wanted to drink himself to death and vomit up rude remarks until he croaked, so be it.
On this morning, Jack had something in his hand, and he was eating it and letting Sasha take an occasional bite of it too. At first, Alan thought it was an apple, but when he got closer he caught a whiff of it, and that changed his mind.
Senna smiled when she saw Alan trudging out toward them, and then Jack saw him and he smiled too. The boy waved with the hand that had the apple-like thing and Alan was sure what it was now: an onion, which Jack was holding in his hand and eating as if it were an apple.
Alan was close enough now that the sharp and earthy smell was stinging at his eyes, and, somehow, by the magic of hunger, making his mouth water, too.
“Morning,” Alan said.
“Good morning,” Jack said enthusiastically. He chomped on the onion, sending pungent juice squirting from the corners of his mouth.
“Morning,” Sasha mumbled.
“That looks like quite a breakfast,” Alan said, pointing at the watering onion. “You hunt that down all by yourself?”
“Grew it myself,” Jack said, nodding happily. “You want to try it?”
Alan did, but he said, “No thank you, Jack. You and Sasha eat it.”
“Jack was asking me some questions about the crews,” Senna said. “Maybe you’d like to answer them, Alan, if you’re awake enough?” She winked at him, and stole a look at his crotch. He looked down self-consciously, made aware of the bulge that hadn’t quite subsided since the dream.
“Uh, sure,” Alan said, stammering and repositioning himself so that the dream’s leftover eagerness was less obtrusive.
He turned to Jack, whose rosy cheeks were brighter in the cool morning air. “What do you want to know?” The sharp smell of onion wafted up at Alan and he felt a familiar tugging behind his eyes. He took half a step backward.
Sasha smiled shyly up at him, and looked from him, to her half-brother, to Senna, and back around again.
“What were the crews like?” Jack asked with a gleam of delight in his eyes.
The boy had always been curious about life right after the outbreak, back when the survivors still thought the world could be reclaimed, back when that notion hadn’t been proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to be wrong.
“The teams,” Alan said, nodding. He stifled a yawn. It wasn’t his favorite topic in the world, but it was good for the kids to know—no, not good, necessary.
He glanced at Senna and half-smiled. “It’s times like these I could really use a cup of coffee.”
She nodded. “Me too. Can I make you some substitute?”
“No thanks.” If he never drank another chicory-based beverage again for the rest of his life, it would be too soon. The watered-down flavor without a caffeine jolt behind it made the drink worthless.
“What about you?” Senna asked. “Sasha, Jack, would you like something hot to drink?”
The children shook their heads. Apparently they weren’t big fans of the coffee substitute either.
“Sorry Jack,” Alan said, “I’m just a bit sleepy this morning. The teams were put together to get rid of the virus, so that we could all move back into the open. That meant that people had to go out there—” he gestured in the direction of the gate, “—there weren’t as many settlements back then anyway, not ones secured like this—and take on the zombies.”
Jack nodded excitedly. Sasha was watching him, taking cues and feeding off his eagerness.
“The teams usually had four to six spotters and twenty to thirty cleaners,” Alan said. “Cleaners, like me, were basically the foot soldiers of the post-apocalyptic restoration work.”
“What?” Jack said.
“Sorry, we were the rank and file soldiers of the rec-crews, the reclamation crews. It was our job to attract, kill, and burn the zombies.”
Jack’s eyes lit up happily and he grinned.
“The spotters,” Alan said, “like Senna—”
“Wait,” Jack said, interrupting, “tell me some more about the fires.”
Alan looked at the boy.
“Please,” Jack said.
Nodding, Alan said, “Sure.”
After a pause, he began again. “We worked together with the spotters to set traps for the zombies, luring a lot of them to one place. Once they were there, assuming we still had them dormant or semi-dormant, before they bro—reactivated, or woke up, all the way, we set off explosives that took out most of them, and then we’d go in to find the rest. After they were all gone, we burned them to get rid of the virus, using flamethrowers a lot bigger than mine.”
Jack’s eyes glimmered. “Bigger than Allie, than Allie the Voltaire?”
Looking frightened, Sasha sidled up closer to Jack.
Alan nodded, his expression growing somber. His Voltaire II was named after a fallen member of the crews.
Allie the thrower was a precision weapon, unlike the massive flamethrowers that were used to burn zombies en masse. Those flamethrowers had to be rolled in on treads, because they were too heavy to be carried.
Allie the person had been a diminutive woman, shorter than Senna, and with a slighter bone structure. She’d been almost as good a spotter as Senna.
And that day flashed into Alan’s mind as if he were watching the events unroll on a movie reel set at fast forward. There were holes and burnouts in the playback, as in all memory, but the major plot points were intact.
Ten years had gone by, and now that it was playing again, Alan knew he’d have to let it have its way, unrolling itself in his head. If he could just cut off the last few inches of the reel, just the moment when they were all paying their respects, if he could just not see that piece of the replay, it would be a good day.
Twenty-two months after the outbreak, Alan’s team had been doing a routine sweep of several acres of forest before it set the day’s trap, and Allie was spotting from a northeastern position. It was late fall, and the ground was covered with thick mats of leaves.
She was leaving her spotting post and was about to signal the all-clear when the ground shifted beneath her feet and her legs sank into a mass of bony limbs. Hands began to claw at her, trying to get through her layered clothing and body armor, working to get their owners’ mouths closer to her flesh. Struggling to get out of the pit, she threw elbows, drew her knife, stabbed, and twisted away from them. She managed to free herself and get out of the hole—that’s how good she was at knowing and responding to their movements. She looked down and saw hands, gnarled by rot, reaching up out of the wet, overturned leaves.
Somehow, by some miracle, they still hadn’t broken, but that was about to change.
Suddenly Allie felt a dull ache in the back of her head. Her legs became unsteady. The trees around her seemed to spin, their half-naked branches keeping balance like oversized, knotty tops.
The movement coming from the pit accelerated sharply, and heads emerged from the hole—three of them, a man, woman, and child. They’d been dormant in a crevice formed by a massive tree root and covered by fallen leaves, and now they were struggling to get up. The adults couldn’t do it—the repeated breaks had destroyed their bodies too much—so they began to crawl toward Allie, like lizards with broken limbs flailing against the ground.
The child did get up, though, launched himself at her, and was on her before she could draw her gun, his mouth clamping down on her arm above the elbow, teeth coated with fatal saliva tearing into uninfected human flesh.
Allie’s pistol, whose barrel had just cleared its holster, dropped.
She pulled a knife from her belt and plunged the blade into the boy’s temple. The pressure of his bite slackened, though he’d already been letting go, his work done. Allie stepped backward, letting the boy fall and as he went down, his teeth tore a chunk of flesh free of her arm. She spat on his corpse, picked up her gun, and shot at the zombies rapidly crawling toward her like demons just loosed from their confinement in hell.
As she fired her weapon, the branches of the trees flailed wildly at her, mocking. Her first two shots missed, the third hit one of the crawlers in the thigh.
She aimed again, trying to steady the gun while running backward to keep some distance between her and the advancing zombies. Seconds later, a neat hole appeared in the forehead of each of her pursuers. Allie looked at her pistol in surprise; she hadn’t yet pulled the trigger again. That was when Senna and Alan appeared beside her. Senna was putting her rifle away.
“I was already bitten,” Allie managed, “before he jumped on me. I can feel it, the disorientation, the headache.”
Senna and Alan backed away, Senna signaling the other crew members to keep their distance.
“They were over there,” Allie said, pointing to the pit, “hidden under the leaves.”
Pain doubled her over and she vomited.
Neither of them said it, but Alan and Senna could see it was the slow turn. Pure protracted pain, a drawn-out agony ending in undeath.
“I know what’s happening to me,” Allie said, wiping spittle from her lips. Her insides felt like they were folding over on themselves. “I know what you have to do, what I would do in your place.” Her face was pale and gleaming with sweat. Then she locked eyes with Alan. “Name your thrower after me, and burn those fucking things up, every single last fucking one of them. For me.”
Alan nodded, and a second later there was a muffled shot from Senna’s rifle, and Allie collapsed. She’d been a hero, and she’d died like so many of the others.
Alan was the one who burned her while the crew stayed and paid their respects. Some said prayers, but most said nothing. Afterward, the rec-crew was pinned in place while a wave of zombies passed them at their flank, and so they’d been forced to stay by Allie as the fire ate her away.
The replay was almost over. There were just a few more details, ones he was trying to lop off at their roots. For the moment, the film kept rolling.
He remembered how her hair had given up faint crackles, and the smell. He should’ve been used to it by then, and then there was that other thing that still lingered in his memory, the—
He didn’t want to think about that now. Not right now, and not ever. He managed, thankfully and to his relief, to cut off the playback before it reached the end.
Alan looked at Jack. Was he a young version of himself? Would he have to kill and burn his friends to survive?
It took Alan a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. Then it came back to him: his flamethrower, his Voltaire II, Allie.
“Much larger than Allie,” he said, his voice a whisper. “But lacking her precision.” He sighed. “The ones that we used for the big fires, one man couldn’t handle a weapon like that by himself. Two or three of us had to hold it steady on its treads, and another would pull the trigger. Great sheets of flame would pour out of it, incinerating the carcasses, and banishing the virus to hell.”
Senna looked quizzically at Alan, who was himself unsure why he’d added that flourish. He didn’t want to feed Jack’s imagination too much, or to romanticize something so terrible.
Maybe I’m finally losing it, he thought. Maybe I lost it a long time ago.
“Wow,” Jack said. “That’s so great.” He looked off into the distance, toward the town center, an odd smile on his face. Sasha smiled too. She looked happy again, the fear gone.
Jack said, “You were going to say something about spotters.”
“Right. When we were rounding up zombies into one place to blow them up, the spotters’ most important role was to warn us when the zombies we were grouping together were getting too close to breaking. If that was happening, the spotters would make the teams stop and go silent for a while, easing away, until the zombies calmed again. We’d all get into position slowly and carefully, and then we’d execute the trap.
“After that, it was a matter of rolling out as quickly as we could, because the noise of the explosions and the burning itself would attract more zombies. That noise also let us be less quiet in our escape, giving us some cover, but we still had to be careful to avoid running into other zombies as we moved out.
“In that sense, the spotters’ role never ended, and whenever we were moving, they’d help us pass nearby zombies unnoticed, by timing our movements and telling us when we needed to stop for a while. The way it worked, we weren’t rounding any up until we got to an area that already had a large number of them. We were focusing on spots with a lot of zombies, but of course that made it more dangerous, too.”
He thought for a moment. “When it came to gathering zombies in the traps, it was like stirring water in a pot very fast without letting any of it pour out, and when it’s already full almost to the top. It was a very delicate process. The spotters also helped get rid of zombies, and helped the teams out of jams.”
“Did you get in trouble a lot, with the zombies?”
Alan nodded. “Yes. It was usually because of the large flamethrowers we had to move. Even after they were taken off wheels and put on treads, accidents happened, loud ones. Sometimes we had to abandon the things, carry off as many drums of fuel as we could by hand, and burn up the zombies manually. That was even more dangerous.”
“What happened when things went wrong?” Jack asked.
“We did what we were trained to do: we ran and tried to minimize loss of life.”
Jack looked confused. “But you always got through the mission, right?”
“Now Jack,” Senna said, stealing a glance at Sasha, who was beginning to look scared again, “we can talk more about that later. Do you remember the rules we taught you?”
“The zombie rules?” Jack said.
“Will you repeat them for me?”
“All of them?”
Senna nodded. “Yes, but you don’t have to think of it as a memory test. Think of it like this: what are the most important things you would tell someone about the virus, someone who’s never heard of it and has never seen a zombie before?”
Jack grinned. “Like someone from another planet, an alien?”
“Exactly,” Senna said. “And Sasha, you listen closely.”
Sasha nodded obediently, the beginnings of a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
Alan smiled, watching the exchange. Jack’s capacity for enthusiasm and Sasha’s bright-eyed cheerfulness were inspiring.
“Okay,” Jack said. He furrowed his brow in concentration. Sasha watched his face change, and put a hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle.
“First,” Jack said, “the virus kills someone and they die, but it keeps using their body because it needs something to infect others with. It makes them a zombie.”
“Right,” Senna said.
“Then,” the boy went on, “the zombie tries to bite other people and animals to make them into zombies too. But the zombies are stupid, so if we’re smart we can get away, except when they’re moving very fast, and sometimes then it’s too dangerous.”
“It’s okay, Sasha,” Senna said, “we’re just going over the rules.” She turned back to Jack. It was important they get through this. “What do you mean about them being fast? Are they always fast?”
Jack shook his head. “No, not always. First they can be slow and not really see you. But as you get closer and make more noise, they wake up, and they wake up more and more until they’re fast and chasing after you, and then you have to kill them right away, or…”
“Right,” Senna said. “When they’re slow, they stay in a small area and don’t go too far. They’re not chasing anything yet, well…not really. But noise wakes them up, and gets them going faster and faster. When they speed up all the way…they break, and rampage. They move extremely fast after the break, and even the most experienced spotters and cleaners know to avoid a zombie that’s broken.”
This last point was worth emphasizing, so she said it again. “Remember that, even the best spotters and cleaners will stay away from a zombie after it’s broken. They won’t try to fight it or go after it. It’s too dangerous. Run and get to a place where it can’t reach you.”
Senna looked closely at Jack, and then at Sasha. “Now,” she said, “do you understand that no one should ever try to take on a zombie like that, one that’s broken and moving very fast?” She looked at them expectantly.
“Yes,” Jack said.
“Yes,” Sasha repeated.
“That’s really good, Jack,” Senna said. “What you should also tell your alien friend is that if he meets a zombie and it breaks, run to the nearest safety platform or indoor hiding place where you can lock yourself in. While you run, just run. Never stop and turn around to try to shoot a zombie after it breaks. Their movements are too erratic, and their speed and the changes in their speed can take you off guard.
“Never engage. You have to keep moving and get high up or inside, somewhere that’s got locks or ladders and other obstacles they don’t deal with well. If you’re too far from a safety platform or a house but you’ve got woods, you have to get up in the trees and wait it out.”
She wasn’t being entirely forthcoming. There had been many confrontations with broken zombies, both by choice and out of necessity, but the children didn’t need to know about that.
“How long do I have to wait?” Jack asked.
Senna was silent for a moment, then said, “As long as it takes. They’ll go to sleep eventually and wander away. You may be able to get some clear shots in and kill them, but if you keep missing, save your bullets, and never give up your safe position for a better shot. The way they move when they’re broken, they’re very hard to hit.”
“That’s why you have to get them before that,” Jack said, “like you did.”
“Yes, while being careful not to cause the break.”
“That’s what you’re good at,” Jack said, “spotting the break before it happens, right?”
“Something like that,” Senna said.
“How do you do that? How do you know when they’re going to break?”
She pursed her lips and considered how best to answer. It was hard to describe what she saw in the zombies’ movements, or what she sensed when they were around, and she knew that she never did a good job of explaining it to anyone.
“Senna?” Jack said.
She looked at him and realized that she’d been thinking it over for some time. Sasha was watching her and looked worried. In her hand the girl had a few layers of Jack’s onion, which she’d been peeling apart while they talked, finding layers in the layers and separating them out.
“Well,” Senna said, “it’s like when you’re about to sneeze. Do you know that feeling you get, like your nose is all itchy on the inside?”
Jack nodded. The expression on his face was growing more serious, and he appeared to be aware that he was receiving information that most people weren’t privy to, and that might one day save his life. Sasha, on the other hand, seemed to be absorbed entirely in the mysteries of the onion.
“Okay, good. There’s a point when the itchiness is at its worst and you know you’re going to sneeze, or at least that it’ll be very hard not to. That’s what it’s like. The zombies begin to move differently when they’re about to break, but the changes are slight, and there’s a lot of them, and a lot of levels. Like, more and less itchy, I guess.”
“Okay,” Jack said, “I think I get it.”
“And how do you kill a zombie, Jack?” Senna said.
“You have to get the brain.”
“That’s right. A well-aimed shot, a hard strike with a blunt object, a stab, they’ll all do it.”
Jack looked to be deep in thought for a few moments, then he turned to Alan. “Do you think I could be a cleaner one day,” Jack said, “like you?”
“Like I was, you mean,” Alan said. “There aren’t any active crews right now, and I’m not sure there will be anytime soon.”
“Why not?” Jack said.
“Well… You see, Jack—” Alan glanced at Senna, uncertain. She nodded, as if to say ‘Go for it. Why not?’
“At first,” Alan went on, “you had to be on a crew if you were a certain age. But, after a time, the crews were stopped because it got too dangerous.”
“What do you mean,” Jack said, “even more dangerous?”
Alan sighed. “I mean it became dangerous to the survival of the human race. We were losing too many people trying to burn the virus out, so we had to stop, and go back to the settlements. All the crews were disbanded, and I don’t think that we’re in a position to start them up again because the human population hasn’t recovered enough.”
Alan had left the crews too early to know firsthand, but there had been spotters and cleaners who’d refused to disband, some of whom he’d worked with, had fought with, side by side before he and Senna went off on their own way. They’d left before the official end of the crews was announced, but it had been obvious already.
They’d taken out tens of thousands of zombies, but it was only a small fraction of all the zombies out there. By contrast, the number of human survivors who’d died doing it was not at all a small fraction, more like a very large and bloody chunk of the pie, which had already been made too small by the outbreak.
After the government ordered the crews to scatter, vigilante teams formed, and they’d continued to fight the virus. Alan felt a pang of shame for having left the cause, even though it had been officially shut down soon after he left. He’d wanted to start a life with Senna, not a normal life, of course, but some kind of life, all the same.
They’d tried to convince their best friend on the crew, Charlie Moody, to come with them, but he’d refused to give up the fight. They agreed they’d target New Crozet as their retirement spot and meet there someday, after Charlie was satisfied that he’d done his part. He’d never come. On market days, Alan had for some years been in the habit of asking after Charlie, but no word ever came.
The traders only confirmed what everyone in New Crozet had experienced: no one who’d joined a vigilante team had ever made it to any settlement. Perhaps that didn’t mean they were all dead, although it was hard to imagine what else it could mean.
Alan couldn’t believe that men and women so skilled would all have succumbed to the virus. He was certain that some still lived, somewhere, in a faraway settlement, maybe, having joined it after realizing that the battle they were fighting was unwinnable.
Jack didn’t need to know about that. There was no sense putting wild ideas into his head at his age.
Jack looked uncertain. “So you had to stop,” he said.
“That’s right,” Alan said.
“We will get the world back soon, though, won’t we?” Jack asked.
Alan pursed his lips, looked at the boy and said, “Of course, Jack. It’s just a matter of time. We’ll regroup and…” He trailed off.
While Alan was regaining his composure, Senna said, “We’ll regroup and get rid of the rest of the zombies. We’ll burn them up in a huge bonfire and then we’ll be able to take down all these fences and run in the forest and be free again. Just you wait, Jack, there’ll come a day soon when the virus is gone, and all of us will be around to enjoy it. You, and me, and Alan—” she glanced at Alan, “—we’ll go pick berries in the forest and meet people from other settlements, and you, Jack, you’re going to have a large role in rebuilding the world. You too, Sasha. You both will.”
“Me?” Jack said, his eyes growing wide and onion juice pooling at the corners of his mouth.
“Yes,” Senna said, “You’re going to help rebuild civilization, and you’ll have children one day, and you and they will be the future of the world. You’re very important, Jack.”
Jack smiled shyly. He stared down at his hands. “Wow. I hope I can do all that stuff.”
“You can,” Senna said, “and you will.”
Sasha looked like she was considering the grandeur of what had been said. Then she popped the sectioned onion bits into her mouth and began to chew.
The conversation was starting to make Alan uncomfortable. He’d gone over many of these points with Jack before, and although he understood that repetition was necessary for Jack to learn and remember, the conversations dredged up memories that Alan preferred to keep in the cobwebbed recesses of his mind. He would have to go through this again with Sasha when she was older and he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
Repression is bliss, he thought. Then he said, “I think I’m going to take a walk through the farm.”
Senna and Jack both looked up at him, surprised. Sasha was preoccupied with chewing and swallowing the last of her breakfast, intent on chewing each bit of onion ten plus ten plus ten times, a technique that Jack had taught her.
“Unless you have any more questions for me, of course,” Alan added quickly.
Jack shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
“Bye Alan,” Sasha said, piping up suddenly. A masticated piece of onion popped out of her mouth. She caught it in her hand and peered at it skeptically. Escaping bits of food weren’t to be trusted.
Alan said, “See you later, Sasha.” He smiled and began to walk away.
“Alan?” Jack called after him.
Alan turned around and looked at the boy. Doing his best to smile he said, “Yes, Jack?”
“Uh, why do they call it a Voltaire?”
Alan pressed his lips into a line, then took a deep breath. “I think that’s a story for another time.”
Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked around the back of the house, leaving the children with Senna. A cool breeze greeted him there, and he was grateful for the way it washed over his body, seeming as it did so to sweep some of the unease from him.
It helped to get his mind off the rec-crews where he’d been a cleaner and had overfilled his mental image bank with blood and death and burning. He knew that he’d be thinking about the past a great deal this evening when he went through his pre-market ritual, and he wanted to at the very least put ancient history out of his mind for the present moment. The daytime should be filled, to the extent it can be, with the present.
It wouldn’t leave him, however.
How had they all been so stupid to think they could root the virus out? It had taken hold of the planet, there was no getting free, and that should have been obvious back then. It was obvious, but they ignored it. All the lives that were lost, Allie’s and Charlie’s included, were for nothing.
So many of them should still have been alive, and in New Crozet. The wisest thing to do would have been to admit defeat and go into hiding earlier, much earlier. Was there shame in that? Was there shame in giving up to the virus if it meant surviving a little while longer?
It doesn’t matter, Alan thought. None of that matters. There’s only life and prolonging it.
Worse than considering the past was imagining the future. Would Jack and Sasha ever rebuild the world? Would anyone? It was an unknown. For now, there was only the present, with Senna and the children and the other townspeople. The present was real. The future, on the other hand, was just a bleak and mostly hopeless blur.
The world sent the wind to rustle its leaves, drawing itself up to prepare for the transition to the latter part of the morning. To Alan, it was a world alive, though it dwelled in the shadow of the virus, it did live, steeling itself in a stance of primeval resilience, in which it would remain steadfast until the final moment, awaiting the virus’s ultimate mutation.
Suddenly, Alan felt loopy, as if he were looking at the world not from within the confines of his own body, but from the viewpoint of someone or something that was at the same time larger and smaller than he, a being that was neither alive nor dead, existing in a space without space, seeing the world and its disease for what they truly were. It was like being somewhere else, and apart from everything.
In that place of detachment where he found himself, seeing the human events of the world from an inhuman distance that imparted triviality to everything people did, he saw Senna and himself, and what there was between them, and for some reason it couldn’t be made small or unimportant. It—they, were burning with a fire brighter and hotter than any inferno he’d ever set.
The flames representing their love shone mightily upward from the surface of the world, as if the planet was proud of them and wanted all of the universe to see. Then Alan’s focus broadened and he moved away, taking in the larger picture as clarity increased by degrees, illuminating dark corners and their unique arrangements of dust.
They were marvelous dust piles, meticulously placed to give the illusion of randomness, but that was all they were: clever ruses, deceptions. He felt that he was a mere inch away from understanding, from stepping into that awareness of the meaning behind the struggle he’d endured, the moments he’d lived, the family and friends he’d lost, the great love he’d won, the…
“Are you okay?” Senna asked.
He stepped back into himself without knowing it, and it felt like what daylight must feel in the final moments of dusk, fading away into nothingness.
“Yeah, I…yes,” he said, without turning to look at her. “I’m fine.”
He looked around. All the colors seemed to be gone from the world, to have been drained out of it. He squinted up at the sky, then at the farm, then up at the mountains. Everything had lost its luster.
Then he turned to Senna and swallowed hard, his eyes going wide in disbelief. She was radiating all of the world’s brilliance, as if she’d absorbed it all and it was inside her. He’d always thought she glowed, but not like this.
Senna was on the verge of asking Alan if he was alright again, but she stopped herself and locked eyes with him instead, smiling a warm inviting smile with a hint of coquetry that reminded him of the previous night’s activities. He grinned, and the hues of the world and Senna restored themselves to their normal states.
The odd things he’d just seen left his mind, sweeping up their trails as they went.
He walked farther from the back of the house and surveyed the farmland. Senna grew turnips, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peaches, corn and sweet corn, snap beans, cucumbers, apples, and grapes. She’d picked the produce for the farm herself after talking to the other townspeople about what grew best there. When she’d made up her mind about what she would grow, that had been the end of the story. She was a very willful woman.
Not all of the willful had survived, but all of those who’d survived were willful. Smiling weakly, he thought on how he was a passive sort compared to most of the others, and especially compared to Senna.
His gaze roamed over the farm, its crops arranged in neat rows with blackberry bushes scattered between them. The blackberries made Alan think of the preserves Senna made, and he pictured her in the kitchen, in her old, flowered apron, crushing and sugaring the fresh fruit, sometimes wearing something under the apron, and other times not. The thought put a lump in his throat.
“Jack’s left to do his chores,” Senna said, startling him out of his reverie, “and Sasha’s gone with him.”
He turned and saw Senna standing beside him, looking up at the Blue Ridge Mountains. Grey clouds were brooding just over their tops, the many shades of grey coalescing as if in contemplation of an alliance.
“Not storm clouds,” Alan mumbled, “just…” he trailed off.
“What?” Senna said, looking at him with a quizzical expression on her face.
He shook his head. “I have no idea where I was going with that.”
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I’ll make us some breakfast soon. I need to start using up that honey I got from Nell. Better to eat it while it’s fresh.”
Nell Rodgers had a house at the western edge of New Crozet. She kept bees there, whose honey she harvested. She was New Crozet’s premier trader, and probably the only reason the town got any traders for market at all. Besides the honey, which was prized by all within trading distance, Nell also made a number of protein-rich products, most of which Alan found disagreeable.
“I’m getting there,” Alan said. “Whenever you want to eat is fine by me.”
Senna smiled. “No protein slurry for you this morning?”
He cringed. The idea of eating insects mashed up in a paste of corn, honey, and mushrooms made his stomach turn.
“No, thank you,” he said.
“It’s not so bad, really, once you get over what’s in it. The one with the dragonflies and beetles that she’s made this month is actually very tasty. I don’t like the one with the bees as much, though.”
“It’s not the taste that bothers me,” he said. “You know that.” Nell’s bug and insect products could be surprisingly satisfying. They had an earthy attribute that Alan found pleasant, but it was the concept of what he was eating that made him uncomfortable.
“I know,” Senna said. “But it’s one of the healthiest things in town. Just look at what it’s done for Nell’s son. Rad’s already the tallest person in town, and he might grow to be even wider in the shoulders than Tom.”
“I’m trying to eat more of it, really.”
“It’s a good thing you’re a fully grown man already.” She grinned. “My man.”
“And you’re my woman, woman,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “Now and forever.”
She sighed and her back muscles relaxed, giving her stance a deeply contented look. Turning to him she pressed her body against his, then took his free hand and placed it on the curve of her hip and squeezed his hand there and sighed again, more lightly this time. He caught the scent of her hair, decadent, as always, and he found that the lump in his throat had grown. Then her hand was suddenly in his pocket, reaching for him.
She let out a slight moan. “Looks like you’re good and ready to earn that breakfast.”
“Uhuh,” he managed.
She grabbed him and led him after her into the farm. Between the rows of corn, Senna pulled Alan down on top of her in the wet grass. There, on the uncovered ground, they expressed their open love for each other, while above the Blue Ridge Mountains, the gathering clouds set a course for the rising sun.
Senna and Alan were lying in the grass, panting, their perspiring bodies keeping the ground underneath them and the dew that they’d trapped there warm. Senna’s left palm was resting on the lower part of her belly, her fingers making small, contemplative circles on her bronzed skin.
Alan made a move at pulling away from her, wanting to stand up, but Senna stopped him, wrapping her arms around his chest and holding him tight.
“Not yet,” she said. “Just lay here with me for a while.”
“Alright,” he said, and picked his arm up so that she could slide under it and put her head on his chest. She did.
“Let’s lay here forever,” she said.
“We’d freeze,” he said, smiling.
“I know a couple ways to stay warm.”
He looked over at her and saw that she was biting her lip. He laughed. “You’re insatiable, you know that?”
“Only when I’m around you.” She raised her head and grazed her teeth against his bare chest. “You bring it out in me.”
Alan put a hand on the back of Senna’s neck and drew her closer to him.
“I love you,” he whispered, and kissed the top of her head.
“I love you too,” she said. She closed her eyes and sighed, pressing her head into the space between his shoulder and neck. “So much. With all my being.”
After a time, they pulled their clothes back on and stood up. Alan walked toward the house and Senna followed. He stopped at the border of the farm and turned around. There he looked at a spot where an apple tree had once stood, until lightning had split it down the middle two years earlier.
There was a sapling there now, one of Senna’s many attempts to get her apple production up. The saplings hadn’t been taking, and Alan doubted this one would either. The land was tiring out. Perhaps it was blighted now. Perhaps the virus was finally in the plants, too. Perhaps this was the last—
“Will you tell me?” Senna asked, an imploring note in her melodious voice.
He looked at her and knew what she was asking about. She was persistent in all things, and this was no exception.
“You promised that you would…eventually,” she said. At once she regretted having used the word ‘promised.’ She didn’t want him to feel like she was pressuring him, like she was prying into memories he didn’t want reopened.
“I just want to know,” she said, “to know you better. I want to know more about you. I always do.”
He knew what it had been like for her because she’d already told him, and he remembered how disappointed she’d been when he didn’t share his own story. She’d confided in him, she’d told him something so personal, and he hadn’t been willing to reciprocate, at least not all the way. He’d told her bits and pieces, so she knew much of it, though not all.
He’d held out for years, but now felt different for some reason. Now he almost wanted to tell her. It wouldn’t be everything, he didn’t want her to live with the full weight of what was in his mind, but it was time to share some more, to share the burden, perhaps.
Senna took his hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry I keep asking,” she said. “I just…I just want to know what it was like for you.”
He nodded, and, looking beyond the sapling he saw where he thought the wild indigo was, growing at the farm’s outskirts just past Senna’s great magnolia tree. The blue flowers crept closer each year, as if they were waiting for a proper invitation to come inside. Go go indigo. In-di-go. He looked for the spots where they’d flowered in the spring, but without the bright coloring of the petals to show him the way, he couldn’t find them.
Alan took a breath that was shallow and didn’t connect where it needed to, as often happened to Rosemary, especially when she was scared or nervous. He tried again, but the second breath fared no better. In spite of that, he began to speak, to tell the same story she’d heard before, except with more of the colors filled in.
“Yes,” he said. “I know.” He paused, then began again. “I think my parents died on the first day of the outbreak, and I think my brother and sister died then too. They must have, because they were in DC when it happened. They’d all gotten together for a museum day and dinner, but I wasn’t able to go because of work. It was a busy time for my company.
“I was at the office when the outbreak hit, churning out a land contract that we’d been negotiating for almost a whole year. Coming to terms was so important and it was such an important deal, it was so…” He sighed. “Meaningless. So all my immediate family died, taken by the zombies, torn apart, and I guess it happened while I was staring at some redline.”
He found death, even violent death, was so easy to speak of now, and thought it must have been like this before.
“It must have been like this before,” he said.
“What?” Senna said. “Like what before?”
“I mean before the—” he hesitated. What was he talking about? He closed his eyes and drew in a breath, “—the outbreak. Long before that, in the Middle Ages, and before then, too, when death was commonplace and unremarkable, horrible and feared but all around you all the time, something that couldn’t be turned away from. I don’t even know if they’re dead, not really. They almost certainly are, but I can’t really know that. Imagining what their last moments were like, and not knowing, that drives me crazy.”
Alan’s stare became glassy-eyed.
Moments went by and Senna became worried. “Alan?” she said. “Alan? Are you okay?”
No reply at first.
He tried to swallow and after a few attempts, managed it.
“I ran,” he said at last, “like we all did. I ran and hid, and tried to stay alive as best I could. I didn’t have any survival skills…being a lawyer and sitting at a desk all day doesn’t exactly prepare you for the apocalypse. Even in the first few days, I was surprised at how long I was lasting, seeing all those other people around me, who…” He laughed sadly. “Lawyers aren’t supposed to have zombie apocalypse skills, and I even remember talking to one of the other lawyers at my company about it, before the outbreak, back when the idea of such a thing was a joke, something that’d never happen, something that never could.”
He shook his head. “We were joking about it at lunch, and I joked about it all the time, in fact. I was never very good at taking care of myself, you know, keeping food in the fridge and stocking up on supplies and all that. My friends got on to me about it sometimes, and I always said, well, I want to be unprepared when the zombies come, because I want a challenge. I don’t want to be too ready with supplies and a bug-out pack and food. I don’t want to be in too good a shape for the zombies. Stuff like that.
“Well, I couldn’t go back to my apartment when the outbreak hit. The zombies were everywhere, deciding for us where we could run. I was just trying to stay away from them, and it was probably for the best that I couldn’t get back to my apartment. I had nothing to live on there. Not much anyway. Maybe a bag of carrots, some condiments, some liquor. Less than a day’s worth.”
He was beginning to look grim now, and feeling it too. The story was sucking him backward, and he was seeing images that he usually kept pushed to the furthest limits of his mind, skewered against the walls of his skull.
“Of course if I’d still been in DC I’d have been dead twice over by then.” There it was, something positive to say, some faint spin of optimism, which nowadays most commonly took the form of: it could’ve been worse, worse meaning dead walking. “Moving down to Charlottesville saved my life.”
Had he stayed in Washington, DC, and not taken the job in small-town Virginia, he would’ve died in the outbreak for sure. Or so he thought, because he was in the business of underestimating himself, always had been, and he was damn good at it, too.
On this point, however, he was probably right. Only a tiny fraction of people who’d been in DC on the day of the outbreak made it, and all of them had been extremely lucky, assuming, of course, and as survivors must if they’re to keep their minds, that it actually was lucky to survive, and not the other way around.
Senna gently pulled the top of Alan’s shirt open, kissed his shoulder, then lay her head on it.
“The first place I made it to and hid in was a storeroom of a consignment store. It was aboveground, but it was secure, with brick walls and metal shutters. It was on Route 250, a good distance away from the university and the more densely populated parts of Charlottesville, where most of the zombies had gone, but there were still enough zombies for it be dangerous.
“There were four others there in the store: three men and one woman. Their names were Andy, Matt, Chris, and Julie. We were all scared out of our minds and couldn’t believe what was happening, it just didn’t make sense.
“We only had what little food we’d managed to grab on the day of the outbreak. Well, two of the others did, anyway, and they were kind enough to share. I didn’t have anything, because I hadn’t had the presence of mind to grab anything while I was running.
“What we had to eat ran out by the third day, and then we were hungry, and, sooner or later, we’d have to find food. We talked about what we could do, about how we could go looking for food safely, how we could avoid the zombies.” He shook his head. “We knew almost nothing then. Andy said that there was a mattress warehouse nearby, which serviced a good number of the mattress stores in the area. He told us that he worked running deliveries to it, and that it was secure and stocked with a decent amount of canned food, because it was a middle ground for some overflow deliveries that eventually made their way to the supermarkets in the area. After some talk, we agreed that the warehouse would be our goal, and, if possible, we’d scavenge what we could from stores that we passed on the way.
“The idea was to stay away from the large attractions like grocery stores, which we’d discovered were too dangerous. Too many other people were flocking to them, and that made them a popular feeding ground for the zombies. I wish it could’ve been different, but the people who were still alive were making too much noise in those days. They still hadn’t figured it out, and who can blame them? We’d barely gotten it ourselves, and only by dumb luck.
“We didn’t have much of a plan for what we’d do if we got to the warehouse and it was overrun. We knew that was a possibility, but between trying the warehouse and starving to death where we were, we decided to take our chances because at least then we’d die trying. We could go from strip mall to strip mall until we were finally picked off and turned into one of those things.”
Senna took Alan’s hand and squeezed it.
“We waited in the storeroom for four more days,” he said. “We were starving by the time we left and if it weren’t for the running water there, well, we probably wouldn’t have been able to wait long enough for the noises outside to…to lessen, to stop being so violent and…sickening.
“Finally, the zombies calmed. They went dormant, quiet, having found all the live prey that was close to them. We raised one of the storeroom’s shutters half a foot off the ground for a look and saw them everywhere, wandering in slow motion. I remember thinking how hideous they were, like chewed-up shells of people, stumbling around in some horrible daze.
“They didn’t react to us, because we were too far away. We’d already noticed, on the day when we escaped to the storeroom, that if we stayed far enough away, and remained quiet, we could go somewhat unnoticed.
“We were committed to the plan by that point, so we crawled under the shutter and out of the storeroom. We didn’t raise it all the way to avoid making any more noise, and because we wanted to keep a small escape hatch for ourselves in case the zombies forced us back inside. If that had happened…I don’t know. Anyway, it didn’t.
“We stood up, and I stared at the new Charlottesville. I didn’t know then that all of Virginia was like that, too, and all of the United States, and the whole world. It was impossible to imagine.
“We crept alongside the building, staying as close to it as we could and making as little noise as possible. We were lucky then to be far enough from the closest of the zombies that they weren’t drawn to us. We didn’t stay lucky.” He shrugged. “We made it a few strip malls over, about halfway to the warehouse, when we had to duck into a BMW dealership and regroup. We’d gotten to a point on Route 250 that was too thick with them for us to safely pass through. There were about a hundred blocking our way, and they were dormant, so we decided to keep our distance and steer a wide path around them.
“After we made sure that there were no zombies or survivors in the dealership, we took a short rest there and washed up in the bathrooms. We made short work of the food we could find, mostly granola bars and some cans of soda that were supposed to be for customers.” Alan snorted. “I guess we were as good as customers then. When we were getting ready to leave the dealership, Matt freaked out.”
Alan looked at Senna and she nodded. They both knew what that meant, having seen it so many times. The mental strain that came with leaving a place of safety, even if it was only temporary, to go back into the open where the zombies were, was too much for some people to bear.
“We tried to calm him down,” Alan said, “but you know how that can be. He wouldn’t listen to us but just got worse and worse, and then he started screaming. We had to get him to stop, but we didn’t know what to do. So Andy hit him, again, and again, until Matt was out cold.
“Seconds after Matt collapsed, the zombies were at the door, trying to break in, like damned clockwork. Inside the dealership, it seemed we’d found a way to stay beyond their reach, out of their radar or whatever we thought it was then, but then Matt made enough noise to attract them to us, and there they were, banging up against the glass, moving erratically and quickly, but with a definite purpose. They wanted in. We all stared at them—Julie and Chris and Andy and I—and we had no idea what to do next.
“I remember the zombies’ eyes, how they never connected with mine, because the zombies weren’t using them to see anymore.
“I whispered to the others that it was only a matter of time before the zombies broke in, that we had to leave right away. They agreed, but we didn’t know what to do with Matt, who was lying unconscious at our feet. I can still see it all so clearly, it was twelve years ago, Senna, and I can see it more clearly than yesterday, even though it’s not like what you went through.”
“I know the feeling,” Senna said, and she did. There were scenes from the outbreak and the days right after it that stood in her memory too, with greater clarity than most other moments in her life.
“There wasn’t enough time to find a car. The keys to the new cars on the lot were in a safe, and I hadn’t been able to find the keys to the safe, that and going out into the lot to find the car that matched the keys was now too dangerous. Andy suggested carrying Matt, but that would have been our collective death sentence.
“We considered leaving him, but we weren’t quite hardened enough at that point to give that any serious thought. We decided to wake him up and have him run with us, to give him, and the rest of us, a fighting chance. We all picked him up and carried him to the back of the dealership, away from the zombies who were trying to get in through the front. If he woke up to that, given the way he was acting before, he would’ve totally lost it. When we were at the back door, we talked about which way we’d go, and how we’d run, and what to do if we couldn’t make it to the warehouse.
“To say that we were scared is an understatement, but it was time to make our move. We couldn’t stay there overnight with the zombies at the door, and we didn’t want to wait much longer and risk moving in the dark.
“We shook Matt awake. He was drowsy, and calmer, but his head was in bad shape and he didn’t look like he could keep it together very long. We told him that we were moving, that we were doing it now, and that he could come with us or not. The thought of being left alone must have scared him even more than the thought of facing the zombies with us, because he sobered up real quick.
“We snuck out the back door, planning to circle the mass of zombies on the road. We were moving together, quietly, keeping a good distance, or what we thought was a good distance, anyway, and we were making progress, when we had to make our way past a small, local donut shop.
“The storefront window and the door were broken in. There were still donuts inside, sitting on the display shelves. Donuts. We were inside in moments, filling our packs.” Alan shrugged. “It made sense—the donuts were loaded with calories. They were stale, but we couldn’t be picky at that point. Stale calories were better than no calories.
“And then the zombies were inside, coming after us and blocking our exit. It was obvious something like that might happen, but we were all caught up in the stale calories then. I was too. I had my second or third donut in my mouth when I turned around and saw them. We ran to the back of the store, trying to get away, and then, perfect timing again, the zombies broke down the back door, and were coming in that way, too.”
“I got a sense of what would have to happen next. It came to me quickly, out of the blue, in fact. One of us would have to die for the others to have a chance—at least one of us. The zombies needed a diversion. I was scared and in a fight-or-flight state, so I wasn’t seeing everything clearly, but this rang through. It was my survival instinct guiding me, I know, but at the time that instinct was still not that good. I got to know it better later, a lot better.”
A cold wind swept down from the mountains and rushed past Senna and Alan. The blades of grass seemed not only to sway in response to the flow of air, but to shrink away from it and to remain bent even after the gust had passed, as if the grass itself were anticipating the bitter breeze’s return.
“They tore Matt apart,” Alan said. “Andy tried to help him and they got him too. Matt and Andy had been closest to the back door. The zombies coming in through the front of the store were closing in behind us. They were moving really fast. Everything was happening very quickly.
“Julie made a move toward the back, and Chris and I followed. Matt and Andy distracted the zombies long enough, and that let the rest of us get out through the back. There were more zombies outside, but not as many as we had coming after us from behind. We ran as hard and fast as we could. Somehow, we all made it to the warehouse by following Chris. He was young and strong, and Julie, well, she had one hell of a will to survive.
“When we got there we couldn’t find a way in. The zombies chasing us were right behind us, closing in, and we were forced to confront them. I had an aluminum baseball bat. Chris had a large wrench. Julie had a fire poker. The stuff we’d picked up and hung onto. Random make-do weapons. We fought desperately, Chris and I aiming our blunt objects at the zombies’ heads while Julie tried to stab them. Running on pure adrenalin, we fended off the first wave of about half a dozen, but we knew it was only a matter of time until more came.
“We had to find a way in or find somewhere else to hide. We made our way around the building, and, as much as we didn’t want to do it, climbed up into the loading dock bays and banged on the closed shutters. We were betting on there being other people hiding inside, and we turned out to be right. Good thing, too, because by the time we were let in, there were so many zombies at the base of the loading docks that it would only have been moments before they were climbing over each other and into the bays.
“There were twenty-eight people hiding inside. They welcomed us—most did, anyway. They were relieved to see that some other people had survived, I think because that gave them hope that their own loved ones might still be okay.
“And of course there were the ones who resented us, who saw us as a drain on the limited supplies they’d secured for themselves. You know, the usual. The ones who didn’t take kindly to us joining them, we tried to make peace with. We were desperate. I was desperate, and I would’ve fought to stay there, but it didn’t come to that, at least not at first.
“We stayed there for a long time. Two or three months. No one knew what to do besides stay put. Whenever any of us ventured out, the zombies would come to force us back inside. Help never came, but people would show up at the warehouse sometimes. It got to a point when there were fifty-four of us and nerves were beginning to run thin because we were all stuck there and our supplies were running out.
“There was no plan for the future. We didn’t know what we’d do when the food ran out, where we’d go. We tried to put a rationing system in place, but the people who’d been the first to secure the warehouse weren’t having it.
“Even though they’d been welcoming of others up to a point, they felt that the supplies were theirs to share as they chose, and not to be rationed or divvied up by others. After some fighting we managed to settle on a system. Not that it would matter for long. It all hit the fan a few days later when we got up one morning and fifteen people were missing, having made off with most of the food and water.”
“Right,” Senna said. She’d heard plenty of stories like this one before.
“It only got worse,” Alan said. “We were hungry, but we were trapped. There were times when we drew straws and sent people out looking for supplies. Sometimes they came back with a bit of food, other times with nothing, and other times not at all. After we lost about half a dozen people to these excursions, the people who were left in the warehouse refused to go.
“The zombies were starting to surround us little by little. Some were broken and staying that way for some reason. We weren’t sure why. Something must’ve been happening close to us. We could hear them all day and all night, trying to get in, running into the walls, the doors, moaning and grunting, always with the moaning.
“People were starting to lose it. I was starting to lose it. We were getting even more mistrustful of one another. We talked less and less and kept to ourselves more. I didn’t know what to do. No one did. I found myself reviving the hope of rescue in my own mind, of the government finding us and getting us out of there, something I’d long given up on. At least we had water, and it was the fall, so we didn’t have the cold to deal with on top of everything else.
“A gang formed, made up of the six biggest people there. Chris was one of them, their leader, in fact. The idea of cannibalism began to come up in a serious way. Chris and his guys were pushing it hard, making all the usual arguments.
“They wanted the next drawing of straws to decide which one of us would be eaten, sacrificed so that the rest could survive. There was a wall of zombies circling us outside, and a growing band of cannibals inside. Chris was able to get two more people with him, so they had eight at that point, but the rest of us didn’t want to go along with the plan.
“The idea of eating human meat was disgusting to me then, alien, wrong. Later, when the settlements were worked out, it became almost normal, even though it was technically illegal, the government was too weak to do anything about it, and you know that when people got hungry, they’d do more than look the other way.
“The mothers in the settlements who’d feed their kids meat, just to have the Fleshers kidnap those same kids later on, to be fed to other people in other settlements.” He shook his head. “But that was years later, when there actually were settlements. That was the one thing the government did right: trying to do away with the flesh-dealing, and regulating trade what little way they could. And good too, since it was pretty much the last thing the government did.”
Alan sighed. “Naturally, a fight broke out. I’d seen it coming, but I’d stayed. We’d all read the writing on the wall, but picking up and leaving didn’t seem like a real option. The people who’d left and stolen our food, we all assumed they were dead.
“It got heated, and suddenly I was in the middle of it. We were all so emotional, scared and stupid. Chris and his posse picked out someone to eat, an older man named Johnston, weak and fat, who Chris said could make no meaningful contribution to us except as food.
“Johnston tried to run. He got to the loading docks and managed to force one of the bays open part of the way. The zombies were there, waiting. They were on the ground below the bays. They couldn’t climb, so they didn’t get in, but Johnston stopped there. Caught between two evils he chose us, men over zombies.”
“Who the hell’s place was it to say that he was for eating, anyway? Turning back from the loading docks, he seemed to accept it. After Chris and his men secured the bays, they took Johnston back to the center of the warehouse.
They wanted to hash their intentions out with everyone present. They were setting up a regime of cannibals or something, I don’t know. It was like they needed to explain themselves, to make a case for how they were still human beings, even though they were about to eat one of their own.
Chris was telling us why it had to be this way while Johnston cowered and wailed on the floor in front of us. Chris and Johnston were in the center of the circle. The rest of us were around them, listening. Chris’s men were in a cluster, and the rest of us were scattered at the edges of aisles. The division was real, and they were in control. No one there seemed human anymore. They all looked wild, dirty and pathetic, trying to hide their shame in Chris’s words, his logic of survival.
“The inevitable moment came when Chris ran out of things to say. Then he just stood there for a while, looking at us, and down at Johnston. I guess he was having a hard time coming to grips with what he was about to do. Maybe he wasn’t convinced by his own arguments. Before I really knew what I was doing, I’d pushed myself off the aisle I was leaning on and was walking into the center of the circle, as if Chris’s hesitation was pulling me in. I remember what I was thinking, too. Nothing. My mind was completely blank. I had no idea what I was going to say when I got up there, or what I was going to do.
“And then I was up there, in the middle of the circle, next to Chris, who was now glaring at me in a stupefied sort of way, and Johnston—” Alan stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, scratching at the prominent stubble on the line of his jaw, “—he was staring up at me, his eyes red from crying. It looked like he wasn’t sure if I was going to speed up the process of killing him because I had heard enough and was starving, or if I was going to try to save him. It was a revolting moment. I began to speak. I was on some kind of autopilot, I guess.
“I was arguing against Chris, against his plan, against cannibalism. When I first started talking, Chris interrupted me, but then he let me go on. He wanted me to say my piece, to give voice to the doubts that were in the room. ‘It’s only fair,’ he said.
“I hadn’t known what I was going to say when I got up there, but after I began to speak, a different sort of plan—not cannibalism—was flowing out of me, and I realized that I’d been thinking about this for days and weeks, turning it over in my mind.
“I remember my stomach growling while I spoke, gnawing at my insides. I could hear everyone’s stomach noises around me. Some people were so hungry they were retching. I don’t think any of us had ever known a hunger like that before. I know I hadn’t. I was trying to get everyone on board with moving, escaping the warehouse somehow.
“I thought we could stage a diversion by making a lot of noise at one end of the warehouse and running out the other. We could throw crates and boxes off the roof, drawing the zombies there, and then make a run for it.
“Looking around the room as I spoke, I could see that they weren’t interested. I tried to speak louder, more forcefully, but I guess I wasn’t convincing enough. I was never very good at speaking. Just the idea of doing more work, of getting the crates to the roof and throwing them down, and then running after that, seemed to exhaust everyone even more. These people were spent. I was, too, but I didn’t want to be part of killing another person for food.
“Chris let me finish. Everyone did. When I had nothing more to say, when I couldn’t think of anything else, we put it to a vote. I was outvoted by a very large margin. They all had their hands raised for cannibalism, their heads bowed. No one was looking anyone else in the eye.
“Chris said that after we ate Johnston, the next person we ate would be chosen by a drawing of straws. And if people refused to participate, as had happened this time, Chris would choose the next person himself. He gave me a look then, and I knew exactly what it meant. So much for democracy.
“Then he seemed to realize that he may have been too harsh, and he backtracked, praising Johnston for the sacrifice he was making, even though it was unwilling, saying how it would help the rest of us survive for a while longer, and possibly even to escape. He was telling Johnston, who was now sobbing again, that his death was something to be proud of, that he should agree, that he had already agreed.
“It was like being in a madhouse. Then Chris told his men to keep Johnston there and disappeared down an aisle. He came back with a length of pipe that he’d been hiding somewhere. Some of us had knives, and a few had guns, but no one had any bullets left. I’m not sure why he wanted to use a blunt object like a pipe. I guess it’s no worse than being stabbed to death or having your throat slit.
“I was still standing in the middle of the circle, watching Chris walking over with the pipe. I could see him cracking, losing it just a little. He was nervous, unsure in his movements. And then my mind turned off entirely.
“I felt my whole body sinking to a more basic level of awareness. Everything loosened up, got a little bit slower. As Chris walked by me, I swung, and hard. My fist connected with the space just below his temple, and he crumpled. I couldn’t believe that I knocked him unconscious. His men began to move toward me, but just before reaching me, they fell on Chris. And then everyone else did, too.”
“They all jumped on him.” Alan grimaced. “And tore him apart.”
“They ate him,” Alan said. “Raw. They ripped him open with their hands and teeth, reaching into his belly to pull out his organs. Blood was everywhere, running from their mouths, down their arms, all over their clothes.
“He woke up and screamed and kept on screaming as they pulled him apart, until one of them ripped his throat open, I think it might’ve been Johnston, who’d taken his chance to join in and kill his captor. Chris didn’t struggle much longer after that.
“It seemed like something I’d caused, like something I’d done.” Alan shook his head sadly. “I had. I know it wasn’t my fault, not really. Eating people became more and more normal after the outbreak, like a taboo that wasn’t talked about, but that went on all the time.
“Except that first time, the first time I saw it happen, as a result of things I was at least partly responsible for, and realizing that was just the beginning… I don’t know. I guess the first time really leaves a mark.”
Senna nodded. “It does. The first time I saw it, I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I saw the cooked arms and legs and…they were obviously human, but my mind resisted making that connection at first. But you didn’t cause it. It wasn’t you. We all fell into anarchy, and you knocking that man out was for good reason. You couldn’t control what happened after.”
“The worst part of it,” Alan said, “the worst part for me…” He trailed off, looking ashamed.
She squeezed his hand, but he didn’t feel like he could continue. This was what she couldn’t know about him, what he couldn’t admit to her.
Worst of all, he’d wanted to join in.
He’d wanted to get down on his hands and knees with the others and add his head to the fray, to tear meat from Chris’s body and eat it, to push the hunger back for another day.
“I ran after that,” Alan said at last. “I didn’t care about the danger anymore, about the zombies that were waiting at the loading docks. I just wanted to get out of there.
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We were the strongest, the bravest, the luckiest. You had to be all three to be among the few who remained. But even after surviving for all these years after the zombie apocalypse, the fight still wasn't over. Maybe it would never be over. The zombies were still there, out there, but not just the zombies now. Now there were worse enemies. And it was our time to make the final stand, to fight for what little was left of the world, and to leave to our children a world free of an evil more terrible than the zombies. We were going to win, had to win, or die trying.