By Zombies; Eaten
The death tag wrapped around the woman’s toe is curling at the sides, yellowing with age, growing brittle. Tags like this are written in pencil, now, because we re-use them. We have to. This little town only had a few to begin with, and the dead pile up fast around here. I suppose we could get more shipped in to us, if the shipping routes were still running. They’re not.
The little girl in the corner hasn’t said a word since they brought her in, but her eyes are like leaking faucets, producing tiny rivers of horror and fear and despair that run down her face as she stares out at nothing. The body under the sheet? The one with the old, used toe-tag? That’s her mother. When we found the two, Mom had already become a midnight snack. The zombie put out her eyes with his thumbs, jerked his arms, split her head open like a coconut. Then his buddy went to work on her legs, gnawing at ‘em the way a dog will work a bone.
Turns out one of the things had once been her husband. They call it residual memory. No one’s quite sure exactly how it works, but it’s been seen too many times to be denied. He went missing a few days ago. Showed up this evening at the house with a friend, moaning and crying and banging at the front door.
Fool woman should’ve known better than to open it. I’m not saying she deserved what happened, no... but the warnings have been all over the damn place for months. Whole country’s been warned. TV and radio, back when they worked. Now posters, fliers, word of mouth. You’d have to be blind, deaf, and stone stupid not to know better.
Wasn’t much could be done except put an explosive round in Dad’s head. Little girl was right there watching. Screaming and watching, and I felt bad about doing it, but if you don’t catch ‘em before the change, destroying the brain is the only way to put ‘em down. I’m not talking a little bullet to the head here, either. I’m talking about atomizing the old grey matter. Making brain pudding. That’s when the kid went silent, all at once, like someone had knocked her clean out. Except she was still watching, all glassy-eyed, while we hauled away the bodies.
Dad’s burnt now, and here’s mom lying on the table, brain removed before it can start to change, and the cause of death on the tag reads like a bad joke. “Killed by zombies;” in shaky pencil scrawl, and then, scribbled up and diagonal to save space, an after-thought: “Eaten.”
The little girl’s breathing is growing steadily more ragged. I’ve seen this before. She’s going to start screaming pretty soon. She’ll do that for a while, I guess, probably until her voice gives out. Then she’ll either start to get better, or she’ll just get worse.
I don’t mind that she’s going to start screaming. Not her fault, and to be honest this town is so goddamned quiet most of the time that any noise is welcome. I do feel a twinge of anger at Andy, who shoulda goddamn known better than to park this little kid in front of her mom’s corpse and leave her there. I’ll chew him out when he comes back on shift, but it won’t matter. Andy hasn’t been right since the zombies got his wife. The Sonofabitch only’d been married maybe three... four months. Then all this shit started. His Lisa was one of the first to go.
No, Andy ain’t right, as they say down here. This little girl ain’t right. Shit, I probably ain’t right either, but there’s no real way to tell these days. Sometimes I wake up and my throat hurts like I’ve been screaming. Sometimes I wake up and the pillow’s all wet. My dreams, though, they’re all just grey and shifting, like pea-soup fog in November. Things I’ve seen? The grey fog’s a blessing.
* * *
Andy’s been my deputy for about six months. He volunteered for the position after I was elected Sheriff. I think he wanted to make amends for Lisa. I got my position because I shot the last Sheriff in the head before he could turn the local high school basketball star into Sunday dinner.
Andy spends a lot of time cradling his shotgun like a baby and looking through the big windows out front. There’s bars on those windows now. Necessary measures. It’s bad and getting worse out there. You’d think we could just wipe the zombies out, but it hasn’t worked like that. For example, you’d be surprised how few people have the heart to shoot a loved one -- even a dead one -- in the face. Most of ‘em just lie there, crying like babies, and let themselves be killed. For every zombie Andy and I put down, two more seem to take its place.
One time, Andy sees this zombie just lurching along right down Main street, and he whoops like a southern colonel at the races, and starts discharging that damn shotgun right in the office. He’s shooting right through the glass of the window, never mind that the spread was way too loose to do any damage at that range. I had to wait until he ran out of shells and it was safe to go out the front door, and put the thing down with my handgun.
Thinking about that brings a smile to my face that feels like it might be more of a grimace. The little girl in the corner’s going “Ah!” with each breath now, and the sound is the most pathetic, heart-wrenching thing I’ve heard in a long time; since the last little girl, anyway. There’s been a lot of orphaned kids. The zombies seem to go for the big meals first. If you respond fast enough, you can usually save the kids. There’s a whole mess of ‘em over at the elementary school. Some of the teachers are running what amounts to an orphanage there. No point in teaching anymore. Surviving’s a full time job.
People could’ve left town, I guess, but where would they go? A major city? Forget it. They’re all war zones, full of gangs and vigilantes. Freaks and perverts. Zombies.
Another small town? You’d be welcome, I suppose, but what’s the point? The only safe place would be way out in the mountains somewhere, and truth is: most people just aren’t equipped to survive anymore. They don’t know how to farm or hunt. They don’t even know how to find clean water. Better to batten down the hatches, keep your guns clean, keep your Bible open, and wait to die.
* * *
First off, forget all of this George Romero shit that’s running through your head right now, okay? You’ve got pictures in your mind of Grandma crawling her way out of the grave and trying to gum you to death. Bullshit. Unless you put Grandma into the ground in the past year, there’s no chance. The likelihood of infection decreases exponentially as the corpse ages. Oldest confirmed I’ve ever seen was ten months, and even that was a joke. Motor control was shot. The thing was crawling along, wracked with seizures. Not scary. Not dangerous. More pathetic than anything else, really.
No, the dangerous ones are the one or two-weekers. Folks like this little girl’s dad, who died by zombie bite. That itself increases the risk of infection to near-guaranteed. When it happens that soon, they’re still fast, and smart. Jesus, they can be smart. I’ve seen ‘em hunt in packs like wild dogs, snarling and ravenous, overtaking their prey and dragging it down. They’re strong too, if they were in good health during life. And they don’t feel pain, best we can tell.
The first ones came out of the ground two years ago, give or take. In April, after the last major thaw. There’s a hundred thousand competing theories for why or how it happened, and as far as I’m concerned, you can throw ‘em all in a hat and pick one at random. The fools out there theorizing still believe there’s a chance to stop what’s happening. The rest of us have better things to worry about.
It’s worse at night. Not that the things are nocturnal; they show up any time of the day. But at night you can’t see as far. Every shadow could mean death. The lights around town flicker, sometimes. Barely enough people left to keep the electricity running. Every time it happens, I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. Good Christ, do you know how bad it’s going to get when we’re reduced down to torches and kerosene lanterns?
Sometimes, when I let myself think about it, I wonder what in the hell these things are going to do when they wipe out the human race. They don’t seem to die from hunger, but the longer they go without eating, the more violent and brutal they’re likely to be. Will they turn on each other? We haven’t seen that so far.
I imagine they’ll eventually rot away. I’m not sure if they keep decaying after they come out of the ground, but I guess they must, right? It’s all dead tissue, and dead tissue rots. Maybe someday the earth will be free of humans and zombies alike.
I sort of like that. It’s ugly, but it’s awfully damned funny. Maybe it’s God. Oh, you choose which one you like. I’m not picky. God the cosmic mathematician. God the giant white guy with the Santa Claus beard. God the multi-armed elephant. God the warp and weave of the universe, who sent comets to kill the dinosaurs and zombies to kill mankind.
Maybe God puts checks and balances into the Earth the way you toss one of those blue tablets into a toilet tank. Picture it: the self-cleaning earth, periodically wiping away the scum.
I think of things like that sometimes and it makes me laugh. I try not to do that, though. Sometimes when I laugh, people think I’m screaming.
* * *
She started up about ten minutes ago. Those rattling breaths between each “Ah!” got deeper and deeper, building to something. Then a deep breath -- more of a gasp, really, like tearing cloth -- and the first scream. I think it was “Mama.” Not sure. Her voice cracked and broke about halfway through and it became something other than a word.
I wheeled her mom away a while ago. When Andy gets back, we’ll take her from the one freezer we have here, to the big bank of ‘em at the morgue. Our guy there will come in later today and find her, enter the name into the records, slip the toe tag off, and put it back onto the pile.
He used to take the bodies out and have ‘em buried. That doesn’t happen anymore. No time, no patience. No one has energy enough for proper burials, and people standing around in a cemetery these days tend to feel like items at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now they go in the oven, and then in the pit.
The little girl’s in agony. Hurts to watch, but it’s sort of hard to turn away. Normally she’d be pretty. Blonde, blue... I’d put her just on the upper side of ten years old. Those blue eyes are bloodshot now, wide and staring out at nothing. The tears that started as a leak are something more like a torrent now, and the screams go on and on. There’s a drop of spit at the corner of her mouth. Her little hands are bunched white blotches clutching at her jeans. Poor kid.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. I’m sitting here and not doing a goddamned thing, right? I should be over there, comforting her. I should give her a hug and tell her that it’s okay, that everything’s going to be all right. I should tell her that I’ll take care of her and that someone will find out what the hell’s causing these monsters to wake up from a sleep that’s supposed to last forever. I should tell her that someone will fix it.
I tried that. First five kids, ten, maybe twenty, I tried it, because I believed it. What happens, though, is that at some point you find yourself holding onto one of those kids and saying those words, and all of a sudden you’re crying too. You realize that you don’t believe a single damn thing you’re saying, anymore. You realize that, and you can’t lie to the kid, because you can’t lie to yourself.
Brother, that hurts more than listening to the screams.
* * *
The noise has dwindled to halfhearted croaking and some sniffling sounds. Andy’s late for his shift, and I’d call him except that I’m way too scared to do that. Andy’s never late. He’s got nothing else to live for but this job, which is why his shifts last about sixteen hours. He only goes home to sleep and, truth be told, I don’t think he does much of that either.
So I sit and watch the minute hand of the clock tick away, and listen to the little girl. I know that when she stops crying she’s either going to go catatonic again, or she’s going to tell me her name. Either way, she can’t stay here, and I’m going to have to start being Sheriff again, I guess.
That means going to Andy’s house, and finding him dead. Then it means going out to the sentry posts and likely finding one of them dead, too. Then it means going down to the firehouse and hitting the horn, which is the signal that we need to hold a town meeting, because we need a new sentry and a new deputy.
The guys in the towers I don’t care much about. They’re volunteers, almost always half-crazy. Guys who think that sitting up in their hunting stands drinking beer and taking shots at anything moving in the dark might be fun. Sooner or later they get too drunk, and they don’t see the movement, and the next day they don’t check in. Then I’m carting the poor bastards back here to cut out their brains and put ‘em in the deep freeze. It’s routine at this point, insane as that sounds.
Yeah, I don’t care about the sentries, but Andy was a good man once, and even in his later days I’d have given a dozen of most men for one of him. Now I do believe he’s dead, and I feel like a lost kid. Like that time when I was ten, standing in the middle of Manhattan and feeling that first wave of panic as I realize I have no idea where my mother is. That time, she showed up ten minutes later, crying and calling my name. This time, no one’s going to show up. I’m the only one left.
I think about just leaving, then... just up and running out the door and getting into my old Dodge and flooring that bitch and driving all the way out into the mountains. I think about living out there, and leaving these people to their slow, sad deaths. Then I remember the girl’s eyes as she looked at the body under the sheet, the thing that used to be her mom.
I remember the pain I saw there, and something twists inside me like a knife, sharp and hot and deadly. I’ve had enough. Enough of delivering orphaned children to the school, enough of driving out to check on the sentries, enough of sitting in this office and waiting to die. I can’t remember ever being this angry. The things took Andy, those bastards, but I won’t let them take me, and I won’t let them take her.
I jerk out of my chair and onto my feet. Nothing left to do, now. The course is set. There’s no orphanage at the school for this one. No sitting down with a Bible and waiting for the inevitable. No.
So I say hey. Hey little girl. The sniffling stops for a second, and I say “You got a name?”
There’s no response, not at first. I wait to see if I’m going to get an answer, or more screaming. And then she says her name is Anna. I say, “Anna.”
And I say, “You want to get the hell out of here?”
* * *
Her name is Anna, and as we ride in the car I wonder if I’d have been this brave at her age. This little girl watched her father’s corpse claw its way through the screen door to split her mother’s head open. This little girl watched two police officers burst into her house and blow up her dad’s head. I can’t imagine what that’s like. Really, I’m pretty glad that I can’t.
It’s going on dusk, and Anna’s face is a white smear against the lengthening shadows moving past, outside. There are big purple blotches like bruises under her eyes, and she’s still shivering and sniffling, but at least that thousand-mile stare is mostly gone. She’s looking at all of the radio equipment in the cruiser, and at the shotgun resting in its harness under the dash. I tell her to be careful. It’s not locked. Around here, locking up your guns is suicide.
She asks me if it’s real, and I tell her yes, it’s as real as they come. It’s put down twenty or thirty of the monsters in the past month, so I know it’s real. I don’t bother to tell her that part, though. Doesn’t matter.
Anna looks up at me with her big blue eyes, and asks me where we’re going. Got to laugh at that a bit, because it’s not as if I really know. I can tell her where we’re not going. We’re not going to the school; I can’t look at the sick, blind, stupid hope in those people’s eyes again. We’re not going to Andy’s house; I’m afraid that if I have to look at him dead I may break down in tears, and that’s the last thing that Anna needs. I’m not taking her to the sentry posts, no matter what.
So we’re in the car, and we’re driving, and I may not know where we’re going, but I know it’s not here. Anna doesn’t seem surprised when the sign marking the town line flashes by. She turns around backward in the seat and waves goodbye to the place she’s spent her entire life in. Then she curls up on the seat and cradles her head on her arms and yawns that hitching yawn that kids do after they’ve been crying.
See, it had to come to this, and I guess I shoulda realized that long ago. The primary instinct of all creatures is survival, and what I’ve been doing isn’t surviving. It’s slow death. Andy and me, we were just going through the motions of living. He died with his Lisa, back in April. I was on the way to joining them. The soundtrack to my death was supposed to be the sound of children screaming, and the scratch of a pencil on old, weary paper.
Everyone in this stupid, shitty town is dying. The teachers at the elementary school. The students they’re trying to protect. The townsfolk who’ve boarded their windows and bolted their doors and hunkered down in their basements trying to avoid the roaming packs of the undead. They’ll all die, and wrapped around their yellow toes will be yellow tags, curling and cracking and worn thin where they’ve been erased countless times to make room for new names.
Maybe the obituary for the human race will come as a decaying piece of paper with the words “Killed by Zombies;” scrawled across it in pencil, and then, scribbled up and diagonal to save space, an after-thought: “Eaten.”
* * *
I let the yellow lines on the road flash below the cruiser for a few hours. Anna sleeps stretched out on the bench seat, wrapped up in a police blanket and murmuring through her dreams. The human race has been dying for ten thousand years. I don’t know how much longer it can hold on, but I’ll be damned if I’ll go quietly.
Anna’s world will always be about zombies. If she grows up, it will be in a place where, when a person dies, their brain is removed from their body and burnt. It will be a place where every dark corner can mean horrible death. She’ll adapt. That’s what kids do.
I want Anna to see the red rocks of New Mexico. I want her to stare out at the Grand Canyon and be amazed by its immensity. I want to hear her laugh as the sun bounces off the Pacific Ocean. I want to see the mark of her mother’s death leave her face.
That’s what I want, and I also want a soda, so I stop at a gas station. There’s no one there, of course, but there’ll be something in the back. Anna doesn’t wake up when we pull in, and I don’t want to bother her. Three minutes, right? What’re the odds? I leave her in the car, leave the doors unlocked.
I’m bending down to heft a case of cola when I hear the shambling, unsteady steps behind me. The smell hits me right after, like roadkill in the August heat, and my heart jumps into my throat. Jesus Christ, what was I thinking? The shotgun is in the car. Anna is in the car, and I’m in here, with something dead.
It moans as I turn to look at it, and the sound is high and wet and full of something that sounds like lust. Guess I look pretty appetizing. Oh, God, don’t let me die like this.
The thing is wearing what must have been a set of coveralls, at some point. If it had lips when it died, it doesn’t now, and its moldy teeth are wet with some noxious fluid. It’s missing an arm, but the other is still there and still strong. Its fingers clench and unclench as it stumbles toward me, and I’ve got nowhere to go. I’m still holding the case of cola, and I want to throw it at the thing, but I can’t find any strength in my arms.
That’s when I hear the sound, from the left of us, from the entrance to the store. That sweet, wholesome click-chack of a shotgun cocking. Anna’s got it in her hands, and I can see from her stance that someone, her daddy probably, taught her how to shoot. They learn early around here, and maybe that ain’t so bad. I’m glad just the same that it’s the standard-issue 12 gauge. The sawed-off 10 gauge that Andy used to carry would rip her arms off. Even so, even with this dead and rotting thing lurching down the aisle toward me, fingers outstretched and grasping, I’m saying “Careful. Careful Anna, it kicks hard.”
Anna’s looking at the thing with eyes that are scared and sad and furious. If this were a movie, she’d have some quip on her tongue to send the bastard off to hell with, I guess. It’s not, and she doesn’t, so she just goes ahead and pulls the trigger.
The blast is crazy-loud inside. It breaks some of the windows, and sets my ears ringing, but to me it’s the sweetest notes of a symphony. The pellets have just enough room to spread before they hit the thing, tearing it most of the way in half and leaving it flopping on the ground. Black blood and little stinking pieces of smoking flesh fly up into the air. I imagine if you were to gut a live fish and drop it on the floor, it might look something like this. Couldn’t possibly smell as bad, though.
I move to her side of the store while Anna cocks the shotgun again. She looks at me, waiting, and I put down the soda, hold out my hand, take the gun from her, mutter a Hail Mary under my breath. I’m not exactly religious and for sure not Catholic, but I’ll tell ya: that Hail Mary, it makes you feel better about what you’re about to do. One shot to the head puts the thing out of its misery.
I feel Anna take hold of the first two fingers of my right hand. I look down and there are those big blue eyes, looking back up at me, and she says, “I hate those things.”
You and me both, kiddo.
So now I guess we’re even, me and Anna. I stand there for a minute, amazed, looking at her and thinking. I’m thinking about tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. I’m thinking: I’ve killed dozens of these things myself. I’m one man, already past his prime. How many more can I kill before I die?
How many more can someone who’s young, and quick, and smart kill?
How many others like her might there be?
* * *
Somewhere in the night it starts to rain, and I take the speed down a bit, and turn on the brights. There’s no one on the roads anymore. Nowhere to go. No reason to go there. The cruiser’s probably the first car to pass through these parts in weeks. I’m getting tired, but it wouldn’t be safe to pull over and sleep. Better to find a town with lights still burning. Better to seek shelter there. It shouldn’t be too long; there are still a lot of us left.
The zombies are fast and dangerous, but they’re not immortal. We’ve been sitting and letting them hunt us since day one. Cowering. Terrified. Unable to just let go and accept what is. Anna doesn’t have that problem. She can’t remember anything else but the way things are now.
The dead have risen, they’re killing humans, and they’re eating them. This is true, but the dead can be killed, too, and she knows it.
I look over at Anna, curled up and as near peace as she’s ever likely to be again, and I think about where I can take her. What I can teach her. I look at Anna lying there by her shotgun, and for the first time since the dead clawed their way up from the ground last April, I stop thinking about dying for a while, and start thinking about living instead.