A bicycle stands against the wall of the antique store, whose windows have long been dark, the soap-written deals yellowed with long decay. The hand holding a digital voice recorder trembles despite the warmth of the day. The smell of blood fills the air, the crimson brightness splashed against the dull surface of the sidewalk in Rorschach blots. A thumb hovers above the play button, finally engaging the playback.
It’s Rufus Williams again. This is tape six. Well, it isn’t a tape, I guess, but we’ll call it tape six for lack of a better idea. There’s the intro. I’m going to go ahead and get right to it, if you don’t mind.
Guns killed more of us than they saved. No one will admit this, clutching their thunder-sticks in their cold, dead hands. Counter-intuitive, they call it. Doesn’t seem to make sense. How could you be better off without the great mechanical advantage of modern warfare? It’s a leap of faith, but it’s one that could have saved a lot of lives.
Why? Noise, plain and simple. If you touch off a firearm in the quiet of an abandoned town, you’d better be ready to kill every zombie within a two mile radius. I guarantee you, they’ll come a’shambling to meet you. Like they said in school, you can only bring candy to class if you have enough for everyone.
In the early days, I saw a whole platoon of heavily armed men march into Ogden, never to come out. Made a lot of noise, splattered a lot of undead flesh, but they couldn’t bear up under the thunder they’d called down upon themselves. There were just more zombies than they had bullets.
Consequence–more food for the stumbling juggernaut, less living biodiversity in the human genome.
Big guns. Damn, sounds like a good idea. Shock and Awe. Victory by overwhelming force. The right of firepower. Some get lucky with this school of thought, but we’re massively outnumbered, and one slip is all that it takes for everything to go tits-up. Guns jam. The light is bad, and you waste your ammo on shadows and smoke. Surprise. You’re dead.
Not me. I stand back. I watch others take the first steps and learn from their mistakes. Heroism doesn’t come into it. This is survival, and the only sure way to survive is to stay hidden, to kill the ones you have to and make as little noise as possible. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re the apex predator anymore. Maybe once, but the flashover changed all that. We’re strictly second chair while the zombies last. No sense arguing. They don’t.
My feeling is that the zombie won’t last forever. There will be a day when they’re gone, their unfathomable tasks at an end. You can see it. They’re breaking down, decaying. Dead creatures walking around are clearly the exception, rather than the rule. A fatal exception, sure, but they’ll pass. The trick is to keep yourself alive long enough to see that day come around. Living through it is pretty much the trick to everything. I hope this idea isn’t a new one on you.
Of course, I don’t know who I’m talking to here. Maybe you found this recording mixed in with my bones. Maybe it’s hundreds of years after the flashover, and you wonder what the hell I’m even talking about. Heck, you could be our new alien overlords, and this is just an interesting artifact from the human era.
When it comes down to it, I guess it doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, or if I’m just talking to myself. I’m talking. I’m alive. It’s something. It keeps my mind off of the ache in my knees as I wait for my moment.
The bed of an ancient GMC pickup isn’t much of a hunting blind, and I’m not the smallest guy ever, so squatting down, waiting for my prey, isn’t kind on my knees. When I say “prey”, I guess a segment of the listening public will think that I’m on the hunt for zombies, ready to put ’em down with extreme prejudice in whatever non-gun way I have. You might imagine me to be the dark revenger of humankind, a bitter survivor hoping to bring down every zombie he comes across.
Yep. No. Most times, if you’re smart, you have bigger, more basic problems to contend with. Like eating. Happens that a guy wants something better than pork and beans now and then. Something fresh. There’s a game trail right through this neighborhood. The deer and coyotes come down from the mountains, cut across a little arroyo, and wander around in the overgrown mess of people’s back yards. It’s been a rainy spring, and the foliage is growing to beat the band.
I wait. You get good at waiting, good at letting go of that relentless motion that used to keep the wheels of society turning. It’s not that there isn’t anything to do. Far from that. It’s just that things take as long as they take. If days pass, that’s okay. You hustle when you have to, but other than that, it’s just steady work. One foot in front of the other, so to speak.
A raccoon trots down the game trail, looks back at me, and keeps on. They’re no good to eat, and anyway, I’ve always had a soft spot for the little bandits. All the wild animals have fallen back into their normal routines. They just get all the land we were hoarding back, and so it’s kind of a field day. No, it’s only the domestic animals you have to watch out for. Feral dogs can be nasty, I tell you. Many of them died cooped up in houses in the first days, but plenty of them got out. About half the shots I’ve had to take have been to keep fido from trying to take a chunk out of me. Not like I could have saved ’em. Not within my power, that.
The cats aren’t strictly dangerous, but sometimes, when you see a tribe of fifty of them, they can set you on edge a bit. They’re important, though. The rodents went totally batshit with all the rotting food right after the flashover. It’s not just old ladies who swallow a spider to catch the fly.
I did manage to let the zoo animals loose, which was dicey at points. Don’t know if the monkeys and snakes survived the winter, but I saw a few of the elephants last week, and the lions are doing just peachy. It’s a strange world, though. When you see that a tiger’s got her den in the foyer of the opera hall, that sorta gives you an idea that we’ve fallen off the chair and we ain’t getting up.
Hell, now there’s one–a zombie. Nah two. Make that three. This close, they’ll smell me when they get downwind, no matter how well I hide. They’re about forty yards out, so I may as well stand and deliver.
Boy, my knees aren’t what they were ten years ago, but I get myself up in the truck bed and pull back the string on my compound bow. Thunk. One arrow away. I smooth the fletching of the next one and nock the arrow before I look up to see the result.
The draw weight is one hundred pounds, which gives you a hell of a lot of juice with a roller compound bow. The arrow is down almost to the feathers in the first zombie’s chest, and the impact knocked him flat. His clumsy hands are slapping at the ground as he’s figuring out how to get up.
I shoot the next one, staggering forward at her best pace and now about twenty yards away. This shot is point-blank, and the arrow passes right through her neck. Must have severed the spine, because she goes down and stops moving.
The third, no more than ten yards away by the time I get the next arrow to the string, is a big S.O.B., and I put one right into the dome of his purple-red, rotting skull. At this distance, the sound of bone giving way and flesh parting is perfectly defined. The big zombie runs into the back of the GMC and falls, twitching, finished. I ease out of the bed and walk around him, just in case he has any impressive full-death throes in him. The first zombie, now crawling toward me with a mouth full of crooked, disgusting teeth, gets a swing from the sharp splitting axe I always carry with me. That sound–well, let’s not dwell on that sound, okay? That one comes back at you when you close your eyes.
The whole thing only takes a moment. I do a cautionary finishing stroke on the other two zombies and pull them into a ditch. Scavengers won’t eat ’em, but I know they’ll be down to the bones in a week. What gets put off when they walk around for a while comes on with a quickness when they finally fall for good.
I stretch out, check myself over, and hop on the old beachcomber bicycle I’m comfortable on. Again, it’s quiet. I don’t go that far, and it generally carries what I need it to. I’ve rigged a big rack on the back, enough to carry a dressed-out deer if it needs to. Usually, though, it’s just a rabbit, or one of the goats that escaped from their pasture up on the mountainside. Seems there was a billy in there somewhere, because I’ve seen the little ones around, if only from a distance. I’ll need to go down to the sporting goods stores and pick up the last of their arrows. I don’t try to pry them out of zombie carcasses. Hell, I don’t know if there’s something catching in zombie flesh. I’m very sure that there’s nothing particularly sanitary, and that’s enough for me.
It’s a silent world. I get that every time I’m coasting down into the valley on my bike, the cool wind on my face. We forgot how much we’d ruined that, how we were forced to shout against the senseless fury of our machines. We came to fear the silence more than the dark, and even after the fall, so many gripped hard at the call of the juddering diesel and the cracking magnum round. It’s like we had to call out at the top of our lungs, “I still live!” We had to do that all the time, but it’s no good hiding when you’re screaming at full voice. The swells of the background music have gone away, and now it’s just the hesitant monologue of we few survivors.
It’s later now, and I’m back in my place. I’m three floors up, with lots of doors between me and the street. First floor was a Thai place and a nail salon, second floor was a small law office, and then there’s me. This place used to be an art gallery. Lots of open space, wood floors. I put in a kerosene stove and bricked up a few of the windows, pulled up a futon couch, and that’s it: home. Another night of brown rice, canned beans, and some mandarin oranges. Maybe tomorrow will bring something fresh.
“Victory Virginia” Beckman from Denver’s on the radio, saying they just got pelted with snow over there. Nine inches or so, a heck of a spring storm. Virginia’s lamenting tonight. It’s her birthday, and she wants like hell to get her ashes hauled. I hope she does, but I’m not hitting the road. Not until I’m sure I’ve waited out all the storms, anyway. Denver’s a long way, a little too much danger, even though I sometimes shake with the need for human contact. Sometimes the radio lady even seems unreal, like it’s just an old broadcast from before, replaying on some automated reel. I know it’s not. She’s with me, stranded after the fall. Still, with no one to see, no second person to join the conversation, everything starts to slip, feeling like a long and fevered dream.
It’s been three weeks. It’s warmer now. I have a little trailer for my bike, and I can bring a good fifty pounds of supplies in at a time now, no problem. You don’t see zombies around here very often now. Here and there, but they’re getting pretty sad looking. Whatever held them together is starting to subside, I think. Zombies haven’t been my big problem for a while. It’s me who’s the problem. It’s been nine months or so since the last time I talked to another human being. It’s getting hard to remember faces out of the past.
I know Clint Buckston was the quarterback on the football team when I was in high school, but I can’t remember what he looked like anymore. I can’t remember what my wife Jolene’s hands felt like on my skin. I remember her–the way she’d cup her hands around my chin and tell me everything would be fine–but it’s just a placeholder. All the reality is draining out of that old life, before the flashover. It’s all becoming unreal, like a fairy tale I heard as a kid.
Sure, there’s real shit here. I’m living inside the broken teeth on the broken gears of a seized machine out here, and the evidence of what we were still shines dimly in the late-spring glory of the sun. That said, abandoned things grow weird, their purposes becoming cloudy. The world inside the books I read to pass the time seems more vibrant than anything I see when I walk out my door. John Carter of Mars and his Barsoom linger in my mind, brighter than the sun glinting off the wrecked cars on 3rd West. I’d love to say that I’d learned something special about my own human-ness through this, but I haven’t. All I know is that I’m alone, and a man alone begins to lose his rationale for fighting on. Unseen, I don’t feel real. I feel like a dream of the older, forgotten world, ultimately unimportant and fleeting as the quiet earth knits its wounds.
It’s midsummer. Here I am again, although less of me. Man, did I get sick. Just the flu, but I thought it was going to do what the zombies haven’t been able to manage and kill me dead. It’s a reminder. I’m one misadventure from the brink. An ill-timed broken bone or unlucky sickness is all it would take to wipe me out.
As it is, the bike rides aren’t as easy, and I’m still a little shaky on my feet. Had to find another bow, one with a draw weight I could manage. I’ll get back to feeling better, but it’s a slow road. Must have dropped fifty pounds, sweating and raving with fever. You hit forty, it gets harder to bounce back from that.
I’m surprised I haven’t seen anyone for so long. I know there were others. I guess I hunkered down so deep that everyone thought I was gone. Gone, I guess, amounts to the same as dead at this point. Still, a city this big, you’d think that there’d be a few other holdouts, just waiting for it to all blow over. If there were, I surely would have seen their fires and heard their machines. I’m always up in the foothills, waiting for game, scanning the horizon–shoot, sometimes I’m just moving around to make the days go by, just to get the strength back in my body.
I find that I talk so tough about knowing there are other people out there. I make it seem as if I’m sure, that it’s a given that the survivors are thick on the ground, just waiting to join up and build a new society. What do I know, though?
How many of us are left? How many, really? Talking about living humans west of the Rockies, are we talking dozens, hundreds? The light parts of my head tell me that it’s thousands, but the darker whispers say I’m fooling myself, telling myself bedtime stories. Every lonely day lets that dark voice echo a little louder.
Minor second thoughts about those zoo animals. The elephants, who must have tangled with some zombies here and there, have taken to charging at me whenever they can. That, and one of the lions was looking a bit too longingly at my flank steaks the other day. Ah, well. A man needs something interesting to think of in life. I’d rather be trampled or turned into lion food than, well, other things I could mention.
Ran out of kerosene last week. I’m sure there’s some more out there, but I don’t know where to look, or how long kerosene keeps, or anything like that. If it gets important, I guess I’ll learn. For the remainder of the warm season, I can just ride around and snake propane from people’s back yards, and that’ll make it easy to cook. I guess charcoal after that. In the meantime, I’m gathering fallen wood each day, laying down a little store for winter.
It may come down to the point that I’ll need to start chopping down trees and so on, but I’m thinking that won’t be until next year. By then, I don’t think I’ll have any zombies to worry about. They’re already rare, and the ones you see are in pretty sad shape.
The radio lady from Denver says that she’s having the same experience, the zombies getting rare and shaggy. Victory Virginia. She’s my only contact. I think about what she would look like, how her skin would feel, how I could…well, that’s more info than you need, but it goes to show you that you fall in love with whatever’s available. For me, it’s just a disembodied voice over the radio, and the songs she plays. In a dead world, she’s the only spark of substance I’ve got.
I find myself clinging to that, waiting in the dead of night for Virginia’s broadcast to start again. Used to be that she’d run 24/7, and it’d just be music when she was out and about. She had to start closing down, and she only runs eight hours a day now to save fuel. Those other sixteen hours seem to drag on forever, I tell you. I’ve actually and honestly prayed for the sound of her voice to come back. It always does, and she keeps a brave face on things, and for that I bless her.
Every day, I get closer to taking that leap, to going and seeing her. It’s only the fear that keeps me from doing it. Not the fear of the road anymore–that’s gone. I’m just scared that it wouldn’t be what I hoped, that I would just be some stranger, some rough looking old fart wanting more than she could give. I guess it’s just one fear trading places with another in the twilight, and none of it matters.
I hear something. Something–an engine. I know it is. Holy shit, but there’s someone coming this way! Get your shit together, Rufus. Pants on, fly zipped, shirt tucked in. Whew, but my heart’s racing. I better get down there. They got no reason to think I’m here, me all cuddled down and sleeping until noon because I read until my candle was down to a stub.
Damn, but I…I was starting to doubt everything. Down the stairs, Rufus, just one at a time. No sense blowing your old knees out before you even leave the building.
Unlock the doors, bring out the bike, straddle. I’m pushing, my body burning all over. It sounds like a motorcycle. Makes sense. Good mileage, good maneuverability to get by wrecks and so on.
Heart’s in my throat. They’re just around the corner. Dropping off the bike. Here I go…
Hey! Hey! I didn’t think I’d…whoa, now. Take it easy!
<Distorted sound of several guns going off, then a low thud. Gasping noises.>
Rufus’ Voice: (barely audible) What…what happened?
<Unintelligable voices, running footfalls, getting louder.>
Female Voice: It was just some guy! Jesus, Marcy, just some poor dude, and you…
Second Female Voice: I didn’t…I thought it was…
First Voice: He’s gone now. You wasted him. It’s over.
<Sounds of movement, as well as scratching footfalls nearby the microphone. In the background, hitching sobs.>
First Voice: What’s he got there? Looks like a voice recorder…
Marcy puts the digital voice recorder down on the small table. This was his room. It smells like a man, and his cooking, and contains the comforting warmth that has gone away from the world. She walks to the window and gazes down at the street, the rusting cars, Jo-Anne next to the bikes. Everything is blurred. She can’t imagine that she has any tears left to shed, but it seems there are always more.
Jo sees her, waving her to come down to the street. She shakes her head. There are five more recordings. She knows the end of the story. Her trigger finger was the end of the story. She needs to know it all now. Marcy slumps down, not quite ready for it yet. She flips on the radio. The DJ from Denver is spinning “Lights Out In London”. Marcy closes her eyes, and it’s lights out here, too. It’s lights out everywhere.
Author Bio: Patrick M. Tracy lives and works in Salt Lake City. When not fixing computer for the local library system, he indulges his passion for fiction and poetry. Find out more about what he’s been up to at pmtracy.com.