I used to feel sorry for them. You know, the zombies.
When the outbreaks started and people began to die and then get back up, everyone was scared. Panic filled the streets and hearts of most people.
No, Pop told me the dead–whether they were truly dead or stuck in the shells that were their bodies–deserved to be treated with respect once they were finally ushered from this world. It was Pop who told us that we should bury the dead. And that’s what we did until it was just me.
Davey Blaylock’s gone.
The four of us had set out to rid our little town of the undead. When all was said and done, there had been more dead than alive and I was all that was left of our quartet.
And I had buried my dad, my oldest brother and my best friend. Not to mention an entire town of mostly people I knew.
I felt bad for them. I felt sorry for them and not just the ones I knew. All of them.
Until I reached Table Rock.
The family cabin sat just outside the state park–maybe a mile or so away–and I had to drive through a world gone to hell from my hometown to Sommerville, to Columbia and through Greenville. You never get used to seeing the carnage, the death everywhere.
So few people were left alive…
It was no different in Table Rock.
There’s a stretch of road that leads to the cabin. Trees line either side of it. For a good portion of that road there is a ditch along one side. Most folks never knew it was there. They just saw a grass covered embankment and tried to keep themselves on the road.
When we were kids, Davey and Leland and I sometimes stole one of our mother’s empty purses–always the empty ones she kept at the bottom of her closet. It would have been bad if our moms had caught us with one of their good ones–and we’d head out along that stretch of road.
The good thing about living out in the country is there are all sorts of things to get into. Tree climbing, skinny dipping, hunting for all sorts of animals. On those Saturday mornings when we had nothing better to do, we would hunt down black snakes–the longer, the better–and put them in an empty purse. Then we’d set the purse along the side of the road–just enough on the shoulder to be off the grass, but not in the road itself.
Then we’d hide, either in the ditch or just inside the trees and watch. The anticipation was the worst, but it was always funny when a car slowed down and someone got out and grabbed the purse. They would look around, see no one, then run back to the car and drive off as if nothing ever happened. Then they would stop. The car door would open and the purse would get thrown out, sometimes still open. On those occasions the snake would fly through the air.
We entertained ourselves for hours doing this.
As I made my way to the family cabin I saw the dead lying in the ditch–the equivalent of those black snakes about to strike–or stumbling about trying to get up the embankment, but not quite able to. Only one of them came close enough to my vehicle that I wished I still had my old familiar truck. Swiping the dead would have done little damage to the front end of it. I can’t say as much for the van.
I reached the dirt road that led up to the cabin some half a mile away. It was bumpy. A rooster tail of dirt kicked out behind the van.
Are we almost there? Humphrey asked.
Is this where your wife and child are?
“I hope so.”
It was true. I hoped they were there and safe, but the road in gave me little reason to believe they were. Nearing the cabin I saw more and more zombies. There had been a struggle here and I didn’t know how anyone could have survived as many dead as there were lying about. I went around some of them, ran over others.
My palms were sweaty and there were a mess of butterflies in my stomach.
I’ll say it now–that was the last time I was ever scared of anything.
I pulled the van up to the cabin, circled around the dirt drive that went in an oval in front of the place. The windows were boarded up, but the front door was open. Lying in the doorway was a body. Lying on the porch and all around the house were several more. A dozen? Twenty? I don’t know, but my heart sank.
I didn’t have to go inside to know that more of the people I loved had died. The view from the van told me. I reckon I already knew.
“Humphrey, stay here.”
I got out, grabbed several guns, tucked a couple into my waistband. An extra pocket full of rounds and a flashlight and I started for the cabin.
I was a kid again and it was summer time. Leland and Rick and I were walking up to the house, dirty from a long day of playing in the woods. Jake tottered along behind us, the youngest of the five brothers–well, four when you consider Charles died before I was born in an accident that was never talked about around Momma. I could smell Momma’s cooking and hear Pop chopping wood, which was a good sign. Pop chopping wood meant we would be coming to the cabin on weekends and maybe even during Christmas vacation.
At the porch, which was nothing more than one step up, I was an adult again and Rick and Leland and Pop and Momma were still dead and I had no clue about Jake or Jeanette and Bobby. I held my gun out and checked the safety. It was off. I stepped around several corpses, nudging them to make sure they wouldn’t be getting up.
In the doorway I stepped over one more.
The inside of the cabin was shaded in gray, but I could still see enough to know that one bad fight had been had there. I flicked on the flashlight and let the beam fall across the room. There were a handful of dead zombies on the floor, all of which were missing some part of their scalp. Chairs were overturned and the old card table we used to play poker at when Mom and Pop weren’t around was crumpled beneath the body of a dead man.
I didn’t need to go any further inside to know no one was there, but I went anyway. What if they were in the back room and they didn’t know help had arrived. Worse still, what if they were like every other dead person in the world right then? I hated the possibility, but I had to face the truth, the reality of the world and the time I lived in.
Quietly, slowly, I made my way across the room, light in one hand, the other carrying one of my guns. There was no real hallway in the cabin, only a square area that branched off into a bathroom and three bedrooms. There was a back door off the last bedroom at the very back of the cabin.
The bathroom was empty.
The first bedroom–the one Leland and Richard slept in when we were kids–was empty. There were several splotches of blood on the wooden floor. A bad feeling crawled up beside me. In the bedroom across from the first one–where Jake and I slept–the linens on the bed were stained. My stomach flip-flopped and my breath felt like it died in my chest.
The last bedroom held nothing but furniture. If the sheets wouldn’t have been ruffled it would have looked like no one had been there in years.
I didn’t try the back door.
Back the way I came, I stopped halfway across the front room. The front door had been open when I came in, but I hadn’t realized how much so. It was shoved all the way against the wall. The door wasn’t what stopped me. The white paper tacked to it was.
I walked over, pulled the paper free of the door–there were four sheets in all and the same hand didn’t write them.
Back outside, I went to the van–any reading could be distracting and I had figured out, those four sheets of paper were important.
Everything okay? Humphrey asked.
“I don’t know, little buddy.”
The first letter was unmistakably Jeanette’s handwriting. Part of me let out a relieved breath. They made it to Table Rock–at least I knew they had gotten that far. That relieved breath was gone entirely too fast.
Please take care of Bobby. You’re all he has left. If you find this, please know I love you–I’ve always loved you. Be strong, Hank. Be strong for me. Be strong for Bobby. I’m so sorry I won’t be here when you arrive. Please, just know I love you.
Her writing had been shaky and there were splotches of dried moisture where I believe her tears had fallen. The dream back in Sommerville came back to me hard, like a punch to the face.
You can’t die, Walker. Bobby needs you. He can’t lose us both.
It hadn’t been a dream after all. She had been there. Jeanette had found me and sent warning that I wouldn’t find things the way I hoped to when I arrived there. Things were bad–real bad–and she had to tell me, had to help me get better one last time so I could carry on and find my son.
The tears tugged at my eyes, a couple of them spilling down my face as a pain so strong in my chest formed that I thought I would die right there in the van.
Humphrey asked her question again, Is everything okay?
I shook my head.
She said nothing else.
Jake wrote the second letter. His hand was unsteady as well.
I smiled. That’s what he always called me. Brother. Jake never called me by my name. Most folks didn’t. I was simply Walker to everyone except for my wife and Bobby.
If you’re reading this, then you made it to the cabin. I’m sorry, Brother. Things got a little crazy and there were too many of them.
We held them off as best we could, but a few of them got in. I guess you’ve done figured that part out, haven’t you?
Only Bobby and me made it out without any marks. He’s a brave boy, that son of yours. I don’t know where he learned how to shoot, but if you taught him, you did a good job. Bobby did everything he could to protect Jeanette. I did, too. But, Brother, there were so many of them and when they got inside, I could only do so much.
I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.
Jeanette got bit by one of them and Bobby unloaded his entire gun into it. She didn’t cry. She refused to. She didn’t want Bobby to see her all sad and crying would have been the last thing he needed.
I just want you to know she didn’t suffer. She went pretty quickly after being bit–less than a full day.
And she didn’t turn either. I promised her I wouldn’t let her and I know you wouldn’t have wanted her to be like that.
Bobby and me, we’ve moved on, heading toward Saluda–remember the old Armory out that way? A few soldiers came by and we’re about to leave with them. They said there’s a safe haven there.
If you get this note, then please, come and find us in Saluda. Bobby needs you. I need you, Brother. I’m scared and I ain’t as tough and sure about things as you are.
I hope Leland and Davey and Pop are okay and if they are with you, then thank the Lord for big favors.
I gotta go, Brother, but one more thing before I do. I buried Leland’s family and Jeanette around the back of the Cabin. Jeanette wanted me to leave you something on her marker. I hope you get it.
I pray we meet again.
Emotions suck. A wide range of them struggled for dominance in my head and heart. Sadness. Anger. Pitty. Fury. Rage. Urgency. Fear.
I set the letter on the dash and got out of the van. The sun was still high at that moment, but it wouldn’t be but for a few more hours. If I was going to get out of there while it was still daylight, I needed to do so soon. But I needed to do something first.
My body shook as I walked back to the cabin. My eyes were blurred by tears. At that moment a zombie could have come out of the woods and I probably would have been a dead man. I gathered myself when that thought hit me, wiped my eyes and pulled a gun from the waistband.
“No need getting killed now.”
My voice startled me.
I looked around, saw no one, then rounded the side of the house. Trees were only about twenty feet away–how could that have been safe? How could an area where the dead can’t be seen long before they arrive be safe? I wanted to punch myself. I wanted to scream. It had been my idea to take refuge in the cabin.
It’ll be safer there, I had said.
I was wrong–there’s no place safe in this world. What I had done was isolated my family from the rest of the world and sent them to their graves. The weight of that decision–a split second thought that seemed rational at the time–bore down on my shoulders, threatening to crush me.
At the backside of the cabin were eight graves, dug by my baby brother. Each one held a hand made cross of tree branches held together by twine and nails. Jake had carved the names of each person onto their respective cross. I had done something similar for Leland and Pop and Davey. But this was Jake, this was the little kid I had been charged with to protect since he was born.
And I had let him down.
I had let them all down.
I didn’t need to see her name to know which grave belonged to Jeanette. The gold necklace I had given her on our first wedding anniversary had been hung on it, her wedding band with it.
My legs gave out and I dropped to my knees. Everything I lived for was gone. My family. Jeanette. Probably Jake and Bobby, as well. I didn’t know. Maybe there was a military unit that saved them and took them to Saluda. Maybe there wasn’t. Maybe he just made all that up to get me out of there and to keep my hopes up. I didn’t know any of that for sure.
What I did know as my Jeanette was dead and in that grave in front of me.
I don’t know how long I sat there, face to the ground, tears flowing, snot bursting from my nose, my heart broken in a million tiny pieces. There would be no putting it back together.
Unless I made it to Saluda and Jake and Bobby were there and alive and…
The sound off to my right caught my attention. I whipped around and stood in one motion. My gun was up and pointing toward where the dead man stood. It could have been anyone’s father or son… or brother. His salt and pepper hair was matted to his skull and he looked like he had crawled through mud at some point since death. One eye was missing and the other one drooped. His mouth was slightly open. The few teeth in it were gray and jagged. He shuffled from between the trees and out into the open before his foot caught on a root and sent him to the ground. I heard the sound of bone breaking and he let out a noise that sounded like a muffled scream.
That muffled scream… I don’t know what it was about it, but I felt my jaws clench and everything I had ever felt came rushing back, just like with the Paul Marcum look alike. But, unlike then, I didn’t lose my mind or get angry. My emotions were already spent.
I walked toward him. He struggled to move, to crawl toward me, but both of his arms were broken and bent at awkward angles. I pulled the pistol from my waistband and aimed, then stopped. He was harmless at that point, but he could still move. I gave him a wide berth and came up behind him. With the heel of one boot, I brought my foot down on the back of one knee. There was another one of those loud cracks and that same muffled scream from the dead man. I did the same to the other leg, but it took three stomps before the leg snapped.
I just shook my head.
Back at the crosses, I was careful not to walk over the graves. At Jeanette’s, I lifted up her necklace and ring. It was cold in my hand and then it was cold against the back of my neck and on my chest after I slid it in my shirt. I touched the cross and let new tears come.
I cried again…
And I cried for a long while, my hand on her cross, my forehead on the hand. No zombies came around. No birds sang. The day started to wane, the sun fading and bringing with it night.
There were clouds coming in, gray and black and dreary, much like the way I felt inside. I sniffled several times, wiped my eyes with the backs of my hands. By the trees lay the dead man, groaning as if in the worst pain of his undead life. Maybe he was. I didn’t care.
I bent down, kissed the cross and whispered, “I’m sorry, Baby. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to protect you. I’m sorry I let you down.” A sob tore free and I cried again, but after only a minute I composed myself. “I love you, Jeanette. I hope you knew that. I’ll always love you.”
With that, I stood and walked by the zombie. He snapped his teeth at me and I wheeled on him, bringing the toe of my boot across his jaw. It broke, the skin ripped and the jaw hung off the side of his face. I knelt down, stared into its dead eyes.
“You’re going to die here. You’re going to wilt away until there’s nothing left of you.” I stood, teeth clenched. “I hope you suffer.”
I left him there, went back to the front of the house and flipped on the light. I didn’t think there would be supplies there, but I looked anyway. I was wrong. In the basement were plenty of supplies–things I thought Jake would take with him, but had left behind. Water and canned goods and a lantern with oil. I hauled them up the steps and to the van, setting them on the ground and going back for more.
Before I left, I went through to the back bedroom. The beds were singles. I pulled the mattress off of one and carried it out the cabin and to the van. I thought pulling the back seats out would be hard. I was wrong. The back seats didn’t even need to come out. They folded down and made a somewhat level back area. I slid the mattress in, shoved it as far to one side as it would go, leaving just a little room on the edge where the door was. I went back, grabbed a pillow and some sheets from the closet. The van wasn’t huge, but it was big enough for the little mattress to be in the center of the van and then a space in the very back where the hatch was for supplies.
I loaded up, strapped the supplies in place and got in the van.
Before leaving I looked back. The place my family spent many summers in my childhood was no longer ours. I doubted I would ever be back.
I also doubted I would ever care if a zombie hurt inside or not. They were the enemy, and as far as I was concerned, every one of them had killed my Jeanette.
“Are you okay?” Humphrey asked as we pulled away.
I don’t think I ever will be again.