It started with a light, the end of a tunnel. A flash, intense and blinding, then everything changed for me. Forever.
I open my eyes; all I see is blurred and deformed. What could have been images of reality seem to have melted, always out of focus. And that smell. Decayed flesh, dried blood and bones. I leave, the room so cold. Rise…
I’m alone. The street is deserted, cars have been left where they’ve crashed, pieces of clothing and shoes wait to be picked up in the middle of the sidewalk. A breeze blows newspapers and garbage into the wind. Where do I go? Rise…
I remember bits, images, my life? Hands grabbing hair, clothes, faces. Tongues searching for blood all over a stranger’s skin. Teeth tearing muscles, flesh pierced then ripped off hard bones. I smell urine, from fear and the excited expectation of death, eyes closed from pain and terror.
And that feeling of letting everything go, letting go of all strengths and hopes, letting dreams slip into oblivion. Nothing can be done, it’s too late. No turning back, ever again. Rise…
So I walk, no destination in mind. My left leg drags behind me, flesh and bones. But it doesn’t hurt, I don’t feel it. My thick sole drags on the asphalt, the only proof it’s still there. I can’t move my right hand, my wrist bitten, open, pain-free. I feel nothing.
I can breathe but don’t hear my heart beat, don’t feel it in my chest. I can’t move any faster than this; I can’t make any complicated movements. There’s something controlling me other than my conscience. I’ve lost it like everything else. Rise, it says, rise and rise again…
The sun is too hot. My skin itches and I scratch, my nails falling off one by one. I’m slow; I’m not myself. But there’s nothing I can do, none of my limbs move as they used to. Something controls me, but what? Who?
When one of Them sees me, they let me walk past them. I look into their eyes, but find nothing. They’re empty. They’ve been transformed like me, only their shells remain. Or maybe their voices are trapped inside. I can only pronounce words with one or two syllables, nothing more. Not like I have use for them. I’m alone and when I’m not, no one talks, they only stare and growl.
I come out only at night, the sun too intense, making my skin fall off where its rays touch. I hide in a building, the elevators too complicated for the others to understand, but not for me. Although it takes a while before I can press a number, any number, the closest to my good hand. I enter into what used to be an apartment, photos of strangers hang on the walls, there are clothes everywhere. There’s food in the fridge, but I don’t want any, finding the smell unbearable.
From the window, army trucks, men dressed in black fatigues walking down the streets. They hold glistening weapons, looking for others, others like me. I know I should be scared, I know I should try to hide. Maybe they’re protecting me? Maybe others have pieces of souls left and the army is defending us instead of hunting us down?
I hear someone walking down the hall. The fast pace proves that it’s not one of my kind. I hide in the kitchen pantry, my head slowly falling to its side as I’m too tall to get in otherwise. As I close the door on my face after having taken a deep breath -useless, old habits die hard- a soldier walks in, aiming his weapon at everything in sight.
The soldier searches for something in the bedroom, furniture pushed aside and tipped over, restless. My brain registers everything seconds after it actually happens. And the worst part is I know it. Every time I hear something, I know it’s already in the past.
The guy speaks into a radio device he wears on his shoulder then takes his hat off. He thinks he’s alone in the apartment. He thinks one of Them wouldn’t be intelligent enough to hide in such a high-scale building.
It’s not the smell of his skin. Or the sweat beading down his neck. His blood pumping from his heart to his veins. His tight muscles rippling under his uniform. His tender flesh hiding, for only me to find. It’s the entire package. The way he looks around, still a bit nervous, as if only now realizing what’s been going on for the past endless three days. How he sighs at the sight of personal pictures of strangers. How his eyes dance over every unknown object. I need to feel his heat. I want to taste him. He looks finger-licking good.
No, this can’t be. I can think. I can formulate thoughts. My mind is at work. I’m not like the rest of Them, I’m not. I refuse to be. I refuse to give in to that instinct. It’s just not me. Me from then and me from now.
But it’s too late, before I can stop myself, my body moves towards the soldier, my hunger too great to suppress. He doesn’t know what’s going on, waiting for further instructions as to where to look for survivors. Hey boy, I’m right here, I’m behind you. And I could eat a horse.
As he turns to face me, I plunge my bleeding teeth into his soft neck; my movement slowed only a short instance by his strong perfume. He tastes divine. I can’t stop myself; I have to eat every part of him. I drink his blood, eat the big vein in his neck, swallow his left eye in the process. I don’t care, I’m hungry and he’s already dead by the time I’ve lost my left ear, the earring having caught on his uniform. Oh well.
When I leave the apartment, the dead soldier will wake up soon. I can’t bear the thought of having to see him as anything less than what he was minutes ago. My first, he was delicious. And he will rise, too.
I wait for night to fall before I leave the building, hoping to find someone else like me. It’s hard to avoid the army trucks, with their huge spotlights searching left and right. And the soldiers, all eager to stay alive and kill anything moving in the shadows. Electricity seems to still be working in most of the neighbourhoods, although no one has the courage to try it, people on my side, anyway. Hiding from building to building gets boring after a while, especially when I can’t walk any faster. But most of the trucks are leaving the area, finally.
I jump as I feel a hand on my shoulder, although my body doesn’t show any sign of panic, too slow to react. Another one of Them, looking a lot worse than me, with his face half-eaten off and the skin drooping from his chin. He signals me over to a group by an old Gap store, its windows and contents destroyed. Another conscience, another one like me. I follow what’s left of the guy and stare at the others. The girl is almost naked, but no one is looking anyway. Her sagging skin seems to ripple off her frame. The old guy is missing an arm and his lower jaw, his face almost intact from the nose up. We exchange knowing glances, unable to talk, forever silent.
Then, a kid comes out of the store munching on a woman’s arm. Its tendons have been sucked out and only a few mouthfuls remain on the bone. The girl fights for it until the kid grabs her shoulder and pulls down. If she’d been alive, the girl would’ve screamed, the skin from her upper body falls off like a banana being peeled. There’s nothing she can do, although she tries to retain most of it with her arms, modestly. The kid stares at her with a blank expression and eats the remaining few bites off her radius, still his, kids first. When he’s finished, he drops it to the ground and two men go for it, as slowly as their deranged bodies allow them to.
I remember pieces of it, a former life, estranged from now, so far away in my mind, it sticks to my brains. There was pain in the chest, tests, machines and beeps, one last breath, half of me frozen, attacked by my own heart. Then a voice, distinct, when there shouldn’t have been any: Rise, rise and walk, rise and obey. Rise for a second chance. Rise for something better, things I never had the chance to finish. Rise for us, rise for them. So when I opened my eyes on this world, I rose like they asked. What was I supposed to do? I’ll never know, but rose I did, like a good soldier.
From what I can see, maybe many rose, but not many survived. An army of undead, followed by an army very much alive. They’re killing us, destroying us for destroying them, the people, the ones who have a right to live. But not me, not us, we are to be taken down, to be forgotten like a bad dream. I never asked for this, so why should I have to pay? All I did was follow orders, too.
The guy leading us starts to scream, or what should sound like a scream. Deformed mouth, distorted noise. I can see them, a platoon of soldiers rushing our way. I stop, so sudden that I lose my balance for a second. When I turn around, I notice that my fellow flesh-eating friends are following me, all desperate to get away from the huge spotlight coming from the tank down the street. We hide in a subway entrance, protected by a thin layer of metallic shingling, but there are already many hiding in the dark, the reflection of the street light in their eyes, some with only one opened, others without any.
It takes forever, but as soon as the troops leave the streets, my people become vicious, a commotion breaks at the back, I can’t see why. One of them pushes a little kid to the ground; it takes him half an hour to get back up again. The ones who were there first want us to leave; they push us towards the subway entrance, their hands grabbing my body. I can’t control it, can’t think of what to do. But I do, I fight back.
Claws. As if the meat at the tip of each finger has fallen off, revealing only pointy bones. And that putrid smell of unwashed skin mixed with rotten meat. No wonder even the dogs run away when they sniff around us.
I fight them off, but there are too many. I try to speak, but can’t, so we leave it at growling at each other. By the time I see the soldiers waiting by the subway entrance, their weapons aimed at us, it’s too late to escape. They move so fast, I can’t even follow them with my eyes. I back off, hoping it will be enough for them to aim at someone else.
I back off, deeper into the darkness where fewer bullets reach me. I’ve never felt such an urge to live before, the little adrenaline left in my dead body pushing me to walk towards the subway’s lower tunnel. It’s full of decomposing bodies, a few rats pick at the remains here and there. I think the kid is following me, I can hear something very slow trying to reach me, but turning to check would be too hard. Then, I hear heavy footsteps, fast paced. Not ours, theirs.
I fall to the ground, ripping off my knee in the process. I pretend to be dead, hiding my head under the railway, seemingly decapitated days ago, such was my fate. I wait. And I wait some more. It’s hard to hold my breath; my lungs slowly fill with air seconds after I feel light on my back, my skin so sensitive that it hurts. Soldiers shoot close to my body; for once I’m glad my body reacts ten thousand years later. I feel a bullet go through my thigh, blood dripping under me. If nobody was around, I would drink it, I’m dying of thirst.
A soldier’s boot touches my hand, slowly pressing down on it, pushing it deeper into the dirt. I don’t feel it, I just know something’s on top of it, and dirt is filling its grasp. The soldier kicks my body a couple of times and after they all conclude that I’m really dead – and are they ever right – they leave me alone. When I stand up an hour later, I see the kid’s body, decapitated, dead for real, unlike me. The tunnel is cool, wind rushes over my decaying skin, the darkness heaven for my tired eyes.
I walk. For days. Sometimes, I can hear what’s going on above ground, in the streets above me. Bombs, gun shots, screams. Nothing good, for me or for anyone. I see a couple of others like me but none notice my passage – without blood or flesh, we slowly die, feeling our hearts stop beating, the air leaving our lungs, our souls lifting from what’s left of us. I’ve seen it happen, more than once, but each time I can’t help but think that there’s a part of us that never goes away, even when we’re transformed. Maybe I’m the last survivor still walking the earth, maybe I should try to mate with another of my kind. Maybe not.
I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, blinding, painful and alluring all at once. There’s a beach, waves come crashing down where there used to be land. I find no one, night or day; no one survived, dead or alive, no one but me. I walk to the sea, a leg falling off slowly as my flesh rots in the salty water. I’m drained, hoping my death won’t be too painful. And my mind wanders for a short while, as I bleed.