Dying makes you stupid.
It has to, right? I mean, there’s no denying it.
That’s the only thought running through my head as I watch it fumble with the door handle with all the dexterity and grace of a mop. I should be screaming for my life, but I am just so shocked that I am still alive, at least for now, that I can’t help marveling at its incredible inefficiency. Its stiff, lumbering limbs. All it wants to do is eat me. And all that’s standing in its way is a single turn of the key I left dangling from the door of this hatchback in my desperate struggle to get inside alive.
Dying made this thing stupid, no doubt about that. So what does that make me?
I look through the dirty glass at the key fob dangling there rhythmically like a hula skirt-wearing hood ornament. A blunder like that and maybe I deserve to die. Its hands accidentally bump the key ring every few seconds to keep the rhythm going. On the upswing, what’s left of its fingers smear the driver’s window with a brownish grease that makes me want to puke.
Brandon said you get used to it after a while, but I haven’t. How do you get used to watching walking corpses wander the streets and eat the living? Brandon, he just called them the Dead, never the creative type. I wonder if he became one of them, after–
I think its eyes see me for a moment, I mean actually look at me, but no. They more look through me and I look away. There’s not much going on behind those eyes except the virus rampaging through that brain, commandeering decaying bones and tendons and muscles against their will like the mad captain of a sinking ship. Making it move and reach and bite, to find fuel to keep going, all so it can spread. The virus has no consciousness to reason with, to tell it we can all just get along. It isn’t evil, though maybe its existence has created more of that. It’s just hungry. Kill or be killed. It’s only doing what it needs to do to survive. Just like us.
Its rotting vocal chords vibrate and a low unnatural moan comes out, the sound muffled through the glass. It’s a sad, despairing sound. Reminds me of a child pouting over what he can’t reach on the top shelf. Sounds, almost, like it’s asking for help. I start something like a moan myself, anything I can do to block out the sound. It elevates to a scream and I rap my palms on the steering wheel. Trapped. I try to catch my breath, quiet myself down. Don’t want to attract any more of them. What do I do?
I can’t start the car. Can’t even turn the radio on, not that any music plays anymore. But I would settle for a hiss of static that could drown out the moaning and the brittle fingernails trundling slow along the window like dying beetles. I can’t just stay in the car. There’s no gun, no food or water in here. And before long, more of them will gather like vultures. Before long they will get in, except this time it’s the carrion doing the eating.
I could just go out the passenger door, and run. I could outrun this one, that’s never the issue. But then I would be out there, with no gun or supplies where those things roam the streets like blown litter. I could try for the keys. Stupid, sure. But stupid got me in this situation, so no sense changing the game plan now. But the delay has only made the thing more persistent, more eager. The second the door opens or my fingers peek over the rolled down window, it’ll be on me. And there’s no plan B from there.
My options range from bad to terrible to certain death, and I’m hopelessly indecisive about what kind of toothpaste I should buy. White teeth, or no cavities? I mean, how do you choose? I would give anything for mundane. For the old world, but it seems we’re stuck with the new.
I look back to the key ring, still swaying there, mocking us both. It’s just two keys – the one to the car stuck in the door, and one to our house that I don’t know why I keep – and a single ridiculous ornament. The two inch rubber bass is an ugly, silly thing. But it was a gift from Paige after the sixteen pound largemouth I snagged two summers ago.
Has it only been that long since the world went to hell? Seems like a lifetime.
I hope she’s safe. With the others. She won’t get a phone call from the cops. I just won’t come back. That’s how she’ll know. She’ll have to accept it and move on and keep going. Like we talked about. Whatever it takes to survive.
Whatever it takes.
I look back at the fish through the smeared glass. I exhale and rest my forehead on the steering wheel. Think. All I can think of is the stupid fish, the largemouth tugging for its life and me yanking the rod back. The bass had been after a meal, but nibbled a shiny gold lure instead. I wonder if it’s still sitting in the garage, ever-watchful guardian of the tool bench.
A scream cuts through the air. A child, a little girl, not far away. I raise my head and she’s standing in the grass just past the parking lot. Confused, scared, alone. She’s holding onto something, dragging it behind her. A leather coat maybe.
I watch the girl as she wipes her dirty face and turns in circles, dreamlike. It’s so rare to see children anymore, alive anyway. I just stare at her, forgetting where I am. I almost don’t notice it stop scratching at my window. I hear its feet shuffle along the blacktop, dragging like sandpaper. Away from me.
The keys dangle from the lock, the plastic bass smiling. I almost laugh. All I can think is that I’m alive. I pop the window down and grab the keys. I’m so happy that I don’t mind the fleshy residue that sticks to my fingers like glue. I was the meal, but the Dead was diverted to the bait instead, just like the bass. I try to block out the screaming girl as it comes for her. Try to tell myself the world is different now.
Heroes don’t survive, not anymore.
Paige needs me. We can build a life again, after we find a safe place. If I was on my own, then maybe things would be different, but I have to think about her. Whatever it takes.
My hands are shaking when I force the key into the ignition. Force my eyes to stay below the windshield and its view of the terrible price being paid so I can survive. Whatever it takes.
I turn the key.
The battery light blinks on the display. No, no. This isn’t happening.
I bang my forehead into the steering wheel. Ball my fists and scream.
The girl’s screams have faded to quiet sobs. I watch it ambling onto the grass toward her, still making its determined slow and very unsteady course to its next meal. The meal that was supposed to be me.
“Run!” I whisper. “Run!” Why aren’t you running? Why are you just standing there?
Now that I’m looking at her I see that she’s no more than four years old. She is frozen in fear. I can’t imagine what it’s doing to her, just watching that thing walking toward her with outstretched arms. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. How could she? She just stands there with the bloodied leather coat balled up against her chest, waiting.
I snatch the keys out of the ignition, kick the door open. I stumble out and I can smell the decay hanging in the air like a cloud. I cough, lurch forward, force down the urge. He, it, is close to her now, and it knows it. Its moans are eager now like a tormented dog seeing a meal for the first time in days. I don’t know what to do, so I reach back in the car and push the horn. The sound blares through the empty lot and echoes over the whole town like a siren. I’ve just broken Brandon’s number one rule for surviving the new world: Stay quiet. He’d kill me himself if he were still around.
It stops cold then at the sudden noise, with the girl just out of arm’s reach. I reach in again and push down hard, letting the horn blare for five whole seconds. Now I’ve rung the dinner bell for every corpse in the neighborhood, but I don’t care. It worked.
It turns then, slowly, all the way around. And sees me. This time, it really is looking at me. Right in the eye.
That’s the first time I really see it. My hands close over my mouth.
The tattered AC/DC T-shirt that clings in patches to the thing’s gray flesh. The gold chain that glitters intact and out of place around its wiry neck.
I just stand there dumbly, frozen in place like a wax figure reject. It’s Brandon. My friend Brandon…
The fingernails scraping the window should have clued me in. Brandon started growing them long after a few close calls. Looked crazy but he didn’t care. Said it was just one more line of defense. You run out of ammo and drop your knife, might as well have a backup-backup. He was a survivor, I’ll give him that. Was.
Heroes don’t survive. I learned that from you, Brandon. You’re living proof.
What’s the use? You stick your neck out for somebody, you get bit, you become one of them, then you end up killing and eating who knows how many. All to save one. The rules have changed. But that doesn’t make it any easier to walk away.
I slam the car door. Brandon’s still watching me. Tilts his head a little like a dog hearing a whistle. Does he recognize me? Some part of him still hanging on? Does he know it’s me, his old friend, the one he stuck his neck out for? No, Brandon’s dead. I watched it happen. Right after he clawed us a path through the mob. We got to safety and turned to see he was still out there in the middle of it. I covered Paige’s eyes with my hand.
The girl looks up at me, peeking around Brandon.
“Brandon,” I say aloud and I don’t know why. For now at least, she’s safe. Brandon’s corpse has its dead eyes set on a bigger meal. I’m the bait now. If only I hadn’t dropped the gun running out of the gas station. My bare hands are useless weapons, I need something, anything. I turn and grab the keys from the door. The house key glitters gold in my hand. Short, but effective with enough force. It’s got to reach the brain to do any good, and that means getting close. Intimate. Brandon takes wide swaying steps in my direction.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” I say, eyes locked on Brandon.
“What’s your name?”
“Alice,” she says.
“Alice, okay. Alice, honey, I need you to run now. The big movie theater at the end of the street with the pink sign. There’s a door with white paint on it. Knock four times, okay? They’ll keep you safe there. Understand?”
She frowns, wrings an edge of the coat between her fingers. Nods.
“Okay, go now. Go!”
The girl turns and starts away, exits my line of vision. Good. With her far away, I’ll have no trouble outrunning Brandon. No need to get close. I know he would have wanted me to put him out of his misery. Maybe if I had a gun. I’ll come back later, buddy. I promise.
Alice screams. She had run, but not far and I see why. It must have been the car horn. They are everywhere. Swarming on the park from every direction like moths flooding to the last light in town. She’ll never make it. Not alone.
I turn back and Brandon is already reaching for Alice again after the scream. His arms wobble out in front of him like a man doing a slo-mo run to his lover’s embrace on a stretch of empty beach.
I run at Brandon as fast as I can. Fingers clench white-knuckled on the keys. It’s either this or the little girl is eaten alive. All I can think about. For that moment, all that matters.
I had hoped to take him from behind, but at the last second Brandon turns and I fall on top of him. I can feel bones crunching, cracking beneath me, but he doesn’t notice. He’s swinging his arms in stiff circles. I straddle the cold corpse of my friend and with one hand try to brush away his slowly flailing arms, and bring the key down to his face with the other.
Brandon is moaning now, not because he knows what’s happening but simply because he is hungry. His mouth opens and closes like a baby bird and keeps doing it as the key pierces his eye. I force his arms away and stand. Center the key beneath the heel of my boot. Stomp down as hard as I can, driving it in the rest of the way like a tent peg and his arms drop, still.
Then I’m moving again. The others are getting closer, closing in all around us. Alice is standing there, waiting. I turn to grab the girl, but remember the key ring and bend down to retrieve it, in case I need it again. I tug and the rubber fish breaks away from the chain. The rest is stuck in Brandon’s head and there’s no time. There’s time just enough for me to register the blood running down my arms.
No. No. But my eyes don’t lie. The virus is already in my bloodstream. So that’s it then. Brandon’s two final acts were saving me and killing me. I guess now we’re even.
Alice’s scream snaps me back into the moment and one of them is almost on top of her. I grab her arm and yank her up into my own as it reaches for her. She drops the coat and screams again and again for me to go back for it, but I don’t.
Then we’re running through the park. The grass is emerald green and the yellow leaves flicker in the trees above our heads. My feet are just moving as if independent of my control. Blind instinct. Survival, but not my own. Arms reach out and just miss us. Around the next tree there is a mass of them, arms reaching, so we turn.
Then we’re in the street and the running is easier. I can see the old pink theater marquee looming over the tops of the burned out storefronts in town. I don’t know how much time I have, before… before I become one of them. I have to get her to safety before then.
My vision starts to blur, in and out. My head feels fuzzy, like I’m underwater, seeing the newly sunken world through a murky porthole. I stumble, my feet like rubber. I stop, focus. Keep going. Not much farther. Alice is silent in my arms. I wonder if she knows. I hope she doesn’t remember any of this.
I lean against an overflowing mail drop box to keep from falling, mounds of forgotten letters spilling out onto the sidewalk. I breathe in. Out. The world is fading, full of shadows. The girl grows heavy but we’re getting closer.
“Almost there, sweetheart,” I hear myself saying. “Don’t look at them.”
We round the building, and I’m relieved the alley is empty. I carry her the last steps to the door splattered with white paint. I set her down on her feet in front of the door. Breathe in. Out.
I raise my fist and rap against the metal door one, two, three, four times. I think. I hope it was four.
“Stay here,” I tell her.
Then I turn to go, and stop. I look down at the rubber fish in my bloody hand. I drop it to the ground in front of the door next to Alice.
I love you, Paige. I’m sorry I didn’t come back. I wanted to.
And then I’m running again, my shoes smacking the cement unevenly and the world going black. I’m running away from the theater and the people inside, as fast and as far as I can.