I did have a comic planned for today, but when Photoshop crashed and rolled back to the last save, my dream of finishing the comic by this afternoon became an impossibility.
But not to mind. Here’s a little zombie story I wrote a short while ago. As I wrote it I began to understand the fascination we have with zombies…. I think. I wanted it to be funny, but… it isn’t.
The Fear of the Dead
I don’t believe the news at first. I think it’s a prank. But hell, is it real.
I’m in the crowd. Late afternoon, people going home from work. I’m a lousy kind of kid, I don’t got a job. I’m carried from the subway on a tide of bodies, onto the street where I may thrash my way through the bleak grey avenues to the house of my best friend, Hao Quan Vo.
The lights on the street are orange. Orange headlamps, orange street lights. The heads and shoulders of the mobile forest of people are grey. They’re unusually shoulder-to-shoulder today. I have my headphones on, I’m listening to the Jezabels. My name is Morty, you wouldn’t believe how I can relate to that young lady’s songs. I’m 19, I live with my grandfather. His name is also Morty. I go to TAFE three days a week in the off chance someone may finally teach me how to be responsible for myself.
I look into the drawn, grey face of the woman beside me. She looks back, her eyes are dead and bleak. I’m in a floating island made of music, the beat is crashing over me, I’m butting against these other human islands but none of them are as real as I am. None of them have the same soul.
None of them have any soul whatsoever.
I realise with a start that the woman walking next to me is dead.
The garden trowel buried in her ear is a dead giveaway.
Her dull eyes alight on mine, her mouth hangs open, a rope of drool slides over her teeth. My nose is jerked back to reality. What I thought was the stench of the city is actually the rank miasma of the grave. The woman realises I’m alive a moment after I understand she isn’t, and she reaches for me with that old mouth hanging wide open like she’ll eat me whole.
I shove the guy on my other side, flinging myself out of reach of those jaws. I’ve seen the movies, I know the score. One bite and I’m dead. The living dead kill for food. They devour their victims.
A meaty grey arm wraps around my chest. I’m caught by the guy I’d shoved. I turn to thank him, or at least grunt a syllable to that effect, and his big blunt teeth come down and butt against my shoulder, and I scream, and it’s on.
I drive my fist into his face, hear the crunch of shattering brittle bone. My headphones slip. Between snatches of the song I hear the growls, the moans and hisses of the undead creatures all around me. I am completely surrounded. I am in a crowd of the dead.
I push the guy away and stumble through the narrow gap created by more of the creatures wising up to my existence, halting their blind shambling march through the streets and turning on my beacon of movement and life. Yeah, it’s an odd way to think of myself, of a guy who regularly clocks sixteen hours a day texting. But in this crowd I could have a couple of flares strapped to my back and not be any more obvious.
Hands grab me, teeth bash against me, I’m glad of my leather jacket. And Hao had said it wasn’t cool. Crouching low, I sprint through the crowd, my sneaker crushes the face of an undead who has no legs and is pulling itself sadly along by its bruised and broken arms. I hit the street, I notice for the first time that while the lights are on, none of the cars are moving. If their lights are on – they must have been here since at least last night.
I vault onto the back of a taxi to avoid the reaching arms of the dead on the road. There are more of the creatures belted into the cars, most with their throats torn open and chunks missing from their faces where the undead fell upon their still warm bodies. Grey faces, dead eyes. I leap from car to car. It isn’t far to Hao’s place. I have to hope that he’s alive. We have our Z-day strategy, of course, but it requires the two of us to work.
The street reaches an intersection and the distance between cars is too great to jump. I slide off the last bonnet and run for it. I have the attention of every zombie in a block radius. The headphones jostle around my neck, I can hear snatches of song over the choir of groans, over the thunder of my footsteps. There are tears in my eyes. All I can think is, how did it get like this? Three days ago I’d come to see Hao, everything was fine. Yesterday some of my peeps texted about zombies, I thought they were joking. The reason I was going to Hao’s tonight was to catch up on the fun. I have my backpack, I have my living dead survival kit. Hao and I made our survival plan years ago, when we were in school together. We’ll hole up in the munitions factory on the city outskirts. We knew it would be the one place other survivors were sure to call around.
But now, now the munitions factory is a million miles away, and I am running for my life. Feel cold dead hands flap against me, twisting fingers, breaking faces with a jerk of the elbow. Up the street, now the gathering dead are blocking the road. I’m right outside Hao’s apartment. He’s on the third floor. There’s a bus parked outside. I’d been seeing things in grey but now with my heartbeat slapping my ribs I can see in better colour. Everything is sharp, all the shadows are defined. I hop onto a car, shaking off the blue fingers which wrap around my ankle, launch myself at the back of the bus. The ground flies away beneath me. I hit the bus, my fingers flex around the top of the big back window, my sneakers scream against the glass. In a flash I’m on it, the dead swarming in their moaning mob against the bus. One bright spark has the idea of bumping his palms against the bus. The others catch on. Within moments the bus is rock-rocking beneath me, the groans grow in volume as the dead exert their haggard bodies.
Legs shaking, heart pounding, fully aware of the delicious gold-wrapped chocolate that I am, I jog along the top of the bus, getting closer to a set of traffic lights which are slightly taller and nearer the apartment. The lights are green. No one is going anywhere. The bus is shaking too much for me to jump safely. I hang out over the edge, grab for the lights, miss. The bus rocks me out of reach. It rocks back and this time I reach the lights, the box breaks beneath me and part of it falls into the upturned empty faces, and I’m slipping, reaching for the windowsill of the second floor.
The bus topples, slamming into the light post, and more in fright than strategy I jump, snatching the aluminium windowsill which bites hard into my fingers, swinging bodily against the brick building. My legs dangle in hard reach of the dead. If they figure out a pyramid formation, I’m doomed.
But I really don’t think they’ll have to learn. They only need wait until my bleeding fingers give way, and that will be any second. I feel ridiculous. Hanging from the side of an apartment in a God damn zombie apocalypse. What the hell am I doing? I’m bait!
“Hao!” I cry, jamming my sneakers against the brickwork. If I can’t climb up, I can at least prolong the grip I have on the windowsill. “Hao, it’s me, Morty!”
My sneakers slide against the flaking bricks. The dead are a sea below me, a softly moving grey tide, moving wetly against the wall, greedy for my ankles. I have a terrible thought. What if Hao is dead?
“Hao!” I scream. “Hao, help!”
Another terrible thought. I’d left Grandpa alone in our apartment. I’d left him watching reruns of American Idol. God. He could already be dead.
“Morty?” The window a storey above my tenuous position is wrenched up, and Hao leans out. I’m pressed against the building, out of his sight. “Morty, where are you?”
“I’m here, man! You gotta help me!”
He glances down. His eyes bug. “Morty! What the hell you doing – hold on! I’ll get a rope!”
My fingers are numb. My sneakers keep slipping. I press my head against the bricks, concentrate on the burning in my arms, trying hard not to cry. Not even sure why I was bothering. The singer’s voice is gentle, blending the sounds of the dead below into a rippling, undulating chorus, like the surface of the ocean.
A blonde head sticks from the window. “Hi, Morty,” Simone sings, “what’s up? You just hanging around?”
I turn a tense and weeping face to her. “This isn’t funny!”
She rests her elbows on the windowsill, cups her face. “It is a little. There sure are a lot of z’s down there. They can’t reach you?”
“If they could, I’d be dead!”
“Undead,” she corrects. She withdraws from the window as Hao returns. Ugh. Simone. Simone the Psycho. Rough-neck, bad attitude, country girl, and she isn’t even pretty. I don’t understand what Hao sees in her.
Hao drops a bundle of plastic clothesline from the window. It slaps my face. He calls, “The other end is secured. Pull yourself up!”
He’s had the foresight to tie knots in the clotheslines before dropping it. It takes great effort to move my aching arm. I jam my sneakers against the wall, brace, lift one hand from the windowsill and –
— clumsily slap the line away.
Then I’m falling, into the reaching hands of the dead.
I hit on my back, the hands knocking me headfirst between two living dead, breaking my fall to the sidewalk. My legs are caught in the densely pressed crowd, for a moment I’m stuck upside-down with only my head and shoulders on the ground. I kick free, all but swimming through the stamping feet. The dead lean down, eager for this warm bit of life squirming through their ranks. Two bash skulls above me and their heads split open, slopping coagulated blood over my arms. I keep on crawling to the double glass doors of Hao’s apartment.
The blood is cold, it’s rank. My stomach curls, I fight not to vomit. I crawl for the doors. Hands grab my jacket. I can see the doors, I can make it. I can make it, damn it! I’m lifted from the pavement, the doors blow open, there’s a snarl of an engine, and Simone’s dirt bike rockets from the apartment, rending the ranks of dead.
I roll aside just in time to avoid being run over. The bike screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. It’s cut a path through the dead. In a flash I’m on my feet and running to the door.
“Not that way, idiot!” Simone hollers, “get over here! We’re leaving!”
I turn back towards the bike, see, yes, Hao is perched behind Simone, gesturing frantically for me to join them. With a sigh I shove the opportunistic dead away, jog through the narrowing corridor, help myself to a seat on the crowded bike. The plucky little Honda sags. Simone glances at Hao.
“I told you we shouldn’t have invited him.”
“He’s coming with us,” he says. He reaches out and casually beheads a zombie with his machete as it lurches towards him. “Morty, you ready?”
Simone hits the gas. The dirt bike shoots forward in a screech of rubber against bitumen, squeals in a tight circle that has Hao and I both clinging to Simone, and roars off in a beeline through the frozen traffic.
For a while I just sit there, clinging to Hao and Simone, trying to make sense of it all. The day dies around us. The traffic lights keep cycling. The traffic doesn’t move. There are lights in some apartments, illuminating the blood on the windows. We see a girl running on the rooftops. We see a man eaten alive.
“We’re going to the supermarket near your place, like we talked about,” Hao calls after a while, when we hit the highway and the traffic is less, and the dead are fewer. It’s the longer way to go to my place, but at the moment much safer. We’d planned this route nearly a year ago when we’d updated our Z-day survival kit. It’s kind of an annual thing. For a laugh, you know. You’re supposed to plan for bushfires, but we planned for an apocalypse of the dead.
“Can we stop by my apartment? I left Grandpa there alone.”
“He’s probably dead,” says Simone the Psycho.
“Shut up, Psycho.”
She swerves the bike so Hao and I nearly go flying off. We both cling to her, shrieking.
“That’s right,” says Simone. “Don’t you take no attitude with me, boy.”
I want to question Hao about his choice of girlfriend, but now is seriously not the time. Not while she has our lives in her hands. “Fine,” I tell her. “But I still want to see my Grandpa. He could be alive. There aren’t as many zo- as many undead in our area. I got on the subway without any trouble.”
“Well you smell dead enough,” Simone sniggers, and I think she may have a point. This jacket may have saved my life, but it’s in hella need of a wash if it’s fooling the undead I’m one of them.
“We gotta stop by the shops first,” says Hao. There’s concern in his voice. Like maybe he doesn’t believe any more than Simone does that Grandpa might still be alive. “Then we can stop by yours, Morty, so long as we’re quick.”
I nod. “What happened to your folks, Hao? Simone?”
“I told mine I’d meet ’em in hell,” Simone spits, and refuses to elaborate any further.
“Simone killed her parents,” Hao tells me. “The dead rose from their graves, bit a bunch of people, Simone’s parents included. They were amongst the first to rise, the newly living dead. She had to kill them, or they would have eaten her.”
“And then my motorbike wouldn’t have saved your punk ass,” Simone says with all due vitriol, but I hear her muffled sob, and know she isn’t as psycho as she’d like to be.
Hao sighs. “Mine went to work and never came back. They could still be alive. To tell you the truth, I’m too afraid to check.”
“I can understand that. But man, I’d rather know. Can’t you call them?”
“Ah,” he went. He stops, gets his breath, continues with his voice too high and trembling. “I would. I figure, you know, they’re okay, they can call me. Text me. So far I’ve heard nothing.”
Ouch. I have the comfort of knowing Grandpa doesn’t have a mobile phone. So while Hao’s answer is as good as on his lap, mine lies in a fourth floor apartment, a light or a patch of darkness in the bizarrely quiet city.
I hear a moan, start before I realise it’s coming from my headphones. I pull the phone from my pocket and close the music player. I think about calling Grandpa on the house phone. At the very least I can check the use in going home.
I haven’t quite worked up the courage when Simone pulls into the lot of a Woolworths down the street from my place. The bike puts along in the semi-darkness until it’s in the handicapped space closest to the glass entryway. There are a few dead strewn around, a handful of deserted cars, nothing too dramatic. An undead stuck in a hedge at the edge of the lot.
We pile off the bike, and Hao points out a corpse. “See that? Bite mark on the throat. From what I was able to see from the apartment, they typically rise within an hour of being bitten. We should be okay so long as we’re on our guard.”
I sling my backpack over my chest, pull out a hunting knife. “Right. Let’s go.”
Our backpacks are mostly empty, leaving plenty of space for supplies. The plan is to grab what we can and get to the munitions factory. We have a few other friends who are in on the plan, they’ll meet us at the factory. If they’re alive, of course.
Simone pushes her bag into Hao’s arms. “I’m gonna fill up. Never know when we might get fuel again.”
“All right. Be careful. Don’t make too much noise.”
Simone kicks up the bike stand. “Sure. I’ll wheel it over, keep the attention off us.”
We watch her walking the bike across the parking lot, to the dinky petrol station attached on the roadward side of the shop. Hao nudges me. “Come on, let’s accessorise.”
To our surprise, we aren’t alone in Woolworths. There are undead, the grave-risen kind, falling to pieces as they tread the aisles behind creaking shopping trolleys. Their trolleys are empty, they seem to be pushing them without having any idea of what they’re for. Occasionally an undead would stop, touch its withered fingers to a tin of beans, or a chocolate bar, and then its hand would drop and it wandered away again.
“They must recall some human behaviours,” Hao whispers. I nod. We move together through the aisles, steadily filling our bags. We try not to make much noise. It may be my reeking jacket, but the dead don’t notice us. We don’t get too close to any, and we don’t talk, and make no sudden movements. Everything seems okay. I touch my phone in my pocket. I really want to call Grandpa.
I draw Hao into an aisle where there’s no one but us. “I’m gonna call home. Make sure we’re not visiting unnecessarily. Meet me outside?”
He agrees. I take my bag stuffed full of candy and protein bars and bottled water, skip the checkout. My heart dances. This is the part of Z-day I’ve always looked forward to; the free lunch.
Outside, standing under the orange parking lot light, keeping a careful eye on the corpses strewn around the lot, I call home. My fingers feel sluggish as I hit dial. The buzz of the dial tone lasts an eternity. The ring is startling loud, like the clanging of a great brass bell in an empty night. It rings once, twice, three times. Four times. Five. Six. Seven. Grandpa picks up.
“A-ambulance?” he stammers.
“Grandpa, it’s me, Morty-”
“Morty! Dear boy, are you all right? Where are you? These people…” he trails into silence. There is a clack as the phone drops onto the counter. I hear a muffled thump. Grandpa’s voice, far away. A sharp bang, another thump.
And, presently, a groan.
“Gr-Grandpa? Grandpa! Answer me, Grandpa!”
A hand clasps my shoulder. Cold, limp. My eyes roll up, I see an undead of tremendous height standing behind me. Its vacant eyes. My pulse is hammering painfully hard, I’m shaking too much to break away. Grandpa. Grandpa was-
I hit the pavement. A boom, a wet splat against my skin and hair. The giant zombie topples on splintering knees beside me, its head gone, its neck a red mess.
Hao hurries over, shotgun slung across his arms, two backpacks bouncing on his back. He offers me a hand up. “Look what one of the z’s had! You all right?”
My ears are ringing. I think they might be bleeding. I’ll never appreciate the Jezabels the same way again. I swallow, nod, think I’m about to be sick. “Fine. Fine. Where’s Simone?”
Her bike is parked beside a bowser, but Simone herself is nowhere in sight.
Hao starts towards the station. “Maybe she went to pay? We’ve got to get out of here, Morty, if these dead are rising.”
“Grandpa-” I say, but at that moment Simone emerges from around the station, and Hao gives a cry of relief, waving her over.
She returns the wave, collecting the bike from the bowser. She calls, “I had to use the can! Thought this was a good time!”
Gees, does she have to yell? I see a recently dead stirring across the lot, another closer to the shops. Simone will have every undead in the city on our ass.
We’re almost together when the impossible happens. Hao and I step into a pool of orange light, he smiling at Simone, me grimacing, and then he is gone from beside me, dropped, dragged to the asphalt, an undead atop of him, and even as I wrench the hunting knife across its neck it drives its teeth into Hao’s throat, ripping free his jugular in a burst of dark blood.
I’m screaming, Hao’s screaming, Simone is screaming. Bent over the undead, I cut its head from its neck, toss the wretched thing across the lot. It hits a parked car and sets off the alarm, howling into the night. Hao’s hands are on his throat, trying desperately to close the wound, but his eyes are huge and frightened and he knows this is the end.
My knees hit the asphalt. I grip his shoulders. “Hao, no!”
Garbled syllables fall from his mouth. His body convulses as the life is wrenched from him. Simone is by his head, her hands cupping his face. He stares up at us, and there is no acceptance in his eyes, only terror, only the fear of death.
Simone eases the hunting knife from my hands. She presses it into Hao’s throat even as I scream for her not to. She shoves it down, severing his head. Peace flickers across Hao’s face, and then, nothing.
I fly at Simone. “You killed him!” I screech, shoving her to the asphalt. The knife skitters away. “You psycho bitch! You didn’t have to do that! Why did you do that!”
Surprise and then anger overcome her. She kicks me off her, drives her fist into my face. I drop gasping to the asphalt. She climbs up, spits, “I had to! You know I had to! You know he wouldn’t want to become one of those – those things!”
“Yes he would!” I shriek. I’m on my feet and I have her by the shoulders, the throb of pain in my face only intensifying my desperation to have Hao back, alive. “He would have loved it! He loved free lunches, and if you’d really been his friend, then you would have known that!”
Simone slaps me, twice, hard. “Get a hold of yourself! He’s dead, Morty!”
I turn to Hao’s pitiful body, soaked in his own blood, buoyed by the overstuffed backpacks beneath him. I stand there snivelling while Simone drops to her knees and wrestles the bags from Hao’s body, retrieves my discarded knife. When she’s done, she slings both the bloody packs over her shoulders, sticks the knife under her belt, and faces me.
“If you can stop crying, we’ll go see your grandpa.”
I realise I haven’t had the chance to tell her. My tongue won’t make the words to tell her that Grandpa is probably dead. I merely nod, and Simone picks her bike up from the lot and waits as I climb on behind her.
“I wonder where that undead came from?” she says when we’re cruising slowly down the street, winding between cars abandoned on the road, swerving occasionally to run over a rising undead. “Maybe he fell from a plane?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah. Probably all we can take it for is a sign. That shit ain’t safe nowhere any more. You still want to try for the munitions factory?”
I’m thinking of Hao, of our school days, when we would waste hours drawing in class, passing notes. Making our Z-day survival plan, back when z’s were just a joke, instead of a harsh reality. We’d had a lot of fun. TAFE was no good without Hao. It was too damn productive. It made me think I should start being responsible.
“This your place?”
The bike putted to a halt outside a dark apartment block. No lights on the fourth floor. I nodded glumly, got off the bike. The street was very quiet, I felt very alone. “It is. Stay here if you want. I won’t be long.”
“No way. I’m going with you.”
I wish she would stay. I tease, “Afraid to be alone?”
“Hell no,” says Simone, “it’s just obvious you can’t handle yourself.”
Granted. The foyer door is unlocked, we help ourselves to the stairwell. Corpses slouch on the stairs, our shoes splash in shallow pools of blood. Simone stops by each one to cut its head from its body, sending each head bouncing down the stairs when she’s done. I have to steel my nerves. I know most of these people. My neighbours, their heads bumping together at the foot of their stairs, their eyes empty of all life, all spirit.
I lead the way onto the fourth floor. There are two apartments per level. I knock on the door of ours.
I can hear the disgust in Simone’s voice. “Don’t you have a key?”
I sigh, and push open the unlocked door. It opens halfway and bumps against something. The apartment is completely dark. I hesitate, my breath frozen, listening for the tell-tale groans of undead from within. I can hear a noise, not sure it’s an undead. It’s too far away. Certainly whatever is holding up the doorway is no z. I reach into the apartment, slap my hand against the wall until I hit the light. A hiss of breath leaves my throat.
There’s a corpse inside the door. Headless. Not Grandpa, but the woman from 4A. Simone pushes me gently into the apartment. First room is the living room. Ha. The phone is in the kitchen, accessed from the living room via a short, bent hallway.
We cross the living room in total silence. The clock on the wall ticks, keeping half count of my heartbeat. Bang, TICK, bang, TOCK. Into the darkened hallway, searching for the light. I remember the light is on the kitchen side. The hallway twists sharply. I hear a mutter and my heart leaps. I leap away from Simone, racing into the kitchen, flicking on the light. Grandpa’s pupils do not dilate as the light strikes them. He remains standing beside the sink. Blood oozes from the wound which tore his ear off. His skull is partly caved in. His colour is still good, if a little pale. He’s in his favourite cardigan, his brown slacks and his slippers. A reptilian hiss that no living soul could make crawls from his throat, and he staggers towards me frozen in the doorway.
Movement, unwanted movement, returns to my limbs. I meet Grandpa. I have no weapons. I knock aside his hand as he reaches for me, grab his other wrist. Maybe, just maybe he’s still alive. Maybe this is all a horrific prank and if I wish it hard enough, he will come back to me. He will be alive again. He will be himself again. My funny, kind, caring Grandpa.
But he isn’t. He isn’t what I remember at all. He is nothing but a reanimated corpse.
Simone is behind me. She presses the hunting knife into my hand. “Do it, Morty. Finish him.”
“No!” I cry, feebly. “I just want another minute! Just another minute, okay? Would that kill you? I just want to say goodbye!”
She tenses. “It won’t kill me, Morty. Just you. I won’t let an undead kill me. If I die, I’ll die human.”
I’m still searching Grandpa’s face for something I can recognise. The face I knew so well, loved so dearly, transformed by this ugly, sick parody of life. Knowing that Simone is right, and what is human and what is not is not defined by the features, but the spirit within. By the life. By the personality. By the love. By the hate. By all the strange quirks which make us what we are.
And I understand, then, what is so frightening, so fascinating, about the living dead. I take the knife from Simone and I press it into Grandpa’s throat, and I do not let up as the blood bubbles from under the blade, or as he chokes, and I do not let up until his head rolls back on the tendril of flesh keeping it attached, and then I let him gently to the floor, and finish the job, cleaning severing his head. And it is all I can do for him.
I nod to Simone. “Let’s go.”
For the briefest moment, I see sympathy in her eyes. Then it’s gone, replaced by the hard need to be psycho, to keep going in a world steeped in madness, in fear and in pain.
We walk together from the apartment. I climb behind her on the bike. And without another word between us, Simone rockets down the street, destined for the munitions factory.
What we fear about the undead is not the death, is not the violence, is not even really the thought of humanity being overwhelmed. It is the simple, desperate desire, the hope, that there is something which defines us, something everlasting, something beyond the mortal tenants of flesh and hunger.
Posted on October 8, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged bad ideas, fiction, horror, short fiction, short story, skeletor, suspense, undead, writing, zombie, zombies. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.