I walked down the coast in the dark, treeline silhouetted against the stars, surf shushing softly in my ear. One foot on wave-packed sand, another on the shifting beach. I could make out a shadow on the water, darkness on darkness conspicuous only by an absence of reflection under an inconsistent sliver of moon. A dock. There, I thought, would be civilization. Perhaps food. Perhaps a sweater, or matches. It was cold; colder, still, walking close enough to the water for the sea-spray to be kissing my face and hands, serving as my only real indicator of direction in the cold, unfamiliar dark.
Slowly, slowly, streaks of bruised peach and purple peeked from behind the pines. I was heading east. And I was closing in on the docks, wildflowers sprinkled between overturned rowboats, sun-cracked and salt-bleached hulls so porous that they would never swim again, if even they remembered the taste of the sea.
Out of the corner of my eye, caught in contemplation, I saw movement, the barest shift of weight. I twitched, legs buckling, body landing heavily, heart hammering, blood pumping behind the overturned boat. Teeth clacked together as I hit the sand and I pinched my lips shut, terrified that the dead man I saw had heard the snap, or that he might smell the blood from my bitten tongue. Heart pounding, tongue throbbing, pump, pump, pump.
I held my breath as long as I could, empty hands clasped together, fingers woven against my face, eyes screwed shut in pain, shivers starting in my bitten tongue and racing down my spine and ending cold in my hips, nestled in a small patch of shadow cached against the rising sun by the husk of the rowboat.
I hid as the world brightened, breathing little.
Slowly, slowly, I forced my eyes to open, forced my eyes around the time-smoothed hull, seeking out the walking dead. I placed my hands flat on the ground, a sprinter’s pose, ready to undo all my easterly progress if I were noticed.
Some time during dawn, he had moved off.
I finally allowed myself to breathe a full breath.
Crouching low, I made my way inland. I had no way of knowing in the night, but I was on the outskirts of a tiny, cheerfully-decorated town. The streets were full of cars, but the engines were quiet and cold. Swings moved in the breeze without riders; flowers turned to face the sun, reaching above gardens of weeds.
I paused. The tall grass that had covered my approach thus far vanished abruptly ahead, giving way to rough gravel railbed and rust-brown tracks.
I heard flies.
Moving quickly, eyes harting, head ducked low, following the sound, I crossed the tracks. I hoped against hope that I would find something, anything of value on whatever unfortunate soul had fallen nearby and was now drawing flies. The buzzing grew louder, angry and intent, the underbrush grew thicker. I had to stand to see where I was.
Immediately I went prone. A pair of dead had my approach completely blocked off. I made a mental note–come back to loot on my way out of town. For a moment, I lamented the circumstance that led me to that decision, but forced the thought down and moved on.
On my belly, slithering, stopping often, eyes moving constantly, grass brushing my chin and cheeks and tickling my eyelashes, aware, always so aware that I was crushing down the tall grass and leaving a trail, a wide road that led directly to my prostrated, exposed self.
Past fences, past choking, parched planters and flowerbeds, past peeling paint and glinting, exposed metal, bare bones of backyard jungle gyms stretching high above my bunched, quavering shoulders, bars against the sky.
Somewhere nearby, too near, a twig snapped.
I froze. Muscles taut. Rabbit before the dogs.
Moaning, groaning, shambling but ready to chase, the dead men milled about, not seeing the once-manicured lawns they tended or the once-cheerful houses they maintained, not seeing overturned trash cans and fallen pickets, and, mercifully, not yet seeing me.
How long that would last, though, I had no idea. Coming into town was a failed plan, but a retreat the way I came was out of the question. While I waited, silent and still, my path had been discovered. No exit. The drifting herd of dead, bleating, moaning, had engulfed the town like bad weather. I’d need to hole up until it blew through.
I reached up, crept slowly to my knees on broken steps, breached the green surf of long grass gone to seed. Exposed now, but slow now, I put my hand on the rusted backdoor handle, ready to be inside now, sheltered in the abandoned home, away from the silent yard echoing of play and what might have been, at one point, the family who maintained it.
The doorknob did not turn. Locked and rusted shut. And there I was, half-standing, staring. And for the first time since I reached the back steps, I thought to look over my shoulder.
Between two dead, two yards over, running in their shuffling, awkward, almost simian way toward me, I saw the open, fearful face of another survivor, watching me, mouth moving silently, nestled in the cool dark beneath the drooping branches of a flowering bush.
There, but for the grace of God, I imagined on his lips. But then, not imagined:
Falling off the rotted concrete steps, tripping through the grasses, catching clothes on jagged siding, I ran. I ran and the dead ran after me.
I ran from the backyard, made for the street, mercifully empty but for the carcasses of minivans and the blasted, shredded, slouching remains of sensible sedans.
Rounding one hulk, I looked back. Two, three, more dead, like a fetid cometary trail behind me. And more movement, over my shoulder, purposeful stride, glinting metal, gun barrel, rising towards me.
“God damn it, buddy, get back here,” said the man from beneath the bush, come to share his grace. I spun, heels flying, and darted down the street, away from the trailing dead and back towards the man with the massive pistol, the hand cannon, that could paradoxically save a life.
I ran, the dead behind me ran, and the gun spat fire. A lead fist jackhammered the skull of the dead man closest to me. The shot filled the empty town, my ears ringing as the echoes slapped from one shell of a home to the next.
A pair of dead erupted from a nearby house, eyes barely functioning but keyed to the sound, and sprinted through the man, tossing him like so much tissue paper on the wind.
As they fell upon him, I wondered, deliriously, if they were the ones who planted his bush.
I stopped, cried out softly. Both their heads snapped up, calloused eyes seeking me out, heaving moans through hardening vocal cords from lungs that now served only to cry for their lost souls.
In that hanging, petrified moment of loss and pitiable, naïve sympathy, I forgot myself, and it was only the pain of a shattering, splintering collarbone and the sudden hot, coppery spray against the side of my face and neck that brought me back to the moment.
I fell to one knee, screaming at my own sheer idiocy, but barking laughter at how utterly I had left myself exposed. Hysterical levity, lasting only a brief moment, replaced by a single imperative, spearing, burning through my mind, clear and focused:
I will not let them turn me. I will not be eaten. I will escape.
In my mind, beneath a rising fog of paralytic pain, beneath a bush, a man (there but for the grace of God) mouthed a single word.
I pushed back, pushed through, good shoulder down, forced through the forest of tangled, cold reaching fingers, ran. Ran for a house down the street, cheerful yellow door ajar, lighthouse in the storm. Crossed the street, legs pumping, heart pumping blood, blood pouring down the arm hanging useless from my body, heaving chest sending bolts of pain inward and gouts of pain outward.
Momentum carrying me now, instinct carrying me now, comet trail of dead spattered with blood flying from me now, kicking up clods of dirt and cracked asphalt now, through tall grass now, lawnmower still with weeds and grasses growing through it now. Over the fence of the house adjacent, make them climb, slow them down, collarbone screams, blood and legs pump, heart pumps blood, pump pump pump.
From behind the garden shed, another dead, arm swings up and catches my forehead, everything funny, coming in idiot rhymes, lying flat on my back in the tall grass, looking at the sky, clothesline (ha) overhead, and clear sky. Beautiful. My head, heavy now, sleepy in the warm sun now, falls to the side.
A ladybug alights near me. I watch the sun glint off its shell. A honeybee wanders past, buzzing not at all like the buzzing before, rich and ambling instead of furious. I liked this better. I know there are other sounds, other things demanding my attention, but I follow the bee. Where are you going, honeybee, in no direction but at such speed?
The bee lands on a flower. The flower is blood-red. It is amongst other flowers. It is on a large, leafy bush, drooping branches full of foliage. Underneath would be cool, and dark, perfect for games, such fun it would be to hide there and watch the world
I squinted. The honeybee wandered to another flower, but I was fixated on the cool dark beneath the bush.
I breathe again now, bees and bugs forgotten, pain again now fear again now sun bleaching eyes searing shoulder screaming blood heart muscles legs pump pump pump.
Up again running again bright honey-yellow beacon in the storm the only colour left now, darks deepening brights brightening all sun all shadow all and both careening, whirling, stumbling, straight line beeline breathing heavier footfalls heavier head heavier step, door, slump.
Keep going. Keep going keep going.
Reeling now, unfeeling now unseeing now hands outstretched hallway wall, hall–wait, close door, dead men running door closed honey yellow bleaching walls grey hall grey stove grey tile grey floor grey.
Every inhalation a chore, every exhalation an exsanguination, but slower now. Slower, now.
I’d fallen down.
The kitchen was bright, impossibly bright, as I dragged myself to sitting. The floor was cool, the sun streaming in the open window was warm, and a honeybee wobbled lazily in to see where I had gone. Evidently not finding the kitchen to his satisfaction (I agreed; it was far too bright), he looped clumsily around and headed back towards his bush, covered in flowers with the cool dark beneath.
Somewhere in the hallway, a door creaked open and a dead man emerged. But it was a long hallway, and by the time he reached me, I’d be long gone. Some small comfort in that small victory.
I closed my eyes against the overbright kitchen, and considered. Weighed my fate against that of the dead who walked, who no longer lived in their quaint little suburb but who inhabited it still.
I finally allowed myself to take a full breath. Pain gone. Heart pumped. Blood, slow now, pumped. Pump.
I pictured honeybees and ladybugs and the cool dark beneath hanging flowered branches, thought of childhood games and the smell of the soil, thought of secret clubs and secrets told and furtive kisses stolen. And again, I considered the dead, and thought, mouthing the words from my spot beneath the bush, there, but for the grace of God, go I.
A note, briefly, since this is so tonally different from my usual goofy stuff. More of that is coming, certainly. I just had to post this. Yesterday, for the first time, on the recommendation of my cousin Marco, I played DayZ, a zombie mod for the war sim ArMA II. It’s been talked up quite a bit–how its persistent 225km^2 map with upwards of a thousand zombies and some fifty simultaneous players per server is a living place to explore, how it’s punishingly difficult, how it’s a shared experience that has to be played to be believed–hearing all that is great, but I was utterly unprepared for the actual sense of the game. It is not played so much as lived and felt. This was my first 40 minutes with the game–literally. Almost everything in this, from the locations to the events to the bleeding out in the kitchen with a zombie shambling towards me–it happened in that game, and everything about the design contributed to the feelings described in the story. At 6’1″ and 190 lbs of fit, shouldery dude, it takes a lot for me to feel physically vulnerable, but this game succeeded in inducing fear and vulnerability and relief and disappointment and loss and a bitter ending. It’s masterful, and if you like shooters or video games in general, you should check it out. It’s a shattering experience.
Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals, and I’ll be back with cheerier stuff soon.