Understanding the Undead

Originally posted in August 2015

A moan that could only escape the lips of the undead scraped through the darkening twilight like sandpaper over broken glass.

My heart raced toward my mouth as my stomach dropped to my feet, creating a strange feeling of being all torso. I flattened myself against the closest building and reached for the protection of the crowbar at my belt, peering around the shadows for the source of my soon-to-be death.

A split second, and the gentle scrape of worn sneakers shuffling across the asphalt came from around the corner not three feet from me. Leave it to me to stumble on the only alley without a tin can or something for the zombie to kick around and warn me a bit sooner.

The thing was big. Not much taller than me, but wide, it had arms almost as big around as my head. And it appeared right in front of my face.

Dead, for sure.

Pale eyes turned slowly to meet mine, with his jaw hanging slack and the flesh missing from the lower left quarter of his face. The complete lack of emotion in his gaze seemed to rip the breath from my lungs with an invisible hand. The hand reaching for my weapon froze.

“Hethhhhhhaaaa,” the dead thing spluttered.

Then I noticed a grocery bag hanging from his limp bloodless fingers. I instantly took a deep breath as he turned away and continued to step limply down the road. 

Just a halfer then. Relief flooded my veins with warmth again as I watched the young man, who had obviously been a football player at the local university, judging by his letterman jacket.

From the observations of my friends and I, we had come up with a hypothesis on these zombies. Whenever someone became infected and survived the encounter with a zombie, they would turn into a halfer, becoming dead and rotting in flesh, but not in mind. They would still be themselves, but a strange aggression and hunger would come over them. But only some of those halfers would give in to that craving. Those who had subdued similar emotions or practiced controlling their urges and cravings in full life would last the longest in this half life state. Practiced at behaving normal despite their anger and darker impulses, they could stave off these even stronger emotions better than most. That is why I wasn’t surprised to see a calm, football-playing halfer. Not hard to believe a player of an aggressive sport might have anger issues that he had to deal with in regular life. That was the latest theory anyway.

It was always a strange mix of emotions that overcame me when I encountered a halfer. There was repulsion at what they had become, because their rotting flesh was just gross, and at the thought of what they hungered for. There was also sadness and pity, because you could tell what they used to be, and what they still wanted and tried to be all of the time. And of course, the fear, for what they could, and probably would, become.

The others, the full on zombies, were a bit easier to deal with. Fear and hate. If you had any other emotions, you would end up dead.

I continued on, hoping I could get my own shopping done and get back before it was too dark. That’s when the real danger emerged. For some reason, the dead didn’t like coming out during the day. My guess is that it was uncomfortable for them because the sun and warmth quickened their decay. That isn’t to say that they didn’t come out in the day. If there was something they really wanted out in the light, they had no problem going for it before slinking back into their cool, dank holes.

I wrapped my jacket closer and zipped up the front all the way. Fall was coming, and life would start to get that much harder in this world that was continually on the cusp of dying. As I looked around, despite the orange and purple light of the spreading sun, everything seemed washed in grey watercolors. The vibrancy of the world was leaking through cracks of reality into a hole of nothingness.

The building I approached looked like any other: run down, broken, forgotten. But when I threaded my way under the toppled wall of an upper floor, I found a closed glass door covered by a sliding metal grate. I’d tried to open it myself when I first came, but it seemed so solidly rusted that I couldn’t budge it. I’d almost left, thinking I had the wrong place, but a wiry little old man had come up to the door. He flipped a couple of simple little latches on his side and everything opened wide. It was perfect. The zombies wouldn’t have any interest in the place because it looked dead already. And even if they accidentally stumbled to the door when escaping the daylight, it was sealed shut.

I knocked lightly and waited. Soon enough the stooped old man with strangely white teeth appeared to grant me entry.

“It’s good to see you, my boy!” he croaked as he raised a hand to rest on my shoulder and pull me in.

“Not really a boy anymore, gramps,” I laughed as I waited for him to close and lock the door.

He shuffled across the floor that was as littered as the streets. “Well you are about as old as my grandson, so it seems appropriate.” 

“Oh yeah?” I chuckled. “Does he still have his boyishly handsome looks like me?” I wished I could snatch the words out of the air like hated fireflies and stuff them back in my mouth before they reached his ears. The taste would have been similar.

The older man who had never given me his name froze with his hand on the latch that opened the door in the floor to the shop on the level below.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered.

He visibly shook off the despair and raised the heavy wooden planks with the strength of a man at least 20 years younger. “We all have a past, don’t we?”

We walked down the hidden stairs into his shop. With all the rows of shelves dominating the floor space, the old man made maximum use of the room his shop allowed. Even then, it seemed to expand far beyond where the walls of the building above would be.

“Let me know if you can’t find anything,” he said as he disappeared down one of the aisles.

I knew what I needed to find, and where he usually kept it. Soon I set down the packs of jerky, bottled water, flour, toilet paper, and lighter on the counter. “Not too much today,” I said as I set down my bag. “Just running low on a few things.”

“Sounds good,” he said as he rifled through the things I wanted. “What have you got to trade today?”

I pulled a small, portable propane tank with an attached burner for easy cooking and set it on the table. Scavenging through a camper’s things was always a good find.

“Nice,” he commented. “I think that will cover the meat and water.”

I smirked at the game he was playing. In all the times I had come to his shop, I’d never seen any kind of gas burners. We both knew it was worth way more to him. But he also knew that it wasn’t worth quite that much to me. We had a wood burning stove at my place. And usually if I scavenged something like that, it wouldn’t be the only one. And that was certainly the case here. I pulled out a second mini propane tank. “And how about we throw in a few flashlight batteries to even things out.”

He smiled as his haggling was about to increase.

We both froze as we heard a faint creaking above us, followed by a tiny knock on rattling glass.

“Excuse me,” the old man said as he went upstairs to let in the new customer. Before long, he came back down looking at a little piece of paper and followed by a little girl in a blue and white striped dress with long black hair that looked strange with how it shined almost too brightly in the dim lights powered by a muffled gas generator. 

After a minute of him grabbing a few things off the shelves and putting them in a bag, he handed it to her. Without a word, he let her out and she was gone. Then he was back. “Where were we?”

“Adding flashlight batteries to the deal,” I reminded him. I wouldn’t press about the girl. Other people’s business was their own.

“Right,” he grabbed a few AA packs off the shelf behind him and took the propane tanks. “That everything?”

I nodded as I put everything in my pack. “For a few days, probably.” 

He guided me out to the door and we looked at the clouds that had begun to cover the sky. “Better get home quick,” the old man advised. “It looks like it will be dark even earlier than usual.”

I waved as I cleared the rubble that concealed the doorway.

My mind wandered and I fell into a light jog down the road home. Mostly it was fantasizing about the world overcoming its current troubles and beginning to build back up again, but this time even better than before.

It was about the time that I was planning my acceptance speech as savior and president of the New World Coalition that I heard it. 

The scream was as faint as the last breath of a dying man. One that I would have missed if it wasn’t timed perfectly between my steps.

I couldn’t tell where it came from, so I stopped and listened for more. Nothing at first, then a slight shuffle of feet and a growling moan accompanied another faint whine. 

I dashed to the corner of a dark alley just up the road on feet as light as possible. I peered around the corner, to witness a scene that was horrifyingly familiar and too common. Two zombies bore down on their prey, who was balled up in a heap of trash. I almost thought it was too risky to intervene, especially with the fading light. Survival of the fittest, right? Then I saw through their legs to a flash of white and blue stripes. The little girl!

No question now. I snatched the crowbar I always kept tucked in my belt. My angry growl turned their attention to me as I lunged at them. The first fell under the crowbar, with the front of its skull caved in. The second made a grab at me with jaws wide to take a hunk of my flesh for his breakfast. I kicked at its knee to send it crashing to the ground. Once I managed to pry my weapon out of the first zombie’s head, I let it greet the other in a similar fashion.

The girl came to her feet slowly and whispered something at the ground.

“What was that?” I asked. “Did they bite you?”

She shook her head hard and raised her winter-blue eyes to mine. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” I picked up an oily rag and wiped the blood and brains from my crowbar. The mess had splattered on my clothes a bit too. Looks like I knew what I would search for first tomorrow. “Where do you live?”

“On a hill,” she muttered. “I took a wrong turn.”

I chuckled at the childlike mistake. “I can see that. How about I get you home?”

She nodded, her eyes returning to the ground, and picked up the bag she got from the old grocer. “We gotta hurry, huh?”

“Mmhmm,” I agreed. And she took the lead, setting a quick pace toward wherever she called home.


********

That dream would continue to include the girl’s absent-minded engineer father, who took an obviously powerful approach to defending his home from the zombies. However, the attention this drew would be his undoing, and I had to escape with the girl back to my place in the middle of the night.

I wouldn’t have done a blog about my zombie dreams if it hadn’t been for my sister/editor. I think of them as fun and exciting stories to share, but rarely have any real insight into the world or human condition. But she mentioned to me that one of my dreams like this made her think of how unprepared she would be for such a situation.

For my part, I agree with her. I don’t know if I would survive very long in a zombie apocalypse. To help illustrate that point, I share an experience. Not long ago, I went to a renaissance fair, where there was a booth that you could pay to throw some axes at stumps. It looked like fun, and I saw kids a third of my age doing it and succeeding. I figured it would be more fiscally sound to just buy one of those hatchets and practice on some trees out behind the house. (Luckily I live in a place with woods out back.) And when I was about to buy that, I remembered that I was in the army and have a hatchet of my own. 

This is all looking like I’m even more prepared, right? Anyway, I went out back with the dogs one day. (Don’t worry, I made sure they were behind me when I threw.) After a half hour, all I had to show for it was a sore shoulder, dirty shoes, and a single successful throw. I hit the tree almost every time, but the blade only stuck once. Some have said that the hatchet I used is poorly balanced and not meant for throwing at all. But I say that I don’t care. I should be able to use a sharpened bit of anything and make it stick in a tree. I wasn’t about to give up. I picked up the hatchet again and brushed some cobwebs off it. Slice.

Blood began to drip from my forefinger immediately. It was sharper than it looked. I decided that it was time to head back, dripping blood all along the path to the house.

First point. This hatchet is the only weapon I have. I know I was in the army. I know how to use firearms. I just don’t have any yet.

Second point. I can’t use my only weapon to maximum efficacy. Sure I would be able to use it up close and personal against zombies, but keeping your distance is preferred in this scenario.

Third point. I am rarely prepared for injury. If I’m wielding a weapon that can do real damage, I should bring something with me that can at least slow bleeding.

Fourth point. Having nothing to do with my experience, I have no food storage. If I couldn’t go to a supermarket twice a week, I would just run out of food. Of course, if an apocalypse occurred, I would be one of the first to raid one of these places, but that can be a dangerous prospect.

I’m sure there are many more points, but those are the ones that stick out to me most at the moment. I know there is a zombie craze going on these days and some people slightly wish it would happen, but I doubt there are all that many people who are in better situations than I am in at the moment. 

To help my case though, I would like to point out that I am an Eagle Scout and I do have some basic wilderness survival skills. That should give me a few days longer, right?

Anyway, my point is, when disaster strikes, we need to be as prepared as possible. Most disasters come in the form of natural disasters, and I think the best thing we can do is to build up a storage of non-perishable foods so we can provide for ourselves and our families as long as possible until help comes and things start to rebuild. We could even help our less fortunate neighbors like the old grocer did.

And if possible, brush up on self defense and crowbar skills so we can rush to someone’s rescue from the flesh-eating undead.