Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2010
Fiction: The Naturalist by Maureen McHugh
Cahill lived in the Flats with about twenty other guys in a place that used to be an Irish bar called Fado. At the back of the bar was the Cuyahoga River, good for protection since zombies didn’t cross the river. They didn’t crumble into dust, they were just stupid as bricks and they never built a boat or a bridge or built anything. Zombies were the ultimate trash. Worse than the guys who cooked meth in trailers. Worse than the fat women on WIC. Zombies were just useless dumbfucks.
“They’re too dumb to find enough food to keep a stray cat going,” Duck said.
Cahill was talking to a guy called Duck. Well, really, Duck was talking and Cahill was mostly listening. Duck had been speculating on the biology of zombies. He thought that the whole zombie thing was a virus, like Mad Cow Disease. A lot of the guys thought that. A lot of them mentioned that movie, 28 Days where everybody but a few people had been driven crazy by a virus.
“But they gotta find something,” Duck said. Duck had a prison tattoo of a mallard on his arm. Cahill wouldn’t have known it was a mallard if Duck hadn’t told him. He could just about tell it was a bird. Duck was over six feet tall and Cahill would have hated to have been the guy who gave Duck such a shitty tattoo cause Duck probably beat him senseless when he finally got a look at the thing. “Maybe,” Duck mused, “maybe they’re solar powered. And eating us is just a bonus.”
“I think they go dormant when they don’t smell us around,” Cahill said.
Cahill didn’t really like talking to Duck, but Duck often found Cahill and started talking to him. Cahill didn’t know why. Most of the guys gave Duck a wide berth. Cahill figured it was probably easier to just talk to Duck when Duck wanted to talk.
Almost all of the guys at Fado were white. There was a Filipino guy, but he pretty much counted as white. As far as Cahill could tell there were two kinds of black guys, regular black guys and Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam had gotten organized and turned a place across the street—a club called Heaven—into their headquarters. Most of the regular black guys lived below Heaven and in the building next door.
This whole area of the Flats had been bars and restaurants and clubs. Now it was a kind of compound with a wall of rubbish and dead cars forming a perimeter. Duck said that during the winter they had regular patrols organized by Whittaker and the Nation. Cold as shit standing behind a junked car on its side, watching for zombies. But they had killed off most of the zombies off in this area and now they didn’t bother keeping watch. Occasionally a zombie wandered across the bridge and they had to take care of it, but in the time Cahill had been in Cleveland, he had seen exactly four zombies. One had been a woman.
Life in the zombie preserve really wasn’t as bad as Cahill had expected. He’d been dumped off the bus and then spent a day skulking around expecting zombies to come boiling out of the floor like rats and eat him alive. He’d heard that the life expectancy of a guy in a preserve was something like two and a half days. But he’d only been here about a day and a half when he found a cache of liquor in the trunk of a car and then some guys scavenging. He’d shown them where the liquor was and they’d taken him back to the Flats.
Whittaker was a white guy who was sort of in charge. He’d had made a big speech about how they were all more free here in the preserve than they’d ever been in a society that had no place for them, about how there used to be spaces for men with big appetites like the wild west and Alaska—and how that was all gone now but they were making a great space for themselves here in Cleveland where they could live true to their own nature.
Cahill didn’t think it was so great, and glancing around he was pretty sure that he wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t chuck the whole thing for a chance to sit and watch the Sox on TV. Bullshitting was what the Whittakers of the world did. It was part of running other people’s lives. Cahill had dragged in a futon and made himself a little room. It had no windows and only one way in, which was good in case of attack. But he found most of the time he couldn’t sleep there. A lot of time he slept outside on a picnic table someone had dragged out into the middle of the street.
What he really missed was carpet. He wanted to take a shower and then walk on carpet in a bedroom and get dressed in clean clothes.
A guy named Riley walked over to Cahill and Duck and said, “Hey, Cahill. Whittaker wants you to go scavenge.”
Cahill hated to scavenge. It was nerve-wracking. It wasn’t hard; there was a surprising amount left in the city, even after the groceries had been looted. He shrugged and thought about it and decided it was better not to say no to Whittaker. And it gave him an excuse to stop talking to Duck about zombies. He followed Riley and left Duck sitting looking at the water, enjoying the May sun.
“I think it’s a government thing,” Riley said. Riley was black but just regular black, not Nation of Islam. “I think it’s a mutation of the AIDs virus.”
Jesus Christ. “Yeah,” Cahill said, hoping Riley would drop it.
“You know the whole AIDs thing was from the CIA, don’t you? It was supposed to wipe out black people,” Riley said.
“Then how come fags got it first?” Cahill asked.
He thought that might piss Riley off but Riley seemed pleased to be able to explain how gay guys were the perfect way to introduce the disease because nobody cared fuckall what happened to them. But that really, fags getting it was an accident because it was supposed to wipe out all the black people in Africa and then the whites could just move into a whole new continent. Some queer stewardess got it in Africa and then brought it back here. It would kill white people but it killed black people faster. And now if you were rich they could cure you or at least give you drugs for your whole life so you wouldn’t get sick and die which was the same thing, but they were still letting black people and Africans die.
Cahill tuned Riley out. They collected two other guys. Riley was in charge. Cahill didn’t know the names of the two other guys—a scrawny, white-trash looking guy and a light-skinned black guy.
Riley quit talking once they had crossed the bridge and were in Cleveland.
On the blind, windowless side of a warehouse the wall had been painted white, and in huge letters it said:
Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming.
Isaiah (ch. XIV, v. 9)
This same quote was painted at the gate where the bus had dumped Cahill off.
There were crows gathering at Euclid, and, Riley guessed, maybe around East Ninth, so they headed north towards the lake. Zombies stank and the crows tended to hang around them. Behind them the burned ruins of the Renaissance hotel were still black and wet from the rain a couple of days ago.
When they saw the zombie there were no crows but that may have been because there was only one. Crows often meant a number of zombies. She fixed on them, turning her face towards them despite the blank whiteness of her eyes. She was black and her hair had once been in cornrows, though now half of it was loose and tangled. They all stopped and stood stock still. No one knew how zombies ‘saw’ people. Maybe infrared like pit vipers. Maybe smell. Cahill could not tell from this far if she was sniffing. Or listening. Or maybe even tasting the air. Taste was one of the most primitive senses. Primitive as smell. Smelling with the tongue.
She went from standing there to loping towards them. That was one of the things about zombies. They didn’t lean. They didn’t anticipate. One minute they were standing there, the next minute they were running towards you. They didn’t lead with their eyes or their chins. They were never surprised. They just were. As inexorable as rain. She didn’t look as she ran, even though she was running through debris and rubble, placing her feet and sometimes barely leaping.
“Fuck,” someone said.
“Pipes! Who’s got pipes!” Riley shouted.
They all had pipes and they all got them ready. Cahill wished he had a gun but Whittaker confiscated guns. Hell, he wished he had an MK 19, a grenade launcher. And a humvee and some support, maybe with mortars while he was at it.
Then she was on them and they were all swinging like mad because if she got her teeth into any of them, it was all over for that guy. The best thing to do was to keep up a goddamn flurry of swinging pipes so she couldn’t get to anyone. Cahill hit other pipe mostly, the impact clanging through his wrist bones, but sometimes when he hit the zombie he felt the melon thunk. She made no noise. No moaning, no hissing, no movie zombie noises, but even as they crushed her head and knocked her down (her eye socket gone soft and one eye a loose silken white sack) she kept moving and reaching. She didn’t try to grab the pipes, she just reached for them until they had pounded her into broken bits.
She stank like old meat.
No blood. Which was strangely creepy. Cahill knew from experience that people had a lot more blood in them than you ever would have thought based on TV shows. Blood and blood and more blood. But this zombie didn’t seem to have any blood.
Finally Riley yelled, “Get back, get back!” and they all stepped back.
All the bones in her arms and legs were broken and her head was smashed to nothing. It was hard to tell she had ever looked like a person. The torso hitched its hips, raising its belly, trying to inchworm towards them, its broken limbs moving and shuddering like a seizure.
Riley shook his head and then said to them. “Anybody got any marks? Everybody strip.”
Everybody stood there for a moment, ignoring him, watching the thing on the broken sidewalk.
Riley snarled, “I said strip, motherfuckers. Or nobody goes back to the compound.”
“Fuck,” one of the guys said, but they all did and, balls shriveled in the spring cold, paired off and checked each other for marks. When they each announced the other was clear, they all put their clothes back on and piled rubble on top of the twitching thing until they’d made a mound, while Riley kept an eye out for any others.
After that, everyone was pretty tense. They broke into an apartment complex above a storefront. The storefront had been looted and the windows looked empty as the socket of a pulled tooth, but the door to the apartments above was still locked which meant that they might find stuff untouched. Cahill wondered: If zombies did go dormant without food, what if someone had gotten bit and went back to this place, to their apartment? Could they be waiting for someone to enter the dark foyer, for the warmth and smell and the low steady big drum beat of the human heart to bring them back?
They went up the dark stairwell and busted open the door of the first apartment. It smelled closed, cold and dank. The furniture looked like it had been furnished from the curb, but it had a huge honking television. Which said everything about the guy who had lived here.
They ignored the TV. What they were looking for was canned goods. Chef Boy-ar-dee. Cans of beef stew. Beer. They all headed for the kitchen and guys started flipping open cabinets.
Then, like a dumbshit, Cahill opened the refrigerator door. Even as he did it, he thought, “Dumbass.”
The refrigerator had been full of food, and then had sat, sealed and without power, while that food all rotted into a seething, shit-stinking mess. The smell was like a bomb. The inside was greenish black.
“Fuck!” someone said and then they all got out of the kitchen. Cahill opened a window and stepped out onto the fire escape. It was closest and everyone else was headed out into the living room where someone would probably take a swing at him for being an asshole. The fire escape was in an alley and he figured that he could probably get to the street and meet them in front, although he wasn’t exactly sure how fire escapes worked.
Instead he froze. Below him, in the alley, there was one of those big dumpsters, painted green. The top was off the dumpster and inside it, curled up, was a zombie. Because it was curled up, he couldn’t tell much about it—whether it was male or female, black or white. It looked small and it was wearing a striped shirt.
The weird thing was that the entire inside of the dumpster had been covered in aluminum foil. There wasn’t any sun yet in the alley but the dumpster was still a dull and crinkly mirror. As best he could tell, every bit was covered.
What the fuck was that about?
He waited for the zombie to sense him and raise its sightless face but it didn’t move. It was in one corner, like a gerbil or something in an aquarium. And all that freaking tinfoil. Had it gone into apartments and searched for aluminum foil? What for? To trap sunlight? Maybe Duck was right, they were solar powered. Or maybe it just liked shiny stuff.
The window had been hard to open and it had been loud. He could still smell the reek of the kitchen. The sound and the stink should have alerted the zombie.
Maybe it was dead. Whatever that meant to a zombie.
He heard a distant whump. And then a couple more, with a dull rumble of explosion. It sounded like an air strike. The zombie stirred a little, not even raising its head. More like an animal disturbed in its sleep.
The hair was standing up on the back of Cahill’s neck. From the zombie or the air strike, he couldn’t tell. He didn’t hear helicopters. He didn’t hear anything. He stamped on the metal fire escape. It rang dully. The zombie didn’t move.
He went back inside, through the kitchen and the now empty apartment, down the dark stairwell. The other guys were standing around in the street, talking about the sounds they’d heard. Cahill didn’t say anything, didn’t say they were probably Hellfire missiles although they sure as hell sounded like them, and he didn’t say there was a zombie in the alley. Nobody said anything to him about opening the refrigerator, which was fine by him.
Riley ordered them to head back to see what was up in the Flats.
While they were walking, the skinny little guy said, “Maybe one of those big cranes fell. You know, those big fuckers by the lake that they use for ore ships and shit.”
“It could happen,” the little guy insisted.
“Shut up,” Riley said.
Cahill glanced behind them, unable to keep from checking his back. He’d been watching since they started moving, but the little zombie didn’t seem to have woken up and followed them.
When they got to Public Square they could see the smoke rising, black and ugly, from the Flats.
“Fuck,” Cahill said.
“What is that?” Riley said.
“Is that the camp?” “Fuck is right.” “One of the buildings is on fire?” Cahill wished they would shut the fuck up because he was listening for helicopters.
They headed for Main Avenue. By the time they got to West 10th, there was a lot more smoke and they could see some of it was rising from what used to be Shooters. They had to pick their way across debris. Fado and Heaven were gutted, the buildings blown out. Maybe someone was still alive. There were bodies. Cahill could see one in what looked like Whittaker’s usual uniform of orange football jersey and black athletic shorts. Most of the head was missing.
“What the fuck?” Riley said.
“Air strike,” Cahill said.
“Fuck that,” Riley said. “Why would anyone do that?”
Because we weren’t dying, Cahill thought. We weren’t supposed to figure out how to stay alive. We certainly weren’t supposed to establish some sort of base. Hell, the rats might get out of the cage.
The little guy who thought it might have been a crane walked up behind Riley and swung his pipe into the back of Riley’s head. Riley staggered and the little guy swung again, and Riley’s skull cracked audibly. They little guy hit a third time as Riley went down.
The little guy was breathing heavy. “Fucking bastard,” he said, holding the pipe, glaring at them. “Whittaker’s bitch.”
Cahill glanced at the fourth guy with them. He looked as surprised as Cahill.
“You got a problem with this?” the little guy said.
Cahill wondered if the little guy had gotten scratched by the first zombie and they had missed it. Or if he was just bugfuck. Didn’t matter. Cahill took a careful step back, holding his own pipe. And then another. The little guy didn’t try to stop him.
He thought about waiting for a moment to see what the fourth guy would do. Two people would probably have a better chance than one. Someone to watch while the other slept. But the fourth guy was staring at the little guy and at Riley, who was laid out on the road, and he didn’t seem to be able to wrap his head around the idea that their base was destroyed and Riley was dead.
Too stupid to live, and probably a liability. Cahill decided he was better off alone. Besides, Cahill had never really liked other people much anyway.
He found an expensive loft with a big white leather couch and a kitchen full of granite and stainless steel and a bed the size of a football field and he stayed there for a couple of days, eating pouches of tuna he found next door but it was too big and in a couple of days, the liquor cabinet was empty. By that time he had developed a deep and abiding hatred for the couple who had lived here. He had found pictures of them. A dark haired forty-ish guy with a kayak and a shit-eating grin. He had owned some kind of construction business. She was a toothy blonde with a big forehead who he mentally fucked every night in the big bed. It only made him crazy horny for actual sex.
He imagined they’d been evacuated. People like them didn’t get killed, even when the zombies came. Even in the first panicked days when they were in dozens of cities and it seemed like the end of the world, before they’d gotten them under control. Somewhere they were sitting around in their new, lovely loft with working plumbing, telling their friends about how horrible it had been.
Finally, he dragged the big mattress to the freight elevator and then to the middle of the street out front. Long before he got it to the freight elevator, he had completely lost the righteous anger that had possessed him when he thought of the plan, but by then he was just pissed at everything. He considered torching the building but in the end he got the mattress down to the street, along with some pillows and cushions and magazines and kitchen chairs and set fire to the pile, then retreated to the third floor of the building across the way. Word was that zombies came for fire. Cahill was buzzing with a kind of suicidal craziness by this point, simultaneously terrified and elated. He settled in with a bottle of cranberry vodka, the last of the liquor from the loft, and a fancy martini glass, and waited. The vodka was not as awful as it sounded. The fire burned, almost transparent at first, and then orange and smoky.
After an hour he was bored and antsy. He jacked off with the picture of the toothy blonde. He drank more of the cranberry vodka. He glanced down at the fire and they were there.
There were three of them, one standing by a light pole at the end of the street, one standing in the middle of the street, one almost directly below him. He grabbed his length of pipe and the baseball bat he’d found. He had been looking for a gun but hadn’t found one. He wasn’t sure that a gun would make much difference anyway. They were all unnaturally still. None of them had turned their blind faces towards him. They didn’t seem to look at anything—not him, not the fire, not each other. They just stood there.
All of the shortcomings of this presented themselves. He had only one way out of the building, as far as he knew, and that was the door to the street where the zombies were. There was a back door but someone had driven a UPS truck into it and it was impassable. He didn’t have any food. He didn’t have much in the way of defense—he could have made traps. Found bedsprings and rigged up spikes so that if a zombie came in the hall and tripped it, it would slam the thing against the wall and shred it. Not that he had ever been particularly mechanical. He didn’t really know how such a thing would work.
Lighter fluid. He could douse an area in lighter fluid or gasoline or something, and if a zombie came towards him, set fire to the fucker. Hell, even an idiot could make a Molotov cocktail.
All three of the zombies had once been men. One of them was so short he thought it was a child. Then he thought maybe it was a dwarf. One of them was wearing what might have once been a suit, which was a nice thing. Zombie businessmen struck Cahill as appropriate. The problem was that he didn’t dare leave until they did, and the mattress looked ready to smolder for a good long time.
It did smolder for a good long time. The zombies just stood there, not looking at the fire, not looking at each other, not looking at anything. The zombie girl, the one they’d killed with Riley, she had turned her face in their direction. That was so far the most human thing he had seen a zombie do. He tried to see if their noses twitched or if they sniffed but they were too far away. He added binoculars to his mental list of shit he hoped to find.
Eventually he went and explored some of the building he was in. It was offices and the candy machine had been turned over and emptied. He worried when he prowled the darkened halls that the zombies had somehow sensed him, so he could only bring himself to explore for a few minutes at a time before he went back to his original window and checked. But they were just standing there. When it got dark, he wondered if they would lie down, maybe sleep like the one in the dumpster but they didn’t.
The night was horrible. There was no light in the city, of course. The street was dark enough that he couldn’t see the short zombie. Where it was standing was a shadow and a pretty much impenetrable one. The smoldering fire cast no real light at all. It was just an ashen heap that sometimes glowed red when a breeze picked up. Cahill nodded off and jerked awake, counting the zombies, wondering if the little one had moved in on him. If the short one sensed him, wouldn’t they all sense him? Didn’t the fact that two of them were still there mean that it was still there, too? It was hard to make out any of them, and sometimes he thought maybe they had all moved.
At dawn they were all three still there. All three still standing. Crows had gathered on the edge of the roof of a building down the street, probably drawn by the smell.
They stood there for that whole day, the night, and part of the next day before one of them turned and loped away, smooth as glass. The other two stood there for awhile longer—an hour? He had no sense of time anymore. Then they moved off at the same time, not exactly together but apparently triggered by the same strange signal. He watched them lope off.
He made himself count slowly to one thousand. Then he did it again. Then finally he left the building.
For days the city was alive with zombies for him although he didn’t see any. He saw crows and avoided wherever he saw them. He headed for the lake and found a place not far from the Flats, an apartment over shops, with windows that opened. It wasn’t near as swanky as the loft. He rigged up an alarm system that involved a bunch of thread crossing the open doorway to the stairwell and a bunch of wind chimes. Anything hit the thread and it would release the wind chimes which would fall and make enough noise to wake the fucking dead.
For the first time since he left the loft, he slept that night.
The next day he sat at the little kitchen table by the open window and wrote down everything he knew about zombies.
they can sense people
they didn’t sense me because I was up above them? they couldn’t smell me? they couldn’t see me?
sometimes they sleep or something sick? worn down? used up charge?
they like fire
they don’t necessarily sleep
they like tinfoil ???
Things he didn’t know but wanted to:
do they eat animals
how do they sense people
how many are there
do they eventually die? fall apart? Use up their energy?
It was somehow satisfying to have a list.
He decided to check out the zombie he had seen in the dumpster. He had a back pack now with water, a couple of cans of Campbell’s Chunky soups—including his favorite, chicken and sausage gumbo, because if he got stuck somewhere like the last time, he figured he’d need something to look forward to—a tub of Duncan Hines Creamy Homestyle Chocolate Buttercream frosting for dessert, a can opener, a flashlight with batteries that worked, and his prize find, binoculars. Besides his length of pipe, he carried a Molotov cocktail; a wine bottle three-fourths filled with gasoline mixed with sugar, corked, with a gasoline soaked rag rubber-banded to the top and covered with a sandwich bag so it wouldn’t dry out.
He thought about cars as he walked. The trip he was making would take him an hour and it would have been five minutes in a car. People in cars had no fucking appreciation for how big places were. Nobody would be fat if there weren’t any cars. Far down the street, someone came out of a looted store carrying a cardboard box.
Cahill stopped and then dropped behind a pile of debris from a sandwich shop. If it was a zombie, he wasn’t sure hiding wouldn’t make any difference, and he pulled his lighter out of his pocket, ready to throw the bottle. But it wasn’t a zombie. Zombies, as far as he knew, didn’t carry boxes of loot around. The guy with the box must have seen Cahill moving because he dropped the box and ran.
Cahill occasionally saw other convicts, but he avoided them, and so far, they avoided him. There was a one dude who Cahill was pretty sure lived somewhere around the wreckage of the Renaissance Hotel. He didn’t seem to want any company, either. Cahill followed to where this new guy had disappeared around a corner. The guy was watching and when he saw Cahill, he jogged away, watching over his shoulder to see if Cahill would follow. Cahill stood until the guy had turned the corner.
By the time Cahill got to the apartment where he’d seen the zombie in the dumpster, he was pretty sure that the other guy had gotten behind him and was following him. It irritated him. Dickweed. He thought about not going upstairs, but decided that since the guy wasn’t in sight at the moment, it would give Cahill a chance to disappear. Besides, they hadn’t actually checked out the apartment and there might be something worth scavenging. In Cahill’s months of scavenging, he had never seen a zombie in an apartment, or even any evidence of one, but he always checked carefully. The place was empty, still stinking a little of the contents of the fridge, but the smell was no worse than a lot of places and a lot better than some. Rain had come in where he’d left the kitchen window open, warping the linoleum. He climbed out onto the fire escape and looked down. The dumpster was empty, although still lined with some tattered aluminum foil. He pulled out his binoculars and checked carefully, but he couldn’t really see anything.
He stood for a long time. Truthfully he couldn’t be a hundred percent sure it was a zombie. Maybe it had been a child, some sort of refugee? Hard to imagine any child surviving in the city. No, it had to be a zombie. He considered lighting and tossing the Molotov cocktail and seeing if the zombie came to the alley, but didn’t want to wait it out in this apartment building. Something about this place made him feel vulnerable.
Eventually he rummaged through the apartment. The bedside table held neither handgun nor D batteries, two things high on his scavenger list. He went back down the dark stairwell and stopped well back from the doorway. Out in the middle of the street, in front of the building to his left but visible from where he stood, was an offering. A box with a bottle of whiskey set on it. Like some kind of perverse lemonade stand.
If the guy had found a handgun, he could be waiting in ambush. Cahill figured there was a good chance he could outlast the guy but he hated waiting in the stairwell. There were no apartments on the first level, just a hallway between two storefronts. Cahill headed back upstairs. The apartment he’d been in before didn’t look out the front of the building. The one that did was locked.
Breaking open the lock would undoubtedly make a hell of a lot of racket. He went back to the first apartment, checked one more time for the zombie, and peed in the empty toilet. He grabbed a pillow from the bed.
Cahill went back downstairs and sat down on the bottom step and wedged the pillow in behind his back. He set up his bottle and his lighter beside him on the step, and his pipe on the other side and settled in to watch. He could at least wait until dark although it wasn’t even mid-morning yet. After awhile he ate his soup—the can opener sounded louder than it probably was.
It was warm midday and Cahill was drowsy warm when the guy finally, nervously, walked out to the box and picked up the whiskey. Cahill sat still in the shadow of the stairwell with his hand on his pipe. As best as he could tell, he was unnoticed. The guy was a tall, skinny black man wearing a brown Cleveland football jersey and a pair of expensive looking, olive-green suit pants. Cahill looked out and watched the guy walk back up the street. After a minute, Cahill followed.
When Cahill got out to the main drag, the guy was walking up Superior towards the center of downtown. Cahill took a firm hold of his pipe.
“Hey,” he said. His voice carried well in the silence.
The guy started and whirled around.
“What the fuck you want?” Cahill asked.
“Bro,” the man said. “Hey, were you hiding back there?” He laughed nervously and held up the bottle. “Peace offering, bro. Just looking to make some peace.”
“What do you want?” Cahill asked.
“Just, you know, wanna talk. Talk to someone who knows the ropes, you know? I just got here and I don’t know what the fuck is going on, bro.”
“This is a fucking penal colony,” Cahill said.
“Yeah,” the guy laughed. “A fucking zombie preserve. I been watching out for them zombies. You look like you been here awhile.”
Cahill hadn’t bothered to shave and last time he’d glanced in a mirror he’d looked like Charles Manson, only bearded and taller. “Lie down with your hands away from your body,” Cahill said.
The black guy squinted at Cahill. “You shittin’ me.”
“How do I know you don’t have a gun?” Cahill asked.
“Bro, I don’t got no gun. I don’t got nothin’ but what you see.”
“Listen, I’m just trying to be friendly,” the guy said. “I swear to God, I don’t have anything. How do I know you’re not going to do something to me? You’re a freaky dude—you know that?”
The guy talked for about five minutes, finally talking himself into lying down on his stomach with his arms out. Cahill moved fast, patting him down. The guy wasn’t lying, he didn’t have anything on him.
“Fuck man,” the guy said. “I told you that.” Once he was sure Cahill wasn’t going to do anything to him he talked even more. His name was LaJon Watson and his lawyer had told him there was no way they were going to drop him in the Cleveland Zombie Preserve because the Supreme Court was going to declare it unconstitutional. His lawyer had been saying that right up until the day they put LaJon on the bus, which was when LaJon realized that his lawyer knew shit. LaJon wanted to know if Cahill had seen any zombies and what they were like and how Cahill had stayed alive.
Cahill found it hard to talk. He hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks. Usually someone like LaJon Watson would have driven him nuts, but it was nice to let the tide of talk wash over him while they walked. He wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t regret it, but he took LaJon back to his place. LaJon admired his alarm system. “You gotta show me how to unhook it and hook it back up. Don’t they see it? I mean, has one of them ever hit it?”
“No,” Cahill said. “I don’t think they can see.”
There were scientists studying zombies and sometimes there was zombie stuff on Fox News, but LaJon said he hadn’t paid much attention to all that. He really hadn’t expected to need to know about zombies. In fact, he hadn’t been sure at first that Cahill wasn’t a zombie. Cahill opened cans of Campbell’s Chunky Chicken and Dumplings. LaJon asked if Cahill warmed them over a fire or what. Cahill handed him a can and a spoon.
LaJon wolfed down the soup. LaJon wouldn’t shut up, even while eating. He told Cahill how he’d looked in a bunch of shops, but most of them had been pretty thoroughly looted. He’d looked in an apartment, but the only thing on the shelves in a can was tomato paste and evaporated milk. Although now that he thought about it, maybe he could have made some sort of tomato soup or something. He hadn’t slept in the two days he’d been here and he was going crazy and it was a great fucking thing to have found somebody who could show him the ropes.
LaJon was from Cincinnati. Did Cahill know anybody from Cincinnati? Where had Cahill been doing time? (Auburn.) LaJon didn’t know anybody at Auburn, wasn’t that New York? LaJon had been at Lebanon Correctional. Cahill was a nice dude, if quiet. Who else was around, and was there anyone LaJon could score from? (Cahill said he didn’t know.) What did people use for money here anyway?
“I been thinking,” LaJon said, “about the zombies. I think it’s pollution that’s mutating them like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Cahill decided it had been a mistake to bring LaJon. He picked up the bottle of whiskey and opened it. He didn’t usually use glasses but got two out of the cupboard and poured them each some whiskey.
LaJon apologized, “I don’t usually talk this much,” he said. “I guess I just fucking figured I was dead when they dropped me here.” He took a big drink of whiskey. “It’s like my mouth can’t stop.”
Cahill poured LaJon more to drink and nursed his own whiskey. Exhaustion and nerves were telling, LaJon was finally slowing down. “You want some frosting?” Cahill asked.
Frosting and whiskey was a better combination than it had any right to be. Particularly for a man who’d thought himself dead. LaJon nodded off.
“Come on,” Cahill said. “It’s going to get stuffy in here.” He got the sleepy drunk up on his feet.
“What?” LaJon said.
“I sleep outside, where it’s cooler.” It was true that the apartment got hot during the day.
“Bro, there’s zombies out there,” LaJon mumbled.
“It’s okay, I’ve got a system,” Cahill said. “I’ll get you downstairs and then I’ll bring down something to sleep on.”
LaJon wanted to sleep where he was and, for a moment, his eyes narrowed to slits and something scary was in his face.
“I’m going to be there, too,” Cahill said. “I wouldn’t do anything to put myself in danger.”
LaJon allowed himself to be half-carried downstairs. Cahill was worried when he had to unhook the alarm system. He propped LaJon up against the wall and told him ‘Just a moment.’ If LaJon slid down the wall and passed out, he’d be hell to get downstairs. But the lanky black guy stood there long enough for Cahill to get the alarm stuff out of the way. He was starting to sober up a little. Cahill got him down to the street.
“I’ll get the rest of the whiskey,” Cahill said.
“What the fuck you playing at?” LaJon muttered.
Cahill took the stairs two at a time in the dark. He grabbed pillows, blankets, and the whiskey bottle and went back down to the sidewalk. He handed LaJon the whiskey bottle. “It’s not so hot out here,” he said, although it was on the sidewalk with the sunlight.
LaJon eyed him drunkenly.
Cahill went back upstairs and came down with a bunch of couch cushions. He made a kind of bed and got LaJon to sit on it. “We’re okay in the day,” he said. “Zombies don’t like the light. I sleep in the day. I’ll get us upstairs before night.”
LaJon shook his head, took another slug of whiskey, and lay back on the cushions. “I feel sick,” he said.
Cahill thought the motherfucker was going to throw up, but instead LaJon was snoring.
Cahill sat for a bit, planning and watching the street. After a bit, he went back to his apartment. When he found something good scavenging, he squirreled it away. He came downstairs with duct tape. He taped LaJon’s ankles together. Then his wrists. Then he sat LaJon up. LaJon opened his eyes, said, “What the fuck?” drunkenly. Cahill taped LaJon’s arms to his sides, right at his elbows, running the tape all the way around his torso. LaJon started to struggle, but Cahill was methodical and patient, and he used the whole roll of tape to secure LaJon’s arms. From shoulders to waist, LaJon was a duct tape mummy.
LaJon swore at him, colorfully then monotonously.
Cahill left him there and went looking. He found an upright dolly at a bar, and brought it back. It didn’t do so well where the pavement was uneven, but he didn’t think he could carry LaJon far and if he was going to build a fire, he didn’t want it to be close to his place, where zombies could pin him in his apartment. LaJon was still where he left him, although when he saw Cahill, he went into a frenzy of struggling. Cahill let him struggle. He lay the dolly down and rolled LaJon onto it. LaJon fought like anything, so in the end, Cahill went back upstairs and got another roll of duck tape and duck taped LaJon to the dolly. That was harder than duct taping LaJon the first time, because LaJon was scared and pissed now. When Cahill finally pulled the dolly up LaJon struggled so hard that the dolly was unmanageable, which pissed Cahill off so much he just let go.
LaJon went over, and without hands to stop himself, face planted on the sidewalk. That stilled him. Cahill pulled the dolly upright then. LaJon’s face was a bloody mess and it looked like he might have broken a couple of teeth. He was conscious, but stunned. Cahill started pushing the dolly and LaJon threw up.
It took a couple of hours to get six blocks. LaJon was sober and silent by the time Cahill decided he’d gone far enough.
Cahill sat down, sweating, and used his t-shirt to wipe his face.
“You a bug,” LaJon said.
Bug was prison slang for someone crazy. LaJon said it with certainty.
“Just my fucking luck. Kind of luck I had all my life. I find one guy alive in this fucking place and he a bug.” LaJon spat. “What are you gonna do to me?”
Cahill was so tired of LaJon that he considered going back to his place and leaving LaJon here. Instead, he found a door and pried it open with a tire iron. It had been an office building and the second floor was fronted with glass. He had a hell of a time finding a set of service stairs that opened from the outside on the first floor. He found some chairs and dragged them downstairs. Then he emptied file cabinets, piling the papers around the chairs. LaJon watched him, getting more anxious.
When it looked like he’d get a decent fire going, he put LaJon next to it. The blood had dried on LaJon’s face and he’d bruised up a bit. It was evening.
Cahill set fire to the papers and stood, waiting for them to catch. Burnt paper drifted up, raised by the fire.
LaJon squinted at the fire, then at Cahill. “You gonna burn me?”
Cahill went in the building and settled upstairs where he could watch.
LaJon must have figured that Cahill wasn’t going to burn him. Then he began to worry about zombies. Cahill watched him start twisting around, trying to look around. The dolly rocked and LaJon realized that if he wasn’t careful, the dolly would go over again and he’d faceplant and not be able to see.
Cahill gambled that the zombies wouldn’t be there right away, and found a soda machine in the hallway. He broke it open with his tire iron and got himself a couple of Cokes and then went back to watch it get dark. The zombies weren’t there yet. He opened a warm Coke and settled in a desk chair from one of the offices—much more comfortable than the cubicle chairs. He opened a jar of peanut butter and ate it with a spoon.
It came so fast that he didn’t see it until it was at the fire. LaJon saw it before he did and went rigid with fear. The fire was between LaJon and the zombie.
It just stood there, not watching the fire, but standing there. Not ‘looking’ at LaJon, either. Cahill leaned forward. He tried to read its body language. It had been a man, overweight, maybe middle-aged, but now it was predatory and gracile. It didn’t seem to do any normal things. It was moving and it stopped. Once stopped, it was still. An object rather than an animal. Like the ones that had come to the mattress fire, it didn’t seem to need to shift its weight. After a few minutes, another one came from the same direction and stopped, looking at the fire. It had once been a man, too. It still wore glasses. Would there be a third? Did they come in threes? Cahill imagined a zombie family. Little triplets of zombies, all apparently oblivious of each other. Maybe the zombie he’d seen was still in the zombie den? He had never figured out where the zombies stayed.
LaJon was still and silent with terror, but the zombies didn’t seem to know or care that he was there. They just stood, slightly askew and indifferent. Was it the fire? Would they notice LaJon when the fire died down?
Then there was a third one, but it came from the other side of the fire, the same side LaJon was on so there was no fire between it and LaJon. Cahill saw it before LaJon did, and from its directed lope he was sure it was aware of LaJon. LaJon saw it just before it got to him. His mouth opened wide and it was on him, hands and teeth. LaJon was clearly screaming, although behind the glass of the office building, Cahill couldn’t hear him.
Cahill was watching the other zombies. They didn’t react to the noise at all. Even when there was blood all over, they didn’t seem to sense anything. Cahill reflected, not for the first time, that it actually took people a lot longer to die than it did on television or in the movies. He noted that the one that had mauled and eventually killed LaJon did not seem to prefer brains. Sometime in the night, the fire died down enough that the zombies on the wrong side of the fire seemed to sense the body of LaJon, and in an instant, they were feeding. The first one, apparently sated, just stood, indifferent. Two more showed up in the hours before dawn and fed in the dim red of the embers of the fire. When they finally left, almost two days later, there was nothing but broken bones and scattered teeth.
Cahill lay low for awhile after that, feeling exhausted. It was hot during the day and the empty city baked. But after a few days, he went out and found another perch and lit another fire. Four zombies came to that fire, despite the fact it was smaller than his first two. They had all been women. He still had his picture of the toothy blonde from the loft, and after masturbating, he looked out at the zombie women, blank-white eyes and indifferent bodies, and wondered if the toothy blonde had been evacuated or if she might show up at one of his fires. None of the women at the fire appeared to be her, although it wasn’t always easy to tell. One was clearly wearing the remnants of office clothes, but the other three were blue jean types and all four had such rat’s nests of hair that he wasn’t sure if their hair was short or long.
A couple of times he encountered zombies while scavenging. Both times his Molotov cocktails worked, catching fire. He didn’t set the zombies on fire, just threw the bottle so that the fire was between him and the zombie. He watched them stop, then he backed away, fast. He set up another blind in an apartment and, over the course of a week, built a scaffolding and a kind of block and tackle arrangement. Then he started hanging around where the bus dropped people off, far enough back that the guys patrolling the gate didn’t start shooting or something. He’d scoured up some bottles of water and used them to shave and clean up a bit.
When they dropped a new guy off, Cahill trailed him for half a day, and then called out and introduced himself. The new guy was an Aryan Nation asshole named Jordan Schmidtzinsky who was distrustful, but willing to be led back to Cahill’s blind. He wouldn’t get drunk, though, and in the end, Cahill had to brain him with a pipe. Still, it was easier to tape up the unconscious Schmidtzinsky than it had been the conscious LaJon. Cahill hoisted him into the air, put a chair underneath him so a zombie could reach him, and then set the fire.
Zombies did not look up. Schmidtzinsky dangled above the zombies for two whole days. Sometime in there he died. They left without ever noticing him. Cahill cut him down and lit another fire and discovered that zombies were willing to eat the dead, although they had to practically fall over the body to find it.
Cahill changed his rig so he could lower the bait. The third guy was almost Cahill’s undoing. Cahill let him wander for two days in the early autumn chill before appearing and offering to help. This guy, a black city kid from Nashville who for some reason wouldn’t say his name, evidently didn’t like the scaffolding outside. He wouldn’t take any of Cahill’s whiskey, and as when Cahill pretended to sleep, the guy made the first move. Cahill was lucky not to get killed, managing again to brain the guy with his pipe.
But it was worth it, because when he suspended the guy and lit the fire, one of the four zombies that showed up was the skinny guy who’d killed Riley back the day the air strike had wiped out the camp.
He was white-eyed like the other zombies, but still recognizable. It made Cahill feel even more that the toothy blonde might be out there, unlikely as that actually was. Cahill watched for a couple of hours before he lowered Nashville. The semiconscious Nashville started thrashing and making weird coughing choking noises as soon as Cahill pulled on the rope, but the zombies were oblivious. Cahill was gratified to see that once the semiconscious Nashville got about so his shoes were about four feet above the ground, three of four zombies around the fire (the ones for whom the fire was not between them and Nashville) turned as one and swarmed up the chair.
He was a little nervous that they would look up—he had a whole plan for how he would get out of the building—but he didn’t have to use it.
The three zombies ate, indifferent to each other and the fourth zombie, and then stood.
Cahill entertained himself with thoughts of the toothy blonde and then dozed. The air was crisp, but Cahill was warm in an overcoat. The fire smelled good. He was going to have to think about how he was going to get through the winter without a fire—unless he could figure out a way to keep a fire going well above the street and above zombie attention but right now things were going okay.
He opened his eyes and saw one of the zombies bob its head.
He’d never seen that before. Jesus, did that mean it was aware? That it might come upstairs? He had his length of pipe in one hand and a Molotov in the other. The zombies were all still. A long five minutes later, the zombie did it again, a quick, birdlike head bob. Then, bob-bob, twice more, and on the second bob, the other two that had fed did it too. They were still standing there, faces turned just slightly different directions as if they were unaware of each other, but he had seen it.
Bob-bob-bob. They all three did it. All at the same time.
Every couple of minutes they’d do it again. It was—communal. Animal-like. They did it for a couple of hours and then they stopped. The one on the other side of the fire never did it at all. The fire burned low enough that the fourth one came over and worked on the remnants of the corpse and the first three just stood there.
Cahill didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, but it made him strangely happy.
When they came to evacuate him, Cahill thought at first it was another air strike operation—a mopping up. He’d been sick for a few days, throwing up, something he ate, he figured. He was scavenging in a looted drug store, hoping for something to take—although everything was gone or ruined—when he heard the patrol coming. They weren’t loud, but in the silent city noise was exaggerated. He had looked out of the shop, seen the patrol of soldiers and tried to hide in the dark ruins of the pharmacy.
“Come on out,” the patrol leader said. “We’re here to get you out of this place.”
Bullshit, Cahill thought. He stayed put.
“I don’t want to smoke you out, and I don’t want to send guys in there after you,” the patrol leader said. “I’ve got tear gas but I really don’t want to use it.”
Cahill weighed his options. He was fucked either way. He tried to go out the back of the pharmacy, but they had already sent someone around and he was met by two scared nineteen-year-olds with guns. He figured the writing was on the wall and put his hands up.
But the weird twist was that they were evacuating him. There’d been some big government scandal. The Supreme Court had closed the reserves, the President had been impeached, elections were coming. He wouldn’t find that out for days. What he found out right then was that they hustled him back to the gate and he walked out past rows of soldiers into a wall of noise and light. Television cameras showed him lost and blinking in the glare.
“What’s your name?”
“Gerrold Cahill,” he said.
“Hey Gerrold! Look over here!” a hundred voices called.
It was overwhelming. They all called out at the same time, and it was mostly just noise to him, but if he could understand a question, he tried to answer it. “How’s it feel to be out of there?”
“Loud,” he said. “And bright.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Take a hot shower and eat some hot food.”
There was a row of sawhorses and the cameras and lights were all behind them. A guy with corporal’s stripes was trying to urge him towards a trailer, but Cahill was like someone knocked down by a wave who tries to get to their feet only to be knocked down again.
“Where are you from?” Tell us what it was like!”
“What was it like?” Cahill said. Dumbshit question. What was he supposed to say to that? But his response had had the marvelous effect of quieting them for a moment which allowed him to maybe get his bearings a little. “It wasn’t so bad.”
The barrage started again but he picked out “Were you alone?”
“Except for the zombies.”
They liked that and the surge was almost animalistic. Had he seen zombies? How had he survived? He shrugged and grinned.
“Are you glad to be going back to prison?”
He had an answer for that, one he didn’t even know was in him. He would repeat it in the interview he gave to the Today Show and again in the interview for 20/20. “Cleveland was better than prison,” he said. “No alliances, no gangs, just zombies.”
Someone called, “Are you glad they’re going to eradicate the zombies?”
“They’re going to what?” he asked.
The barrage started again, but he said, “What are they going to do to the zombies?”
“They’re going to eradicate them, like they did everywhere else.”
“Why?” he asked.
This puzzled the mob. “Don’t you think they should be?”
He shook his head.
“Gerrold! Why not?”
Why not indeed? “Because,” he said, slowly, and the silence came down, except for the clicking of cameras and the hum of the news vans idling, “because they’re just…like animals. They’re just doing what’s in their nature to be doing.” He shrugged.
Then the barrage started again. Gerrold! Gerrold! Do you think people are evil? But by then he was on his way to a military trailer, an examination by an army doctor, a cup of hot coffee and a meal and a long hot shower.
Behind him the city was dark. At the moment, it felt cold behind him, but safe, too, in its quiet. He didn’t really want to go back there. Not yet.
He wished he’d had time to set them one last fire before he’d left.