How curious, persistent and human, this desire to survive.
It started with my little brother collapsing into his cereal one morning. We were terrified because there’d been a serious bug going around school; of course our immediate thought was that he was seriously ill. We fussed and he got up, went to the kitchen sink and threw up violently but the moment my mother laid a hand on his shoulder he grabbed it and twisted, her fingers and wrist cracking horribly out of position and he bit down on her arm…
That’s how it started for us, though of course it was happening everywhere. I don’t really want to go into the details of what happened to my family suffice to say that they’re no longer with me. I ran and hid and I’ve been running and hiding ever since, avoiding anyone who looked even slightly unwell, and collecting weapons as I went.
I tried to join a group but it didn’t work out. Somebody got bit but didn’t care to tell us. Again, that desire to survive won out I guess. He must have known that if he told us we would have speeded the process of his demise, followed by a swift beheading or bonfire. I can understand why he preferred to keep it to himself. Even if you know there’s no precedent for such a thing, you’d keep hoping that it was just a minor wound, that it wouldn’t get that bad, that somehow you’d be the only one immune. In the middle of the night he completed his transformation and had eaten the leader’s neck before half of us even had the chance to get to our feet. I couldn’t stay with them after that or trust people not to screw over my chances of survival.
Retrospectively, it was rather stupid of me to think that I had a better chance on my own but fear is terrible driving force. We’re not logical creatures when it comes to such things. Even when it got bad I’d tell myself that at least if I was going to die I’d do it on my own terms.
In the end I wound up with a pretty good place to stay. A convenience store close to the centre of town; of course it had been heavily raided but not completely stripped bare. It was the heart of walking dead territory and the risks were too high for most. But I wasn’t aiming to grab and run – I decided to barricade myself in and stick it out. Not the best of plans, I know, but at that point I just wanted to live, quality of life be damned. Turns out that corpses have short memories anyway so after the initial stress of moving in they just let me be, oblivious to my presence, so long as I didn’t make it obvious I was there.
Barricaded in the attic, my life consisted of picking at the food sparingly and maintaining the defences. I got into a routine, but it wasn’t long before my mind started to slip away. I’d never been overly social but now I missed people so badly I just wanted to cry, except the tears didn’t come even if my eyes prickled all the time. Seeing things became normal, sinking into imagination games, whispering conversations with myself just to make sure I still remembered language. The windows were blocked out with cardboard but I made sure there were holes so I could at least watch the comings and going of the world outside, even if it did consist entirely of shuffling mindless husks.
Occasionally I’d be lucky and see a real human being, running desperately from cover to cover, trying to evade notice… but nine times out of ten they’d get dismembered. Usually they’d head for my convenience store and my heart would jump, my mind going places where I had a companion to share my isolation. They were such rich, glorious fantasies but only one of them ever made it. Of course I welcomed the girl gladly, gave her food, a place to sleep, we talked; I felt human again. But as we were settling down I noticed a bite mark on her ankle. She didn’t last long. I finished her and rolled her off the roof during the night.
After that incident I was struck with complete insomnia. For a glimmer of an instant I’d seen what it would be like to have company and it tugged at everything inside me like hunger and sickness mixed into one knotted beast. I couldn’t eat. All I did was wonder if it might have been better to just lie down with her and pretend I hadn’t seen the bite or just pretend it was a strangely shaped graze from where she’d fallen over. She probably would have killed me before I knew about it. Would it really have hurt that much? Would pain even be that big a price to pay for this to be over and to die with some hope in my heart?
The truth was that I still wanted to live. I couldn’t ignore what I’d seen and I couldn’t bring myself not to act on it. Everything I’d gone through, including this, was because I was hard wired to survive no matter what. It would have taken a great deal of will to ignore that instinct; will I wasn’t sure I had anymore.
I spent the night leaning against the carboarded windows, my eye against a peephole.
Beneath a polluted orange moon in a clear purple sky, a woman was walking towards me through a throng of shuffling shapes. At first I thought she was one of them, her skin was so pale and unreal, but she walked with too much purpose and as she got closer I realised that she didn’t have a single wound on her. Still, the walking corpses paid her no more attention than if she were one of them.
Her hair was black and matted, swept away from her face and reaching most of the way down her back. She was a little dusty, actually, not as perfect as I’d first imagined her and her feet were bare, caked with mud, blood, I didn’t really care or want to think about it. Swathed in cloth and rags, a vicious knife hanging at her hip, her form moved with a precise grace. She was like a predator with nothing to hunt, her eyes moving from side to side as though searching. But then her body looked so healthy and well honed; she must have been supporting herself somehow and she must have been doing it well.
The girl’s eyes glistened red as her gaze met mine. Somehow, amidst everything she was seeing, she’d picked me out and a slow smile stretched her lips as she held my eyes, letting me know that she was perfectly aware of me. Something tickled the surface of my mind and I seized up, throwing myself backwards and kicking into full alert. I’d been spotted, who knew by what, she was probably coming for me and bringing the rest of the horde with her. I was dead. I was worse than dead. It wouldn’t be long before I was one of them.
Aching, disused muscles strained at boxes, pulling them in front of doors, checking the barricades, ears straining frantically for sounds of attack. As an afterthought I cast a cautionary glance through the peephole. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, or what would have frightened me more… either way, she wasn’t there. Numbness gripped my chest and I sunk to the floor in bewilderment.
Of course the simple explanation was that I had imagined her. How could such a thing as a strong bodied woman exist in these times, one who the creatures outside had no interest in? In the eye of my memory she began to look like the girl I’d had to dispose of. Perhaps guilt and delirium were ganging up on me. Alternatively, of course, a dead girl, a ghost, would hold no interest for the walking dead. And why would she be interested in me and know instantly where I was? That one was simple; revenge.
So on top of bearing through an apocalypse, I was also doomed to be haunted. My heart fluttered.
“Ima…gination. No sleep,” I uttered under my breath, grabbing my coat and wrapping it around myself as though it could keep the night out. “Ghosts… ha. Aren’t real… haha.” I could practically feel the creak of my pupils narrowing in terror, “just like zom..”
“Wouldn’t you rather have somebody to talk to… other than yourself?”
She had to hold me down at first. I felt like I was exploding from the inside. The fear and tension I’d been holding down and compressed had a puncture and was all coming out at once. At the time I thought she was killing me, squeezing the life out of me, though it was only later that I realised she’d kept her hand over my mouth to stop me from calling out and announcing my location to anything with ears to hear it. All I could hear was the rush of blood through my head, my lungs straining for breath as though all the oxygen had been drained away from the world. It’s what I imagined dying was like and in my frenzy I bit down on her hard, just in an attempt to get her to let go.
Instead of her flinching away, she seemed to relax into it. Her muscles pressed against me seemed almost to smile and a taste flooded my mouth like all the warm, comforting things of home. Hot cocoa, my mother’s arms around me, the gentle laughter of friends and the reassuring weight of the cat on my lap as it purred. Peace washed over me and somehow my fit wound down. I’d worn myself out anyway, and I drifted into a light sleep.
Her skin was cold and smooth like glass but all I wanted was to be closer to her, nuzzled right up against her. Through the veil of this much needed doze I heard her words coming to me, partially in my ears, partially in my mind.
Her name was Li’sa. She was the leader of a small cell of survivors, the only ones likely to live through this disaster unscathed. She had power, she was power and she shared it with her team. By being with her they were faster than ever before and with a little effort they could learn to see in the dark. Most importantly, though, with her power in your body, being bitten didn’t mean turning into a mindless husk.
I saw a man, large, muscled, well fed and tanned by the sun becoming isolated from the rest of the group and one of those things biting down on his shoulder. He shouted out with pain but his companions swarmed in from behind and freed him. They didn’t cut off his head. A girl with long blonde hair cleaned the wound and bandaged it. She had a slight bump around her stomach. They smiled at each other and moved on. I got the impression that this was a while ago and I saw numerous images of the same man fighting, walking, running, laughing, all with a scar on his shoulder from the bite but no other ill effects.
“Come with me and you don’t have to be alone anymore,” she whispered. Her accent was all over the place; it was proper English with a definite Slavic ring, perhaps with a dash of London and/or Norfolk thrown in there for good measure. But then I was completely out of it. I just nodded. How could I turn down such an offer?
Gently she nudged me up to a sitting position, got gracefully to her feet and pulled me up the rest of the way. Her arms held me in an embrace for just a moment and she felt like the closest friend I’d ever had. Perhaps out of the loneliness and confusion I was just glad to have something to hold on to at last.
“You aren’t one of us yet,” she warned, her voice a little stricter now. “I haven’t shared my power with you fully so you’re not out of the woods yet. If you want to come with me you have to prove yourself, and your first mission starts now.” In the faint light through the peephole I saw her start picking things up, supplies, and stashing them away, though I wasn’t entirely sure where she was putting them. She didn’t seem to have a bag or anything. In fact, it was more like she was making it disappear. But it seemed to make sense at the time.
“Get your coat and as many bags as you can. Stock up on supplies but don’t weigh yourself down too much. We’ll have to make a run for it when we get outside.”
I started packing as she told me but mention of going outside roused my panic again. “Can’t we… go in the morning?” I suggested feebly. She froze momentarily and turned to face me, her features in shadow. Deep in the recessed of my mind I saw an image of Li’sa stepping out into the sun and going up in a burst of flame, ash floating away on the wind, all of this tinged with harrowing terror and agony. I understood.
“Extraordinary power comes with extraordinary cost. Don’t worry – this is a burden for me alone. I can bear it for all of us.”
I had already placed myself in the palm of her hand but seeing her unit in action was something else. At the tip of her head I put my eye to the peephole again to see four figures, two men and two women, emerge from an alley. They moved with purpose and conviction and the walking corpses reacted to them immediately if sluggishly.
The group had no fear. They moved in formation, watching each other’s backs. From a distance they used guns to dispatch the approaching bodies but at closer range, a girl would nip away from the group, faster than anything I’d ever seen, manoeuvre herself behind the threat and hack its head off. The efficiency was mind boggling. After the cut she’d wind her fingers in the thing’s hair and a firm knee to the back would push it away and down, neck severing, separating. And she’d throw the head away.
Li’sa let me watch for a while, projecting the fact that I too could have such competence in the face of danger. When it was clear the team were securing the area effectively, we headed down. It was strange to be leaving this place I’d considered home for so long but then, I realise, I’d never had much of a life there in the first place. As we emerged the team appeared at our sides with a burst of speed, closing in around me specifically, as though they’d been briefed that I was vulnerable.
Shambling formed continued to come but a swift shot to the head or knife to the neck would see them off. I couldn’t really see where we were going but the others didn’t seem to have any trouble and the tall man I remembered from my vision kept a strong hand on my shoulder, dragging and guiding me all the way.
At the edge of the city we were nearly surrounded, a crowd blocking out way to safety. We tried to circle around but only found ourselves in more of a mess. There was even an instant when one of the cold fleshy hands closed around my wrist and tried to yank me into the throng. Luckily the blonde woman was on hand to lop the arm off. Still, the fact remained that they were closing in and there was only so much the four of them could do, heightened speed or no heightened speed. Besides, they were starting to slow by this point.
Of course, Li’sa was being ignored this whole time, which gave her the freedom to run around and behead the creatures while they focused on us. She didn’t tire like the rest of us or need to stop and catch her breath. In fact, she seemed barely to breathe at all, arms and legs pumping tirelessly beyond any limit I could imagine, much like the dead things, in fact, but much more precise, with a sharp cunning behind every movement.
When she saw that we were slowing down she stopped for a moment before executing a perfect standing jump backwards onto a rubbish skip. The moonlight illuminated her clearly. All of a sudden that pale, flawless skin of hers blemished pink. It was like a bruise spreading over her whole body and she seemed to soften, become more vulnerable and human. She shouted something then, I don’t remember what, but our attackers instantly turned their attention on her, a strange flicker in their eyes that suggested she’d just become the prey of choice.
I cast a glance at the faces of my new comrades in arms and saw my admiration mirrored on their features. I’d only just met this woman but already she’d become the thing that stood between me and the darkness. With them it was the same thing a hundredfold. She was like a god to them, their champion, and though it was hard to turn away from her being attacked, they knew she was doing it for them, and they loved her all the more for it. I realised that all I wanted was for her to survive so I could stay with her forever like this, safe and protected, or at least to live long enough to feel that warmth and nostalgia against my tongue again.
They had a land rover and I shouldn’t have worried; by the time we arrived Li’sa was already waiting for us, her knife dripping with gore at her side, rags stained with dark fluids but cold and unscathed as before. The scarred man approached her and nodded formally. He greeted her as “Chief”.
Li’sa produced a bottle of vegetable oil as though from nowhere and poured it into the car as everyone else piled in, me wedged between the others in the back seat. It seemed like forever since I’d been in a moving vehicle and the whirring rocking of it sent me into a comfortable daze.
I floated off to the mental images of a place somewhere in the country with other survivors. They’d taken over a farm and barn, planting crops and working the fields. The undead weren’t common out there because people weren’t common and the animals were too fast for them to catch. It was a fully formed society and at last I rested easy with a sensation of hope.
Finally I had found somewhere to belong, though not through any effort of my own. I owed it all to one person who’d merely decided to bring me into the fold and give me a family once again. I knew I owed her everything, and would do for the rest of my days. That feeling of debt didn’t weight on me at all; on the contrary, after that self imposed cell of a convenience store, all I felt was free.