For a couple of years I had been talking about a zombie novel. I had other projects in front of such a book and so it took some time before I was prepared to tackle such a task. I'm a fan of the zombie trope and enjoy watching films based on George A. Romero's original concept of the recently dead rising mindlessly to consume the flesh of the living. There's something about that idea that touches on so many fears and which lends itself endlessly to address any number of themes.
My original pitch was to do something akin to a zombie version of Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO. After some discussions between myself and my literary agent, we deviated from this direct concept and kept just the germ of it and went in another direction. What I settled on was something a lot different from that first idea, but something infinitely more rewarding for me as a writer. (And, anyway, Ray Bradbury already did the whole supernatural version of WINESBURG, OHIO with his book DARK CARNIVAL (aka OCTOBER COUNTRY).
I've decided to post bits of the novel (with the tentative title THE LIVING END) here at my blog. I've been at work on the book for a few months and I'm closing in on drawing up a first draft of the completed manuscript. I'm shooting for completing that first draft by the end of summer. Until then, here's a chunk of the whole flesh:
A chapter of THE LIVING END
copyright 2008 by James Robert Smith
Meredith’s parents were dead. She’d gone to their place to see if they were okay, and to take them away with her if they were at home. But it had been too late. The house had been broken into, both the back door and front door had given way. Several windows, too, had been shattered, including the huge picture window at the front of their brick ranch.
It had only taken a moment inside to assess what had happened. From the amount of blood on the floor and walls and the living room furniture and carpet (her mom was a neatness freak who had insisted on pure ivory furniture and carpet), it was obvious that there was no way the residents who’d been home had survived. There were bloody footprints everywhere. Handprints of pure gore streaked the walls. Bits and pieces of meat were strewn here and there, and even a section of human forearm was lying on the white marble tile in the kitchen. At first, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to examine it to see if it was the remains of one of her parents. But in the end, she had to force herself to look. It had been a part of her father—the US Marines tattoo was unmistakably his. She crouched before it for only a moment, sobbing.
As a last resort, she’d called out to her mom, standing there in the foyer, blasted as it had been by the mindless violence that had draped it in a mad and bloody Pollock painting. “Mom!” She all but screamed, not quite breaking into panic. At first, only silence had greeted her, but finally a door, the one leading into the walk-in pantry in the kitchen had creaked slowly open. What had stumbled out was not her mother or her father, but it was a bloody wreck, once human and now implacable and undead, and ravenous. The face was completely strange to her and it was not one of the neighbors she’d met in times past. It came out of the darkness of the pantry, stared at her with eyes shot with hunger and hatred and began to shamble toward her the way they all did. The way this one must have done when it had helped to break into her parents’ home, killing them.
It was only at that point that Meredith allowed herself to scream in horror and to abandon any hope that her mom was still among the living. She turned then and raced to her car, unlocking the door and leaping inside. As she started it, she saw that the street was now filling with them—the crazed undead, drawn perhaps by her yells and her screams and the sound of the engine of her shiny robin’s egg-blue new Buick. In fact, the car was not hers, but was one that she’d found abandoned on the street when her own car, a small and aged rust-colored Corolla, had run out of gas and she’d needed to escape the situation in which she’d found herself.
Her husband was waiting for her, hunkered down in their reinforced house, protecting their kids until she returned. She hadn’t been able to ask him to go with her. This had been her task, and she couldn’t stand the thought of taking their children into danger like this, or of leaving them alone. She’d watched so many dragged to earth and pulled to bits by the ravening crowds of zombies who were everywhere now. They were in every neighborhood, and there didn’t seem to be many people left who were willing, or able, to help stem the tide.
Meredith put the car in reverse, running down an undead teenage girl who was creeping up the driveway toward her, wearing a one-piece bathing suit and dragging a ruined left leg pretty much gone from the calf to the foot, but with enough bone remaining to enable locomotion. The girl still reached out and tried to grasp the car’s metal body as it passed over her, crushing her torso, a gout of blood and ruined organs exiting her gaping jaws in a black and red puree.
Seeing that the street was now all but filled with the shambling dead things, she put her foot to the gas and sped up, weaving in and out of the reaching claws, trying to avoid them, doing her best to maintain the structural integrity of the heavy car. For the first time since she’d found the Buick, she gazed at the gas gauge. The tank was almost full, and that was the only break she’d gotten so far. She was alone, now. There was no one left to help her. She didn’t know a single person in town who could help anymore—almost everyone had either fled or were too interested in looking out for themselves. Almost everyone she knew had been killed and devoured, or had risen from the dead and were now roaming about, trying to find and eat anyone who yet lived.
The town had become strange to her. She could barely recognize it, although she’d lived in this one city for most of her life. Everywhere she looked the streets were either deserted or filled with the bloodied and violence-twisted figures of the undead. The sun was shining high in the sky, but it seemed dark to her. Fires burned in almost every direction she cared to look, sunlight filtering through the rising soot. Most of the conflagrations were small fires, so far, but it was obvious they were going to get out of control unless someone organized to put at least some of them out as quickly as possible. Here and there entire houses and blocks were ablaze, the dead standing in quiet circles gazing at the dull glow of the flames and the oily creep of smoke reaching into the blue like black fists raging at the gods.
Trying her best to avoid them, she found that she had to run down some of the zombies who were particularly close or very persistent whenever she had to slow to avoid debris in the streets or to steer wide of abandoned vehicles left sitting in the oddest places when their owners had run out of fuel, or been attacked, or killed, or died at the wheel. Coming to a wide intersection and seeing two knots of undead shambling toward her from different directions, she floored the gas to scoot through, crossing over.
She almost didn’t hear the bleat of the siren. Looking in her rear view mirror she was both astounded and relieved to see the blue lights of a police car directly behind her. Squinting, she could see the officer’s face clearly. He was alive and seemed to be in good health. She pulled over in a relatively clear spot, seeing only a few of the moving things in the area, and those still at a good distance. As soon as she came to a stop she leaped out of the Buick and took a step toward the police sedan.
“Get back in your car,” blared the voice of the officer. He was using the public address speaker in his own vehicle. Meredith stared for a second, looking around to see if any of the zombies were moving toward her. Some of them had looked her way and were turning slowly to face her. But they were all still at a good distance. Blinking in the bright sun, she did as the policeman had ordered and got back in the car. She supposed he was just being very careful. She could, of course, be infected, and she couldn’t blame him for being cautious.
As she sat, she nervously surveyed her surroundings. The doors of houses were opening and those things were beginning to come out. Ones who’d been standing in yards or farther down the street were trying to force their undead flesh to come to her, to greet both Meredith and the policeman who’d arrived to help her. As she looked in her rear view mirror, she watched the cop. He was lean, if not very tall, and his uniform was fresh and pressed. He didn’t look to have spent much time in it that day. With his hand on the gun on his right hip, he walked efficiently toward her, taking far too much time for her own comfort. Zombies were beginning to ease toward the two of them in ever increasing numbers. She could smell the stench of them now. Some of them were moaning that awful sound that inevitably brought others to join them.
But, suddenly, the police officer was at her car.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“What?” Meredith asked. She looked up at him, and could see his name tag plainly. Officer James
Taggart, it read.
“I asked you if you know why I stopped you.” There was an expression of annoyance on his face, and he peered up briefly from her to take notice of the zombies coming their way.
“I…” She paused. She didn’t know quite what to say. “You’re here to help me. My husband and I could use some help. We…”
Officer Taggart held up his well-scrubbed left hand. “Enough,” he said. “I stopped you because you ran that red light.” He was pointing at it with his right hand.
Meredith stared back at the light, twisting in her seat to see what he was talking about. Sure enough, the damned traffic light was still working. She hadn’t realized it. “You’re not serious,” she said, turning to look into his face.
“And why wouldn’t I be serious?”
“People need help! Are you joking? Are you insane?”
The expression on the cop’s face melted from the bland into a kind of stony anger. There was steel in his eyes. She watched two drops of sweat bead above his left eyebrow and creep down his nose.
“You ran the damned red light,” he said. “You could have caused an accident.”
Meredith was speechless. Her throat constricted. He was, indeed, insane, and she only hoped she could extricate herself from his presence quickly. Around them, zombies were gathering and moving inevitably to them. She and the cop were a warm and vulnerable nexus for the assembling shamblers.
“Can you show me your registration?” he asked.
Reaching for the glove compartment, she was aware both of the fact that the cop’s hand rested firmly on the 9mm pistol on his hip, and that three zombies were getting uncomfortably close to them. As they usually did, these had increased their pace to almost a stumbling walk in anticipation of their meal of living flesh. Meredith was pulling through the few papers in the compartment, but it was obvious no registration was there. “I…I can’t find it,” she said.
Officer Taggart’s eyes narrowed. “Is this your vehicle?”
She thought for a second and decided that she should tell this crazy bastard the truth. “No. I found it. It was abandoned at an intersection on Hawthorne Street. My car ran out of gas and I had to get to my parents’ house. I took it.”
“Get out of the car,” he told her. “Get out now.”
“They’re coming!” She pointed at one of the undead that was less than a dozen feet from them, its face twisted, its mouth gaping wide, a man who’d been shot in the chest, blood black and crusted on his open yellow shirt, his feet bare, his denims stained with gore.
“Get out of the goddamned car,” he ordered. He drew his pistol from its holster and aimed it at Meredith’s head. “Or so help me I will not hesitate to shoot you.”
Sobbing, She opened the door and eased out as the cop backed away a couple of steps. “Hands on the hood,” he said. “Spread your legs.”
“You’re insane,” she whispered. There were zombies directly in front of her, only the car and a patch of grass separating them from her.
Suddenly the pistol barked in his hand. Meredith flinched, and almost wet herself. But he wasn’t aiming at her. He’d shot the nearest zombie, and she noted that his aim had been excellent. A tiny hole appeared in the monster’s forehead and it quickly fell into a heap where it stood. She heard him re-holster the gun and quickly he began patting her down, his hands roaming over her torso, beneath her heavy breasts, down her thighs. There was absolutely nothing sexual in his explorations.
And more quickly than she could have thought possible, more quickly than she could react, Officer Taggart had pulled her hands behind her back and she felt her wrists suddenly cinch together. He’d pulled plastic cuffs on her so fast that she hadn’t even realized that he was going to do it. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You can’t be serious. Please. God. You can’t be serious!”
“Shut up,” he told her. “That last guy who struggled I had to shoot. Things are out of control around here. I aim to put things to right! We’ve been far too easy on you law breaking assholes!” His voice and his breath and his spit were on her face.
Pausing long enough to casually shoot two more zombies, Taggart opened the back door of his car and shoved Meredith in. For the first time she saw that the back seat was not empty. A man was lying slumped over, his head and shoulders leaning heavily against the opposite door. His shirt was bloody and a fresh red stain oozed out of the corners of his mouth.
“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t lock me back here with him! If he’s dead he’ll wake up! He’ll wake up and eat me! Don’t lock me in here!”
At that, Officer Taggart slammed the door in her face and turned to gun down three more zombies who were almost upon him. To his credit, it took only three shots to take them out. But already there were a dozen more closing in. Meredith leaned against her window, straining to get her hands free, but only feeling the zip lock plastic cuffs biting tighter as she struggled. She could see that the cop was reloading and she could only hope that he would climb back into the driver’s seat and at least take them away from this place before it was too late.
“Stand back,” he yelled at the approaching crowds of undead. He stared at them with that steely gaze he’d practiced for so many months before joining the force. He liked to think he’d avoided many instances of violence with that stare. “If you don’t stop I will be forced to shoot,” he told the unflinching corpse faces who only stared back at him with a hunger he could not understand.
Beside her, Meredith felt the man on the seat with her begin to stir. She turned to look at him, and even the rapid pop of Officer Taggart’s trusty 9mm could not bring her to see what the policeman was doing. “Mister? Can you hear me?” The man slowly, painfully brought himself to a sitting position and his head turned to look at her. His mouth opened wide. But not to speak.
Meredith screamed so loudly that even Officer Taggart--as busy as he was putting holes in the zombies trying to surround him--turned to look at her. In the rear seat of Taggart’s sedan, she had pushed her back to the door and was doing her best to fight the dead man off with her legs and feet. Fortunately for her, he too was cuffed. But she knew that these things were untiring and single-minded. Unless she could dash its brains out with her feet, she would eventually get bitten. And killed or not, that was a death sentence.
There was a muffled voice coming to her through the window. “Shut up,” Taggart ordered her. “Shut up and stop fighting in there,” he screamed. “Don’t make me open the door. I swear to God if you make me open that door I will kill both of you dead!”
“Good!” Meredith kicked at the dead face that was lunging at her, those jaws snapping shut again and again. Her heel landed on its mandible. Her boot cracked teeth. One eye was dashed out beneath her thick soles. But still it kept coming at her. In the close, hot quarters, she was already tiring, already becoming nauseous. Soon she would falter. “Go ahead and open the door you faggot! Show me what you’re made of!” Her only chance, she knew, was for Taggart to open that door and let her out.
There was a quick rush of cooler air and Meredith tumbled back as the door was pulled open. “You bitch,” Taggart yelled. “You brought this on yourself!” The barrel of the pistol was pointed directly at her forehead. At least, she thought, she wouldn’t be getting back up.
And then there was a horrid roar. It was unbelievably loud. So loud that it stopped even the zombie in the back seat from moving for a moment.
Looking up, Meredith was aware that Officer Taggart’s head had suddenly vanished. As if some magician was playing a trick on her; some amazing sleight of hand. The cop’s body went instantly limp, thankfully even his gun hand, and he toppled to the left. There was a repeat of that roar and the dead thing in the back seat of the police sedan ceased to move.
A shadow appeared over Meredith as she was struggling to stand, staring around her at the mindless shapes of the undead moving at her almost helpless position. She looked up to see what was upon her.
“Get up,” she heard the man say to her. She stood, immediately feeling a tug as he cut the plastic cuffs off of her wrists with a single motion. The knife, she realized, must be hideously sharp.
She turned to look at him, rubbing the cuts on her wrists where the plastic had dug in. “Thanks,” she managed to say, blinking at him. “Who are you?”
“Roland,” he said to her. “Roland Thompson.” She watched as he raised the ridiculously long shotgun to his shoulder and fired it, atomizing the head of the nearest zombie. The bright beads of sweat on Thompson’s ebony skull shook at the kick of the gun.
“Is that your car?” He indicated the Buick with a nod of his head.
“It is,” she replied.
“Full tank,” she said.
“Let’s move,” he told her. “Do you have a safe house?”
As they climbed in, she behind the wheel, Thompson on the passenger side, she took her first good look at him. He looked like a lion, she thought. His face is like a lion’s. “Yes. Our house is boarded up tight. My husband and kids are waiting for me. We’re getting out of town.”
“Good idea,” he said, the gun bucking against his shoulder as he aimed it out the window, shattering another undead skull. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”