Shortly after the end:
Chapter One of
THE LIVING END
by James Robert Smith.
They were leaving him!
He could scarcely believe what they’d done. The worst part about it was that they had discussed it right in front of him. He’d listened to every word of it. The entire time he’d felt a hideous emptiness in the pit of his stomach while Rick and Leeza had talked about what they were going to do.
“We can’t take him with us,” Rick had said, in a flat, matter of fact way. In such a tone that BC recognized—one that meant he would tolerate no discussion on the matter. Leeza knew it well, and knew well enough to keep her mouth shut when her husband spoke with that voice.
“We’ll leave him food,” she said, merely suggesting it, knowing that to argue it would be to risk a verbal lashing, if not an outright beating. “And water. He’ll need water. For a few days, at least.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Rick told her. “But first we need to finish packing the car. I haven’t heard any cars on the street for two days. I think we can make a break for it, now.”
Indeed, the neighborhood had grown very quiet. Over the previous weeks the country had grown increasingly unstable. Even the normally unemotional talking heads on the news shows had grown increasingly strident, saying and doing things on the air that were quite strange, displaying emotions that verged on hysteria and madness. Late in the game, the TV stations had all been militarized and men in fatigues, with shaved heads and hollow cheeks and burning eyes had taken over the job of doling out information. The last real news either of them had seen was a series of short pieces about the crews of civilian technicians and soldiers who’d been sent out to shut down the nation’s nuclear plants. So that there would be no runaway nuclear reactions if they were suddenly left unattended.
Rick had explained that one to Leeza and the children, Little Rick and Maya. Both of the kids were far too young to comprehend what Rick was telling them, but he was of the impression that if you spoke plainly to kids, that they would eventually understand what you were saying, no matter how abstract the idea. “The fuel rods have to be separated and removed,” he told them all. “That way, if the pools of coolant were to somehow empty, the heat of the nuclear reaction won’t run wild and start a meltdown, resulting in the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere and into the groundwater.” Leeza had nodded and the kids, eight-year-old Maya and four-year-old Little Rick had stared at their father, thinking of toys or lunch, knowing that not to feign undivided attention was to risk one of his long monologues, or perhaps a beating.
“Did you get the water bottles packed?” he asked his wife.
“Yes,” she told him. “Six gallons on the floorboard and four more in the trunk. I couldn’t fit anymore of them in the trunk.” She’d made several trips into the back yard to quickly provision the auto. In a strange bit of fortune, their decrepit hatchback had looked far too listless to steal in the final days when all Hell had broken loose. One of their neighbors, a college professor who lived one street over, had termed those last rabid hours “Payback Time”. For three days it seemed the nation, from end to end and coast-to-coast, had raged red. Not only had they to contend with the roving groups of undead who plodded about, killing and consuming all they found, but their fellow citizens, too, had degenerated into mad, frightened, killing machines.
“It’s Payback Time,” Ned Waters, their friend and sometime visitor had told them. Ned was a college English teacher and shade tree philosopher. “The Black Nationalists are killing anything Caucasian that they can find. White Supremacists are slaughtering everything darker than Jessica Alba. Baptists are killing Jews and Catholics. God save the Yankees who moved down here for the climate.” Indeed, the city was a symphony of racial and religious and regional hatred that succeeded in tearing apart what was left of law and order.
“Even my next-door neighbor is acting creepy. When he comes out at all, it’s generally to say something nasty to me. You know…he thinks I’m gay!”
Leeza allowed herself to laugh to quickly at that, but even Rick joined in, seemingly without suspicion at her sudden and uncharacteristic outburst. Generally, she didn’t laugh without his permission.
The last time they’d seen Ned, he had come over with three magnums of wine (his last) and they’d all sat in front of the little battery-powered television watching the sixth in a series about the heroic men who had shut down the last of the active nuclear power plants. The three adults cheered the heroic workers who danced across the tiny black and white screen. They drank a toast and a toast and a toast and a toast and on to these brave fellows until the three adults were puking drunk.
And while Rick slept it off, the teacher and Leeza had found a quiet place in the pantry where they screwed like cats for two hours, Ned leaving months of pent up emotion and semen deposited in his host’s shapely Eurasian wife. Before Rick woke up, the teacher was gone, leaving behind half a bottle of Merlot, a satiated woman, and the terminology “Payback Time” for Rick to repeat endlessly. Rick liked the term for these strange end days and kept repeating it until it sounded right.
But in the half a week since they’d last seen their friend, the neighborhood and the city had grown very quiet. Their windows had been barricaded since the outbreak of the plague that had brought the dead to life. Their doors were securely locked and reinforced. Their pantry was growing empty, though, and they knew that they’d have to make a break for it very soon. There was room for them all, but they’d decided to leave BC to fend for himself.
“Stop looking at him like that,” Rick commanded Leeza. “We don’t have room for him. He’ll be more trouble than he’s worth.”
BC ducked his head at that one. That one hurt.
“And don’t tell the kids that we’re leaving him. We’ll get loaded up in about an hour. Make sure the coast is clear. And then we’ll be out of here.” Rick took that instant to lower a slat of hardwood nailed across the living room window to peer out into the yard. It was still early in the afternoon and the sky was clear. It wasn’t particularly hot, yet, but he knew the nice weather would break soon and that the house would become a hotbox that would be intolerable now that there was no electrical power. They still hadn’t been able to figure out why the water was still working.
Outside, the neighborhood looked a mess. It was surprising how fast the vegetation had grown up and things fell apart. Yards were choked with knee-high grass and weeds. Limbs and garbage all but filled the sidewalks and streets. A windstorm from a week previous had blown all manner of things to the earth. One never appreciated the mechanics of a society until it was all but gone. Down the avenue, he saw a movement and he froze. Leeza noticed—Rick had all but stopped breathing.
“What do you see?” She asked.
“Zombie,” he whispered. “About half a block down.”
“What’s it doing?”
Rick looked through his makeshift peephole, his green eyes glaring out. “It’s looking around,” he said. “I think it’s trying to figure out where to go.”
“Is it alone? Do you see any others?” She buttoned her blouse up to her neck and knew that she’d throw on her black coat before they left. She’d seen those things bite through fabric so easily. Her rule when venturing out was two layers, sometimes three.
“No. Just the one. But it’s moving this way. It’s looking this way. It…” Rick was silent.
“What is it, Rick? What’s it doing now? Are there more of them?” She didn’t want to think of the possibility that they’d be found out by a group of them this late in the game, when they were almost ready to leave for good. It wouldn’t be fair!
BC was alert, now, his attention on every word that was being said. He wanted to peer out of the peephole, too, but knew that Rick would never allow that.
“It’s Ned,” Rick said. “It’s Ned and he’s going to come here. You know how they are. They come back to what’s familiar, if they can.”
Leeza’s hand went to her mouth. She was thinking of her liaisons with the college professor, so different from her coupling with her husband. Her girlfriends—before Rick had run them all off—had asked her how she tolerated Rick. Not just his attitude, one of them had said, but his breath! His breath is horrid! He was arguing with me and breathed on me! I thought I was going to vomit!
Although she didn’t like to admit it, she’d married Rick Nuttman because she’d been so desperate. She’d never had a problem attracting men—she was very well built and her half-Asian/Caucasian features were pleasing to most. But no one wanted to make a long-term commitment. Until Rick had come along. Before she could talk herself out of marrying him, she’d gotten pregnant with the first, with Maya. She wasn’t even sure their daughter was Rick’s. She looked even more Asian than Leeza did, and she suspected the girl belonged, genetically speaking, to her second cousin—a young man named Tran whom she’d seduced not long after she’d met Rick.
And so she’d accepted Rick Nuttman’s proposal. And a few years later Little Rick had come along. By then, Rick had chased off all of her friends and most of her family. By then, she was too well cowed to leave him, despite the fact that most of the time she was the primary breadwinner. Rick was too busy pursuing a career as a musician or an artist to bother with working a full-time job. And he refused to take work as a laborer, assuring his wife that soon, very soon, he’d land work as an illustrator, as a painter, as a musician. They continued to be very poor. Such had been life when the dead had begun to rise.
Rick continued to peer through the opened slat in the window. “He’s definitely coming this way. He’s wearing the same yellow shirt he was wearing when he was last here,” he said, whispering, as if his now-dead friend might hear. “Someone shot him,” he added.
“His neighbor,” Leeza said. “Ned kept saying that his neighbor was taunting him because he thought Ned was gay.”
“Shit,” Rick whispered again. “Shot him in the back. I think the bullet exited his chest. Lots of blood on the front of his shirt.”
“Oh. Poor Ned.” Leeza began weeping. “We. We’d better get out of here. Let’s get out of here before he gets to the door. You know how it goes. He’ll start hammering on the door or the side of the house and pretty soon the whole place will be filled with them. That’s how it happens! We’ve seen it happen like that!” She was losing her cool. Behind her, Maya was beginning to whimper.
“He remembers. It’s like they said. They remember shit from when they were alive. He’s coming back here because he enjoyed talking to me.”
At that, Leeza began laughing, and it was all she could do to contain it.
“Get hold of yourself, Leeza. He’s only about one hundred yards away. Past Mr. Magruder’s place. Even shuffling like he’s doing, he’ll be here in a few minutes. We can’t chance him bringing others with the racket you know he’ll make. I don’t know if we can hold out that long. Especially if the weather turns hot again.”
“Let me get the kids bundled up. We’ve got time for that. The car’s loaded. All we have to do is get in it and run.” Her attention was then immediately on her kids. “Help me get another shirt and pants on them. Find Little Rick’s gloves,” she reminded her husband.
“I think you’re overdoing it on the clothes thing. I’m not going to cover myself like that. Slows you down. Gets you too hot.” But he had Little Rick in his lap, helping him put on an extra shirt and putting on another pair of baggy pants over the sweats his little boy was wearing. Rick preferred his son—the boy was blonde and had only a hint of his quarter Vietnamese blood; the kid might almost pass for white, truth be told. Not like his sister, at all. Only Maya’s intelligence made Rick know that the girl was his kid, despite her features. She just physically took more after her mom, he figured.
Leeza had mentioned the layering to her husband before, without arguing with him. That was how she had learned to treat the man. Suggestions were sometimes effective, but arguing only brought on his anger and caused him to exhibit his vindictive nature. He had a talent for cruelty, she’d found. She’d suggested that an extra layer of clothing would protect them from being bitten if they were to come into contact with one of the undead. After a while, he’d agreed that this might be the case, but that he wasn’t going to do it for his own reason. At least he wasn’t forbidding either the children or Leeza to layer. She knew that if she’d treated it as a confrontation that is precisely what he’d have done.
“Hurry,” she said to the children, holding their hands as she went to the back door in the kitchen. “Everything’s in the car, except for us. All we have to do is open the door and make a run for it.”
Rick was beside her, then, holding an art portfolio in his left hand. She looked down at it. “What’s that? Why are you bringing that?”
“I can’t leave all of my illustrations,” he told her. “They might have some value for us. We might be able to trade them. Or barter them.”
Leeza bit her tongue. There was really no room for that thing in the car. Not when he wasn’t going to take BC with them! She said nothing.
“Mom? Isn’t BC coming with us?”
Still in the den, BC sat and looked at them, his eyes pleading, but no other sound or movement. He’d already heard and understood what was going to happen. He would stay. They would go.
“We’ll come back for BC,” Rick told Maya. “We’re going to go and stay somewhere for a few days and come back. BC will be okay. The bathtub’s full of water for him and he has plenty of food in the pantry. We left it open for him. See?”
“Rick. Please! We have to go. Now!”
Without a word, Rick reached out and shoved back the timber blocking the door. He gripped the brass knob in his sweaty palm and pulled the door open, hinges creaking in almost an ominous joke.
And Ned was standing there, filling the door.
“Fuck,” Rick exclaimed, even as dead, blue hands reached out surprisingly quickly to grip his left shoulder. There was a moan and the thing that had been Ned Waters, Professor of English at the University of South Carolina used the fleshy anchor of Nuttman’s upper arm to lever its unfeeling bulk inside.
“Fuck,” Rick yelled again. He fell back, and the zombie’s grip only intensified, the greater bulk of the zombie precluding Nuttman from tumbling to the floor. As it was he only partially collapsed, his knees buckling, but his arm firmly in the grip of the dead man. “Get him off of me, Leeza! Hit him with something!”
They had no guns, of course. They’d been far too poor to buy one before the outbreak, and had been unable to locate one in the few moments they’d taken to search the abandoned homes nearby. Leeza stepped back, pulling the children with her. She pushed them into the den, just a few paces away, safely with BC, and then she was searching for one of the makeshift bludgeons Rick had created for her. But she’d left it in the children’s bedroom. “Damn it,” she said, turning to see if Rick had been bitten, yet. One bite, she knew, and he would be infected, and suffer a fever-ridden death before rising again as one of them.
But not only had the dead thing not attacked Rick, it had released him, and Nuttman was scuttling away to the far side of the small kitchen, upsetting a stack of dishes placed on the floor when Leeza had been picking out some things to load in the car. Ned’s dead, filmy eyes were locked not on Rick, but on Leeza. It stood in place for just an instant and then began shuffling her way. Its mouth opened, lips peeled back in a permanent rictus, tongue a dry and purple thing down low in the mandible. It wasn’t Rick Ned wanted. It was Leeza. She screamed, but her husband seemed less able to aid her than she had been able to help him.
The thing that had been Ned, her sometime lover, shambled forward. That, Leeza realized, was the most horrid thing about them. How single-minded and implacable they were. Once they’d made what amounted to a decision, they rarely deviated from whatever course of action dictated by the reptilian part of the brain that still operated.
Leeza had retreated further into the den; the children cowered in the small bedroom that they shared. Rick continued to crouch in the kitchen, searching for something with which to strike the unliving thing, but unable to locate something appropriate.
Ned’s undead corpse loomed over Leeza. He’d been a big, fleshy man and he towered above her. His hands reached out, and the germ of the urge that had brought him there was immediately replaced with a stronger urge:
Just as one blue-black claw grasped for her long, dark hair, something hit Ned from the right, actually toppling the zombie. It was BC, who had his fangs deep in the soft meat of the thing’s stomach. And even though BC was only fifty pounds, his jaws held tight, his neck muscles were powerful, and he twisted his body so that his mass was able to unsettle the zombie, who fell heavily to the hardwood floor with a meaty thud.
“Leeza! Grab the kids! Hurry! While he’s down. Run!”
Rick didn’t have to repeat himself. As he raced for the car, not so much as turning to see if his wife and children were on his heels, he was at he car door and unlocking it. Only when he heard a crackling noise from the back yard was he aware of two more of the undead shambling slowly toward him, eyes staring, mouths open, low moans exhaling from rotting lungs. At the sight, he actually did freeze, the key in the door. But the arrival of Leeza and the kids broke him out of the shock.
“Open the door, goddamn it,” Leeza screamed. “Open it and let us inside!”
Rick quickly opened his door, slid into the driver’s seat and unlocked the passenger side doors. His wife shoved the children into the back seat with the blankets and food—she could buckle them in later. With no little anger she grasped Rick’s art portfolio and slammed it toward the rear of the car, hoping that she’d be able to crush everything in it, but knowing that was unlikely. It wouldn’t be for lack of trying, though.
Once they were all inside, the children now screaming, Rick inserted the keys into the ignition and started the car. Despite its outward appearance, the car had a good engine—Japanese reliability ensures that, he liked to say. The pistons rattled slightly and as he gave it the gas, the car moved forward, Rick turning a hard right that took them very close to the pair of zombies reaching for them. But he left them behind.
The last sight they had of the little house they’d all shared for the past three years was of seeing the Ned zombie shuffling out of the back door; BC herding the thing away from them with carefully aimed lunges and nips.
And then they were gone, weaving around stalled autos, downed limbs, blown trash. They were looking for salvation.