THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH
James Robert Smith
My name is Alex Wenzler.
Quite that suddenly, he recalled his name.
He was in an ugly place, if somewhat safe. Why he felt it as safe, he wasn't quite sure. But he was certain somehow that he was secure. He looked around. To his left and his right there were crumbling brick walls that smelled of wet and mold. Above him the sky was slate gray and a uniform sheet of clouds hung low. The ground was mainly concrete strewn with loose rubble and soggy masses of discarded brown boxes and rotting newsprint that had blown in from points unknown to rest now as graying, sodden heaps.
There was a scrabbling sound and Wenzler looked lazily to his left to spy a gray fox nosing in the broken red bricks and pawing at crumbling concrete in search of hiding mice, or rats. The fox looked back at him, paid him no mind at all thereafter and continued to prod about, searching and searching for warm rodent meals.
From far away there were the sounds of diesel engines. Half a mile distant, maybe more, he calculated. He could hear river water sloshing against broken docks, recalling that he was near the riverfront, hiding here in the now-abandoned port where once, years ago, container ships had pulled in to unload vast tons of cargo. But no more. Now this place was abandoned and forgotten and left to the whims of Mother Nature. She had a heavy hand, and was not kind, he recalled.
What was he doing in such a terrible place?
Wenzler looked down. He was seated in a shallow puddle. His navy blue pants were not only dirty, they were wet. His legs were splayed out in front and he was sitting, his back against a cracked and ruined wall. Over his head an old sign overhung the destroyed alleyway, creaking nervously in the slight wind on rusted chains. Off in the distance a foghorn sounded, reminding one and all that there was still some traffic on the river.
What am I doing here? He wondered again.
Wenzler. Mother Nature. Safety. And then it dawned.
He was dead.
But he didn’t know for how long he’d been that way. It even came back to Alex how he’d died. He’d been bitten by one of the walking dead. The thing—one of the risen--had tottered up to him while he’d been trying to pry another one off of Mrs. Epstein who lived next door to him. It had taken a bite out of his trapezius muscle, he recalled. It had chomped right through one of his white shirts, leaving him with a hideous wound and lots of blood soaking into that starched and glaring fabric, and thereafter it had walked off with a mouthful of Alex Wenzler and a piece of fine Egyptian cotton stuck in its teeth.
That’s right. After that his wife had hidden him and tried to nurse him back to health. Everyone knew what happened to you if you went to the hospital. You vanished into government-run hostels and you never returned to house and hearth. So Beth had hidden him in her cousin Tilly’s house three blocks over. Tilly and her husband were gone—no one knew where and assumed the worst. So the house had been…well, available. There he’d gone, Tilly bringing him food and medicine, driving up or biking over for days. She’d found penicillin somewhere. And Ampicillin. She’d stolen a bottle of Cipromax from the hospital. He’d downed it all, to no avail.
That’s the way it was. The fever took you. You died. He remembered the heat, his body blazing with it, his joints aching, his muscles burning, his organs frying as if someone had wired him to an electric current that was cooking him alive. He’d screamed at some point. Because he clearly recalled Beth’s sweaty palm clamped over his lips, trying to keep him quiet so that the soldiers or the police wouldn’t hear him. They were out there, constantly searching for the newly risen, for the soon-to-be-dead, for those who might be…infected.
There were rats out there, too. Citizens filled with fear and only too eager to squeal on suspected neighbors and suspicious strangers tottering through the streets, creeping around. All it took was a single phone call and armed crews in HazMat uniforms would arrive in quick order to move you away before anyone even realized what was happening. They could (and would) put you down if they felt the need or the passing whim to do so.
Alex remembered Beth talking to him about that, frightened that one of the police or soldiers would follow her and find him and take him away before he could get better. And she feared the neighbors, too. Everyone was on edge and the armed officials would descend on you and yours in a heartbeat.
He leaned forward at that thought. Until he was kneeling and could peer down into the puddle in which he was all but lying. Wenzler looked almost like a Muslim praying toward Mecca as he pushed his face toward the sheen of water. That’s a good one, he thought.
Alex had to see.
He’d died, of course, but he couldn't recall the instant of it. A dead man trying to recall his time of death--there was humor in that. Like a fellow trying to conjure the details of his birth. (In his mind’s eye, he was smiling, but he wasn’t sure if he was actually grinning, because he couldn’t feel his face). He couldn’t really feel much of anything beyond the press of gravity and the sense of the solidity of the earth beneath him and the weight of his limbs. His hands slapped the shallow puddle and concentric circles shook the surface. His fingers were blue and black, the nails long and dirty, underlain with filth and clotted with…questionable material. Alex waited for the surface of the waters to still. His face swam clearly into view, lit by the pale, gray light of the overcast winter’s day.
His features were horrible, the pain of his death written large there.
Nothing could survive that terrible fever. But what had happened after he’d died? Had he risen only to attack his wife? As he knew, that’s what one did when one rose from the dead, like some ravenous, murdering vampire. He blinked, peering into the dirty skein of water atop the barren concrete.
The flesh was dry. His skin was pulled tight over his skull. He was gaunt. Ghastly. Highlights of green tinged his hard and weathered features—some flora at home on his mummified face. And he was grinning, as he’d imagined, his lips pulled wide, revealing teeth disturbingly white and whole. His once blue eyes were, somehow, still as blue and as piercing as always; they were the only part of him that still looked alive. “You are the bluest eyed man in all the land,” Beth had often told him. The brown hair was still attached to his skull and hung in wet tendrils on his forehead. He had to brush it back to push it out of those blue eyes to see his hideous image vibrating in the dirty pool.
I have a son, it suddenly occurred to him. And that seemed very important. It seemed more important than the fact that he was dead, or the fact that he wasn’t sure what had happened to his wife. I have a son, and his name is Mark.
How long have I been dead? He wondered. Sitting back, he tried to piece it all together.