This was a pretty uninspired idea. I’d played a mediocre flash game recently, called “Zombie Inglor” about a man who was bit and had about 72 hours until he became a full zombie. Not a bad concept, but the game was pretty average, and didn’t take any real advantage of the concept except as a premise for action.
After I played it, I toyed around with the idea of writing a short story myself, about a guy who gets bitten and slowly descends into zombiesm. It turned out to not be as interesting as I thought. I was going to do some allegorical stuff, like I always do, where the main character would sacrifice himself in order to provide a cure, or had to die in order to live–my backstory for the world was that zombies had been created through some “immortality vaccine” meant to make humans live forever and blah blah. Pretty derivative stuff. Still I don’t mind what I wrote out, and it was sort of interesting to write the POV of this character who was gradually losing himself and couldn’t stop it. I might revisit the concept, but if I do, it’d be very different from this.
It takes as long as three weeks for me to die. Maybe more. It’s hard to be sure, first because I’m not exactly sure when I’m really ‘dead,’ and second because I’m not sure when I start dying.
Robert would probably make some wisecrack like “the day you were born,” and Jess would tell me about the point when the body stops producing new cells and starts simply replacing old ones. And then she’d probably get talking about how the I-2394 vaccine was supposed to fix that, and why it didn’t work as intended, and yadda yadda yadda… Honestly, I love the girl, but she can drone on.
I guess the first moment I know comes after the fight that one night, after we’ve pushed the last of them back from the walls, and their groans and roars are starting to fade into the night. Everyone’s laughing and clapping and giving hugs, and all of a sudden Jonesy says: “Vic, you’re bleeding.”
My death isn’t really official until they haul me over to Dr. Jewell and he takes a look at it and confirms that yes, that is a bite mark and not some random cut, and yes, the blood tests positive.
Time used to be, they’d shoot you right then. Some places they still do that. But the toxin affects people differently—that’s something else Jess is always going on about—and some people don’t turn at all. Of course, some turn in seconds, and the whole crowd has their guns aimed at me all the way to the gate. I feel like I should fight or scream, but it just feels so normal… I’ve walked this same road so many times, with these exact same people. Even when they shove the survival bag into my hands and push me out the gate, it doesn’t quite register… it feels too much like one of those foraging trips I’d always go out on.
It’s only after an hour in the cold dark, squatting amidst the stinking corpses slumped against the ground, shivering at the least groan or most distant roar in the far distance, that it starts to sink in what’s just happened. Then I start screaming. I scream and bang on the gate and yell up at Jonesy and call everyone on the walls every name I can think of. I tell them all about Derek’s bed-wetting problem… not that Derek really has anything to do with what’s happened. It just feels good. I tell them about Jessica, too—again, not that it matters. Nothing does, at this point. A few of them yell back, but most of them stay silent.
It takes three hours of screaming—when my voice is good and hoarse—for the bullets to finally start pinging around my ankles. I have no idea whether they’re trying to miss or not, but it scares me plenty, and I run. Not far—I can still see the light—but far enough away that they can’t shoot at me. I lie down on the bare ground and stare at the city until I fall asleep. For some reason, I have this feeling that the morning will change things.
It doesn’t. It’s not even like in stories, where I have to wonder for a few seconds why I’m lying out on the hard ground, because the second I open my eyes, there’s a stalker about an inch from my face, sniffing at me curiously.
I yell. My hands scramble madly on the dirt for a second before finding a melon-sized rock. Grabbing at it desperately, I smash the stalker’s face with it. It doesn’t kill him—their bones are as hard as ours—but it knocks him back, dazing him enough for me to stand up.
My first instinct is to run, or to throw the rock—too risky to fight these things at close range.
But then I remember the bite on my arm. I’m one of them already. One bite more makes no difference.
I run at him with the rock and smack him across the temple with it. This time it knocks him down, and as he’s roaring and clutching his skull, I straddle his chest and bring the rock down—hard. His temples crack and cave, brain-juice oozing out like one of those cherry-candies Jess likes so much.
It takes a long time to really kill him, though, or at least a long time for him to stop roaring. Even then, I pound away at his skull until it’s just a brain-paste with little flecks of skin and bone in it. His lower jaw dangles below the mess, untouched.
Finally I sit back, chest heaving, and drop the stone. I notice my finger’s been cut—on the rock, not the stalker—and without thinking I stick it into my mouth.
Then I realize my hands are covered in splattered brain.
I hurriedly spit it out, choking and gagging, and lurch upward, stumbling away from the stalker. A part of me distantly notes that brain tastes slightly like raw chicken, but the thought’s too horrible to continue. I practically run back to the city, half-expecting to be shot.
They don’t shoot me, but they’re clearly not happy to see me either. The men on the wall weren’t there last night, but it’s clear they know what happened, because they keep their guns trained on me the whole time.
One of them says Pastor Bob left a sack here, in case I came back, and pitches it over the wall. I open it. Bread, a canteen of water, and some boiled meat in a Tupperware. I take back every nasty thing I’ve ever said about Pastor Bob and gulp it all down. The men on the wall watch me in silence.
I stay by the wall most of the day. There’s no real reason—clearly they’re not going to let me back in—but there’s a sort of finality to heading out into the wasteland that I’m not yet ready to face. Eventually the men on the wall get used to me and start talking again. Marital problems, medical issues, home improvement projects. I listen to them hungrily. Occasionally I even call up a response, but they never answer.
Sometime in the afternoon I hear a new voice up on the wall. “Is Vic down there? Ron said that Vic was hanging out by the wall…”
I jump up. “Jess!” I call. My voice is hoarse and barely more than a croak.
“Vic!” There’s the sound of running feet before Jess’s face, close-cropped blonde hair and all, pops out of the wall above me. “Vic, are you okay?”
I want to laugh, but I haven’t the heart. “Sure.”
“Vic, I…” She swallows and looks away for a moment. “They say you… that a stalker… Is it…”
“Yeah.” I answer flatly.
Her face breaks, like she’d been holding it together by sheer will. “Oh, VIC, I… I…” Her head disappears, and I hear her running from the wall, sobbing frantically. The men don’t say anything.
She comes back later that day, with a bag of stuff from my place. Nothing too special, just a few knick-knacks. A compass. Clean underwear. That one throws me for a loop. Probably the last thing she’ll ever pack for me, and she chooses clean underwear?
I really don’t understand women.
We talk for a while. “I looked at the maps.” She says. “The Wurnsboro settlement is sixty miles northeast of here. You could probably get there in a few days walk.”
“You can’t tell him that!” One of the men shouts. “They’ll just let him in!”
“They have tox screens and a treatment facility there!” She shouts back. “Radio them if you feel so damn worried about it!”
“I’ll… think about it.” I tell her. Those treatment facilities are hell. When doctors are treating things like stalkers, or at least things that might BECOME stalkers, they aren’t so picky about stuff like anesthetic and patient consent.
“PLEASE, Vic.” She pleads. “It’s your best chance.” She can see she’s not getting anywhere, though. For a moment she just closes her eyes and shakes her head. Then, opening again, she says: “A-according to the records, the I-2394 vaccine takes 43 days at max to work through a person’s system. Settlement law stipulates that if you come back here two months after you’re bitten, and you pass the tox screen, they have to let you in.”
“I know.” But I don’t know anyone who’s ever come back in.
There’s a moment of awkward silence. It seems like we should hug or kiss, but she’s a good twelve feet above me, and I’m a stalker.
“I guess I’ll see you later.” She says, finally.
“You too.” I manage a smile. This can’t be easy for the poor girl. “Thanks for coming down to see me. You smell nice. What perfume is that?”
There’s a sudden silence, and I get the feeling I’ve said something wrong. “Vic…” she says, choking a little. “I’m not wearing any perfume.”
I spend the first week just by the city walls. It’s familiar, and Jess is always there with a sack of food for me, so I stay more or less well-fed. Rob brings a tent and throws it down, and I sleep in that for a couple of nights. I find a shotgun abandoned out by the old road. Not much protection against the stalkers but then—I’m not in need of much protection anymore. Either I’m immune, or I’m a dead man walking.
Not that the stalkers seem to pay me much attention anyways. After the first night, they don’t so much as sniff around by me. Jess used to tell me about how the I-2394 virus needs uninfected tissue to combat the neural decay, so you don’t have stalkers eating each other.
One night they attack the settlement. I’m asleep, and all of a sudden I hear the alarm bell ringing. Practically on instinct, I leap up and grab the shotgun, dashing outside before I remember that I’m on the other side of the city’s walls.
Never seen a rush from this side before. In the darkness, I can see hundreds of shapes rushing out from the bare desert, toward the shining lights of the settlement. There’s a great dark mass of clustered bodies at the foot of the wall, stalkers scrambling over each other in a rush to get to the top. Shots ring out over the hubbub of the mobs roar, and the alarm bell is still clanging away.
At first I rush right in there, shotgun blazing. Overprotective bastards or not, they’re still my neighbors, and hell, Jess is in there. Maybe there’s a bit of me hoping that this great gesture of solidarity will teach them to let me in after all.
It’s surprisingly easy. The stalkers still ignore me, even after I shoot down half-a-dozen of them. I get a little bold and charge right into the mob, laying about me with a grapefruit-sized rock.
Then a rifle takes off my right ear and I regain my senses. Those guards are practically firing blind into the crowd at this point, they don’t much care who they shoot. Even if they do see me, they’ll probably just figure I’m one of the attackers. I smash my way out of the press as quick as I can, and run off into the darkness before someone can take the other ear off. I still lurk out in the darkness, though, smashing in the head of the occasional approaching zombie. There’s no real reason… the situation at the settlement is quite under control now… but it feels good.
I don’t make it to the fort the next day. Men are outside, clearing away the bodies and piling them on the fire. One of them sees me coming and gives a yell. About twenty guns point in my direction and I back away. I spend the rest of the day out in the desert, trying to ignore the scent coming over on the wind. But oddly, it’s not the overbearing dry scent of burning flesh that bothers me.
It’s the moist odor of the men burning them that I can’t get out of my head.
That’s what finally gets me walking on the path to Wurnsboro. Hellish treatment facility or not, anything’s better than sitting around in the desert smelling all the people in that city. Jess gave me a compass, and a map, so I know roughly which way to go. Still. Walking through a sun-baked desert is even more boring than you’d think it’d be.
That’s pretty much it. There was going to be a leper-colony-ish group of half-zombie people he would join and then leave, and then a deserted hospital that allegedly had the cure but really didn’t.
I did toy with another version of the story, which started out this way.
I saw the girl from nearly five hundred yards away. You could see for miles out in the wasteland, but she had just come over the hill and was screaming and yelling… something. I couldn’t hear her very well, my ears had started to go by that point. My eyes weren’t too good either, so I couldn’t tell much beyond the fact that she was skinny and was dressed all in tattered clothes. I could still smell plenty well, though, and the girl had the wet scent about her, so I knew she was all right.
When she was four hundred yards away, I saw the Cavirs behind her. She saw them too, and began to run and scream even more. I could catch bits and pieces now—“Help… don’t let… love of God…”
I still had three rounds of ammo in the sack, and all I needed was one, so I pulled out the pistol and started firing. Of course, at that range, I couldn’t hit much, even if my eyes HAD been working properly. But eh, I figured, why not?
The girl tripped and fell, still screaming. There was a revolver in her hand, but it had to be empty, the poor girl was trying to use it to swat away the Cavirs. She was about three hundred and fifty yards away by now. I should maybe have started running, but I didn’t. I just kept walking, firing away. If she was down on the ground, that meant I would only be hitting the Cavirs.
They didn’t even look at me. I think that was what really bothered me, at the time. I walked right up to within a foot of the last guy, and he never so much as glanced up while he was pawing at and grappling with the girl. He had the scent of dry rot about him, like when you want to throw up but can’t muster the contents. His hair was long but sparse, and his eyes were wide and vacant—perfectly blank. The cataracts set in about a month after infection. So in that sense, I guess he couldn’t have seen me even if he’d looked up. But still, he didn’t even turn his head. I must have stood there for a good ten seconds before I finally smashed his head in.
The woman was sobbing and panting as I heaved the carcass off of her. “Oh god.” She was saying. “Oh god, oh god, I thought… he didn’t bite me, did he? Check me! Check me, do you see a bite anywhere?”
“No.” God, she smelled wet. Her blonde hair was cropped short… almost like Rachel’s, really. And she was wearing glasses. “You look fine.”
“Oh thank god.” She collapsed with relief, or would have if she hadn’t been lying in the dirt already. “I thought I was done for that time.”
I turned away to look at the pile of bodies. “Where did you run across these?” I asked, toeing a corpse. Their bodies had the stiffness of dried rubber. “I haven’t seen a pack this big in two days.”
“The… the ruins.” She managed. “The ruins south of here. It’s an old hospital, we think. My… my team and I were studying… were studying…”
“Where’s the rest of your team?” I really didn’t need to ask.
Here, the idea was that the reader thought the man was a survivor, and only gradually realized that he had been bitten and was turning into a zombie. It would end with him dying, having not eaten the girl. Yay!