Friday, December 12, 2014

Short Story: Zombies Anonymous

I'm late posting this week, and I never actually got around to writing the post I meant to write.  I've been crazy-busy, but in a good way-- a way that I hope means I will have big news to share with you soon.  In the meantime, please enjoy this short story, "Zombies Anonymous," which was originally published in D20 Girls Magazine, then in a horror anthology.  I'm posting it here for the first time in its entirety. 
Sort of a gruesome Christmas present, but when I'm able to share my news, it will make sense to you.  Also, there's a reason the song goes, "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of old glory from Christmases long, long ago . . ."


When I get off work, I stop at the farm before I go home.  The chicken farmer knows me, is expecting me.  He has a beautiful bird set aside, ready to go in a cardboard container.  I pay him, a worn ten dollar bill.  Tell him to keep the change.
The chicken, a red hen, rides in the seat beside me.  The box has ventilation holes in the top, but otherwise, the bird can’t see out, so she is pretty docile for the twenty or so minutes it takes to get her home. 
I take the box out back and leave it on the patio table while I go inside.  I reemerge wearing one of those disposable plastic rain ponchos.  
The box thumps softly as I shift it towards me, open the top flaps.  The bird’s head pops up, gold eyes regarding me beadily.  When I reach in, she squawks and fights.  I hold her carefully, one hand around her neck, the other holding both feet together.  She continues to screech, beating at me with her auburn wings.
It hasn’t been daylight for a half hour yet.  I hold her like that, stretched between my hands for a moment in the watery morning sun.  Then I raise her to my face and bite, tearing into the breast with my blunt canines.  The bird shrieks, her claws digging into my palms.  Feathers fly everywhere.  They cling to my hands, sticky with blood.  In another second, she is still. 
When I’m finished, I hose the blood and feathers off the patio, sluicing them into the grass.  Then I strip off the poncho.  I pack it and the bones into a trash bag and set them out on the curb, next to the recycle bin. 

* * * * *

The meetings are mandatory.  It’s just like from before, with gatherings in church basements and school gyms, a circle of fold-out chairs.  In the back of our meeting area, refreshments are laid out on a pair of folding tables: an assortment of raw meats and a carafe of blood.  Pig’s blood, usually.  I prefer cow. 
We even start with a prayer:

I am grateful that I am here and I am still me. 
I will not let my impulses define me, only my choices.
I ask for strength to weather adversity and change.
May grace and mercy reign over all my interactions
So that I may be an example to others,
Leading to peace and understanding between all mankind.

We all know each other here—most of us went through quarantine together, so there’s no need for anyone to stand up and go, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a cannibal.” 
I look around the circle at the familiar faces, old and young.  There’s Brian and Cara, a young couple who just recently moved in together.  There’s Javier, who speaks in broken English and worked as a grill cook before.  Sweet-faced Marjorie, who takes care of the recovered children, who invariably flock to her like baby ducks.  Jay Doyle, who’d owned a car dealership.  Ira Ramsey, a computer programmer.  Old Barb who talks nonstop about her eight-year-old grandson, who’d been her first kill.   
The meetings I go to are led by a woman named Julie Cavanaugh, who’d been a marriage counselor.  We go around the circle and talk about things.  Acceptance.  Admission of past deeds.  Confronting guilt.  Self-forgiveness.  Working the steps. 
Now we’re trying to focus on our new lives: new friends, new families, our jobs.  We talk especially about all the changes—the changes in our bodies, the changes in the world.  Our new place in society, such as it is. 
And we talk about how hard it is. 
How very hard it all is.

* * * * *

I should go to bed, but I can’t sleep.  Insomnia is common for us.  So I sit in the living room.  No TV or anything—channels are still pretty limited.  But the house is nice.  At least, a part of me still recognizes it’s nice, someplace I would’ve wanted to live before.  Four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath.  Granite countertops in a kitchen I don’t really use.  Tankless water heater and efficient heating and A/C when I no longer notice temperature.  More space than I could ever hope to inhabit. 
I keep the blinds drawn.  A lot of us have retained a certain affinity for dark places.  Our night vision remains exceptionally good.  But I just like it.  It’s nice to sit by myself.  Nobody watching, no temptations.  Just me.  In my place.  Alone.  After quarantine, we were required to live in communal housing for a while, so solitude feels like an unqualified luxury. 
Then there’s a pounding at my door. 
Immediately, I tense up.  I’m not expecting any visitors. 
   
* * * * *

Everybody’s got their share of bad memories.  I bit my neighbor, my wife, my coworker, infected them so they’d be like me.  I ate my mother, my son, my dog.  The illness burned some of the memories out of us, but not all.  We remember the people coming at us with rifles, axes, shovels, baseball bats—whatever lay near to hand.  In some places, there were bombs, tanks, flamethrowers.  We watched our fellow afflicted get bludgeoned, torn apart by bullets and blades, mown down under treads, going up like haystacks.
It happened like in the movies.  Kind of.  Not like the old black-and-whites.  The new ones.  Some of these screenwriters knew what they were talking about: when it hit, it didn’t just happen spontaneously, people leaping out of graves and whatnot.  It wasn’t radiation.  It wasn’t an invasion from another planet. 
It was a virus.  That’s all.  Like the flu.
It wasn’t a yak-fest, I’m pleased to report.  It was a neuro virus.  No one suspected anything at first because it moved so slowly, almost sluggishly, through the system, mutating as it went.  That was one way it differed from the movies—it’s not like somebody coughed on you and boom, you were infected, and then, boom, you were a zombie.  It took anywhere from eight to fifteen days to become symptomatic and another week or so before you turned.
I remember my last day as a regular human.  I’d been to the doctor.  He’d prescribed Motrin, bed rest, fluids.  Dutifully, I’d managed to get myself up and to the kitchen.  Made some dry toast, drank a glass of orange juice.  Then I crawled back into bed.
When I woke up, I wasn’t me anymore.  I’d been replaced by this . . . hunger.  There is simply no other word for it. 
There’s this lady in my ZA group named Nancy.  She’s a real born-again, right-to-life religious freak, even now.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have no beef with the Jesus-and-fetus-lovers.  I love Jesus and fetuses and beef as much as the next guy. 
On rye.
A little cannibal humor there.  Go on and laugh.  You know you want to.
Anyway.  We were talking about it during group one time, the virus.  Nancy said, “I got a headache.  The pain was so bad my husband rushed me to the emergency room.  And all I could think was, ‘This must be what Jacob felt when he wrestled the angel.’”
While I might disagree on some levels, (semantic, spiritual, philosophical), I agree with the sentiment.  Winning or losing doesn’t matter.  Your whole life has just become this pitched battle.  Pain gets you in a headlock and no one can help you.  No one can take the pain for you. 
And then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, you get hungry.  Everything you ever were, anything you ever wanted—it all gets burned away.  Your body just wails for food and more food.  There is no ignoring it.  There is no reasoning with it.  There is no fighting it.  You have no intellect, no personality, no conscience.  You begin to see only what is edible. 
Anything that moves is edible.
I miss toast.

* * * * *

I don’t know how any of us survived those long years, unspeakable years of wandering and feeding, a blur of teeth and working mandibles and blood.  All I know is, I came to in a CDC facility, four years after that glass of OJ.  I had a gunshot wound in my right leg, a mild concussion from where somebody whacked me over the head with something.  I was lucky that’s all I had.  The cure meant we recovered some of our humanity—we could think again.  We could reason again.  We could sleep again, dream again.  We could feel again.  Emotions, I mean.  A lot of us have suffered permanent nerve damage, which is why we don’t feel heat or cold, or physical pain.  
But what they couldn’t cure was the hunger. 

* * * * *

It’s been five years since the virus hit.  There’s a little over a billion people left in the world.  Most died the first year.  The rest died in the ensuing violence: riots, people fighting amongst themselves, fighting against the afflicted.  A lot of people committed suicide. 
Pretty much the only job we’re allowed to have now is clean-up.  We bury bodies, clear debris from roadways, tear down condemned structures.  Doesn’t matter what you did before—doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker.  You’re road crew now.  Most of us prefer the night shift.
Once we were cured, the new government passed a series of laws.  Recovereds had to be registered.  After quarantine, recovereds had to live in assigned housing.  Recovereds were not allowed to own firearms.  And, of course, acts of cannibalism would not be tolerated.    
We make do with animals.  If any of those PETA people are left, they must really hate us.  After our meetings, sometimes, we stand around the blood cooler and organize hunting parties. 
Right now, we live in the exurbs, in subdivisions surrounded by cement walls topped with razor wire.  The perimeters are patrolled.  Helicopters are a regular sight, gliding by overhead at all hours. 
Working by night, loading up dumpsters and hauling rubble under the moon, I sometimes pause and look around.  I can’t get used to this—any of it.  The roaming searchlights.  The vast areas of uninhabited space.  The ruined buildings, the untraveled highways, the unpaid tolls. 
They call us cannibals, like we’re still the same species.  I’m not sure we are. 

* * * * *

There is one topic of conversation that is never broached in the meetings—never indoors, where we might be overheard.  Only outside, preferably in the fields and wooded areas, as we stalk coyotes and deer.
“The way I see it, we’re the new top of the food chain, right?  So why the fuck we letting them call the shots?”
“Look at us.  Can’t leave the compound unless they give us the okay.  Eating what they say we can eat.  That’s not what we are.”
“There’s more of us than there are of them.”
“We all know what’s going on here.  They rounded us up, trapped us while we were vulnerable.  Now we’re living in ghettos while they decide what to do with us.”
“I’m telling you, it’s just a matter of time before they decide to wipe us out once and for all.  Because they can’t stand it—they can’t stand that we’re better than them now.”
“But we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Not yet.”

* * * * *

The knocking on my door continues, growing more and more frantic.  I open it to find several of my neighbors.  A lot of them are people from my ZA group.  There’s Ira, there’s Julie.
“Joe,” she says.  “They’re coming.”
In the distance, I hear the helicopters beating the air, the sound of tanks approaching. 
No words pass between us.  Nothing really needs to be said as some of us join hands and walk out to meet them, armed with nothing but our hunger and a serenity prayer.



Enjoy this short story? Please take a moment to let me know in the comments. In the meantime, check out other short stories here.




4 comments:

  1. That's a total twist I would never have seen coming. Wow. And I don't even like zombies.

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    Replies
    1. Haha, as it happens, they're not my favorite either. But I'm always interested in monster stories from the monster perspective. Thanks for reading.

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