That’s right – this still exists. This is a short story related to the plot of The End Was Nigh that I just finished. Still working on that, but if you need a dose of zombie fiction a few times a month as I do, now you can have it.
Cole had woken that morning to the daily struggles of the common man. He never did that again.
The universe had revealed itself to him at a young age, amid the violence of a breaking home. It was whispered in his ears by the tail end of screams, subversively occupying the darker corners of his mind well into his adulthood – an intangible virus of perspective.
Resting in his chest, burrowing deeper as the years passed by. Communicated silently but clearly through the stern drunken gaze of his father and the creased pages of dated science textbooks, Cole had internalized a crippling truth. One day, when his presence lad long since been forgotten, when his footprints and those of his sons had been shed by the earth, the great cosmic drama would find its way to his little planet’s front door and swallow it whole. All the organic matter that gave rise to consciousness would be gone. All the broken glasses, splintered cabinet doors and passionate tempers, not lost or forgotten like the days of infancy, but destroyed, disappearing along with the context from which they rose.
And what would the point be then? It haunted Cole for the better portion of his young adulthood.
Cole had said it aloud, startling his companion as well as himself. They studied each other for a moment, trying to ignore the moaning of their captors just beyond the bars of the cell.
It was small crimes or poor choices that led Cole and his cellmate to this microscopic corner of the universe called Ashwick Valley. A town with nothing, situated among nothing, the police station’s holding quarters resembled those of classic television shows, with old, worn steel bars and ancient locks.
With his cellmate now eyeing their captors intently, Cole studied the man’s appearance. He was dressed well, had it not been for the struggle. Sporting a sweat-stained collared shirt crowning torn khakis and a missing right shoe, he looked nothing more than an ordinary man in a less ordinary place.
“So, did you hold up a Finish Line?” Cole spoke slowly and intently with a tone far too heavy for the content of his words.
“Payless,” the man answered, chuckling to himself before returning to his fingernails once more. As the man continued to dig and pluck at them, his hands still bound by cuffs, Cole let his weight slide down the length of the wall and crouched on his heels.
“What’s your name?”
“Well Lenny, I’m Cole. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“No it’s not.”
Lenny laughs and, after a short moment, Cole can’t help but do the same.
Laughter was such a beautiful thing, Cole thought. Where did it come from? Why does it happen? Laughter had been a scarcity for most of his childhood, something that he would learn to do later in life, long after he’d fully divorced himself from his origins. What was that mysterious force that gripped him and shook him down to the core, filling his lungs with pure, unabated joy?
Where does it go when it stops?
Cole stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans impulsively before noticing Lenny’s gaze fixed intently upon him. Slowly tracing its trajectory with his own, Cole knew what it would reveal.
Crimson smears like a blood-red hand reaching out from his pant leg. It didn’t matter where laughter went now. It was gone, just like the officer whose blood had become nothing more than the evidence of an encounter. Cole tried to steady his breath, to let the his hearts palpitation subside, but the stain looked like a monster now, and the faint pink tint of his palms nearly induced sickness.
He certainly couldn’t ignore the fact anymore, not with the blood attesting to his fate from just below his torso. He was going to die here, no matter how long he paced and mulled over plans for escape or rescue. He had survived his childhood, lonely walks on empty highways, and numerous bar fights in small towns like Ashwick, but chance and circumstance had metastasized into fate and destiny. There was no way out.
Misfortune certainly knew how to catch the eye.
Lenny stood up and pulled at his handcuffs as though to remind them that they had fulfilled their purpose, that there was no more use in the restraint of his limbs. Predictably, the cold steel ignored his plea, just as the cold steel bars of the cell ignored the mass of reanimated dead flesh outside, moaning and vying for entry.
They had been seated at separate desks when it happened. The deputy completing Cole’s paperwork had unlocked Cole’s left handcuff. Don’t make me regret this, he had said, but despite Cole’s aptitude for disappointment, he made no attempt to flee the scene. The 30-foot run to the door would have him passing several officers before landing him outside and fully exposed.
It had been noon. Cole knew this from the sounding of the old grandfather clock tucked into the corner of the room. It was no more than seconds after the final report from the bell that officer Davis – whose name Cole had gleamed from the terrified screams of his cohorts – crashed through the front door with his hand pressed against a deep wound in his neck. He slid across the floor, writhing in what looked more like insanity than pain. The sounds emanating from his blood-choked throat were something far removed from human screams, and the panic that ensued within the walls of the claustrophobic station created an unnerving harmony.
With most of the officers rushing to Davis’ aid, none were prepared for the storm that poured in behind him.
The universe collapsing inward, Cole thought. How can you survive the destruction of context?
First it was one, then two and three and so on until the sounds of violence were drowned out by the effect upon its victims. The deputy in charge of Cole had stood and reached for his holster, but fumbled with the lock as the beasts barreled toward him from the front door. Within a single moment the officer and his attacker were tumbling over the desk and onto Cole, who pushed himself away from the bloody encounter and toward Lenny, who was dodging an encounter of his own. If it weren’t for the blood and the torn skin, if it weren’t for the human bite wounds and the shrill, inhuman cry of their voices, they would have just been a mob of confused drunks.
As it was, with various officers tangled up in their jaws and eyes turned to a remorseless copper-red, they were death in the flesh and blood.
Deafening gunshots rang out against the mostly bare walls and tile flooring, but only for a short moment before the mysterious, human-like creatures had swallowed them whole. With every officer wrestling with the great unknown, Cole, Lenny and a wife of a deputy had stumbled to the back of the room with clumsy, trembling steps.
With his bearings lost, with all sense of center slipping through the doorway from which the creatures had come, Cole thought of his mother.
“The backdoor. There’s a backdoor,” the woman had said under her breath. It was her frantic escape toward the door that alerted Cole and Lenny to her intentions.
Lenny remained frozen in shock as Cole made pursuit.
Her screams blended well with the terror unfolding in the room.
Just as she had opened the door, another creature burst through, enveloping her body in bloody flesh as a wild animal latching onto its prey. Their duet, a play between coarse throats and mindless wails, caused Cole to fall back on his heels, landing just before a stunned, panicked Lenny. The beast was frenzied, consuming her whole, limb by limb.
In all the panic and commotion, Cole had wondered if she had a name.
The beast looked up, as if aware of his thoughts, and Cole’s stomach sank to his feet. It crawled over her body with the fury of a rabid animal, swinging its arms madly, grabbing at Cole’s legs. Rather than hysterically kicking and rising from the floor, rather than dodging the ghoul and sprinting out the backdoor, Cole simply sat frozen with his hands pressed firmly against the tile floor.
His life didn’t flash before his eyes. There wasn’t much to see anyway. He prepared for the end like a man trapped in a car underwater, taking one final gulp of breath before stumbling through the threshold of mortality.
But it hadn’t ended there.
Lenny pulled him through the gate and into the holding cell with the swift execution of a hero on the silver screen. The door slammed shut, and all but Cole’s attacker had kept to their respective victims. It took time, but eventually the dead made their way to the bars of the cell, reaching through and swatting at the air with uninhibited rage. This had already gone on for hours, long enough for familiar nametags to appear at the front of the bloodthirsty crowd.
They turn, Cole thought. How lovely.
Now here they were, trapped inside a cage with death just beyond the gates. Dehydration and starvation laid in wait, crowding the wings of a dismal stage. Both standing now, with Cole’s bloodstained pants and Lenny’s missing shoe, they awkwardly smiled at one another.
“I suppose I should thank you for saving my life.”
“Well, thank you anyway. I think I prefer this option.”
They eyed their captors, dead eyes staring back.
“Do you think they’re in there?”
“If they are, that one is a prick and that other one there is cheating on his wife.”
Lenny pointed them out with two outstretched fingers.
“The dead one?”
“The dead one. There she is now.”
She pushed her way to the front of the crowd, taking her place in the rotation of dead carnivores. She had been pretty before this, on the minds of many on a lonely Saturday night. Many people had been pretty before, Cole reflected. Maybe no one could ever be that again.
“So, what did you do to get in here?” Cole asked Lenny, walking to the opposite end of the cell and sitting down on the cold bench. Lenny sat beside him and rested his elbows upon his legs.
“Just a bar fight. Few scrapes and cuts. You?”
“I stole some food.”
“Ed’s General Store.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I was fucking hungry.”
They shared a laugh like soldiers in a bloody foxhole.
The dead continued to rehearse their song, floating through tones like phantoms of the avant-garde.
“You’re a drifter?”
“You could say that.”
“Do you have a home?”
“How’d you get here?”
“And you’re alone?”
“You’re a fuckin’ drifter.”
“I guess I am.”
How many hours had gone by? The reports from the grandfather clock had ended. The demons before them must have taken the entire town, power plant and all. Cole took a moment to scan the crowd, gazing into the eyes of each and imagining their stories.
A lawyer. A carpenter. A not so desperate housewife. A wholly desperate preschool teacher.
“Well Cole, you a democrat?”
“A few degrees left of center.”
“You like the Sox?”
“Only when I’m drunk.”
“Then we’re gonna get on just fine. It’s a pleasure to die here with you.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Cole quipped.
It really would have been a pleasure. Cole had toiled away all his life, passing from town to town and drifting through various social circles. He’d met interesting people, seen interesting things, but the virus that had infected him in his early childhood never quite subsided. In every face, he saw the end. Every cracked sidewalk looked like a splinter in the fabric of reality. He could never shake the thought that his body would return to its source only to one day be crunched down into nothing by a super massive black hole.
It would be a pleasure for the thought to pass, to finally simply not be. It would be a pleasure to see it pass along with a companion, enjoying a final dose of the laughter that had sustained Cole thus far.
But that pleasure would have to wait.
As Cole curled forward and rested his hands upon his knees, he noticed the blood dripping from Lenny’s pant leg, sliding down his ankle and staining the white sock on his shoeless foot. He looked up to find Lenny staring him in the face.
That moment, singular among all the others that had transpired that afternoon, burned in Cole’s heart. The two men, seated no more than two feet apart, knew exactly what was happening. Both had recognized the name tags of their dead hosts; both had understood what awaits those who have been bitten. Cole recognized the feeling in his stomach, the same feeling that dug into his nerves just before his companion dragged him into the cell.
Just before this man – Lenny – had saved his life.
Without warning, corresponding messages were sent from a mass of nerves to its obedient limbs. Cole watched his left hand shoot out toward Lenny’s face. Like an innocent man witnessing a murder, he watched in awe as Lenny tumbled over the side of the bench. He tried to catch his breath as he rose from his seat and stood above his cellmate. Grunting as he raised his leg and tucked his knee into his chest, his heart grew heavier with every successive blow. Through various crunches and snaps that threatened to send Cole into a fit of tears and vomiting, he watched the life leave his cellmates body, spilling onto the floor like a puddle of consciousness and thought.
And then it was over. Silence would have befallen the room, had it not been for the horde of dead reaching through the bars. Cole turned, stumbled backwards onto the bench and stared straight ahead, the dead mocking him with moans and drunken postures.
Could they see him? Cole wondered. If they could, did they understand?
Cole rested his head on his hands and tried to concentrate on the floor rather than the corpses and their chilling song, but this proved useless. Gazing upward into the eyes of the woman whose demise had unfolded just beyond his trembling legs, Cole felt an emptiness transfer between them. A virus that slipped in through the corner of his eye and spilled into his being. In every way that mattered, Cole more closely resembled his captors than the dead man named Lenny in the corner of the cell. In every way that mattered, what became of these bodies and the drama of their lives would be nothing more than a footnote in a book set to flames.
These were going to be long, last days.