Just My Luck
It’s really never quite how you imagine it. Looking back, I definitely feel lied to. The books, the movies, pop-culture, none of them had it right, none of them prepared you for the real thing, for the stillness, for the stench. The decay that’s in the air is overwhelming, it’s something you never get used to. It permeates everything. It sticks to your skin, settles inside your nose and then gets inside your head. It abducts your thoughts, sabotages your feelings, mocks your memories and pollutes everything that has ever attached itself by smell.
I’ve been traveling for almost four months, through infected towns and infested cities, one after another trying to reach my daughter Emma in St. Paul. I’m failing quite miserably. I’m not cut out for this, how I’ve made it this far is nothing short of dumb luck. In a world eating itself to extinction, having a fifty-two year old adjunct English professor from a small Cleveland college isn’t exactly who you want by your side. Filling your free time with historical Civil War reenactments or possessing the knowledge of which Division of the Forrest Cavalry Corps was involved in the Massacre of Fort Pillow isn’t exactly what folks are looking for when the world comes to an end and hordes of walking, flesh craving misanthropist are heading your way. Verbs, superlatives and knowing when to use the correct form of “who” and “whom” are rarely useful when searching for edible food sources, changing fuel pumps or telling the difference between twelve and twenty gauge shotgun shells. It’s simply worthless and I’m at a disadvantage.
If my suspicions and intuitions are correct, I am most certainly too late and she’s become one of those things. Then again, if I had ignored my intuition, my wife wouldn’t have been sleeping with a man half her age and I would have seen her leaving me coming from a mile away. My instincts are shit, so I ignore them. I’m determined to pursue this lost cause until the end. I’m keeping the hopeful notion that my daughter is still alive, unfortunately, hope has gotten me into trouble once again.
The bullet holes in the rear quarter panel of the sedan provide adequate ventilation for breathing, but allows for very little light to filter in. It was a stupid, rash decision. I panicked and ran for the first available cover. I think I might still be a bit overwhelmed. The trunk was ajar and I went for it. How quickly things go wrong.
The smell in here is horrendous. I fumble around searching for anything to cover my face. I find an old t-shirt and place it to my mouth and breath deep. I inhale the stink of death and dried bits blood. I can taste it. As I exhale it doesn’t leave me and the taste lingers on my tongue. I don’t know how much longer I can stay in here. I need to get out.
It’s late March now and spring is no longer a time for the living, it is a time for the dead. The rumor that the number of undead would dwindle to a manageable level over winter was like most apocalyptic rumors, false. The truth is, the cold temperatures only slowed decomp. Now, with temperatures on the rise, rotters are budding like vile, discolored tulips through the snow, thawing and reanimating all over again. In the far south, the dead did not rest for winter, they stayed active. So did the folks trying to escape them. Most became what they were running from, others brought the sickness with them and spread the infection further north.
They’re out there. I can hear them. Quietly I shift my weight and raise my head and take a peek out a bullet hole. My field of vision is greatly reduced by the size of the hole and I feel a sense of dread rush over me. Everything feels like it’s closing in. I want to run. I want out of this trunk, I want out of this fucking world...but not like that, I’m NOT going out like that. I’m not gonna end up as one of those things.
I can’t see anything, but I know they are there. Placing my hand on the trunk I lift it gently to get a better view. The darkness splits into and a blade of daylight blinds me and I struggle to adjust. As my eyes come into focus, my heart stops. My breath suffers. A Freshy. I release the trunk lid from my grasp without thinking and before I can stop, before I have a second to react, the trunk lid meets the latch and CLICK. I’m trapped. I twist from my side and with my back against the floor of the trunk, push with my legs, trying to get the latch to fail. It doesn’t budge and I’m starting to freak out. I think of Emma and hope she didn’t have to suffer.
Freshies are the most dangerous and the hardest to detect because of the minimal odor. You just can’t smell one coming. Typically rigor mortis is complete within 24-36 hours after death, but the infection isn’t so patient. Respiratory and muscle failure begins in less than 12 hours and the body slowly becomes paralyzed. Within a few hours the heart has stopped and the body is dead. J-1125 begins to send involuntary signals to the muscles and they begin to spasm and jerk. Within moments mobility and full muscle movement is regained. While enzymes are working to destroy and break down their cells and tissues, their brain continues to function on some basic level.
Bloaters are the next stage of decomp and are much slower, the gas build up inside restricts decaying muscles and body movement. It’s best to keep a distance. They’re not worth messing with, they’re too slow. It’s best to leave them alone. When one pops you can smell them a mile away. So can the dead. Having that stink on or near you is just as enticing as warm blooded flesh.
The AD1’s and AD2’s are your typical Hollywood zombie. An AD1 is in active decomp mode, the larva stage, flesh flies, blow-flies and maggots all share the same meal. The AD1’s skin moves and seemingly comes to life with larvae that falls like little white raindrops. AD2’s are in the advanced decay stage. Large amounts of flesh, bone and teeth are missing. Movement is stiff and labored. Depending on the temperature and humidity, the last stage of decomp can move pretty fast.
The Freshy is getting closer. Its steps are hurried and intense. Only a few days ago this thing was a living, breathing person like me. Fighting and struggling to stay alive in this hell, trying desperately to not just make it one more day but to somehow survive this all and make it to a loved one that’s he’s abandoned. Now, reborn, his agenda has changed, he has a mission and an innate hunger driving him towards it, me. The Freshy’s steps continue without pause. It’s passing me by. It didn’t see me, It’s moving on. This is good...okay, I’m safe for now.
The muscles in my back throb, I try to relax it but I can’t, the pain of not knowing how I’m going to get out of here doesn’t ease the muscles. Think you dumb bastard. It hits me again. My attention had been so focused on the Freshy and getting locked in that I hadn’t even noticed it. Death. The smell returns to my senses with ferocity and vengeance. I can’t hold it any longer. Loudly I dry-heave, I try to control it, but it only makes it worse. Everytime I cough the pungent aroma reaches into my lungs and steals the air. I’m on the verge of hyperventilating.
There is movement coming from within the car. I can feel the weight of the rear axles shifting. How could I be so stupid? I never checked the car. That’s why the stench is so overwhelming, I’ve been laying a close siege to the enemy all this time. I never checked to see if it was safe. Stupid...I never checked to see if it was clear. It’s caught my scent. The upholstery begins to rip and tear, it’s digging for me, it’s hungry, it’s gonna come through the back seat. It’s gonna rip its way through, pull me through leather and foam, biting and rending me in two. I have nowhere to go. I position myself as far back as I can, the latch of the trunk digging into my back, a nagging reminder of my own stupidity. The car rocks violently back and forth as it digs furiously like a dog, the bones in its fingers snapping at the joints, tearing away at the leather like a kid through a present on Christmas day. It’s getting closer, the barrier between us is getting thinner. The darkness of the trunk is getting brighter and brighter.
A large chunk of seat is torn away and I can see my pursuer for the first time. Her stringy blonde hair is matted down and partially embedded into the gaping wound across what’s left of her cheek, an AD2. Wildly she flails at me, bits of dead flesh rip and tear from her arm as she reaches through the seat frame. I kick with all my might, stomping and pushing her back. She manages to catch my foot and pull it towards her. Her mouth is chomping ravenously at the air, haphazard and reckless, starving for a bit of flesh. On her hand is a wedding ring. She was someone’s bride once. Someone’s lover. His wife. He too lost everything on Day Zero, perhaps everything that ever mattered to him.
On the inside of her arm is a blue Gothic cross tattoo, even in death the ink still burns bright and burst as if life was still behind it. Religious perhaps, but not necessarily; either way, I assume this isn’t the heaven she once imagined. I manage to kick and free my foot. The living dead girl stops her attack and returns to ripping away at the seat, she’s creating a larger hole. She’s thinking. She’s reasoning. Another piece is ripped away and then another. The eager and gluttonous sounds emanating from her as she gets closer and closer now brings about the undesired realization that I am about to die.
Panicking, I kick as hard and as fast as I can. I scream at the top of my lungs, relying on some hidden strength buried deep within me, brought on by fear and adrenaline, to surge forward and smash the latch and setting myself free. I’ll run as fast as I can, until I can’t run anymore. This is what hope does to you. It gets you killed. The dead girl and my eyes meet, mine with life and hers with death, and we both know.I try to think about Sabrina. Our first kiss at that Sushi restaurant. The day Emma was born. None of it is staying with me, as quickly as the thoughts come, they are gone. The frenzy in front of me is making certain of that. I try and think about the way the world was, the way it all used to be. How it wasn’t perfect, but at least it had feelings. It wasn’t so painful, it wasn’t so terrible. It wasn’t this cold. The barrier has been breached. This part is just like the movies. The part where zombies are made.