I awoke suddenly, panicky, heart pounding, mind groggy and lacking coherent thought, with instinct alone telling me this was it, this was THE moment, fight or flight, do or die, get your ass up and boogie!
In that same instant, I opened my eyes, saw nothing, then ...
Eyes. They opened up, opposite mine. Wet, glistening in the moonlight. Inches from my own. Inches. Freakin' inches.
The dank, fetid smell should have been a clue. Maybe it was. Maybe that's what woke me.
Now, a snuffly, gagging sound, a grunt, another grunt that almost seemed to have a question mark at the end of it. Not that these dimwitted things could pose a question, or wonder, or have a thought that wasn't eat-eat-eat-oriented.
And, speaking of which, this particular thing was about to eat me.
It reached a decaying hand up toward my throat as I lay there on the ground, it having apparently crawled up beside me, all dead-but-cozy-like, and I grabbed for whatever was within reach. A book. A big hardback, thick as only a Stephen King novel can be, full of a zillion pages that I shoved between me and the hand and face of this dull-eyed, brain-munching zombie. Or shuffler, brainfarter. Crumbler. Ugly, staring, dopey-as-shit former person.
Time to boogie, for damn sure.
I pushed against it, shoved it off of me easily. It didn't weigh much. Neither do I, but at least I have some muscle. Likely, this thing had portions of its biceps dangling like yo-yo strings. They tended to go like that, bits and pieces flaking off, then stripping away, hanging down, nibbled on by others like it, as time went on. Not the most appetizing thing to look at, but after a while you get used to it.
I was lucky this time. This creepy-crawly was alone. As it stumbled to its knees, I snatched up the scythe I've been carrying lately—gotta love the Reaper-like image it creates—and lopped off its head. I quickly kicked the torso so it fell over away from my stuff. That's all I'd need, zombie goo on my backpack. In a way, it might be good—shufflers tend to assume the smell means you’re one of their own. But no wonder. What a smell. It turns my stomach. I'll do without that putrid camouflage, thank you very much.
Cramming a few loose items into my backpack (not the Stephen King monster fest, since it's way heavy and I already finished it anyway), I pulled out my night vision goggles and climbed up on top of the VW bus. A few days ago I came across the old-style vehicle sitting with the doors open, nothing inside but a coil of old, frayed rope and an empty cooler. I could hardly have missed it. The paint job was a gaudy combination of orange and pink and white, with hippie-era peace symbols and whatnot painted on the sides. I guess once a hippie, always a hippie. Whoever the owners are, they're probably stumbling along in the dark now, munching on each other and committing brain-dead atrocities, all Helter Skelterish.
Squinting, I slowly turned, checking the perimeter of my in-the-middle-of-the-road camp. Squinted, because one of the lenses on the goggles is busted. Maybe that's why someone threw them away. Or maybe they're just dead. Or undead. Anyway, the goggles work well enough for me. I see no movement out there, no staggering of deadheads, no furtive movements of live ones. Sometimes I think live people are worse. It's been almost twelve years since the official zombie apocalypse, and it seems like the majority of people who are still around have survived because they're nasty and murderous and have no conscience. I like the zoms better. They can't help themselves. It's nothing personal.
The sun will be up soon, but there's enough moonlight to go by, since the road is clear for a long ways, with meadows on either side of it, and an occasional tree or fence or rusting tractor sitting in the middle of a field. Technically, I know how to drive—I read one of those Dummies books. But the bus has no gas in the tank and the wheels are flat, and even if that was not the case, the vehicle would be too noisy, too obvious, too sure to get me caught. Or eaten.
I guess I should introduce myself, although for loners like me, names don't much matter anymore. But my mother named me, and even if I barely remember her, it’s the one thing I can do for her. I'm Becca. You'd think it's short for Rebecca, but it's not. At least, I don't think so. In the flashes of memory I have from the Before Days, I recall her saying my name sweetly even when I was being a not-quite-so-good girl. "Becca, Becca, Becca," she'd say softly, with an odd smile on her face, almost cooing it. But I have no memory of being called Rebecca, and the name feels foreign to me.
Well, those days are gone. The world went totally batshit when I was five years old. I know I was five because only days before Batshit Day, it was my birthday, and my pink princess cake had both a castle on it and a candle in the shape of the number 5. My guess is, everyone alive has one brilliant memory of a Before day, when something amazingly normal was happening. A birthday, a bunch of strikes at the local bowling alley, a plateful of syrupy pancakes for breakfast, a kiss from someone who made their heart go pitter-pat. They'd better hold on to those memories, 'cause it'll probably be a hundred years before there's a normal that's normal again.
As for me, I have one companion, one love.
Usually paperbacks, since weight matters and so does bulk. The Stephen King hardback, I just couldn't resist. The dust jacket was perfect even though it sat in the middle of a table, in the middle of an utterly destroyed bookstore, in the middle of an equally devastated mall. No, actually, it didn't sit there. It stood there, on edge, somehow defying both gravity and the calamity that must have been happening all around it at one time. Days earlier? Weeks? Months? Years? No way to be sure, but even though I don't believe in signs or fate or magic or whatever, I swear it seemed to be waiting for me. Maybe even beckoning me. How could I leave it behind?
And now it had helped save my life. That made it well worth having lugged it around for more than two weeks. I read fast, but there's not a lot of free time when you're constantly on the move, plus continually watching for creatures that want to eat you or people who want to rob you or do worse things. Bless my mother for making sure I learned to read at least a little while I was so young. Well enough that I managed to figure out the rest on my own. Sure, I need to know because I need to read store signs and maps and notes left behind by the occasional well-meaning but extremely dead, head-blown-to-bits suicide victim letting visitors know where they hid their meager food supplies and remaining all-weather matches. But more than that, I don't know what I'd do without my books. And I feel like they're mine. All of them, in all the stores and libraries and towns on the planet. Because no one else seems to want them. They've grabbed most everything else, but books just sit there, except when there are long-cold campfires nearby. For those, they became fuel.
For me, they're life. At five years old, I knew nothing. Books taught me everything. How to do things, fix things, build things. What life was like before. What people were like, relationships, adventure that ended with victory, families that stayed together forever. They were my world. They still are. And when I occasionally come across a library that has not been broken into, where I can climb up and wriggle through a window, it's like entering the gates of Heaven. Books. Shelves of them. Everywhere. And I stay there for as long as I can, reading. Everything. Eventually I run out of food and there's nothing left to scavenge, and I have to move on. But I leave stronger, wiser, and more ready to deal with the dark and dangerous world outside.
Libraries. Each one is an oasis.
And now I’m working my way toward a town about 15 miles from here, big enough that maybe the library went unnoticed and unmolested, but not so huge that it will be overrun by zoms. They tend to move on from the smaller places, once they’ve feasted on the last resident and have to settle for gobbling each other.
But that’s when towns can become the most dangerous—when gangs discover them and form their own Mad Max-like communities, with roadblocks set up to keep people out as well as keep people in. I’m hoping the one I’m heading for is out-of-the-way enough that it’s been overlooked. There are more towns than there are living humans, so it’s possible.
Wish me luck.
Copyright © 2012 Nik Barnabee. All Rights Reserved.
*** This story is my personal intellectual property, not to be printed elsewhere without permission, yadda, yadda, you know the drill ;-}