The Apocalypse had come.
I know that’s a hoary cliche, but what do you want? It’s the truth, and the only story left. There’s no use now for other stories; there’s nothing new to tell. No use for politics (the party lines were more distinct and uncompromising than ever: Alive and Undead), celebrity gossip (well, at least we can be thankful for that), advise on nutrition or health (there’s just one thing on the menu, baby, and it’s you) or stories that open with anything but ‘The Apocalypse had come.’ Because it had, in spades. After that, everything else becomes kind of moot.
I came across him on the road to Andover. I remembered a gun shop there and I desperately needed to reload. If it had already been completely stripped, and in all likelihood it had, I was pretty sure I could find a house with a stash, or at least some poor slob who had bought it along the way and hadn’t completely spent his clip before the ravenous hordes had poured over him like bees on honey. I wouldn’t find him, of course; he’d be long gone. But something might be left, his hat, his boots. And maybe, if I was the first to arrive post-mortem, his guns and ammo.
It’s funny. You would have thought we would have been the ones to band together, to find power in numbers and survive, picking off these dumb bastards when they were stupid enough to lumber across our path. You would have thought that, because you grew up watching too many zombie flicks. Instead, we scattered like the cowardly dogs we are while they, these hungry, moaning things, massed together and moved across the landscape, eating, eating. If you were above them, in a plane, well, you’d be very damned lucky. But if you were above them, in a plane, you’d be able to tell where the life was, the life that was not long for the world. You’d be able to tell because as these packs of undead roamed about they would splinter lazily, their edges fraying, and then BOOM! suddenly come together because a few of them had caught the scent. The scent of red blood, pumping through living veins. After that, the feast was on. You could put down one, you could put down a dozen, but these things traveled by the hundreds. It didn’t take much to sustain them. I’m not even sure they needed to eat. Maybe they just wanted to. And they seemed willing to share.
So it was odd at first, not frightening, to see him there, by himself, on the side of the road. He was huddled against a tree stump that stood about three feet high. That’s how I missed him; he blended in nicely with the dead stump. I could tell right away he was undead; there’s no mistaking that. Twelve months ago I would have assumed he was a drunk, then, upon closer inspection, surely the victim of a violent crime. After all, he was covered in blood. But, of course, that was not his blood. His blood, if he had ever bled from a gunshot or the desperate flailing of some meal’s knife, was long dried, blended into the mud and filth upon his clothes and skin. There was old blood, someone’s blood, dried to a sickly brown on his head and face and hands. It was when I saw there was no fresh blood that I woke up to my surroundings and to the nature of my company. He had not been lately fed.
His hair was matted and brown now, but it used to be blond. He used to be handsome, I thought. Now, he was just dead. Other than that, he looked okay. Fit, even.
These things were tough. It hadn’t been like the movies, in that respect. No dead rising from the graves, half-eaten themselves and missing parts. They were as they had been the moment before they died. They never seemed to change after that. It was almost like death was, in reality, eternal life.
His head was down but suddenly his eyes were up. Locked with mine.
I stood my ground and drew my gun. I had four rounds left. I looked at him, and then around him, and then around me. The air was quiet and cold, like a tomb. He did not move.
I was a moment away from taking him out. A bullet through the brain and then on my way (yes, kids, that part of the zombie mythos turned out to be true). Still, I hesitated; I only had those four rounds left. One, of course, was for me. But something else about this scene gave me pause. It was so damned odd. I had never encountered one of these things who was not immediately out to ingest me.
I stood there, looking at him as he looked at me. Reluctantly, I looked a little deeper, into those dead eyes. Was it hunger I saw, or something else?
“Okay, man, you don’t look like you’re worth a round; maybe I’ll give you a break.” His gaze never faltered. “What the hell, you’ll do us all in eventually, anyway. Maybe you’ll remember me, put in a good word with your friends. Tell ’em ol’ Howard gave you a pass.”
Yeah. When the hoards descend, when I’ve been rooted out and they’re finally on me, one will step forward. “This is Howard!” he’ll declare, “and he gave me a pass!” I was thinking it was time to reconsider the bullet.
I studied for a moment longer this thing curled up aside the stump. The stump had more life. I shook my head and laughed, bemusedly. “Yeah, sure, man.” I started to walk away.
He grunted. I stopped. It surprised me. It was a response.
“Really?” I said. His gaze was still locked on me. “You have something to say? ‘Thank you’, perhaps?”
“Sure, man,” he said.
He said what? “What?”
My mind reeled, my knees trembled. My reality shifted. I had come across a lot of folks in the last year and a half, with tales of terror and dread. Tales of mindless things moving across the countryside, devouring anything in their path. Tales of screaming and pleading and praying, but all of that from the living. I had never heard any mention of one of these things saying a word.
“Sure, man?” I asked.
“Sure man,” he replied.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
He sat there. He did not move, at least not aggressively. He squirmed a bit, as if to get more comfortable. I looked around one more time. Pastures, and fences and trees. And ‘Sure man’. I took a step back, toward him.
“Okay, what the hell, we’ll give it a go. You’re ‘sure man’, huh? Sherman?” I laughed. “Okay, Sherman, my name is Howard. Can you say ‘Howard’?”
“Okay…we’ll work on that.”
I relaxed a bit. Sherman was not threatening me, sitting there by his stump, and it had been a long time since I had enjoyed a conversation with anyone. A conversation with a zombie? I must be nuts. But, why not? Besides, I had questions. A lot of questions. The undead seemed to be of one mind, to have one purpose. Maybe, through my new friend, I could tap into the zombie zeitgeist.
“Sherman,” I asked, “Do you know why you’re here? Why you’re, well, like this?“
He looked at me, and then lowered his eyes, for the first time. Was he thinking about my question?
“Do you know what happened? Do you remember? One day we’re all going about our business, and then some of you just dropped dead, got up, and started feeding on the rest of us. I mean, what the hell is this all about?“
I can tell you what some folks thought it was about. Some called it the Rapture. Or the Reverse Rapture. Those prognosticators of the Final Days had gotten it a bit wrong, they said. Instead of their bodies being carried up to Heaven, the true believers had just dropped dead on Earth. God had called their souls back and left their bodies here, to rise again. Easter everywhere.
In the ensuing chaos, it was kind of hard to get any good data on this theory, as it was really next to impossible to tell the religious beliefs of the walking dead. I was pretty sure I had seen Jews and Muslims and Hindus in the hoards, but who could ever predict what was in any one man’s heart? The terror among us did reek of a divine act, and there were few among the survivors who would take issue with the popular description of the masses of wandering undead as ‘God’s Scouring Pad.’
Well, this one little bristle hadn’t much to say. He looked up again and grunted. “Eh?”
At least it sounded like a question.
“Sherman,” I said. “I’ve seen you guys in action. I’ve seen your appetites. Eventually you’re gonna run out of food, out of us. What then? What happens when you’ve erased every living thing off of this planet?”
“Listen. I’ve thought about this a lot. Maybe you’re it. The next step. Evolution is a funny thing. Maybe sometimes you have to move sideways, or even backwards, to move forward. Maybe it’s time to be done with televisions and microwave ovens and football games.”
This last thought made me angry. It was Fall, judging from the trees. I should be with a few friends, kicking back some beers and watching the Giants play ball on a high-def flat-screen TV, not standing here conversing with a corpse. I shook it off. Not his fault.
“You bastards seem impervious to everything, short of one of these.” I waved the gun, to illustrate the point. “But, Sherman, you’re going to have to start making things happen. You can’t just wander around groaning forever. You have to do something.”
“Dooo,” he said.
“That’s right, Sherman, ‘do’. Think! You used to be somebody. You had a life. Dreams, aspirations. Don’t you remember any of it?”
He again bowed his head. Was this sorrow? Remembrance? Regret?
“Sherman, you have to think. Even if you don’t remember, you have to start thinking for yourself.” I was on a roll. “There was this guy, this French guy, named Descartes. He said something famous. He said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Do you understand? If you are going to be anything, do anything, first you have to think!“
He raised his head and looked at me, once again. His head went up a notch, then down, then up. And down. He was nodding.
“Oh my God”, I said, “Oh my dear God.”
I had not held hope in my heart for a million years. Ever since the day it happened, I had only two things on my mind: my survival and their destruction. Now, a new paradigm emerged.
“Maybe our time has passed. Maybe this is your time. But I can live with that, or die with it, if I believe that something good will come out of it. If we didn’t just lose the world for nothing.”
“But maybe we can do better than that. We can work together, I’m sure of it. If you stop trying to eat us, we can show you how to build, to create. Sherman, we can spread this message, the two of us. I’m alone, too. Maybe if we walk out onto that road and they see us together, as friends and not enemies, maybe then we can all find some peace. Maybe the world won’t end up as a blood soaked rag.”
Slowly, he rose. There was dignity in the movement; I could see it. He understood my offer. He was literally rising to the occasion.
Sherman looked at me, and seemed to draw a breath. He was thinking! Thinking of something to say. My heart pounded in my chest.
He looked down and said, “I am…”
I am! He is! Hot dog! He hesitated, but it didn’t matter. Whatever followed would be an idea, a declaration. Whatever followed would be the start of a process. One thought follows another. I was, in that moment, proud. I felt like I just might have jump-started the entire thing back to life with a conversation, a meeting of the minds. And there was a mind in there, I proved it! He was thinking! ‘I am.’ ‘You are what, Sherman?’ I thought, but I stayed quiet. Hard as it was, I simply focused on him, his eyes still down, contemplating his next word. I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought, or further influence it. I wanted it to be his. You are what, Sherman, what?
I turned around. Where there had been pastures and fences and trees, there were now zombies. Dozens of them, maybe a hundred or more. Moving in, quickly. I looked back to Sherman, and they were behind him as well. I was surrounded.
I didn’t understand how I had not seen them before. Perhaps I had been too focused on my intellectual pursuit, too involved in this conversation. I had let down my guard. I had pursued my intellect all the way into Hell.
I forgot I was holding the gun, forgot about the bullet shaped escape route I had sworn to take if this moment ever came to pass. I just stared at Sherman. For a moment, I even expected him to turn around and stand them down. Just for a moment.
“Sherman?” I yelled, as the reality of the situation dawned on me. “Was this the plan? To distract me? Are you recon for this bunch of bastards?”
He looked at me with dull, lifeless eyes. He looked right through me. “My name,” he said, in a low, guttural growl, “is not Sherman.” And then he lunged.
If you were above them, looking down, well, you’d probably be dying. You would see yourself devoured, stripped of flesh and stripped of life. You would see your sense of self, of dignity, of morality, seep out, darkly red, into the mud. You would see yourself disappear into the guts of monsters.
I felt weightless and began to forget my ties to the world below. I began to forget everything. I felt myself become one with the ether. A moment left, one moment more to be me. I looked down again, and the thing that I had called ‘Sherman’ was looking up. It looked right at me, and it said:
“I eat, therefore I am.”