By Kevin Jepson
He stands in the back of the hall with his arms crossed.
Middle-aged, weather- and care-worn, like the rest of us, I suppose. He came in with the "instructor" as guard or companion, or just curious as to what the current state of the war on the Undead is. He doesn't seem to be listening though, like he's heard it all before.
The instructor is talking, droning on to be precise.
"Remember, Zack does not behave anything like us anymore..." yadda yadda yadda. The usual stuff. Necessary for the young ones just joined but, for most of us, stating the brutally obvious. Instead of listening I watch Him, the guy in the back with his arms crossed. Something about him is different, a coolness, a calmness... What exactly I can't really say, but definitely different.
The instructor keeps going on about the physiology of Zack, how he moves, how he targets his victims, how he calls in others to the kill. Still the guy in the back stands, stock still, arms crossed, watching. Waiting, maybe?
Until, that is, the instructor says, "Although Zack may look human, he is not. There is nothing of the pre-infected person there, only a blank instinctual drive to grab a living human and bite them...".
The guy in the back suddenly uncrosses his arms, turns and walks out. No big sign of disagreement, no words, no snorts, no real change of expression even, just turning and walking back out of the room. I don't think anyone else noticed. The instructor certainly never skipped a beat, continuing to drone on about how to kill Zack, how to avoid Zack, how to move when Zack out numbers us. All the latest info on dealing with the walking dead.
The lecture goes on for what seems like hours and then we are dismissed.
As I walk back to the bunkhouse, I see the guy from the back, sitting on a bench against the wall. Eyes closed, legs stretched out like he is asleep. I know he isn't sleeping. Nobody sleeps like that anymore, not out in the open, even inside a redoubt like ours.
I walk over and sit down beside him. I'm drawn to his difference. He seems to send out a calmness that is almost intoxicating in this brutal ugly world.
He opens one eye and watches me sit.
"Nate," he says, and holds out his hand.
"Sam," I say, taking his hand. It is calloused, hard and strong. Nothing out of the ordinary there. "You heard all that before, I take it? I saw you walk out about halfway through."
"Yeah, same old same old. I just don't believe there is nothing left of the pre-infected, is all."
"Really? I think that is one of the most obvious things we know about Zack. Nobody has ever seen anything that would indicate there is something going on inside those rotting skulls."
"Well...There are more things in heaven and earth and all that".
"You saying you've heard of Zack acting even remotely like a human?"
"Not heard of, seen. Been in the very close presence of one that did."
"Sure it wasn't a Quisling?" I ask, beginning to wonder if that calmness comes from having PTSD or something, not like that would be uncommon either.
"Very sure. Q's are still humans right? They die if they get badly injured. This one was missing most of its face, one arm, and its guts were hanging down like some kind of macabre skirt." His face clouds over with the memory.
"So what makes you think this one had anything on its mind other than grabbing you for a snack."
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out some crumpled pics and hands them to me. Standard procedure to share the past. Helps to spread the memories of the ones we've lost or the ones we are trying to protect. I guess it's a kind of global memory refresh, all those old photos. The Way It Used To Be.
As always when receiving a man’s photos, there is sharp tingle in my hand and a melancholy sense of duty. To know these people, to hold their images in my mind with all the others, to keep The Way It Used To Be alive.
Nate leans back and stares off into space.
He says, "We were doing a sweep around a hilltop in Vermont, back in the early days before the Great Panic. There weren't that many Zack around, although after the first group attack we had started to see more groups of them. We had heard that the god awful howl they make was actually a call to others to join the feast."
"I wasn't feeling all up to snuff. I'd lost my Jess, Jessica, two months before. She's the brunette sunning on the beach in the photo. She was such a great person, strong, a caring mother, my best friend as well as my wife and partner."
"I'd tried to protect them. We’d done all the things we were supposed to do. Tore down the steps to the second floor, stashed food and supplies up high, were always quiet at night. Never showing a light or anything."
"Jessica was strong-willed, way stronger than me. She was making things happen, organizing, stockpiling and swearing like a trooper. Proclaiming that she would fight like the rest of us when the time came. Good strong country stock in every pore of her body."
"The neighbors thought we were paranoid, survivalist crazies. They chuckled and shook their heads as we demolished the garden shed and used it to board up the windows."
"I don't think we would have been anywhere near ready if it hadn't been for Jessica. I'd tell her, as we hammered away, ‘you don't have to worry so much. I'll protect you'. She would laugh that great, snorting laugh of hers and say, 'You? Hardly. You're afraid of the rats in the shed, for Christ sakes. No my sweet, I WILL DEFEND YOU and that's a promise'."
"Well, when the first group attack came we holed up in the house as the neighbors died all around us. God, I can hear the screams still and that horrible howling. We covered the kid’s ears and tried to keep them calm and silent. When dawn came it was eerily quiet, no sounds outside at all. I went down the rope ladder to the first floor and peeked out. The street was a mess, bodies or parts of bodies everywhere, every door and window smashed. I don't have to describe that to you. You've seen it too."
I nodded, saying nothing, waiting for him to continue.
"Jessica came down and we checked the first floor to make sure no one or no thing was lurking. And then we carefully went out to the yard and looked up and down the street. It was empty. I told the kids to stay upstairs and only let the ladder down if it was us coming back NOBODY else."
"We headed for the 7-11 to grab whatever was left, to stock up. That's the only reason Jessica came with me. I told her to stay, but she said, 'the kids will be fine upstairs. The infected are gone. Besides, who's going to watch your back and carry all the Twinkies?' I should have made her stay, I suppose, but then in those days I didn't much like conflict."
"The 7-11 was trashed, but we got a mess of stuff and were just coming out when it happened. It was so fast I didn't have time to react. A hand reached out of the door of a car and pulled Jessica in. She screamed, I grabbed a brick and smashed it into the windows then smashed at the dead guy that was holding Jessica until he slumped. Dragging her out, I could see she had been badly bitten on her arm."
"Oh hell! Fuck! Jess, Christ, what a mess..."
She looked down at her mangled arm and then stared me straight in the eyes and said, 'Well that's that. Looks like you will have to look after the kids on your own.'
“God, I lost it then. I started to swear and yell and bawl and rage. Jessica just sat there and waited for me to stop for breath. Then she said, 'I love you. Now go look after our kids'. She just stood up and walked away towards the edge of town! I let her go. I knew she was doing the last thing she could do to protect us, heading away as far as she could before she died and became one of them."
"I rushed back to the house and called for the kids. They let down the ladder and I climbed up and held them close for what seemed like an hour. Then I bundled them down into the car and headed West, not sure where, just going anywhere. Stupid move that. I could have gotten us all killed. But I lucked out and hooked up with the Guard and they had a compound where we could stay and be protected. That's how I joined up and proceeded to try and make Zack pay for what he did to Jessica."
Nate stopped, still staring off into space.
I waited. He still hadn't told me why he figured Zack thinks, but I knew he was getting there. So I waited, listening to the leaves rustling and the crickets chirping.
People tell tales like this these days. There is always a Before part and an After part. Like flashbacks in flashbacks. I guess it's a way to give each other context for the tale, another way to maintain our memories.
Still I waited, and then he sighed.
"So I was with a squad on a sweep, like I said, when we came to a small town. Just a few houses and a post office at a crossroads. Nothing much to see. It had been abandoned, not destroyed. The doors were still on their hinges and the windows weren't broken, but there was nobody around."
"As we went through we checked every building for survivors or lurking ghouls, and we had just passed the Eastern edge of the town when we heard gunfire from up the road. Then we heard it, the moaning howl of Zack when he has a human in his sights."
"Quick like rabbits we scampered back into the town and took up positions in the buildings."
"After about 10 minutes a car roared into town and disappeared in a cloud of dust, followed by a truck loaded with people. Then they started to come, shambling along like footsore GIs in an old war movie. They seemed to be following the dust trail of the vehicles. But they weren't howling any more, just following in silence. That creepy, shuffling silence that only a crowd of ghouls can create."
"There were hundreds of them, too many to fight. So many they were filling the street. We knew if anyone fired we would be dead, so we just waited as they shuffled and lurched past."
"We were in the front room of a little house next to the post office, a classic country kind of place with only a few rooms and big porch. We ducked down out of sight of the windows and waited. I was close to the door when I heard the porch creak and groan as Zack began to stream over it. Then I heard the screen door crunch as it was torn off by a passing lurch, then the front door began to creak and rattle."
"Well, I figured we were done for sure. If that door busted, the first ghoul through would start that howling and we would be lunchmeat. I started to move closer to the door, to maybe lean on it if it started to give. The door seemed to hold. At last it looked like Zack was thinning out. Suddenly, something smashed into the door and it crashed off its hinges. Zack must have tripped on the porch."
"In the doorway was a ghoul, missing an arm, half its face, and dripping its guts all over the place. It had been a woman once; you could tell ‘cause it was naked, as Zack usually is after a while. It stood there not moving, looking right at me, my squad mates stock still behind me. Everybody hoping against hope that I would smash the thing's skull before it could start howling. But I didn't. I just knelt there, frozen by the horror."
"Then Zack just turned and shambled back after the crowd... No howl... No notice of us at all."
Just then the instructor came out of the hall and called to Nate that they were moving out.
"Yes, sir," he says, and I hand him back his pics.
"So why do you think there is still someone there? In Zack?".
Nate stands and carefully tucks the photos into his pocket.
He says, "Tattoos don't fade on dead bodies, not even on a ghoul."
And I think of the picture of Jessica, sunbathing on the beach, with a big red heart tattooed on her back.