Prompt: During the story, there is a birth. The story must have a zombie at the beginning. The story must involve a drum in it.
Years have passed since the zombie apocalypse wiped out most of the population. The few human survivors grow fewer in number with every passing year as they succumb to zombie attacks, injury, starvation, despair, and each other. Can anyone find peace in the post-Z world?
Elise’s contractions were less than a minute apart when the watchman pounded on the door to warn them. “Zombie approaching,” his terse warning came through the closed door before he departed for the safety of the Redoubt, not waiting for acknowledgement.
The nurse rushed to the window to check the flagpole. “Red and orange,” she said. “It must be close. We have to move her.”
The midwife was adamant. “This is the only sterile environment we have,” she reminded the nurse. “Besides, you know the rules as well as I do. The Redoubt will never allow entry to a newborn baby or a postpartum woman.”
Elise gasped, then began to groan. Another contraction was coming. The nurse rushed into position by Elise’s side, pressing her left arm across the pregnant woman’s shoulders to restrain her. With her right hand, the nurse shoved the wet cloth into Elise’s mouth. “Bite the cloth,” reminded the nurse. “Bite down on the cloth. No noise. No noise.”
“Breathe, Elise,” added the midwife in an urgent but hushed tone. “Breathe. And… push!”
A young man burst through the door. “Elise!” he said as he rushed to her side. “We have to go, now!”
The midwife intercepted him. She was short but rotund, and her aged determination defeated his youthful exuberance. “I’m sorry, Brad, but we cannot take her anywhere.”
“But the zombie is already on this street!”
The nurse gasped, and momentarily let the cloth slip out of Elise’s mouth. The woman in labor howled in pain before the nurse managed to muffle her once again.
“Go to the Redoubt,” ordered the midwife. “Run. You’ll still make it.” Then with all the force her body could muster, she shoved the young man backwards, then slammed the door. She heard the sound of footsteps running down the hall.
“It must have heard Elise scream,” the nurse said. “It’ll find us here for sure.”
As if in answer, the deep baying cry of a zombie rattled the walls of the makeshift delivery room. The room fell silent. Even Elise, now between contractions, kept quiet. Zombies were drawn to sound, and their hearing could only be described as superhuman. This zombie was at the entrance of the building, one floor directly below the window.
Elise sobbed silently. The nurse and midwife stood petrified by her side.
Then the zombie cried out again, but now it was farther away. The nurse looked to the midwife, puzzled.
The midwife rushed to the window and looked out at the street. “Brad,” she muttered softly. “That fool.” The young man was on the street, but was not running in the direction of the Redoubt. Instead, Brad called out to the zombie as he ran, pausing momentarily to check on his undead pursuer.
“He’ll be killed!” The nurse watched through the window as the young man ran frantically toward downtown, with the gray-skinned revenant just a few steps behind him.
“Brad? Brad? Unh!” Elise gasped. Another contraction approached.
The midwife returned to her patient, smacking the nurse lightly on the shoulder to get her attention. “Don’t worry about him. We have a patient to care for.”
Her job finished, the midwife found a comfortable bench and lit a cigarette. She took a long drag, then let out a long, ragged sigh. Her hand trembled.
“The sign says No Smoking,” the nurse reminded her. The younger woman took a seat next to her colleague.
The midwife glared at her through her horn-rim reading glasses, then puffed smoke dramatically. “I doubt that ordinance has been enforced in the past five years,” she said. Then she noticed the nurse’s grim expression. “How are our patients?”
“Mother had significant tearing and blood loss,” said the nurse. “I’ve stitched the tear, but… her pulse is very weak. She’s in and out of consciousness.”
Earlier, the midwife had called this office-turned-delivery-room a sterile environment. In fact, the room had been sprayed with a can of toilet bowl disinfectant found in the janitor’s closet. The medical instruments had been stolen from the kitchen, then sterilized on a propane camping stove stolen from the camping store down the street.
“Is this your first delivery?” asked the midwife.
“No, I handled a few during my internship. But that was years ago, long before Z-day. I certainly never delivered a child using office supplies.”
“Nowadays, we have to make do with what we can find, unfortunately. What about the child?”
“APGAR score is a perfect ten,” said the nurse. “That little boy is unusually pink.” The women looked worriedly at each other. In the past, a newborn scoring so highly would have been an encouraging sign.
“This is my sixteenth delivery since Z-day,” the midwife confided. “Every little baby scored 10 on the APGAR. Perfect, active, healthy pink newborns. They all faded within four hours.” She took a final drag of her cigarette, before dropping the butt and crushing it into the beige carpet with her shoe.
“Do you have another one of those?” asked the nurse.
Reaching into her pocket, the midwife pulled out a crushed pack of cigarettes. “I found it on the desk in one of the cubicles,” she told the nurse. “Wish I could find more. A whole carton would buy a lot at the trading post.” She tapped the pack with her finger until one cigarette slid partway out for the nurse to take.
“What do we do now?”
The midwife shrugged. “Make the mother comfortable as long as possible.”
“Nurse?” Elise moaned weakly.
The nurse rushed to the woman’s side. “I’m here,” she said to Elise.
“Where’s my baby?”
“Sleeping comfortably in the incubator.” A stack of towels, and a few chemical hand warmers. “You really should rest yourself, Elise.”
Elise looked longingly to the nurse. “Please… just let me hold my little boy.”
The infant’s face was no longer quite so pink. He was swaddled so that the rest of his body was not visible. His breathing was quick and regular, and he did not awaken when the nurse picked him up. “Just for a few minutes,” the nurse told Elise sternly, placing the swaddled baby on Elise’s breast.
A teardrop rolled down the new mother’s face as she saw the face of her son. “Aaron,” she whispered softly, stroking the thin wisp of brown hair on his head. “My little baby Aaron. Your daddy gave his life to save you. He loved you very much.” She sobbed. “We both love you very much.”
After a few minutes, the nurse returned the infant to the rudimentary incubator.
“Do you have children?” asked Elise.
The nurse shook her head. “No,” she said. “No, I don’t.”
“He’s my first.” Tears rolled down Elise’s cheek. “My firstborn son.”
The nurse looked back to the sleeping newborn on the stack of towels. His once pink skin was starting to fade into a sickly pallor. The jerky movements of his limbs were becoming weaker by the minute.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Elise said, gasping. “So hard to stay awake.”
“You lost a lot of blood,” said the nurse, “but you’re going to be fine.” A half-truth.
“Promise me…” the young mother strained to finish her sentence. She could barely keep her eyes open. “Promise me you’ll take care of my baby.”
The nurse hesitated. “I promise,” she said solemnly but reluctantly.
“I don’t even know your name.”
The nurse took Elise’s hand and held it. “Jenny. My name is Jenny.”
“Jenny,” repeated Elise. She smiled. “Thank you.”
Jenny’s promise to this young mother was short-lived. Elise lapsed into unconsciousness. An hour later, the nurse was unable to locate a pulse. She declared Elise dead.
Elise outlived her baby by thirteen and a half minutes.
The midwife was already prepared. She and Jenny carried the bodies of mother and child down the stairs, into the street. There, the midwife poured copious amounts of gasoline over both, lit a match, and dropped it. They departed in worried silence, headed for the Redoubt, not waiting to see the flames consume both bodies.
No one knew what kept zombies out of the Redoubt, but everyone had theories. Were the great stone walls of the building simply too strong for the zombies to break through? Did it have something to do with the copper used in the dome and the shutters of the old government building? Was the yew shrubbery that surrounded the building acting as a repellent?
There were nearly as many theories as there were survivors. But while more theories developed with each zombie attack, the number of survivors was always decreasing.
Standing in an old stone-walled hallway, Victor shivered and wrapped his ratty old fleece blanket around himself. He had his own pet theory why the zombies would not enter the Redoubt. It was an old, musty historical building. The foundation was sinking. The top floor had burned away in a fire decades ago. The basement flooded every rainstorm. Without electricity to run the lights, heat, and sump pump, it was cold, dank, and smelled of mold, smoke, and old papers.
The building was barely fit for the living. Why would the undead waste their time with it?
“How long we gotta be in here?” grumbled a man that Victor knew only as T.B. “Lend me your blanket, man. It’s freezing” He leaned closer to T.B. and tugged at the edge of the fleece.
Victor shoved T.B. away. “Fuh, man! Go cuddle with someone else!” he said indignantly. “Ain’t my fault you don’t got a blanket.” His gaze fixed on T.B., who glared wickedly back at him. Beneath the blanket, Victor clenched his hand into a fist, waiting for the stranger to make any hostile move.
“Yo, man, you a jerk,” T.B. said after a dozen tense heartbeats. He turned and walked away.
After T.B. left, Victor felt no less uneasy. The Redoubt provided physical safety from the zombies, but cramming a thousand-odd ragtag, underfed, slightly paranoid, shell-shocked survivors into the old government structure created new problems. Tensions always ran high whenever the red-and-orange ran up the flagpole.
“Petty!” Victor only trusted three people in the world. Two of them were dead, and one of them was Petty.
“Victor, you old cow-tipper,” Petty said. “I should’ve known you’d show up to try to steal my spot.”
Victor’s old friend had claimed a rare spot in the corner, against the staircase. This was one of the warmer areas of the building: the wooden walls of the enclosed hallway trapped body heat better than the exterior stone walls, or the vaulted ceilings of the old offices.
Petty slid over until the next man protested the intrusion, clearing a spot for Victor. “Lucky for you it’s so cold that I don’t mind the extra body heat. Just don’t hump my leg this time.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Victor dumped his bug-out bag against the wall next to Petty, then stretched out on the floor, using the bag as a pillow. “What’s the word from the Codger?”
“A lookout over on Elm Street raised a red-and-orange flag,” Petty said. “Lone zombie.”
“Ain’t no such thing as a lone zombie,” said Victor. “Not in the city.” Zombies had a sort of weird surface tension: like droplets of water, they tended to merge into small groups, then into larger mobs. The downtown area — the real downtown, not the historical area that included the Redoubt — was an ocean of undead. Traveling there was suicide.
“I ain’t never heard of a lone zombie in the city, neither,” agreed Petty. “First time for everything, though. Almost would prefer to run into a group of ’em. At least I’d die faster.”
The countryside had fewer zombies, but even a lone zombie was formidable. Nothing stopped a zombie but complete immolation. Every survivor from the countryside had horror stories, and Victor had heard most of them many times.
Farmers had fired both barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun — double-ought buck — into a zombie’s head. The dismembered zombies kept coming.
One widow watched a zombie tear through the kitchen wall of her wood-frame farmhouse like it was paper.
An older man ran over a zombie in his pickup truck on a state highway. The undead creature went under two wheels, snagged on the rear bumper, and dragged for over awhile. It still managed to claw its way into the bed of the truck, smash through the rear window, and grab his wife.
More than one survivor had lost relatives in fires. Barns and grain silos had been set ablaze by burning zombies, still mobile and still in pursuit of the people hiding within.
Paradoxically, it was safer to remain close to the city, in the historical district where most of the buildings were nonflammable stone or brick. All of the known survivors lived in this sweet spot, maintaining a zombie neighborhood watch, and occasionally sending teams deeper into the city or into the countryside for supplies.
Victor had closed his eyes, and was half asleep. “Yeah, Petty?”
“Do you think we’ll ever beat these zombies? Not just survive, but actually beat them?”
Victor shrugged. “How could we?” he asked. Then he rolled over to get some sleep.
A ruckus from somewhere toward the front of the building woke Victor. He looked at his watch. Nine o’clock in the evening. Victor grumbled over the late night disturbance: sunset was at five-thirty, and in Victor’s mind, there was nothing worth doing after dark that didn’t involve a bed.
At the Redoubt, kerosene lamps always provided enough light to see by at night. How wasteful, thought Victor, to burn so many lamps all night. Only a couple abandoned gas stations within raiding range still had any kerosene. Once the supply was used up, then what?
Victor knew that there were multiple zombies outside: their unholy moan echoed through the chamber. It twisted his stomach into knots to hear the noise. But the zombies were outside, and the ruckus seemed to be in the building.
“C’mon Vic,” Petty said, anxiously trying to rouse his friend. “We’d better see what’s going on.”
All of the fuss was from the foyer area, where an unruly crowd of at least twenty people had gathered at the entrance. Victor approached one of the armed guards that he recognized, easily identifiable in the crowd by the orange hunting vest that all of the guards wore in the Redoubt.
“Jimmy! What’s going on?”
Jimmy carried a well-loved Mini-14, wood stock, iron sights, slung over his shoulder. Useless against zombies, the weapon was there to keep the humans in check. However, Jimmy appeared unconcerned as he watched the dispute from a distance.
“Stragglers came in about five minutes ago,” explained the guard. “A family with an old man, probably in his sixties. Barely able to walk.”
“Drunk?” asked Petty.
The armed guard shrugged. “Ill, I think. Flu? Pneumonia? He looks pretty bad. Anyway, the Codger doesn’t want him in here.”
“So why aren’t you escorting him out?” Victor asked.
Again, Jimmy shrugged. “The crowd seems to be showing him and his family the exit. Besides… I don’t want to catch pneumonia from some old guy and die. Let the mob handle it.”
Even with the massive wooden entry doors wide open, zombies never tried to enter the Redoubt. They simply circled like vultures, waiting, until they lost interest. From somewhere within the mob, a woman cried. “Please! Please! You’re killing us! You’re killing us!”
Victor recognized the sound of cracking bone. A man shouted in agony. Some of the crowd dispersed, enough that Victor could see a thirty-something Hispanic man lying motionless on the floor, facing away from Victor. Blood trickled from an unseen wound on his face. His apparent assailant was a middle-aged male wearing brass knuckles.
“You killed him!” the same woman shouted. “You killed him!” She fell to the ground, kneeling by her male companion, attempting to shield his body from further assault.
An older, gray-haired man lay face-down on the granite stairs, outside the entry doors.
Jimmy sprung into action. “Show’s over, folks!” he shouted. “Disperse!” Four more security guards, each dressed in hunter’s orange, approached. “Two bodies,” he told them, indicating the old man slumped across the steps and the younger male bleeding onto the floor. “Drag ’em out and light ’em up.”
Somewhere in the darkness, outside the range of the kerosene lanterns, a zombie let out a long, low howl that chilled Victor to the bone.
Petty shook his head. “Not even worth getting up for,” he said to Victor. “Come on. Let’s get back before someone steals our spot.”
When morning came, the Codger himself walked up the stairwell to the third floor, dressed in his tattered old Armani suit, wearing that monstrosity of a hairpiece, and carrying his binoculars to check on the lookout posts from the observation deck.
No one but the Codger ever went up to the third floor. More than one legend claimed that the entire floor was haunted, either by the vindictive ghosts of Civil War soldiers, or by the restless spirit of a young woman named Anna Marie, who hung herself in the office of one of the legislators when their affair was revealed.
When the Codger descended, Victor was one of the people closest to the base of the stairwell. “What’s the word, old Codge?”
The old man rolled his eyes, but ignored the hated nickname. “All clear,” he announced. “Everyone may leave.”
Victor didn’t have to be told twice.
Bought the Farm
For Jenny, it was love at first sight. The days were getting longer and warmer. The redbuds were in bloom. In what was left of the suburbs, lawns were turning green and becoming overgrown again, as the automobiles rusted in their driveways.
It was the second year that the farmer-survivors were attempting to farm on a large scale. Without farm machinery, large scale meant hand tilling, planting, and irrigating a few of the hundreds of acres of abandoned farmland in the county. This was backbreaking work, but the rewards were great. All of the survivors were undernourished, but the farmers had first pick of their own crop, and named their own price at the Trading Post.
When the suburb-survivors wanted to eat, the commonly quoted rule was raid, trade, or get laid. Stealing from abandoned stores was common, but waning: after five years, the cupboard was nearly bare. Few of the survivors were foolish enough to raid any deeper into the city. The zombie population density was high there, and the alert cry of a single zombie could quickly summon an entire horde.
The next option was to find something of value to the farmers, and bring it to the Trading Post. Mostly the farmers needed tools and supplies. The suburb-survivors happily traded the farmers everything from gardening tools to seed and fertilizer.
Jenny rarely exercised the third option. She, like several of the women survivors, took advantage of it only to get through the most desperate part of winter, when heat and food were almost nonexistent.
“Fresh baked goods?” A man approached Jenny’s table, carrying a beaten-up backpack and wearing the grungy overalls of a farmer. “But how?”
Now that spring had arrived, though, Jenny knew that the coming rainstorms would wash away the shame, the horrors, and the guilt of the past winter, and nourish the new crops. For a smart person, the fledgling survivor economy would open up many legitimate niche opportunities.
Jenny looked up at the man from her chair and smiled. “I got a new crop of winter wheat last week,” she explained. “Milled the flour myself.”
The man surveyed her table. “Wheat bread. Cornbread. Crackers. Blueberry muffins?” The blueberry muffins were a cheat: Jenny had found a bottle of blueberry liqueur during a recent raid. “Why, this is a veritable bakery! How much?”
“Silver or food trade only,” she told him. “Seventy-five for the crackers. One-twenty-five for any of the breads. Seven for the muffins. No free samples.”
Once again Jenny smiled as he watched the man stare longingly at a muffin. Reluctantly, he reached into his pocket, counted out seven silver coins, and placed them on the table. “I haven’t had a real muffin in three years.”
“That’s good for me,” Jenny told him as he selected one of the muffins. “Maybe you won’t remember what a real one tastes like.”
The man laughed, then took a bite. He chewed, swallowed, and smiled. “That’s pretty good,” he told her. “Better than the petrified Twinkies they’re still trying to sell over at table seventeen. Do you have any other services for trade?”
“I’m a certified nurse,” she told him. “And that’s the only other service I trade, mister.”
He extended his muffin-free hand. “Victor,” he introduced himself. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m Jenny,” she said, reaching out and shaking his hand in return.
“Jenny.” He looked down to the ground shyly before making eye contact with her again. “Listen, Jenny… This might sound a little crazy, but we could really use someone like you at my farm. Would you ever consider moving out of the suburbs?”
“Tell me a little about your farm. I hear zombies are really dangerous in the countryside.”
“Zombies are dangerous everywhere,” explained Victor. “But we’ve learned a lot in the past few years. Our new farmhouses are reinforced stone and brick. We have tripwires for early warning. And all of the farms are team -farms. There’s always at least one person on zombie lookout.”
“And what would a decent girl like me be doing there?” she asked.
He held up the remaining half of the muffin. “We’d pay pretty dear for a decent cook,” he said. “Not to mention a certified nurse. Some of the tools we use have sharp edges, y’know.” He scratched his head, trying to think of anything else. “I just joined the farm a few months ago, myself,” he confessed. “It ain’t as upscale or fashionable as the suburbs, but I got tired of being crammed into the Redoubt every other day. Now if that ain’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.”
Traveling on Victor’s horse-drawn cart, Jenny arrived at the farm at sunset. This was the farthest any of the known survivors lived from the city — almost at the county line. Jenny took in her surroundings as they approached. The mixed forest opened into gently rolling green hills that had obviously been worked by farm machines, once upon a time. She saw the blackened remains of an old grain silo.
Farther down the road stood what was left of an old farmhouse: the stone foundation and a stone chimney. Nothing remained of the rest of the structure.
“It doesn’t look like much,” commented Jenny.
Then the cart crested a hill. Below them, in the valley, stretched a new fence: barbed wire with a variety of bells strung at irregular intervals. From the fence, the road climbed the next hill, atop which sat the new farmhouse.
It was a stark structure: a single boxy floor of hand-built stone and brick, built for strength rather than aesthetics. The windows were narrow slots, too small for an adult to squeeze through, with sliding copper shutters that caught the reddening light of the setting sun.
A knee-high wall of brick encircled the structure at a distance of about twenty yards. In between the stone wall and the building itself was a gravel no-man’s land. Atop the structure, two men patrolled for any sign of activity. They quickly spotted Victor’s incoming cart and waved.
To either side of the building, Jenny could see rough hand-plowed fields, ready to be planted.
What had she gotten herself into? The farmstead was the ugliest building Jenny had ever seen. Its inhabitants appeared rough, unwashed, and altogether too fatigued for the limited progress they had made on this farm. They were nothing but a ragtag group of misfits, stolen away from the suburbs without regard for farming experience.
For Jenny, though, it was more than this. It was also an escape from a city of death and undead, and all the horrors she had witnessed there. It was a new beginning, and a place where her skills might actually benefit someone. For Jenny, it was love at first sight.
Victor opened his eyes and immediately leaped out of bed. Even without a kerosene lamp, the light of the moon shining through the slot window was just bright enough for him to locate the ladder. He climbed up to the roof.
Petty’s rifle rested on a bipod at the edge of the roof: Petty lay prone on the roof, peering through its night-vision scope. “Incoming zombies! At least a dozen. Halfway to the treeline, and coming in fast.”
From the deep bass howl that had awakened him, Victor knew that the zombies were close, but these zombies were practically at their front door. “How’d they get so close?”
“Does it matter right now?” Petty said. “Do you want me to shoot them, or would you rather do something that’ll stop them?!”
Victor rushed back to the ladder and called down to the sleeping men. “Archers! Archers!” Only fire could stop a zombie. In the darkness of the communal sleeping room, the men stirred. One after another, the men scrambled up the ladder to the roof.
A dozen crossbows were always kept on the rooftop, drawn and ready for action. The wooden cross-bolts were stored wrapped in cloth and soaking in kerosene. The archery teams were well-drilled: one man took aim, while the other loaded a cross-bolt and set it ablaze.
The youngest boy on the farm, fifteen year old Tyler, was Victor’s loader. Victor was confident in the boy, and in the rest of the archers, but most of their kills had been single zombies. The farm had never faced an attack by more than three zombies, let alone twelve.
“So many of them!” Tyler said in awe.
Victor tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the cross-bow. “Ain’t gonna be so many after we smoke a few. Petty, give me a direction.”
Petty was the only man with night vision. Victor could only see indistinct movement — no individual zombies. “That way,” he pointed. “Go ahead and fire.”
Victor’s first shot whizzed past the zombies, landing in the tall grass behind them. The flame flickered and extinguished itself in the wet grass. “Clean miss,” Petty said, but it was enough for the other archers to take aim. None of the twelve archers’ shots hit their mark, landing harmlessly on the damp hillside.
“Keep firing,” someone called out. By now the zombies had reached the low wall, and were climbing over it into the gravel pit. “Keep firing!”
“Too close for comfort,” Victor muttered to himself. “Let’s light ’em up!” The archery teams fired their crossbows at the undead assailants as quickly as their loaders could reload. A few cored direct hits, setting their clothes alight.
Ignoring the flames, the zombies began to surround the farmstead building. Aflame, they now provided enough light for the archers to see their targets in the gravel pit below.
“Molotov cocktails?” Tyler suggested. No sooner had Victor agreed than he found a glass bottle filled with flammable liquids in his hand. An old rag, reeking of gasoline fumes, served as the fuse. Tyler held a match to it.
The Molotov shattered against the gravel, glass shards and flaming liquid flying in all directions. Now all of the zombies encircling the building were ablaze, but it was a race against time. Could they burn the zombies down before the zombies burned them down?
“Two down!” whooped one of the men. “Fire dance! Two down!” Victor looked to see two zombies doing the so-called fire dance — the spasmodic jerking and flailing of limbs that immediately preceded fiery zombie death. The revenant bodies then collapsed onto the gravel, twitching briefly before becoming just so much kindling.
“More Molotovs!” shouted Petty. Within seconds, the farmstead and the trees were lit up with flickering orange light. Flames briefly shot twenty feet into the air until the kerosene, butane, gasoline, and other combustible contents of the bottles burned away. Flames engulfed the undead on the ground below.
“Fire dance, east side!” announced another man. “Two fire dances, east side!” A few more Molotov cocktails shattered against the gravel. Flames consumed the remaining zombies. Each gave a brief fire dance before slumping to the ground as an inanimate lump of charcoal.
“All clear!” Atop the roof of the farmstead, all of the men rejoiced, except Victor. The pulse pounded in his throat like a drum. “They never should have gotten that close,” he said to himself. “How did they get past the early warning bells?”
“Does it matter?” asked Tyler. “We won! We got ’em! City people can’t handle the zombies, but we can.” He strutted a little as he bragged. “We flamed a whole horde of them.”
“We won a small battle, little man,” Petty told the youth as he approached. The man set his rifle, with its night-vision scope, aside. The burning fires surrounding the building lit up the surrounding hillside all the way out to the treeline.
“We got lucky, Tyler,” Victor warned. He surveyed their surroundings for 360°, searching for any zombie stragglers. They would not be drawn by the fire — zombies were attracted by sound, not light — but sometimes a few slower zombies lagged behind the main group. “You’ve never seen a real horde. The cities have to deal with zombies by the hundreds. Or thousands.”
Petty nodded, indicating the dying fires on the gravel pits below. A dozen scattered zombie-shaped lumps of black coal and ash flickered like dying embers. “Victor’s right. We spent most of our cross-bolts and Molotovs to take out twelve zombies. Imagine ten times that number. Fifty times that number.”
“Even if they never breached the walls,” Victor observed, “that’s a lot of fire surrounding us. We’d all bake on top of this little brick oven of a farmstead.” He stared roughly in the direction of the nearest zombie pyre, but his eyes focused a thousand yards away. “Some night, we won’t be this lucky.”
Tyler shook his head. “Geez, guys. Can’t we ever celebrate just a little?” He walked off to join the other men in celebration.
Somewhere in the Woods
In hindsight, leaving the Farmstead so late in the afternoon was ill-advised. Jenny cursed herself not only for making such an obvious mistake, but for bringing Tyler along as well. What had she been thinking?
Spooked by the distant howl of a zombie, the horse had panicked and tried to speed away. Jenny and Tyler were thrown clear of the cart. The horse ran off the road, stumbling into a ravine and breaking its leg. Tyler mercifully put the terrified animal out of its misery, silently with a hunting knife.
Both Jenny and Tyler were uninjured, but they were stranded on a country road, several miles away from the Farmstead, and still miles away from the city and the safety of the Redoubt. Nightfall was near.
“This isn’t your fault,” Tyler reassured her. It meant little to Jenny — Tyler was still young and much too adventurous for his own well-being. At least he knew how to build a campfire. Jenny sat across the fire from the youth, staying close to the fire even though the autumn night was not particularly cold.
“Victor would have known better,” Jenny told him. “He would have called me a damn fool for taking a kid on such a dangerous trip, and for getting started so late in the day.”
Tyler poked at the fire with a long stick. One of the logs collapsed slightly, throwing orange sparks into the air.
“He’s dead and burned,” the young man said harshly. The words were a punch in the stomach for Jenny.
“It was so sudden,” Jenny commented. “I talked to him just this morning at breakfast.”
“I know, it’s not fair. But it’s true.”
What bothered Jenny most was not the suddenness, or the lack of fairness. It was her inability to do anything to save Victor, the man who had brought her to the farmstead, and who had protected her through more zombie attacks than she cared to remember.
“To think,” said Jenny. “He survived all these years. So many zombie attacks — did you know he survived the Bay Street attack?”
Tyler nodded. “It was one of his favorite stories,” he said. “Victor always told me I needed to learn from every encounter because…”
“…a survivor who doesn’t learn, dies.” Jenny finished the quote for the youth. “He always says that.”
“Not anymore,” said Tyler. He thrust his stick into the fire, this time almost knocking a burning log out of the firepit entirely. “He had so many stories, though. Zombie attacks. Raids gone bad. He survived famines, floods… even the big flu epidemic in town two years back.”
“Killed in a harvesting accident,” Jenny muttered. “Doesn’t seem right.” The wound might have been survivable in a hospital emergency room, but there were no hospital emergency rooms anymore. Instead, there was only Jenny, a certified nurse with no real practice in the seven years since Z-day. A trained nurse with rags instead of gauze, and a couple expired packages of Quik Clot.
Jenny still saw Victor every time she closed her eyes. She found him lying motionless on his side near one edge of the potato field, blood spurting from the severed femoral artery and staining the ground and the nearby crop. Entrails fell out of the gash that ran from one side of Victor’s abdomen, across his body, and down his left thigh almost to the knee. Intestines flopped onto the ground, dirt mixing with gore.
She was in the kitchen when Petty and Mulgrave shouted for her. “There’s been an accident,” Petty shouted. She was out the door almost immediately.
“Do something! Do something!” Mulgrave pleaded upon her arrival.
Victor was already unconscious when she reached him. Her hands slippery with blood, Jenny found herself powerless to stop the bleeding. Pressure was useless. She found that her slick fingers could not even grip a needle for stitches. Unable to open the Quik Clot with her hands, she tore the package open with her teeth, but it was too late. He died on the scene within a minute of her arrival.
The funeral pyre was being stacked almost as soon as Victor’s two friends carried his body back to the farmstead. Farming was a hazardous lifestyle, and in the post-Z world where death led quickly and inevitably to undeath, the crematorium was always at the ready.
Victor was the last in a long line of deaths Jenny had witnessed. How many? God, she’d lost count.
Jenny gasped, and fell backwards off of the log she was using as a seat. Tyler was suddenly in front of her, waving his hand in her face.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” the young man said. “I was talking, and you were a thousand miles away.”
“I was just thinking about this morning,” she told him. “I’m sorry.”
Tyler pulled his log around the fire to sit closer to her. “Like I was saying,” he continued, “we’re still closer to the Farmstead than to the city. Tomorrow we can take a shortcut through the woods and probably get home by noon.”
Assuming we survive the night, Jenny implicitly added. Assuming there are no zombies in these woods to find us.
“Let’s get some sleep,” said Jenny.
Tyler gathered leaves into two piles: a makeshift mattress for each of them. He stacked additional logs onto the fire to burn several hours into the night.
Though the young man appeared to fall asleep quickly, Jenny remained wide awake long into the night. She imagined every leaf rustling in the wind, every footstep of the nocturnal woodland creatures, to be a zombie on approach.
“Poor kid,” she said quietly, looking at the sleeping Tyler. He had grown so quickly in just a few months — from a cocky, overconfident teenager into a confident young man. From a bratty neophyte farmhand who couldn’t handle a crossbow himself, to a strong youth who could wield a rifle, a crossbow, or a hunting knife, and do what needed to be done.
“What does it matter, though?” she said aloud to no one in particular. “So strong, so brave. But what does it matter in this world? The zombies have beaten us. We’ve lost.”
Jenny leaned over and brushed his hair slightly, stopping when he began to stir. “You’ll never be able to have children. Never watch them grow.” She realized that the youngest human children must be seven years old by now. Since Z-day, not a single newborn baby had been known to survive the first day of life. Seemingly healthy newborns declined and died within hours, regardless of any level of medical care. “You’ll never know anything but death and loss.”
A rustling noise in the darkness approached their campsite. Jenny decided that this was undoubtedly a zombie. She made no attempt to lower her voice.
“This is it,” she told the sleeping young man. “Better to die in your sleep. Better that you never know about the zombie that kills you.”
The unseen zombie stepped into view. The undead creature was once a man, and a large one: six-foot-four and muscular. Whispy black hair still clung to its head in patches. Tattered jeans and a tattered wifebeater covered its body, but its feet were bare. Its gray skin, smooth and plastic in appearance, appeared oddly orange in the firelight. Its glassy eyes also reflected the campfire, giving them an evil ruddy glow.
“Better never to know.” Jenny repeated, now staring at the zombie.
The creature stared back at Jenny sightlessly. It opened its jaws wide. Viscous black fluid clung to the corners of its lips, and slid slowly out of its mouth. Then the zombie filled the entire forest with its long, baying howl.
Immediately wide-eyed, Tyler saw the zombie, then started looking for a weapon. He cursed loudly at Jenny. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Don’t worry,” Jenny said quietly. “It’ll be over soon.” She watched in silence as Tyler frantically rushed around the campfire, trying to keep the flames between him and the oncoming zombie. It’s a shambler, Jenny observed. The slowest zombies moved only at a normal walking pace. A shame. That’ll just delay the inevitable.
Jenny made no move to evade, but her silence apparently caused this zombie to fixate on Tyler. The youth hurled a rock at the zombie, then a stick. Both bounced harmlessly off of the creature’s torso.
“Help me, damn it,” Tyler shouted, not realizing nor caring that his shouting and his loud frantic movements simply maintained the zombie’s focus on him. Tyler feinted one way around the fire, then rushed in the opposite direction, but it did no good. The zombie closed the distance between itself and the young man, carefully evading the firepit. It reached out with lightning speed and grasped Tyler’s arm.
“Ahhh!” The youth scrambled and lost his footing, held up by one arm in the unbreakable grip of the zombie. Calmly, Jenny watched, still making no effort to help her young friend. The zombie lifted Tyler into the air with one arm, then wrapped its huge pallid hand around the boy’s neck. The teenager kicked and punched at the creature, but the blows did nothing to faze the creature.
At last, Jenny closed her eyes, not wishing to see Tyler’s death. “His is the last death in the world,” she told herself, trying to drown out the sound of his screams. “The last death I’ll ever have to witness, before death finally takes me.”
Jenny awakened. This was quite a surprise to the thirty year old nurse, whose last memory was closing her eyes to shut out the image of a zombie slaying the teenage boy under her care.
She sat up, finding herself upon a bed of leaves, then spat a pine needle from her mouth. It was daybreak. The campfire had burned down to ashes.
From her vantage point, Jenny could see a set of legs; the rest of the body was hidden behind the tall pile of ashes and circle of stones that made up the fire pit.
“Tyler,” she whispered. No, not Tyler, she reminded herself. Just the corpse of Tyler. Nothing but a lifeless slab of meat: everything that had been Tyler vanished when the attacking zombie crushed the boy’s throat.
Jenny looked around the campsite, but there was no sign of the zombie from the night before. She rolled Tyler — Tyler’s body — onto its back, and closed its eyes. “I’m sorry, Tyler,” she said to the lifeless corpse. Then she leaned over its face, and kissed its lips gently. “You’ve fought your last fight.”
Why am I still alive? Jenny thought of the statistics recorded by the administrators back at the Redoubt. Thousands of attack stories by all known survivors were recorded, studied, analyzed by a team of researchers. They still hoped to find new ways to defeat zombies, despite so many hard lessons in failure.
Jenny remembered one statistic in particular: survival rate for zombie attacks closer than five yards, with no barriers. It was exactly zero.
This zombie had been just as close… and ignored her.
She turned back to Tyler’s body, wondering how long he had been dead. Reanimation always occurred within eight hours of death. Jenny tried to recall the hurried post-Z training, particularly the warning signs of reanimation. What was that stupid acronym the CDC provided?
HEMP. It was a terrible mnemonic — some med school intern would have made up something better, had civilization survived long enough.
Hypothermic. This was the stupid one. Dead! Dead and room temperature was the real warning sign.
Eyes glassy. Jenny pried one of Tyler’s eyes back open. Zombie eyes were uniformly gray, with a strange polished sheen.
Muscle spasms. So far, the body appeared lifeless, but Jenny knew that muscle spasms were the final indicator, usually less than a minute before full reanimation.
Pallid skin. Jenny remembered how little the medical community understood zombies in the initial confusion of Z-day. Zombie flesh went through many changes. Most notably, it turned light gray, but it also took on the feel and flexibility of soft rubber. Zombie skin somehow self-healed immediately after most wounds. It shed fine hair, but retained longer hair, such as head hair, for awhile.
Jenny pressed on Tyler’s abdomen, trying to gauge how the skin felt. It no longer felt like human flesh: Jenny guessed she had about an hour until Tyler rose once again.
What do I do now?
Jenny knelt over Tyler’s body, staring at it for several minutes, trying to think of something to do with the corpse. Abandoning a corpse was a high crime: tantamount to murder, since revenant corpses would undoubtedly get human survivors killed.
Cremation was standard, but she had no idea how to restart the campfire to incinerate Tyler’s body. The farm was only five miles back down the road, but without a horse there was no way Jenny could get there and bring help before Tyler reanimated as a zombie. And of course, no one had ever found a restraint that could hold a zombie.
Slowly she noticed an odd sound in the background, like the banging of a drum. It was a regular beat, like a repetitive knocking on the door. Tattarrat-a-tattarrat-a-tattarrattat. She looked around, but could not determine its direction.
The regular beat continued unbroken. It was getting louder — or the source was getting closer. Tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat.
A-tat-a-ra-tat-tat-a-tat-a-ra-tat. The beat remained unbroken, but the unseen drummer began to vary the patterns he played. The woods echoed the drumbeats, making it difficult for Jenny to find its direction. Wherever the music was coming from, it was getting closer.
It was in front of her. A figure stepped out from behind a blackberry thicket and into the small clearing.
The unseen drummer was a man. A short man, bald, with a thick but well-groomed dark beard. He wore a plain white t-shirt and jean shorts that did nothing to conceal his hairy arms, chest, and legs. Jenny noticed that he wore socks with sandals. He carried a set of small bongo drums at his chest, strapped around his neck with a guitar strap.
Drummer Man made eye contact with Jenny and smiled a friendly smile, accelerating the drumbeat and finishing with a grand — for a bongo drum — finale.
“Who are you?” Jenny asked. “Aren’t you afraid that the zombies will be drawn to the sound of your drums?”
Drummer Man smiled. “Ain’t got no name,” he finally said, still smiling broadly. “And no, I got the zombie men under control. Allow me to demonstrate as soon as your friend rises.”
On the ground, Tyler’s body jerked spasmodically. His limbs flailed in all directions. Jenny took several steps away from him. “No, we have to get out of here,” she said.
“Relax, woman,” said the Drummer Man.
The ex-Tyler opened its eyes and turned its head to Jenny. Its skin had lost all color. It rose to its feet, still watching Jenny. Then it opened its mouth, and out came the terrifying yet familiar howl of the undead. Jenny stood petrified. This is it, she thought. I killed Tyler, and now Tyler will kill me.
The zombie Tyler lurched toward Jenny, but as soon as it took its first step, Drummer Man began to beat out a rapid, complex rhythm on his drums.
Immediately the zombie came to a halt, as Drummer Man played a drum solo so elaborate that even the zombie seemed transfixed by it. The Drummer Man headbanged and stomped his feet in time with the beat. Perspiration beaded on his forehead. Jenny stared first at the motionless zombie, then at the spectacle of the Drummer Man’s music.
Amazingly, when the strange musician finished his song, the zombie Tyler did not resume his attack. Instead, it stood motionless, swaying slightly this way and that as the creature’s undead brain struggled to keep it upright. No… Jenny realized that there was more to it than that. It was swaying in time to the music, even after the music finished.
“Didn’t I tell you I got the zombie men under control?” Drummer Man told her.
Drummer Man turned out to have more surprises for Jenny. He played a slow marching cadence as they walked through the woods. The zombie Tyler followed along mindlessly, staying close behind Drummer Man without attacking nor letting out the bone-chilling zombie cry.
“Where are we going?” Jenny asked.
“This way.” Drummer Man pointed ahead. “To the city.”
“It must be ten miles away,” said Jenny. “It’ll take hours to get there.”
“Woman, you in a hurry get someplace?”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to take the road?”
Drummer Man never varied the speed of his cadence. “Safer? Nobody out here but the zombie men, ’cause the men-men kill all the animals for food years ago. And I got the zombie men under control.”
“But the survivors will never let us into the Redoubt with a zombie.” Zombies were incinerated. Dead bodies were incinerated. No exceptions. Many of the deaths immediately after Z-day were from grief-stricken family members who thought they could cure their zombie loved ones, and from religious sects who insisted on burial.
“Redoubt?” Drummer Man scoffed. “Woman, I never go nowhere near the survivor-men. They try to kill my zombie-men.”
“Then why are you going to the city?”
The Drummer Man looked at Jenny and smiled. “I and my friends got a concert to play in the downtown.”
“Downtown?! Are you insane?”
For once, the Drummer Man laughed. “Yes, yes, I think the ex-wife of mine would tell you yes. But I been going downtown quite regular for the past years since the zombie-men come.”
“And the zombies don’t attack you?”
“No, no, no,” Drummer Man said. “Zombie-men are the best audience a band can ask for.”
Jenny looked around in amazement. For years, she had not been to downtown — rarely had she even ventured into the outskirts of the city since Z-day. Now she had a front-row seat to the most surreal concert she could have imagined.
She stood on the steps of the bank headquarters, the tallest building in downtown. The steps opened into the city plaza. The decorative fountains no longer worked, and the traffic lights were dead, but the plaza that once was occupied by bankers, lawyers, and hobos during lunch hour, now had a very different clientele under the purple autumn twilight.
Zombies crowded into the plaza, as far as Jenny could see from the top of the stairs. The gray skinned creatures overflowed the plaza, lined the sidewalks, spilled into the side streets. They did not attack Jenny, or even let out their plaintive wail. Instead, each waited like a Golem waiting for orders.
“What do you think?” Drummer Man asked Jenny.
There was nothing ghoulish about these creatures. Their expressions were blank, their eyes glossy, their skin looked like plastic. Jenny laughed. “It looks like a mannequin convention in downtown,” she said to the Drummer Man. “I just realized, that’s probably the first time I’ve laughed in years… but they’re such an unusual audience.”
“Don’t worry. They know that you with the band.” Drummer man chuckled. “I told you my zombie-men no bother you.”
Center stage was the entrance to the bank building. Whatever had broken out all of the glass windows and doors, must have done so long ago, since no sign remained of any stray shards from the breakage. Drummer Man pulled out his big guns: a set of full-sized bongos, plus wood blocks.
Jenny’s new friend was joined onstage by several others. Tambourine Girl. Harmonica Man. The Guitar Busker Trio. Trumpeteer. Fiddler John. Except for the latter, she didn’t know their names.
Even the band itself had no name. They came together, set up without fanfare, and began to play an acoustic performance unlike any that Jenny had seen. Each musician began to get into the groove. Tambourine Girl shook and danced from one end of the stage to the other, and back again. The three guitarists traded off, each trying to one-up the previous.
In the streets and in the square, zombies began to sway. Some held their gaunt, undead arms in the air, waving them back and forth with the music.
Harmonica Man delivered a jazzy solo performance. The best dressed of the bunch, he wore an immaculate jet black tuxedo that must have been raided from a clothing store only recently. The red feather in his black fedora hat bobbed up and down as he nodded his head in time with the beat. Even the musicians paused to applaud after his breathless solo.
Incredibly, some of the zombies began to moan: not the hair-raising baying howl of a zombie, but a somber, regretful moan. Jenny listened in amazement as the rueful cry combined with the music on the stage.
Fiddler John lit up another blunt at the edge of the stage and toked. He had been smoking up all evening, filling the air with an aroma familiar from Jenny’s college days.
Jenny was just as mesmerized as the zombies. Drummer Man beat a tattoo on the bongos that echoed off the flat faces of the nearby skyscrapers. It was frantic. It was tantric. She was smiling. She was high.
Who was she? Jenny the nurse? Her past life seemed so far away. Z-day was eons ago. The Redoubt was a lifetime ago. The Farmstead… yesterday… was more distant than childhood. She wasn’t Jenny the nurse anymore. Nor was she Jenny the survivor, Jenny the cook, Jenny the anybody. She wasn’t sure that she was Jenny.
Whoever she was, she was in another world. She floated in a river of music. The buildings faded into the background. The band, the plaza, the zombies, all melted away into nothingness. And she melted away with them. No cares. No worries. None of the worries of her past lives mattered. Yesterday was long gone. Today was at its end. Tomorrow was an abstract concept.
Nothing existed now but the music.