“I can’t believe this shit!”
Jack pumped the accelerator pedal with his foot and tried not to look at the growing sea of deformed, smelly zombies surrounding the little Fiat. The car had captured his attention – brilliant red with silver chrome and no windows broken out of it, and even more importantly it was not completely blocked in by other abandoned cars. He saw in an instant that even though the street itself was littered with all sorts of vehicles that had encountered the growing mob of drooling monsters, the downtown sidewalk was relatively free of obstacles and seemed an accessible form of escape – and when he ran up to it he saw the keys had been left in the ignition. There had been no time for prayers of thanks or supplication, as the rancid claws of at least a dozen zombies pawed at the air just behind his shoulders, so he dove into the empty Fiat, locked himself in, tossed his backpack into the seat next to him and was now trying fervently to get the damned thing started.
He turned the key in the ignition again and the engine roared to life. “YES!” he bellowed triumphantly as he dropped the lever between the seats to “D” and mashed on the gas. Three of the snarling zombies that had been in front of the Fiat flew upon the hood. He identified the one in the center as being old Herb Canyon, owner and chief cook of the Blue Plate Restaurant just one block away, but could not recognize the other two, a woman wearing what was left of a pink print blouse and red high-water pants and a heavy-set older man in tee-shirt and shorts. All three bore the same unmistakable signs of being zombies: gaunt, pale faces with eyes that looked like twin lumps of coal in a snow bank, a constant stream of drool running from the corner of their mouths, the shuffling walk that reminded Jack of that famous music video, and the unstoppable hunger that scared him the most. This particular breed of zombie, however, displayed an additional feature he had never seen or heard of in all the movies he had been to: without exception, their skulls had been bashed open and their brains were noticeably absent. Evidently anyone who became a victim of a zombie attack had their brains sucked out and consumed, and then became a brain-hunting zombie themselves. He wondered if they would be fiending for a heart, too, if theirs were nommed. He didn’t intend on finding out, either. He just wanted to get away before he became one of them. He had become attached to his brain and didn’t intend on making it someone else’s lunch.
As he maneuvered his way around the wreckage of cars, Jack did not fail to notice the lack of dead humans lying about. This spoke loudly of the fate of those who had fallen victim to the zombies. There were the skull-sucked carcasses of what were once family pets scattered throughout the sidewalks and street, an obvious testament to their inability to carry the virus, or whatever it was that passed from zombie to human. He looked down and saw the gas tank on “Full”,glanced upward and this time gave a silent prayer of gratitude to whatever God existed in this crazed world. The car bounced over the speed bump of a dead german shepherd and, finally beyond the one-block traffic jam of Pinch, West Virginia, he pressed on the accelerator and sped through the hilly countryside toward Indian Creek Road. This close to town was a wide variety of houses in no particular order. A two-story brick home with manicured lawn had as its neighbor a ramshackle dwelling patched together with plywood and two-by-fours with rusted out Oldsmobiles and Buicks decorating its unmowed front yard, and beyond that a neat and trim Cape Cod festooned with garish ornaments left over from Christmas, followed by an Antebellum mansion surrounded by weeping willows and then a double-wide trailer with concrete blocks for steps and a grass-bare yard covered in various toys. Jack kept on the lookout for zombified humans staggering about their yards and did see a few in a ragged huddle trying to catch stray cattle, but did not intend to hang around and see if they were too slow for the bovine, or if beef brains would be on their menu shortly.
The madness started the day before, when he came downstairs and noticed that his parents were not at their usual posts: his father seated at the dining room table with a plate of microwaved sausage and cheese croissants his head buried in the Charleston Gazette (which he called the “Quarrelsome Gazette”), and his mother seated across from him nursing a cup of coffee and fiddling with her latest tech-toy (currently an IPad). His morning and that of his parents were so predictable you could set an atomic clock with it, so it was with some concern that he stared at the empty table. He found them both in the back yard, pale-skinned and bloody, their brains having been sucked out and their bodies mechanically roaming around trying to climb over the privacy fence surrounding the yard instead of unlatching the gate and leaving. At first he thought his folks were playing a practical joke on him. His father’s head reminded him of that orange-haired comedian, and his mom seemed to have gotten her looks from a certain pop legend’s Halloween video. Watching them for a moment, however, convinced him that something was seriously wrong, because while trying to scale the fence they kept falling onto the grass with enough force to have stunned even him, yet they got back up again and again and resumed their quest to overtake the fence; at their age neither of them had enough stamina to mow the yard or take out the trash, and he quickly knew something must be wrong. After going through the natural reaction of completely and totally freaking out, Jack made sure to lock the back door just in case one of them discovered how to turn a knob. He ran to the front of the house and saw through the open front door that pretty much all of his neighbors had been turned into zombies. Mrs. Peterson from down the street wrestled a screaming UPS driver out of his truck and then proceeded to bash his brains out on the street while other hungry zombies closed in on the scene hoping for a morsel of his cerebral cortex or even a taste of his medulla oblongata. Jack somberly decided that the delivery guy deserved what he got, driving into a clearly zombie-infested neighborhood. He noted somberly that they may ‘heart’ logistics, but they don’t ‘think’ survival.
Judging by the amount of blood on the doorstep, his father must have gotten his brain eaten while going after the morning paper –
how many times had he told his father it was easier to get news online! – and then turned on his mother. He slammed and locked the front door and then peered out one of their curtained windows again. There couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen zombies roaming through the neighborhood, which Jack considered a good thing, considering how many seemed to clog up the screen at the theater. Having no intention of handing over his brains, Jack set about barring the windows and doors with wood he got from destroying their furniture, a shitload of nails from his father’s work area in the garage and a sturdy hammer. He initially worried that the noise he made would attract the zombies, but soon realized that they either lacked the brains it took to figure out that hammering meant fresh meat, or their hearing didn’t work. Still, he kept a constant eye on the activity both in the front of his house and his parents in the back.
Inevitably, though, the drooping, shuffling monsters approached his house by twos and threes, scraping at the siding and moaning as if they had bagpipes stuck in their throats before moving on to the other houses. The hardest part was seeing his parents roaming around the back yard like old rabid dogs, their fingers splayed open to the bone from trying to scale the eight foot tall fence, their mouths slack-jawed like idiots. He knew right away that he couldn’t survive forever like this and eventually gave up trying to board up the house. He searched the place up and down for the keys to his father’s Cadillac with no luck. When he remembered that his father was stumbling around the back yard in his business suit, he realized the keys were probably in the old man’s pocket. Jack thought briefly about trying to subdue his father, but no matter how the situation played out in his imagination, it always involved killing one or both of his parents, and even under the current circumstances he didn’t think he had the guts to do such a thing. Here was where he had his biggest problem: he had no idea if a zombie could be killed. They seemed to get around just fine without their brains, if by ‘just fine’ you mean shambling around haphazardly without a brain and obviously not dying from it. He wished he had seen more zombie movies. All he could think of was to somehow impale them to the ground with a spear, like mounting a bug on a piece of cardboard, or herding them into a place where they could be contained, like his parents. He also wondered if they would starve to death without dining on other people’s brains, but since this had just happened, he had no way of finding out just then.
He watched the zombie parade out his front windows, and didn’t see any additional participants. Mr. Tucker from next door was one of them, still in his bathrobe, except it was now flapping loosely, exposing his white, round belly, whitie-tighties thankfully covering whatever Jack didn’t want to even think he had, and toothpick legs that looked as if they had never seen the sun before. He spotted Mr. and Mrs. Finklebeck meandering across the half dozen lots on their street and wondered where their twin daughters were, Bambi and Becky, who were only about six or seven years old but who had already made their mark on their street as whiney little princesses and first class nuisances. It wasn’t long before he saw movement from their house across the street and figured the twins must have gotten trapped inside. He supposed they had been zombified, too, by the noticeable lack of ittle girl screaming, but if they weren’t he was most certainly not going to rescue those little fiends. In a short matter of time he was able to identify almost everyone in his neighborhood.
He noticed how slowly the zombies moved, as if they were trying to swim in mud, and decided that he would have no trouble outrunning them. He thought his best bet would be to somehow get to the Pinch town square, stock up on food and other survival items such as beer (who would card him now?), a gun from the Lucky Seven pawn Shop and a fast car, and then drive to the state capital, Charleston, where there were sure to be survivors.
Things didn’t go as planned, though. He grabbed his backpack (after tossing out all his school books and stuff – classes were suspended indefinitely) and slipped out the garage door. He really had no trouble staying away from the slow-moving atrocities in his neighborhood, but the closer he got to the bustling downtown area (the Blue Plate Restaurant, an Exxon gas station, the Pinch Pharmacy, the Lucky seven Pawn shop, Piggly Wiggly grocery store, four churches and laundry mat spread out over a half mile of two-lane county road that sliced through the tiny village like a butter knife) the more zombies there were wandering around. It seemed like every resident from within five miles had shambled to the same place as if a truckload of brains was expected to show up at any moment. Jack tried to sneak into the Piggly Wiggly but found it stuffed with mindless zombies roaming through the aisles, bumping into each other and trampling on the groceries that had fallen to the floor. The Lucky Seven Pawn shop was boarded up, and the owner – an old black man who had survived Viet Nam – was behind the counter holding something that resembled a bazooka. He had yelled to Jack that it was too late to let him in, considering the pains he had gone through to keep the zombies out, and that unless Jack found a way to get west of the Mississippi River he would be eventually be caught and his brains munched. That was when Jack had spotted the little red Fiat.
County Road 47 became County Road 49, or Indian Creek Road, as everyone around here called it. Called it as in the past. Looked like there would be no need to worry about highway names now. All he had to do was keep the wheels on the road and he’d be in Charleston in about half an hour. It didn’t take too long for him to discover that it would probably take a little longer, considering how many cars were sitting at odd angles on and off the blacktop. Most of them had shattered windows, which meant the occupants had been dragged out, no doubt screaming and kicking. It was while he found himself weaving around an old F150 and a Toyota Tercel that he saw a CD sticking halfway out of its player. He pulled it out and read the title, Sevendust: Cold Day Memory, then slid it into the console. Just then he felt a heavy thud on the back of his car that caused him to hit the accelerator and almost slam into the Tercel. One quick look in the rear view mirror confirmed his fear: a brainless zombie that had at one time been a farmer judging by his blood-soaked coveralls and hard-weathered face had latched itself onto his Fiat, and as he watched it began slamming its fist into the rear window trying to break it. He looked around quickly and saw that a couple of other skull shattered zombies had seemed to materialize from nowhere and was almost within striking distance of him. This time he did mash on the gas pedal, skidding around the disabled truck and clipping its bed, knocking farmer-zombie off in the process. He didn’t bother looking in the rear view this time as he gripped the steering wheel and tried to bring his adrenalin level back into Earth’s atmosphere. The rock band’s music soon coursed through his jangled nerves and helped calm him down.
Soon he approached the southern suburbs of Charleston. The sheer number of trundling zombies seemed to double every mile he came closer to the city, and by the time he came to the Interstate 77/64 exchange he knew the entire city must be crawling with the brain dead. Smoke spiraled up from at least a hundred different sources in the direction of West Virginia’s state capital. He sped onto the Interstate going south and zippered through the schizophrenic jumble of cars and trucks left by new converts to the zombie resurrection. The further he retreated from Charleston the less traffic he found. He didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing, but he hoped the nightmare was falling behind him.
Avoiding zombies was thirsty work, so Jack decided to pull off the exit at Prosperity. The Shell station was eerily deserted: no cars, no zombies, not even any normal folks. He parked as close as he could get to the door, but before he had a chance to step out of the Fiat he saw why there were no signs of life, and it turned his blood to ice. Sitting on the far side of the station were a couple of tourist busses, their doors splintered open and blood splattered like graffiti everywhere. As soon as his mind took this information in the first wave of elderly zombies ambled from behind the busses and began to approach him. Jack decided to put his thirst on a back burner for now and squealed away from the decrepit mob.
As he jetted back onto the Interstate, a new thought struck him, and genuine hope swept over him for the first time since this nightmare had started. Surely Washington DC was a safe place! It was the home of the President and Congress, for crying out loud! If the full force of the country’s military were called to protect anyplace, it was the nation’s capital. He grabbed a candy bar from his backpack and made haste toward DC.
Seven exhaustive hours and a full tank of gas later he approached the Bull Run National Battlefield Park exit on Interstate 66. Every time he passed a populated area the number of deserted and wrecked vehicles seemed to grow. He came across dozens of zombie hordes ambling on and near the Interstate in search for fresh brains, and on more than a few occasions had seen unlucky citizens get their brains knocked out of their heads and then sucked up by the relentless mass of monsters. The closer he drove toward the Beltway the more these scenes played out around him. This dampened his expectations of finding sanctuary in the Capital. He forged on, hoping that perhaps either the zombie invasion hadn’t crossed the Potomac or that the government had been able to keep the disease or whatever it was from affecting DC.
By the time he reached Arlington the destruction was almost overwhelming. He had to slow to a crawl around the burning wrecks of semis and every other type of car and truck that he could imagine. Smoke from the gutted remains of nearby buildings sometimes swept across the highway, bringing with it an unknown stench that permeated the inside of his car and threatened to squeeze his lungs empty. There were very few zombies actually on the Interstate, but as he neared the Potomac River he saw hundreds upon thousands of cracked-skulled horrors crawling and shuffling throughout the city. Jack’s eyes teared up and his chest grew heavy with hopelessness, but he continued on, motivated by an almost morbid curiosity to see what had happened to the last refuge of civilization. Smoke and the growing blanket of dusk prevented him from seeing into the Capital, but as he drove the Fiat across the broad river he felt for the first time like giving up.
As soon as his tired car made it completely across the Theore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge and began rolling on Constitution Avenue a strange and wonderful sight greeted his eyes. The only vehicle on the Avenue was a Transit bus, and it rolled along as if nothing in the world was wrong. He sped up to run alongside of it and wave it down, but suddenly the last drop of gas burned through the Fiat’s engine and the car quickly sputtered and died. “Damnit!” He hit the steering wheel with the heels of his hands and turned off the CD player. As he looked around surrounded in a sudden blanket of silence he marveled as he stared at the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall and the Reflecting Pool. The entire Mall as far as he could see was completely void of zombies, and the few people he saw walking around seemed to be of sound mind and body. He stepped out of the Fiat and ran a little ways to where a woman and man were seated on a blanket beside the Reflecting Pool having a meal.
“Oh my God!” Jack exclaimed as the couple nonchalantly looked up at him. “You don’t know how good it is to see you guys! I came all the way from Pinch, West Virginia, and man, there were zombies EVERYWHERE! I know must think I’m crazy, but . . .”
The couple were both dressed in business attire. The woman smiled at Jack and said, “Won’t you have a seat? I can’t speak for my colleague, Senator Darby from Oklahoma, but I would be glad to share my sandwich and drink with you!” She held out her hand and shook his firmly and confidently as if she had been doing such a thing all her life. “I’m Senator Lucille Howard from the great state of Montana! Glad you could make it here!”
The well-dressed man also robustly shook Jack’s bewildered hand. “Nice to make your acquaintance, son! I hear it’s pretty rough outside of the District.”
Jack almost collapsed onto them both as he took a seat on the blanket. “You don’t know the half of it, Senator! There are brain-eating zombies everywhere!” He took a bottle of Coke the Senator from Oklahoma handed to him and took a long drink, thinking Coke never tasted so good. He looked around and was amazed at the unconcerned behavior of everyone around them. A group of men, obviously senior statesmen by their demeanor and attire, chatted amiably beside the Lincoln Memorial. He peered more closely at them and then exclaimed, “Why, that’s the Vice President!”
The Senator from Montana waved her hand as if dismissing an errant servant. “Kevin Laster? Oh, he’s always looking for someone to debate foreign policy! I see he’s managed to corral an entire gaggle of Junior Republican Representatives. Personally, I think his views on China are rudimentary and obsolete. If he thinks he can win the nomination next year he has been severely mislead.” She picked up a tiny two-pronged fork, scooped an oyster from its shell and delivered it to her mouth.
Jack’s eyes almost bulged from their sockets as he observed the casual nature of his hosts and the other politicians roaming about. How can you be so calm when there are thousands of brain-eating zombies just on the other side of the Potomac River? We should be surrounded by the Army and Marines, and the Air Force should be bombing the hell out of those monsters! It’s only a matter of time before they cross the bridge and start munching on all our brains! For God’s sake, don’t just sit here like nothing’s happening! There’s got to be something we can do to stop them!” He gasped for air as his heart thumped madly in his chest. “The world is falling around you and you’re eating oysters and ham sandwiches!”
Senator Darby patted Jack on the shoulder. “Now, now, my young man. There’s no need to fear. You are as safe as if you were in your mother’s arms –“
Jack cut him off. “My mother’s a freaking zombie! If I were in her arms she’d be cracking my head like a pistachio and sucking my brains out!”
“That was just a figure of speech. I’m sorry to hear about your mother, by the way. What I’m trying to tell you is that for some unexplained reason the mutants refuse to come within the perimeter of the District of Columbia. The previous administration must have set up some kind of advanced invisible barrier and didn’t bother telling anyone.” The Senator chuckled and lanced at his partner from the great state of Montana as if to say ‘some people can’t be made to understand.’ “Lucky for us, the entire Congress was in session when the zombie incident began. The US Capital is not only lucky to have every Representative and Senator within its borders, we can safely say the entire bureaucracy is completely intact! The Department of Education, the Treasury Department, the Veterans Administration, Homeland Security . . . why, all the arms of the government are well staffed and ready to serve!” The Senator unbuttoned his jacket the rest of the way, leaned back and looked into the cloudless sky.
“I must be in a nightmare!” Jack cried as he sprang to his feet. “You people are crazy!” He turned and ran toward the Lincoln Memorial, climbed its steps and collapsed at the foot of the giant statue. “What’s going on around here? I think I’m going crazy!”
“No, the last thing you are is crazy, young fella.”
The voice echoed off the columns, startling Jack to his feet again. A middle aged man wearing nothing more than a tee shirt and sweat pants appeared from around the back of Lincoln. His hair was long and straggly and it looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a month. “Who the hell are you?” For a moment Jack thought the man looked vaguely like the President of the United States.
The man smiled knowingly. “That’s not important. What is important, obviously, is that you understand the strange situation you’ve come across.”
“Damn straight,” Jack said resolutely. “Why are zombies roaming around everywhere except here? Is there some sort of invisible barrier protecting us?”
“Hardly.” The man put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the statue. “The zombies are hungry for brains. There are none here. Simple as that.” His smiled widened. “Now if you’ll pick your jaw up from the floor, I hear the Senate cafeteria has a marvelous buffet this time of day. I’ll get you filled up and settled in one of the chambers for the night, and tomorrow you can begin the process of becoming a citizen of the District of Columbia. Given the amount of paperwork that’s required, it shouldn’t take you more than six to eight years to become eligible. Come! Dinner's on me!"