They found the first one behind an old abandoned barn. It was tangled up in a mess of barbed wire and leaking opaque purple liquid from holes in its stomach. Tim tried to call Tracy on his cell phone, but couldn’t get reception. Byrd hit it in the face with a stick while Charlotte screamed. All the thing could do was moan, moan, moan. Then its jaw got unhinged from Byrd’s stick.
They left it there and went back to the house to get Tracy. Tim kept looking over his shoulder, but nothing burst through the leaves.
It was a really spectacular July day in the country, so hot that even breathing seemed to burn your insides. Clouds of nearly-invisible insects hovered everywhere. The four friends were staying at Charlotte’s family’s backwoods cabin for the next few weeks. Three months earlier, Charlotte had peed on a stick to confirm she was pregnant and this was their special vacation.
The four of them had driven in the night before. The bed of Byrd’s truck was loaded with brined vegetables, popsicles, venison jerky, and any other food Charlotte might crave. In the morning, Tim tried to roll over to Tracy, but she said she felt weird doing it in a stranger’s bed. When she went to take a shower, Tim ejaculated into an athletic sock. He thought he could hear Byrd and Charlotte moaning in the next room.
At breakfast, Tracy and Charlotte were debating if she was showing and Byrd asked, “How’s it cooking in there?”
Tim tried rewriting the introduction to an article five times, then gave up and went on a walk with Byrd and Charlotte while Tracy stayed tanning on the roof. That’s when they’d run into the diseased thing stuck in the barbed wire.
“Hey, Tracy, we found one of those moaning dead guys!” Tim shouted.
Tracy looked down at the upturned faces of her friends.
“Don’t you mean the not-dead guys?” Byrd said.
“What?” Tracy said.
“I thought he was just sick at first and tried to help him and he bit my shoulder!” Charlotte said.
“That’s awful!” Tracy said. “Let’s lock the doors and search for weapons!”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Byrd said. “He was pretty trapped in that wire.”
“I need to put some Neosporin on my shoulder,” Charlotte said.
In the living room, Byrd was rubbing sunscreen up and down his arms.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Tracy said.
“Nah,” Byrd said. “Tim and I can take care of him later. It will be a bonding experience.”
Charlotte came out of the bathroom in a neon green bikini with Band-Aids on her shoulder.
“I thought we could take a dip in the lake. It’s more like a pond I guess, but it has a zipline my dad strung up when we were kids. We’d scream down it all summer long. I wonder if it’s rusted?”
“That does sound nice,” Tracy said uneasily.
“I was hoping to get some work done,” Tim shouted from the next room.
“Work in the shade, dummy,” Byrd said.
Tracy and Charlotte raced across the pond and pulled themselves up onto the dock.
“I’m going to get a little sun on my boobs now that we are away from those awful boys.” Charlotte arched her back to slide off her top.
Tracy looked out of the side of her eyes. Charlotte’s nipples were red and enormous. Tracy wondered if babies had nipple preferences and if she had a baby whether it would find her own nipples too small and wrinkly. The sun was making Tracy sleepy. Bloated white clouds lumbered about overhead.
“I think I felt a kick!”
“Well, he has to start sometime,” Charlotte said with a laugh. “Do you ever worry that when you have a baby it will have a leg like Tim’s?”
Across the pond Byrd and Tim were tossing a football around. That’s how they’d met, Byrd had been the star quarterback, Charlotte was a cheerleader and Tim had been the second string punter—at least until he injured his knee junior year. Tracy didn’t join the group until Tim started dating her in college though and she still felt like something of an outsider.
Charlotte tapped a tune on her belly. Tracy closed her eyes and tried to imagine the warmth of the sun sinking through her skin and cooking her evenly all the way through.
“I think the goal of life is more life,” Charlotte said philosophically. “When are you and Tim going to get started on that?”
“We haven’t really talked about it,” Tracy said.
She was always told you could see anything you were thinking of in the clouds, but none of them looked like babies just then.
“When our mothers were girls you could just pop them out whenever,” Charlotte said. “But you have to plan things these days.”
Charlotte rolled over on her stomach. Her gnawed-on shoulder was a few inches from Tracy’s face. Most of the Band-Aids had fallen off in their swim. There was a shiny yellow sheen developing over the wound. A small dragonfly alighted on it and Tracy shooed it away.
“Ah, listen to me,” Charlotte said. “If I turn into one of those boring parents always blabbering mindlessly about their kid, promise me that you’ll kill me.”
Tim was making sandwiches and added extra mustard for Byrd and cut the crusts off another for Tracy.
“Can you wash off those apples?”
“No time,” Byrd said. He was holding a large shotgun. He cracked it in half and pushed two shells in. “We need to get this done before sundown.”
“I guess we can eat on the way,” Tim said.
Byrd took a large bite out of his sandwich and headed for the door.
“Should I bring a knife or something?”
“This baby ought to do her,” Byrd said, patting the shotgun.
They waved goodbye to Tracy and Charlotte, who were sipping virgin margaritas out of jam jars on the porch.
“You boys be careful,” Charlotte said.
“Be back in a jiffy,” Byrd said with a smile.
The road to the cabin was made of dusty gravel and their feet crunched as they walked along. The sun was dipping behind the blue mountains and nighttime forest creatures were awaking with chirps and growls. It was a little chilly and Tim wished he had brought a jacket.
“This reminds me of the first time my dad took me hunting,” Byrd said. “He didn’t even tell me ahead of time, just woke up at night and handed me face paint. I think I was eight years old. It was goose season. When we fired on them, hundreds flew into the air and their wings and squawks were so loud I was too scared to be excited. In fact, I think I peed a little in my camo pants.”
Byrd swung the shotgun around in front of him.
“Still, there is something about that first kill.”
“I never went hunting.” Tim said.
“You’re kidding me?” Byrd said. “I always forget your mother is a vegetarian.”
“Sometimes at the beach my father would secretly give my brother and I crab hooks and bait. My brother tried to cook one with his lighter once and threw up all over the pier. I guess that’s pretty similar.”
“Not at all, man. Crabs don’t scream.”
They were coming around the bend near the old barn. Tim could hear a resigned groan above the crickets and hoots of owls. Byrd placed the shotgun gently into Tim’s hands.
“Here,” Byrd said. “I want you to do it.”
There was a fatherly tone in Byrd’s voice. Tim thought about his own father, who had been a computer programmer and never understood Tim’s love of sports. “After you get a concussion or some nonsense, how are you going to pay the goddamn light bill?” he’d asked once. Tim did get injured, snapped his ACL like an old rubber band, but his father wasn’t around to see it.
They walked off the road and onto the dirt path that led around the barn. Only the very last curve of the sun was left above the hills. Tim was surprised at how heavy a shotgun could be. He saw a pale bluish head rocking back and forth through the bushes. The man was standing in pile of rotted firewood and barbed wire that he must have wrapped himself in trying to escape. His eyes were so sunken you could barely see them.
“He looks kind of sad,” Tim said. “Maybe we should try to help him?”
“You can’t help these deadites. The disease has already eaten away his brain. I heard a doctor say so on the radio.”
As they came closer the creature started shaking. His jaw was unhinged and a frothy yellow liquid dripped down his chin. He stretched one arm out toward them. Flaps of skin were hanging off of it and shaking slightly with the wind.
“Isn’t it wrong to shoot something in a trap,” Tim said. “Didn’t Teddy Roosevelt say that?”
“This is a public service. Also, you have the safety on.”
Byrd reached over and pushed a button on the side of the gun.
“I’d show you how to aim, but from this range it won’t matter.”
Tim looked through the sights. The man’s bloodless hand was only a few feet from the barrels. The only time he had ever used a gun was at summer camp and that was a .22 and soda cans. He pushed the butt into his shoulder like his counselor had taught him and squeezed the trigger.
The dead man’s hand transformed into red confetti and a large hole appeared in his upper chest. The shotgun popped out of Tim’s hands.
“The brain!” Byrd yelled. Flecks of blood and blue skin covered his whole body. “You were supposed to shoot him in the fucking brain!”
The man was spinning now, digging himself deeper into the wires, one arm flapping around like a tetherball.
“Sorry, I told you I’ve never done this before.”
Tim bent down and picked the shotgun back up.
“Hey,” Byrd said. “Sorry I yelled. It’s just that Charlotte bought me this shirt for my birthday and she already complains I don’t wear it enough.”
“Nah, forget it.” Byrd took the gun and fired the other shell into the head, which erupted backwards against the barn. “Let’s go wash up and play a round of Scrabble with the gals.”
Byrd and Charlotte were getting married in November, a few months before the baby was due. Byrd had borrowed enough money from his parents to buy a ring with two silver dolphins twirling around a medium-sized diamond. Charlotte had always loved dolphins. Everyone had known that the two were bound to tie the official knot one of these days. The baby only sped things up.
Tim wondered what it meant that he and Tracy were out here celebrating Charlotte and Byrd’s baby and wedding. Did Byrd and Charlotte think they should get married too? Tim and Tracy had been dating for three years, but Tim still thought of himself as young. Tracy was in law school and Tim didn’t have a steady job, much less a book deal yet.
And what did Tracy think? Tim never knew anymore. It wasn’t only the sex that had shriveled up like sundried fruit. They still had fun in public, but when their apartment door closed it was nothing but fights or silence. It felt like the two of them were just stumbling along, unsure of where they were going or why.
“Well, shit. Would you look at that?”
The four friends were eating an Italian dinner on the porch. They all looked where Byrd was pointing. Out beyond the small vegetable garden, they saw a hunched over man. He knocked over the chicken wire fence and trudged through the small garden slowly, emerging with tomato vines wrapped around his right leg.
“What the hell,” Tim said with a mouth half-full of noodles. “We were going to eat those.”
“Get inside!” Tracy yelled.
“Hold on a second,” Byrd said. “Let’s not let some undead asshole ruin our meal.”
The man didn’t seem to be paying any attention to his surroundings. He was moving in a general direction, but constantly bumping into the sides of trees, chairs, and other objects in the yard. He gave a loud groan, righted himself, and moved onwards.
“Look, he’s not even coming at us.”
Indeed, the man’s trajectory was past the house on the other side from the porch. The sight of him made Tracy shudder. His skin was purplish in the evening light. There were small red marks all over his skin as if he had been nipped by squirrels.
“Do you need any help?” Tracy called out.
The man didn’t seem to register her words and stumbled out of view in his slow, sad gait.
The friends sat quietly for a bit, then resumed eating their food. Merle Haggard was playing on the portable boombox. Byrd screwed open another bottle of wine.
“I’d like to propose a toast,” Byrd said. “To good friends, good eating and no jerks at the office bugging us with all their problems.”
“Amen to that,” Tracy said.
“And to the two of you,” Tim said. “Soon to be three!”
Charlotte didn’t say anything. She was slouched in her chair with a sweaty face. Tracy thought she looked drunk, but she hadn’t had any wine.
“Do you need some water, Charlotte?” Tracy said.
Charlotte leaned forward and vomited blood across the picnic table.
Over the next few days they saw five more of the creatures. They seemed like they had been normal people before the disease. Some had glasses and sun hats on. One was only a little kid who kept bumping into the sliding glass doors of the porch. Tracy swatted at his face with a broom until he moved off through the woods. Another got her hand stuck in the crook of a split tree trunk and stayed there groaning all evening. In the morning, Tim found a torn off hand covered in ants.
Other than that, the undead just slowly walked on through. They didn’t seem to have any place in particular to get to, but they were getting there nonetheless.
“We have to call a hospital, Byrd!” Tracy said. She was standing outside of Byrd and Charlotte’s room. Tim was sitting on the couch, Googling info on zombism. He found a long list of symptoms, but the treatments were all unsubstantiated or involved decapitation.
“Goddamnit, I said I’m taking care of it.”
Tracy turned to Tim with a frown. There were loud thumps coming from the room. Tracy mouthed that they should call the police. The disease was spreading exponentially and the whole state was overwhelmed. Even if the police came, Tim thought they’d probably just shoot Charlotte from the passenger window and drive off again.
A few minutes later, Byrd slid out of the bedroom door, locking it behind him.
“Okay, under control,” Byrd said. He gave Tracy and Tim a thin smile. His clothes were disheveled and his hair was matted with some kind of gray goo. “Hey, what do you guys want to do? Take a hike or a swim?”
“I think we need to deal with this situation,” Tracy said.
“The situation has been taken care of. That’s reinforced steel wire holding her down.”
“I’m not comfortable with this,” Tracy said. She turned a glare to Tim.
Byrd punched the door and left a large dent.
“God fucking Christ shit!” he said. “She is tied up to the damn support beam! She isn’t going anywhere. We are not taking a vote on whether Charlotte’s head gets blown off or not!”
Tim was worried about Tracy. Byrd marched round the house like nothing was going on, but Tracy barely left the guest room. When she did, it was with a kitchen knife and wild eyes. At night, they could hear moans from the room next door. Tracy would cry and Tim did not know what to do. She would grab him and kiss him and force him quickly inside her before he was even hard. She would cry the whole time.
Tracy tiptoed back into the room out of breath.
“Grab your bag and let’s go!” she whispered.
“Huh?” Tim said, slowly opening his eyes. “I thought we were leaving on Saturday?”
Tracy wanted to scream but just opened her mouth and breathed heavily.
“I stole Byrd’s car keys. Do you want to get out of this death trap or not?”
Tim was sitting up now. He scratched his head and walked into the bathroom to urinate.
“How will we get Charlotte in the car?” he said.
“That thing isn’t Charlotte and we aren’t bringing it.”
“But she is your best friend.”
Tracy had to keep shushing Tim as they walked through the house.
“The radio lady said it was safer in remote locations,” Tim yawned.
“Not if your remote location already has one growling in the bedroom next to yours!”
Tim reached over and fiddled with the radio. The only station that came on had a Christian preacher singing a hymn about the end times. Tracy pushed the rubber power button off.
A car crash appeared at the top of the road. Tracy slapped the steering wheel over and over again, cursing.
“Maybe we can get around it?” Tim said.
Tracy turned on the high beams to get a better look. That’s when she noticed the bodies in the car. She turned the headlights off. She started to cry and after a minute Tim put a hand on her neck and rubbed the soft hairs there. He stopped when he heard a dog barking.
“Oh my God, there is a dog trapped in there.”
“Do you think it is a zombie dog?” Tim said. He started to open the passenger door, but the dog’s barks got louder and then they heard the sound of an oncoming car and loud whoops.
“What the hell is going on anymore?” Tracy said.
There were two loud blasts of sawed-off-shotguns as a group of screaming men in hunting gear drove by. The bodies in the car started to thrash around. They seemed to be trapped in their seatbelts.
“One more pass, boys!” someone shouted. The tires screeched and roared by as three men braced in the back of a pick-up truck let loose another volley of gunfire. All of the windows of the crashed cars erupted and something soft and wet landed on the windshield of Byrd’s car.
“Holy shit!” Tim said.
Tracy watched as the right side of the dog’s face slid down the windshield, one large eye seeming to scan the length of her body.
Tracy put the car in reverse and backed down the driveway.
The internet connection went down and three days later the TV. The phone had been giving them nothing but a monotone beep for a week. Tracy took the radio into her and Tim’s room and listened to it every night for news. Mostly they got static, but every two hours the hiss would dry up for a pre-recorded announcement. There had been two announcements in rotation. The first urged calm and recommended various home treatments if licensed medical practitioners could not be reached. The second message urged calm and two bullets from no further than twenty feet away to any victim’s cerebral cortex.
Tim stumbled upon Byrd in the hammock by the woodshed. He was swinging sadly with one foot on the ground.
“I thought there might be some canned goods in the shed.”
“What?” Byrd said. “Oh, I think Charlotte and I ate them all. Have a seat though.”
Byrd moved his leg and Tim sat down on the other end of the hammock.
“This is the first place,” Byrd said.
“What?” Tim said.
“After prom our senior year when I blew all my money on the limo and had to take Charlotte to Enchilada Joe’s for dinner. She wasn’t very happy. But we danced and drank from Burton’s flask and when I dropped her off she made me pull the car over halfway down the driveway and sneak out behind the shed so her parents wouldn’t see us. When she pulled her shirt off it was just like…Christ. What the fuck are we going to do, man?”
They sat there swinging. Tim didn’t know what to say. He tried to think about what his coach would tell them after a bad game.
“Sometimes things look bad, but later on they weren’t as bad as we thought,” he said.
Byrd cocked his head at Tim. The wind was warm and rattled the ripe leaves above their heads. In the distance something let out a low moan.
“What in the shit fuck does that mean?”
“I’m sorry. I was just trying to help.”
Byrd’s hands were away from his face now. They were gripping the white ropes of the hammock so hard the knuckles were drained of blood.
“I’m sorry,” Byrd said. “I can’t talk to you right now. Don’t go into Charlotte’s room. I’ll figure something out, okay?”
“Oh, God!” Tracy jumped back against the laundry machine. She had been searching for a flashlight since the power had blinked off that morning.
“Do you ever wonder what love is?” Byrd said. His eyes had large dark bags under them and his clothes were dirty with holes in them.
“I have a knife,” Tracy said.
“Is it doing whatever you can do to be with someone? Giving up your own self to be what they need you to be?” Byrd was looking past Tracy at the rows of chemicals and tools. His shoulders were slumped and he scratched at his neck with one long fingernail. “Coach always said love was sacrifice. He was talking about football, but is it the same thing with people?”
Tracy felt the terrible sadness that had been living in her for weeks rise up into her face.
“I don’t know, Byrd,” she said. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
Byrd jiggled the door knob and shouted, “Hey, the door is locked.”
Tim opened the door, then sat back on the bed with Tracy.
Byrd was wearing a dress shirt and a tie and his blond hair was greased up and combed back. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His skin was covered in scabs.
Tracy held onto Tim’s hand so hard her nails cut little semi-circles into his palm.
“Guys, I just want you to know what amazing friends you have been and how much I have treasured life’s journey with you, even though the journey turned onto a burning road of shit. I always thought of you like a little brother, Tim, and Tracy, I know Charlotte was going to surprise you later by asking you to be maid of honor. Isn’t it crazy we have known each other for twelve years?”
He stayed at the door and gulped in his throat. Tim and Tracy didn’t say anything.
“Tim, buddy, I’m sorry I slept with Tracy. You two are welcome to stay here as long as you can. Just remember that love is the key.”
Byrd surveyed them for one last time, sniffled, and closed the door.
“What?” Tim shouted.
“Oh my God,” Tracy said. “What is he going to do?”
“You slept with Byrd?”
“Tim, we have to stop him,” Tracy jumped up and headed for the door.
They could hear thumping and sporadic moans from the room next door.
“When did this happen?”
“I don’t know. He was so sad. It just happened.”
“Jesus Christ,” Tim said. He lay back on the bed. “My best fucking friend.”
“This isn’t the time, Tim!”
But Tim stayed there on the bed and Tracy stayed with him. They listened to a door opening and the sounds of two people shuffling down the hall and out into the yard. Tracy peered out of the blinds into the lush woods.
Tim came into the living room holding a dusty box.
“Hey, I found this jigsaw puzzle.”
Tracy was sitting on one of the only chairs that hadn’t been used to reinforce the doors. She had the shotgun between the chair legs.
“That’s great, Tim.”
“Look you don’t have to be sarcastic,” Tim said. “We might as well make the best of things.”
Tracy saw something at the edge of the woods and jumped for the gun, but it was only a baby deer. She sat back down and looked at Tim. He looked so sad, but she didn’t know what to say. They had no jobs, no electricity, no home they could return to, and only half a grocery bag of food left. The whole world was crumbling into meaningless rubble and the only thing they could do was curse and wait.
Tim left and came back a few minutes later with a buck knife and a large stick he had been sharpening into a spear. He sliced a few curls of wood on the carpet.
“Fuck it,” Tim said after a while. “I’m going to go root through the storage room in the basement. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Tracy scanned the woods again. She didn’t see any undead things. She had all this anger and sadness boiling inside and she didn’t know how to calm it down.
“No, wait,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’ll come with you. Maybe we can find a flare gun or something.”
A few weeks later, while searching the forest’s edge for kindling, Tim was injured when Byrd, Charlotte, and a crawling, half-formed blue thing leapt out from behind a sycamore tree, grappled him to the ground, and sunk in their teeth.
Tracy found Tim crawling toward the front porch, bleeding and moaning. She screamed and locked the door, but Tim heaved his body against the wood. Tracy watched through the peephole and cried for a long time.
She poured a glass of wine and turned on the TV even though it was just static. She could still hear Tim thumping softly against the door. Her hands were shaking and some of the wine in her glass spilled down her arm. It dried there in dark red streaks.
Tracy thought about her life with Tim. They had met, drunk, at a party on her first weekend as a college freshman. He had fallen asleep on top of her two minutes into sex and she could barely breathe. His warm body was comforting though. Second semester they had the same Sociology class and he asked her out and she thought he seemed sweet and things snowballed along in the way they do. She had even thought they might get married, before the disease.
Tim had always been nice to her, always buying her little bundles of flowers that died in a day or two. She felt she had never been as nice to him. She liked to spend her time by herself and had a hard time fitting Tim into her schedule. But then she thought that maybe she only felt that way due to the circumstances.
If she ignored Tim, maybe he would crawl away and go where all the other undead people were going. Maybe that would be the place where he could be happy.
In the morning, Tracy awoke to the thumps of Tim. She stayed in bed and cried a little bit. The sun was shining angrily overhead through a hole in the curtain. After eating the last of the oatmeal, she snuck out the side door and went to the shed. She grabbed the largest thing she could lift and walked back to the front porch.
Tim felt pain. Saw Tracy and Tracy was sad. Tracy was sad and causing pain to Tim. Tim didn’t understand. Tim didn’t understand the pain or the sadness. Never understood whole life. Tim thought the pain and sadness would never stop. Hurt all over and wanted to hurt other things. Always like this. Angry at sad and pain. On and on.
“Glaaaaaarggg,” Tim said. “Kllluurg! Gwaahh. Gwah. Gwah.”
Tracy was sweeping the halls and whistling an old car insurance jingle. It had rained last night, but today was nearly cloudless and Tracy had the windows open. She was starting to feel at home, like this place had been the only place in the world built just for her.
She went into the kitchen and ate nuts and raspberries that she had gathered from the woods. Outside of the window, she saw a pale blue-tinged man slipping around on the wet fall leaves. Other than that, it was tranquil.
Tracy sat on the porch and took in the sun. She rubbed her stomach, which was almost the size of watermelon. She was not sure who the father had been, but it didn’t matter. Both of them had gone to the same place. What mattered is she had something living inside her, despite everything. She knew you couldn’t look back in life. Already she was counting up the work she needed to do reinforcing the spiked death pits and storing food for winter. There were only a few months left before the baby would push its way out and begin to hunger.
Photo courtesy of Lyudmila Isakova; view more of her work on Flickr