Meredith had begun the drive in good spirits, eager to look out the window at the passing countryside, hopeful that they would find her mother’s grave undisturbed. Maybe in Cumberland County there wouldn’t be dead people running around, ruining everything.
“It really isn’t so bad, you know,” William said after an excruciating period of silence. The siblings were alike in their efforts to remain calm, pleasant—normal. “We’ve had a huge problem with the dead-spaces in this country for a long time, right?”
“Right.” Meredith replied. She knew this tactic—say something reasonable, get everyone on the same side—agreeable—then blindside them with the manipulation.
“I think a ‘Zombie Apocalypse,’ as you ‘fraidy-cats are calling it, is just what this country needs,” William continued, true to form. “Clean house a little. Burn some bodies, free up some room for the living Americans, you know?”
Meredith pursed her lips. She knew all the comebacks for William’s crude, incomplete talking points, things he regurgitated after hearing them on television, but she was unsure how much farther it was to the graveyard, and she didn’t want to incite unrest in the car. What was going on outside the window was bad enough. Silence and dissociation weren’t combat tactics, but they were a form of self-protection.
The Lincoln paused at a stop sign, and Meredith risked a look up at the road. They were on the final stretch. Soon they’d see the little chapel that signaled the entrance, then they’d know if the crisis had reached home.
“And what if mom got up for a stroll?” William laughed. “Could you blame her, the old bat? That’d be just like her.”
He thrust his elbow out at Meredith as if he were jibing her, stoking her into complicit laughter, putting a stinger on an inside joke. When Meredith still did not stir, he let the engine idle, slapped the stick into park, and turned to her. “Come on, Mer. You used to be fun. You’ve got to have a little fun in life.”
She knew he would not relent until he got a rise out of her, and the time was close when she could find sweet relief from his faux-expensive aftershave and condescension. So Meredith turned to her brother and tried to state the situation plainly, keeping any quiver or fury out of her tone. “People are getting eaten, Will. Every day, people are getting eaten, and you’re telling me to have a little fun? People are dying.”
“Other people,” William protested. “People who didn’t prepare. People who are looking for a handout. Not us, Mer. So, what’s the problem? You can’t get all down in the dumps because these idiots weren’t ready for zombies. I mean, the data has been there for years. The zombie uprising wasn’t a surprise.”
“Yes, and that means it was preventable.” Meredith was startled by her own resolve. She had sat through countless dinners and let William rant and rave about the state of the world and what must be done about it. She had sipped her wine and cut her vegetables without interruption, but something about this morning was different. “The fact that there was foresight into all this makes it even worse that it’s happening—that it has gotten this bad.”
“And what exactly could have been done about it, Mer?” William sounded exasperated, as if this somewhat simple thought had never occurred to him. “Force everyone in America to accept a spare key to the roof hatch at the local mall?”
“I don’t know,” Meredith sighed. She knew this was useless now that they were speaking in hypothetical hindsight, but she had come too far to stop now. “Lots of things. Environmental evaluation. Implementation of better practices in the realm of burial, or at least funeral cosmetology. Space exploration and analysis beyond shooting trash into deep space or firing unmanned robots to the nearest floating rock! Getting everyone boards for their windows: shotguns, hatchets.”
William scoffed. “And I suppose you have enough extra change in your pocketbook to pay for all that, eh?”
“Well, we’re looting sporting goods stores now anyway. There’s plenty of spare guns to go around if you don’t hoard them.”
“You’re the socialist queen of the apocalypse, Mer,” He turned to look away from her in mock disgust. “Whoa, hold on.”
A walker was approaching the car. William immediately grabbed the mini sawed-off shotgun laying between them and simultaneously used his other hand to thumb the lever for the automatic window.
Before the creature could rear back and try to slap the transparent barrier, William had the glass down and the barrel of the weapon leveled. He pulled the trigger, and the walker’s head exploded.
Meredith covered her ears to shield them from the deafening sound. No matter how many times she heard her brother’s gun go off—and over the last few days, she had heard it countless times—she could never get used to it. Many people were at least feigning modesty and respect for the dead, keeping their implements of protection quiet so as not to attract any more attention from the inevitable undead-rights activists as well as additional walkers, but not William. It was as though he enjoyed re-killing these poor souls—or, rather, re-animated bodies with a lack thereof.
As soon as the reverberation of the shot died down, Meredith reached towards her feet to retrieve her mask; the blood spray of the dead walker now floated in the air and, of course, no one was certain how the reanimation process was contracted or spread. Meredith wasn’t taking any chances.
William turned to her, the steel of his weapon smoldering and his glasses fogged with the shameless condensation of arousal. His mouth dropped open in a triumphant guffaw.
“Boo-ya!” he screamed into the cab of the car. “Did you see that one? Man, he was a chef or something. He was still wearing the little white frock. Do people get buried in that kind of thing? God, I love it when they get audacious like that, think they can just wander up and take a chunk like we’re helpless.”
He leaned into his sister and gripped her by the elbow, pulling her hand away from her ear just as the elastic band of her mask caught purchase behind her ears.
“We’re not helpless, Mer. We’re the ones with the power.” He turned to the open window. “And these idiots out there—I know you want to look at them as victims, Mer. I can see it in your eyes. They’re not the victims. They had their chance, but now they’re just shotgun fodder. Every time I blast one of these liberated corpses, I feel myself getting stronger. We can still make decisions for ourselves. We’re free, not like these things out here. Not like these sheep. God, it’s beautiful, ain’t it, Mer?”
“Whatever you say, William. I hope you enjoy using that inherited shotgun to assert yourself from the safety of your car,” Judging by the way his jaw dropped, Meredith must have exhibited more sustained resolve than William was expecting. “Can we just go and check on mother now, please? Give her thanks for all the privilege she left us?”
“Hey,” William was still riding the buzz of the kill. After all, the chef had only just hit the ground after sliding down the side of the door. William set the gun across his lap with the barrels pointed a little too directly at Meredith’s thigh. “I told you we’d go check on her, didn’t I? We’re going. I’m going to get you there and back, safe and sound. But you have to get with the program, Mer. It’s us against them. You and me and everyone else who still has a pulse—who still loves this country and wants to see it come out on the other side of this crisis. Everyone who has the will to do what’s necessary. So why don’t you try and be a little grateful, eh?”
Meredith stared down at her skirt, lips still pursed, breathing through the thick cloth of her mask. She exhaled through her nose, and the expulsion turned into a sigh that William would no doubt interpret poorly.
“Just think about it like this,” he said, lowering his tone and softening his features. “If I weren’t here to protect you, what would you do? It’s dangerous out there, Mer. It always has been, but especially now. Who made sure you have your mask?”
“I thought you said we didn’t need masks,” she tried to cut in, hoping at the very least to stop the tangent.
“Yeah, there’s no proof that the disease can be spread to the living, but that’s beside the point.”
“Living have been changing in hospitals in New York—”
“I told you to quit watching that fake shit!” William flailed in his space. “Will you quit interrupting me?!”
“Sorry,” Meredith said with a smile.
“I’m so sick of everyone trying to counterpoint, and argue, and contradict,” he sunk further into his leather seat and released his grip on the gun. Next he straightened his jacket with his leather-clad hands and pushed his glasses up his nose, finally regaining his composure. “Now, what was I saying?”
“That I need you,” Meredith managed to blurt without releasing the laugh she was holding back.
“Yes, exactly,” William nodded. “What would you do without me?”
Just then, another walker rose up from a crouching position outside William’s window. This one was in army fatigues that were tattered enough to nearly be unrecognizable. It had no skin on its face, no muscle to justify the quick precision of its actions. The collection of bones was operating on some remembered instinct, and it only made Meredith’s smile widen when it wrapped two strong arms around William’s throat. The creature held her brother in a chokehold as it moved to gnaw on the side of his head.
William jerked, tried to pull away, and failed.
“Hey, mister,” he shouted instead. “Unhand me.”
In the moment it took for William to attempt to assert his so-called dominance over the situation, the walker demonstrated the destructive power of the unpredictable. It tightened its hold, choking off whatever self-righteous remark William was preparing, and yanked him up and out of the seat. Meredith lost sight of William’s face as the soldier stood to his full height and pulled her brother through the open window.
William screamed and grasped for his gun, which was now out of his reach. His feet kicked in the cab, bouncing off the steering wheel and gear shift. Then there was a crunch, the unmistakable sound of old teeth splitting skull. A rush of blood poured down William’s suit.
“Help me!” William screamed as the walker groaned with satisfaction. “Meredith! Grab the gun.”
Out of self-preservation more than anything else, Meredith reached over and obeyed. She could feel the weapon’s heat, but she held it like a baby, cradling it to her chest.
“You have to help me, woman!” William managed to holler before his voice was cut off.
Then the rest of his frame was pulled from the vehicle, his feet twitching now more than flailing.
Meredith heard her brother gurgle, “You have to.”
She sat there, gun in hand, bracing for the worst. Outside, the veteran feasted on the soft flesh of her brother. The only thing Meredith could hear was the tweeting of birds and the sounds of consumption.
After a moment that could have been a year, the walker’s face appeared in the window again, this time covered in gore, blood running down its chin. The soldier placed its boney hands on the door and stared at Meredith, assessing her. She stared back, pressing out with her senses, trying to communicate a silent message of non-aggression.
The thing cocked its head, worked its jaw a few times, then stood to its full height again. Its posture was firmer than its level of decomposition should have permitted. With her limited view, Meredith thought it looked like it was standing at attention. This notion was confirmed when the thing raised its right arm. Meredith watched as its body jerked in the familiar cock of a military salute.
She almost fell for it, taking comfort in the safety she had been conditioned to feel, even in the presence of an obvious monster. But Meredith had been through enough to know better, and the walker’s soulless, mechanical motor function broke her paralysis. She scooted across the seat and placed the gun at her side, just like William had done. His words kept echoing in her head. You have to help me, woman. You have to.
“No, William,” she said aloud as she dropped the car back into gear and pressed her foot on the gas. “No, I don’t.
SCOTT BRYAN recently visited the cemetery from the opening sequence in Night of the Living Dead, and was surprised at how little things have changed in the last 50 years. His fiction has appeared in Coffin Bell, The Cabinet of Heed, The Daily Drunk, X-R-A-Y, and the anthology After the Kool-Aid is Gone, among others.