I hate having options. I always have. I prefer Fate to hit me hard and fast, let me recover later. Just don’t present me with a shitty situation and expect me to make the right choice. I hate that. I fucking really hate that.
So here I am. Squinting my eyes to clear the blood, blinking furiously in order to focus, desperately trying to keep the throbbing in my head from making me scream out loud. It’s a world turned upside down.
Seriously. Upside down. I’m strapped in, upside down. I could just hang here, and wait for someone to rescue me. Or wait for the UDs to get me. Or wait for Margie to reanimate and…
I clench my jaw and shake my head. No! Stay focused. I can't afford to panic.
Dawn is breaking and I can finally get a good look at where we ended up. I can see the tree that we clipped, just above us, on the side of the ditch. The bare area of the trunk where the grill ripped off the bark almost shining with reflected light from the morning sun.
I told her to slow down, I told her there was a corner coming up! Dammit, Margie, of all the times to have it your way, why now? I told you I should drive, but you were in a hurry. I should have stood my ground. Hell, I handed her my keys, why did I hand her my keys? I should have just gotten in the driver's side and started up the engine. I should have.... should have....
I'm choking up a bit as I realize; it's too late for should haves. I can see the blood trickling from her lips... those sweet lips... the crimson liquid creating a strange mask around her eyes as she hangs upside down like me, still caught in her seatbelt. I choke back my tears. Focus I tell myself. Margie's gone! Focus on yourself!
Choices… make some choices. Forget about waiting for someone to come rescue me, no one knows we’re here and no one will until we don’t show up for breakfast. So scratch that. What are my options?
Option one, I get out of this SUV and make a run for it and hope I don’t run into any UD herds.
Option two, I stay here until Margie changes and she kills me.
Option one will bring up a lot more choices to be made. But option two isn’t even in doubt. It’s going to happen. I’ve got some time, it doesn’t happen all at once, but it is going to happen. Those dead eyes are going to open, I’m going to hear that shriek, and she’s going to…
I have to get to get out of the SUV. Not much of a choice after all.
I'm looking around, but it's a bit disorienting with the entire vehicle overturned in the ditch. Up is down, down is up. The mind isn't equipped for it, still trying to process the interior with a new perspective. I have to get to the seatbelt release. Not sure how I'm going to do that with one hand trapped between the collapsed steering wheel and the dashboard and the other hand tangled in the seatbelt itself. I must look like an epileptic marionette. How the hell did the steering wheel get bent in that direction, toward me? Damn, we must have hit harder than I thought. Maybe if I relax completely, I can pull my arm free and get to the knife in the glove box. If I can cut the belt, I'll just fall to the ground. er... the roof. Whatever. Then I can crawl out through the back window and… make other choices.
Relax.... relax... just pull gently... stay focused on what you’re doing. Don’t panic. Don’t think about… them. I look out the windshield. Nothing.
The UDs are not known for just hanging around and waiting. Thank God. There have been a lot of stories of people surviving by hiding and staying completely still. After a while, the UDs just wander off, looking for someone else to eat. No one knows if they are attracted by sound or movement, but we now know smell isn't one of the reasons.
And, yes, I do call them UDs. Mostly because I hate that “Zombie” shit, or “Living Dead” crap. It’s misleading as hell and people have died as a result. When the outbreak first happened, a lot of people assumed the undead would act just like they do in the movies. We were so indoctrinated by films and TV shows about Zombies, we thought we had all the answers. They plod along, aimlessly (not true, those motherfuckers can run like a track star when they want to); they want to eat your brains (half true; they pretty much want to eat everything); they have a keen sense of smell (as already noted, bullshit). And the ol' "shoot them in the head to kill them" fallacy. IT WAS ALL FICTION, IDIOTS! Stuff made up and repeated until the stories became accepted science! Fiction until it actually started happening. And a lot of people became take-out buffets just standing there, blasting away at heads that only recoiled in response. If killing them was that easy, this problem would have been solved four years ago when it all started.
Not that you can't kill them, of course, you can. But putting a hole through their head only makes them whistle when they run. Seriously, I've heard it. Keep in mind, I’m not one of those sickos who leave the compounds just to go hunting UDs. There was a whole travel industry around that until the government made it illegal. Still, people sneak out into the zones and… hell, okay, so I went along on one trip. Bernie Marken had heard that Willis Tyler was undead and wandering around. Ol’ Bernie had a grudge against Willis ever since Willis slept with his mother. Yeah, don’t go there. But Bernie couldn’t resist the chance to go hunting Willis. So I tagged along. And we found him.
Have you ever heard the undead shriek? “Grrrmmmishk!” All of them do it, “Grrrmmmishk!” It’s supposed to be a result of decomposing flesh and trapped fluids or something. But once you hear it, you never forget it. It really chills the bones.
So there was Willis, leaning his head against a tree, as if he had nothing better to do. Which, I guess, he didn’t. He looked pretty bad, you could still see the bites on his arms from the UD herd that got him and the one on his neck that probably killed him. He died quick, that’s the only reason he didn’t get completely eaten. The UDs don’t like to eat dead flesh.
“Yo, Willis, you piece of shit!” Bernie called out to him. He had brought his dad’s .357 magnum and an old pump shotgun. Me? I had a garden trowel. Pretty lame, I know, I just grabbed what I could when we snuck through the small door in the back of the compound’s botanic garden.
“Grrrmmmishk!” Willis screamed as he looked at us. I remember it vividly to this day. ““Grrrmmmishk!” and he was on the run, directly at us. Strange, but I swear he was looking right at Bernie, as if he recognized him.
“Bam!” the sound of the .357 took out the hearing in my left ear. Bernie had been practicing, Willis’s head popped back as his eye was blown out, a clean pass through his skull, but he kept coming. Fast. Too fast. That’s when I heard the whistling sound. High pitched, piercing, and scary as all hell. Bernie shot off two more rounds, but I don’t think they even came close. Screw this, I was out of there! I turned and ran, swinging the trowel blindly behind me as if it was some sort of rear guard.
“BOOM!” and…. the whistling stopped. I turned around and saw Bernie standing there, breathing heavily from fear, but with a huge grin on his face. Willis was on the ground, his head completely blown off. He had put the shotgun right under Willis’s chin and let go a blast. What was left of Willis’s brain matter was dangling from the tree limbs above.
And that is how you do it. It was a perfect kill. Complete separation of the head from the body and total destruction of the brain.
We crawled back into the compound and never talked about it. Ever. And that was my only experience with the UDs. The last time I snuck out of the compound. Until this morning. Fuck. It was just supposed to be a simple drive to Marbury, only fifteen miles away. We were going to get there early and surprise her Aunt for her birthday. Yeah, we could have gone with the armed convoy on its weekly run, but it was a last minute thing. What could go wrong? Stay on the main road, drive fast, and hope you don’t run into a UD herd.
It was that last part that got us. UD herds aren’t common, but when they move through an area, you don’t fight it. You back off, you hunker down, you do anything you can to avoid them. And you don’t, under any circumstances, try to plow through them. What the fuck were you thinking, Margie?
I’m not making much progress here. My trapped arm looks pretty mashed up in the dashboard. Even if I free my other arm from the seat belt, there’s no way I could pull the steering wheel aside. It’s completely trapped up to my elbow.
Which presents me with another decision. Another choice.
Do I break the bone or just cut through the elbow?
I look at Margie again. She hasn’t moved, that’s a good thing. But her face looks so peaceful, so serene. I want to reach out and brush the hair stuck to the clotted blood on her cheek. At least your choices are over, honey.
Stop!!! Don’t move.... Shuffling. Outside the SUV. I can barely see through the front windshield, the cracks and light distorting everything but shapes and shadows. I can make out the broken and bent limbs from the UDs that flew over the hood and under the car, but nothing else. The shuffling sound is coming from my right side, and it’s moving closer. I can’t turn my head, the slightest movement will attract him… it. Just stare straight ahead and look as dead as you can, that’s the plan. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Don’t breathe.
Funny how you never notice how much you really want to blink until you really don’t want to blink. But I have to keep my eyes open just in case it’s not a UD. Just in case it’s someone come to help, I don’t want them separating my head from my shoulders just to make sure I won’t be chasing them down.
Shit. It’s a UD. He walks into my line of sight. Whoa, he’s a damn big one. Must have been a football player or something, this guy is probably over six foot five and still in pretty good shape. But, yeah, he’s dead.
Oh, fuck, he’s stopped. He’s looking around, searching the body parts for movement, for life. He’s kneeling and… he’s looking right at me. Those dead, black eyes are staring right through me.
I can't even let my eyes flicker for a second. I use an old trick I learned as a child, staring past him, focusing on the tree trunk scarred from our impact. From my peripheral vision, I can see him turning his head to my left. He’s looking at Margie. Good luck there, guy. She’s one of you now. Or will be when she reanimates. And she tears into me.
I have to get that knife.
Goddammit, Bubba, stop staring and get a move on! Isn’t there a rabbit or chicken somewhere you can chase after?
At least the pain is gone, that ended a while back. Mr. McCallum would love to know that he didn't waste his breath in those lectures. That Neural Macro Cellular Structures in Higher Mammals and the Undead class finally came in handy! It was a general class on the brain and nervous center, with a focus on the new study of the undead. But that section on how the mind blanks out stimulus after a while? Right on point there, Doc. That's the reason we don't feel our clothes, you told us. We're used to it, our mind blanks it out as continuous stimuli. And the same applies to pain. After a while, your brain just accepts it as normal. You were trying to make a comparison to the UDs not being aware of their pain, that any sense of their being dead is accepted as their new “normal”.
You gave me a D+ for my lab work in that class, McCallum. Because I didn't want to be locked in a room with one of them as you demonstrated primal reactions of UDs to living and dead food. I opted out, as was my right. But you fucking gave me a D+ anyway. How about now, you sanctimonious asshole? How's this for a fucking lab? I'm hanging upside down in my car, staring out a window splattered with rotting flesh and entrails, waiting for a dead lineman to chaw into me. Hell, MY GIRLFRIEND TRIED TO DRIVE THROUGH A HERD OF UNDEAD, IS THAT LAB ENOUGH FOR AN "A" ASSHOLE???
I told her to go around them, but she was afraid we'd end up stuck in the ditch. I told you, Margie, I told you. Even as we hit the first few creatures, saw them split open with impact, their putrid guts spilling across the hood and onto the windshield, she didn't flinch. Her face was a mixture of determination and fear as she stared, almost transfixed to the front. Her grip on the steering wheel solid as she leaned forward, as if trying to push us through the immortal crowd by sheer force of will. I vaguely remember her flipping on the high beams and turning on the wipers, smearing the window with blackish-red crud.
And I remember her scream as the SUV slid sideways on the slippery mess. Or it was my scream. I'm not sure. No, it was mine. Definitely mine.
They say that your whole life flashes before you just before you die. I guess I didn't have enough time for the entire movie, but as the SUV hit the tree and flipped into the ditch, I saw McCallum's class again. More specifically, I saw Margie in his class. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on her and I'll always remember it. It was the first day of McCallum's lab class and I was heading for my seat. Well, it wasn't my seat yet, but I was determined to claim it. It was the Golden Seat. Every lecture class has one. Two thirds back, last seat in the row on the left side, right on the aisle. Experience had shown me that particular seat, in any lecture hall, was the most difficult seat for the Professors to make out. True point. You can take a nap; they won't notice. You can read a book; they can't see it. You won't be called for answers to questions you'll never hear again in your life and if you decided not to show up one day, no worries. On the first day of any lecture, I try to get there early, to grab the Golden Seat. Even though it's never assigned, you still mark it with your initial presence. The herd mentality of humans then takes over, giving you an assumed prior claim from that point on. But I wasn't the only one with that plan. Margie was heading for that very same seat. We almost collided next to it. I was ready to defend my intended turf with all sorts of arguments, from the "I saw it first" to some vague inference of a medical condition that required specific placement among the various air conditioning vents.
But she was also prepared. She already had her strategy in place. She turned to me, smiled the smile that would melt my heart for the next two years, and said "Oh, I'm sorry. You take it." Damn. She was smart. "I insist," she said flatly, as if anticipating any reply I might make. Bam, checkmate, using the male chivalry ploy. I pulled myself upright, shrugged in a non-committal way, then plopped in the seat directly behind the gold-standard of slacker seating. She nodded, sat down, and I was done. I was toast. I was hers forever.
The first week, all I could do was nod to her and sit. I would try my best to ignore the smell of her hair as it wafted toward me every day. Apparently I wouldn't have been wrong about the air conditioning vents. I had to know more about this girl. But how was I going to talk to her?
It was an accident, as these things often are. McCallum was going on about whether or not undead had partial or completed neural circuitry. There had been a huge discussion in the press about whether the undead could still think or feel. Some scientists stated that, in fact, the undead were very much aware of their surroundings. That they were "conscious", that they could understand what was going on. Even to the point that they might be aware that they were undead. But with no air capacity in their lungs, and decomposing organs, there was no way they could articulate anything to us, the living. But, as McCallum believed, it wouldn't matter because when around live humans, their primal urges took over and all they could think about was eating.
He kept droning on and on, about the hunting and eating habits of UDs and all I could do was stare at Margie’s hair and imagine myself nuzzling her, touching her flesh, nibbling on her neck. "You're sweet enough to eat," I mumbled to Margie's hair. Except that it wasn't Margie's hair that I found myself addressing. Just by chance, lucky chance, she had turned her head and was looking right at me. She smiled and whispered "Excuse me?" It was do or die, I thought. Take it to the man level, a little voice urged, and I said it, out loud, and deliberately. "You're sweet enough to eat."
And she smiled again.
What the fuck??? I'm choking up inside and trying not to laugh cynically at the same time. The sweetest memory I've ever had is now mocking me with the irony of my situation. The first words I ever said to her. And now, this.....
Wait… Bubba’s standing up. Something else has his attention. He starts to shuffle away. I wait until he’s past the tree. No, I wait a bit longer, until he gets to the street. Okay, when he makes it to the other side of the street. He’s gone. I have to hurry. Margie could… I don't want to look at her again, it hurts too much. I turn my head and she's still there. She hasn't reanimated yet but it can’t be too far off now. Her body will shake a bit, the last bit of stale air in her lungs will escape as her muscles contract, and it will be done. She'll turn toward me, those deep brown eyes will have turned black from the pooling blood, she'll open her mouth and I'll hear that gurgling shriek as what was once the love of my life clears the clotted blood and mucus from her esophagus.
Maybe... maybe if McCallum was right, I could talk to her? She might remember me? Our love? I might be able to convince her not to...
Dammit, stop it! I'm just fucking myself with those thoughts! She's gone! She is fucking gone, stop it! That isn't Margie next to you, it's a piece of leftover human meat that will fucking kill you when it wakes up! But I won't be here, God dammit, I won't be here! I'll get that fucking knife, I'll cut this belt and I'll...
I look at my trapped arm. And I'll what? Saw through my arm? What if I can't? And if I do, how do I stop the bleeding? How do I do it in the first place without screaming and thrashing about, ringing a dinner bell for every UD in a three mile radius? What if I'm truly fucked? What if every thought I just tortured myself with actually does happen?
And I cry. I try to anyway, but I just can't muster up the tears. They just won't come and that hurts me even more. I'm dehydrated. How long have we been here? I know I've been awake for at least an hour. I pound the dashboard in frustration!
What? Holy shit, my arm is free! No, not that one, the one tangled with the belt! Oh, sweet Jesus if you exist, thank you! My fingers are stiff and cold, the belt really cut off the circulation. I don't care, I can still get them to move. The glove box is just above my head, which helps a bit as I reach for it. My fingers do their best to curl around the latch and pull. No luck. Maybe if I push it down with my fist...
The glove box drawer pops open and dangles as everything from sunglasses to the car manual falls to the floor... er, roof.
What was that? Did you hear that? I slowly turn my head toward Margie, half expecting her mouth to be open, about to give that gurgle-scream. She hasn't moved. My imagination. Still... I wait quietly for a minute, listening in case Bubba has come back or other UDs have shown up. There was a famous situation outside of Baltimore where a train had crashed into a car, completely by accident. Almost immediately several UDs appeared from the nearby woods, milling about, peering into the car, but they didn't do anything until the train personnel stepped out to check on the damage. It was a slaughter. The undead gurgle-shrieked at the living and attacked them. Over a hundred people eaten in twenty minutes. McCallum postulated that many of the mass consumption events (he called them that; we called them cannibal orgies) happened because the UD’s brain was attracted to accidents with the intention of helping any survivors. Yeah, seriously. Like any group of living people would want to help out, it was ingrained in their resident memory. Hell, maybe Bubba was doing that with us. But, according to the Doc, as soon as living humans showed up, the primal urges of the UDs took over and shut down the higher functions of the brain, resulting in... well, a chow down.
I think I’m okay, I don’t think I heard anything. In any event, I can’t wait. I have to get moving. Where's that knife? It has to be there, I put it there after we used it to open that wine bottle on your birthday. Don’t… don’t think about the birthday… not now. Not right now.
I scan the items strewn on the roof below me. There's the flashlight, Margie's fifties style sunglasses (the ones I pretended to like, but made her look like my mom), car registration and the manual. No, no, no, Margie... don't tell me you took out the knife. Maybe it fell out when we flipped. I hit the glovebox with my cold fingers again. And again, trying to dislodge anything that might be caught behind it.
I’m a fucking genius sometimes. The knife falls right past my head onto the roof. Finally! Okay, reach for it. Stretch my arm, it’s just within my reach. I shake my hand to get some feeling back into it, then reach again. Got it!
Margie moved… I just saw it. Her head turned and it sure as fuck wasn’t the wind. Her eyes are still closed, but I’m running out of time. I use my teeth to pull the blade out of the handle. Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t…
The blade sinks right into my arm, directly into the elbow joint. Yeah, it's going to get a bit gory at this point. The blood doesn’t gush, it just pools and runs down my arm. The advantage of having a steering wheel collapse on your arm is that it cuts off the flow of blood. And the pain? Nope, McCallum was right on the money again.
Margie shuddered. Her arms are twitching. A momentary thought runs through my mind; can I cut her head off with the knife? No… no, she’s too far away from my good arm and the attempt would cost precious seconds. Even if I could bring myself to do it.
The blade clicks on the bone, the cartilage crunches, as I drive deeper into the tissue. No time to be delicate and do this cleanly. Pull on the arm, lean back if you can, try to get it to rip apart as soon as you can get it loose!
Margie exhales… she’s shaking her head! I pull as hard as I can on my arm, I dig as deep as I can with the knife. Suddenly, I slam back in my seat… I’m free! My arm… my half an arm is free! I turn the knife on the seat belt, cutting furiously. I have to move fast! Margie is now staring at me, she’s seen me, she’s… got brown eyes?
“What…? What’s going on?” she says as she stares at me. “Allan, what…. WHAT’S GOING ON?”
Oh, my God! She’s alive! My sweetheart is alive! Holy shit, I forget about the UDs, I forget about my crushed arm, I forget about everything and I’m just overwhelmed with my love for her!
“Grrrmmmishk!” I say to her, to calm her down. “Grrrmmmishk!” I repeat.
She screams and pulls back, clawing at her window, trying to escape. But I don’t care about that. She’s alive. She’s alive. She’s warm. She has flesh.
She looks sweet enough to eat!