Part 1 – Now
They have claws. Sharp daggers. Some even have claws on their feet because they walk on all fours. We have reverted back to the Stone Age, back to when we stepped outside and risked everything to do so. At one time in the not-so-distant past, the vulgar being standing in front of me was me. A human, hot red blood coursing through its veins. A human with emotions, language, social tendencies. But now its brains have turned to mush and its blood has turned to dust and the only way it doesn’t crumble, the only way it doesn’t disintegrate into the earth, is if it feeds. And right now, it’s about to feed on me.
Its beady pink eyes stare through me while a mangled piece of intestine falls out of its midsection. It doesn’t seem to notice its loss of guts as it lunges on me with a surprising amount of force, but I happen to notice. I look into its eyes and smile, deciding to give the monster a show. I pretend to struggle, pretend to be sick out of my mind, pretend to be scared. But this isn’t my first rodeo.
The creature’s jaw falls out on top of me, landing with a gooey plop on my already blood-stained shirt. My blood? Who knows. As if it really matters anymore. A string of crusty saliva mixed with powdery insides dribbles from the place where the jaw disappeared; a remnant of some muscle turned-gray dangles in mid-air. The smell is something simple to get used to—when the entire world reeks of death you begin to hone in on other senses—so I barely flinch when he (or she?) exhales their hot, noxious fumes down my face and straight into my nostrils. A couple remaining teeth fall out along the way, dropping on my face like fat, wet raindrops. They have flesh on them, real flesh, I can tell. Human skin is hard to miss in a world of gray. I almost want to touch it, to feel what it feels like again, but that would make me just a little more of a psychopath than I admit to being at the moment.
I’m hungry. I feel the pain of emptiness more than the weight of the idiot lying on me. But this isn’t new; I’m always hungry. It’s a persistent fact now and so I start chanting my own little mantra like I do, slightly louder than usual because maybe, just maybe, I want to attract more beasts to come and give me a real challenge.
“Fuck this world and fuck you, insides.”
Okay, so it isn’t the Gettysburg Address or the speech at the end of Independence Day. Maybe more like a line from the Star Wars prequels. But have you ever tried to come up with an idea when you’re hungry? Don’t lie—it never works and you damn well know it. So there you go. I haven’t been able to come up with a sufficient idea in a good, long while. So fuck you for thinking I’m still as smart as I was. That all changed along with everything else, which sure as hell includes my tendency to curse.
Well now’s a good of a time as any I suppose. My name is Ember Hale. I forgot how old I am. I stopped keeping track of time long ago. I guess you can say I’m some sort of a legend. Everyone is nowadays… there’s only a few of us left. I live somewhere, not quite sure where anymore. I think it used to be a city. There’s about one building still standing so there’s that. My family is long gone; everyone I knew before is gone. Not even sure where they went. Not sure where anything went. The world is just gone.
Well enough stalling, here we go. My story takes us back a few years, to when the world was a little cleaner and to when I was a little more innocent.
I whip out my sword and swing above my head, blood-turned-dust powdering my face a burnt red as I slice the monster’s head in two. Then I laugh up at God.
Part 2 – Then
“Ember,” the shadow next to me half-whispers, half-screams.
I roll over in my sleeping bag so I don’t have to face the desperate call because I’m too tired to do much of anything. I’m also too cold and too sore and too hungry to do much of anything.
Our house was taken a week ago. My little brother left the door open and forgot to shut it, as little brothers do, but this is the apocalypse. You can’t be a stupid little brother in the apocalypse.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “What happened to turn the world into an episode of The Walking Dead?” Hell if I know. We woke up one day to banging on our door and the rest is history. I think it started in our city… Makes sense that it would start here in this claustrophobic, trash-heap of a place. It’s been about three or four months now, and it’s already becoming rare to see a group like us. A full family still intact. Well, almost. My best friend Tanner has been staying with us as his own family disappeared a few weeks back, and he is who whisper-screams at me now.
“There’s one over there!”
I sigh in response—there’s one everywhere.
We’ve been through this before. I pull the rest of my family close—Tanner in one arm, my little brother in the other, and my mom on the other side of him. Our sleeping bags squish together as we all shake in fear (and possibly hypothermia) while my dad grabs his knife and heads towards the being crunching its way through the dead leaves.
Just as the former human lumbers into the moonlight and we realize it is (was?) our neighbor from down the street, six (maybe seven) more monsters emerge from the tree line. I feel Tanner sucking in a huge breath next to me, digging his head into the space between my shoulder and neck. My reaction is a little braver than his—I pop up and guard my family just as my father is stabbing our friendly neighbor in the forehead.
“Run!” he yells, shooing us away with a throw of his arm.
My mother realizes that her husband can’t fight them off on his own, so she tells Tanner and me to take care of Bobby and bad-assly whips her own knife out of her boot.
With a lot of crying from Bobby, (yeah, yeah, yeah… and me) we take off at a sprint in a random direction, clambering our way through streets and backyards, woods and frozen creeks.
We don’t know it now, but we never see my parents again. Tanner and I take turns holding a wailing Bobby in our arms, trying to calm him down as much as we can so as to not attract the rest of our neighbor’s little gang.
For the next few weeks we wander around in the cold with no way of protecting ourselves. Bobby wants his parents, I want my parents, Tanner just lost two sets of parents. It’s a miracle we’re still alive when we finally find an empty house and hunker down there, creating somewhat of a home for about a month. That is about a month until we run out of food. The hunger creeps up, the loneliness grows, and the inability to protect ourselves manifests in a pathetic weakness. So it’s a surprise when one day, in an effort to assert his manliness, Tanner takes it upon himself to go out searching for food.
“You’re not leaving here alone, Tan.”
“What choice do I have?”
“A lot of choices. We could go together. I could go. We could eat the floorboards.”
“Don’t ‘Em’ me. I’m not giving you permission.”
“I’m a big boy, I can make my own damn decisions.”
“Not in front of our child.”
“You think pretending Bobby is our child will help your case?”
“Well it sure as hell wasn’t to make you fall in love with me.”
“Maybe if I did fall in love with you I would stay.”
“Wow, do you realize how terrible you sound?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been a rough few weeks. I failed a test yesterday.”
“Yeah?” I crack a smile.
“I took the same one.”
“I got an A.”
“So we’re coming with you.”
“Well, I guess because you’re the mother of my child now I have to listen to you.”
And that’s how I convince him to let us venture back out into the real world. Joking about our parents’ possible deaths. Seems fitting.
We rumage through the kitchen and find two large knives and a screwdriver, then pack two bags full of whatever we have left in our possession—a comic book, a can of beans, one roll of saltines, one of those baby-sized bottles of water, another comic book, a broken iPhone, and a few pairs of clothes. Don’t ask how we lost the rest of our stuff—it’s pretty tragic. Anyways, we open the door for the first time in a month, letting the chill of the ever-persisting winter envelop us. We hold hands—Bobby in the middle of course so we can swing him up and down—and head off into the middle of the neighborhood. There’s a few monsters skirting along the edge of the woods so we stay in the center of the road, keeping our eyes peeled for the depressingly low number of humans glaring through their windows at us. I wonder how many of them are in their original homes. I wonder how many of them took the homes from others. Killed for them.
Ultimately we find a house that doesn’t 1) look like a pile of ash, 2) have eyes in windows, or 3) have cans of food littering its front lawn. Those facts alone don’t necessarily mean it’s empty; just because the door’s shut doesn’t mean there’s food in there, but it’s worth a shot. It’s worth every shot we have. Our stomachs dictate our every move.
Tanner and I gently push open the door, holding our knives out in our pathetic, shaking hands. Bobby stands behind him, twirling the srewdriver in his own. I get distracted by the shiny metal of the tool, so I suppose I deserve it when fate plays a cruel joke on us and we hear them. Loud, vile groans. Cracking, creaking floorboards. The blinds are all shut, and before we have time to react we hear them shuffling abnormally fast through the dark, headed straight towards us.
“Tanner, grab him!” I yell.
He throws Bobby over his shoulder as we take off at a sprint away from the house. The only problem is that in the panic we sprint straight into the woods. Guess the weapons didn’t matter after all; we’re still just as stupid with them as we were without. The next few moments play out in slow motion. Tanner trips, taking a tumble down a hill and ends up deep into the woods with Bobby sprawled out next to him. I let out a yelp and stumble down said hill as well, all of our belongings creating a trail behind me as I plummet. It’s as if we’ve been in rising action up until this point and now we’ve reached the climax.
Once I land and peel my face out of the gritty Earth, I look up to a scene straight from a horror movie. My 7-year-old, baby brother is getting eaten in front of my eyes. Getting ripped apart from the inside. His intestines are out of his damn body. It’s the kind of scene even movies refuse to show. The kind that when it happens we don’t talk about it, we don’t picture it in our minds, we try to pretend it didn’t happen. He’s a goner by now, but the being is entirely caught up in him, so I turn my attention to Tanner. A Tanner that is trying to beat the monster off Bobby with a stick, looking as small as I have ever seen him. As I sob, I grab his torso from behind, pulling him away so he falls backwards on top of me. I feel it before I see it—the gaping wound from my best friend’s back—as blood oozes down both our bodies.
“Don’t leave me here alone!” I scream to both of them, to the sky, to everything.
“You’ll be okay. I know you, Ember,” Tanner chokes out, blood beginning to trickle down his chin.
I lie on top of his chest, listening to his heartbeat slow and slow and slow until it’s nothing at all.
Then I grab the screwdriver sticking out of the dirt and howl up at God.
Part 3 – Now
I lost them all, you see. I don’t even know what happened to some of them. Bobby haunts my nightmares, my subconscious. His intestines wrap around me, choke me, and I know I’m never going to be able to breathe quite the same again. It’s Tanner who I think about when I’m awake, in those moments when I realize I didn’t used to be a psychopath. I used to have feelings—pretty sure I actually did fall in love with him maybe just a little—it’s weird how that works. How hindsight is 20/20. How he died right in front of my face.
So here I am now, years after all that. I wonder what it would have been like if I had protected them. If I had gotten a damn weapon when I should have. If I hadn’t been such a coward who thought the world was hers to hold forever. It’s too late now for me, for everyone, so I don’t know what to tell you. There are no happy endings, especially in a life that involves every dead human on the planet trying to kill you. So good luck, and I guess I’ll see you when you turn into one of them. I’ll probably stab you in the brain.