I haven’t seen the sun in two months. I don’t miss it. Not really. The sun and I had done battle throughout the years of my childhood, “girlishly cute” freckles stamped like battle scars across my paper pale complexion. I don’t have to worry about sunburns anymore. The daylight belongs to the dead now.
My stronghold is the basement of the Smith house. The house is a sprawling, two-story suburban wet dream, or at least it was. The doors and windows are boarded up, save for the window on the second floor that I use to get in and out. Mister Smith’s body is slowly fertilizing the weeds in the flowerbed out back and his head peers up through the algae clumps in the pool. His wife is gone somewhere, lost in the chaos of the attempted evacuation.
I have safety in the windowless dark of the basement. Against one wall I’ve piled boxes of food and crates of weapons and tools that I’ve scavenged from around town. I have a mattress pulled out in the middle of the floor and candles strewn everywhere, glowing orange-red light that just manages to keep the shadows at bay but threatens, with every flicker, to let them consume my space.
I’m on my knees with my arm braced against the floor and a hatchet blade pressed between my elbow and the meaty gash on the underside of my forearm.
“Just do it,” I say.
“But it’s going to hurt,” I counter.
“It’s better than becoming one of them,” I return.
Sweat rolls off the tip of my nose. I swallow and feel like I’m trying to force a smoldering coal down my throat.
“Just bring it down. One quick swipe.”
The sound of my own voice makes me feel a little saner. I’ve only had myself to talk to for months.
I lift the hatchet.
“Now, do it now.”
And with a wordless keen I toss the hatchet aside. My stomach and throat seize and I turn my head and drool stomach acid on the floor.
I’m condemning myself.
I had been perched on the rooftop of some old apartment building taking shots at the crowd herded into Millburn High’s schoolyard. The chain link kept them trapped inside, made them easy targets. I dropped a few of them before the herd started to get restless. They pushed against the fence, reached out with bony arms until the chain link started to bend outward. It wouldn’t hold them for long, despite their usual nighttime lethargy.
I decided to call it a night. Better to get back well before dawn when they would begin, somehow, to suck energy from the sun. They would be at their deadliest then.
I crossed the rooftop, threw my legs over the lip of the building and dropped down to the top tier of the fire escape. The frail metal frame squeaked and shifted beneath my weight. I clambered down the stairs, the whole structure trembling with my movement, but stopped halfway and stared into the lightless alley below.
I heard the slow, sliding shuffle-step, the dragging feet of a creature with no will and little aim. Its breathing was soft but rattled up through a throat full of mucus and blood and rot.
I switched on the light beneath the rifle’s barrel and aimed it down. The creature looked right up into my light. Tangles of ash-colored hair stuck to her blood encrusted cheeks. The slant of high cheek bones cut sharp against wet paper skin, skin that sagged down the sides of her face in empty folds. Her bottom lip hung loose, torn, exposing the jagged black slivers of her teeth. Black blood oozed over the gray lump of her tongue. One eye leaked black over the skin peeling back from the socket. The other eye was bloodshot but green, empty but familiar.
I had spent most of my middle school afternoons sitting at Karen’s kitchen table as we giggled about the boys we liked and the girls we hated, the house filled with the sugary warm scent of her mother’s cookies. This was the first time I’d seen her in seven years.
I froze. I stared. Her tattered clothes revealed the ribs protruding from her sides and the glossy, purple swell of intestines pushing through a gray hole in her belly.
She moaned and clicked her teeth, raised her arms to reach for me as if she were pleading to be lifted from the dirty alley. As if she were begging to be saved.
All I had to do was pull the trigger. I could deliver her to sweet oblivion. I had done it for so many faceless others. Yet, as I stared down into her one green eye, the barrel of my rifle wavered and my finger slipped from the trigger.
Hands clamped down on my shoulders. Rancid, hot breath washed over my neck.
I whirled around, swinging the rifle with me like a club. A slobbering freak leaned out over the fire escape from a window and clutched at me with gnarled fingers. I shot, but the kick of the rifle took me off-guard in my panic and I stumbled back against the fire escape railing.
The ancient metal gave way with a deafening shriek. Gravity took me quickly and I didn’t have time to be afraid before I slammed back-first into concrete.
Pain enveloped me, shot up my spine and burrowed down into every one of my bones. Breath exploded from my lungs. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. I could only wait.
When the fog rolled back from my mind, I heard that hungering wail drawing close. I rolled over, feeling every bruise that was already forming, and pushed to my feet. I realized only then that my rifle was gone, but there wasn’t time. I felt her behind me.
I didn’t want to see her, not like that. I wouldn’t turn around, and I was barely on my feet and tensing to run when Karen caught me by the forearm and sank her teeth in.
Liquid fire ignited in the soft underside of my arm and radiated out until the entire limb burned. Pain, but so much more than that. Karen gave me the sickness.
The sickness is taking root in my body now. I get to my feet, leaving the hatchet on the floor. The candlelight makes the darkness shift and blur, and everything tilts around me until I sway on unsteady legs. My skin burns and I think of the hot press of sunshine all over my body, the uncomfortably close cling of it in the summer, the way it shines white-hot even through my closed eyelids.
“Gone. That’s all gone now, Rae. You know what you have to do.”
My knees buckle and I hit the floor. My stomach pitches and rolls.
“Was it this fast for you, too, Momma?”
For a second I think I see her shadow in the corner of my eye, but then it’s gone. I grope my way on my hands and knees toward my weapons cache. The first thing I lay my good hand on is a small revolver. There’s that shadow again, teasing my peripheral vision.
“This’ll do, won’t it, Momma?”
I’d take being crazy if it meant she would answer me back.
I crawl to the mattress and throw myself across it. Stretch out on my back. Everything hurts. I put the barrel against my sweat-slick temple and click the safety off.
I don’t want to think of it but I do; I remember that night months ago, stretched out on my bed in my room, the weight of a shotgun lying across my chest. Sirens wailed in the distance but our street was silent. Our house was silent, the kind of quiet that only descends when the universe screeches to a halt, right before the heavens part and God himself slams his fist down on all the wonderful, fragile things that make up your life.
I heard the hiss of feet sliding across carpet in the hall. My heart pounded, but I told myself it was just Momma going to the bathroom. Maybe getting a drink of water. The fever had been burning her out.
The steps came closer. The creaky spot in front of my door groaned.
No, I told myself. No, you won’t grab your gun. It’s just Momma and she’s just sick. She wasn’t even bitten like those other people that turned.
The doorknob twisted and the door slid open. Dim blue shafts of light stabbed in through the cracks between the boards over my window, and in that murky illumination I could see only her feet, just up to the wrinkled hem of her night gown, and the faint silhouette of her head and shoulders.
I held my breath. I told myself I couldn’t do it. Not this.
Her throat wheezed, a dust-dry moan of agony. Of craving. She lunged.
I didn’t feel my finger on the trigger. I didn’t feel anything. My ears rang with the sound of the blast and when reality came rushing back, I was sitting up, my face slick with sweat—no, tears—no, blood too, sliding hot down my cheeks. The shotgun in my arms was the heaviest thing I’d ever held.
Oh God, Kit. I jumped off the bed, tried to jump for the door as soon as my feet hit the ground, but my toes caught on a cold limb and I dropped, slammed chest-first into the floor.
“Momma! Rae, where’s Momma?”
I dragged myself up and slumped against the door. Even though Kit battered the door with her tiny fists and twisted the knob, I didn’t let her open it. I bit my lip and my throat convulsed as I tried to swallow the awful sounds that were welling up in me. Kit couldn’t see this. Not this.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
I would take dying, if it meant she could answer me back. But my body’s traitorous instincts have never given me a choice. Not then, not now.
“Just pull the trigger. Just one more time and it’s all over. Don’t be one of them.”
The room whirls like a merry-go-round spinning at a hellish speed. I close my eyes and another memory slams into my brain.
The daylight was harsh on my skin as my legs pumped in an all-out run. The dead were fast in the daytime and Kit’s little legs were so small and weak. Even as we weaved around cars and jumped over backyard fences in search of somewhere safe, they were always just behind us.
We hadn’t seen another live human being in weeks. It seemed everyone but us had gotten the fever whether they were bitten or not. The news broadcasts had talked about an airborne virus. Maybe Kit and I were immune. I didn’t think we’d be so lucky if we were bitten.
I leapt another fence, paused to turn and pull Kit over, but her hand slipped from mine. She screamed.
One of them already had his teeth buried in her slim white neck. He tore out a mouthful of meat, shredding skin and muscle and ligaments. I thought she’d be dead in seconds, but she kept screaming.
I had a handgun tucked into the waist of my jeans and I pulled it out and shot for the head. That one fell, but another one pushed greedy fingers into Kit’s round belly. Still, she screamed.
After I had shot every last one of them and she was crumpled in the grass on the other side of the fence, blank eyes staring straight into the sun, I could hear her screaming.
I can hear her screaming now. And Momma won’t answer either one of us. Her shadow dances just beyond my dimming vision. I try to pull the trigger, I think, to make the sound and everything just stop, but I can’t feel my hands anymore. Everything is numb. I’m melting into the mattress, more liquid than flesh. I’m already rotting inside, aren’t I? My stomach seizes and I tilt my head to the side as bile scorches its way up my throat.
“It’s too late,” I mumble. Or I think I do. Still can’t hear over Kit’s screaming.
I think of the dead. Of their empty eyes and hungering mouths. They have no guilt. They have nothing to lose. I think I hear them gathering outside, scratching at the walls, beating fists on the boarded windows. Their moans rise in an unearthly chorus, wordlessly beckoning to me. They know their own.
I don’t remember climbing the stairs, but then I’m crawling out of the basement. They’re so loud now, the whole world full of dead screaming for me, and I can’t hear myself think. I have to open the door. Maybe they’ll accept me in, take me as one of their own. Anything to get this noise out of my head. Anything to get out of that basement.
My arms give out. I stretch my hand toward the door, but I can’t make it. Sweet, sunlit oblivion stays just out of reach.
I jerk up from the floor, feeling like I’ve been asleep for a thousand years. My spine is stiff, my body is one giant bruise, and my belly feels raw and gutless, painfully empty. My arm throbs with the beat of my heart.
The open wound is crimson and purple and puffy. Yellow pus trickles out and dries on my skin. It’s infected, but I’m not. The sickness that took Momma and everyone else has left me behind somehow.
Outside I hear them moving, blindly bumping each other and snarling. They’re swarming in the yard because they can sense that there’s living meat somewhere nearby. I never take the risk of coming up from the basement after dawn. This is the first time since I made this place my safe house that I’ve seen any hint of natural light.
It pours in through the gaps between boards, little slashes of warm yellow light that arc across the living room carpet. I slide my hand into one of those little patches of illumination and imagine that I can feel the heat.
I can’t, not really. The door and walls and boards separate me from the entire world.
The world’s a big place. Maybe one night I could take a car up Main Street and just keep driving until I hit Middleton or Ashbury or any place where I can’t recognize the faces of the dead. Maybe I could drive my way out west, where somewhere my father might be alive. This immunity must be genetic, after all.
But the truth is, the world is only as big as the people and things you can lose.
I look back at the basement doorway. My world is very tiny now. Very dark.
I curl up in the little patch of sunlight and cry.