I’ve never liked April. The dampness, the sudden snows, the cold combination of wind and rain. The flowers are all well and good, but the light scent of lilac isn’t enough to cover the smell of corpses. Especially those that refuse to stay dead, as most have done. At least it isn’t summer. Summer is hot and sticky and Those Who Walk are spongey and harder to remove. Distance and aim and ammunition are required. A clear get-away path and nerves that don’t go shaky at the sound of a foot fall behind or moans ahead.
I do not pity the migratory elements of the living, those poor bastards who go south for the winter, but I do envy them when winter is reveling in its bitterness. Winter as a child meant sledding and snowball fights. My cousin Marie’s ski cabin that didn’t mean much for skiing, but was fun for playing in the snow. As a young man winter meant a Peppermint Mocha Latte at Starbucks, with soy, hold the whip, thank you very much. My cousin Marie’s college roommate, at the ski cabin and who wasn’t much for skiing, but was fun for playing in the snow. Those Who Walk changed that.
Broken images return to me in dreams. Dead trees, sun through branches, no shelter there, stony walls that only come to my knees. Dry riverbeds. Crickets on corpses. Waiting for them to move. Graves in forgetful snow, feeding on the living, who stood to Walk, and I was frightened. Shadows chasing me. Hiding and waiting. Finding Those Who Walk will freeze but not die. They’re already dead. Finding it was easier to kill them that way, hacking away at frozen corpses that stared with eyes both awake and aware. Burning the renewed dead, Those Who Walk, zombies, friends and family. Scattering the ash so that the bodies cannot return to feed. Not sure if it is enough. I have seen fear in a handful of dust.
Marie found me first. She was the first of them to find me. I was in the garden, when she came back, it was April and I had just found a Hyacinth pushing up through the snow. My dog barked, and when I looked up Marie was just there. She stared the way Those Who Walk will stare when they recognize their prey. I realized that later. Her hair was wet, her arms full of mud, and I could not speak. My eyes could not understand what stood before me. She looked at me with eyes that knew what she had become, and knew she could not stop what she was. She came for me, and I could not move. My dog did. I survived. My dog did not. Fortunately the dogs don’t Walk. They just die.
I cried when I killed her, again, and I cried when I buried her in the garden. I had to use my hands, as I had nothing else. Those Who Walk are strong, when they are new. I learned later to burn the bodies, just to be sure, and that the cold makes them slower and easier to kill. I dream about that moment. Only there is no dog. There is no bark. There is the garden and Hyacinth and Marie.
I let the city die around me. The country died as well, but I stayed in my home. I knew Atlanta was gone. Everything south of Maryland was gone. I didn’t know about the other side of the Rockies. I didn’t know about the rest of the world. All I knew was that it was quiet and dark and cold and I stayed in hiding. I stared at walls and listened to hushed rooms for the footsteps of the dead. I could see the ocean from my top floor. Could smell it in the winter when the wind was right. I wondered if I still had enough training from the Navy to steal one of the yachts. Wondered if it would be worse to starve to death at sea.
Winter served its purpose, and I became good at hacking. That’s what I called it. The methodical elimination of Those Who Walk with axe and fire. I never let the fire get out of hand, but it was always possible. If there were others alive, I never saw them. I had family in the city, My sister Lily and her husband Albert. Their children. I never saw them. I never heard from them. It all happened too fast. And then it was over. The survivors simply had to do that, survive. If my sister was alive, if her husband and children were alive, they would come for me. That was what Those Who Walk did. They found their family. Marie did.
I found my family too, eventually.
I went to their home, and it took quite a while. Albert had money. Lots of money. It was his yacht I often fantasied stealing. His Land Rover to take me to safety further north. Their house I was going to ransack for all I could, if I could not stay there in security and comfort.
I could not.
Their house, or rather estate, was empty. The windows on the first floor were broken, the snow drifted in across the wood floors. The days had been warm enough for Those Who Walk to move, but they had a lot of trouble at night. The night was still mine, and was when I entered my sister’s home. I found Lily in the top floor bedroom. I stared for a full minute before I could accept that she was alive. She lay in her bed; blood covered the bottom of her bed. Where her legs should have been. Somehow, she had stopped the bleeding. I had found her gun on the second floor landing. I found ammunition in her night stand. She was still awake when I found her.
“I was just talking to you,” she said. “Albert was here. I got rid of him, but I think the children will follow. Are you alive?”
“I am. I saw Marie.”
“You should have brought her.”
“I don’t think she was good company.”
“Better than you.”
“I’d still beat you at chess.”
“Maybe. If we had time.”
“Did you hear that?”
“Wind. Under the door.”
“It’s Albert. His eyes. His eyes are pearls.”
“It’s time to go.” I could see the pain leaving her eyes. Could see there was nothing left of her. Nothing left for her. Except a grave. One she wouldn’t stay in for long.
“I can’t feel my feet.”
“I can’t feel my feet either.”
“I can’t feel my hands.”
“I can’t feel my hands. I can’t feel my feet. I can’t feel my nose, ears, or lips. I am so cold I can’t feel.”
“So get on with it.”
“Hurry up, it’s time.”
The gunshot rang in my ears for hours.
When I left the house, I had just set it on fire. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen Albert. Or the children. Lily’s aim had been good, but not good enough. All six of them were covered in wounds that did not bleed. Hurry up, it’s time. Their eyes pleaded with knowledge. Their movements slowed by the cold. I did not have to hack this time. Albert had been, for all his breeding and culture, an avid hunter. More the lord of the manner than the redneck in the woods, but still a brutal sport. He would have understood what I had to do. He would have been better at it. Hurry up, it’s time. I was merely competent. A baby sitter instead of a parent.
I raised the rifle, and sighted at each of them. Goodnight Albert. Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goodnight George. Goodnight Lily, named for your mother.
Hurry up, it’s time.
Goodnight ladies and gentlemen.
Throughout the summer, I slept in a tent by the river. Those Who Walk don’t like running water for some reason. The river was clean too, for a wonder. No trash or bottles floated in it. No bodies either. As the days lengthened and warmed, I thought I should return to the safety of a house. Houses were homes for people, and Those Who Walk went there first. They returned to their homes, and found those who remained. They seemed supremely uninterested in those who were unrelated. Free range living, as it were. Water too, they didn’t like. Others discovered this as well.
Others without addresses found the river, and the canals, and we all lived there that summer like rats. We ate what we could, slept where we could, and kept safe as we could. Winter returned, like it does, and we were forced again indoors. We could endure the cold better, but were not immune.
In a boathouse, near the docks, my mind turned to my brother-in-laws yacht again. It was quiet and I was looking out over the frozen bodies across the square. Not many, Those Who Walked were dying off or moving on or both. The city looked unreal at night. The empty buildings. The deserted streets. The orange glow from the river. It looked strange and demonic and unworldly.
I wondered how much money had been spent on this city, and in this city over the years. From the founding to the wars to the marble in the courthouse to the metal in the taxis. I thought of the clothes still in the shops, the silks and scarves and leather jackets. I thought of the unsold Mercedes still on the lots, the unused microwaves still in the boxes, and the unwatched blu-rays still on the racks. The five star restaurants and every McDonald’s drive through. Over four hundred years old and the city had been left behind like an ex-lover. I was supremely indifferent.
Orange. Why was the river orange?
Because it was reflecting the fire.
The city was on fire.
When we discovered that Those Who Walk could infect the dead with their blood, we started burning their bodies. I had burned Marie as a kindness. I had burned my sister’s home in anger and remorse. The rest came in trial and error. In madness and confusion. Those who felt we were being punished, and that the punishment needed to be completed. I only thought we were the survivors. Someone must have decided to complete the punishment. Someone must have decided the lesson wasn’t clear enough, and that we needed a lecture on what it was to finish something.
The fire swept the city clean of all who lived and all who used to live. If asked, their greatest wish had just been granted. For some of the living, that wish was being granted too. Nothing could withstand the inferno rushing towards me.
My only thought was to run. I took nothing with me. I made no sound. I simply ran away. Out of the boathouse. The fire gained. Down to the docks. The fire was on top of me. Toward the ocean. The fire caught up to me. It consumed everything. With the city screaming and burning, I dove into the ocean.
I wished I had learned how to swim.
I woke to shouting and crying. Faces red with the reflected light of the fire, the air cold and burning my lungs. Figures, black against the red light moved quickly back and forth, securing ropes over burlap and moving other bodies and figures. Some moved, some didn’t. The ones who were carried. The others just shifted them with impatience, pointing and gesturing to get things done.
I was sat up.
I was on a boat.
We were headed up away from the city, which burned in hellfire and glory. Sensations began to return to me. The sound of the water and the voices of men and women. The smell of soot and ash. Pain throughout my arm and shoulder and scalp. Later I would see the extent of the damage, but for now it was enough to know that I survived.
The entire arm was wrapped in cotton, just beginning to soak through with blooms of red. My neck and face felt tight stretched, like a mask of self. I should have been screaming. I should have been writhing in pain. I should have been settling gently to the bottom of the river, fortunate enough not to return to search for my family in the cold hunger of the night.
A woman with long black hair came and sat next to me. She wore a stethoscope and an automatic pistol. Scrubs and dog tags. Military bearing and bedside manner. She took my pulse, shone a light in my eyes, and noted a few things on a clipboard. She took two syringes out of a pocket, wiped my forearm with an alcohol swab, and inserted the first needle. “For infections.” She withdrew the empty syringe and inserted the next. “For pain.”
Whatever I could feel, throbbing through the ruin of my right side, drifted away with the night wind. Emotion took its place, although I didn’t know what to do with it. The eye I could see out of welled and overflowed. I tried to stand. The doctor put a hand on my shoulder, but helped me into a sitting position. I could just see over the ship’s railing.
“Thank you.” They were the first words I’d spoken in months.
“It’s not as bad as it looks. You wouldn’t be able to move if it was.” She readjusted the blanket that covered me. I could see my breath on the air. “We almost didn’t pull you out of the river. We’re not stopping for anything until we get further out to sea. Then we’ll decide whether to go north along the coast or further out. Possibly to England.”
“Do you have enough supplies for that?”
“One of the questions we need to answer. Right now, I think everyone just wants to get away.” She gestured towards the bank with her chin.
I turned and saw hundreds of figures, white in the darkness, standing along the banks. They were naked and rotting and could not move from the cold. The fire was warming them, but too quickly and too efficiently. They would not enter the water. Thunder rolled out over the ocean, and I turned to see lighting in the dark clouds overhead. The cold April rains would come, and put out the fire. Any left alive would be saved. Those Who Walked at the pier would remain as they were.
Thunder again, in earnest, and the rain began to fall in earnest.
“Why don’t they move?” the doctor asked. “What do they want?”
“They want what we all want. They want to go home.”
“And what if they can’t? What if we can’t?”
“Then we go on.”
I continued to look out over the railing. I couldn’t feel the rain or the wind. We sailed past a great bridge which had collapsed in fire and rain, and our boat traveled away from the city. North into cold and rock, towards mountains and empty lands.
John O’Keefe is an 8th grade English teacher with a master’s in creative writing. He is an avid fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction. His previous published stories, Promises and Gehenna, appear in print and online. He is currently at work on other short stories, his stand-up comedy routine, and his first novel, Cold. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two dogs.
Betty Rocksteady is a Canadian author and illustrator. Learn more at www.bettyrocksteady.com.