“He looks so peaceful,” my wife said, looking down, her face stained with tears.
Inside my mind I screamed:
I’M ALIVE I’M ALIVE
PLEASE GOD WON’T SOMEONE HELP ME
“He looks so peaceful,” my wife said, looking down, her face stained with tears.
Inside my mind I screamed:
I’M ALIVE I’M ALIVE
PLEASE GOD WON’T SOMEONE HELP ME
“I don’t want to be a part of this family any more,” I said, and I saw the look of anguish, of anger, of frustration, of disappointment on my Father’s face. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself, you never have, and the only reason you want me around is to control me.”
And with that I walked out the door and slammed it, and moved to Mexico. That was in 1987.
I told myself I’d never feel bad, never regret it, and I never did. When Dad fell sick in the 90’s, somehow Catherine found my mailing address, I don’t know how, and told me to come as soon as I could. I put the letter in a drawer and forgot about it.
The funeral invite came two months later. I threw it in the trash with a banana peel.
It’s November 2nd now, a big day here in Mexico, Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. I’m out in the market and I see people everywhere, their faces painted like grotesque skulls, all black and white.
In the distance near a stall with bananas I see a figure that is strangely familiar, something about the shape of it, the way it moves, the slow deliberateness.
I watch in horror as it makes it way toward me, and the thing locks it sightlessness face onto mine and does not stray. There is no make-up, no pretend, there is only the bone white of skull and dark empty pits. I see the shirt of the thing is open and there are white ribs poking through rotting flesh and insects wriggling out of burrowed holes.
My feet are frozen in place and I cannot run. The sun beats down on my head, and the spectre makes its way toward me. I see its bleached jawbone waggle and I hear the word only in my mind: Son.
For the first time, I feel bad. But it is too late. Now there is nothing I can do.
It started like any other rain at first: a smattering of wetness falling from the sky. Pedestrians strolling on the sidewalk looked up when they felt small drops hit their faces and outstretched palms.
“Looks like rain,” people said then. And it was.
The spitting turned to a downpour, and people ran for cover, unfurled umbrellas, and shielded themselves with newspapers and briefcases. The rain had began in earnest. I remember where I was when that happened: I’d been sitting out on the patio of Cafe Fontaine having an espresso. That was four months ago.
Like a disease, a black plague, a rolling tide of judgement, the dark clouds slowly made their way everywhere, and with them, the rain came. The reports of rapidly rising floodwaters were first only from the interior, then all across the country.
The rain falls. My wife sits beneath a soaked blanket with my young daughter as I slowly paddle our tiny boat, my arms stiff and sore and cold, between the rows of streetlights. The highway they lined is beneath us, submerged along with so many abandoned cars filling it; futile attempts to escape the rising floods, already then too late.
Up ahead is an overpass. We are nearly level with its bottom, the water has risen so high. As it draws nearer I see on it graffiti sprayed in violent red:
REPENT SINNERS BEFORE AN ANGRY GOD
THE TIME OF OUR JUDGEMENT HAS COME
My daughter shivers beneath the blanket.
“Daddy,” she says in little her voice. “When will the rain stop?”
I hold her and my wife close and we huddle together in each other’s warmth.
“I don’t know, baby,” I say. “I don’t know.”
I found Franz Stilgaart in his run-down apartment across the river, just like the Monsieur’s man I’d met in the alley said I would, drinking wine from a cheap goblet, seated staring out a tiny window at the Monk’s Bridge, his back toward the door and me. Careless.
It was a thing of ease to sneak up behind him and catch him unawares; when I slipped the blade into his back and felt the familiar warmth stain my hands he made no sound. He turned his head to face me, his last expression one of simply not understanding.
I wiped my knife on his filthy rags and left his dead body bleeding on the floor.
So imagine my surprise when three weeks later I came home to flat above the markets, only to find him standing in my living room, very much alive. Just like the first time, there were no words: my surprise turned to action and I felt my feet gain life beneath me and I tackled him.
We wrestled on the floor. I felt my hands around his neck and him gasping for air. I found my knife in my belt and slipped it into him for the second time, this time in the pale white skin of his throat.
All I can think of now are the last words of Franz Stilgaart, the words he gasped out when I murdered him for the second time, and have robbed me of my sleep this last fortnight, and I can only imagine will for many more to come. How long? How long will his words continue to haunt me? Until I meet my end just like him, the man I killed twice?
“There’s nothing,” he’d said. “There’s nothing on the other side.”
They call me Dr. Death.
I offer a service, as discreetly and humanely and as painlessly as possible, to shuffle those off this mortal coil who cannot do the shuffling on their own. Those who are broken. Those who are beaten. Those who are so tired but cannot bring themselves fall asleep.
Do no harm, the oath says; but who’s to say that if someone is suffering, really, truly suffering, that the act of putting them out of their misery is doing more harm than good? That ending a life cannot be a benevolent act? An act of healing? An act of righteousness?
I am bound to a chair. There is blood everywhere on the floor beneath me. I’d never have thought a person could bleed so much and still be alive.
“I’m not afraid to die,” I say once more to my captor. The words come out slowly and quietly, choked whispers. I’m gasping for air again and I don’t recognize my own voice. “I’ve seen hundreds of others do it. I’m not afraid…”
“You killed her!” he screams, for what seems like the thousandth time. The bloody straight razor hangs from his hand at his side. He is covered in my blood. My vision is blurring and I can’t see his face anymore. His voice sounds garbled and distorted. “You took her away from me!”
“She wanted to die…” I gasp weakly. “She asked me to do it…”
My vision is fading. This is it. I feel myself slipping away. And then, far off, a pin prick in my arm, again. He’s stabbed another needle into me and is pushing the plunger.
He draws his face close to mine and I see it clearly now. He is grinning wickedly.
“Not yet,” he says. “Not yet.”
They call me Dr. Death. What I’d give now for my own medicine.
You’ve gotta have a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise there’s no point in living.
Me, I’m a collector. A collector of rarities. I figure it’s the sort of hobby most people would get into gradually, but hey, not me. My interest came in a flash of inspiration, right as I was about to pull the trigger of the shotgun in my mouth. It was the only thing I was living for. It’d been two years since I’d seen another uninfected. As far as I knew, I was the only goddamn person left in the world that hadn’t turned into a walker. They were eating each other for sustenance, or simply fading away. It took a surprisingly long time.
I kept their parts in jars.
The thrill I got from the danger made it worth it. Some times I’d lure a single one away and then take what I wanted after dispatching it, others I’d pick one in a group off from afar, usually with the rifle, then barrel in guns blazing on the others, slice off a piece and run. Smash-and-grab.
But those thrills were nothing compared to the ones from finding rarities. I got a rush of excitement, a surge of pure joy when I discovered my first on the inexplicably undecayed back of a man: a beautiful giant Oriental tattoo of tigers hunting in the jungle. I think he must have been a biker before, or some kind of criminal. Others followed: a nearly perfect, almost normal-looking human ear from a young girl; a glass eye from a fat salesman-looking type; a hand with six fingers; a double belly-button; and the list went on. Soon my cellar was lined with jars filled of pickled oddities. I was becoming a regular sideshow purveyor and had never felt happier, despite having no one to share it with.
It happened when I was out in the badlands, far outside the city. The engine made strange noises as I drove there in the Jeep; I worried that I might have to find a new one soon.
The Eagle remained unfired at my side. I felled the lone walker I found with the hatchet instead, and the adrenaline coursing through my veins afterward felt amazing. He’d almost bit me. One of these days I was going to get infected, I just knew it. But my adrenaline rush soon fell flat in disappointment when the body turned up nothing of interest. I kicked the rotting corpse aside, then kicked it again in frustration.
When I got back to the Jeep, there was a man in sunglasses and a slouch hat leaning against it. He was grinning widely and his teeth shone in the bright light of the afternoon.
“Hello,” he said, and raised a strange-looking gun.
That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up. It’s very dark down here but my eyes have adjusted. I can see there are others too, chained up like I am.
It seems I’m not the only uninfected after all. Nor the only collector.
When the engine burst into flames, I calmly turned the wheel and let my car slowly come to a stop by the side of the road. I got out of the car and watched the fire rage beneath the hood, long flames shooting up into to the arid desert sky, pouring black soot from their tips. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher. I didn’t know what to do.
The road stretched off to the horizon in either direction, a thin grey line disappearing into infinities.
I took my things from the backseat and stood a safe distance from the Chevy. I waited for the engine to explode, like in the movies, but it didn’t. The flames finally just died down, like in real life, and the two of us, me and the old Chevy, sat by the long line of gray pavement in silence.
What a shitbox, I thought.
I did this on purpose, you know, the car echoed back. This what you get for treating me the way you always have. For thinking you could take me on this hare-brained cross-country scheme you had planned to see that slut of yours without so much as giving me an oil change. So there. You deserve this.
You know what? Maybe you’re right, I thought.
The engine was smouldering. I grabbed the rest of my things from the back. No bars on my phone and maybe an hour of battery. A bottle of water. My suitcase. Miles and miles of desert.
What had I been thinking?
You brought this on yourself, the Chevy said with malice. You brought this on ourselves.
I know, I thought. I know.
I left the car by the side of the highway and began to walk.
In the trunk, her body was lifeless. I wondered if soon mine would be too.
The explosion tore through the terminal like shattered glass through sinews and flesh.
Then gunshots came – shotgun blasts, I thought they were, though of course I wouldn’t know – and people screaming. Then it was just this rising wave of panic that I could absolutely just feel in the open air of the terminal, and more blasts, echoing down the glass-roofed atrium past the ‘D’ gates, and screaming, and people were running, and the din of the wheels of their luggage rolling on concrete was deafening.
I stood, frozen, like a stone in a stream with a raging river passing around me.
Farther down I saw two security guards running, the crisp white of their shirts beneath their bullet-proof vests soaked red with blood, and behind them a man giving chase. Two men. Then a whole horde came stampeding around the corner. They were all bearing down fast on me and I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.
Finally I found myself and joined the fleeing throngs around me, the wheels of my luggage joining the cacophonous chorus being played, and I tore down the floor of terminal.
The second blast came from the other side of the airport in front of me, and this time the screams of everyone around arose immediately and loudly and the palpable panic in the air grew even higher. I saw more people come running around the other side on the far end, rounding the corner near the Mexican restaurant. They were waving their arms and their mouths were open. They were making horrible noises. They were covered in blood.
I heard the loudspeakers all around come alive into too-loud static, then into the voice of a woman, trying to sound as calm as she urged everyone in the terminal to be: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm… this is an Emergency. Proceed to the nearest exit as quickly as you can. Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm, and proceed to the nearest exit. Emergency response personnel are on their way… please remain calm. This is an Emergency…”
They were closing in and I was going to be pinched in the middle. Something overcame me, something hard and sharp and tight in my chest and I ran, ran and turned sharply and before I knew what I was doing I ducked into a handicap bathroom and locked the door behind me.
There was something wrong with them. Something in their eyes. Their skin too, I saw, at just the last moment. The screams are so loud now, they’re everywhere, and gunshots. I can hear them, those people, those things – growling, and sounds, wet sounds.
They’re eating them. They’re… they’re monsters. What do I do?
We burst through the upper atmosphere, our dead ship falling to earth like a steel stone, klaxons blaring loud and all the lights red and flashing inside, blinding all sensation. The hull glowed angry red and flames and smoke of rage trailed from the vessel. It must have been a beautiful sight from the ground.
Only McGrady, Whittle and I survived. The Captain took the joystick right through the ribcage like the spear of an angry native.
It was black, black as pitch, and the jungle of the planet we’d crashed into awaited outside the mangled steel door of the ship. Noises, from outside. Insects. And animals.
McGrady had the blaster. The only other thing we could scrounge up was a handful of flares. Everything else was gone, jettisoned with the cargo.
I lit the first flare and it exploded into an unreal red flame. I saw Whittle’s pudgy white face glow beneath it. We tramped through the humid underbrush, scarcely able to see anything, not knowing where we were going.
As we hiked the noises got worse, deep growls. Roars. Sounds that made us think of mouths full of sharp teeth and vicious hungry claws and scaly backs and eyes that saw us in the dark.
When the first flare went out I reached to light the second. That was all it took. Something pounced and I heard Whittle scream and all was blackness and fighting. I heard McGrady fire the blaster. When the red flame finally came alive I saw Whittle’s terrified face as he was dragged off into the brush. Then there was only his screams and wet, snapping sounds and growls and the sound of him being devoured.
McGrady’s blaster shook in his hand. They kept their distance from the flare. Until it ran out again and they got him. The soldier’s screams were even worse than those of Whittle’s had been. I heard the things tear him in half with a wet crackling snap and then all was silent. There was two of them now.
I’m crouched on a log now, huddled down. I think there’s a third, I can hear them all circling.
The flare is burning low. I know it will only last so long.
I walked out of the lobby and into the broad light of day. Far off, down the sidewalk, I saw an old man ambling toward me, a long black cane in his hand, tapping against the grey stone.
The light changed and I crossed. I rounded the corner and saw the street filled with people – old people, young people, businessmen in suits, middle-aged couples with young children.
In each and every one of their hands was a black cane, tapping against the sidewalk. The din was like roar of a thousand sea monsters, pulling doomed viking ships down into dark stormy waters.
A young boy looked up to me, his eyes sharp and cutting.
“You!” he said, and pointed with his cane. Everyone in the street stopped and turned to face me. The din ceased as all the walking sticks were held just aloft of the pavement beneath.
Then they all rushed me, black wooden sticks flying in the area as they ran.
They encircled me and rained blow after blow down upon me with the hardness of the canes. I screamed out for them to stop, not understanding what was happening, where I was, what this was. I felt the stinging blows exploding into pain over and over in my leg. I felt my shin bone shatter. I screamed again and the flurry of black wood increased until everything turned black.
I awoke in my hotel room, and turned to rise out of bed. My leg ached again, as it always did when the weather was wet. I grabbed the black cane from my bedside, and hobbled over toward the bathroom to shower.