I AWOKE TO find a lone zombie underneath my little hideaway. The tree house I had spent the night in was poorly constructed—the bottom was just a square of plywood, reinforced with a couple boards, with plywood walls on three sides and the fourth one open. It had no roof, but the sky was clear, so no bother. All the pieces were irregular and unpainted, with big gaps between them in many spots, and the walls were only between two and three feet high. But it was higher up than most, a good twelve feet off the ground (the kid’s mom must’ve been one of the ones we always called a “cool mom,” to allow such a dangerous playhouse), so I was even more surprised to see my unwanted visitor.
I scanned the surrounding field and trees and saw that the zombie and I were alone; my heart slowed down. In a few moments, my situation had gone from peaceful morning reverie, to possible or near-certain death, to minor inconvenience. In that respect, this was a typical morning.
Tree houses, and any other little platform above the ground, were my favorite places to catch a couple hours of sleep at night as I made my way across the country. Going inside a building required a careful search, and later on, as you tried to sleep, you’d start to worry that maybe you had missed some hiding place, from which the real Boogie Man, who doesn’t need sleep, would rise up during the night. And building the necessary barricades on the doors and windows often made so much noise you could end up with a growing crowd of the undead, whose moaning and clawing at the doors would probably keep you up, on top of the danger they would pose when you tried to leave your shelter in the morning. Unless you were in a group, a building was not a good choice for your little motel in hell.
Little platforms above ground, on the other hand, were ideal. Not comfortable, but ideal. You usually had to lash yourself to them so you wouldn’t fall off in the night, and you almost always had to sleep sitting up, but that was nothing for a few blessed hours of relative peace of mind. The undead are by nature incurious and almost never look up, so the chances of being spotted once you were in your little eyrie were low. For exactly the same reason that hunters once used them, back when humans were the hunters rather than the hunted, your scent wouldn’t usually carry down to the creatures below, either. The tree houses always made me a little sad, ’cause they reminded me of my kids, but what could you do? All in all, my little sky boxes were the best places I had found to spend the night, so long as the living dead were afoot. But best, of course, had never been the same as perfect, and that was infinitely more true now.
One reason the zombie and I were alone this morning was that it lacked the ability to make sound. Like so many of its kind, its throat was torn open, leaving its windpipe a ragged hole, and the front of its suit stained brown with blood.
It looked up at me with its listless, cloudy eyes that lacked all expression—not hatred, not evil, not even hunger, just blanks. It was chilling in its own way, like the stare of a snake or an insect. Its look would never change, whether you drove a spike through its head, or it sank its yellow teeth into your soft, warm flesh; it lacked all capacity to be afraid, or to be satisfied. Its mouth, however, had a great deal more bestial expression to it, for it was wide open, almost gnawing at the bark of the tree as it clawed upward.
I stood looking down at it for a few moments. It was times like this—and there had been several in the last few months—that I had always wished that I smoked. In a few seconds, I would fight this thing and one or both of us would cease to exist—“die” is obviously the wrong word here—and just to stand here and contemplate that inevitability cried out for some distraction, some mindless and sensual habit like smoking, to make it less horrible. I guess I could’ve chewed gum, but that would make the whole scene ridiculous, when it was really as serious, overwhelming, and sad as any that had ever occurred to a man.
With nothing to distract me, I just felt the full weight of a terrible and necessary task, and the tediousness and unfairness of it. I had just awakened from a relatively peaceful sleep, and I already felt a crushing weariness coming over me. Again, it was developing into a pretty typical morning.
People had come up with lots of names for the walking dead in the preceding months. While we weren’t fighting them off or running like hell, we usually came up with humorous labels. “Meat puppets” was a popular one. Somebody came up with “Jacks and Janes,” like they were just some annoying neighbors from the next circle of hell, or as a variation on “Jack-offs.”
Sometimes, when they’d get especially noisy and rambunctious, but didn’t pose any immediate threat, we’d call them “the natives,” as in “the natives are restless.” Maybe that was a little racist, I don’t know. “Walking stiffs” was pretty accurate. But mostly we’d go for the tried and true—zombies. That’s what they were, and we’d always be one breath away from becoming one—a mindless, shambling bag of flesh.
My zombie this morning looked to have been a middle-aged man in its human life, slightly graying, average build. Its suit was intact, and other than its throat wound, there were no signs of further fights with humans or other zombies. Decay had taken its toll, and it looked more desiccated than gooey, a brittle husk rather than the dripping bag of pus that some of them became.
At first, I looked it over to size up its threat and plan my attack, but that quickly turned into contemplating its human existence. Maybe his kids had built the tree house, and that’s why he’d been hanging around here, almost as if he were protecting it, or waiting for them to come back. Or even worse, maybe his kids had been the ones to tear out his throat, when he had rushed home in the midst of the outbreak, hoping against hope they were still okay. Or, just as bad, maybe he’d been bitten at work or on the way home, only to break in to his own house and kill his kids.
My mind reeled, and I clutched the wall of the tree house. I’d heard of soldiers in other wars having a “thousand yard stare,” a blank look that signaled they were giving in to the hopelessness and horror around them, soon to be dead or insane. As for me, I was suffering the thousand yard stare of the war with the undead: once you contemplated the zombies as human beings, once you thought of them as having kids and lives and loves and worries and hopes and fears, you might as well just put your gun in your mouth and be done with it right then, because you were losing it—fast. But, God knows, if you never looked at them that way, if they were just meat puppets whose heads exploded in your rifle’s sights, then hopefully somebody would put a bullet in your brain, because you had become more monstrous than any zombie ever could be.
I shook myself free of my paralysis. I’m not exactly sure why, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I tossed my backpack beyond where the zombie stood. It turned to see where it landed, then immediately looked back up at me. Its head lolled from side to side, and I was again glad that it couldn’t vocalize, as it was clearly getting worked up and would’ve been making quite a racket if it could.
You never used a gun if you didn’t have to, for its noise brought lots of unwanted attention, so I pulled out a knife, the one I carried with a long, thin blade, like a bayonet, as that would work best. I stood at the edge of the plywood platform. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking right in the zombie’s eyes. “Maybe somewhere, deep down, you still understand: I’m sorry.”
I took a step forward and started to fall. I tried to hit it on the shoulder with my right foot, but its arms were flailing about, and my boot hit its left wrist, sliding along its arm. I sprawled to the right and then rolled away as the zombie was shoved into the tree.
As it turned to face me, I scrambled up, took a step forward, and drove the knife into its left eye. Its hands flailed about, either to attack me or to ward off the blow. The blade was long and thin enough that it went almost to the back of its skull. The whole attack was noiseless, without so much as the sound of a squish or a glitch as the blade slid through its eyeball and brain.
As I drew the blade out, I grabbed the zombie by the hair and shoved it downward to the side, where it fell to the ground and lay motionless.
And that was that. Like everyone, I always used to imagine deadly fights would be much more dramatic. But in my experience, there were seldom any Chuck Norris flying, spinning kicks, or any Matrix
-style running up the wall while firing two guns on full auto. If anyone’s ever around to make movies about the wars against the undead, maybe there will be such moves in them, I don’t know. But usually, like this morning, there were just a couple of savage, clumsy blows, and it was over.
I was barely breathing at all, let alone breathing hard, the way I felt someone should when they kill something that was somehow, in some small way, still human. A few months ago, I would’ve at least felt nauseous, but not anymore. Looking down at the creature from the tree house had been much more traumatic than delivering the killing blow.
I bent down over my would-be killer and cleaned the blade on his suit jacket. I then reached into his pocket. It was a little ritual I still followed when I could, though the horrible exigencies of a zombie-infested world usually made it impossible. I pulled out his wallet and got out his driver’s license. Rathe...