our Alice has gotten herself in a state of zombocalypse...
by Robert Swartwood
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Like everyone else he knew, Steven’s heart did not beat. Instead it lay dead in his chest, as docile as his brain and his lungs and his soul. So when he first heard the faint beating sound coming from outside his bedroom window, he didn’t know what to think.
He considered telling his parents. He’d been hearing the beating for almost a week now. Somewhere in the trees and bushes beyond their backyard. Its continuous thump-thumping sounded not outside of his head, but rather in.
When his friend Jimmy came over to the house one day, Steven took him out back.
“Do you hear that?”
If Jimmy couldn’t hear the beating, Steven knew his parents wouldn’t either. They’d just stare down at him with dead eyes and say, Oh Steven, don’t make things up. You know what will happen if you do.
He knew. It dealt with something only the zombies had, something called imagination. It was dangerous and evil and those who had it were hunted down and put out of their misery.
But one night the beating became too much for Steven. He snuck outside with a shovel—why the shovel, he didn’t know, except that he would need it—and followed the sound until he came to a spot beneath a willow tree. He placed his hand on the dirt where the thump-thumping was the loudest and felt the earth vibrating. He began to dig.
An hour later, his body wearing down, the shovel clinked against something solid. He glanced up and noticed an owl watching him from one of the willow tree’s branches. It stared back at him with lifeless eyes.
What Steven pulled from the earth was a strange rock. It was shaped like a perfect cube, three inches wide, three inches long, and three inches thick. Something inside the rock pulsed, causing it to shake in his hands.
A voice behind him asked, “Do you know what’s inside?”
The rock fell to the ground. Steven, his small hands shaking, quickly turned.
The thing standing there was a crime against nature. Menacingly tall, its hair dark, its eyes full of life, it was one of the zombies he’d learned to fear. A thing that shouldn’t exist. A thing that had imagination, a soul, life.
“Don’t be afraid.” The zombie’s voice carried none of the roughness that Steven was accustomed to hearing. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Steven opened his mouth but could not speak.
The zombie smiled. “Though even if I were to hurt you, you wouldn’t actually feel anything.”
The owl in the trees hooted twice, flew away.
“That was meant as a joke,” the zombie said, his smile fading. “A poor joke, I know, but a joke nonetheless. Please, say something. I’m risking my life talking to you, the least you could do is say hello.”
Steven didn’t want to say hello. He wanted to run away. But he knew that if he did the zombie would chase after him and tear him apart limb by limb, so he stayed motionless.
The zombie said, “You’re about ten years old, aren’t you.”
“You came out here because you heard it calling you.” The zombie motioned with his head at the rock cube on the ground just behind Steven. “Am I right?”
Steven found his voice. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said before? I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What do you want?” Steven said, and took a step back, looked around at all the trees, searching for the quickest escape.
The zombie sighed. “I don’t even know what I want anymore. A long time ago I used to think it was possible for the living and the dead to exist side by side. But now ...” He shrugged. “Now this is the land of the dead, and it will always be the land of the dead.”
Steven took another step back, the heel of his sneaker bumping the rock. He looked down at it, looked back up at the zombie. Hesitantly he asked, “What’s inside there?”
“What do you think? It’s your heart.”
“My ... heart? But that can’t be. My heart”—he pointed at his chest—“is right here.”
“Okay,” the zombie said, smiling again, “it’s not really your heart. But inside that cube is life. The thing that will make you just like me.”
“I don’t want to be just like you. You—you—you’re a monster. You don’t deserve to exist.”
“You really have no idea, do you? Say, how many colors are there?”
Steven hesitated again, looking every which way, wishing his parents were here with him right now, wishing Hunters would come to his rescue.
“Colors?” he said. “There are ... three. Black, white, and gray.”
The smile had faded completely from the zombie’s face, his expression now somber. “I really do pity your kind. You miss out on all the little things. Like actually feeling the sun when it’s shining down on you. Or the wind against your face. Smelling the honeysuckles in the spring and tasting even a pinch of sugar.” The zombie shook his head. “Do you realize the rest of the earth hasn’t moved on? It’s just mankind and all the animals. You’ve all moved on, decayed, become what you are. You’ve all become blind, and those like me, the living, are one-eyed men. We’re kings.”
“Please,” Steven said, and this time his voice cracked even more. He wanted to cry but didn’t know how, and his lower lip trembled, his hands still shook, and without thinking he bent down and grabbed the cube-shaped rock, held it close to him as if it offered some form of protection. “Please, I just want to go home. I don’t ... I don’t want to expire.”
“If I were you,” the zombie said, “I wouldn’t want to expire either. Not until I experienced everything this world has to offer. Because to see the true color of the sky, and the shade it takes when the sun sets ... to experience that for even a second is worth all the fear of being hunted down and destroyed.”
“Please,” Steven said again, holding the pulsing cube in his hands, and it was at that moment the Hunters came out of the shadows.
They wore black uniforms and masks and carried broadswords. The zombie heard them coming—their heavy boots striking the earth sounded like thunder—but he made no effort to escape. He simply stood there, staring back at Steven, and said, “Don’t accept your existence for what it is. Question it. Question everything.”
One of the six Hunters stepped forward. He raised his broadsword and swung it.
Some kind of liquid splattered Steven’s face as the zombie’s head was severed from the rest of its body. He’d heard about living blood but had never known it to exist until now.
The Hunters took the zombie’s body away. Steven was taken back home, where his parents scolded him. His father said some very mean things. His mother cried but shed no tears. They sent him up to his room and told him he wasn’t to come out until they said so.
Sitting on his bed, the cube in his lap (he’d managed to hide it from the Hunters and his parents), Steven stared out his window at the rising sun. It was gray just like the sky. Just like the trees. Just like everything.
The cube-shaped rock in his lap continued to pulse. The sound was so loud it almost drowned out his parents’ arguing downstairs.
He placed his hands on the cube and held it tight. The cube pulsed even more. And slowly, so very slowly, the cube began to dissolve until there was nothing left at all.
Steven closed his eyes. None of it made sense. The sound was gone but still he felt the beating—which now came from within his chest.
He opened his bedroom door with caution and tiptoed the length of the hallway toward the steps. Somewhere downstairs his parents continued arguing, and though he only caught a few words, he knew their dispute involved him. They were worried—not only had their son tried to run away tonight, but he had almost been expired by a zombie—and they wanted to protect him but weren’t sure just how to do it.
He stood at the top of the stairs much longer than he’d intended, staring at the pictures on the walls, at the carpet, even the boarder that ran near the ceiling. Each was a different color, a different shade. Nothing like the gray he’d become accustomed to his entire existence.
Everything had changed the moment he realized his heart had started beating. His body had somehow absorbed the life inside the cube. A warm tingling in his chest had spread throughout his entire body, down his legs to his toes, down his arms to his fingertips, and when he opened his eyes again he had watched with a kind of wonder as the black and white and gray of the world began receding around him, until the floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything was painted with color.
He had fallen back onto the bed then, his body shutting down for a couple of seconds, the muscles and tendons which had never really been used before having to recharge. Even his lungs had begun to work, and he breathed oxygen for the first time, taking large gulps of air until he became acquainted with this new function and began breathing regularly.
As he lay there he sniffed the stale air, could smell what he somehow knew internally was a mixture of dust and decayed skin and hair and laundry detergent. He knew other things internally now too, as if a door to new information in his brain had just been opened.
Somewhere below him now, probably in the kitchen, his parents continued their argument, though there was less intensity now, less gargled and guttural shouting. He knew what they were arguing about. His father wanted to send Steven away for psychiatric help, while his mother wanted to just ignore it, pretend like the entire thing hadn’t happened. Eventually they would arrive to a decision and come to see him. And when they did, what would they find?
Their son—a monstrosity, a crime against nature.
He shuddered at the thought, feeling a chill race through his soul, and found it both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It was a feeling he’d never experienced before, and he wanted to feel it again. How many more feelings were there? How many more colors? He remembered the zombie mentioning something about smells and tastes. How many of those were there?
A gasp pulled him away from his thoughts.
He glanced down the stairs to find his parents standing at the bottom. Unlike Steven’s skin which had become pale and smooth, theirs was decayed and brownish gray, their eyes and hair pitch black.
Steven’s mother had been the one who gasped. She held her hand to her mouth and stared up at him with wide black eyes. His father stood beside her, slowly shaking his head.
“I’m very disappointed in you,” he said, his voice scratchy and rough. The sound of his words caused another shudder to pass through Steven’s body, though this one wasn’t as pleasing.
“Oh sweetie,” his mother said, “what have you done?”
When Steven didn’t respond, his father said, “I have no choice. I have to call them.”
He turned away and disappeared from Steven’s sight, leaving only his mother to stand there with her hand still to her mouth. She shook her head, her dull eyes expressing no emotion—though Steven thought that if she were alive they’d show sadness, maybe even tears.
She opened her mouth to speak. Steven expected to hear her gargled voice again, but nothing came out. She shook her head and waved him toward her.
He started down the steps, taking them one at a time, finding the sound his sneakers made on the wood pleasant in a strange sort of way. When he reached the landing his mother fell to her knees. She gripped his shoulders, wrapped her arms around him. Her body reeked of rot and decay and Steven tried to step out of the dead embrace.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, holding onto him tightly. Her breath, he knew internally, smelled of rancid fish. “Your father’s calling the Hunters. They’ll be here any minute. Why would you do this? Didn’t we raise you properly? Didn’t we give you everything you ever needed? Why, Steven? Why?”
He stared into her dead eyes and tried to find something there, some kind of life. He had no answer for her and simply shook his head.
His father returned.
“They’ll be here soon, Steven. Make it easy on yourself and don’t try to fight them.”
Body now trembling, he felt wetness underneath his arms and something churning in the pit of his stomach. His mother’s dead hands squeezed his shoulders briefly once more and he glanced back into her dry colorless face, into her black depthless eyes.
Her cracked lips moved, forming just one word, and though she didn’t use her damaged voice, he heard the word clearly in his mind: Run.
Steven hesitated. He glanced at his father and saw that his father had seen what just passed between mother and son. His father’s black eyes became impossibly large. “No,” he said, and started forward, and Steven backed out of his mother’s embrace, bolted for the door.
The first thing that struck him outside was the sunlight, and he had to pause, had to allow his eyes to adjust to the sudden brilliance. He lifted his face to the sky, closed his eyes, enjoyed the warmth for only an instant before he remembered he should be running. Opening his eyes, he saw that indeed the sky wasn’t gray but blue, lighter than his T-shirt, speckled with white puffs of clouds, and all around him was green—in the trees, in the grass, even on some houses.
Scents wafted through the air, mixed scents his new internal mind picked out and pieced apart and gave names to: fresh grass, motor oil, dog shit, dandelions.
Across the street, two dead children played in a front lawn. Steven had once known their names but they, much like his own parents, were now strangers to him. They’d been running around, using large plastic broadswords to play Henry the Hunter, neither noticing him until one paused and stared across the street, then said something to the other and pointed.
Two sets of wide dead eyes stared back at him.
The door behind him opened. He heard his mother’s voice, begging his father to stop, to please let her baby go. His father told her to shut up, that he would deal with her later. Then there was the sound of his father’s heavy footsteps on the porch, his father yelling at him to stop.
The two children across the street saw him coming and screamed, their voices harsh and flat as they scrambled away.
He reached the street and paused, uncertain where to go next. He thought about the zombie from last night. It had been old, about Steven’s father’s age. How had it survived so many years?
Sunlight glinted off of something shiny down the street. It was a Humvee, one that he had seen only hours before when it had brought him home. The Hunters were coming.
He turned and sprinted in the other direction, hearing shouts from houses where the dead inside saw him and cried out. Sweat ran down his face, as did tears, tears he now shed because he knew it was hopeless, that he wouldn’t outrun the Hunters, that he could never outrun them.
The street came to an end, a bright red stop sign signaling that the driver must either turn left or right. Beyond the bisecting street were trees and bushes and tall grass.
Steven continued forward.
He glanced back after he’d passed a couple dozen trees, saw the Hunters back there, all spread out, all heading in his direction. Before him the woods stretched on for miles, seemingly endless, taunting him with the promise of freedom. He tried keeping his focus on what lay before him but he kept glancing back over his shoulder, each time finding the Hunters gaining more and more ground.
Steven ran, tears and sweat in his eyes, until suddenly there was no ground beneath him. A rut, a simple hole, and it twisted his ankle, caused him to fall.
He tried getting up but fell back down, his ankle denying him any support. He glanced back, saw that the Hunters were even closer.
Fresh tears came, forced by the pain—by real pain—by the realization that he was soon going to die, but also forced by a surreal form of happiness. He didn’t know how many minutes had passed since his body had absorbed the life inside that cube, but he wouldn’t change it for anything, even if given the chance.
The sound of thunder grew stronger as the Hunters neared.
Steven tried getting up once more before falling back down. He looked around him for some kind of help but only saw the grass, the trees ... and he noticed a bush he hadn’t seen before, a green bush covered with many small white and yellow flowers. Something inside him whispered they were honeysuckles, and without thinking he crawled the few yards to the bush and reached out, took one of the flowers from its branch and brought it to his nose, to his tongue.
The Hunters surrounded him, their broadswords drawn and ready. The lead Hunter—the one that had taken the zombie’s head only hours before—stepped forward.
Steven hardly noticed. The sweet pure scent and taste of the flower was more than anything he had ever wished for. Despite the pain, despite the tears, despite the knowledge of his impending death, he closed his eyes and tried to keep this moment fresh in his mind, tried to keep it with him forever.
Guest post: In The Land Of The Blind by Robert Swartwood, author of The Dishonered Dead
© 2011. All rights reserved.
by Robert Swartwood
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A Zombie Novel
by Robert Swartwood
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