We cruise up the 5, zombies staggering on either side of the highway, their cerulean balloons straining in the wind like a flock of chained bluebirds.
At first it was a viral game, a way to rack up social media hits: run up behind a zombie and tie a balloon to them without getting bitten. Then it became a public service, helping people to spot an approaching hoard.
I try not to feel too bummed as we zip north. It’s been a year or so since we’ve been dealing with this latest apocalypse on the heels of the last wildfires, which still left a persistent orange tinge on the horizon. I should be over it by now but something about the scene is bringing me down. How many kids would ever look at a balloon the same way now? I remember the pull of a balloon’s thread at my wrist, tugging at it until I watched the orb float off into the night. When you were little, it was fun, simple. Why did humanity have to screw up so bad that yet another virus took hold, this one turning half the population into flesh-eating ghouls?
“Yo Gus,” Vicki says, pulling me out of my misanthropic musings. She and Madison are holding hands, a sweet gesture that makes me feel a little bit better in this hellscape. “Whatcha thinking about?”
Vicki has that chattery vibe she gets when she’s nervous. With her free hand she’s smoothing down her frizzy hair in the rearview mirror, tossing a clump out the window. The stress affects us all in weird ways.
I strain to see the gas gauge for the umpteenth time. Maybe 40 miles of fuel left so we’ll have to stop soon. You can’t wait until the last minute on anything nowadays. Survival’s all about prep and vigilance.
“Thanks again for picking me up,” I say. If they hadn’t deemed my hitchhiking ass not a threat, I’d still be stuck in Flagstaff, trying to fend off my former college roommate who turned and tried to kill me with a lacrosse stick. “Kindness is like the only real currency nowadays, you know?”
I’ve been with them two days and it already feels like we’ve been friends for ages: we’ve dodged two hordes, met up with fellow transients for a bonfire in San Diego, and took a quick dive in the cold waters before heading up the coast.
Vicki stops messing with her hair and smiles. “So, you pick your final destination?”
“I’m thinking maybe Seattle. There’s still a coffee scene there I hear,” I say and look away from the sea of balloons. We drive past busted-up cars, rows of encampments. “I learned how to make a mean latte in the before-times.”
People still ate, worked, drank. If anything, demand for caffeine—and most other escapist services—had soared. Pretty much everyone got infected, and they estimate about a quarter turned. Those who recovered from the infection—a week in bed before their immune system successfully fought off the virus—are making do, going about their days, just with more caution. It wasn’t all that different than before, just a little more dangerous, a little more unpredictable. A little more depressing.
“Once we get to the commune, we’re going to start farming.” Vicki’s eyes widen in nervous excitement. “There’s a microclimate northeast of San Fran that some people are having luck with.”
They keep talking about some damn commune outside of Portland. They had invited me but I’d rather get eaten alive ten times over than have to farm.
“Too damn hot in Arizona,” Madison grunts. Her reflection isn’t much better: her eyes are bloodshot and a cut along her forehead from our last horde encounter is red and blistered. Her glance slides over to the huge box crammed into the back seat next to me. Full of seeds and other farming shit.
“You’d be surprised how hard seeds are to get now,” Vicki trails off. “God, I’m starving. Sorry.”
As soon as she says it, my stomach shudders and groans like an abandoned puppy. The bonfire the night before last is a lifetime ago. It had almost felt normal again, meeting new people and hanging out. They had been happy to share BBQ and cans of beer.
“Let’s try this one, kiddos.” Madison points to a gas station sign and we all go silent, somber. Readying for whatever might be waiting for us.
We roll in front of a lit gas pump. Another car, empty and dark and the color of dried blood, sits at the second pump. Madison starts fueling—her credit card still works, one of those cryptocurrency cards—and the two of them go around to the outside bathroom.
I keep an eye out, perch on the hood between blotted rust stains. Through the barred glass windows of the station, the shelves are messy, no food, just packages of car fresheners and replacement windshield wipers, at least that I can see. I glimpse one attendant behind a bulletproof encasement, watching something on TV. A shotgun rests across his knees. From here I can’t tell if he’s a zombie or not.
The zombies are slow for the most part but not completely undangerous. They have enough cognitive skills to figure out basics – how to wield a weapon, communicate with each other, even how to drive a car in some cases. They like to travel in packs. Some of them act like toddlers, carrying around the equivalent of a security blanket, random objects they find on the street or on one of their victims. They’re easily distracted by TV or phone screens, which was funny at first but now I just feel irritated at how stupid they are. Like, die off or be functional members of society, you know?
I finish scanning the scene and spot one zombie hovering on the opposite side of the gas station with that stereotypical bug-eyed stare. A bloody surgical mask flaps from his ear. I don’t feel sorry for him: he looks well past 60, the generation that screwed the rest of us over in their relentless pursuit of profit, comfort, greed. Truthfully, people seemed like zombies even before the infection, zoning out on their phones, obsessed with getting richer faster while everything else burns. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
He watches me in the tattered remains of his midnight-blue suit and eyes the red car. He doesn’t come any closer. No balloon on him, so he must be a smarter one. I shift casually, so he stays in my periphery.
Vicki pops out, fresh lip gloss over her chapped lips. It doesn’t surprise me anymore what people still do during an apocalypse. Anything to keep sane. For Vicki it was make-up, for Madison it was podcasts. For me, it was coffee. Of the few possessions in my backpack, I had developed a strong attachment to my miniature glass French press, wrapped carefully in two old T-shirts. It reminded me of better days. Now I just need to find some decent beans.
“I’m starving,” Vicki moans. “Like, literally. I might faint.”
We both scrutinize the gas station. “Don’t see anything to eat.”
She shakes her head and groans again. “Plus guy with a shotgun. Never a good equation. Can’t risk it.”
I look at the maroon hybrid parked at the pump in front of us. Could have food. Cash. Weapons. Vicki follows my gaze and nods in agreement. It’s amazing how even in a span of two days you can get to know someone well enough that you don’t have to talk to communicate. One of the few perks of being in constant life-or-death situations, I guess.
Madison is nearing and I can feel her laser focus as she assesses what we’re up to and falls in next to Vicki.
The three of us flank the empty car. Unlocked.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see our suited friend move.
“Mine,” the zombie stammers like he’s just learning to talk. “Leave it alone.”
He gestures at me and I see a flash of metal from his side.
“He’s got a knife—” I start to warn but realize no one’s nearby. I turn a fraction to see Vicki and Madison are nowhere to be seen. They’ve split, I realize as I hear their car door slam. Something in my gut twists up but I can’t let emotions distract me. The zombie’s sweaty forehead shines as he swings his hunting knife. I dodge but clumsily, banging into the side of the hybrid. I hear a rev from Madison’s car.
Them ditching me hurts worse than any blade. Should’ve known better.
The dude shrieks and makes a wide arc with the knife again. I stumble as I duck. I can’t get up fast enough—or maybe I don’t want to—when he swings a third time.
Right before Madison’s car slams into him.
Relief surges through me as I watch his figure flail over itself with a thud. Another sensation hits me: kinship. It’s something I haven’t felt in a long time.
“You guys…” I start to say and get choked up as they climb out. They look at me—Madison with her tired and bloodshot but relieved glance, and Vicki through her clumsily applied eye make-up—and I see they both get it, see that the three of us are in it together, for a while at least.
The guy’s not like us, so I shouldn’t feel bad, but something in me twinges in regret as we approach his body. He’s twitching like a fish out of water, gasping out something about his wife. I’m always surprised at how much blood there is.
We had to do it, I tell myself as the three of us kneel next to him, ignoring his gasping pants. We all have to do whatever it takes to survive.
His kind was actually a blessing during food shortages. A few of us had found out their brains have a lot of nutrients in this post-apocalyptical hellhole, so, if you’re really hungry, you have some options instead of starving. Rather than being gross like you might expect, their meat is dense and oddly tastier than a rich chocolate. Once you have a bite it’s hard to stop. Like trying-not-to-eat-a-fresh-bag-of-chips-when-you’re-stoned hard.
“Zombie….” He slurs the word at me before his sentence disintegrates into a gurgled moan.
“You should talk!” Vicki shrieks through her cracked lips. “It’s people like you who got us into this shitshow. Corporate boomer assholes.”
“You tell him, babe,” Madison murmurs.
The three of us started splitting his head open, his skull like a hairy, oversized walnut between our vise-like hands.
It’s been too long since we’ve eaten, I realize as I slurp a chunk of his coiled brain matter. It’s like butter-battered 5-star-restaurant crabmeat, the taste sending orgasmic shivers along my back. I’ve forgotten how this started, who had survived the infection and who had turned.
Forgot who the real zombies were.
KC Grifant is an award-winning science writer with internationally published stories encompassing horror, fantasy, scifi and western genres. Stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Tales to Terrify, the Lovecraft eZine and more. Grifant is frequently anthologized. Find out more about her and her work at www.KCGrifant.com