World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Page 17


I don’t blame them, the government, the people who were supposed to protect us. Objectively, I guess I can understand. They couldn’t have everyone following the army west behind the Rocky Mountains. How were they going to feed all of us, how were they going to screen us, and how could they ever hope to stop the armies of undead that almost certainly would have been following us? I can understand why they would want to divert as many refugees north as possible. What else could they do, stop us at the Rockies with armed troops, gas us like the Ukrainians? At least if we went north, we might have a chance. Once the temperature dropped and the undead froze, some us might be able to survive. That was happening all around the rest of the world, people fleeing north hoping to stay alive until winter came. No, I don’t blame them for wanting to divert us, I can forgive that. But the irresponsible way they did it, the lack of vital information that would have helped so many to stay alive…that I can never forgive.
It was August, two weeks after Yonkers and just three days after the government had started withdrawing west. We hadn’t had too many outbreaks in our neighborhood. I’d only seen one, a collection of six feeding on a homeless man. The cops had put them down quickly. It happened three blocks from our house and that was when my father decided to leave.
We were in the living room; my father was learning how to load his new rifle while Mom finished nailing up the windows. You couldn’t find a channel with anything but zombie news, either live images, or recorded footage from Yonkers. Looking back, I still can’t believe how unprofessional the news media was. So much spin, so few hard facts. All those digestible sound bites from an army of “experts” all contradicting one another, all trying to seem more “shocking” and “in depth” than the last one. It was all so confusing, nobody seemed to know what to do. The only thing any of them could agree on was that all private citizens should “go north.” Because the living dead freeze solid, extreme cold is our only hope. That’s all we heard. No more instructions on where to head north, what to bring with us, how to survive, just that damn catchphrase you’d hear from every talking head, or just crawling over and over across the bottom of the TV. “Go north. Go north. Go north.”
“That’s it,” Dad said, “we’re getting out of here tonight and heading north.” He tried to sound determined, slapping his rifle. He’d never touched a gun in his life. He was a gentleman in the most literal sense—he was a gentle man. Short, bald, a pudgy face that turned red when he laughed, he was the king of the bad jokes and cheesy one-liners. He always had something for you, a compliment or a smile, or a little extension to my allowance that Mom wasn’t supposed to know about. He was the good cop in the family, he left all the big decisions to Mom.
Now Mom tried to argue, tried to make him see reason. We lived above the snowline, we had all we needed. Why trek into the unknown when we could just stock up on supplies, continue to fortify the house, and just wait until the first fall frost? Dad wouldn’t hear it. We could be dead by the fall, we could be dead by next week! He was so caught up in the Great Panic. He told us it would be like an extended camping trip. We’d live on mooseburgers and wild berry desserts. He promised to teach me how to fish and asked me what I wanted to name my pet rabbit when I caught it. He’d lived in Waukesha his whole life. He’d never been camping.
[She shows me something in the ice, a collection of cracked DVDs.]
This is what people brought with them: hair dryers, GameCubes, laptops by the dozen. I don’t think they were stupid enough to think they could use them. Maybe some did. I think most people were just afraid of losing them, that they’d come home after six months and find their homes looted. We actually thought we were packing sensibly. Warm clothes, cooking utensils, things from the medicine cabinet, and all the canned food we could carry. It looked like enough food for a couple of years. We finished half of it on the way up. That didn’t bother me. It was like an adventure, the trek north.
All those stories you hear about the clogged roads and violence, that wasn’t us. We were in the first wave. The only people ahead of us were the Canadians, and most of them were already long gone. There was still a lot of traffic on the road, more cars than I’d ever seen, but it all moved pretty quickly, and only really snarled in places like roadside towns or parks.
Parks, designated campgrounds, any place where people thought they’d gone far enough. Dad used to look down on those people, calling them shortsighted and irrational. He said that we were still way too close to population centers and the only way to really make it was to head as far north as we could. Mom would always argue that it wasn’t their fault, that most of them had simply run out of gas. “And whose fault is that,” Dad would say. We had a lot of spare gas cans on the roof of the minivan. Dad had been stocking up since the first days of the Panic. We’d pass a lot of traffic snarls around roadside gas stations, most of which already had these giant signs outside that said NO MORE GAS. Dad drove by them really fast. He drove fast by a lot of things, the stalled cars that needed a jump, or hitchhikers who needed a ride. There were a lot of those, in some cases, walking in lines by the side of the road, looking like the way you think refugees are supposed to look. Every now and then a car would stop to pick up a couple, and suddenly everyone wanted a ride. “See what they got themselves into?” That was Dad.
We did pick up one woman, walking by herself and pulling one of those wheeled airline bags. She looked pretty harmless, all alone in the rain. That’s probably why Mom made Dad stop to pick her up. Her name was Patty, she was from Winnipeg. She didn’t tell us how she got out here and we didn’t ask. She was really grateful and tried to give my parents all the money she had. Mom wouldn’t let her and promised to take her as far as we were going. She started crying, thanking us. I was proud of my parents for doing the right thing, until she sneezed and brought up a handkerchief to blow her nose. Her left hand had been in her pocket since we picked her up. We could see that it was wrapped in a cloth and had a dark stain that looked like blood. She saw that we saw and suddenly looked nervous. She told us not to worry and that she’d just cut it by accident. Dad looked at Mom, and they both got very quiet. They wouldn’t look at me, they didn’t say anything. That night I woke up when I heard the passenger door slam shut. I didn’t think it was anything unusual. We were always stopping for bathroom breaks. They always woke me up just in case I had to go, but this time I didn’t know what had happened until the minivan was already moving. I looked around for Patty, but she was gone. I asked my parents what had happened and they told me she’d asked them to drop her off. I looked behind us and thought I could just make her out, this little spec getting smaller each second. I thought she looked like she was running after us, but I was so tired and confused I couldn’t be sure. I probably just didn’t want to know. I shut a lot out during that drive north.
Like what?
Like the other “hitchhikers,” the ones who didn’t run. There weren’t a lot, remember, we’re talking about the first wave. We encountered half a dozen at most, wandering down the middle of the road, raising their arms when we got close. Dad would weave around them and Mom would tell me to get my head down. I never saw them too close. I had my face against the seat and my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see them. I just kept thinking about mooseburgers and wild berries. It was like heading to the Promised Land. I knew once we headed far enough north, everything would be all right.
For a little while it was. We had this great campsite right on the shore of a lake, not too many people around, but just enough to make us feel “safe,” you know, if any of the dead showed up. Everyone was real friendly, this big, collective vibe of relief. It was kind of like a party at first. There were these big cookouts every night, people all throwing in what they’d hunted or fished, mostly fished. Some guys would throw dynamite in the lake and there’d be this huge bang and all these fish would come floating to the surface. I’ll never forget those sounds, the explosions or the chainsaws as people cut down trees, or the music of car radios and instruments families had brought. We all sang around the campfires at night, these giant bonfires of logs stacked up on one another.
That was when we still had trees, before the second and third waves starting showing up, when people were down to burning leaves and stumps, then finally whatever they could get their hands on. The smell of plastic and rubber got really bad, in your mouth, in your hair. By that time the fish were all gone, and anything left for people to hunt. No one seemed to worry. Everyone was counting on winter freezing the dead.
But once the dead were frozen, how were you going to survive the winter?
Good question. I don’t think most people thought that far ahead. Maybe they figured that the “authorities” would come rescue us or that they could just pack up and head home. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t think about anything except the day in front of them, just grateful that they were finally safe and confident that things would work themselves out. “We’ll all be home before you know it,” people would say. “It’ll all be over by Christmas.”
[She draws my attention to another object in the ice, a Sponge-Bob SquarePants sleeping bag. It is small, and stained brown.]
What do you think this is rated to, a heated bedroom at a sleepover party? Okay, maybe they couldn’t get a proper bag—camping stores were always the first bought out or knocked off—but you can’t believe how ignorant some of these people were. A lot of them were from Sunbelt states, some as far away as southern Mexico. You’d see people getting into their sleeping bags with their boots on, not realizing that it was cutting off their circulation. You’d see them drinking to get warm, not realizing it was actually lowering their temperature by releasing more body heat. You’d see them wearing these big heavy coats with nothing but a T-shirt underneath. They’d do something physical, overheat, take off the coat. Their bodies’d be coated in sweat, a lot of cotton cloth holding in the moisture. The breeze’d come up…a lot of people got sick that first September. Cold and flu. They gave it to the rest of us.
In the beginning everyone was friendly. We cooperated. We traded or even bought what we needed from other families. Money was still worth something. Everyone thought the banks would be reopening soon. Whenever Mom and Dad would go looking for food, they’d always leave me with a neighbor. I had this little survival radio, the kind you cranked for power, so we could listen to the news every night. It was all stories of the pullout, army units leaving people stranded. We’d listen with our road map of the United States, pointing to the cities and towns where the reports were coming from. I’d sit on Dad’s lap. “See,” he’d say, “they didn’t get out in time. They weren’t smart like us.” He’d try to force a smile. For a little while, I thought he was right.
But after the first month, when the food started running out, and the days got colder and darker, people started getting mean. There were no more communal fires, no more cookouts or singing. The camp became a mess, nobody picking up their trash anymore. A couple times I stepped in human shit. Nobody was even bothering to bury it.
I wasn’t left alone with neighbors anymore, my parents didn’t trust anyone. Things got dangerous, you’d see a lot of fights. I saw two women wrestling over a fur coat, tore it right down the middle. I saw one guy catching another guy trying to steal some stuff out of his car and beat his head in with a tire iron. A lot of it took place at night, scuffling and shouts. Every now and then you’d hear a gunshot, and somebody crying. One time we heard someone moving outside the makeshift tent we’d draped over the minivan. Mom told me to put my head down and cover my ears. Dad went outside. Through my hands I heard shouts. Dad’s gun went off. Someone screamed. Dad came back in, his face was white. I never asked him what happened.
The only time anyone ever came together was when one of the dead showed up. These were the ones who’d followed the third wave, coming alone or in small packs. It happened every couple of days. Someone would sound an alarm and everyone would rally to take them out. And then, as soon as it was over, we’d all turn on each other again.
When it got cold enough to freeze the lake, when the last of the dead stopped showing up, a lot of people thought it was safe enough to try to walk home.
Walk? Not drive?
No more gas. They’d used it all up for cooking fuel or just to keep their car heaters running. Every day there’d be these groups of half-starved, ragged wretches, all loaded down with all this useless stuff they’d brought with them, all with this look of desperate hope on their faces.
“Where do they think they’re going?” Dad would say. “Don’t they know that it hasn’t gotten cold enough farther south? Don’t they know what’s still waiting for them back there?” He was convinced that if we just held out long enough, sooner or later things would get better. That was in October, when I still looked like a human being.
[We come upon a collection of bones, too many to count. They lie in a pit, half covered in ice.]
I was a pretty heavy kid. I never played sports, I lived on fast food and snacks. I was only a little bit thinner when we arrived in August. By November, I was like a skeleton. Mom and Dad didn’t look much better. Dad’s tummy was gone, Mom had these narrow cheekbones. They were fighting a lot, fighting about everything. That scared me more than anything. They’d never raised their voices at home. They were schoolteachers, “progressives.” There might have been a tense, quiet dinner every now and then, but nothing like this. They went for each other every chance they had. One time, around Thanksgiving…I couldn’t get out of my sleeping bag. My belly was swollen and I had these sores on my mouth and nose. There was this smell coming from the neighbor’s RV. They were cooking something, meat, it smelled really good. Mom and Dad were outside arguing. Mom said “it” was the only way. I didn’t know what “it” was. She said “it” wasn’t “that bad” because the neighbors, not us, had been the ones to actually “do it.” Dad said that we weren’t going to stoop to that level and that Mom should be ashamed of herself. Mom really laid into Dad, screeching that it was all his fault that we were here, that I was dying. Mom told him that a real man would know what to do. She called him a wimp and said he wanted us to die so then he could run away and live like the “faggot” she always knew he was. Dad told her to shut the fuck up. Dad never swore. I heard something, a crack from outside. Mom came back in, holding a clump of snow over her right eye. Dad followed her. He didn’t say anything. He had this look on his face I’d never seen before, like he was a different person. He grabbed my survival radio, the one people’d try to buy…or steal, for a long time, and went back out toward the RV. He came back ten minutes later, without the radio but with a big bucket of this steaming hot stew. It was so good! Mom told me not to eat too fast. She fed me in little spoonfuls. She looked relieved. She was crying a little. Dad still had that look. The look I had myself in a few months, when Mom and Dad both got sick and I had to feed them.