Authors: H.E. Goodhue
A Zombie Novel
Copyright 2016 by H.E. Goodhue
The streets were full of husks. They were everywhere. Spilling out from alleys and behind dumpsters. Bumping around the sides of parked cars. Climbing through the shattered windows of storefronts. Their withered, leathery skin looked orange under the streetlights. I knew it was gray, but the sodium lamps painted everything in sepia tones. I hate orange and gray. I hate husks more.
One stumbled out from behind a mailbox and lunged for me. It clawed at my jacket with sharp, skeletal fingers, trying to drag me to the ground. Its teeth clacked inches from my right ear, making it ring. I shook myself free from the husk. It looked up at me from the ground with milky, spoiled eyes. Its teeth clicked as it tried to bite the toe of my boot. I stepped back and brought the heel of my boot down on the back of the husk’s neck. Wrapping my hands around its spindly neck, I snapped its head to the side. Its body went limp. I could still see it chewing the air. A second stomp scattered the spoiled black jelly inside the husk’s skull across the sidewalk. I watched the thick liquid creep towards the curb and into the street. I’m sure it smelled awful. I’m sure I would have puked if I smelled it. Fortunately, my NBC mask kept the stench out.
I expected more blood. This was probably the tenth or eleventh husk that I killed and I still wasn’t used to the fact that their blood had thickened, turned to sludge in their veins. I cut them, shot them and now, even stomped on them, and the most it left behind was a disgusting black jelly and sometimes a reddish powder. Then again, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that killing something that was already dead didn’t exactly follow logic. Still, I thought there would be more blood.
More husks were coming. I needed to move. What they lacked in strength and intelligence, they more than made up for in numbers and determination. I slipped around the side of a pharmacy. I had shopped here before. It had been one of those nights where my daughter woke up with a fever and I ran out to find something to lower it. Not many pharmacies were twenty-four hours around us, so this one was my go-to spot for late night emergencies. That had been so long ago. Kara was still a baby then. Eleven years later and she didn’t really need her father to run out in the middle of the night anymore. I would always see her as my baby though. Age and time didn’t matter. She could never be anything other than that. I tried not to think about happier times. Even times with fevers and vomiting were happier than this. At least then we had been together.
A high wooden fence blocked off the end of the alley. A handful of husks had followed me down there. I leapt up and grabbed the top of the fence. My breath fogged up my NBC mask as I climbed onto the fence. I straddled the fence and watched the husks come closer.
They all looked the same. Their bodies were thin, dried out and hardened. Errant patches of stringy hair clung to their scalps. Eyes, dull and lifeless, were set into deep sockets. Sharp edges of bone poked out where the husks’ skin had worn away. The tattered remains of clothing hung from the husks like flags of surrender. I hated them. I wanted to kill them all, but there wasn’t time for that.
I needed to see my wife and daughter again. That was all that kept me going. It was what kept me going long before the husks showed up.
Kara: Daddy, where are you? I miss you.
I stared at the text message on my phone. It made my head light. I closed my phone and leapt over the other side of the fence. I needed to go home. I needed to see my family.
Two days before…
Gray. For three years now that has been the only color I’ve seen. The walls are gray. The mattress on the bunk above me is gray. Some days, even the food was gray. How the fuck do you turn meat gray? Hell, the sky looks gray on most days, but then again everything looks gray when you’re watching it through chain link and barbed wire.
After a while, even people’s faces began looking gray. Maybe it was the food? Or maybe it was the captivity? Either way, after about a year I stopped seeing people. We weren’t people anymore, just gray, hollow shells of our former selves. We were ghosts.
About the only thing that wasn’t gray were my clothes. Those were orange, bright orange with the letters DOC across the back in black. In the beginning, it seemed almost cruel that we would be supplied with such a bright color to wear. It only served to draw more attention to the fact that everything around me was gray. That was probably the point.
I shouldn’t really complain. Some guys had it worse than me. I was only sent here for five years and I was getting out in three for good behavior. There were guys in here that would never see the outside again. Those guys had it the worst and they knew it. If you were never getting out, there really was no reason to be good. What more could they do to them? Going to the SHU or a few days solitary? Sure, those threats were always there, but it never changed anything. The guys that were never getting out, those were the ones you needed to watch out for.
God, Frank is farting again. That gray meat goes right through him and then straight through the mattress. I should have argued more about getting the top bunk. But then again, you have to pick and choose your battles. Top bunk and no farts wasn’t really worth getting stuck in the back while I waited in the food line. I don’t really think Frank would have shived me, but I’d seen it happen to other guys.
Besides, once you got past the farts, Frank wasn’t so bad to share space with. Most of the time we left each other alone or passed the time talking about what we did before we ended up here. Frank had been some sort of aspiring actor. He landed a few bit parts on daytime soaps. He also landed a ten-year sentence for DUI on the freeway. The eight ball of coke in the cup holder hadn’t helped either. And me? Well, I had held just about any job a high school diploma could get, which isn’t many. But before I ended up in here, I had been working construction, not that I built anything. I was chief engineer of dumpster loading and hole digging. The work wasn’t bad. I even missed it some days. I missed my wife and daughter more.
We had a small TV on the steel table next to our toilet. It was made out of clear plastic so we couldn’t hide things in it. One time we even caught a rerun of some shitty soap that Frank was in. He showed up for about thirty seconds with a pizza and then someone’s evil twin shot him because they didn’t have money for the tip or something like that. I don’t really remember, but it made Frank happy to see it. I guess it let him know that the outside world hadn’t totally forgotten about him.
I think that’s probably the worst part about being here – being forgotten. Most guys can handle the shitty food, the showers, the yard, but it’s the lack of contact that really gets to them. Once someone stop reminding you that you were once human, it’s pretty easy to forget. I kept a picture of my wife and daughter taped to the wall. My old cellmate pulled it down and tossed it in the sink because he wanted to hang up a wrinkled page from some low rider magazine. I didn’t mind the picture of the car or the girl sprawled across it, but he shouldn’t have touched my picture.
I remember the way his teeth burst from the sides of his mouth as I smashed his face into the rim of the steel toilet. He didn’t need many teeth to eat the picture of the car.
He lay on the floor gurgling as I taped my picture back in place. The guards beat on me pretty good and I got a few months added on to my sentence, but it was worth it. You have to hold onto to what makes you human, even if that means breaking another guy’s jaw with a toilet.
After that, Frank was moved into my cell. He got how things were. You just didn’t touch a picture of a guy’s family. It was that simple. Frank was always respectful of those kinds of things. But my god, his farts were terrible. Some nights, I was pretty sure I was watching the drab gray paint bubble and peel on the walls. I guess you couldn’t really blame a guy for something he did in his sleep.
No matter though, I was out in thirteen hours. Most guys counted years or months. I was down to counting hours. That made me pretty lucky, but it also made me a target. Those guys that were never getting out hated to see someone who was. If they caught wind of someone’s release date, they’d make sure to try and trip you up so you’d have to stay longer. Misery loves company, I guess.
Some asshole stole my Jell-O at dinner tonight, just grabbed it as he walked past. A while ago, that would have been grounds for a beat down. Not that I liked Jell-O. In fact I hated it, but you couldn’t let stuff like that happen. But screw him. Tomorrow morning that prick was going to wake up to another day of gray and Jell-O. I was going home.
Sunlight trickled in through the narrow window set high in the wall of my cell. Even though sunlight came through the window it did little to brighten the interior of my cell. Like I said before, everything was gray. Besides, the window was only about the size of a shoebox and the glass had chicken wire set into it. I’m not really sure who could escape through a window of that size, but they must have had their reasons for putting chicken wire in the pane. Maybe a few of the crack heads or tweakers were skinny enough to squeeze through, but the rest of us sure as hell weren’t.
“You gonna miss me, Lucas?” Frank asked as he rolled over and released a toxic blast of gas.
“Are you seriously going to ask that while farting?” I coughed and waved my hand in front of my nose.
“Something to remember me by,” Frank said. He climbed off the top bunk. “One more meal and you’re home free, right?”
“That’s it, man,” I nodded. “One more shitty breakfast and I’m gone.”
“What are you going to do?” Frank asked. He checked his reflection in the polished sheet of metal that hung above our toilet-sink combo.
“See my family,” I said. It was a trite answer, but an honest one. I didn’t have any plans for revenge or getting rich, nothing like the other assholes in here. Plans like that made sure you wound right back in here. No, all I wanted was to see my wife and daughter. That was it.
“Nah, man that’s not what I meant.” Frank walked over to look me in the eyes. His usual demeanor was gone. A look of concern was plainly written on his face.
“Well, what is it then?” I asked. It was my turn to use the sink and mirror.
“In the mess hall, man,” Frank continued. “It’s your last meal before getting out. Someone is gonna try to mess with you. Trip you up, just like last night. Lucas, you need to be ready for that shit.”
“Last night?” I asked. “You mean the Jell-O? Man, fuck the Jell-O. Those idiots can eat my entire breakfast for all I care. I just want out. The last thing I’m going to do is getting into some pissing contest over some powdered eggs.”
“Just be careful man, okay?” Frank said. “I know you can handle your shit cuz of all that wilderness survival shit you done, but it’s a different type of wilderness in there.”
I spat a mouthful of toothpaste into the small basin that sat on top of our toilet. “Frank, this isn’t my first time in the mess hall. I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah man, it’s your last time,” Frank said. “And you know how the lifers get when someone is on the verge of getting walking papers.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “Thanks, Frank.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank grinned. “Don’t get all emotional and shit now. If I wouldn’t cuddle with you before, I ain’t gonna do it now.”
I laughed. Frank was good for that. Most of the time it was hard to find something to laugh about when you were inside, but Frank found ways to make things funny. That went a long way.
“So are you gonna go back to doing that survivalist stuff?” Frank asked.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” I said. “My wife was never really a fan of it. Besides, I’ve done enough surviving over the last three years.” The truth was that I missed the woods, but I missed my family more. My wife, Lisa and daughter, Kara had never been into camping or spending days out in the woods. They humored me from time to time, but building a hut from pine boughs and purifying pond water was a line they would never cross. We had a nice tent and gas stove that I would bring along when they were with me. That was never my thing, but I loved being with them.
My father and two of my uncles had been game wardens in Maine. In those parts, being a game warden was a kind of catch all job. My father tracked poachers and checked fishing permits, but he also handled local business like domestic disturbances and drunks. There weren’t any real police, at least not within a hundred-mile radius, so self-reliance was kind of important. This was a lesson he instilled in my two sisters and me.
We spent weekends out in the woods killing things we could eat, sleeping under the stars and learning to live off the land. My dad always told us that civilization was make believe, that something like that could only last for so long before it broke. People, he said, were just animals that had learned to fool ourselves into playing nice. Eventually, we’d remember that the days of smashing rocks over each other’s heads were more fun than watching television and when that happened that we had better know what to do. My dad dug out the floor of our basement to build a bomb shelter. We spent damn near thirty hours down there when Y2K rolled around. So maybe he was a little bit paranoid, but that didn’t make what he taught us any less true, especially once I got put in this place.
Once I moved down to ‘the flat lands’ or what’s more commonly known as the East Coast, I kept on with what my dad taught me as a kid. It was a nice way to remember the old man, but the truth was that I had never fully accepted that society wasn’t one accident away from full on collapse.
Lisa didn’t like to talk about that kind of stuff and I made sure not to scare Kara with it. Still, that didn’t stop me from digging out our basement. The shelter was huge, but it had three cots, a few respirators and a ton of nonperishable food. Lisa wasn’t too happy when she came home from work and found Kara and I in the basement. Kara smiled and pointed at what would be our new ‘clubhouse.’ After that, I thought I might end up living in our ‘clubhouse’ but Lisa finally got over it once I put locks on the door and convinced her it was a safer place to keep my guns than that shitty cowboy safe I picked up at Wal-Mart.
I didn’t care about any of that stuff anymore. I didn’t care if society failed and broke down. Hell, it had been broken for me for the last three years, so what did I care? All I wanted was to see Lisa and Kara again. That was what kept me going for three years. It would definitely be enough to get me through one last breakfast in the mess hall, regardless of what those assholes might try to do.
The door to our cell jumped on its track and clanged into place. The guards started yelling to line up.
“Ready?” Frank asked.
“Stop stressing so much,” I said as we walked out onto the platform. One tier above us and two tiers below men in orange suits were doing the same. We put our hands behind our backs and stood in line. The guards paced up and down, checking for any problems. There didn’t seem to be any so we started shuffling towards the mess hall. I hoped there wouldn’t be any, but Frank’s paranoia was making it difficult.
“Watch yourself,” Frank said in a near whisper as we moved in a line towards the cafeteria.
“Shut your mouth,” a guard barked from somewhere near the doors leading into the cafeteria.
“I’m fine,” I said as I grabbed my tray. “Relax, man.”
“Yeah, well whatever.” Frank picked up his tray and cast a quick glance around the room. Tables, bolted to the floor, were filled with men. A sea of orange writhed with hushed conversations and the sounds of eating drifted above it all. “You’re just lucky you got me here to do the worrying for you.”