First of all, this story has been in "the drawer" for over a year and a half now. What prompted me to dust it off and take a look at it, I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is, that I've been a zombie fan since I can remember. This story represents every aspect of the Zombie Genre that I enjoy. Without giving too much away of the overall story arc, these aren't your average zombies, and I can't wait till you and I get to the part where we find out what they are. But, until then, let's just enjoy the ride, shall we?
-1- Lie en waite
Mitch watched, peeking through a cluster of two-by-fours criss-crossing the picture window in the living room, gawking as the dead slammed their rotted fists against the bay window of the house across the street.
Their hands left red smudges and stringy sinews of putrid flesh glued to the glass. They were rabid, like starved wolves who’d caught a scent of fear or blood-rich meat. There were five of them, two males and three females. Their skin sagged from their bones, clothes tattered and crusted with dirt and their own juices. Their eyes were empty of any emotion, save rage, lips peeled back and savage.
It made him sick, watching helplessly, but it was like driving passed a car accident. He couldn’t tear his eyes away despite knowing he wouldn’t like what he’d see.
That’s how their lives were now, his and his mother’s. They stood by while friends and neighbors died, flushed out of their homes like cockroaches scattering when the light flicks on. They could only stare from the safety of their own home, waiting until it was their turn, until their light flicked on.
One of the chicks hopped the rail guarding the porch and smashed shoulder first into the front door with a wet thud. The door stood strong, marked from the impact with streaks of red goo and silvery tendrils of skin.
Mitch cringed as she got back onto her feet. He covered his mouth. Something bubbled in his gut. That something was about to spray the window.
Her collarbone poked through her neck. Dark blood gushed in waves, drenching her clothes and the porch. She bobbed her shoulder up and down, testing its functionality. The collarbone slid in and out of her throat like a straw in a fountain drink.
Mitch doubted it was making the same plastic on plastic whine.
As if she heard movement from inside the house, she stopped playing with her arm and leaned against the front door, listening as drool dripped from her dried and peeling lips. For a moment, she was motionless, almost dead, like she should have been.
Mitch thought she might collapse from blood loss, but instead she rammed her body into the door, tugging and twisting the knob, kicking her shoeless foot against its base. Her foot crunched, jutting at an extreme angle, clearly broken, but still she kicked.
A tear slid from the corner of Mitch’s eye. He blinked it away and shoved his thoughts into a file cabinet labeled ‘Never Think This Again’. But he couldn’t help replaying the realization in his head.
They’ll never stop. They can break their bones and snap their feet, but they won’t stop. Not ever. This thought, this killer of hope made him sick.
Mitch swallowed the puke building at the back of his throat and shifted the elbow he’d been leaning forward on. It wasn’t numb, but he definitely felt the sleepy needles stabbing his skin.
The bigger of the two men broke from the pack banging the window.
Mitch didn’t notice it before, but its lower jaw was missing. Its tongue dangled like a squirming worm beneath a single row of yellow teeth and green, corroded gums.
It sprinted to the side of the house. It moved with desperation, reminding Mitch of when they toilet papered his high school football coach’s house, moving quickly and with purpose before cops showed up.
How the hell does it plan on eating? Mitch wondered. It can’t fuckin’ chew. It’s gonna’ lick someone to death?
He focused on the worm like tongue and a shiver slithered up his spine.
He’d seen plenty of the dead, peeking through the wooden boards as he did. He’d seen what they do, how they act. He believed-no, he knew, that the thing didn’t need to eat, not entirely. It just enjoyed the kill. They all did. But he didn’t doubt that it wasn’t hungry. That’s all they did, eat and kill, kill and eat. For the past month, that’s all they’d done. Who knows how long it would go on for, if it would ever stop. God, Mitch thought, I can’t believe it’s been a month already. Feels like it’s been years.
He remembered the day the dead refused to stay that way. His father, Douglas, called from the Ike expressway in Chicago, some hundred miles away. He worked as a window contractor for some smaller end businesses. Nothing worth bragging over, but it put food on the table and Mitch through his first two years of college, until school became obsolete. Mitch thought about a classroom full of zombies. Yeah, school was about as useful as an asshole on an elbow now.
Douglas wasn’t a great father, but he could have been worse. Being ignored or scolded on a whim weren’t out of the ordinary, and when he spoke, you listened. His dad was short that day, instructing Mitch to board up the windows and doors. Mitch knew it wasn’t a joke when his dad said ‘I love you, son’. That was the last time he spoke to his dad, almost a month ago exactly.
His dad was a hard person to love, but Mitch always found a way. Chicago was a big city, plenty of places to seek safety, tons of places to hide. Mitch hoped his dad had found it, though seriously doubted he did. As big as the city was, the population was bigger. Not only would the dead be crawling over the skyscrapers and subway tunnels, but one rule of thumb his dad had taught him early on, you go where the food is. Surely the dead were privy to such instinctual information.
For the most part, the dead had moved on from Clifton. Small groups, like the one that assaulted the house across the street, still took stock on any leftover survivors. Mitch figured the rest had gone for the next fleshy smorgasbord.
The jawless zombie hobbled and stopped a few feet away from the bay window, dragging a ceramic lawn gnome behind. The other zombies paid him no mind, continuing their pointless onslaught against the glass.
Mitch squeezed the backrest of the couch beside him. His muscles tightened with fear. He couldn’t tell if his stomach was trying to shove its way up his throat, or sink out his ass. Either way, it felt like it was coiling itself into a knot of worry. He was scared to death, not for him, but for the person inside the house.
Get out, Betty! Get the fuck out of there! He whispered in his head. But please, whatever you do, don’t come here! Don’t you dare come over here! His thoughts felt loud, like some subconscious part of him had been screaming them to drive the point home, even going so far as to close the curtains over the boards, leaving a sliver to spy through.
The zombie lifted the smiling gnome. Its frail body trembled from the tremendous weight. For a second, Mitch thought the zombie’s arms would pop right out of their sockets. Betty had no such luck.
It lofted the gnome head first through the window with a wet scream. The others crawled through the opening, ignoring the jagged shards of leftover glass still standing tall.
Mitch bowed his head and shut his eyes. The disappointment hurt. Why hadn’t Betty Widhold tried? She was probably hiding in a broom closet, clutching the rosary around her neck. No amount of Hail Marys is gonna’ send them away, Betty. He slammed his fist into the board by his face. Why didn’t you try, Betty? Why hasn’t anybody tried? He figured county police, the one officer that Clifton had, probably deserted his post for his family. But what about the national guard? The Army? Where were they? Truth was, Mitch had become an expert at deflecting, sending the blame elsewhere when it should have landed in his lap with a pretty red bow.
Why haven’t I tried? he asked himself, finally resting blame in the right place. Dad would have tried…Part of the reason, part of his hesitation, rested upstairs in her bedroom. His mother. She’d done a lot of that lately, sleeping.
Betty’s blood-curdling screams pulled him from his self-pity party. He’d never heard anything quite so guttural and raw. It was sharp, real. A woman, his neighbor of twelve years, the woman who’d given him cookies every Saturday for mowing her lawn, was pleading for her life to hungry, deaf ears.
They had dragged her onto her front lawn, tearing into her like four years olds into a birthday cake. The pack of zombies were ripping flesh from muscle and shoving it into their wide, peeling mouths. They gnawed on the webbing between fingers, nibbled on her fatty cheeks. One of them grabbed hold of her intestines, holding a length of it between two hands and digging its rotted teeth into it like a blood-sausage. Her screams broke when one of them bit down on her jugular and ripped it out.
Mitch let the sliver of curtain fall closed. He’d seen plenty, too much, in fact. His mind kept the savagery going in slow motion, focusing in disgusting detail on all the blood and meaty parts.
Dad would have helped her, the son of a bitch that he is, he would have. But I didn’t. It’s not like I could have gone out there, guns blazin’ all John Wayne style, right? Mom wouldn’t like that, not one bit. ‘We can only help ourselves’ she’d say. ‘We can only help ourselves because that’s how we make it. Together we’ll make it, Mitch. Going outside, out there, that’s their world now. The dead rule. Beyond that door, death awaits the foolish. Believe you me, Mitch, walking outside is a fool’s game. In here, we have the opportunity to live our lives and die on our terms. Your father would know that, and I can’t lose you too. Baby blue, we’re each other’s worlds now. That’s all we need.’
Mitch blinked away the tears in his eyes and headed up the carpeted stairs.
Mom will wanna’ know that Betty’s dead.
The air upstairs hung humid and stunk of dry sweat and stagnant piss.
‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down’, his mother used to say, before she started spending the better parts of her days in bed. They’d had to conserve what little water was left in their pipes. The upstairs bathroom reeked of mellowing and the stale smell leaked into the rest of the house. Funny how habitual flushing a toilet is until you have to rate how much junk is worth a good flushing.
A porthole window at the top of the stairs let in a solid shaft of mid-afternoon light, slicing through the dullness that life had taken on. Dust flakes flickered, dancing and mingling in the rays of the sun.
Mitch tapped on his mother’s bedroom door with the knuckle of his pointer finger. The whole house sat in eerily silence, and even such a small rapping sounded like cackling thunder.
The bed shifted on the other side of the door. Springs depressed with a groan, covers shuffled.
“Mom?” Mitch asked. He pressed his cheek against the soft wood of the door. His ears caught a muffled groan, but this time it wasn’t the bed.
He twisted the doorknob and eased the door open. Its hinges cried out as he slid into the dark bedroom.
The blinds were shut. Traces of sunlight glowed underneath each like luminescent stripes. The closet door hung half open, displaying dozens of shoeboxes-Adidas, Nike, Vera Wang- and only a smidgen of his mother’s vast wardrobe was exposed. She’d been quite the shopper in her heyday.
Mitch plugged his nose as he tip-toed inside, past the dresser beside the door. Her room was even more humid than the upstairs hallway. Although the stench of piss hadn’t found its way in here yet, the smell of sweat hung heavily in the air. It was everywhere, the smell of matted and oily bedhead.
“Mom?” Mitch whispered. He stopped beside her bed and shook the lump of a person hidden beneath mounds of comforters and blankets.
His mother rolled over and grabbed his hand.
“Morning, Baby Blue," she said through a haze. Her eyes fought to open, managing only a constant squint. Her skin hung loose from her face. Her chin drooped. Her eyes were like caverns. Lack of food had left her withered, fading into a skin suit and bones. She was the crypt keeper with ratted brown hair.
A weak cough surged up her throat and she shot to the edge of the bed. Mitch squeezed her hand while she dry heaved. It sounded like a bucket of nails yanked up her throat.
She scooted back into the center of the bed while Mitch puffed up her pillow.
“Are you okay, mom?”
She wiped away spittle from the dimple of her chin and forced a smile.
“Never been better,” she whispered.
“You don’t look okay.”
Mitch fingered through her hair, catching a dozen or so knots. His hand came out oily and sweaty.
She met his hand in the air with hers.
“My son…always worried about his momma’. It’s my job to worry, not yours. I’m fine, baby.”
She released his hand and lay down. The down pillow swallowed both sides of her head.
“I’m just tired. Sleep is a hard thing to catch up on, the only thing you can never get 'nuff of.”
“It’s been a few days since you’ve eaten anything. I’ll get you some chicken soup or mac ‘n cheese.”
Mitch headed for the hallway.
“Mitchell!” his mother shouted. Even trying her hardest, the most she could manage was a louder than average whisper. Since life’s volume knob had been turned down, it still commanded Mitch’s attention.
Mitch stopped and stood for a moment. He stared into the empty, sunlit hallway. He knew what she was going to say, and he hated her for it.
“Mitchell Fuller, get back here,” she said, sitting herself up. She waved him closer to the bed then patted where she wanted him to sit.
The bed groaned underneath his weight. It drowned out a grunt of his own. The springs squeaked and stretched while she scooted closer to him and wrapped her arms around him. She rested her head on his shoulder.
“I love you, Baby Blue, but you just don’t see things the way I do,” she said. She kissed his cheek and squeezed his shoulder. “We’ve already rationed what little food we have left. It’s all yours. Everything. The water bottles, E-Z dinners, mac ‘n cheese, corn, rice.”
Mitch felt a lump crawling up his throat. Heat began to build in his gut and behind his eyes.
His mother sighed.
“This is my gift to you. Look at me.”
Mitch looked down at the back of her neck. It used to be full of life, strong, now it bowed in wrinkles and extra skin folds.
“A can of green beans isn’t going to make a dent in this mess.”
“But you have to eat,” Mitch said, beginning to sob. “We have enough to last us ‘til next month. That’s counting three meals a day. Not the one a day we’re doin’ now, if that.” He held her hand. “You don’t have to do this.”
She kissed his forehead again. Mitch felt a hot tear from his mother’s cheek moisten his eyebrow.
“IGA is only two blocks away. The meat and greens are prolly rotted by now, but the canned goods, those will be good for at least another year or two. I can hang out till sundown, take a book bag and dad’s gun-”
His mother backed away from him, staring into his eyes. Her cheeks glistened with tear trails and her eyes spoke of fear.
“Promise me you won’t go out there, Mitch. Right now!”
She cupped both of Mitch’s cheeks.
“Promise me, Baby Blue. Death calls the shots out there. Hell is here, in Clifton, in the world. Promise me you won’t go! Please!”
“Betty’s dead, mom! They busted in her bay window with a fuckin’ lawn gnome! They pulled her to the front lawn and ripped her to pieces like a damned piñata. I’m surprised you didn’t hear her screaming or the feeding!” he shouted, palming both of his ears. They were on fire. “Everything’s so damned loud now!”
His mother tried pulling him close, aching to comfort him.
“Oh, wait,” Mitch said, pulling away. “There’s no way you could’ve heard. You’re up here like a bear, hibernating! That’s all you do is sleep, cuz you’re starving away your energy!”
His mother’s eyes wandered back and forth. Her hands fell to her lap then tussled through her bramble hair. She sat quiet for a moment.
“Did they see you?”
Mitch rose from the bed.
“No, mom! They didn’t see me," Mitch said, wiping his eyes with his hands then parked them on his hips. “You know what? God willing, I wanted to help her! I should have. I just should’ve done it.”
“Mitchell Fuller! Watch your mouth! We help others by helping ourselves. End of story. So, you stop that bullshit right now! We’re all each other has anymore. We stick together in this.” She fixed an awkward tuft of comforter. “You’re twenty years old. Stop pouting and promise me you’re not going outside. I’m tough. I will be fine.”
“I promise,” Mitch said. He slammed her door behind him as he headed for the hallway.
Sooner or later the hunger wins, he thought. It always wins.
Two hours later, he made a can of tomato soup and buttered the last two pieces of bread, ate his fill, then brought his mother the rest. She couldn’t deny that roasted, home-style aroma. The creamy red soup lay bare just how truly hungry Mildred Fuller, Mitch’s mother, really was. There wasn’t another argument about self-sacrificial rationing, just an uninterrupted slurping of soup. When she was full, she dug up the argument again, but Mitch wasn’t hearing it.
She was right, though. About a week earlier, they’d rationed out the little cans of soup and bags of chips they had left. Mitch had been exaggerating quite a bit, a real seventh inning stretcher. They really only had about enough food to last through the next week, if that. He’d have to make a trip to the IGA grocery store, promise or not.
He decided that night would be the best shot he’d have, while the courage was still burning in his chest. His mother passed out quickly with the hot bowl of soup in her stomach. With a little bit of sustenance, she’d sleep like a rock. And just to hit the ball home, he’d thrown in a couple pills of Lunesta, against the label’s warning of just one.
The spoon clinked in the empty bowl as Mitch grabbed it from his mother’s hand. Her breathing was hard and shallow.
Mitch snapped his fingers.
He clapped his hands.
Nothing. Though she was just sleeping, his mother was dead to everything else.
Mitch opened the top right drawer of his mother’s dresser and fished out his father’s 9mm. It was light, lighter than it looked. It commanded respect, and Mitch hoped he wouldn't have to use it.
He grabbed a book bag from his bedroom closet and took a good look at his bookshelf and bed as if it may be his last, then headed for the backdoor.
The backdoor, being the most obvious choice, would be his best chance to slip out quietly. It stood in the laundry room, midst piles of soiled laundry never to be cleaned again.
Mitch slid into his sneakers and wiggled his toes inside. It’d been a while since he’d worn shoes. He didn't need to. They didn't leave the house, ever. They felt good, like he could run for miles and his feet wouldn't feel a thing.
He twisted the deadbolt unlocked and gripped the doorknob.
Maybe this isn’t the best of ideas. Worse comes to worse, we could always eat shoes. They seem soft enough. Bums do that, cook shoes in burn bin fires. They get a long just fine, except now they’ve gotta’ contend with the zombies for sleeping space.
Mitch smiled. He slowed his excited breathing and twisted the door open.
A new Hell Breaks Loose episode will be posted Every Sunday! So come back next week for Episode 2. Hope you enjoyed!