by Chesya Burke

From the collection Let’s Play White (Apex Publications) by Chesya Burke

http://www.apexbookcompany.com/collections/books/products/lets-play-white-by-chesya-burke

CUE: Me running for my life. The zombies didn’t really chase you, as much as they loomed menacingly. There was something in their demeanor that signaled they were the zombies—that they were changed and not like the rest of us. Of course, I had heard the rumors about the inner cities and that people were looting and rioting in the streets. But hell, they were my streets. And I never believed white folks until I saw evidence for myself. Call it a survival mechanism.

Survival was what had me running for my life at that moment. I had been out hustling when I realized that perhaps zombies did exist. Now, hustling may seem like a questionable occupation, but really it just meant that I was working. At Walmart, no less. I was a sales associate, which was a fancy term for cashier. It wasn’t a Walmart in my own neighborhood—there weren’t any there. I was in some ritzy part of town where people actually spent good money on Kleenex to wipe their noses instead of using plain toilet paper like the rest of us.

I was waiting on some chick who had too much money to spend on dyeing her hair a color that no human being had ever been born with, when suddenly she reach out to touch me. You have to understand the dynamic in this situation before you realize that this was odd. These people didn’t touch me; most of them placed their money on the roller to keep from touching me. And they didn’t care if their money or sometimes their credit cards rolled right down the hatch, they’d just take out more.

So when this woman reached for me, I recoiled out of reflex. Then she leaned in and whispered, “It doesn’t hurt. I just need to touch you, to taste you.” Her eyes rolled toward the back of her head for a moment while she sniffed the air, evidently smelling me.

I looked at the woman, and then around the store. Almost everyone there was staring back at me. Over in the corner near the door, a large white man dropped to the floor and several people crowded in, attacking him. I stared at them long enough to know that I should probably get my black ass out of there. I picked up the biggest weapon I could find—an extra long, extra hard salami roll—and backed slowly toward the door. Then I ran my black ass right back to the one part of world where I knew I’d be safe. The projects.

 

CUE: How all this went down. When one homeless man eats another on the streets of Chicago, it’s unfortunate; if he eats a businessman on his way home from the office, it’s a tragedy; and when it happens on the six o’clock news, it’s a national emergency.

It started in the inner cities. Large, dark gangs of the homeless and street people began looting and attacking. The media dubbed it “crime sprees typical of the demographic”—as if random homeless people across the nation had the means or funding to stage a revolt on their own. They urged everyone not to panic, of course, while showing brutal scenes of people rioting in the streets, which caused the natural reaction of…panic.

Inside the cities, there was chaos. No one knew how to contain them, at first thinking they were simply out of control—marching for some form of civil rights that they had long since gotten. Then, more and more began to join their ranks. It was rumored that people were dying in the streets by the hundreds. Finally, the news called them an “unstable horde,” which sought to undermine the very idea of our society.

 

CUE: The mass flooding of news media into the cities—to become lunch. Actually, if anyone knew anything about the media, they’d realize that no one could have a filling meal from the bastards; at best, they could be a light snack. But everyone outside of the cities watched on in horror and astonishment, tucked safely within the comfort of their suburban homes.

At that point, the police and military were sent out to stabilize the massive crowds, and everyone across the country finally began to feel safe again. Soon the police and military were fighting with the hordes. Television depicted images of uniformed officers attacking other uniformed officers. The cops were armed with batons and guns but didn’t bother to use them as they stormed through the barricades followed closely by the homeless. And they were eating each other. As the camera zoomed in, the entire country saw—in an endless loop that played day and night—a large cop grab another and tear a small, superficial, gash into his cheek. It was in L.A. this time. The bitten man stumbled backward as several others swarmed in, crowding him. Finally, he was completely out of the camera shot and presumed dead.

Soon, we realized that the dead didn’t stay dead. Like zombies.

 

CUE: All the experts on national talk shows discussing the walking dead. The implausibility of the idea. Or the real-life incident that was supposed to have happened somewhere that no one could agree on. Whatever. It didn’t matter. If there was a scientist or “expert” to be found, they were put on TV.

By this time it didn’t really matter what the experts had to say because people outside the city were being attacked, too. The hordes abandoned the cities en mass, in the same way that everyone with any means to do so left it eventually. Only, the zombies didn’t care about property values. They didn’t really seem to care about anything except hunting people down and killing them.

There were rumors that a bullet to the head would not kill them. It was hard to say, at first, because anyone who ever got close enough to them didn’t really live to tell about it. But it was clear that these zombies weren’t quite your average drop dead, get up, roam the countryside eating brains zombies. And they weren’t drugged out on puffer fish juice either. They…talked. Which meant they were smart. They were said to have some kind of social agenda—they spoke of evolution and social change. No one listened.

One by one entire, cities began to overhaul themselves—though I wasn’t sure what overhaul meant. It eventually became clear that the zombies weren’t looting in the cities as had previously been reported; they were infecting the cities, one person at a time. They weren’t stealing, they were changing. No one likes change. It scares people.

All these things the experts discussed over and over again while the average people locked away in their homes were eaten into zombies. Until the day the electricity stopped working.

 

CUE: Me. The idiot who tried to go to work at Walmart during this madness, and who now had to figure out how to get the electricity back on, or at least find a working, not-currently-in-use generator to keep twenty adults and twice as many children able to see how to take a piss without threatening to burn the building down with candles. But the lights weren’t the only problem; it was the electricity in general. You see, Carl’s grandmother used a ventilator to breathe. Carl was twelve years old and sat by the woman’s side night and day. Now he and a few others watched for signs of distress and used a hand-held breathing pump to keep her alive. This couldn’t go on for much longer.

The problem, as I saw it, was that if the zombies were as smart as everyone said they were, they had probably cut the electricity, and if they were really smart, they already knew we were there. Thus, leaving would in essence be opening ourselves up for trouble. But I dealt in odds—whatever was the best option at the moment. I’m a kid of the streets; I was born here, and I was sure I’d die here. I was okay with that. At that moment, my best option was to at least try to get the electricity back on. The bad part was that I had to do it during a zombie attack.

***

“You sure about this, kid?”

Japa was old and had earned the right to call anyone kid. But he called me that because that was what everyone called me. Always had. Japa had lived in this building for as long as I could remember. We all had. He was a city man, a long-time resident of the streets, he said, but a short-time visitor of life. He fancied himself a poet; everyone else considered him a wise man. His white hair of wool sat nearly five inches high on his head, and when he stared at you, his eyes seemed darker than his black skin.

“Not really.” I didn’t really look into Japa’s eyes. He was much taller than me. “But supplies are low, and even with the candles we got, it’ll be completely dark within a week. And we have to try to do something for Carl—he’ll lose it if she dies. You know that.”

Japa stared at me, but I ignored him and continued loading my backpack. I didn’t expect to be gone long, but just in case something went wrong, I needed to have provisions. I hadn’t left the building since that day. None of us had. There were advantages to living in the housing projects when some like this went down.

 

CUE: Hollywood Hills housing development in southwest Atlanta, Georgia. A run-down place that’s supposed to conjure images of beautiful, comfortable flats with happy families that are meant to make the uptown folks feel happy about where they spent money, and even happier that they didn’t have to stay there themselves. The Hills was a place where people cared about each other, took food to the sick, and defended themselves against outside threats, whatever those might be. Right then, those threats were the walking dead. Prior to that they had been the police officers who attacked whoever they thought looked “suspicious;” a white man in a big black Cadillac who roamed the neighborhood and got too handsy with the little girls; or anyone who thought that the people in Hollywood Hills were weak and vulnerable because of our lack of money.

We didn’t have money, but we refused to be victims. The police regularly got rocks thrown at them, or, as terrible as the thought is, they got shot at after particularly brutal beatings of the men of the complex. The Cadillac man was dragged from his car and beaten by the corner dealers. He refused to press charges. Others were handled as needed. People had a right to protect their homes. That didn’t change just because you lived in a poor neighborhood.

In fact, some may say that our special garden variety of zombie was actually less threatening than the brutal police or rich perverts who had roamed our streets previously. At least they weren’t licensed by corrupt laws. That was how I saw it. It was how a lot of people saw it.

After the news warned us to stay in the house, each separate building in the Hollywood Hills complex took caution however they saw fit. Our building barricaded the doors. There were only two ways out of the building. In the beginning, it had been meant to ensure that people were effectively caged like animals, but after the zombie attack, it ensured that we only had two doors to guard. Of course, that also meant there were only two ways to escape. But you had to take what you had—and we had children to protect. Then we pulled together and rationed the food and necessary items (at the end of the world, certain things become more valuable than others: batteries, flashlights, meds, etc.). We put three armed guards who worked in shifts on each door. The building was run like an old-fashioned boarding school: everyone ate, everyone had a job.

The end of the world had happened three weeks earlier. We weren’t really sure what had happened since then, only heard the vague TV or radio reports. Although we were pretty well stocked on food—shit, that’s what food stamps were for—now that the electricity was off, the food would go bad if we didn’t find a way to stop it.

We radioed each of the other buildings by walkie-talkie and told them our plans. Each building agreed and sent one person out with me. There were a total of five of us: me; Allen, an unemployed electrician from building two; Simms, a dealer from number one; Slow Walker, a user from five; and from building four, there was Tiny, a giant man who no one really knew anything about.

I exited my building after scoping as best as I could through the twelve-by-twenty-inch window. The guards opened the door quickly and scanned the area, guns drawn, and I stepped out into the new world. The air smelled fresh—not like inside. It was quiet. Too quiet. Nothing moved or sang or chirped or breathed. Not even me. As soon as I took a step, the sound of my foot crunching on leaves was the loudest sound I had heard in weeks. I stopped and looked around. Still nothing stirred. Then I ran to number five as fast as I dared.

We had all agreed on the walkie that we’d meet there, since it was closer to the street and still hidden from view of onlookers, or in this case the walking dead. They must have seen me coming because they opened the door, and I slid inside just before it closed.

“What’s up, Kid?” Slow Walker slapped my palm and hit me with the customary one arm hug. The man was tall, mostly legs, and took long, deliberate strides when he walked.

“Same shit, different day.” I looked around. Someone was missing. “Where’s Allen?”

Simms nodded toward deeper into the building. “Taking a piss. Nerves.”

The halls were almost completely dark, and we all waited for the man in silence. In shadow, Tiny looked bigger than he ever had in the daylight. Slow Walker was almost his height, but had nowhere near his bulk. Simms was probably the baddest person in that room—carried a gun whether there were zombies roaming around outside or not—but only stood about five feet tall. She called herself a bitch, but dared anyone else to.

Allen came down the hall with a flashlight, zipping his fly, the light bouncing up and down across the walls. I’d known him about a year, since he and his family had moved to Hollywood Hills. His wife was close to my mother. He nodded when he saw me.

The main discussion was over whether to drive or take a car. Slow Walker insisted that he’d heard vehicles driving past steadily over the last few weeks, as if nothing had changed. We didn’t really believe him, though. The man was high half the time, and the other half he was trying to get high. Either way, we’d be harder to catch by slow-moving zombies if we took a car, and easier to be seen by other survivors. So it was decided. Simms had a Navigator that she’d bought from the auction for eight grand. We took that.

The roads were empty. Nothing human moved. A dog ran across the road in front of the SUV, stopped, looked at us as if it’d never seen a person before. It wasn’t too confused by the power dynamic, however, because as we got closer it ran away to keep from getting run over. But other than that, except for the old news media images that we’d all seen, and the woman at Walmart trying to hold my hand, I would swear that nothing at all had happened. Where was everyone, we wondered.

We tried the radio in the car, but none of the stations worked anymore. It was for the best. We were scared and any little news would have just made it worse. In the backseat, Slow Walker sat between Allen and Tiny. The man’s long, boney fingers twitched, as if aching to touch something. He watched them, looking up every now and again to see if anyone noticed. I watched from my passenger side visor’s mirror. Then Allen reached out and touched the tall man’s hand, wrapping his fingers around both of Slow Walker’s hands to slow the trembling. It was such a deliberate show of affection, I almost smiled. Everyone knew Slow Walker was a junkie. Most people avoided him. As did I.

Just as I felt as if I was intruding on this personal matter, Slow Walker lifted his eyes to mine and stared at me through the mirror. Junkies didn’t like to be stared at. I had forgotten obvious social graces while stuck in that building for those weeks. I closed the visor and decided to mind my own damn business.

 

CUE: The Southwest Utility complex, which was only about a mile and a half away from The Hills. We figured that from there Allen could get in and work out how to get things turned back on. He assured us that he knew hardly anything about the utility company’s main supply, but we thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. Allen agreed that he would do what he could when he got there.

We ran into the first hoard there. They stood around the gate, staring at something inside. There were hundreds of them, just standing around. Simms pulled the car off to the side, hidden from view. I pulled out a pair of binoculars (one of those necessary items in an apocalypse) and watched. They moved slowly, deliberately. I began to wonder if they were really zombies at all. There weren’t any missing limbs, and there were no abnormal bloody, torn gashes in anyone. Some held hands and swayed counterclockwise in a circle, as if they were meditating or something. I handed the binoculars over to Simms. She let out a soft gasp.

“What is it?” Tiny asked. She handed the binoculars to the back seat. Each took a turn watching the group of seemingly normal people. “What are they doing?”

“My guess is ensuring that people like us don’t get in. The damnedest thing, though. They look so…normal. Why do they look so normal?” Simms was asking a rhetorical question, and it wasn’t like we actually knew the answer, so no one responded.

“I said why the fuck do they look so normal, goddamn it!”

Man, I had misjudged that one.

“I was thinking the same thing,” I said, just to respond. Then I started thinking about it. “What if that’s the plan, really. They’re supposed to be smart, right?  Well, what if they’re smart enough to disguise themselves as normal people?  Then all they have to do is wait.”

“Wait. Wait for what?” Allen asked; his voice was trembling.

“Us.”

Suddenly, someone screamed. Loudly. The group parted as two people were dragged through the crowd and placed on the ground. Placed—not thrown, I noted. The zombies moved back and forth, fidgeting, their hands opening and closing, as if they were anxious. But something was keeping them from attacking. The two women—I could see that now—hugged each other.

“Shit shit shit shit shit,” Simms kept repeating behind me. “We can’t just sit here. Damn it to hell. We can’t.” Before anyone could stop her, she jumped out of the car and crouched behind the bushes and drew her gun.

“Shit.” I jumped out behind her and motioned for the others to stay in the car. I would get Simms and bring her back. If I couldn’t, I’d dash back and drive away. Between the five of us we had seven guns, and that was only because Simms had three. We couldn’t afford to lose her. But even so, we couldn’t help those women and we could die trying. When I reached the bushes, I bent down beside her and whispered, “What the hell are you doing?”

She ignored me and watched the dead play with their food.

One of the women stood up and pulled out a gun. She helped the other woman to her feet. But the second woman was wobbly and her leg looked broken. She leaned on the first, who held the hoard off by gunpoint.

“I swear to God, I’ll shoot.” The woman was screaming for no reason; even I heard her from my position. The gun quivered in her hand, pointing back and forth at the dead people in the crowd. The group didn’t make a move for the women as they backed away. They couldn’t get far, though; there were a lot of zombies and only two of them. Finally, one of the hoard broke away and moved toward the women, its hand outstretched. The thing seemed to be reasoning with her. Reasoning?

Simms turned to look at me. The woman fired; the shot went through the zombie’s head. The impact threw the body backward, its hands still outstretched as it fell to the ground. Just as the zombie fell, the woman with the broken leg lost her balance and fell to the ground. The dead simply looked on as another walked forward to take the fallen zombie’s place, and it, too, was shot—this time in the chest. It fell too. So, I thought, the reports were wrong. They do die.

As each zombie died, another moved in to take its place, and it, too, died. Until, of course, the woman ran out of bullets. The gun clicked over and over again before she realized that nothing was coming out. The hoard stopped advancing. They just stopped, looked at the women. Then something very strange happened.

A small child walked from within the crowd, placed her tiny hands on the cheek of the woman with the broken leg, and wiped away the woman’s tears. The girl began to cry too. Before the woman on the ground could stop herself, she scooped the girl into her arms and hugged her. The child’s plaits were held together by large red bows, and the two held onto each other as if they belonged together.

Seeing this, the woman with the gun sank to her knees and burst out crying. She screamed loud and long. Finally, one of the hoard, a man with a discernible limp, walked to her and held the woman. Just as she was about to sink into his embrace, something snapped in her. I could see it in her posture; she stiffened and jerked away from him. Suddenly, she reached out and punched the zombie, who recoiled backward. Not in pain, I could tell, but in shock. He actually looked sad that she had rejected him.

I all but forgot about Simms or the others in the car as I watched the woman beat and claw her way through the crowd of undead. She dashed toward us, hiding in the bushes. As soon as she was so close I could smell her sweat and fear, one of the creatures tackled her and brought her to the ground. He spoke softly, soothingly. “Don’t fight. You may not survive if you’re injured.” Still, she fought, kicking and screaming. He grabbed her shoulders. “Don’t.”

Another man walked over and helped her to her feet. He held the woman’s wrist tightly, but as gently as possible. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t know these things. But I felt like I had somehow gotten into their heads, or that I could read their body language better than the average human. It was as if they were completely open, like all of their feelings and actions were gliding on the airwaves, infecting everyone around. Beside me, even Simms had calmed down, her .45 automatic hanging limply at her side.

The second man let the woman go and spoke clearly, calmly. “We don’t want to have to kill you. There have been too many deaths today. You have taken seven, and there are only two of you to replace those of us who were lost. They sacrificed themselves to protect you. We won’t accept any more losses.” As he spoke, his hands twitched, and he began to open and close them, as if to keep them busy. “You belong with us, sister.” He reached out his hand to her.

She looked around, searching for something, someone to help her. We continued to hide. When no one came to her rescue, she reluctantly grabbed his large, dark fingers. Shaking, he brought her hand to his mouth and bit her, tearing the skin only slightly. The rest walked to her, some scratching, other simply touching her as if to affirm and welcome her into the fold.

After a moment of this interaction, the woman fell to the ground, trembling. Two people from the crowd carried her to her friend, who had also passed out. Someone covered the pair with a thick, colorful blanket. They waited.

“What the hell is going on, Kid?” Simms asked me. “What are these things?”

The hoard turned toward us slowly, as if they’d heard her. They stared through the shrubs that hid Simms and me, directly at us. But none of them moved to attack.

“We better go.” We ran to the car and pulled away. Through the passenger side mirror I watched as the hoard watched us leave.

“What in the hell just happened?” Tiny asked.

“I don’t know. But those things…” I didn’t know what to say. “…if those things are zombies, I’ll fucking eat my shoe.”

In the back seat, Slow Walker was fast asleep. He startled, mumbling something under his breath.

“How long has he been like this?” I asked.

“Pretty much the whole time,” Allen said.

“Who in the hell’s idea was it to bring him?” Tiny sounded pissed. “He’s always like this. It never even matters if he’s high or not. He always shakes like he’s withdrawing or something. This is stupid.” Something told me that Tiny was scared, and this was simply a way for him to vent his frustration, so I didn’t say anything to him about Slow Walker. The truth was that I agreed with him. I had no idea why his building chose for him to go with us, considering his history. But now that I thought about it, perhaps I did know. Perhaps they wanted to get rid of him. They had probably simply chosen the most expendable person in the building. What did it matter if he didn’t come back?  He was all but useless anyway. I had volunteered to go, and Tiny had probably been chosen because of his brute strength, as had Simms. Walker had simply been the last person anyone cared about. It was sad, but that was how things were in this new world of zombies and survival of the fittest.

I thought about the housing projects in which I had lived my entire life and the zombies that I had seen and heard only moments before. Perhaps that was always how things had been, and they were really the ones who were different. Hadn’t seven died in order to save just two people?  Who was I kidding? They were zombies. They were probably lying to get her to do what they wanted. Well, why not just attack her?

I didn’t like where my thoughts were taking me. Zombies were the bad guys—if you could call them guys—and we were the good guys. If you’d asked me at the time who “we” were, I wouldn’t have quite known. I had lived twenty years knowing that I was just as expendable as Slow Walker. Like him, the only thing that I had done wrong was be born the wrong… everything. Nothing about me was acceptable within my own country. It was so bad that I was honestly considering the insane option of being a zombie over my own life.

***

The hardware store was two miles from the utility complex and three and a half miles from The Hills. If we rushed, we could get there, get gas, and get back home before dark and before any of the memories of the day had a chance to etch themselves into our brains. I hoped.

Inside, we each grabbed a shopping cart and headed toward the generators. I wanted to get as much water and other supplies as possible too, because you could never have too much stuff. The store looked deserted. There were no lights, but the big front windows lit up most of the inside of the building. It was amazing, but almost nothing in the store looked touched. It was as if no one had thought of coming here, yet. I was sure that any Walmart or somewhere just as commercial would be bare by this point. Considering the way people behaved in Georgia when there was only a snow alert, imagine the insanity when under the threat of zombie attack.

Just as I turned the corner, a man stood in my way, pointing a pistol at my head. I stopped, didn’t say a word. In the background, I could hear the others talking to each other, assuring each person that everything was fine. It wouldn’t be too long before they realized they hadn’t heard my voice.

“What the hell do you want?” the guy whispered.

I held my hands up in the air, not wanting to piss him off. “Nothing. Just supplies and stuff.”

“Just supplies and stuff,” the man mocked. “My supplies. My stuff.” His blue eyes shone just like they did in all the books I’d read. It looked like the man might be getting ready to cry.

“I’m sorry, man, we didn’t mean any harm. We just needed stuff because all the lights just went out—” Before I could finish, Tiny grabbed the man under his arms and put him in a full nelson headlock so he couldn’t move. I walked up and took the gun from the man.

“I’m gonna let you go, but I don’t want no shit from you or I’ll break your kneecaps, you hear?” Tiny could be really threatening when he needed to. Actually, with his body size, he didn’t really need to most of the time. Tiny slowly lowered the man to the ground, and for the first, time I realized that he had lifted him off the floor. The others came running to us, having heard Tiny.

“What’s going on?” Allen asked.

“Nothing. This fool pulled a gun on me.”

“Who are you?” Simms said.

“This was my place before you guys broke in.”

“Broke in my ass,” she said. “The damn door was opened.”

“It was unlocked, not opened.” The man was a smart ass.

“Fuck you, man,” Tiny said. “It don’t belong to you no more than it belongs to us.”

Simms squinted her eyes, got in the man’s face. “Shit, ya’ll know who this is?  This here’s Cadillac Man.” Before the man could respond, she reached out and punched him in the jaw. “You like preying on little girls, Cadillac Man?” The man fell to the ground, holding his face.

“Are you sure that’s him?” I asked.

She lifted her foot and stomped his leg. “I’m sure.” Simms had almost beaten this man to death once. Looked like she relished the opportunity to finish the job.

“Wait a minute.” Allen stopped her before she could kick the man again. “You…you don’t know this is him.”

“The hell I don’t. Get your goddamn hands off me.” She jerked away from him. “Ask him.”

Allen bent down and touched the man, who jumped as if afraid. Simms sighed, not buying any of the man’s whiny bullshit.

“Sir, what’s your name?” The man looked at Allen, then rolled his eyes. “She’ll hurt you and we won’t be able to stop her. What’s your name?”

“Picket,” Simms said. “That was the perv’s name.”

Still the man did not answer. Tiny walked over and pulled the man’s wallet from his back pocket, opened it. “Samuel Picket.”

Simms kicked him again. “I told you.”

“Don’t do that again,” Allen warned her.

I looked around. Someone was missing again, and I was getting tired of having to keep count. “Where’s Walker?”

“He ran away,” Allen said.

“The hell you mean, he ran away?”

“I don’t know. I looked up and saw him dash outta of the store. He probably just needed some air.”

Simms walked up to Allen and grabbed his T-shirt by the absent collar. “What the hell, man? We don’t leave people, and we don’t let sick people wander around alone.”

“How was I supposed to stop him?” He grabbed her hand tightly, and she winced in pain.

Before the two could get started yelling at each other again, I said, “You could have told us. We would have got him, brought him back. What are we supposed to do now? Shit.” I looked at the man on the floor, then out the window. It would be getting dark soon, and I didn’t want to have to leave without Slow Walker. Why not?

“Maybe he’s headed home already,” Tiny said. “You know Slow Walker. He does his own thing.”

A loud noise erupted from outside. On the floor, Cadillac Man began laughing.

 

CUE: The point at which you would actually rather be in hell than deal with what’s coming next.

As Cadillac Man lay on the floor laughing, we headed to the front of the building. Outside, a large group of people, more than twice the size of the group we had seen only a few hours before, stood staring–seemingly at us. The sun was setting, but it was summertime and only seven o’clock in the evening. We had more than an hour before the sun set completely, plunging the entire block into darkness. It didn’t matter, though; we wouldn’t last that long.

“Shit shit shit shit shit shit,” Simms repeated again. “We can’t get past that. Damn it. There’re too many of them.”

Behind us, Tiny hit the floor hard. He began convulsing and shaking so hard I thought maybe he was having a heart attack. Allen rushed to his side to help him. Cadillac Man continued laughing. Simms reached down and hit the man with the butt of her gun. He screamed in pain and began rocking and moaning while holding his legs to his chest in a tight ball. Simms hit him again. Then again.

Allen walked up and put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t kill him. Please.” She kicked him this time, not taking her eyes off Allen.

Allen sighed. “He won’t be the same when he changes.”

She stopped. “What?”

“He won’t be the same person. None of you will.”

Simms looked at me, then back at Allen. He answered the question she didn’t have to ask. “I infected you when you when you grabbed me. It won’t be long now.” She snatched his shirt again, despite the risk of infection and put her .45 under his chin. She would blow his brains out; I just knew she would. For the life of me, I didn’t want to stop her. “You know I’m willing to die for this,” Allen said, finally. “You know that’s who we are. You saw it yourself.”

She let him go, pushed him against a stack of doorknobs. “You son of a bitch. What the hell have you done to us?”

“It’s inevitable. Evolution. Things change, they evolve. Become better.”

“Where the hell is Slow Walker?” I asked.

He nodded toward the window. “Probably on his way home to help with the infected there.”

“Oh my God.” I thought Simms was crying. Simms didn’t cry. “You sent him to infect all those people?  There’s children there.”

“It’s better this way.” He looked at me and smiled. “I changed Slow Walker in the car. You watched it happen, Kid. It made you feel good to be a human being in that moment, didn’t it?”

“Fuck you.”

“I saw you, saw your eyes. Felt what you felt while you watched me comfort him.”

“I thought you were helping a sick man.”

“I was.”

“You were killing him. Taking his soul.”

Allen shook his head as if to disagree, but he didn’t say anything. I think he felt as if we were a lost cause.

“Why are they out there?” I asked him.

“For all of you. They’ve come to help you through the transition. It’s hard to evolve. You need the comfort, the connection to others to come into second being. That’s what it is, you know. A second state of mind—one different from your own. They’ll touch you, take just a bit of flesh, but it’s simply to become one with you. Your flesh nourishes them, and in return, someone elses flesh will nourish you, and in this way everyone will be connected to everyone else on the planet. We have to do it. We need to. It’s why we shake.” He looked down at his shaky hands as if contemplating some grand theory. He rubbed them together, touched his face slightly, then scratched just behind each of his ears. The wounds were almost unnoticeable. He suddenly stared at me, as if he had forgotten I was there, and started right back where he had left off: “We have to infect, need it like it’s a part of our essence. It’s in our nature. You must understand this. But it’s better this way. Safer. No more pain or suffering. Because if one person suffers, then all people suffer. No more people dying in the streets for seemingly no reason at all.”

I had a thought. “Is everyone in building two infected?”

“Changed, yes.” Allen wasn’t regretful at all. There were almost a hundred people in that building. I hated him in that moment. I hated everything he stood for. This wasn’t human. It didn’t matter if they cared more about each other—that wasn’t human.

But it was Simms who spoke out. “This is not okay just because you think your own version of good is best. That’s not what it means to be people. This is not choice.” On the floor, Cadillac Man continued to giggle like a madman. “Shut the fuck up,” Sims warned him.

“He’s not a threat to you.” Allen’s temperament never changed. That was more frightening than anything else. To be human was to have emotions—different emotions. It even meant having the wrong emotions at the wrong time. Feeling happy when someone you didn’t like had something bad happen to them—that was part of being human. Not this.

“Who? This piece of shit?” She kicked the man again. Then she just stood, as if contemplating what to do next. She looked at me, but I had nothing. No answers. No witty response. Her hands began to shake.

“I still have control over me. You won’t have control over me,” she said. I wasn’t entirely sure that she was right, and she knew she wasn’t either. Once she dropped to the floor, there was nothing to do to change it. Allen was right; it was inevitable.

“Let it happen, Simms. Please understand.”

On the floor, Tiny groaned in pain. He was hurting. I could…feel it. I don’t know how I knew, but there was something about his spirit that told me he was dying. Allen looked at him, then at me. “You feel it, don’t you? He can’t do this alone. Let me help him. I can help you all.”

“Hell no.” Simms pointed the gun at him. “Leave him the hell alone. You’ve done enough.”

“If I don’t help him, he will die. Do you want that?”

“Fuck you!  Don’t make this about me. You did this to him. You did it!”

“We did it for him, Simms. I scratched him, yes, infected him. But I didn’t kill him. You’ll do that if you don’t let me help him.”

Simms used her gun hand to wipe the sweat forming on her forehead, and in that moment I thought she was losing her mind. She was so upset. I was worried about what she would do. I think Allen was worried too. She was unpredictable. Finally, Simms turned her anger on the one person she felt justified to harm: Cadillac Man. She pointed the gun at him.

“Don’t— ” She shot the man in the head, point blank. Allen shook his head. “It’s not necessary. Everyone can survive this.”

I stared at the two people before me. Thought about what he’d said. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to survive it. But what would my mother do without me?  My building was depending on me to return. What would they do without me?  I couldn’t just leave them any more than I had been able to leave without finding out where Slow Walker had gone. I just couldn’t.

Then I understood about the lights and why they hadn’t just stormed in, changing people. There would be too many losses. The casualties would be too high. They didn’t want that. They wanted people like me, like Slow Walker, who would return to their homes to ease the transition. They wanted mules.

Simms closed her eyes. I think she had come to the same revelation that I had. Her hands shook so badly now that she held her gun with both hands. Suddenly, she raised the gun once more, pointed it at Allen, and before the man could respond, she shot him. Outside, the hoard groaned, screamed in pain. It was as if they knew he was dead. It would not be long before they stormed the building and killed or changed all of us. I wasn’t sure which was worse.

She looked at me. “I can’t do it, Kid. I just can’t— ” There was something in her eyes, and I knew. I just knew that she meant it. “Simms!” I screamed and ran toward her just as she blew her chin out through her brain.

I stood in the giant one-room store for longer than a moment. Longer than two. Quite a few longer than I probably even remember. I had a choice, contrary to what Simms had said. She’d had one too. She had chosen to die. On the floor, Tiny screamed out in pain. His dark skin had turned an ash grey color, and I knew that he wouldn’t make it much longer. He was going to die, and I wasn’t sure that I could live with that.

I walked over to the door, opened it, and let a few of the hoard walk in. They gathered around Tiny, touching him, nibbling on his exposed skin. One of them lay down beside him, holding the big man within his arms, comforting him in a way that I felt I could never be comforted.

But I decided to give it a try, anyway. I was tired. If this was evolution, who was I to stop it?  I was just a stupid kid with one shit of a choice and afraid of change.

 

CUE: The End. They’ll be happy to see me home. I’ll bring others. They will help, reaffirm, bring into the fold. I’ll be there to smooth the transition. Things will change. I’m not sure if it’s a good change or bad change, and that scares me. But it’s inevitable, always has been.

I read somewhere that God is Change. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it doesn’t really matter anymore.


More from Chesya Burke:

Chesya Burke has published over forty short stories in various venues including Dark Dreams: Horror and Suspense by Black Writers, Voices From the Other Side, and Whispers in the Night, each published by Kensington Publishing Corp. as well as the historical, science, and speculative fiction magazine, Would That It Were, and many more. Several of her articles appeared in the African American National Biography, published by Harvard and Oxford University Press, and she won the 2004 Twilight Tales award for short fiction. Chesya attends Agnes Scott College, where she studies creative writing and the African diaspora as it relates to race, class and gender. Many of these themes find themselves appearing in her fiction.

Visit her at http://www.chesyaburke.com or on her blog (chesyaburke.livejournal.com), where she tends to discuss these issues and genre fiction as well.

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