Look, when this all got started no one really knew what to do. The news didn’t even have time to report, and anyone who stopped to check even a tweet usually ended up dead. So just what the fuck this is I can’t say. At first it seemed like the zombie apocalypse, then werewolves came out of nowhere, and they turned into werewolf-zombies, and I’ve heard vampires own New York while vampyres own San Francisco, though I don’t really know what the difference is between the two. This could be genetic experiments running amuck, supernatural upheaval, population explosions among cryptozoological species, an interdimensional invasion force, and possibly even the world’s biggest mass hallucination. The point being we -- Zoe, Nate, Moira, and myself -- wanted to feel in control which is why when we linked up with Jim, well, it seemed like we had Captain America to lead us through this nightmare.
I’ll admit things did not go perfectly in the beginning.
For the four of us things started going wrong at Tommy Barber’s birthday. There we were in Tom’s backyard drinking cheap beer and high octane margaritas, laughing, Tommy grinning away like the king of grilling, when along comes this teenager from down the road. I think his name was Ben. He used to practice his skateboard out in the middle of the street. So when he comes shuffling into the backyard, we just figure he’s drunk or stoned or whatever. This Ben kid stumbles over to Tom’s wife, Amy, and puts his mouth on her neck. Now, Amy is a beautiful woman, so we all kind of laugh thinking Ben got wasted and as such has the courage to go after her. (I sometimes wonder if, in a certain way, that’s still true.) By the time it got clear something was wrong, it was too late. See, Amy couldn’t scream because Ben crushed her throat when he bit into her. It looked like she was laughing up her sangria. Took us all a minute to realize Amy was coughing up blood by the pint. Ben turns around with his mouth covered in Amy-red. Long crimson ribbons shooting out of her neck. I knew Tommy Barber close to ten years. I never thought I’d see him beat something to death with his bare hands; he crushed Ben‘s skull. And that was before anyone thought the kid might be a zombie.
I think Amy went quickly. At least, I hope she did. Whatever, I still remember when dying seemed like a bad thing.
Two dead bodies in the backyard. Tommy’s hand busted nine different ways. We tried to call… everyone. None of the emergency numbers worked. The lines were either overloaded or plain out. The whole world goes to Hell which means the 911 operators are the first to realize it’s time to save their own ass. It got clear real quick we were on our own. Now, I don’t mean to be this guy, however, yes, we went through the predictable routine: the This-can’t-be-happening debate, followed by the Amy’s-alive!-no-she’s-a-zombie disturbance, which resulted in Tommy’s-dead-and-I-can’t-believe-we-just-killed-Amy-with-a-frying-pan temporary meltdown that then leads to the We-gotta-do-something conclusion (which had a Let‘s-deal-with-Tommy-before-he-comes-back-from-the-dead addendum).
After all that, I took charge of the situation by asking, “Anybody got any ideas?”
Nate says, “I got the cabin up by Kettle Moraine. I say we load up a car, head out there fast as we can, and wait this thing out.” Everyone agreed. So that’s what we did.
Just shy of the Wisconsin border we stopped for gas. Hindsight being what it is, our intrepid team, perhaps, shouldn’t’ve all gone into the gas station to scavenge. I say that because when we came out some redneck sat in the driver’s seat of our car. With his middle finger sticking out the window, he drove off yelling, “Sucks to be you nerds!”
We immediately ran after the car, but he still managed to get away. At one point he did slow down like he might be second guessing the theft, however, as soon as Nate reached for the door, the guy peeled out. We could hear him laughing as he raced away.
The commotion attracted a small cluster of zombie. Fortunately, we’d had the foresight to arm ourselves. Duct taping small free weights to the end of a bat really increases a bat’s ability to crush skulls. And as we learned with Amy, then Tom, a cast iron frying pan can do serious damage.
After dispatching the zombies, which also helped us vent some anger regarding the car thief -- Nate actually decapitated a zombie with his bat -- Zoe asked, “So now what?”
“We walk,” I said.
Moira nodded, “What else can we do?”
We tried to hotwire a few cars, but none of us knew what we were doing. Zoe seemed to get close. She got the radio going then zapped herself unconscious.
So we resigned ourselves to traveling the rest of the way on foot, figuring we could forage for supplies as we headed north. We encountered a few undead mobs, but nothing we couldn’t either sneak past or bludgeon our way through. Still, a two and a half hour drive is a long way on foot.
Third day of walking, somewhere in Wisconsin, I led us into another small town. We needed water and better weapons than we had. The zeds kept multiplying. Given the density of some of the hordes we encountered, anything that didn’t require much effort on our part to kill something seemed like the right offensive direction. Simply put, we needed guns. With that in mind, I opted for us to scavenge a store called Merle’s. It looked like the kind of place that sold myriad jerkies and shotguns.
I was right about the jerkies but not about the shotguns. On a side note, teriyaki squirrel is delicious.
Moira saw Jim first. She came out of the bathroom and saw him standing in the doorway to Merle’s. He looked over at her and smiled, said with a southern accent, “Y’all mind some company?”
His voice attracted the rest of us, weapons at the ready. There he stood, machete on his shoulder, wearing a bandolier half full of shotgun shells, a .45 strapped to his hip and a nine millimeter in a shoulder holster, no shirt on and looking like an ad for ab exercises. I wonder now more than I did at the time why he had no shirt on, though when I first saw Jim my only thought was, “I really hope he doesn’t shoot me… Christ, he makes Brad Pitt look fat.”
Moira said, “We don’t want any trouble.”
“Neither do I,” Jim replied, “Far as I’m concerned, we’re all in this together.”
Jim took us to his “HQ,” a fortified video store. He told us we had good timing. Up until a few days ago, the zombies still occupied most of the town. He’d been passing through on his way south when his jeep ran out of gas. Unable to make it to the gas station alone, he set up shop in the first place he found. Most of the town’s living residents had already evacuated. If anyone was left they hid too well for Jim to find. Without anything to really sink their teeth into, the zombies just drifted out of town.
That was the good news.
The bad news turned out to be that when this place got abandoned only perishable food was left behind. Jim informed us, “There’s not really anything left to eat. I was going to grub up at Merle’s, finally get some gas, and then keep heading south.” He suggested we join him.
At which point I said, “Actually, you should join us.” I told him about Nate’s cabin near Kettle Moraine, and our plan to wait things out. I said, “This is all just a waiting game really. At some point the army, or maybe even some impromptu militia, will restore order. These shambling cannibals may have gotten the drop on us, however, so long as they can’t use tools I think we’ve got the upper hand.”
Jim said in a gravely voice, suddenly free of a southern accent, “I hope you’re right.”
I went on, “It’s a bizarre optimism, however, humanity can get crazy violent when given the go ahead. And I don’t think anyone is going to protest whatever way the walking dead are dispatched. They’re like Nazis in that respect: no one cares how just fucking kill ‘em.”
Jim nodded, “I hear ya. There’s only one problem.”
“What’s that?” Moira asked.
Jim said, “Winter.”
“Winter isn’t for five or six months,” I said.
Jim remarked, “There’s no telling how long this’ll last. Just be sure you take enough supplies is all I’m saying.”
“Where are you going?” Nate asked.
“South. Nowhere particular. I reckon it’s better not to make definite plans. That way you can’t be disappointed, yaknowwhuamsayin’?”
“Yeah,” Nate said.
“Plus, heading south means I don’t have to sweat the weather too much. I’d rather wait this thing out where it’s warm than where it’s cold.”
“I hear that,” Zoe said.
Later that night I gathered my friends to ask if they wanted to stick to our plan or follow Jim’s. I voted for Nate’s cabin. The next day we loaded up a van with supplies, and with Jim in the driver’s seat, we headed south.
Before Jim we didn’t talk much. On the road, after Tommy’s, there only seemed to be one topic, and none of us really wanted to dwell on it. Whenever I could I’d try to say something reassuring like, “One day, sooner than you’d think, we’ll be joking about all this. Nate, you and me’ll be going for beers after work and bitching like, ‘I almost wish we were still running from zombies. Beats getting yelled at by my boss. At least I could kill a zombie.’ It’ll be like the way people complain about the cold in winter then long for it in summer, ya know?” Nobody really responded to my attempts to cheer them up, although I think it might have been too soon. We still didn’t want to accept the new way of the world. Jim, on the other hand, came along at the right moment.
First night with him, Zoe asked, “Have you been on your own this whole time?”
“Yeah. Most my life before that.” Jim rarely elaborated. However, he always responded to questions. Sometimes those responses meant little more than monosyllabic grunts. That isn’t to say Jim didn’t possess a certain knack for storytelling. Despite the fact many of his tales began with the disclaimer, “I don’t really want to talk about this,” he would go on to regale us with swashbuckling adventures as he machete-hacked his way through hordes of his zombified friends; the one time he “jumped off the roof of this house. On the way down, popped one of them z-dead right between the eyes.”; using survival tactics his Vietnam vet uncle taught him.
One night we’re talking about how weird it’ll be going back to mundane jobs once all this is over. Do I put efficient zombie killer on my resume? That sort of thing. We even laughed a bit for the first time in too long. During the whole conversation, save for a few grunts, Jim is silent. So Moira asks him, “What did you do before all this?”
He says, “Never really stuck to one thing. I drifted around a lot. Most recent, I was a bouncer. Worked this bar out in Kentucky. Beautiful town. Shame though. The place was in the pocket of this rich asshole. He thought he could do whatever he wanted. Let’s just say things got rough, and I had to leave.”
I couldn’t help mentioning, “That sounds like Road House.”
Jim nodded, “I suppose it does.”
But I let it go. Mainly because of a look Moira shot at me -- frosted daggers stabbing into both my testicles. Also, Jim got us all talking again. After a while it felt like a road trip. Granted, the world’s most fucked up road trip, but the point is my friends got less hollow. So I tried not to nitpick when it seemed wiser to let certain things about Jim slide. For instance, I appeared to be the only one who noticed Jim’s southern accent fade away.
Whatever. So long as he didn’t act creepy, there were more important things to worry about.
COMING NEXT WEEK! PART 2...