It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Funny, how a single, twenty-four hour span can car-wreck your perspective on the world.
I was home from my freshman year of college, wasting the summer away. That meant I had the best of both worlds, college friends and high school friends. Summertime in the northeast was always hot and muggy, but enjoyable with the aid of the in-ground pool my parents had put in the spring before I came home. A buddy of mine had lined up a painting gig so we both had money to burn on the weekends.
It happened on a weekend. In twenty-four hours the world flipped. I remember the weekend, mid-eighties and scorchingly sunny. The heat and humidity drove us to spend every available moment in my pool.
August hated me. Mold or goldenrod, or some crap like that always floated out in late summer to make my life miserable. It still does, but now it doesn’t seem the same level of life altering that it did back then. Allergies weren’t the only reason August hated me. The fact that I had to start running for soccer in the humidity always weighed on my mind.
I didn’t care that weekend. If I remember right, I didn’t care about anything, except friends and cutting loose.
“Mac,” my friend Sean yelled through the kitchen door from where he stood in the garage. “There are still more than twenty cases in the back of the van. Think you could give me a hand?”
“Yeah, just a sec,” I called back from where I was sprawled in the air conditioned living room, playing Duty online.
With a flick of the controls I hid my ghillie suited avatar in some brush and hoped nobody would trip on me. Yawning, I tossed the controller on the coffee table and snatched up a to-go box of pad thai noodles. I crammed several mouthfuls of the peanutty goodness in my mouth and I strolled through my kitchen. As I neared the door I dropped the container on the counter and checked my phone.
Tammy had texted.
-b thr n 10
Single-handedly I shot back.
My parents bought our house when I was just starting high school. Dad’s a content writer for Goyles & Barnes, an international graphic design firm, and Mom’s a high end Realtor. They both make pretty good money, hence the new house, and my Dad’s job lets him work remotely most of the time.
They both come from humble roots, so even though they’re helping out with college, they insist I earn any and all extra money. I don’t have a problem with that.
Our house is at the top of one of the hills overlooking town. The closest neighbor is Sean’s family. They live on the road below, but their property butts up against ours. On our road the nearest house is a couple hundred yards away. All I can tell you is the people up here like their privacy.
Everything on our property is terraced. I think the builder had a thing for Japanese architecture. The yard is cut into three sections: the upper has the house, the middle the pool, and the lowest segment is a broad, open lawn. Each terrace is surrounded by huge, cut stone retaining walls that give you the feeling they were stolen from a Japanese castle. Originally the house sat on an open lawn level with the road, but my parents decided to put a nice, eight foot wall around the yard, that matched the stone of the retaining walls.
The hill is steep. I wouldn’t try walking down it in the dark. Even in the daylight all I can manage is a controlled slide that keeps me from tumbling. Luckily, there’s a narrow set of stairs cut into the lower terrace so I can take the quick route through the woods to Sean’s if I want.
I remember thinking the walls on the upper terrace were kind of dumb. If they were going to add to the property I thought they should have stuck with the Japanese motif, but they insisted the house itself, was Tudor, so nobody was going to think twice about straight stone. Plus they did match the stone, so there was architectural flow.
In retrospect I’ve changed my tune about those walls.
“What time are people showing up?” Sean asked as we loaded beer in the fridge.
“Tammy said she’ll be here soon,” I shrugged. “I don’t know when everyone else is coming.”
“Beer me,” Corrine yelled as she walked through the sliding door from the deck.
Without a thought I slid a bottle down the granite counter-top like the most expert barkeep. Just as adeptly she snatched the bottle from the air just as it flew off the end of the counter and in one fluid motion she cracked it open with the bottle opener on her flip-flop.
“So is tonight going to be a big gig or just the usual crew?” she asked as she flopped down on the couch and picked up my forgotten game.
“I’m guessing the crew and another five or six,” I cracked a beer of my own and dropped to the other end of the couch. “I didn’t really advertise, just figured we’d roll with whoever bothers to show up.”
Corrine nodded. She slugged her beer and focused on the game.
“Hey, Sean,” she called over her shoulder. “Want to jump on a co-op?”
Corrine is built like a blond tank. She plays sweeper on the squad up at UNH. If things haven’t changed since high school she’s probably still the team enforcer, making up for a lack of speed with brute force. She always takes good angles and hits like a loaded truck.
She’s been one of my best friends since elementary school. There’s even a picture hanging in my Dad’s office of us waiting for the bus on the first day of first grade.
Living just down the street from Sean, she’s gotten used to cutting through his yard to get up to my castle. As a result, having her pop unannounced through my deck door isn’t really a surprise anymore.
Cor’s in love with Sean.
The funny thing is, despite almost being neighbors, Sean is sort of oblivious to the fact that she’s in love with him. They see each other almost every day. I’m guessing he’s too close to see the forest. I haven’t really figured out if he’s oblivious or he knows and just wants to keep things the way they are. Maybe he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings or the friendship means more to him.
When it comes to Sean and Corrine though, some things never seem to come up in conversation.
“So we’re just waiting on Tammy and the twins to get this party started?” Corrine asked as Sean joined us in the kitchen with an open bottle of Crown in his hand.
“Screw them,” I said with a laugh. “It’s too hot to wait. I’m hitting the pool as soon as I finish this brew.”
“Race you,” Corrine returned the laughter and poured her beer down her throat.
I rolled my eyes, savoring my drink as I wandered through the slider, out onto the sun drenched deck. The late afternoon heat swallowed me like a fly in ointment. There was no way I would keep up with Corrine. Drinking was in her blood. Hurtling by me, she shed her shirt and shorts just in time to launch herself off the deck into the waiting arms of the cool pool below.
“Sure was nice of Tim to give us the afternoon off,” Sean joined me on the deck as I leaned on the railing. Corrine floated in watery bliss beneath us.
“Hell son, it’s Friday,’ I said, taking a long, slow swig of my beer and letting the sun sink more heat into my upturned face. “You know he wanted to get up to the golf course. Plus, he knows what the weekend means to us.”
“That we’re young and stupid, and exercise our right to exercise that stupidity?”
From inside the house the sound of the slamming garage door reverberated.
“Nobody touched my Captain?” Tammy asked, poking her head through the open sliding door even as she absently tossed her purse on the counter.
“All yours,” I replied with a smile as she came out onto the deck. “I do love that sundress on you.”
Tammy spun on sandaled, manicured toes and twirled the dress out with an easy laugh. A radiant smile lit her face. Then she kissed me. The kiss tasted faintly of raspberries, mixed with the salty sheen of summer. For a long moment we held each other. Sean discreetly looked out over the valley. As I stared into her eyes, the peaceful sounds of summer afternoon swirled about us: splashes from the pool, laughter, a distant lawnmower, even the lazy twitter of birds.
“So what’s the plan?” she asked as she broke away from our embrace and joined Sean in his searching of the landscape. A vaguely troubled expression creased her eyes.
Sean’s a great guy. He’s one of those nice people that you just can’t quite figure out. Seriously, nobody can be that nice all the time, right? He plays drums in a band and despite his clean-cut appearance, is a huge punk fan. Even when he goes to the shows and loses himself in the pit, that nice, caring dude is still there, lurking just beneath the surface like the Hulk. Somehow he magically fuses the nice with the brute. I remember a time a drunk dude ripped a girl’s shirt off at a show and turned to grin at Sean. The guy started to hold up the trophy and then he was flat on his back, bleeding all over the place. Sean took the shirt off his back and gave it to the girl. It looked like a dress on her, but at least she was covered. Sean, nice guy, but he’ll punch you out with a smile.
I swear he has to be a direct descendant from some ancient Scottish king, or maybe he’s related to Hamish from that Braveheart movie. The dude is huge and jacked out of his mind. I really don’t understand how, seeing as all he ever does is work and play the drums. If you ever need a drummer to pick a car up off you, he’s your man.
He took the year off. When Corrine, Tammy, and I went to college he stayed behind. I think he knows he’ll end up there, but he doesn’t want to give up on his dream that his band, The Rackets, will get a record deal. They’re pretty good in a hardcore punk sort of way, but I don’t see them making it big. Something about the whole scene seems to punish fame. I can’t really blame him for taking his shot though. I mean, they opened for The Suicide Machines once. That’s fame, right?
Maybe they’ll stop playing local shows and go on tour, but until then Sean’s my best friend who lives down the hill.
The twins, Casey and Mikey, showed up a little while later and found us all in the pool, cooling as the heat of the day slowly slipped away. Slipped away is a slightly misleading phrase. It was more like directional change. Instead of being seared from above by the sun, all that heat driven into the ground seemed to be flowing back up. And strangely, I think it added to the humidity.
That’s when things got out of control.
It seemed like the arrival of the twins opened the floodgates. As soon as they appeared on the deck above us, the doorbell rang. And it kept ringing for the next hour.
“Who are all these people?” I asked Sean as our circle of six retreated to one end of the deck, protecting our cooler of drinks vigorously from the shambling hordes of party-crashers.
Rattling off names, Sean shifted his attention from group to group. It seemed that our usual gathering of no more than a dozen well sauced friends had magically expanded. There were at least fifty people milling about the terraces, and those were just the ones we could see.
“They’re not going to steal anything, are they?” I could hear the pleading tone in my voice so I tried to mask it with a tactful throat clearing.
“I just hope they’re not using the upstairs,” Tammy said as she lightly chewed at a lock of her strawberry blond hair. “I hate sleeping in a bed someone else has messed up.”
“I hate when stupid people blow up the bathroom worse,” Casey said with a grimace. “I can always sleep on the floor or out here in a deck chair, but a messed up bowl is hard to cope with.”
The twins are towheaded. They actually live on the other side of the valley, but we’ve played soccer together for years now. For some strange reason we fell in together. So when my parents went to Florida for the month of August the twins were the first to move in with me. The other three members of the crew come and go, seeing as they live just around the corner.
I like noise.
I hate being alone.
When my house is devoid of family, I create my own family.
Casey and Mikey have a single mom, so she doesn’t seem to mind when they’re out of her hair for a while. As long as she knows they’re up at my place and not wandering the streets she lets things slide.
I know she loves them, but sometimes people need a little space, especially when that space is filled up with a little, two year old sister. The twins don’t seem to mind either. In fact, they bring Bernice up to play in the pool sometimes. They call her Neesy.
The twin’s mom is pretty stand-up. I feel bad for her though, because every spare moment she has, she’s down working at the diner, trying to squirrel away some money so the twins can go to school if they want. The good news is, they have enough soccer skills to get a scholarship somewhere.
Luckily, they’re seniors, so they have some time. I wonder what their mom will do when they finally take off. They’re so fluid in their relationship now I wonder if they’ll have the same separation anxiety most parents seem to have. Despite the fact that she doesn’t mind them out of her hair for a while, I’ll bet she misses them.
Or she would have missed them if the world hadn’t turned upside down.
“COPS!!!” Sean bellowed at the top of his lungs. He stood at the railing of the deck and the world seemed to freeze when he opened his mouth. For some reason, people always listen to him. It’s probably The Voice.
Chaos erupted. People abandoned my house like rats from a burning ship.
“Wow,” Tammy grinned drunkenly as we sat in our Adirondack deck chairs, watching people we distantly knew scatter and vanish into the darkness of the early morning. “That’s one way to do it.”
“Works for me,” I closed my eyes and let the world spin slowly away.
Flicking my eyes open I looked over our tired crew. Sean hadn’t moved from the railing. The others lay sprawled over our corner of the deck in various states of intoxication as we enjoyed our Friday night. Corrine rose stolidly and wandered over to converse with Sean. Casey snored quietly under the table, while his brother stared blankly into the starry night.
I was drunk, but not too bad. Not knowing the people in my house had raised a warning flag in the back of my mind, causing me to pace my evening. Now, though, with the night quieting down and the main course of my most epic party past, it was time for me to unwind.
“Want to go for a dip?” I asked Tammy with what I hoped was an inviting smile.
She closed her eyes and returned the smile.
“Sounds wonderful,” she stretched languidly as she rose to her feet.
“What do you guys say, pool?” I called out to the others as I pulled another beer from the cooler.
Like the living dead we shambled drunkenly down from the deck to the pool terrace and slowly waded out into the relieving waters.
The night fell quiet.
If I’d been sober I might have noticed the blanket of silence settling over the valley. If I’d been sober I might have seen what was coming. But I was young, uncaring, and definitely not sober.
Tammy was my girlfriend.
For years I had distantly known her at school, yet I’d never found the courage to know her outside. Imagine my surprise when I found out she was the new, girl next door. The day we moved into our house on the hill, Tammy walked the hundred yards to introduce herself and I about dropped the box I was carrying. From that day on she became that wicked fusion of best friend/girlfriend. She was perfect, with shoulder length, strawberry blond hair, enticing green eyes, and the warmest, most genuine smile I’ve ever seen.
We dated. I use the term dating loosely, more often we would just hang out, spending as much time as humanly possible together. I’ll admit, on occasion I got myself all shiny and took her out for a nice dinner, but company meant more to both of us than those fancy dinners.
I still don’t really know what tied us together.
She made fun of most of my music.
Reading was not on her list of pastimes.
Even our taste in movies was about as far apart can be imagined.
But there was a connection. She was safety. Surprisingly, I could let my guard down with her just like I could with Sean. I could be myself. What’s more, her laugh was intoxicating and I was gifted with the ability to bring a smile to her face at will.
In the real world I don’t know if Tammy and I would have made it through the long haul. The world was too disposable. Nothing was meant to last: TV’s, cars, houses, even relationships. Maybe I should be thankful everything changed that night. The way things played out our world got a whole lot smaller, and while I’m not complaining about a little competition, knowing that I wasn’t competing with every jamoke on the web made me breathe a little easier.
The world died, but I don’t know that I would go back and change anything.
“Did you hear that?” Sean lifted his head as he floated lazily on a partially deflated raft.
“I don’t hear anything,” I replied as I sat on the lip of the pool with my eyes half shut and feet dangling in the cool water.
Surfacing nearby, Tammy wiped the water from her eyes and looked at me, then to Sean, then back to me.
“What?” she demanded.
“Sean said he heard something,” I yawned. “Cor, how ‘bout you, hear anything up there?”
Leaning stonily on the railing above us, Corrine shook her head.
“It’s probably Mikey,” Tammy laughed lightly. “He went in the house earlier and I haven’t seen him come out.”
With a few strokes she propelled herself over and propped her arms on the edge of the pool next to me. Kicking her feet lazily she looked out into the night sky. The stars hung quietly over the silent valley.
Reflecting on the peacefulness of the night, I let the moonlight wash over me in a silver bath. I sat at the confluence of heavenly light, where it mingled with the pool lights from below. The silence of the late nights always proved to be my favorite time of the day. Late night, early morning, they’re the same. The world sleeps and my mind soars. Tonight, though, something was off.
“It’s too quiet,” I was puzzled. “I know I like the middle of the night because it’s quiet, but there is usually an undercurrent of sounds to let you know the world is still alive.
“Do you hear anything?” the weight of the night was beginning to sink in.
Sean sat up sharply, plunging the float into the pool under his weight. “There it is again,” he snapped, bleary eyes suddenly alert.
We all heard the noise this time. A low moan slid through the night air, carrying an unpleasant chill with it.
Hopping to my feet, I padded to the edge of the pool terrace, leaving a trail of perfect footprints in my wake. It only took a moment before Sean and Tammy had joined me. The three of us stood at the edge of the precipice and stared out into the darkness, straining our ears.
The moan slipped out of the night again.
Every one of us froze in our tracks. I turned my head slowly to track the sound. Even Corrine heard it this time. Placing a finger to my lips I gestured upwards. The moan had come from the side of the house, above us.
I suppose I should introduce myself. My name’s Rob MacGregor. Everyone calls me Mac though. Dad always told me I was named after someone famous, but Mom would just roll her eyes.
I grew up down in the valley. In fact, if I look out my parents’ bedroom window I can see the roof of my old house. The old place was home and while I was pretty torn up when we left, the shift to the hill proved easy enough, especially when I realized I was moving in right next to Sean. Then Tammy stopped by to say hi and I forgot all about my old house. What’s a house compared to the girl you love, right?
If I had to use one word to define myself it would be floater.
I’m not sure it has the greatest connotations, but it really seems to sum my life up. I play soccer, so I can roll with the jock crowd. Playing trumpet had come naturally, so I fit in with the band geeks. Honors classes proved easy, so hanging out with the smarts was plenty of fun. I’ve worked jobs with the druddies. I’ve gotten into fights beside the toughs. I submerge with the gamers, laugh with the snobs, flirt with the preppy girls. Amazingly, I seem to have connections with every social stratum of our town’s youth. As I said, I’m a floater.
When it comes to parents, I would have to say mine are the greatest. They may be a bit distant, tied up with work and their own lives, but my Dad’s never missed a soccer game and they’re always willing to sit down and talk when it’s needed. Throughout life they’ve taken me to some of the most exotic places known to this world. Hell, they gave me the house for the summer.
Love is there.
I know they love me. They would kill for me. At least they would have before everything happened. The one thing I can look back on and thank my Dad for is his fascination with history and medieval weaponry. The walls of his study are still lined with books on every age of warfare and all manners of ancient, handheld death.
Looking back, that may be the way he loved me most.
“I need to see what that is,” I whispered, trying to hide the nervous flurry threatening to rise up from my gut.
The moan floated through the air at regular intervals, like a slow motor turning over.
Leading the way, I crept as quietly as possible up the terrace to the walled in side-yard where the noise was coming from. I tried to be stealthy, but it felt like every step I took rang out as loudly as the hourly church bells from the valley. As I made my way across the lawn I glanced behind. Relief flooded through my gut to see everyone except Casey trailing along, moving with the stealth I wish I possessed.
Again I raised a finger to my lips.
The moan rang our louder, just on the other side of the wall.
Motioning Sean forward I mimed giving ten fingers. With a quick boost I peaked over the heavy stone bulwark my parents had fortuitously installed to keep deer from raiding my Mom’s garden.
What I saw froze my blood.
The funny thing is that all the movies seem to get it right, probably because the zombie myth is based on African and Caribbean-African legends. What every movie, book, comic, cartoon, video game, and fireside tale seems to forget is that zombies never happen in a vacuum. Every mode of media transport seems to treat outbreaks of the undead as something completely new and unique, like Rick Grimes, Shaun, and Tallahassee had never seen Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, or World War Z.
Hell, I have a copy of Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide sitting on my shelf right now.
“It’s Mrs. Miller from down the road,” I whispered to my huddled masses as we tried to communicate at the lowest possible volume.
I could almost hear my neighbor’s head turn as she tried to locate the sound.
“Or what’s left of her,” I fixed them with a look of terror, or at least that’s what I assumed my face was doing.
“What do you mean?” Tammy demanded.
“She’s a zombie.”
They stared at me from within their drunken fog, not quite knowing how to react to my statement.
“Bull,” Sean scowled at me. “No such thing as zombies. She’s probably high or something. I’ve read about how the new synthetics will turn people into zombies in the right cocktail.”
We were interrupted by a wet thwap against the stone wall.
“She’s seventy something,” Tammy gave Sean an incredulous look.
“Hey, old people do drugs too,” he scowled back at her.
“Check it out for yourself,” I interrupted.
Kneeling, I let Sean boost himself up and peer over the wall. He stood there longer than I expected and when he dropped back down, the blood had drained from his face.
“See what I mean?”
“Dude, she’s missing half her face,” Sean gagged.
The wet thud came again.
“She’s hitting her head against the wall,” he looked like he was going to lose all the food and beer he had packed away throughout the night. “How do you know she wasn’t in a car accident and is in shock or something?”
“Did you hear any accident?” I replied.
They all shook their heads.
“Look down the road now,” I patted my knee again.
Sean hopped back up and edged his head above the wall. Dropping down faster than before, he held a tinge of panic in his eyes.
“There’re more of them down the road,” he managed to choke out. “What do we do?”
“We take care of Mrs. Miller and then quietly barricade the front of the house,” I replied with a drunkenly cocky grin.
“I’ll do it,” the look in Tammy’s eye made us all step back.
She disappeared into my house without another word, only to reemerge a minute or so later carrying my Dad’s prized Dane Axe. The five foot haft was almost as tall as she was and for some reason she reminded me of some crazed dwarf as she trotted up the side steps with axe carelessly slung over her shoulder.
She should have been whistling as she headed to work.
With an almost jaunty air she mounted the stepped end of the wall where it dropped off and walked along to stand right above us. Her eyebrow twitched up in amusement.
“Just call me Annika,” she turned away from us.
It was a surreal moment as she took the axe firmly in her hands, widened her stance, wiggled her fanny, and swung. Just like a pro-golfer her swing sliced through the air in a smooth, whistling arc.
A wet thud met our ears.
Tammy shook the axe, trying to rid it of offal. We all stood with our mouths hanging open as she shrugged and swung the axe back up to her shoulder with a grin.
I was born for this, we all were. The world changed that night. What came with the dawn was a return to the hunter-gatherer mindset, but instead of saber-toothed tigers and mega bears trying to eat us, it was the remnants of our own kind. Survival was a matter of intelligence and preparation.
Thanks to my Dad’s ‘office supplies’ we were armed. Thanks to whoever built the house, we had a refuge. Thanks to our youth we had the intelligence and stupidity to survive when the world turn on its head.
Welcome to the New World.