By Alan I’Anson
He awakens to the sound of pounding at the front door and the windows. His eyelids peel back, the paper-thin membranes dragging over dry, shrivelled eyeballs like sandpaper. For the first time he sees the world as they do – those putrid creatures he has despised with their lumbering walk and stupid, vacant faces.
He pushes back the sheet, uncovering a naked abdomen laced with distended blue veins. The flesh is shiny, swollen, and mottled purple, black, and red. Fat blue-bottles zoom and buzz and feed, their hairy black proboscises dipping into syrupy wounds.
His eyes move reluctantly in the sockets, seeing the room as a collage of jumbled shapes almost too complex for him to decipher.
How long has he lain here? He has no idea, but in these embryonic moments he feels memories of life slipping and fading away into the sleepy ochre of a sepia dream.
My name was Swarbrick, Gerry Swarbrick, and to tell the truth I didn’t have much time for folk when they were alive, let alone now most of ‘em are dead. That’s why dairy farming suited me down to the ground – tending the farm and the milkin’ took up just about all of my time. Apart from the wife, I might not see anyone for weeks on end, and I mostly liked it that way. Cows are better company than most folk, I reckon – before the apoca-what’s-it came that is.
I tended the herd for as long as I could after it all turned bad, but come winter the feed ran out and they died miserable deaths. I used to hear them mooing in the night. Pitiful sound it was. Damn near broke my heart.
Death weren’t the end of them though, of course. They got up again after a time, just like everythin’ else in this God-forsaken place.
Now I know what yer thinkin’: zombie cows, right? How comical must that have been? But it weren’t one bit funny. Not when the dead turned on the living; and ‘specially not when old George Lester from the farm down the way tried to come over. I’m not a hun’red percent sure, but I reckon he must’ve run out of food or somthin’ to have risked it like that.
He must’ve thought the cows were still alive ‘cause he climbed the fence and tried to get by them. I did me best to warn him, but Bessie, my prize milker, chased him down and knocked him flat. Then she knelt on him and just bashed his face in with that hard old jaw of hers.
I watched it all from the upstairs window. I’d have shot her with me twelve-gauge if she hadn’t been so far away, good milker or no, but I knew she was out of range and cartridges are right precious these days.
Once she’d cracked him open, she stuck out that long fleshy tongue of hers and just lapped up the insides of his head like she used to lap up water from the trough.
Sickened me, it did. I liked old George.
The dead herd trampled the fence not long after that and moved off. The first of them broke their legs in the cattle grate – I could hear them snap from the window. The others just climbed over the bodies and followed the path. The ones that broke their legs flopped around for a week afore they finally gave up. They’re nothing but skeletons now.
I miss the herd. I know the wife would’ve too.
Martha’s been dead, oh must be five year come this autumn. Six feet under she is, buried near that big old oak over by Saint Andrew’s. I were thankful she went before all this happened though…the hateful bitch were bad enough when she were still alive, I wouldn’t have wanted to come across her again as one of them blasted things – though blowing off her sour-faced head might be the one pleasure I missed out on since all this started.
They used to make their way down here for some reason – the dead ‘uns I mean. I lived just outside Gableton – far enough in the country that the river Ribble runs right by my place, but near enough to get into town at a pinch. I’d catch them tryin’ to sneek up to the farm house – even knew some of them.
Charlie Kent, the gaffer at the slaughter house, came calling one day – and what a sorrowful sight he was. I reckon he’d been run over by the looks of him – all scrapes and broken bones poking out all over.
That’s the trouble now you see: folk’ll kill you soon as look at you. Can’t trust the living or the dead these days – probably even more so if they’re living.
I’ve had to put a few folk down myself since all this started; and I’ve not always been a hun’red percent sure if they were already dead afore I polished ‘em off.
I’ve put animals down all me life, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now, but ever since I shot me first dead un…well, it still turns my stomach like chicken on a spit.
By the time they get down here, you see, they’re usually already good and moulderin’ – especially during the summer months. God-awful to look at they are: all greenish-black and bloated, and crawling with maggots. It’s no wonder they’re all moanin’ and groanin’. Being dead and walking must be a terrible thing, I reckon.
I’ve always been ready for them though – me and me twelve-gauge. When you shoot one of the really juicy ones, they come apart like a bag of shite, they do. It ain’t pretty, but I don’t have no qualms about doing it. Evil things they are, I reckon. Shouldn’t be walking around like that. I wouldn’t want to be walking around like that when I’m gone. It’s the one thing I’m a feared of. But what can you do? Once yer dead, yer one of them and there’s not much you can do about it.
I hadn’t thought it’d bother me really, the apoca-what’s-it and all that. I’ve always had the farm and the milkin’ to keep me busy before, but it’s got fierce lonely now without the herd and the telly to watch of an evening. The radio didn’t last more ‘n a month or two, and even then all they did were jabber on about the dead folk all night long. None of them played music no more. I used to enjoy a bit of music of a Sunday night before I turned in.
I never thought I’d admit it, but I miss the odd chinwag with old George when our paths crossed on the top field, or exchanging the time of day with Charlie when I had to take a beef down for slaughter.
Aye, fierce lonely, it gets.
So lonely that sometimes I think about throwing it all in. I mean, what’s the point of livin in a world of dead, eh? There’s times I fancy turning that twelve-gauge on meself and have done with it. I can’t see it happening though – I’m too much of a coward to pull the trigger.
I’m not a hun’red percent sure, but I reckon I still got some pills upstairs from when the wife got real poorly, and a bottle of whiskey from a few Christmas back. I’d take to me bed with them one night if not for fear of coming back as one of them God-forsaken things. It’d be as good as letting them win if I come back as one of them.
No, I’ll hang on for a bit yet, I reckon – at least as long as the shotgun shells last. Things might get better if I wait a while.
Hunger tears at his stomach with jagged fingernails. His instinct is to rise, to walk and find living flesh to satisfy that all consuming lust to feed. He drags his legs off the putrid mattress and slouches on the edge of the bed like an old man. Protruding vertebra see-saw down his bony back, the flesh black and purple where blood has pooled and congealed in his ribcage.
An empty whiskey bottle and pills sit on the bedside table. They vaguely mean something to him, but it quickly slips away as the hunger bites and his attention shifts.
He lurches to his feet, spilling a shower of writhing maggots onto the floor. Stiffened muscles wrench with pain as he throws lumbering steps across the room. His body screams, agonised by the imperceptible putrefaction of his flesh.
Being dead and walking is every bit as terrible as Gerry had imagined.
He grasps at the bedroom door, filthy fingernails clawing at the panels and the framework. He finds the handle and yanks it, shakes it, twists it. The door opens a crack, the old hinges creaking.
Despite the agony, his dead lips distort into something resembling a half-remembered smile.
He totters back a step, pulling the door with him, but the handle tugs from his weak fingers. For a second he pauses, dredging up dim memories of nailing together wood and tying string.
But thinking is too difficult, too painful, and the hunger urges him on. He grips the handle more firmly this time and pulls.
On the other side of the door, string tightens against the eyelet screwed into the wall, and loops back to the trigger of the 12 gauge shotgun mounted on a roughly constructed wooden framework. The string yanks the trigger and the hammer falls on the shiny brass head of Gerry’s final twelve-gauge cartridge. Fire and smoke fill the landing and, for Gerry Swarbrick, the agony is over at last.
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