10-27-09 – Into the Wild
I update now when I can, where I can, in the little moments between the long stretches of panic and fear. I apologize if I worried some of you; without the arena, without generators, without a steady connection to the outside world, my resources become more and more limited and I update as soon as we come across a weak wireless signal, a momentary flickering.
But once again this becomes more than just a run down of events, a laundry list of troubles and thoughts, it becomes a way for me to work out what exactly I need to do. It was not an easy decision and in a way I know for certain that I’m being selfish. But this is what I need. This is what must happen in order to guarantee my sanity and, just maybe, my safety.
This decision came after the shock of discovering our home, our HQ, had been destroyed. We didn’t even bother trying to get close. It was clear from a distance that surviving an inferno and a seething mass of undead was extremely unlikely. And so we turned around, went back, drove aimlessly until a vehicle approached, rumbling out of the smoke and ash that has become our every day atmosphere. This is no longer a city but one giant oven churning out black plumes of smoke and the smell of decay.
They came at us and for a moment I didn’t believe my eyes; I recognized the vehicle and I remembered with perfect clarity the first time I saw that truck. I was relieved to see it then and I was relieved to find it again; a gutted truck and a uniformed driver behind the wheel. We rendezvoused in a park, or what was once a park, a big open space to keep an eye on any encroaching undead. The lake is nearby; I can smell the faintly salty, sandy scent of the water. There’s a pavilion in the distance and a charming bridge with white railings. The park feels familiar, but most of the street signs are gone, mowed down by cars or mangled by a falling traffic light.
Even there, in the park among grass and trees and little brightly-painted benches, the stench of death and suffering persists. All of us tumbled out of the van and I, without thinking, ran straight to Collin.
It didn’t enter my mind that, technically, I had lost the right to care for him. He hugged me, hard, and picked me up off the ground. Maybe he forgot too.
The truck emptied out: Ted, Finn and, yes, Lydia too.
It’s not that I hoped she wouldn’t survive the blaze in the arena, I just had stopped thinking of her altogether. To find her there, her spine rigid, her cool eyes distant and staring, it filled me with sudden anger. Sudden and stupid anger. She survived too, as I did, and she has every right to demand respect for that. No one’s knack for survival is better or more impressive, but that doesn’t mean I was happy to see her. And so I backed away from Collin, acknowledging his wife’s stony watch, conceding silently.
“You have no idea,” Ned was saying, shaking Ted by the shoulders, “You have no idea, man, how glad I am to see you guys again.”
“Let me guess,” Ted replied, “The Wives?”
“With a vengeance,” I answered, pulling Renny toward them by her bicep. “This is Renny. She’s a keeper.”
A quick round of introductions and we were moving on, planning, scheming. It turns out the Wives that stayed behind at the arena caused just enough trouble, just enough confusion to distract the people keeping watch on the entrance. Unsurprisingly, this allowed one, just one infected person to slip by. That was all it took; the violence, the death rippled through the arena before Collin and Finn could find the infected person and quarantine them. The Black Earth Wives panicked, tried to set the undead on fire and ended up torching the entire arena and everyone inside, which – sadly enough – was actually the best thing that could happen. What had once been a sanctuary, a refugee camp, had become a death trap, an infected bellows belching out the undead into the city. Collin and Finn did their best to keep the fire and the undead contained but some, they admit, probably escaped.
And while they’re explaining this to us, retelling their story after we retell ours, I can’t help but stare up at the trees around us. Everything is scary now, anything could be a source of trouble, of injury or death. But there are just a few birds up there, scattered among the bare branches, their feathers ruffled up about their heads to keep out the cold. I wonder if maybe they forgot to migrate, if all hell breaking loose on the human side of things meant they just plain forgot. Maybe the eco-system is fucked forever. Maybe these birds will be the last of their species, letting the hours pass by, letting humanity tear itself apart under their quiet watch. I think of undergrad, of Biology 101…
Yet, second only to habitat loss, the introduction of non-native or “exotic” species is a major threat to biodiversity. These species are often invasive creatures that adversely affect the habitats they enter ecologically, environmentally, or economically…
“Something up there?” Ned whispers, leaning over. Finn is going on about the gun, about how many they lost, how many had to be left behind.
“G-God?” I stammer. “Is that you?”
“Ha. Ha. What do you see?”
“A robin maybe, maybe two or three,” I say, “I can’t tell.”
“American robin. The state bird,” he replies. He’s weary. I can hear it in his voice. I can still smell the smoke from the fires in the preschool cafeteria and the underlying bitterness of burnt human hair and flesh. He needs a bath, badly.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Yup,” he replies, then nods discretely toward Lydia. “Do I need to worry or are you gonna be okay?”
“What? Oh, you mean the state bitch? Yeah, I’ll manage.”
“I’m over it.”
“We managed to save a few tents,” Collin says. I begin to pay attention, knowing that the birds have a better chance of making it through this than we do. They’ll manage. “We should find a safe place for tonight and then think about where we want to go.”
I hang back with Renny, Ned and his kids while Collin and Finn take the truck to scout for a good place to pitch the tents. Everyone is slumped, exhausted, and I have a feeling we won’t be going far, not tonight. Evan and Mikey are quiet, too quiet for little kids. I can tell they’re wandering through a fog, lost without their mother but transfixed by the terror they only just escaped from. Ted comes to stand by me, leaving Lydia alone, like some ancient CEO facing down a boardroom of strangers. Ted takes my hand and squeezes it, flipping his hair out of his face as he takes a good long look at me. I can see him noting the blood on my clothes, on my hands and in my nails.
He pulls me into a hug and I wince.
“You get hurt?” he asks in a low tone.
“I’ll be okay, just a scuffle,” I reply.
“A bloody scuffle?”
“You could say that.”
“Hey, you don’t have to talk about it. Not if you don’t want to,” Ted murmurs. I can tell he’s hurt by my silence; he kicks at the dirt with the toe of his Chuck Taylor.
“I’ll tell you later,” I tell him gently, “I don’t want to think about it right now.”
It’s freezing out and we huddle together. With a little grimace of satisfaction that Lydia is cold too but no one invites her to join us. As we stand together shivering I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve been to this park before. It makes me wonder if I’m close to my house, if my mom is close by, holding out in our basement with a crowbar and some canned food.
Collin and Finn return in ten minutes, cutting the engine with a big, dramatic swivel of the truck. They hop out and flick their heads in the direction of the hill behind us. It’s not terribly steep but it’s clearer at the top. An October fog is beginning to roll in, carrying with it a mist that digs down right into your bones. I can’t wait to lie down, to rest, to cuddle up with Dapper and catch whatever sleep I can. No one questions Collin and Finn’s decision; it seems like a sound judgment call and none of us have the energy to argue. My ribs are killing me and I can feel the fatigue dripping down into my legs, my knees, my toenails.
We pile into the van and Ned drives us up the hill. Renny plays Rock, Paper, Scissors with the boys and, after a minute or two, they seem to be returning to their old selves. From over their shoulders I give Renny a thumbs up.
We leave behind the fog but it follows, creeping up the hill inexorably, swallowing up the trees and happy-colored benches. It obliterates any sign of the road, of the way we came.
There are three tents and I push aside my pain long enough to help get them set up. Lydia, Collin and Finn take one, Ned and his kids take another and Ted, Renny and I take the third. They’re not huge but the three of us manage to arrange ourselves comfortably. It’s snug and Dapper doesn’t help the situation, but we’re all glad for an avid foot warmer, even if he does smell a bit like corn chips.
Just as Dapper begins to snore gently something hard taps against my knee. Sitting up, I see a smooth, bright handle resting against my leg. Ted smiles crookedly at me, his blush hidden by the chilly darkness. It’s hidden, sure, but I know it’s there.
“What’s this?” I ask, leaning to grab it with an ache shooting through my side.
“Just an old friend. I thought you might like to have it.”
It’s my ax, a bit singed but otherwise whole.
“Ted… I… But you didn’t know I would – ”
“Of course I knew,” he says, chuckling. “I knew it’d take more than a few cranky housewives to take you out.”
“No, really, it means a lot.”
He lays back down, still smiling, and I turn onto my side but it hurts. Everything hurts. I finally settle on my back, punching the sweatshirt I have for a pillow into a little square. I shove it under my neck for support but it’s useless. Sleep doesn’t come, doesn’t even whisper at me from afar… I wait a while, wait until I’m certain Ted and Renny are asleep. When I get up and stumble over the dog Ted mumbles in his sleep. “I just have to pee,” I whisper and he goes quiet again.
Outside it’s freezing and I take the sweater-pillow and pull it on. Autumn is slipping away from us and now it’s cold in earnest. It was bound to happen and now I can’t help but feel even more helpless against the constant march of danger that comes toward us, inch by terrible inch. If we aren’t ripped apart by monsters or murdered by our own kind then we’ll die of the cold, or of hunger, or of some disease that will steal our strength, our lives and, in the end, our dignity.
No wonder I can’t fucking sleep.
I walk to the top-most point of the hill, the point where it begins to slope back down toward, what? A pool? Some fences? The fog has let itself out and now it’s just a sparkling, silvery mist below us. The moon is bright and the sky is almost clear, just a few smudgy clouds gliding across the stars. There are the very last remnants of crickets and it seems amazing they haven’t died off yet. How can their little cricket bodies go on? How can they stand the cold?
The hill spreads itself out at my feet, the grass shining and wet and glittering with hundreds of tiny ice crystals. We’ll wake up under a frost with our breaths painting milky shadows across the tent walls… But sleep… I don’t know if I can manage it. Even if my chest stopped aching, even if my body felt fine, I don’t think my thoughts would allow me to rest.
There are footsteps behind me, soft sounds coming across the crunchy grass. I know it’s not one of the undead. Their footsteps are never even, there’s always a limp or a drag or a stutter to the cadence. I know, in fact, exactly who it is, but I don’t want to turn around to face him.
“Too crowded in the tent,” I say, shivering.
“You don’t have to lie to me,” Collin says, standing very close. The same familiar scent, and an unfamiliar, unwelcome jolt of desire. “Just because… Things are different, it doesn’t mean you have to lie.”
“You’re hurt. I saw when we were putting up the tents… You could’ve just rested, you know.”
“Is it bad?”
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. I wish he would leave. I wish he would take his warmth, and his concern and his god damn accent somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Somewhere not so tempting. “Probably just a cracked rib or something.”
“You and Ned were a bit vague about the particulars… I had a feeling it was intentional. You don’t have to elaborate if you don’t – ”
“I killed someone,” I say.
“The guard, yes. He mentioned you… er… knocking her out.”
“I didn’t knock her out, Collin. Fuck. I strangled her with my computer cord. I strangled her until the cord bit into her neck, sliced her open, until her blood was all over my hands. She was suffocating me, crushing me against the wall. It was her or me, her or me. And it was almost me.”
“Christ. Maybe I didn’t want to know that.”
“Easier to love your wife? Yeah. Easier not to love a murderer.”
“You know I don’t think that,” he says, laughing bitterly. “You have no idea what I did in the air force. Not a clue. I’m the last person to judge.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” I tell him. “Let’s just… I don’t know… Let’s just keep some distance.”
This shuts him up, but he doesn’t go away. We stand together in the stark, shattering cold, neither of us wanting to break, to bend, to talk. This is why I want to leave, I say to him in my mind, because I can’t be around you; I can’t be around you and not want you to myself.
I hear his breath catch and I think maybe he’s spotted a wandering groaner. But then I see it, at the bottom of the hill, bright and strange and completely out of place. It’s so unexpected that for a moment I don’t believe that it’s really there. Maybe it’s an illusion, a shared hallucination, just a vision in the mist…
“God,” he says, “It’s so beautiful.”
And then I remember where we are, the paths, the benches, the mangled street signs and why the park looked familiar. It’s Henry Vilas Park. My mom took me here twice when I was a little kid, and just next door, butting right up against the park with its jungle gyms and picnic tables and pretty benches is the Henry Vilas Park Zoo.
As it trots to the base of the hill, the zebra seems to sense us up on the hill watching it. It stops, turning a complete circle, its hooves muffled on the cold, hard ground, and then stares at us. The long, striped nose is lowered and then tipped to the side as it regards us, the black eyes closing and opening with that disturbing, equine sensitivity. I know, it seems to say, I’m lost too.
I wonder how many of the animals have survived, if there are tigers and elephants and giraffes waiting in the mist too. The thought doesn’t last for long; Collin takes my hand and holds it, not pressing, just cradling. It’s a tiny glimmer of warmth in an otherwise frozen night.
“Do you hate me?” he whispers.
“No. No, it isn’t your fault.”
Maybe it’s the cold. Maybe it’s the chill mist hovering at the bottom of the hill. Or maybe it’s the beast watching us, the stranger, the thing that doesn’t belong, the thing so far away from its home and so totally out of place. Whatever it is, we’re kissing and the pain in my chest is there again but this time it’s different and it’s not my ribs.
I must be exhausted because my reaction time is terrible. There are voices, angry, shouting voices, but I’m not going anywhere, as if I’ve suddenly been submerged in a murky pool of water. The voices are muted, contorted, but I don’t want to let go… Not now… Not this minute…
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
It’s Lydia, she screaming and waving her arms and pushing me. I don’t hit back. I want to hit back. I look down the hill and watch the zebra disappear back into the mist, startled back into hiding, startled into reality.
“Calm down, Lydia. Just calm down.”
They’re fighting, sighing, rolling their eyes at each other. I stand off to the side and watch, alarmed by how fed up I feel, how detached and sad I’ve become. It isn’t the right moment for a revelation like that but it doesn’t matter. I turn away, let them continue the argument. Lydia says something like “Come back here, don’t you dare walk away from me.” But I go back to the tent and quietly take a piece of paper out of my laptop bag. I take a pen and, squinting into the darkness, draw a line down the center and, at the top, write: PROS & CONS
A few minutes later it looks something like this:
I like Ted.
I like Ned.
I like Evan and Mikey.
I like Renny.
Collin and Finn have weapons and knowledge.
Strength in numbers
More mouths to feed
More people, more noise
Bickering and dissent
I didn’t even need to make the list. Just thinking about it all, just writing this has convinced me that I know what I want to do. It isn’t an easy decision and I know it won’t be a popular one, but it’s my life, my survival and I’m determined to be proactive even in the face of so many… complications.
Tomorrow I’ll tell the others. I’ll stand in front of them, take a deep breath and say: I’ve decided to go it alone. Thank you for your help, thank you for being my friends but it’s time for me to go.
Then I’ll take Dapper, and my laptop bag and my ax and I’ll find my mom’s house. I’ll find her because there’s nothing else to do. I’ll find her because it’s time.
But for now I need to rest, friends, and so do all of you. Stay safe, stay alert and stay in touch. I’ll write again soon when I’ve reached another safe place, another stop on the way forward.