09-20-09 – In Defense of Food
I’m really starting to miss Phil’s go-getter attitude.
He’s become suddenly vacant as if all the goodwill and energy he had saved up from many blissful years of excellent customer service has deserted him. I was expecting him to volunteer for Recovery Duty (which is the very serious and important name I’ve given the task) – but instead he’s been sulking in his office all morning, scrunched up against the cupboards clutching a framed photo of his kids. Janette and Matt are silent on the subject but Ted can’t seem to shut up about it.
“He’s lost it.”
“You know what, Ted? How about you lay off him and get back to me when you have kids of your own to miss,” I said. He turned his head away, pushing his glasses up his nose. Ted wears turtle shell Oliver Peoples glasses. I can’t quite tell if they’re supposed to be an ironic statement. One of the lenses is cracked and it makes him look like a battered child.
“Look, I just need one other person to come with me,” I went on. Janette, Matt and Hollianted were all sitting at the round conference table. I stood near the door, the trusty ax leaning against my knee.
“We can hold out for another day,” Matt said. He wears glasses too but they are definitely not an ironic statement, they are thick and bookish.
“And what about after that?” I asked.
“After that someone will come for us,” Holly says matter-of-factly, speaking without prompting for the first time in memory. Ted looked at her, a strange light in his eyes.
“Holly,” I said, “I agree that we shouldn’t give up hope but… We need food, we need to stay healthy and strong.”
I didn’t want to point out to her that the streets outside the building were ominously silent. The first hour or so after the infected showed up you could hear police sirens and fire engines screaming down the street outside. After that the noises stopped except for the occasional screaming and what sounded like a car accident. From what I could make out on the monitors (only one of which caught any of the world outside the store) there wasn’t much to see except a rolling pillar of smoke that filled up the space between our store and the other side of the street. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s sunny or overcast, raining or clear.
“Phil should go,” Ted points out, nodding and placing his open palm on the table top. It’s meant as a solemn gesture but Ted doesn’t have the kind of adult authority to pull it off convincingly.
“Yes, Phil should go but he’s indisposed at the moment,” I said. Without planning it, all of us turned to glance at his office. Through the window only the top of his dark head was visible. “So I’ll need someone else to volunteer. I’m sure one of you can swing a baseball bat well enough.”
“I guess I did Judo for six years,” Ted says, shrugging his bony shoulders. He was skinny before, but a few days of nothing but diet cola and rationed snack food has made him absolutely skeletal. Sparrows have meatier frames.
“Congratulations,” I tell him, “You’ve just volunteered yourself.”
Ted rolls his eyes but gets up anyway; I get the feeling he wanted to go but didn’t want to look too eager. Holly makes a grab for his wrist, her big amber eyes filling up with tears. We’re all emotional these days but Holly’s demeanor turns on a dime. One minute she’ll be whistling show tunes to try and keep us optimistic and the next she’s bawling into Ted’s arms.
“He’ll be fine,” I say, grabbing Ted by the other arm and giving a tug. “I checked the monitor this morning, there’s fewer out there than ever.”
I don’t say the obvious thing, the thing I know she’s thinking: zombies, there are zombies out there.
“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” Matt says, getting slowly to his feet. His beard has come in shaggy and uneven and he looks like a lumberjack in his faded plaid shirt and ill-fitting jeans. He’s using his assistant manager voice, the one with the snide sarcastic bite. I’d always pegged Matt for a strong survivor, the kind of guy you would want with you in a worst case scenario and now that he’s completely crapping out on us I feel disappointed, like I don’t know him at all.
“What’s the alternative?” I ask.
“Yeah, what’s your brilliant solution?” Ted asks. I like Ted more every minute.
“I don’t have one,” Matt replies, “But I think we should all just stay here. We don’t know anything about those things, we don’t know how it spreads. It might be something in the air.”
Matt, unfortunately, is a conspiracy theorist. This is not the appropriate time for him regal us all with his interpretation of which government is responsible for the infected but I can tell it’s coming. I mentally recall our heated discussions of the pyramids and the Aztecs and decide that this is a conversation that must be avoided at all costs.
“I appreciate the concern, Matt, but we have to eat.”
“Don’t go out there with your mouth and nose uncovered,” he says, unbuttoning his shirt, “It’s a bio-weapon, it’s probably in the air.” He hands the shirt to Ted and when Ted won’t take it, Matt comes over and begins wrapping it around the kid’s face.
“Well considering the vents in here aren’t sealed we’re all pretty much fucked already then,” I say. I’m hoping Janette will say something, that she’ll make Matt sit down, make him shut up. She just sits there staring up at him, her expression blank and frozen.
Ted, putting his expensive biochemistry degree to work weighs in with, “Shit, man, it’s not a bio-weapon. No one on earth has the technology for this kind of bull shit.”
“Oh is that your expert opinion?” Matt asks and I know he’s prodding. Holly stands up then, going to stand beside Ted in solidarity. She takes the shirt off Ted’s face.
“He would know!” she shouts.
“Wow, okay, let’s keep it down,” I say, putting up both hands in effort to placate them, “We don’t know what gets them excited and since Ted and I are going out there, we need it as clear as possible.”
“Fine, whatever!” Matt says, “I’m just stating for the record that I think this idea sucks.”
“I’ll keep that in mind when we get back and ration the food.”
It only takes us a minute or two to get ready. At Matt’s continued urging we agree to cover our noses and mouths; it’s really not a half-bad idea since we might have to defend ourselves. The last thing I want is their goo flying all over my face and Matt is, admittedly, correct in pointing out that we don’t exactly know how the infection spreads. I tell Ted to make sure his mouth is covered and I put on a pair of sunglasses from the break room. We look ridiculous, Ted with Matt’s flannel shirt wrapped around his head, his cracked brown glasses peering out, and me with Holly’s studded black sweatshirt wrapped in the same way. We look like nerdy kids playing army dress up: Ted the backwoods Mameluke and Allison the punk rock commando.
Hollianted cling together before we leave, stuck together like bubblegum and the sole of a shoe. It should be a romantic moment, and it might have been, but Ted looks so outrageously stupid that it can’t be taken seriously. This is the new face of romance, I think, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze of encouragement. He peels himself off and we remind Matt to stay by the door and listen for our knock. Matt’s keeping the keys in case anything happens to us, the discussion of which plunged Holly into another wail of agony.
Ted takes up Phil’s bat and I grab the ax and we’re ready to go. We’ve each got four empty plastic bags to fill with loot. I feel like race horse, like a boxer waiting in the corner of the ring: I want to go, want to start, but half of me wants to stay behind and cower. Still, it feels good to be doing something, to be proactive instead of just trapped and miserable. I guess we’re still trapped, still miserable, but it’s a distraction and a welcome one at that.
Two steps out of the door and I see her.
Sorry old girl, I’m not going for a limb this time. Ted and I have come up with a vague strategy: go for the head, barring that, the chest. I’m not entirely confident Ted has a strong enough arm to really do much damage, but he acquits himself admirably with Lefty, slamming her in the chest while I take a big, might swing that connects with her neck. Her windpipe collapses with that same, weird hollow feeling. It doesn’t even feel like I’m hurting a person, no human is that soft, that destructible.
Susan’s decaying, oozing head stairs up at me from the ground while her body crumples into a headless heap. She’s still wearing that damn tee shirt, the one with the dancing daisy and the words “World’s Best Mom” in little kid’s handwriting scribbled underneath. I know I should keep moving but I can’t help looking at her eyes, which are glowing with a savage whiteness. There’s no person there, no identity, just a startling hunger that persists even after I’ve lopped off her head. Ted pulls on my sleeve, the end of his bat coated in a black sludge; he nods to our right, to the short staircase leading up to the cash registers and the coolers.
I glance out the windows on our left. Most of the glass is gone and what remains is just a jagged barrier along the bottom edge. There’s a pile of shards on the floor just inside the store and I can make out Bro and ody. Outside, the street is almost completely obscured by a haze of thick, ashen smoke. The smell, even through the head wrap, is indescribable. I can’t help but imagine a grave yard, a cemetery with all its graves and tombs opened up at once and the decay and death thrown into the wide open air. It chokes and stings.
Ted and I bound up the stairs and immediately two more zombies come at us. One is Mr. Masterson, the dementia-ridden golden oldie that lives upstairs above the shop. He’s got his baseball cap and tan windbreaker on but it’s black and gray down the middle, and part of his lung is trying to escape through the gaping hole in his chest. He sees us or smells us or whatever it is these things do and lurches toward Ted, groaning as if Ted is the hottest woman he’s ever seen. I intercept him with a blow to the legs. He’s tall and this gets him on my level, a perfect position to go for the head. Ted’s somewhere else, taking care of the monster teetering around behind the counter.
Mr. Masterson is laid out and I jump over his squirming, headless corpse to the cooler in front of the counters. It’s mostly intact but a few bottles of water are missing. I’m amazed the thing hasn’t been pillaged altogether. I go for the water first and then the diet soda (What? Regular soda is disgusting no matter what) and the juice. There are some sports drinks in there too so I grab those and the monstrous vegan cookies that are, thank God, still in their wrappers. Ted is having trouble with the groaner behind the counter so I go to help him. Together it’s not a problem, and soon Ted is going for the upright cooler behind the counter where we keep the extra bottles.
“Water first, moron!” I shout through the muffling of the head wrap. He was reaching for the Mountain Dew.
While Ted fills up his bags I go back out around front to where the chips and candy are. I reach blindly for whatever I can get, shoveling candy bars and gum and Cheetohs into a new plastic bag. Once the display is empty I turn to help Ted bu out of the corner of my eye I see something, something I can’t resist.
Just to to the left and around the cash registers is the rest of the store and, more importantly, hundreds of bookshelves filled with books. The nights of unbridled tedium come tearing out of my subconscious. My focus is gone, I can’t concentrate, I need to get the books.
I set down the full bags and that’s my first mistake. With a quick glance in Ted’s direction, I can see that he’s still busy with the cooler so I jog over to the nearest bookcase and begin shoving books under my left arm, squeezing them against my side. It doesn’t matter what books they are, I just need them all. Dante, de Laclos, Austen, Dickens, all of them in my arms and the weight of them, the feel of the new, glossy covers on my fingers is beautiful.
Then I hear a sound, a terrible, hoarse sound from just to my left and I know then that I’ve made a stupid mistake. There are three of them, big, bigger than Mr. Masterson and they’ve somehow managed to stop groaning long enough to surprise me.
Oh fuck, I think, feeling the sweat pop out all over my face and neck, I’ve left the ax. And I had, it was back with the bags of food.
And everything was going so well.
I throw the nearest thing, a monster copy of Whitman’s collected works and it hits the closest zombie square in the face. It doesn’t stop them but it sure as hell slows them down. The tragedy of it is, I can’t keep all the books in my arms, an unforgivable oversight. I scramble back toward the cash registers and the food, panting like an idiot underneath the sweatshirt around my face. It’s hot as all hell in there and the sweat is pooling at my temples and dripping down my neck, joining the perspiration on my collarbone and the deafening thunder of my pulse. I can smell them, they’re way too close on my heels but I make it to the bags and shovel them into my arms.
“What the fuck!” Ted screams, yanking me forward by the front of my shirt. We break into a sprint, going back down the stairs. He’s just barely managing to carry the heavy, full bags and the bat but we get down the stairs safely. Neither of us bother to dispatch the monster shuffling toward us from the broken windows, we’re too close, too near to safety. Ted pounds on the door with the bat and I can hear him whimpering inside his head wrap.
“Where are they? Where are they?” I’m shouting, I don’t know why I’m shouting since Ted is right there in front of me. The door isn’t opening, I can’t hear anything inside. I glance over my shoulder and the zombies are right on top of us, grunting and staring and if there was any humor in their eyes then they’re laughing at Ted and me who are flailing like idiots against the locked door. That door, that fucking door, the door that kept us safe. Reinforced. Unbreakable.
I drop all the shit in my arms and pick up the ax and swing and swing, blindly, feverishly. There’s blood and gray, smelly globs flying in every direction. I don’t know if I’m chopping up one or two or three of them but it doesn’t matter, I just keep swinging until I hear the sweetest sound in the world: a thump and a click and the door opening for us, just for us. I turn and kick the bags inside, I kick until someone grabs me by the arm and pulls me inside.
The door shuts and I’m home, safe, alive.