Just another apocalyptic zombie story, among thousands. This one has more of a tragedy than a horror vibe.
Barbara and Steve Clark sat down on a bench at the end of a dark hallway, crying quietly. Their 13-year-old son, Owen, stared wordlessly at a light fixture collecting dead flies. Unlike his parents, Owen found himself unable to sit and shuffled back and forth across the linoleum floor, his hands buried in the pockets of his hoodie.
His hood obscured his pale face with its sharp, angular features and he couldn’t stop chewing on his fingernails. When it bled it just made him bite harder. He wasn’t crying. He wondered if his parents judged him for that, like if he was crying it meant he didn’t care. He just felt like the worst had already happened. She was already dead, right? She had been for several months, no matter what anybody said.
A slim, gray-haired nurse exited the door closest to them, holding a clipboard. Steve and Barbara stood up and Owen stopped his shuffling to stare at her grim expression. He knew right away the news couldn’t be good.
“Mr. and Mrs. Clark, I’m sorry. There was nothing we could do. She’s gone.”
“Oh my…” Barbara’s legs buckled and her husband caught her. She gave a strangled cry and her husband sat her down gently on the bench.
“Miriam! Oh, God!”
“Do you want to see her?” the woman asked gently.
Owen knew his older sister Miriam would be cremated almost immediately, so she couldn’t pass her disease onto anyone else. Even though the shots she got monthly were supposed to keep her from infecting anybody else, the people in the clinic didn’t want to take any chances. He didn’t want to look at her but something compelled him to. He followed his parents into a dimly lit, sterile room, smaller and more private from a normal hospital room.
There was a thick barrier of plastic between the hospital bed where Miriam’s body lay and the rest of the room. Miriam’s nose was gone. Under her thin, flimsy nightgown with the faded snowflake pattern her body was emaciated and a large chunk had been torn from one of her breasts. Her toenails and fingernails had been torn off. Owen remembered her removing them at the kitchen table. Her eyes were empty holes.
Yes, she had been gone a long time, since she got bitten six months ago on the way home from school. Her parents had kept her in a specially made harness and muzzle-like appendage so she wouldn’t attack, fastened in place in different parts of the house like a baby in a highchair. They force-fed her real food, everything soft like mashed potatoes and applesauce, Jell-O and yogurt.
They had heard about the epidemic before she got bitten, but back then it seemed like something that was happening on the other side of the world and had little relevance in their everyday lives. Owen remembered when his friend Zack showed him a video on his cell phone of a man in a Middle Eastern marketplace getting attacked and bitten by another man. The sound of his screams made the hair on the back of Owen’s neck stand up.
“Bro, it’s like he’s on bath salts or some shit.”
“This has happened in other places too?”
“Yeah, people are just going the fuck off or whatever. They’re like zombies.”
“Zombies don’t exist.”
“Tell that to the guy who just had part of his neck chomped off.” Zach restarted the video. He seemed to be strangely entertained by the sight of the carnage. Owen looked away.
“It’s probably fake, anyway.”
“No way, it’s real as shit. This kind of stuff’s been happening all over. No warning, then bam. Chow time. Real life George Romero.”
Afterwards, Owen tried to push the memory of the video out of his mind. He tried to focus on soccer, keeping his grades up, living up to his parents’ ridiculously high expectations. Sometimes he stole something from a gas station or smoked weed with Zach to balance things out. He had a whole collection in his bedroom of useless things he had stolen, like cheap lighters and air freshener.
Miriam had never given a shit about grades or keeping up appearances. Owen had always envied that. She was fifteen and so pretty that Zach got all moony-eyed and pathetic at the sight of her. It was both irritating and hilarious. Miriam loved to paint with a fervor that meant hours passed with her holed up in her room with her easel. Sometimes she missed supper and she’d leave her room in the middle of the night like a nocturnal creature to fix herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She and Owen had their best conversations then, when it was just the two of them without the burden of their parents’ presence.
Then she was gone, taken away piece by piece. First she was disoriented but looked like she was ‘alive.’ She got angry and broke dishes and started arguments for no reason, picking the skin off her arms until they were just one giant rash. Then her features started to waste away and her face got thinner and harder, her skin turning the brown of a decaying banana. She stopped talking. It was like she saw right through everybody, like they weren’t even there. She started trying to bite.
Some families had learned how to teach their afflicted morse code or sign language but Miriam was hopeless at both. She couldn’t even hold a paint brush. She still shit and pissed and could sometimes signal to her parents that she needed to go to the toilet. They unfastened the harness and walked her to the bathroom, taking turns and shooting furtive looks toward each other.
There was a website that specifically sold harnesses and muzzles for the afflicted. There were YouTube channels. Blogs. Television personalities selling false promises and snake oil cures. Since the epidemic there had been a subtle societal shift, people’s reckoning with the afflicted becoming a day-to-day reality. ‘Zombie’ was now considered a slur. Some people rejected ‘afflicted’ in favor of ‘reborn.’ Owen hated euphemisms.
They kept her at home instead of a government institution for the reborn, which were popping up all over the country. The mentally ill and disabled were on the streets, there was no room left. Occasionally somebody infected them. Miriam didn’t know who had bitten her. They ran up behind her when she was jogging with headphones, early in their deterioration. Later, Miriam was registered as a reborn and regularly given a mandatory injection that was supposed to stop her from being contagious.
She still tried to bite but if she got you, you just got a shot and you’d probably be okay. Probably. The word hung cloudlike over everything. Things would probably be going back to normal soon. The president was probably going to come up with some bright new policies in that super-big brain of his that would improve the lives of everyone involved. And there was talk of a cure, whispered among friends or shared among strangers in the vast anonymity of the internet.
Thousands of forums dedicated to ‘cures’ from medicinal to spiritual to absolutely bizarre. One told you to fill a sock with the person’s teeth (you usually didn’t have to remove them, as they fell out by the four-month mark) and fast for seven days. Owen had poured over website after website despite his parents’ assertion that he prayed and avoided falling in with false prophets. He bought a salve off eBay and smelling salts from the dark web, knowing she was too far gone for things to ever go back to normal. He had lost his sister and was left with her corpse, this decomposing horror that only held a passing resemblance to Miriam.
He had considered killing it, but it had done that itself. Somehow broken free of its restraints one sunny July morning and found its way to a second story window that was left partially open, jumping and hitting concrete. Owen heard the noise and ran outside, thinking that one of his parents had been bitten. Owen found it (her,) his first thought was Thank God. Finally. He wondered if he knew what it was doing.
He wondered if it had felt any pain, and if it was really dead or whether it would bounce back up again like in a horror movie. He looked down at the thing that used to be his sister and his heart grew cold with dread knowing he’d have to tell his parents. Their parents. And now the parents cried over the decomposing body of their daughter and Owen wondered if Miriam had been afraid. Maybe some part of her had known she wasn’t herself anymore and they’d be better off without her.
Maybe he’d undone the restraints.
Maybe he knew what would happen.
Maybe he’d wanted her to kill herself.
And now it was all over. A cure could come out in a month or a week or even a day, but it was too late for them.