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The Survivor Kind

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The Survivor Kind

by Jeff Bull

Even from a distance, they were the unlikeliest survivors I could have imagined. The man … well, I was assuming it was a man only because of the flat, scrawny chest … was covered head to toe in black latex. Every single inch of him was sheathed in one of those S&M sex suits. A black hood covered his head and face and there was a zipper over his mouth. He stood about six-three and was extremely thin. But then, most of us were these days. Food was getting scarce. A machete hung from a canvas belt wrapped around his waist and he had an old bolt-action hunting rifle slung over one shoulder.

The woman appeared to be in her mid- to late-fifties. She was maybe five-four and had somehow managed to keep her grandmotherly roundness. She had thinning blond hair and wore a bright purple pantsuit. Strapped to her chest in a baby bjorn was what appeared to be a stuffed anteater. She had two pearl-handled revolvers holstered in a beautifully tooled leather belt and was holding a cordless hedge-trimmer in one hand.

It was nearly noon and a faint breeze rustled the red and yellow leaves in the gutter. Tall, bare-limbed trees lined both sides of what had once been an idyllic suburban street.

A few seconds before, I’d caught movement out of the corner of my eye and unslung my shotgun. Once its reassuring weight was in my hands, I’d frozen, my heart pounding in my chest, my fatigue washed away in a flow of adrenaline. About a block and a half away, two people had just turned the corner.

If they were actually people, that is.

Which is why I stayed still. If they were zombies and I moved away, they would definitely chase me. If they were human and I moved towards them, they would assume I was a Z and shoot me. The safest thing to do was to not move. It turns out there’s an etiquette to these things. Not everyone figures it out of course, but most of the ones who haven’t are dead by now.

The two people froze also. After about thirty seconds, I gave them a cautious wave, lowered my shotgun and walked slowly towards them.

I was pretty sure we were all human by now, but it never hurts to follow the rules. When I got to about ten yards out I stood in the middle of the street and slowly turned around, arms extended out from my sides. My guess is that the point of this maneuver is to show that you have no bites on you. Or maybe to prove you don’t have a zombie clinging to your back. It doesn’t really matter if I understand it or not; it’s part of the ritual. I went through the motions, and watched as they did the same.

We were in the outskirts of what used to be Denver, in one of those neighborhoods that had been gentrified enough that people didn’t care how small the houses were. The street was littered with burned-out BMWs and SUVs. Most of the houses were run down but still standing. I’d been breaking into them, scrounging through the pantries for canned goods and other supplies. It was a dangerous task. There were too many places to hide, too many blind spots where someone, living or dead, could sneak up on me. But you do what you have to if you want to survive. I dropped my duffel to the street, the cans inside clanking against one another.

“Hello. I’m Tom,” I said.

“Oh, hello, dear. I’m Laurie, and this is Mike.”

I turned to the latex-covered man and said “Hello, Mike.”

Laurie’s brow wrinkled. “No, silly. That’s Robert. This,” she indicated the stuffed anteater “is Mike.”

“Ah,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it, sweetpea. It happens all the time. Or, at least, it used to. Are you new in town, Tom? I haven’t seen you around before.”

“I’ve been through once or twice, but never to stay. I probably won’t stay this time either. I’m just here foraging.”

“Mmeffy feen miffng aroumf fere,” said Robert.

“Robert, honey. Zipper,” said Laurie.

“Mutt my mifftreff—“

“Ah, ah, ah. Zipper.”

Robert reluctantly reached up and unzipped his mouth hole. “But my mistress wants me to keep it zipped.”

“She won’t mind, dear. Now, what were you saying?”

“Oh. Pretty lean pickings around here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m finding that out. I was hoping there would be some MREs left at the old Air Force base.”

“No, those were gone in the first six months,” said Robert.

“You two seem to be keeping yourselves fed,” I said. “Do you mind me asking how?”

“Yes.” Robert’s voice was hostile and he put a hand on his machete. I raised both hands and took a step back.

“Fair enough. Sorry I asked.”

“How about you? Where are you from?” The questions were a challenge.

“Robert, be nice.”

“No Ma’am, it’s okay. I don’t mind telling you. There’s a group of us that found a place to hole up outside of Cortez.”

“Cortez?” Robert whistled. “That’s a long haul for a foraging trip.”

“Yeah, well, the pickings are even leaner near home than they are here. We’re living Anasazi-style, in a cave in a cliff face. We’ve got some crops going on top of the mesa, but none of us were farmers, so we’re just barely getting by. The hard part is meat. The Zs keep finding us, and they keep driving off all the game. So we took the last working vehicle and came up here, kind of … hoping against hope.”

“We?”

“There were four of us at the start. Now it’s just me.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear.” Laurie lowered her hedge-trimmer and stepped forward, looking like she wanted to give me a hug.

I backed away again, hand instinctively dropping to the crowbar that hung from my belt. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right. You just tell me roughly what your territory is, and I’ll steer clear. I don’t want to intrude or lure any Zs into your back yard.”

“Oh, you poor dear. You should at least come home with us for lunch. I’ll make some soup.”

“Laurie! No.”

Laurie looked sharply at Robert, then guiltily at me.

“Will you give us a minute, sweetie?”

I nodded and they retreated a few feet to continue their argument in private. I tried hard to look like I wasn’t listening, but apparently I didn’t convince Robert. He zipped his mouth hole closed and continued arguing. I guess Laurie was able to understand him. She probably had a lot of practice. After a few minutes they seemed to reach an agreement and turned back to me.

“Well, someone had to be reminded of what hospitality is, but you’re welcome to come back with us for at least a hot meal.”

“Maffer fa—“

“Robert, zipper.”

Zip.

“After that you have to go.”

Zip.

“That’s fine by me. I’ll be grateful for that much.”

Their house was only a few blocks over. It was one of those old farmsteads that get swallowed up by suburbs. It had a nice buffer of cleared land all around, with three layers of barbed wire fence and concertina wire. It was an extremely defendable position, as evidenced by the pile of decapitated zombies in one corner of the property. A half-dozen more were caught up in the wire, in places that made it more difficult to pull them out. They were in various stages of decay, but thankfully the smell wasn’t too bad.

The house itself was a clapboard ranch style with peeling white paint and faded green shutters. The windows had of course been boarded over, leaving small holes to use for sniping. Solar panels had been installed inexpertly on the roof and Laurie happily informed me it had its own well. I figured you could probably hold out there almost indefinitely, provided you had enough food.

We came in through a small mudroom and past a heavily reinforced door. The kitchen we stepped into was homey and surprisingly bright. It was rustic in a way that reminded me of my grandparent’s old house back in Ohio.

There were steel-reinforced storm shutters on the inside of the windows, but they were currently thrown open, letting in the bright sunlight. The walls were covered with 70s-era wood paneling, now splintering in places. A counted cross-stitch sampler of the Serenity Prayer hung over the table, next to a cheap but functional cuckoo clock.

I counted the exits, memorized escape routes, and poked my head through an open doorway to survey their dark but comfy-looking living room. They had an extensive collection of DVDs. I’d have to look that over later and see if there were any I hadn’t seen yet.

Robert and Laurie stood in the doorway, watching me. Laurie had a soft, contented smile on her face. Robert’s eyes were squinted and angry. He’d bear watching.

“This is a lovely place you have here,” I said, leaning my shotgun up against the wall. Maybe if I were less heavily armed they’d be more at ease.

“Thank you, dear.”

“So … not to be pushy,” I smiled my most disarming, aw-shucks smile, “but I believe someone said something about lunch?” They didn’t seem to have any shortage of food. Laurie served tomato soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches. It was the best meal I’d had in years.

“If you don’t mind my asking…” I paused and looked over at Robert pointedly. He ignored me and kept stuffing his metal-toothed pie-hole. “… where’d you folks get cheese? I haven’t had any dairy in years.”

“Oh, there’s a nice fellow up near Boulder who has a couple of milk cows locked up in a barn; about every three months or so we make the drive up to barter with him. We went just last week so we’re trying to use up all the milk and cheese before it turns.”

I finished my sandwich and leaned back from the table, watching my hosts. Laurie had eaten peckishly, but Robert was still going, just now starting on his third bowl of soup. I wasn’t sure how he could eat so much and still be that thin, but my guess was that he did a lot of sweating in that outfit of his. Now that we were in closer proximity I could smell the rank odor coming off of him. Laurie didn’t seem to notice it.

Laurie was pretending to feed the crusts from her sandwich to the stuffed anteater. She scolded it like it was a petulant toddler. She caught me looking and smiled at me. I never knew there was a border between sweet, grandmotherly patience and serial killer cunning, but that smile was right on the line.

“How many people live in your cave, dear?”

“Thirty-seven … I guess, thirty-four now.”

“And do you have any family there?”

“Not from before. They’re all gone. But I’ve got a … I guess you could say a girlfriend, and a little one on the way.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, sweetie,” said Laurie. Robert piped up with a dull-voiced congratulation of his own.

“So are you two related?” I asked.

“Of course we are, silly,” said Laurie. “Mike is my son.”

I decided not to explore the specifics of that statement. “Oh, sorry, I meant are you and Robert related?”

“No, dear. I just took him and his lady friend—“

“Mistress,” corrected Robert.

“—mistress in a few weeks after the Outbreak. Normally I might have looked down on their … lifestyle—“

“Sexual perversions. You can say it, Laurie, we don’t mind.”

“Oh, dear, I wouldn’t ever say it that way. You know that. Anyway, they’ve been here ever since. Robert is such a help, you know.”

“So, then the outfit…?” I trailed off, not sure exactly how to phrase the question.

“Yes,” said Robert. “It’s part of our dominance play. She ordered me to leave it on until she tells me to take it off.”

“And…”

“And she hasn’t told me to take it off yet.”

“Robert, honey, you know she—“

“She hasn’t told me to take it off!” A momentary silence followed Robert’s near-shout. “Besides,” he continued more calmly, “it’s great protection against zombies. They can’t bite through it.”

“Well,” I said, “I could see how that would be helpful.” What I had intended as a momentary pause stretched into a long, uncomfortable silence.

I was beginning to feel sorry for these two, to feel some kernel of regret for what I had to do. They were almost certainly misfits before the Outbreak. Even now, when the term ‘polite society’ had almost no meaning, I couldn’t imagine them meshing well with folks back at the mesa. But these days, in a land overrun by the living dead, there was really only one substantive distinction to be made: you were either the kind of person who could survive, or you were a zombie.

“This seems like kind of a special occasion,” said Robert, suddenly perky. “How about we have some ice cream?” Oddly, Laurie didn’t seem to like the suggestion. She furrowed her brow, and stroked Mike’s head.

“I don’t know, Robert. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Poor Tom is probably stuffed.”

“There’s always room for ice cream. You’d like some ice cream, wouldn’t you Tim?”

“Tom,” I said absent-mindedly. The tiny radio receiver strapped to my thigh under my pants had just buzzed once, then twice. Which meant that Anton and Mary-Beth were in position. “Yeah, I could go for some ice-cream.”

“Great,” beamed Robert. “Listen, it’s in the deep freezer downstairs. Could you go and grab it?”

“Deep freezer?” I asked.

“Sure, we’ve got all kinds of stuff in there. We have a whole side of beef. You feel free to poke around. I’ll help Laurie with the dishes.” Robert started clearing the table. He pointed an empty soup bowl at a closed door, which presumably led downstairs. Laurie moved between the door and me.

“I don’t know that it’s such a good idea, Robert.”

This seemed a bit incongruous with her earlier hospitality, and I should have pursued it, but just then the receiver went off again. The rest of my team was waiting for my signal. I felt bad for this dysfunctional little family, but my own family had needs, and I had a job to do. I needed to know exactly how many people were in this house.

“It’s fine, Laurie,” I said. “I don’t mind getting it.” I opened the door, gently scooting her aside as I did so, and saw the rickety wooden stairs leading down into darkness. “Say, you never did say what happened to Robert’s girlfriend.” I turned back to face the kitchen, just in time to see Robert rushing at me with a frying pan in one hand.

“She’s my mistress!” he screamed as he smashed my nose. My head snapped back and I tottered, but managed to get a hand on each doorjamb. “Send her my love,” he said before planting his foot on my chest and shoving me down the stairs.

It was a hard trip down. It felt like I hit every step along the way. The last several had been broken out, leaving a drop of at least four feet at the bottom. I fetched up hard on my back, and lay quietly for a second, trying to catch my breath. From the darkness came a moan. It was a sound that no survivor will ever forget. I’d heard it more times than I care to think about. There was a zombie in the basement with me.

I scrambled to my feet quickly, one hand going to my belt for my flashlight, the other reaching for my shotgun. The shotgun was missing, and I remembered that I’d propped it against the wall in the kitchen. The flashlight was there, and I turned it on and played the beam around the space in front of me.

“Jack Sprat could eat no fat…” the words came unbidden from my lips. The Z in front of me was indeed Robert’s mistress, for she wore an identical latex suit. However, in life she must have weighed in at over three hundred pounds. In death -- and I guessed from the stench and the stage of decay that she’d been dead for somewhere between six months and a year -- she was downright ponderous. The latex suit was still well sealed, and her tissues, though decayed, really didn’t have anywhere to do. They’d just kind of … settled. She was like a giant latex pear filled with rotting meat.

She was moving towards me but at a speed that created no sense of urgency in me. I looked back at the stairs. The gap to the bottom stair was low enough that I was confident that I could jump it. I could now see why it would prove an insurmountable obstacle to Robert’s sweetheart.

I scanned the rest of the basement. There were a few wooden shelves filled with the normal detritus that collects in basements: rusty tools, empty paint cans, that kind of thing. A stained mattress rested in one corner, and there was indeed a functioning deep freezer. In the far reaches of the light cast by my flashlight I thought I could see some bones. I was almost certainly not the first visitor to the basement.

The zombie, though slow, had finally closed the distance between us. I backhanded her across the face with the flashlight to give myself a moment, then reached in and zipped the mouth hole on her mask closed. Dancing away from her, I lifted the back of my jacket, and pulled the Colt from its holster. I was just sighting in on the Z’s forehead when I heard the distinctive clack-clack of a shotgun being cocked. I glanced up the stairs and saw Robert pointing my own fucking shotgun at me.

“Put down the gun, Tim!”

I ducked to the side, out of his line of fire.

“Damn it, Robert! It’s Tom! Now get my fucking name right, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

“Mistress!” A deafening blast filled the room as he fired. Buckshot clattered against the cinder-block walls, but didn’t come anywhere near me.

“Okay Robert, maybe I spoke hastily. You just put the shotgun down and let me come upstairs and we’ll discuss it like two rational people.”

“Robert, sweetie, maybe you should listen to—“

“No! My mistress needs new toys or she gets bored.”

“Then she ought to find this fun,” I said and shot a hole in the zombie’s leg. This proved to be a mistake. A thin stream of putrid yellowish fluid started spurting out of the hole. The stink in the basement got exponentially worse.

“You leave her alone!” Robert fired another blast down the stairs. Laurie was screaming at him, but I couldn’t make out what. I pulled out my walkie-talkie.

“Anton, it’s Tom. You copy?”

“About fucking time.”

“Later. We got two live ones. If you have clean shots on both, take them.”

“Are you in the line of fire?”

“Negative. I’m in the basement.”

“Gotcha.” A pause. “I only see one.”

“Okay, give me a second.”

The Z had closed on me again and was trying to gnaw on my shoulder through its zipper. I led it over in front of the stairs, keeping its massive bulk between the door and me.

“Hey, Robert,” I called. “Last chance.”

“Fuck you!”

I put the colt up to the zombie’s forehead and blew its putrefying brains out. Robert gave something between a shout and a sob and started down the stairs. I put four slugs into his chest and he flopped forward, falling on top of the zombie. The impact reminded me of a stuntman hitting one of those giant airbags. It’s a sight I’ll take to my grave.

“Okay, Anton. Take the shot.”

A moment later there was a distant rifle shot, then the sound of a body falling to the floor upstairs. I re-holstered the Colt and gave the basement a quick once-over to see if I’d need to come back down for anything beside Robert. It turns out that he hadn’t been lying about having a side of beef in the freezer.

The ice cream, however, was a lie.

Laurie lay on the kitchen floor, like a discarded doll. I looked out the window and waved at Mary-Beth as she crossed the yard. Then I started rummaging through the cupboards for food. We’d hit the jackpot. They had more canned goods than I’d ever seen outside of a grocery store. The supplies that Robert and Laurie had amassed would vastly improve our chances of surviving the coming winter. The frozen beef in particular was a great find. Fortunately, we’d found a working refrigeration truck last year. There were currently two deer carcasses hanging from hooks in the back, but there was still plenty of room.

Mary-Beth came in and surveyed my ruined nose with the practiced eye of an emergency room nurse, which she had been.

“You’ll live.” She said. “Serves you right for taking so long to signal.”

“Sorry. They were … tough to figure out.”

“You wanna search the rest of the house first, or do you want to start butchering?”

I looked down at Laurie’s corpse. Soon she and Robert would be hanging from hooks in the back of our truck, just more meat to get us through the winter. We had almost forty mouths to feed, and like I’d said, I had a little one on the way.

They hadn’t been bad people. Sure, Robert had tried to feed me to his undead girlfriend, but Laurie was just a crazy grandmother. I stood in momentary wonder at the kind of person I’d become. But, I reminded myself, in the end there were only two kinds of people left in the world: those that do what they must to survive, and zombies. I guess I’m the survivor kind.

“Let’s get the butchering out of the way. I’ll take this one, and you can get the skinny guy in the basement.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Oh, and you’ll want to wash him off before you get started. He smelled like ass before…”

“Before what?”

I just chuckled and pointed her towards the stairs.

©2011

 

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