Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man
by Scott Edelman   (narrated by John Joseph Adams)


Maybe it would be best to begin this way.

Let's start, in fact, on the day that it all started, with Laura already at work in the county library. But here's the thing—as the day goes by, maybe she won't even come to realize yet that the dead are suddenly refusing to stay dead, because life happens that way, with momentous things occurring across town while we, in our homes, in our ignorance, clip our fingernails or floss our teeth. Earthquakes roar, floods rise, towers fall . . . and somewhere on the other side of the globe a man who may not hear of these things for many months, if at all, scrapes with his stick in a small patch of dusty earth and prays for rain. If he ever grows perturbed on that day, it will only be because the rain fails to come, and not due to dark happenings on continents far away.

For our purposes, let it begin that way for Laura, who did not notice her world tilting on its axis. She noticed little that first day of the change because little affected her personally, save that fewer patrons than normal wandered into her branch of the library. The ripples had not yet reached her.

But still, that small alteration to her routine puzzled her a bit, as over the years she had grown accustomed to the predictable rhythms of her week, but she let that feeling drop, and on the whole, it turned out to be an unusually good workday for her. She was able to spend less of her time that shift reshelving books that had been left on tables, and more of it catching up on paperwork, so she ended the day pleased.

As she headed back to her apartment that night, she treated herself to Chinese take-out. Maybe when she unpacks her dinner special, she should even find an extra fortune cookie at the bottom of the bag. Now that would cause her to smile. Because there's something else that you should know about Laura. She's been using the vocabulary words printed on the back of each fortune to teach herself Chinese, not the best method, perhaps, but still, hers, and the surprise cookie put her one word closer to her goal. See, she was planning to visit China someday. Adding that information just about now should help add poignancy to her tale, considering what we already know is inevitably to come and what she does not.

And so, later that night, after the additional reward of a very special episode of one of her favorite television shows, during which two estranged sisters are reunited, plus the rush she got from the way she'd been able to avoid a phone call from her mother thanks to caller ID, she would tuck into bed pleased with herself and with the world and ready to fall into a peaceful sleep, knowing nothing of the chaos elsewhere and suspecting less, much as our man working his field with a stick might finally set aside that stick and stretch out on his straw mat to drift away while looking up at the stars, never knowing that he had just lived through a December 7, or an August 6, or a September 11.

It was only the next day, when Laura slid that morning's newspapers onto the rods that kept them from getting tattered as they were being read, that she learned there had been anything special about the day before. She wasn't sure that she believed it, though. The facts of the miraculous resurrection seemed to her as if they should instead be shelved under fiction. She grew angry with herself, and angry with her former ignorance as well, believing that had such a grand difference been born in the universe, she should have been able to feel it. That the rules of life and death should change without her knowledge and permission didn't seem right.

She overheard much talk at her branch (all in whispers, of course) as to what it meant, and how one should proceed to walk through such an unexpected world, but she knew of no other way to live, and believed that one should accept the directions in which fate pushes us. She had never been able to see a different way for herself before, thanks in part (or so she felt) to the mother whose call she had avoided the night before, and saw no reason that she should try to see a different way for herself now. And so, in the face of the death of death, which would likely cause most people to abandon their routines, she still returned each day to carry out her duties.

Each successive day, however, will bring fewer of the living and more of the dead to browse in her department, until her regular clientele is completely replaced. At first, perhaps, she'll hardly notice that the undead areundead, for there'll be no slavering over her flesh the way she would have assumed. They'll just be shuffling slowly along, extracting books from the shelves, and sitting at the tables much the same way the regulars had. They won't behave so differently from the living, and so she won't notice that they're not living.

But then something will happen that will finally cause her to see and believe the great change that has occurred. Perhaps she'll notice that these new visitors are more intense at their tasks than those who had come before. Maybe it will be the fact that there is no whispering and no cause for her to shush. Or perhaps it's that she finally notices that no one is taking any bathroom breaks. Whatever the catalyst, she will eventually see. They'll seem more serious than those she was used to, and though more and more of them will drift in each day, so that some will finally have to stand, they'll be even better behaved than those who over her long years of service she'd grown used to, who by that time will have been entirely replaced, so that she is the only living creature who shows up there each day. But still, even that, even noting that only the dead surround her, will not cause her to change her routine.

She'll come to understand that the men, women, and children (though they really have to be understood as former men, women and children) are actually looking for something in the pages of those books, something that matters to them a great deal. They're not just going through the rote motions that had obsessed them in life. But what exactly are they seeking?

She watches them eagerly, intently, knowing that if she could only figure out what they sought, that she would find something meaningful there for herself as well, something that had waited just one step ahead of her herentire life.

Somehow it would all start to make sense. All of it.

No, forget that. Forget about Laura and her mother and the stale taste of fortune cookies. That's no way to begin this. It doesn't seem right at all. There's got to be a better way.

I'm going to start over, which is something that's a lot easier to do here on this page than from where I'm standing.

How about this for an opening, then?

The day the zombies came, Emily was dropping by the library (yes, there's that library again; it's important; you'll see) to visit her friend Rachel, which also means that it was the day that Rachel died. But as Emily arrived to take her friend to lunch, she doesn't know that yet. She knew that there was something odd about the day though. In fact, as she parked her car and fumbled for change for the meter, she wondered, what with the strange news reports that had been coming over her car radio during her drive, whether the two old friends should postpone their outing for another day.

Maybe I'll even have her pause for a moment and think it a hoax. She'll wonder whether this was just like that old-time Martian invasion that drove everybody mad when it was first broadcast on the radio, or man's supposed landing on the moon. (Which will have you wondering for a moment which of us didn't believe man ever made it to the moon, Emily or me. It's Emily. At least, most of the time, it's Emily.) And then she'll think, whether the broadcasts were a ratings trick or not, did it really matter? Regardless of the dangers of this world, life had to go on. She knew that. Life happened, and you had to happen, too. There would always be disruptions worthy of locking the doors and pulling down the shades, if you wanted to find them.

As you can tell, Emily is the sort of person who lives in two worlds, both this one, the one we all agree upon as reality, and another one, one slightly askew, to keep that first one at arm's length. She always felt that though a person had to live in the world, it did not mean she had to be of it. One should be able to keep the world at a distance so that it did not disrupt one's plans, and live as if all life's problems were on the other side of the world, as if she lived in a hut somewhere, her husband out most of the day poking at yams in the soil. Together they would be happy, less because of any affinity they had for each other than because of their separateness from society and its ills. They would live in ignorance of headlines and be bound together by that simplicity. The beating drums of the world would appear muffled and distant.

Emily survived many tragedies that way. Compared to her divorce, dealing with the resurrection of the dead would be a snap.

As she walked up the steps of the library, approaching the intricate wrought-iron gates at the entrance, wondering whether she and Rachel should do Chinese or Italian, a man ran toward her and then past her, screaming as he headed for the street. Blood spurted from one shoulder. In Emily's shock, it took her a moment to edit that initial thought to, no, not from his shoulder, but from the place where his arm used to be. She was ashamed to admit to herself that she felt relieved when he passed by her without spattering blood on her new blouse, which she had bought just for this occasion.

As she stood frozen, halfway between the street and the library entrance, one of the undead stumbled out the gates above her after its escaping prey. Its skin was grey, and its clothing still spilled clods of earth from its disinterment. Blood dripped from its mouth. Emily will do her best to force her legs to move before the dead thing shifts its focus to her, but her internal struggle proves unnecessary, as the shell of a man totters as it tries to move from one step to the next, loses its balance, and then rolls past her, tumbling down the length of the stairs.

After it finally struck the pavement, it lay motionless for a moment, and Emily thought it could be taken for a pile of cloth and bones, but then, as she watched, it slowly rose to its feet and looked up at her, really looked at her, she thought. She'd heard the radio hosts surmise that these undead things were beyond thought, but it certainly seemed to her to be thinking, almost considering for a moment whether it could make its way back up those steps to her.

Before it turned from her and shuffled down the street, in search, apparently, of an easier target, Emily would have sworn that it shrugged.

Emily rushed inside, calling out her friend's name. There'll be some personal detail seeded into the text before this so that you'll know that even with what Emily has been handed in life, she is still an optimistic sort, one who even in the face of what she has just seen expected to find her friend alive. (Maybe you'll learn of a lost dog who made its way home, or a parent whose cancer scare passed. Let's make it the dog. I'll have her see one on the street earlier as she parks her car so that there'll be a reason for her to wistfully remember a few details. People are often taught more lasting lessons by pets than by parents.)

From across the room, Emily could make out that Rachel stood where Emily had always found her, behind the counter where she checked out books, but by then, Rachel was no longer Emily's friend. A bite that had been taken out of Rachel's neck had allowed blood to spill down the front of her blouse. Her skin was not yet grey; it was deathly pale, but not yet the color of the creature who had fallen past Emily on its hunt, so perhaps it had happened not so long ago. Emily will think that if only she had arrived a half an hour earlier, perhaps she would have found her friend alive. It does not occur to her to think that if she had arrived a half an hour earlier, maybe they would both be dead. But that's just the kind of person Emily is.

(Thank the dog.)

Emily did not enter the vast room to approach her friend. She hung back in the hallway and noted that no one else remained there, neither human nor zombie. That was a good thing. Emily took that to mean that perhaps she could be safe there, in a building at the top of stairs which seemed untenable to the dead. It all depended what her friend had turned into. It did not seem to Emily as if Rachel had become a predator. Her friend had always been gentle. Could she ever become anything but, whatever the circumstance? Emily did not think that death necessarily had to be a life-altering experience.

Emily noticed that the whole time she watched, Rachel stayed by her station, her fingers on her keyboard, her dull eyes looking straight ahead, waiting . . . but for what? Did some spark that still glowed somewhere inside her still expect customers to come? Maybe she was merely doing what had always been expected of her in life, out of a habit that transcended death. Or was she waiting for Emily, only for a different reason than she would have been waiting earlier, cannily hoping to entice her close, too close, with a feigned calmness that was truly no longer hers? If only Emily could figure it out, unravel the suddenly mysterious why of her friend, she felt that somehow everything would then make sense, and she'd know, with or without a dog, with or without a husband who poked at the earth with a stick, how she was meant to live her life from that day forward.

No . . . that's all wrong, too.

This is getting frustrating. I usually don't vacillate like this, at least not when it comes to putting words on the page. Give me a few moments . . .

I've got it. Let's begin this way instead.

Walter was at the main branch of the library researching his next novel the day the zombies came. (I know, I know. What's with these libraries, you're thinking. Surely there's a more exciting place to go with this. But no, for me, there isn't. And you'll soon see why.) When the screaming began, echoing down the narrow hallways and filling the cavernous room in which he sat, there were so many books stacked about him that he needed to stand to see what was happening. The first thing he saw was that the librarian, who had been so kind to him over the years, but whose name he had never bothered to learn (later, he would berate himself for that), was beating her fists against the back of a man who was no longer a man. The thing was biting chunks out of her neck and spitting gristle as it growled. They soon both fell behind the counter so that Walter was no longer able to see them, but he could still hear the unsettling sounds of feasting.

Walter ducked back down below the wall of books that he had built around him (and I will have to think later about whether to stress the metaphor of this, with examples of how he had shielded himself with books during all other aspects of his life) and crawled from the room, unashamed (well, only slightly ashamed), for he had learned long ago that he was a writer, not a fighter. He did not lift his head, thinking unrealistically that if he couldn't see zombies, they could not see him, until he bumped up against tiny chairs, and realized that he had reached the children's section.

Craning his neck to look up, he saw one of the undead holding a young girl up to its mouth and chewing its way through her organs. Perhaps flecks of her blood will splash onto his face. Perhaps he will only imagine it, as the reality might be too much for you. Or perhaps it will be both, that flecks of blood will splash onto his face but he will only think that he imagined it, because it won't be too much for you; it will be too much for him. The girl wriggled erratically as she died, and Walter, noting that the zombie was too lost in the frenzy of its feast to notice him, leapt to his feet and ran past.

Walter knew the layout of the library intimately, as it had become his second home (well, actually, more like his first home, as his apartment had never become a true home to him), and made his way to the vault in which he knew the rare holdings were stored. At night, it was kept locked, but during the day the staff left it open for easier access. He had a hunch that he could be protected in there. He would lock himself in, and no zombie would be able to figure out how to get in after him. Surely, zombies couldn't calculate combinations. Numbers were too complex for them. All they knew was one body, another body, another body . . .

Getting out again once things had calmed down again, when he would be seen once more as a person, and not just a body, not just a snack, would be easy, because safes were designed to prevent people from breaking in,notout. Right?

He hoped he was right. He was sure he was right. At least that's what he kept telling himself as the air inside the vault grew moist and stuffy, and he struggled, mostly in vain, to hear whether the screaming outside had stopped.

Sigh.

No . . . no . . . no.

I'm afraid that last try didn't hold together any better than the first two. It didn't bring alive what it's like to live among the dead.

But . . . unfortunately . . . that third account is really the best narrative I have to work with. Because that one's my life. Because that one's the truth as I have lived it.

And because now, especially now, metaphor has to go. From now on, I should only write what actually happened.

I should only write the truth.

 

On the other hand, my old tools seem so reassuring at a time like this, and my old coping mechanisms so tempting. I keep thinking that there must be a reason for that. With so few other comforts left in the world, I hope I can be forgiven for backsliding. (Come to think of it, are there any other comforts left in the world, not counting the mere fact of just being alive itself?) Or maybe it's more than just backsliding. Maybe, like a cigarette smoker teetering on the verge of quitting, I just need one more dose of my drug before giving it up for good.

So let me try once more to explain. I hope that this time it will work out better for you. For both of us.

Here we go . . .

I once knew a woman who loved her husband so much that she could not bear to let him go. When Marilyn swore that she would be true to him in sickness and health, she meant it. But that isn't always such a good thing. For when her husband grew ill, she kept him pinned to life in the hospital when he would have been much happier in the grave. Perhaps in a different story she would have kept him from the grave as a form of punishment, but not in this story, because that would be ironic, and Marilyn loved him without irony. As he lay there while some machines breathed for him, others circulated his blood, and still others carried away his wastes, she would look at him, at the forest of tubes binding him to an unfulfillable promise, and weep.

"Don't go," she would whisper, repeating it like a mantra, though one with infinite variation. "You can't go. Not yet. You mustn't go."

But eventually, he went.

Luckily for her, his death came on a day when the dead were no longer dying. When all life signs ceased, the nurses scurried in to the alarms and buzzers they had expected long before. There was nothing more that they could do, and they, at least, having long since lost patience with Marilyn anyway, were glad of it. The most important lesson to be learned in this place was letting go, and they wished that she had not been such a slow student. As a doctor came in to verify what the nurses already knew, and murmured the sympathetic words he had been trained to utter about her loss (so how sympathetic could they have been anyway?), the woman's husband reached out suddenly, grabbed a nurse by the wrist, and ripped her arm out of its socket. The blood splattered the wife across her folded arms, sore from hugging herself as she wept. She screamed, not taking her eyes from her husband as the remaining nurses joined the doctor in wrapping restraints about the man. Once they were done and he was attached to the bed, they all fled the room, carrying the injured nurse with them, leaving Marilyn alone.

As the man (or what was once a man; I have no true word for him, as our terminology has not yet advanced as much as our species; "zombie" seems so fraught with baggage) struggled impotently and snapped at flesh that was out of reach, Marilyn thought that she heard her husband call her name. Buried in his grunts, or so she thought, were sounds she knew so well, murmurs, endearments, the echoes of living words past, and so she stepped closer, stunned to find herself in such a bizarre situation. She had heard from the small TV bolted to one corner of the ceiling that they listened to as she waited for him to wake, that scenes like this were playing themselves out all across the country. Across the world. (Well, not in every corner of the world, as we have already discussed. Somewhere, there will always be that man, happily oblivious, and that stick.) But she never expected to have someone she knew drawn into such a predicament, and especially not herself. Death is what happened to other people. Careless people.

She tilted her head and closed her eyes to listen more intently, and something she heard made her certain. She swore that she could make out her name. And so she moved even closer to him, erasing that final space between them, and let his teeth rip into her flesh, so that she, too, could join him in the only afterlife that people from then on would ever know.

No, that's not right. No one likes reading about people who voluntarily turn themselves into victims. We want to see people who take action, who make choices, who triumph over adversity instead of surrendering to it. So. How about this . . .

I once knew a woman who hated her husband so much that she could not bear to let him go. He was rich, and so tried his best to pay Catherine to leave, but he could never seem to name her price, as she had no price. (Something he found hard to believe, since as I said, he was rich.) And so he turned instead to trying to simply leave her, but none of his escape plans worked. She kept reeling him back in, with the orchestrated disapproval of their friends, the withholding of time with his children, or, at its most drastic, with threats of libels plausible enough that she knew they would stick. Many were the times he flew to the opposite coast in the morning only to be persuaded to return in the evening. She stayed on the grounds of their estate and made sure that he stayed there with her.

Once the zombies came (because, yes, I give up, what else am I supposed to call them?), her job became that much easier. He no longer wanted to travel into the city (which had quickly descended into chaos), and so did his job from his home office, ordering about with phone calls, e-mails and faxes others who did not have the luxury of his monied sort of refuge. As he worked, he would keep an eye on the perimeter of their estate via security cameras, making sure that the outside world did not invade. Catherine had her own security cameras, ones her husband did not know about, and she would check on him often during the day to make sure he had not fled.

This went on until the weight of the outside world and the weight of her husband's inner world grew so great that he could take it no longer. One day, she came upon him slumped in the bath in a room devoid of both his cameras and hers. The water was tinged with red, the cuts on his wrists were lengthwise. In that moment, as he hesitated between life and new life, she hugged him and wrenched him from the water. Not caring that he was covering her with both suds and blood, she dragged him to their safe room. It had been installed to protect them from those who would take their wealth and their lives by force, and now it would protect her from the invisible force that would dare to take her husband.

She knew what was going to happen next, and so she moved quickly.

She set him folded on the far side of the safe room, his legs stretched out on the floor, his back against one of the reinforced walls. She did not know why she took such care as she laid him there. She could have tossed him the length of the room and not caused him any damage. What was to come would come regardless.

She retreated outside, watching him, waiting for him to reanimate. When she saw her husband begin to twitch, she slammed shut the door to the safe room and locked it. She was glad that her husband was back, little caring in what state he was back.

She sat on the king-sized bed, and listened to him slam against the walls of his prison. He would try to break free, continuously, never tiring, and so at last, she would know forever where he was.