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


That was a bit closer, perhaps, but still . . .

No, that one wasn't right, either. So far, with each of these stories, I'm making it all sound too pat.

I really should stop trying to make sense of it. After all, part of the truth of zombies (and by zombies I mean more than just the raw reality of each individual one of them, I mean the concept, the very fact that they exist) is that there is no sense to them. No one expects a hurricane to make sense, or an earthquake to have a point. And I've learned that about zombies by now, too. But it turns out to be just like the way people look up at the passing clouds and without even trying find a seahorse, a cow, or even Abe Lincoln. I can't seem to stop. That is what I do. It just happens.

It's a compulsion, I guess. I look at life, messy, chaotic, preposterous life, dismantle its unanswered mysteries and incongruous facts, rearrange them until there is a beauty not supplied by random events, and put them back together again so that all the pieces fit. I transform nonsense into serendipity. That's a man up there in that moon, damn it, no matter what I'm told about an accidental pattern of asteroids. And I'm supposed to behave differently in response to this latest upheaval?

So I find myself telling myself these stories, not consciously choosing to start them and seemingly not able to consciously choose to stop. Maybe that's my way of going into shock. But what I saw when I first stepped from the safety of the vault told me that this pretense of attempting to make sense of how I live now, how we all live now, is in itself senseless.

When I finally opened the vault door, the first thing I noticed was the silence. I was amazed by how quiet it had become. No more guttural raging from the undead; no further death throes from the living. As I moved slowly down the hallways, though, I found evidence of each. Red splashes darkened the walls; stray bones littered the floors. But there were no zombies, and no humans. I could easily put together the story of what had happened during my hermitage from the disgusting detritus alone, but I struggled not to. What I had seen with my own eyes had been horrible enough; I didn't want to add my imagination to the mix. And besides, I was too hungry to do so. That and only that was what had overcome my fear enough to bring me out of the vault. I would not have moved had not my body's command been, "Move or die."

I made my way as slowly as my hunger would allow to the machines I had so often eaten from while researching my previous books. I knew the taste of stale moon pies far too well. My honesty made me put money in the machine rather than break open the glass case, but I felt silly for it. Was there still a world out there that cared?

After I had eaten two bags of pretzels and a box of Raisinets, and downed two cans of orange soda, I could think straight again. Only then did it come to me that I should secure the library's front door, because based on the signs around which I had tiptoed, there had been no one left alive with the luck to have done it before. Except for me, everyone who had been in the library when the attack began had died.

I moved slowly and silently toward the front of the building, and strangely, a part of me felt just as badly for the fallen books that had been knocked to the floor in struggles as another part of me did when gazing at what must have been the sites of fallen people. Each time, I was embarrassed for feeling that way, but . . . I'm a writer. That's just one more action I can't control.

I passed the bank of computers at which I had often sat to check my e-mail, and saw that the screensavers still danced. I couldn't resist. I slapped the spacebar and punched in my password. Amid the spam was a note from my agent, wondering if I still lived. I replied to him that I did, and since three days had passed since he'd sent his message, I asked him the same question. I started browsing through my favorite blogs, discovering that no part of the world had escaped this plague, when I suddenly remembered—the front gate. There'd be enough time for exploration on the Internet later.

As I swung shut the wrought-iron gates at the library's main entrance, I worried that I was being premature by not yet having checked every inch of the building. Was I alone in here?

Was I locking death out? Or locking it inside, the better for it to catch me?

I had to take that chance, unless I wanted to spend my days living inside a locked vault until those outside sorted this all out and we all got back to normal.

As I looked down at the base of the steps on the milling undead, it was as if they could sense me, as if they felt that by merely continuing to live that I was taunting them. They careened off each other as they gathered into clumps. It was unnerving to study them that way, knowing that they were studying me. I moved back from the gates in the hope that I would be less noticeable. It seemed to work. They wandered off again, listless zombies once more; from this height, they might as well have been commuters on their way to work. Only their job was eating the actual commuters, not that this city had any left. There were none of the living left, at least not on the streets that surrounded the library, that much was clear. All of the action was past.

I could not escape, though, the signs of actions past. I had tried before to avoid the implications of such signs, but would the world ever be rid of them? Dark stains everywhere, as random as oil slicks, told me what had happened out there, what I had thankfully missed while inside the vault. Automobiles appeared to have been flung randomly across the landscape outside, one flipped onto its back on the bottom steps of the library, others piled up against each other as far into the distance as I could see. An armored car lay on its side amid the chaos. I could picture the drivers dodging both living and dead, each terrified that he or she would migrate from being one to being the other, losing control first of their vehicles and finally their lives.

I didn't want to keep reliving that, so I looked again at the armored car. It was filled with money, I imagined, which my last royalty statements told me I needed more of. I could probably go out there if I was crazy enough to risk it and grab all the cash I could carry. But what good would that do me now? We had evolved overnight into a world beyond money. A new economy ruled the world, and it was one based on meat. As I stared at the armored car and thought wistfully of a past and future no longer within my reach, I thought I could see something move through a small, narrow window in the vehicle's side. I studied that slot, and though there was no more movement, I could tell that, yes, as I was looking, someone was looking back. I risked stepping closer to the gates again, but unfortunately, at that distance I could not read any expression there. I could barely make out any features at all, an eye, a nose; just enough to tell me that I was not alone.

Then I saw a hand, its curled fingers beckoning me forward.

I was not the last man in the world after all, not some Robinson Crusoe stranded after the rise of the zombies.

Or maybe, come to think of it, I was, and as the tale promised, I'd just found my Friday.

 

The stories come more slowly now. I know, I know, I promised you that they wouldn't come at all any longer. But if you out there were in here with me, were at my side, you'd see that there is good reason for them to continue.

And besides, maybe this will be the story worth telling.

(Or maybe, just maybe, I will tell them until I finally admit that there might no longer be any stories worth telling.)

So . . .

There once was a woman—I won't give her a name, I won't bother giving any of them names any longer, for after all, aren't they all just archetypes? Aren't they really just you and me?—who had tried and tried (and tried and tried) to have a child, but no matter what she and her husband and the doctors and the insurance companies and the midwives (and the potential grandmothers) did, she kept miscarrying. But somehow, even as her husband suggested, at first gently and then more insistently, that they consider adoption, she avoided the choice he was pushing upon her, and she also avoided despair. She knew that she would eventually have a child, a child of her own, and so she was able to shut out all the voices that yammered around her. And she almost proved those voices wrong, too, by carrying a fetus nearly to term.

So close . . .

But then it died, too, just like all of the others. She could sense the motionlessness inside, the potential that had become merely a weight. She felt the absence in a way she had never known before one could feel an absence. She had always been honest with her husband before. As a couple, they prided themselves on their honesty. But this time she could not bear to tell him the truth. She knew what would happen next, what the doctors would insist, and she didn't want to endure again what she'd endured so many times already. So she prayed, just as, for the first time in her life since she had been a child, she had been praying for a child of her own. And then, just before the next day's already scheduled prenatal appointment, which she had thought she would have to break so as not to reveal what had occurred, she felt movement within.

But the movement felt more violent than any kicking the baby had done before, prior to what she convinced herself was only a brief nap. She could feel things ripping and tearing inside, and her spotting became bleeding, enough to frighten her. She went alone to the doctor, not wanting to have to be forced to tell her husband what was going on, and when the doctor gave her a sonogram, he saw no heartbeat. He was baffled, and did not know what to tell her. Nothing had prepared him for this. How could there be movement with no heartbeat?

And then, perhaps in response to the sonogram's invasion, the movements increased.

The woman clutched her stomach and screamed, and as the doctor rushed to his wall of supplies to find a way to relieve her agony, the baby chewed its way out of its mother's womb and poked its head through the skin of her stomach. The doctor, even in the midst of the insanity of the event, reacted reflexively, reaching for the child, instinctively wanting to see that, whatever else was incomprehensible about this moment, it was healthy, not able to see the dead skin hidden by the blanket of blood. The child snapped at him as it wriggled free from its dying mother, and the doctor backed away hurriedly, tripping over his own feet, and then fled the room.

Or perhaps he should only attempt to flee. Perhaps after he loses his balance, instead of righting himself and continuing on, he should fall to the floor, and the child, the thing, should fall from the mother, now dead atop the examining table, and begin to feast upon the doctor. Perhaps that would make more dramatic sense.

However the scene ends, we should keep in mind that it is a scene which with many variations played itself out around the world that day, as the fruits of failed pregnancies suddenly resulted not in dead babies, but in undead ones. But neither this mother nor this doctor could know that. But even if they had known, what other choices would they have made? There was barely escape from the plague without; how could there be escape from the plague within?

So let's just say that this particular baby struggled its way free from its mother's guts, and slid off the examining table, whether onto the warm doctor or onto the cold linoleum to be decided later. What will happen next would remain the same regardless.

It crawled out of the examining room into an office which by then had been emptied by the (bloodied or unbloodied) doctor's screaming. It pulled and wriggled its way down the street, unable to move in any way other than that of a real baby. Perhaps someday, if it survived, it would learn to walk, though physically it would never have more than a newborn's form, but for now, it crawled, making slow progress. People on the street gave it a wide berth, the trail of blood that it left behind itself clear warning of its intent, and though it grew frustrated, that frustration could not propel it quickly enough to overtake any of them.

But then a dog came over, sniffing, curious, unafraid, and close enough for the zombie child to grab hold of its front paws. It yanked at them roughly, breaking the dog's front legs. As the animal squealed and struggled vainly to retreat, the baby pulled itself forward along the length of the dog's trembling body to reach and snap the back legs as well. The baby had no teeth as yet, and so could not chew its way into the animal's belly as its tiny brain desired, so it had to punch its way in with small but strong fists and suck on the red, raw meat it had exposed.

As the child feasted, it felt itself pulled away from its orgy of blood, and before it could react to this affront, tossed through the air. It bounced off the back wall of a small cage, and as it attempted to reorient itself and go on the attack once more, the door slammed shut.

The woman whose dog had just been killed had a cage in which she would transport her dog to the park each day in the back of her van, and the zombie baby found itself trapped within. It beat blindly at the sides of the cage, but the metal was too strong for it to bend.

The woman smiled as she drove it back to her home. The reason she had a dog, she always knew, was because she could not have a child, and now, most unexpectedly, she had a child. She saw it as a gift from God. She did not care that it was dead, or that she would obviously have to be very, very careful or she would end up dead herself. She would love it for the rest of her life, even after the world came through the other side of this plague. She would tell no one of it, so that when all the other zombies were rounded up and destroyed, her baby would remain safe. She would love it and care for it as long as she lived.

But she would never let it out of its cage.

Well . . . maybe that won't turn out to be one of the stories worth telling. Right now, in the midst of it all, it seems somewhat pointless to even bother creating stories, but I know that someday the world will want to make sense of what we went through together, and someone will have to step forward to do that. That someone might as well be me. So I at least have to try.

One thing I've been realizing, as my subconscious mind weaves life into art (well, let others decide later if there's any art there) is that all zombie stories are true. Also, no zombie stories are true. Because, you see, there are no zombie stories until I write them. The universe has no opinion of us. No matter how much we want to pretend, real life does not contain the quality of story. No arcs, no morals, no meaning. Life is what we make of it.

And I was finally, after a lifetime of typing, in a position to make something of it.

It had been a week since I had taken refuge in this place. Undoubtedly, whoever was inside the armored car had to have been there nearly as long, or he would not still be alive. However long the person had been trapped, he—or she, I shouldn't forget there was a chance that it could be a she—surely needed food by now. And it was up to me to help.

I rushed back to the candy machine that I had long since cracked open, having abandoned the comforting illusion of order that dropping change in the slot had earlier brought me, and filled my pockets with pretzels, beef jerky, soda, and whatever else could fit. The cans, cold through the cloth of my jacket, reminded me that the city's electricity still worked, which had to be a good sign, right? Somewhere out there the wheels of industry kept turning, and human beings had to be the ones turning them. Or so I hoped. I'm afraid I didn't understand enough about technology to know for sure. I'm not that kind of writer. I'd research that after what I told myself I had to do, if there was an after.

I ran down to the ground floor and paused at the far end of the hallway that led to the main entrance, back enough from the gates so that though I could make out the foot traffic, I could not be easily seen. I watched as the zombies moved in their random patterns and waited for the street ahead to clear. There would come a moment, I was sure, in which nothing stood between me and the armored car, and no one hovered close enough to catch me even if I was noticed.

And then, trying not to think too much about it, I ran. It was not a pretty thing, as I am a writer, not a runner. Those two roles cohabit rarely, and certainly not in me. I am ashamed to say that it was not courage that propelled me clumsily on. It was loneliness that had overcome my fear, not altruism.

When I was closer to the armored car than I was to the library's front door, I suddenly thought—what if that hadn't been a living person I had seen staring back at me through that narrow window? What if the guard had died in the crash and was now himself a zombie, and the face was that of something struggling to get out and unable to figure out how . . . and hungry?

It was too late to dwell on that for more than an instant, because out of the corner of an eye, I could see a shuffling form. As I ran more quickly, soda sloshing, the thick back door of the armored car was raised in front of me, and I dove in. The door slammed shut behind me and I turned my head quickly to see that, yes, thankfully, I was visiting someone still alive. The man in the stained guard uniform locking the door looked far the worse for wear than I did, but he was still a man. The air hung heavy with sweat, but after someone has lived in the back of a small truck for a week, I guess I was lucky I could stand it at all.

I lay there, breathing heavily, feeling drained as much from the tension as the exertion, and did not protest as the guard patted me down. I knew what he was looking for, and was just thankful at this juncture that he was eating my food instead of attempting to eat me. He snapped a huge chocolate chip cookie in half and shoved both pieces in his mouth, then popped a soda, which exploded across his face thanks to my mad dash. But he wasn't angry, as he surely would have been back in the old days of only a week before. He just laughed, and took a long pull from the can.

"Thanks," he said, wiping the crumbs and foam from his face. "I don't think a soda has ever tasted this good. And as you might guess, I haven't had many reasons to laugh in a while."

I nodded and forced a smile. I was glad to see him, to know that I wasn't alone, but I wasn't happy about the fact that I'd had to come to him, rather than the reverse, to do it.

"Why are you still here?" I said, a little too terse, considering what should be joyful circumstances. "Once you knew I was inside, why didn't you make a break for the library? That place is like a fortress."

He swiveled clumsily about and showed me his right foot, the ankle of which twisted at an ugly angle.

"I'd never have made it with this," he said. "Once we flipped, and I felt the snap, I knew that it was all over for me."

"But you have to try, Barry," I said. He started when I called him by name, so I pointed at his ID badge, still hanging from his chest pocket. "I didn't want to feel responsible for you starving out here, so I brought food, but it's too risky to do more than once. You can't expect me to continue supplying you. And you can't last forever in here alone."

"I didn't plan on lasting forever." He shrugged. The bags under his eyes shrugged with him. "Would have been nice, though. But better starved to death than eaten to death. I'll admit I expected to end up with a bigger coffin. But this one will have to do."

"No," I said suddenly and firmly, surprised at myself even as I blurted it out. "I'm not going to let that happen. We ought to be able to get you up those steps and into the library if we work together. I can distract them. They don't move that fast."

"Faster than me," he said wearily.

His expression was a defeated one, but I knew better than to accept it as irreversible. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that people want to live.

"We've got to try," I said. "You don't want me to have come this far for nothing. I ought to at least get a chance to save your life."

He laughed, which I considered progress. I peered out the small window in the rear door, back up the steps of the library to safety. The front gates looked infinitely far away. I was stunned that I had survived the first leg of the journey. But I knew that regardless of how treacherous it seemed, I was going back. If I was going to die, it was going to be in that library, or at the very least trying to get back to that library, and not in the rear of an armored car. Barry might have been willing to settle for a coffin of that size, but mine had to be a little larger.

And contain the complete works of Shakespeare besides.

Barry had not answered, but it was as if we had made a silent decision. We watched and waited, too weary for small talk (which we both hoped and pretended that there would be time for later), too weary for anything but studying the street, praying for a moment when it would be completely clear, and allow Barry time to hobble to safety. But unlike earlier that day, no such moment came. Each time the random patterns of the shuffling undead had the streets almost emptied, there would always be one lone zombie lingering under a stop light as if waiting for it to change. I didn't really think it could be doing that, responding to the world that used to be, no, not in real life, only in stories maybe, but still, there it was. The lights did not function, and so it stared up at the pole.

Until I grew tired of waiting.

"I'm going to distract him," I whispered.

The guard ordered me not to in one of those voices guards have and grabbed at my arm, but I leapt through the door anyway, and was back on the street before he could do anything about it. Instead of running immediately toward the steps leading up to the door of the library as any sane person would have done, I ran at the light-distracted zombie, prayed for it to notice me before I got too close, then veered away at the last possible instant I knew I could still outrun it. It was pulled along in my wake by its undead desire.

"Now," I shouted back at Barry over my shoulder. "This is your chance. Take it!"