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


I watched as he tumbled out from the safety of his truck and began hopping, but I could not spare him any more of my attention after that. A second zombie, perhaps sensing my presence on that street as I imagined only a zombie could (or was that truly only a power of my imagination?), had come around a corner, and now I had to distract two of them. Luckily, even though my lack of anything resembling an athletic past slowed me down, death kept the zombies even slower. As I ran, it seemed to me that they must only catch their prey by surprise, and with persistence, for they did not have speed on their side. I lured them away from the path Barry had to be taking, but when I saw a third zombie appear, I knew that I could tempt fate no longer. There were getting to be too many trajectories for me to calculate to stay alive. I swooped down on the struggling guard, who had just reached the bottom of the steps, and grabbed him by the shoulders, nearly knocking him down.

As I shouted at him to move, I don't think I used any actual words.

We ran a desperate three-legged race together, dodging the undead who slowly began to follow us as I pulled him up step by step, agonizingly slow ourselves. As we neared the door, I could hear the snapping of teeth behind us, and knew that Barry had slowed me down too much. I dove in, pushing him ahead of me, and from my knees slammed the gates shut behind us. Gasping, I stood, looking in awe at the dead flesh that obscured my vision of anything beyond. They glared at us, but we were protected from them. Once we moved more deeply inside the building, they would forget about us, as they had forgotten about all else, and drift away.

We were safe.

We laughed, and there was a hysterical tinge to our laughter, as I imagined there would always be in circumstances where death seemed so close, and yet was repulsed.

And then a zombie who must have snuck through the door while I'd been outside rescuing and doing my supposedly distracting dance reached out from within the library and, with a sickening groan, completely ripped off Barry's injured leg.

 

Now here's a story that I think I still deserve to tell. I don't know that there are many more like that, stories that I have actually earned. And besides, I'm doing a pretty good job of proving that there isn't much else that I'm good for.

A writer (again, no names please), no longer having access to a human audience, and unable to stop writing, begins to write stories suitable only for the undead. He cannot write the love stories he was used to writing, because the zombies know nothing of love. He can no longer write stories in which the motivations are based on greed, because zombies know nothing of money. All that is left to him is to write stories of action and adventure (well, boring and repetitive action and adventure), because zombies know of that, in their own special but limited way. Since the zombies know of only one thing, all the stories sound the same, but this writer, he figures that it doesn't matter, because if zombies have one trait, it is patience.

My agent, on the other hand, tells me that my readers do not have patience, and certainly have no desire to read of writers. The only people who want to read of writers, or so he tells me, are other writers. But what does he know? Anyway, at this time, I probably have no agent. And I say this not the way a beginning writer in search of an agent does. I say this because my agent has probably been eaten.

Which some might say isn't a bad end for an agent.

But since he is dead and my fictional writer's readers are also dead, we might as well just move on.

The stories this writer writes all follow the same pattern, as zombies are easily entertained. They begin with the sense that there is walking meat nearby. And then it is spotted. And then it is chased.

And then the walking meat is no longer walking, for the living is inside the dead.

The writer types out many variations of this outline, because that is all that he knows how to do, and when there are no more stories to tell, he's going to continue to tell them anyway. Some of his tales are set on city streets. Some are on country roads. Still others take place in zoos, in shopping malls and schools and airplanes. But whatever the setting, at their heart, they are all the same.

Shuffle.

Shamble.

Shuffle a little more quickly.

Run. (Well, as zombies run anyway.)

Run, run, run.

Eat!

Eventually, this writer, who is obviously not very self-aware, or he would have given up long ago—or if not long ago, at least once his audience had deserted him—realizes that he has written hundreds of such stories. But now that the reams of paper are stacked high next to his manual typewriter (because he refused to let the fall of civilization keep him from his appointed rounds), he had no idea what to do with them. There were no zombie magazines in which to publish them, no zombie bookstores in which they could be sold.

At least, not yet, he thinks.

And so he decides he must go out into the street, the street which he had avoided for so long, and declaim his stories. He expected that this would be the end of him, and he was ready for it. After all, a lion tamer may stick his head into a lion's mouth for a brief moment, but let him attempt to read Hamlet while so inserted and all will be lost. But he had been too alone for too long, and without an audience even longer. Whatever was to happen had to be better than what had happened so far.

But when he actually begins his readings, out in the middle of an intersection that hadn't known a car for years, he was pleasantly surprised. Zombies gathered and approached him, but they only came to a certain point, and then came no further. As he read, they stood about him in a circle and seemed to listen. (Well, he could pretend that about those that had ears, at least.) So he did not stop reading, even as he grew hoarse. He felt fulfilled. He believed that he had at last found the one, true audience he had been seeking his entire life.

But then he realizes that he is getting to the end of the stories that he has brought along with him, and encased in a circle of the dead, as it were, there was no opening in the crowd for him to get back to the additional manuscripts that remained in his hiding place back inside. So when he gets to the end of the last story in his hands, he begins all over again.

The zombies begin to growl. They may like the repetitiveness of theme, but they do not like the repetition of actual stories. He tries to back away, but there is nothing behind him but more of the undead. They move forward, and their circle closes tightly around him until it is difficult for him to breathe from the weight of them. And as they start to tear him to quivering shreds, he has just enough time to think, "Everyone's a critic—"

—before he has no more time in which to think.

But no. That's not right either.

Because even though the ending is horrifying, and the writer's fate undeserved (though I can think of a few publishers who might wish that all writers ended up that way), there's still a moral to the telling of the tale. Zombies are a force of nature, and forces of nature do not come equipped with morals. Forces of nature do not come packaged with a purpose, a message, or a reason. They just are. Which is why the guard was suddenly dead, destroyed just when we thought we'd gotten back to safety.

Or maybe . . . maybe the one thing that forces of nature can share with fiction is that they often bring along with them a sense of irony.

We would have heard the zombie that had slipped in during my trip outside coming toward us if we had not been laughing so loudly after our return to the supposed protection of the library. Perhaps a force of nature cannot allow such joy to continue without a response. We were hysterical with relief, slapping each other on our backs as we extricated ourselves from our heap on the floor, and so I didn't even realize that anything unplanned was happening until the guard's laughter turned to a howl of pain.

I sprung away from him to see that Barry's right leg was no longer his. It was in the zombie's hands, dripping blood. The guard kept screaming while clawing at his spurting leg, which spilled more blood than a body should be able to lose and still have the screaming continue. There was nothing I could do for him, no way to save him. Even if I was able to tie off the leg, to stop the bleeding, he would be one of them soon, and after my leg. I knew what I had to do. I hoped that he was too dazed from loss of blood to realize what was coming.

I helped him stand on his remaining foot. His moaning was by then barely audible, and he was nearly unconscious, which made what I was about to do easier.

I opened the gate that protected us from the few zombies still milling about at the top of the stairs, and pushed him into the midst of them. For a brief moment, he surged with more energy. He mustered a scream, but then the undead began to tear him apart, and the screaming stopped.

While they were distracted in their feeding, I was able to step back from the door without fear that any of them would enter. But still, I kept my eye on them at all times as I circled around the zombie inside that had stolen our rescue from us. It was intent on its snack, chewing on the leg that had broken in the first place to start the chain of events that led us to this horrible event. So it didn't notice me at all as I rushed at it from behind and shoved it out to join his fellows. As I slammed the gate again, this time hopefully not to be opened again until the Earth shifted on its axis once more, I could see that it showed no sign of even having noticed that anything had happened. He just continued attacking the leg of the man I had gotten killed.

See, in a story, this would never have turned out that way. In a story, which has to make sense, which has to provide rewards for its journey, or else we wouldn't call it "story," Barry would have lived, but life does not often promise such rewards, and when it does, rarely delivers. In a story, the two of us could have struggled to make a life for ourselves here until the world woke from this zombie dream and brought rescue, or until we found a way to make contact with the enclave of civilization that I'd know—well, at least in a story that I'd know and hope—would be out there. Fiction would have given us both a better end.

Unfortunately, I am a better writer than God chooses to be.

For it does not seem as if either rescue or solace will be found. I no longer even think it possible.

No one answers the e-mails I send out on the intermittent days I am even able to send them. No one posts updates to the Web sites I used to visit. In fact, day by day, sites that I had previously been able to visit are gone. I have grown so used to error messages that life itself seems an error message.

With each part of the Web that vanishes, I imagine that a part of the real world has gone as well. When it all goes, I will be alone.

Well, not entirely alone. I will still have my friends. Shakespeare is here. And Frost. And Faulkner and Austen and Carver and Proust. All telling me of the worlds in which they lived. Worlds that continued to exist only because I am still here to read about them. I've always known that fact, and the lesson it taught me is that my world will not continue to exist unless someone is there to read about it.

That is why I have been creating these stories. That's why I've always created stories. But I can't do it any longer. I see that I have lived too long, have lived through the time of my usefulness out to the time beyond stories. I could keep trying to tell them, but what would be the point of that? It's not worth remaining in a world without readers, and I doubt that you still exist.

My world can survive my death. But it cannot survive yours.

Art for art's sake was never what I was about. Art alone was never enough.

So I'm going to stop writing.

And I'm going to start praying.

 

Prayer.

I've tried it.

And it just isn't working for me.

But it does plant the seed for one last story.

I give you my word. And this time, you can believe my promise.

After the world went to Hell, a priest who had been traveling hurried back to his flock so that they could still make it into Heaven.

He didn't make it home alive, the same way most of the world didn't make it home alive as the disease began to spread. But he made it home.

Newly dead (the reason does not matter), he walked through the night, a stranger to exhaustion, shuffling along the highway toward his church as cars sped by (speeding more quickly when they saw him) filled with passengers in search of a freedom they would never find. By the time he entered his small town, having been on the move for the better part of a week, it was Sunday, and the members of his congregation had made their way uncertainly to their church. They knew what had been going on in the world, that it was the stuff of Revelations come at last, and since they knew that their priest had headed to New York for a conference, they assumed he was dead, and they did not expect to see him again. But they also knew that it was Sunday, and this was where they should be.

They were all sitting quietly in their pews, wondering whether one of them should step forward and stumble through the service, when the priest himself stumbled in. No one spoke. No one fled as he assumed his usual place, even though it was clear what he had become. Because they had faith.

(Something which I do not have.)

He tried to lead them in prayer, though perhaps "tried" is not the best word, as it implies volition, and he was operating on habit and tropism and half-forgotten dream, but regardless, the words would not come, as neither his mouth nor his brain were suitable for speech any longer. So the parishioners prayed on their own, standing and sitting and singing and speaking and remaining silent as they had always done, for they knew well what God expected of them. Their priest growled before them, a deep rumble that some of them felt was not all that much different than what they had already been hearing for so many years.

When it became the proper time for the congregation to receive Communion, the priest stretched out his hands, and with the fingers that remained to him, gestured them all forward. They did not hesitate. They filed toward him, not frightened by his yellow eyes, or the pallor of his skin, or the fact that beneath his shredded clothing his flesh was shredded as well. They felt themselves in the presence of a miracle, and one does not argue with a miracle. They only knew that it was the usual time of the week to be made one with God.

When his flock was lined up before him, the priest seemed to freeze. The momentum of his faith had gotten him this far, but that did not mean that he was capable of much in the way of independent action and thought. As he paused, he was vaguely aware that something more active was expected of him, but the fog refused to lift so that he could see what that something was. After death, if one goes through the motions of life, it can only be by traversing the ruts one had chosen in life. He sensed somehow that he was expected to feed them, but he had not prepared. He had no consecrated wafers with which to proceed, no consecrated wine with which to wash away sins.

So he fed them of his flesh and quenched them with his blood.

He pulled open the tatters of his shirt and tore mouth-sized gobbets from his chest. One by one, he dropped them on waiting tongues, mumbling incoherently each time he did so. Then each of his congregants went back to his or her life, and as they had been promised, knew life eternal.

And as for the priest, he remained in his sanctuary, and fed the dwindling members of his flock each Sunday, until no flesh remained with which he could do so. But by that time, it didn't matter, as there were none left who required salvation.

And there you have it—the last tale I'm ever going to tell.

 

The last story . . .

I never thought I'd ever consider a story and judge it to be the last. I thought I'd die in the middle of telling a tale. But now . . . why bother? The telling of tales is through. And I, too, am almost through. Let it be the last story, and let it be told by the last man.

The candy machines are empty now, and I've resorted to licking the empty wrappings that I'd previously abandoned. All that's left in the soda machine are a few cans of grape. I've long ago gone through the desks of the missing (why can't I think dead?) workers and found every last candy bar and cracker. Electricity is random, and water has slowed to a trickle, which means that the world beyond this one is sending signals to me that it is running down. Entropy is rising. Soon I will be out of both food and water, and my only choices will be . . .

Do I die because I no longer have anything left to eat?

Or because I let myself be eaten?

There seems to be little difference between the two. Whether I choose death by action or death by inaction, I will have still chosen death. I have been backed into a corner. I guess I should consider that is a good thing, because it means that I will not be a victim in my own death. I will be a participant.

When I go (which will not be long, or else my choice will be taken from me), will I be the last? Isolated as I am, I can't tell. I'll never know. I guess that each of us, wherever we are, will appear to be the last to ourselves. And if we appear to be the last, then we are the last.

But if by some miracle, I am not the last man telling the last story, if there are others who someday read these words, who have managed to restore a civilization to this planet currently hovering between life and death, think of me from time to time as you go about your day. Think of us. I lived in a time of no hope, feeling there was no life outside my own, and with no new life to follow.

I wish that you could know this time, as I have known the times before my own. I wish that I could trust that you would be there to someday read these words, even if you are not human, even if you must be a visitor who travels to our world a million years from now to discover what exists on the third planet from the sun, and all you find is the shuffling undead, the same ones I have known, still hunting, still searching, much like we were, only eternal. Will you be able to figure out who we once were, or will you merely sit in awe and wonder at how such shambling creatures could have built this world and then seemingly forgotten how they brought it into existence. If you come here, to this building, to this vault, to these pages, you will know. It is important that you know.

In any case, I do not think you will be coming, not from this world or any other. I may be imaginative, I may be a dreamer, but I am unable to live in either imagination or dream.

And so I will be gone soon. With my strength fading, and with your future existence to read these words in doubt, I do not know why I struggle to write them.

Well . . . maybe I do.

I can't stop writing.

Well . . . I can.

It will be when I stop living.

And with strength finally fading . . . it is time for me to do both.

I cannot write. I can barely think. I can only choose.

So goodbye.

In case you surprise me, and come to read these words, let's leave it like this:

Did I starve? Was I eaten? As long as I do not write the words, I did neither, and continue to exist, in the eternal present, forever alive, as immortal as the undead. I can be with you still.

Whoever you are, whenever you are, as long as you are, if you are . . . keep me alive.

So perhaps I was wrong.

Perhaps art alone, art for art's sake, can be enough. It feels enough now, as I make my choice.

 

Meanwhile, our man with a stick and plot of land, who toiled on the other side of the globe and slept under different stars (remember him, the one who knew nothing of our roaring earthquakes, rising floods, or falling towers?), wakes before dawn from troubling dreams.

While he'd slept, the strange visions had made sense to him, but once he was awake, it all slipped away. When he rose from his straw mat and woke his son and tried to tell the boy what he had seen, because dreams were meaningful to his people, he remembered nothing of libraries or zombies or the taste of grape soda. All that came to him was the uncomfortable feeling of having been in the heart of a big city, which to him was frightening enough.

He had heard of such places, but knew of no one who had ever visited one, and he was glad that he instead had been born here, with his patch of earth and the mountains that surrounded it, with his stick and a son whom he needed to teach how to survive with little more than that.

But that was enough. Why would anyone require more? A wife for him and a mother for the boy, perhaps . . . but more? Those would be riches he did not need.

Tomorrow, in fact, if asked to remember his dream of the previous morning, this morning, he would answer, "What dream? I remember no dream." And, though some might choose to judge him and his way of life, he is at peace with the universe as he knew it, and he will go on as before, content, fulfilled, and utterly and happily oblivious to the fact that half a world away, almost the last man on Earth believed that he had finished telling almost the last stories.