There’s a bar in the safe zone reserved for folks like me.
I check the bandage around my forearm and then I check my watch. I got time. And a cold beer is as good a way to start the end as any.
I rest my shotgun against my good shoulder as I walk. No sense in wasting bullets now. Someone else might find a use for them back at camp. And once they’ve taken a chunk out of you, the infected don’t bother attacking again. If they don’t eat you right away, I mean. Something survived in there, some part of them that tells them it’s wrong to eat their own kind. Of course, the part that tells them we were once all the same kind is, unfortunately, absent. So I walk on, safe in the knowledge that the only ones who are a danger to me now are the people that, this morning, were my best chance at survival.
I catch sight of myself in the remaining glass of a shattered shop window. It’s hard to tell in the dirty reflection, but I think I’m already looking a little pale. Shit. He must have got me good. I glance at the bandage again. Blood is already starting to seep through. Yeah, he got me good, alright. I lean a little closer to the glass, put a finger to my eye and pull at the skin around it. No more sunken than usual. Pupils normal. Sclera still white. Right now my symptoms could pass for lack of sleep and if I were a complete bastard, which I’m not, I’d play it that way when I got back to town. Someone tried that a few months back, hid their ankle bite, just said they were tired and, when they turned on the last day, caused a lot of trouble. Buried a few good people that day. Once we’d taken their heads, of course. About the only way to stop the infected, cutting off the head. Some scientist guy told us it was because it severed the connection between body and brain but we mostly see it as the easiest way to get those teeth away from us. Bodies go in the ground. Heads go in the river.
The river was poisoned when we got there, a bunch of dead bodies rotting on the opposite shore, a few drowned infected messing up our water supply. Might have flowed right out but who wants to take that sort of chance these days? We don’t know enough. Doubt we’ve got enough time to know much more, either. Bottled water is rationed out but most of us just sit around and wait for it to rain. Good thing about this place. It rains a lot. And it does more than keep us alive, it keeps us clean too. Nothing like a solid shower of rain to sluice the streets around the town centre, wash away the blood. It smells like another shower’s on its way. That’d be nice. My temperature has already risen a couple of degrees. The cold rain will help. I can see black clouds on the horizon. There’s always black clouds on the horizon.
I already know there’s no fixing this. The rain might help cool my fever but it won’t break it. By the end of day six, I’ll feel like I’m on fire. We call it the Hell Hour, though it usually lasts much longer than sixty minutes. I’m just trying to focus on little things, little things that will ease the transition. The cooling rain is one. And a beer at the bar is another. And once I’ve managed that, I’ll start thinking about how to spend the rest of the incubation period. A week. Man, sometimes seven days can feel like a lifetime. Other times, they fly by in a heartbeat. Guess we’ll see what happens.
I reach the barricade that marks the end of no man’s land. Russell is on watch. He steps out from the tower onto the wall and looks down at me, ten feet below. It’s not that high, just some some leftover relic from when the military tried to fight back, but it doesn’t have to be. The infected round here tend to keep their gaze fixed just a few feet ahead, looking for their next meal. They aren’t particularly active anyway; they’re not about to run at the fence and try to take us by force. They’re stupid, lazy. Barely having enough brain power to tell you to feed will do that to you. And that’s probably the thing that’s pissing me off the most. Not that fact that I got bit, but the fact that I got bit by something as stupid as that, something I should have been easily able to avoid, something I already managed to avoid a million times before. And at the end of the incubation period, I’m going to turn into one of those stupid, lazy things. Once the initial blood lust is over, I’ll be just like them, moping around, wandering the empty streets. Someone better fucking put a bullet in me before that happens. I’d do it myself but that’d be a real shitty end to the week. Not that the alternative is much better, I guess.
I take off my backpack and raise it in the air, a sign that I’ve got supplies. We try not to talk too much around the barricade, just in case there’s any infected hanging around the place. Don’t want to advertise our presence anymore than necessary.
Russell nods and moves to let me in but I start waving my free arm, my bandaged arm, to recapture his attention. He stops and leans forward slightly, frowning, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. The blood has stained the bandage now, a deep dark red. I drop my arms and shrug. It’s just one of those things. He taps his watch. I raise one finger into the air. One hour. One hour since I got bit. I’ve got 167 to go. Russell disappears from the wall. A moment later, he’s down at ground level, opening the camouflaged door built into the barricade. He beckons me in. Once we’re both back inside the safe zone, he bolts the door shut and then, in what I assume is supposed to be a gesture of sympathy, he grips my shoulder. I try to acknowledge the emotion but all I manage is a weak nod in response and Russell, releasing me, climbs back up onto the wall and resumes his watch.
Someone comes and relieves me of my backpack, taking the supplies away to distribute them accordingly. Our last remaining doctor, Gene, is next to see me. He grabs my arm and pulls it toward him, untying the bandage. It doesn’t hurt anymore but that’s small compensation for the state of the wound. As Gene peels away the last layer of fabric, we’re greeted by an oozing open sore, red tinged with the slimy green edges that indicate infection. He, the infected that bit me, took a sizeable chunk, but I didn’t bleed out. Unfortunately. The smell is probably the worst part, the stench of rotting flesh. It kicks in almost immediately once you’re bitten, just in case your last week wasn’t going to be shitty enough. We’re going to suffer, die in agony, come back as one of those damn things and, to top it off, we’re going to smell like literal death the entire time. Fucking peachy.
Gene pulls me over to the medical tent set up by the barricade and pushes me into a seat. He sets up a table and pulls up a chair, sitting on the opposite side. I put my arm on the table and let him do his thing, trying to ignore the putrid smell drifting out from the wound. A few moments later, it’s as clean as Gene can manage, given the situation, and a fresh bandage is wrapped around my arm, blocking out the stench. Gene offers me morphine but I decline. The pain’s already gone.
“That’s not a good sign, Mimi,”
I shrug. “Not exactly going to be many of those left, are there?”
He almost smiles at that. That’s the thing with those of us left. We’ve accepted it now. The End. We’re doing okay, here behind the perimeter walls, but we all know it’s just a matter of time. Food’s running out in the town and that’s probably what’s going to get us in the end. Someone getting bitten, it just isn’t a big deal anymore. Just means someone dies a little sooner than the rest. If anything it eases the pressure, means a few more rations for a few more days. It was hard at first, no one really wanted to take a dead person’s food, but that’s the sort of stuff you have to get over pretty quick. I knew a guy who went out and got himself bit on purpose, just so his family could have a little bit more to eat. He would have been more useful actually coming out to hunt for supplies with us scavengers but he panicked, I guess. They’re all dead now. Stupid bastards drank all their water rations not long after he died, ended up drinking from the poisoned river instead of waiting for the inevitable rain, then just holed up in the house. We're still not sure if they actually did get infected from the water, or if they just thought they did. By the time anyone managed to get into their house, they were all dead, having torn each other apart. That's what makes me think it was all in their heads, like they willed the symptoms into existence. Infected don't eat other infected. Whatever happened, panicking was clearly a common trait in that family.
Me, I’m alone so my rations won’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but as our numbers dwindle, a little can go a long way.
I leave the medical tent and walk over to the abandoned takeaway where we store our weapons. An unconventional armoury but it serves its purpose well enough. A small bell rings above my head as I open the door, a little quirk that Elise, the woman who looks after our weapons, can’t bring herself to get rid of. Some days I see her polishing that bell until she can see her face in it. The door slams shut behind me, just as Elise emerges from the former kitchen. She stands behind her counter, waiting between two warmers that now hold knives and cudgels instead of burgers and pizza. I put my shotgun down in front of her. She glances at the bandage on my arm but doesn’t mention it. Instead she concentrates on emptying the unused shells from the chamber, while I fumble around in my jacket pockets for any strays. I place what I find on the counter and she gathers it all up, taking it into the back of the store. She re-emerges a moment later, holding a revolver. She places it on the counter and opens the cash register. The dinging sound echoes around the room. Where the notes should be are boxes of bullets. She takes one box out, removes a single round and loads the gun. She puts the box away and pushes the drawer shut, then slides the revolver across the counter towards me. This is how it’s done. This is how it’s always done. I take the gun and tuck it into the back of my jeans. I turn to go. Then I remember. I reach down and slide a long knife out from my boot. I grip the handle one last time, gazing at the blade and then place it on the counter. I’m out the door before I can hear the sounds of Elise adding it to her collection in the warmers. The bell plays me out.
Back out in the street, the black clouds have rolled in and the heavens open. The rain is blissful, cooling the fever that’s already beginning to spread through my body. I stop and enjoy it for a moment. I must look ridiculous, my arms spread out and my head tilted towards the sky, but anyone passing by will recognise the gesture. No one welcomes the rain, no one but the thirsty and the bitten. I’m clearly not thirsty. I drop my arms. The rain shows no signs of easing off. It’s as good a time as any to make my way to the bar. Cooled by the rain right up until I can be numbed by the alcohol. Focus on the little things. One step at a time.
I begin walking through the town. It’s a pretty small place. We built up our safe zone around the banks of the river, figuring it was one less wall to defend. Of course, we’re starting to realise now that a smaller town, while safer, inevitably means less supplies. Like I said, it’s the lack of food that’s going to kill us. God damn it, I’m not supposed to die this way. I’m supposed to starve, like everyone else.
The rain has driven everyone inside but from time to time, someone sticks their head out a door or a window to check on the buckets tied up outside to catch the rainwater. Every house and store front has them, even the places long since empty, their occupants dead and their buckets overflowing. We talked about taking the buckets down, using them elsewhere, but, aside from our makeshift cemetery by the river, they're the only gravemarkers we have. They stayed.
Even though I know it’s the weather keeping people inside and even though I know no one’s going to run me out of town or shun me now that the end is coming, a part of me still thinks that they’re hiding from me. The people I’ve helped protect and feed, held when loved ones died, turned their faces away when we separated heads from bodies. I know they’re not avoiding me, I do, but as every raindrop hits, feeling like a splash of cold water on a hot saucepan, and as every head that pops out to check on the buckets disappears back into the safety of its house, a house I helped make safe, I can’t help but feel like they are and I’m some sort of leper, punished by God and pitied from a distance.
The movies had it all wrong. They told us we’d change in a heartbeat. That the infected would bite us and we’d come back as one of them right away. Bullshit. It’s a disease. You don’t get bitten by a mosquito and develop malaria a second later. The virus needs time to implant itself, to create an environment that best suits its process. A hostile takeover a week in the making. See, the movies show it that way because it’s harder for someone to kill a person who, a moment before, they were laughing with, fighting with, in love with, whatever. There’s no time to adjust or to come to terms with the situation. One minute you’re best friends, the next, you’ve got to put a bullet in them or you’re dead too. Adds a little tension to the scene, moves the plot along and gets someone else killed, maybe makes the audience well up, I don’t know. In real life, it’s nothing like that. We have a week to say our goodbyes. To deal with what’s coming. It sounds better, but, speaking from experience, it isn't.
The houses and stores start thinning out as I approach the river. I’m aiming for one building, right on the shore. There’s lights on inside and I can almost hear the jukebox from here. The one place that’s allowed to use a generator at all times, that isn’t subject to the rules and regulations that the rest of the town has to abide by. The Last Drop. The bar for the infected.
I push open the door and the absence of a bell, after visiting Elise’s weaponry, is very apparent. No welcoming ring above your head here. Other than the music playing, some sad country song I’ve never heard before, it’s eerily quiet. A few muted sighs of resignation and the thud of glass against wooden table as the patrons, six in all, take drink after drink and try to ignore the fight going on inside their bodies. He’s hard to pick out in the shadows of the bar but Tom, the bartender, sees me hovering by the door and waves me over. No one else even acknowledges my presence. Too preoccupied with their own problems. And I don’t mind. I understand. I sit up on a stool at the bar and Tom picks up a rag and begins polishing a glass, watching me.
“Didn’t think I’d ever see you in here,”
Yet here I am. I look around the bar. Take in the decor. Out here by the river, it was probably one of those joints that decent people avoided. Back when the town was actually a town, I mean. It’s much the same now, only it’s more out of respect. Once you’ve been bit, and, again, I can speak from experience here, you just want to be alone. And people respect that. They leave you to it. The ceiling is low, the lights are kept dim. It looks like everything except the tired jukebox in the corner is made from wood, including the other six customers, who barely move except to tip a little more alcohol into their mouths. I wonder how long each of them have left. Is the lighting kept low so that the others can’t tell? Or is it so that we’re disguised from each other as we drink and drink and drink until the end?
Tom is a big guy, broad shouldered and scarred. He won’t say what by but the marks on his face always made folks wary of him. Guess that’s why he takes us in, the bitten. Knows what it’s like to be on the wrong end of an uneasy glance. He was the one who made this place what it is. A safe place for the soon-to-be-infected to hide away and hopefully drink enough to forget what a mess they’re going to be in a few days time. He convinced us all to let the generator stay on, to play the sad songs, to bring him back liquor and beer on our forays into the town. And at the time I thought it was stupid, maybe even a little unsafe, but now that I’m here and Tom’s pouring me a beer, I get it.
The guy by the jukebox slumps over the table, knocking his glass to the ground. It smashes and Tom sighs, though I don’t think it’s over the broken glass. There's silence, save for the sound of five glasses, my own included, being drained.
A moment later, the man twitches and with a groan sits back up. It’s Donovan. One of our mechanics. Or at least he was, when we could still get fuel. I didn’t even know he’d been bitten. His face is illuminated by the glare of the jukebox, still playing its sad song, and I can see the burst blood vessels clouding the whites of his eyes. He struggles to stand and when the table hampers his movement he pushes it aside with almost superhuman strength, just missing the jukebox. Without a word, Tom pulls out a rifle from under the bar, takes aim and fires. I don’t know how he does it in the dim light of the bar but the bullet rips straight through the man’s left eye, bursting out the back of his head and splattering blood and brains across the wall of the bar. Some splashes onto the jukebox. The singer sings on.
I feel like I’m the only one who saw what happened. No one else even looked up from their drink. As Tom replaces the rifle and begins polishing glasses again, I pull my beer towards me and take a long drink. I was bitten two hours ago. I have 166 hours left to live.