The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 29: New Friends
Real meat. Potatoes. Fresh water. It had been months since Michael Rayanson had sat down to a meal that didn't involve a can opener.
He looked around at the rows of picnic tables, wooden ones, likely reclaimed from a nearby park or nature preserve. Dozens of people sat around him, enjoying their meals. Some darted nervous looks to the people around them, as if convinced that lunchtime had become some sort of elaborate trap.
That seemed all too likely, as far as Michael was concerned.
But his paranoia aside, the reclaimed section of Boulder, now re-christened as New Liberty, seemed safe enough. After meeting with its leader, Jason Stradd, a man Michael was convinced was more than he seemed, he and his friends had been given a tour of the reclaimed section of the city. While he was reluctant to admit it, Stradd's security left little to be desired.
Chain-link fences had been erected around the city, block by block, as a temporary, yet quickly erected, defense against the dead. Once the blocks were cleared, sheet metal was brought in to reinforce the fences, wooden poles and cinder blocks later added to keep the undead from taking the wall down through sheer weight in numbers. Sentries with sniper rifles were posted along the walls, always on the lookout, and zombies were picked off before they attracted more of their kind. Once downed, the bodies were moved and burned, to keep the risk of infection down.
But every wall had its crack. Armed squads patrolled the reclaimed sections at all times, on strict schedules. If someone went missing, that person was reported immediately, and a thorough search would be conducted.
There were doctors in Boulder as well, and regular checkups were given to the populace. All food was examined for freshness - food poisoning was something many had contended with and not something they were eager to revisit - before being served.
Yes, it seemed Stradd had thought of everything. So why did Michael and his friends keep a constant lookout?
Quite simple, really. No one could think of everything. And in The Graveyard, all it took was one mistake, and suddenly your neighbors stopped being the friendly Mr. and Mrs. Henderson and became a pair of rotting corpses.
"I'm pretty sure it won't bite."
Michael looked at Steve Rankin, former police officer and chief of security for Martha's Vineyard. Steve had been given Matt Erickson's armor after he had been bitten, and was now considered a member of the group. He, along with a young Japanese girl named Aiko, had been the sole survivors of what had once been an island of hundreds.
The irony that Steve was little more than a craven coward and Aiko an emotional void was not lost on the group, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.
Steve gestured to Michael's food. "If you won't, I'll be happy to give it a good home."
Suspicious though he was, Michael was no fool. Food was a rarity sometimes, and just because you ate today didn't guarantee a meal was coming tomorrow. He dug in, not wanting any to go to waste.
"Nice place they have here," the police officer said nonchalantly.
"So you trust Stradd?"
Steve laughed derisively, and for a moment, Michael saw in his face that of his old friend. "I don't trust you, man, but hell, if this guy can really keep us safe, I'm not going to turn down the offer. No way do I want to stay on the road with you psychopaths."
"And here I thought I was charming," Michael said.
"Sure. So were Ted Bundy and John Gacy."
Silence passed a moment. Steve was not one of them, Michael knew. Not because he was afraid - they were all afraid, at one time or another. Even Aiko, with her disconnection from the world and lack of any real concern for anyone, even herself, had awoken screaming for her mother once or twice. No, what kept Steve apart from the group was that he surrendered to his fear. He allowed it to control him. He held back, he thought too often about things Michael had long since stopped pondering. They all knew death would claim them one day, and accepted it as the inevitable.
Steve, though, he ran from it as fast as he could go.
"So where are the others?" Steve asked."Jake and Sara are busy getting poked and prodded by the docs, Ron wandered off to find the bar, said he wanted to try his damndest to drink the last few years out of his memories. Aiko just up and vanished, not sure where she went," said Michael.
"Sure hope she's okay," said Steve, his eyes scanning the crowd.
Michael shrugged and went back to his food. "Kid's tough. She's lasted pretty well so far."
"That's my point. Out there she can make it, I've seen that enough times. But this is a whole new ballgame. They've got a society here, rules, law and order. I'm not sure she can live like that."
Michael looked to Steve, surprised by the concern in his voice. During the trip, Steve had tried to assume the role of Aiko's guardian, but as time passed, the girl made it clear she needed no protector, and rebuffed Steve's attempts to look after her.
Soon, when Steve's fear of the undead began to take over, he stopped trying, and spent all his time jumping at shadows. It was the first time in a while that he had made any mention of concern for her safety.
Michael also realized that Steve was right, and cursed himself for not being more aware of the situation. Aiko was almost like a zombie herself - emotionless, unafraid of pain or death. She never smiled, never laughed, never got angry or cried. Could she live in this city of newfound joy and happiness, where children roamed the streets unarmed and people did their best to pretend the world hadn't abandoned them?
"This seat taken?" a woman asked.Michael looked up as the owner of said voice sat down without waiting for a response to her question. "It is now," Michael said.
"Thanks for saving it for me," she said, digging into her lunch with a healthy respect for food that might not be there tomorrow.
Michael and Steve returned to their meals, and it was some time before anyone spoke. The newcomer took on the role of breaking the ice, saying "So I guess we're all new here, huh?"
Michael looked up. "Actually, we've been here since the beginning, when Stradd liberated the city."
She smiled and looked warmly at Michael. "Bullshit."
Michael smiled back, a gesture of respect for her deductive skills. "What gave us away?"
"Same thing that gave me away, I'll bet," she said, gesturing around the dining area. "Everyone's talking, laughing, trying to acclimate themselves into this shiny new society. They've accepted that they're someplace safe. We're the only ones who are still looking around, eyeing the
Michael stuck out his hand, "Michael Rayanson. Steve Rankin."
She hesitated before shaking it, a sign that like the others, she still considered herself in hostile territory. "Addie. Addie Mayer."
Jason Stradd paced the darkened warehouse on the outskirts of the reclaimed city. He looked over the new recruits, their hands and feet bound, their mouths sewed or nailed shut. He saw the hunger in their eyes, the thirst for what filled his veins.
And he was very pleased indeed.
"So? What do you think?" asked a man, his clothes dirty and tattered, his body covered in scars, some old, some so new the scabs had just formed.
"They'll do nicely," Stradd said, shaking hands with the man, known for his ability to slip in and out of anyplace like a wraith.
It was he who had "secured" the communication equipment from nearby military facilities that allowed Stradd to broadcast his message of hope and sanctuary across the nation. But today he was bringing in a different product, one which required secret meetings in buildings on the edge of the city.
Stradd gestured, and Frank Tiball approached, bringing a large case filled with weapons and provisions. Money was useless in this world, with food and bullets having become the new currency.
The man looked inside, nodded, and closed the case. "Still not sure what you want these things for. Thought you were trying to make a safe place for people."
"People need more than lights and barbed wire to feel like they're home," Stradd said. "Let's just say I'm rounding out the equation."
Michael and Addie wandered the streets of New Liberty. Steve had excused himself, saying he wanted to find Aiko before she inadetedly killed someone. Everywhere the two looked, they saw signs of safety, of new life. Children ran in the strets, playing games of tag. To their left, the rubble of a demolished building had been cleared away, and a garden had been planted in its place. Carrots, potatoes and other vegetables grew here, tended by the residents. Somewhere in the distance, soft jazz music could be heard, filling the air that before was nothing but fear and tension.
"Looks like they've got a good thing going here," Addie said.
Michael looked straight ahead, uninterested in the signs of civilization. "It won't last," he said.
Addie turned to him. "How can you say that? They've got food, water, all kinds of security. They've got doctors, teachers, they're doing everything they can to remake our world. How can you say it won't last?"
"Because our world is gone, Addie," said Michael. "One year ago it was torn to red rags by undead teeth, and left to rot in an unmarked grave. Nine out of every ten Americans are one of them, and they're never going to change back. Think about it - let's say they do manage to retake Boulder. What then? Clean up the rest of the nation?"
"Why not? They did it here, they can do it elsewhere?"
Michael only laughed. "You're talking about wiping out tens of millions of zombies. There's what? A few hundred people here? It's like trying to bring down a mountain with spitballs. And in the end, all it takes is one mistake, one bite, and it all comes crashing down. What they're doing here is at best a delaying tactic. It won't last."
"Then why are you here?"
Michael looked around, as if seeing the city for the first time. "My friend Matt once said that the Great Exhumation was the beginning of the end for us, and that the purpose of survivors in the Graveyard was to last as long as they could, to chronicle the fall of the human race. Sooner or later there will be nothing left of us, so it's important for us to stay alive for as long as possible, to make sure our last acts don't go unnoticed. Because the dead sure as hell won't."
Tears began to form in Addie's eyes, and she angrily wiped them away. "I can't....you can't be right...it can't be over."
"Look around, Addie Mayar," Michael said. "It's been over for a long time. The dead are the lucky ones. At least they get to rest."