The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Forty One: We Bloody Few
"Do you remember the time I snuck out to go to that videogame competition? You probably do, you were so mad when you found me. Man, I was sure dad was gonna take a swing at me. And you, you were furious, yelling at me, telling me how worried everyone was, how I ought to be ashamed of myself. The funny thing was, and we all had a great laugh about it later, was that you thought I was out drinking or snorting crack or having some kinda orgy in an alley, when the whole time your tubby little nerd of a son was just geeking out over the new Zelda."
Nianzu Han laughed to himself at the memory as the sun rose over the city of Nanjing, China. Sunlight filtered through the dingy curtains and dirty windows, casting shadows on the home he had known for so many years, a place that never failed to make him feel welcome, even when he screwed up, an occurrence that had become quite the theme in the young man's life. No matter what happened, he felt like he could always come home.
Even when the occupants would rather rip out his still-beating heart than ask how his day was.
Han turned to address the two forms tied to the kitchen chairs. They struggled and growled, their hands clawing at the air, no doubt in anticipation of peeling away his skin. Their faces were rotten and bloody, with old sores and decaying skin hanging off in patches. Their hair was filthy and stringy, missing in clumps here and there. Their clothing was ripped and torn, soiled through and through.
But no matter how they changed, no matter how badly they wanted his flesh in their teeth, Nianzu would always be able to recognize his parents.
It had taken three weeks before he found them. He had to search the city block by block, building by building. Though zombies sometimes stayed near areas familiar their former human selves, more often than not they would wander far and wide. It was by chance that he saw them out of the corner of his eye while scavenging for supplies, wandering into a fire-blackened convenience store. At first he was sure he was dreaming, then when he realized it was them, he wished he had been. While the odds of his mother and father being alive were slim, he had hoped against hope that they had made it, either through the slapdash evacuation the military had attempted or through their own guile and survival abilities.
Both ideas were ludicrous. For one thing, the military, too busy keeping the reanimated citizens of China from tearing them to shreds, had barely managed to evacuate ten percent of Nanjing's population. And second, his parents' idea of roughing it meant cooking their own food instead of ordering take-out. The thought of them managing to stay alive was a joke, but it was all the hope he had, and so he hung onto it, like a drowning man clinging to a barrel.
Seeing them like this, he wished had let himself slip under the waves a long time ago.
Luring them back to the apartment had been tricky. He managed to tie them up and gag them without the other undead noticing, but making the three-block trip home, usually a matter of minutes, had taken a full day. Nianzu had snuck through alleys and around corners, always watchful for other zombies, and in the end, being forced to make a break for it, dragging his two rotting parents while three dozen ghouls pursued them. He could hear them banging on the lobby doors, which he had managed barricade shut just as they arrived. Now he was alone with his parents, deciding just what he was going to do with them.
He clutched the nine-millimeter handgun he kept on him at all times, checking and double-checking that the magazine was full and a round chambered. He didn't plan to shoot his parents—the gun was for the hordes outside, and himself if he got cornered—but he wasn't about to release them out into the city. The idea of his parents, who loved each other just as they had when they first met, who worked tirelessly to provide for their children, might spend who knew how many years wandering a decaying city as mindless, shambling husks. It was too much for Nianzu to bear, and the thought kept him awake more often than not.
Something had to be done. He just didn't know if he could do it. So instead he talked to his mother and father, recalling one story after another, hoping that at some point, he would know just what the fuck he was supposed to do.
Night had fallen on Nanjing. The undead outside the lobby doors of the apartment had drifted away, but many still remained. Still, the doors had held for this long. Nianzu figured he could continue his family chat uninterrupted.
"You know, I had this all planned out," he said to his mother and father, who were still tied to the chairs. "I'd make this big speech about family honor and my life's quest to find you and see that you found eternal peace. Then, without blinking, I'd shoot you in the head, or put a knife in your brains or something, then stride dramatically into the sunset. Well, sunset's come and gone, and I didn't write a speech. So much for that plan."
His parents didn't respond, save for some muted growls and moans. It was their new language, one without context or meaning. Well, maybe one—the hunger.
"When I started, it was all so simple. Search the city, find my folks. If they were alive, get them the hell out of here and back to civilization. If the worst had happened, I put them down, put them out of their misery. Even now, I know I should do this. I know you're suffering, and that the right thing to do is kill you."
At this Nianzu paused and fingered the pistol on the kitchen table. "But I don't think I can," he said. "I don't know why, maybe because you're my folks, and no matter how rotted you are, no matter how twisted and misshapen you look, when I see you, all I can picture are the two people who meant more to me then anything. And I could never hurt you."
He picked up the gun, testing its weight in his hand. The weapon was familiar—he'd been issued it shortly after joining the reclamation squad, had taken it to the range to practice countless times. While others preferred shotguns or automatic weapons, he knew the pistol was the best of the lot. Shotguns had too few shots, and machine guns had piss-poor accuracy even at close range. The handgun, though, with this he could decimate a ghoul from thirty yards, and if he ran dry, it made one hell of a brain-basher.
He turned to his deceased parents and aimed the weapon, easily aligning the barrel with the center of his father's head. After all the weeks he had roamed the death-infested wasteland that his home had become, making the kill shot was second-nature.
But there was nothing natural about what he was going to do.
"Except, hurting you is just what I did. When I took that job, you both begged me to stay, said I could find a way to seek out my dream without abandoning my family. I told you I'd be fine, that I'd visit as often as I could, but that I had to take this opportunity. You wanted so badly to keep the family close, I never understood why."
"I don't know if my being here would have made a difference. Maybe we could have worked together and escaped. Maybe we'd all be dead. But I think I've finally figured out what you were talking about. You wanted us all close in case the worst happened, so we could be there for each other, help each other."
"Well, I can still help you."
A crash sounded from downstairs. Nianzu raced for the door and ran down the stairs. As he got close to the lobby, he found the undead milling about, the glass door he had locked and barricaded shattered. One of the ghouls moved towards the young man, and without thinking, he blew a hole through the creature's head. It dropped to the floor, but the sound drew more undead.
"Fucking perfect," said Nianzu, running back up the stairs, dropping a few more undead as he did. He closed the door and locked it, and the ghouls could soon be heard pounding on the wood. Odds on the door lasting more than a few minutes were slim.
Plenty of time.
He looked once more into the eyes of his mother and father. Eyes that had long since lost their love, their compassion, their humanity. They would never regain those traits, that which made them human.
"I'm not sure what else there is to say. I wish there was a way we could talk, maybe you could tell me the right thing to do. Best I can do is hope to hell that this is the right thing."
Nianzu took aim, cursing himself for not finding a better way, for failing to protect his family, and silently squeezed the trigger once, then twice, sending the souls of his mother and father to whatever lay beyond this world.
The undead broke down the door and poured into the apartment, but by then Nianzu was gone. All that remained were two decaying husks, their rotted flesh already drying in the wind.
It was hours later that Nianzu returned to the warehouse commandeered by the supply unit he had joined as a pretense to search for his family. The units had been dispatched en masse by those countries not yet overrun by the walking dead. Their mission was to strip the areas claimed by the dead of any useful supplies. With international shipping a thing of the past and production at less than tolerable levels, those not infected faced a grimmer prospect—starvation from a dwindling food supply not able to keep up with the demand. And so the teams were formed, tasked with taking anything they could.
As he entered the warehouse, the young man was met by Jacque, a former police officer who led the team. He knew of Nianzu's real reason for joining the team, but he led it slide—the kid was a good scavenger, and some of their biggest finds had happened because of him. Didn't mean he liked it, but he two kids of his own, and he often asked himself what he would do in Nianzu's position. Whiskey did a good job of blurring that question whenever it arose.
"So?" he asked.
Nianzu nodded. "It's done. I took care of them."
Jacque sighed. "OK then. Couldn't have been easy."
The young man shrugged. "The place got overrun. I had to make a quick exit, and it was either leave them there or take care of them. Not that hard."
A ghost of a smile flew over Jacque's face. "As you say, kid. We're about to pull out, so grab your gear. Be glad to leave this place," he said, turning to leave.
"I'm not going."
The words stopped the team leader in his tracks. He turned back to Nianzu, unsure he heard right. "You wanna repeat that?"
"There's nothing for me back there," he said.
"Uh yeah there is," Jacque responded. "Food, water, living, breathing human beings. Plenty of reason to get your ass moving!"
Nianzu turned to look back on the remains of Nanjing. Off in the distance he could see the thin towers of smoke from the fires that still burned. He looked back at Jacque and held out his hand. "I knew coming into this that I wouldn't be coming back. This is my home, crappy as it is."
Jacque looked to the offered hand and then to Nianzu's face, which held a serene, sure expression. As batshit as he sounded, he could tell the kid meant every word he said. "You stay here, odds are you're gonna be cold cuts within a week."
"I've gotten pretty good at getting around here without being seen. I can set up a few safe houses, barricade and stock the hell out of them."
"But why? Why the hell would you give up your life like that?"
Nianzu lowered his hand and shrugged. "We got all those reclamation units out there, right? Maybe I can be the head of the China Division."
Jacque laughed at that. "Yeah, the head, second in command and goddamn treasurer! You really think you can take any of this place back on your own?"
"On my own, probably not," said Nianzu. "But lots of the other teams have found survivors, and there are bound to be some here. I find them, maybe we've got a chance at rebuilding this place."
Jacque paced the floor for a moment, unsure what to say. He stopped and looked at the younger man. "My orders are to bring everyone back, whether it's on their feet or in a bodybag."
"People go missing all the time. It can't be the first time someone's just plain vanished," Nianzu replied.
Jacque nodded. "No, it can't be. And, there's the fact you're always running around on your own, goddamned stupid though it is."
"Sure, odds of me getting caught by the zombies are pretty good. Was bound to happen sooner or later, especially with me being so untrained and all."
Jacque turned around and strode away, the anger apparent in his step. "Just don't take too much of our shit when you leave. Bullets don't grow on trees."
And just like that, he was alone. Nianzu waited, wondering if Jacque would come back to try and stop him, or perhaps impart some words of wisdom. He waited for a full hour, and distant at first, the sound of a helicopter filled the air. He heard other sounds, the rest of his unit headed to the roof, no doubt carrying the spoils of their searches. Food, medical supplies, clothing, weapons and tools. Much of it he had found, and he wondered if there would be anything left behind, one final act of compassion as he began a quest that would all too likely end in his death.
He doubted it. After all, Jacque would be reporting him missing, presumed dead. Why leave a care package for a dead man, when there were millions of living humans who needed it worse?
Nianzu shouldered his pack and walked back into the city of Nanjing. Before the Great Exhumation had spread to China's borders, the population of the city had been just over eight million. It was estimated that maybe an eighth of that had escaped from the undead. That left just over seven million walking corpses against one man, hardly a fighter, and less than the ideal candidate to reclaim the city.
"Shit," he said to himself as he trudged back to the jeep he had arrived in. "If this crap was easy, any idiot could do it."
Once more Nianzu found himself in the apartment of his family. Some of the zombies had left following his escape, but around two dozen remained in the building. He dispatched them over the course of several hours, using a crowbar when he could, a pistol when he found himself cornered. Luckily the shots only drew a handful more, and by the next day, the building was his, a barricade of doors and furniture blocking the main entrance. He established a few more in the stairwells, hard for him to get over, impossible for rotting corpses.
He entered the apartment, empty now. Any undead had been dealt with and pushed out the window. Most fell on other zombies, crushing their decaying brethren into the asphalt.
For the bodies of his mother and father, he had something a little more dignified planned.
Atop the building, on a pile of wooden chairs, he gently placed their bodies, hands clasped together. Without a word, he set the pile ablaze, watching as the flames consumed them, the ashes drifting away on the wind. He watched, tears rolling unchecked down his face. They were really dead, and more than likely, so was the rest of his family, and all his friends. Everyone he had ever loved, dead, nothing more than decaying meat shambling around a dead city. His city. His to rebuild, to restore, a place where the people of China could return and make a new life for themselves.
Now all he had to do was figure out how the hell he was supposed to do it.