Chapter 20: Dinner of the Dead
There were explosions of light and pain, dismal but blinding flashes of color in what seemed like an eternity of blackness. Everything seemed to be spinning, even though it seemed as if there was nothing there to be spinning. It was sickening, and it made him want to vomit, but he could not be sure for even a split second that he actually had a stomach with contents to lose. Then suddenly the spinning stopped, the flashes stopped, everything stopped.
It seemed like another lifetime came and went, and a dull ache began to settle inside his head and hum one long, unbroken note without end. Slowly, he began to grow aware that he could open his eyes. This he managed, but not without great effort. Even once he had done it, all that could be seen was a blur, a shapeless void of colors and light that did not seem to make any sense. With a fortitude that would shame even Hercules, he managed to blink a few times, and in doing so cleared away some of the blurriness.
When formless blobs finally molded into familiar shapes, his first thought was that he was dreaming. In fact, it seemed rather obvious that he had to be dreaming. After all, the luxurious feast spread before him could not possibly be real.
There were bowls filled with fruits such as dates, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries – just about every type of berry, really – as well as watermelon, cantaloupes, kiwi, grapefruit, and still more Eli did not really recognize. There were vegetables: green beans, corn on the cob, roasted carrots. There were also various other dishes, such as scalloped potatoes, potato salad, macaroni salad, squash casserole, spinach casserole, and a sweet potato soufflé with raisins and topped by marshmallows. All off these dishes were arranged around three central dishes, each containing a different type of meat. On Eli’s far right was a roasted turkey, in the center of the table what appeared to be a large meatloaf, and to his far left a large slab of cooked ham, all still fresh and steaming.
The table on which the meal sat was massive and ornate. The chairs around it matched the table and everything shone with a brilliant gloss that came only from fancy and well-kept furniture. The endless flow of a beautiful white table cloth stretched across the entire table. It seemed to be made of pure silk. The whole thing was lit by the glow of a chandelier hanging above their heads, with gold fixtures and real candles, which gave everything a very formal tone. The light from it only served to add to the surreal nature of the whole moment, as it only lit the table and its immediate surroundings. The rest of the room fell away into complete darkness, until it seemed like he was in an endless, empty void where all that existed was the small globe of light in which he sat.
Despite the impossibility of the meal, Eli’s stomach growled with hunger as the aroma of delicious smells washed over him. It was growing painfully obvious just how long it had been since he had last eaten anything.
With hardly a thought he attempted to reach out for a nearby grape, but something stopped him. He tried a second time, and once again the inconceivable force prevented him from making the move. Without having complete control yet over his body it did not really seem that ridiculous, but nonetheless he rolled his head to the side so as to get a good look at whatever it was holding him down.
It was then that he discovered that his arm was tied to the chair.
Not just his arm, either, but actually both arms, his legs, and his chest were all bound tightly in a thick brown rope. Suddenly he was filled with a sense of panic, and he began to wiggle with all his might, straining against the ropes, pulling and tearing for the slightest chance of freeing himself.
A strange, soothing voice floated over the table to him. “Please, calm down, or you will only risk hurting yourself.”
Eli’s body froze, but his eyes immediately shot in the direction the voice had come from. Over on the end of the table with the turkey, to his utter shock, sat a zombie. Or at least, what looked rather like a zombie. Its skin was almost the same, greenish pale, but a little lighter and a little less green. It also looked significantly less decomposed than the zombies he had seen, with no sign of the boils or puss sacks that seemed to be a mark of the infection. To top it all off, as Eli was looking at it, it did something far more horrifying than anything – anything – that Eli had ever seen.
It smiled at him.
“Please,” it said, “I only wish for you and your companions to have a nice meal.”
Eli was so shocked now he nearly rocked his chair over backwards.
Zombies could speak?
His mind raced with the possibilities. Maybe they were not zombies at all. Maybe they were aliens who took over human bodies and they were just evolving from weird, zombie-like proto-forms into the more in control human-form that sat before him now. Or maybe there were just multiple levels of zombies. There could be the slow, lumbering, typical movie zombies that most of them seemed to be, the fast running, crazy zombies like they had seen at the base, and then the intelligent, barely zombified at all zombie, like this one.
As the various possibilities danced around his head, it slowly began to dawn on him that the rest of the group was in the room with him, each similarly tied to a chair and still coming around. To his immediate right was Marshall, to his left Daniel, and across the table sat Devin and Matthew.
“What the hell is going on?” Devin demanded.
“Please, there’s no reason to be alarmed,” said the intelligent zombie.
At the sound of his voice, Daniel jerked so hard in surprise that he, too, nearly toppled over. “What the hell!” he shouted, more of a statement than a question.
“You can talk?” Matthew said, his voice almost quivering in horror.
The creature seemed to find this amusing, and its chuckle was so human that it was disturbing. “Well, of course I can talk.”
With a sudden bolt of terror ripping through him, Eli realized there was another zombie standing right next to him. He reeled back as far as he could, though tied to the chair as he was this proved not to be far at all, and let out a short yelp.
This second zombie was dressed in a waiter’s outfit that appeared to be in strangely immaculate condition. The long sleeved white shirt looked pressed and freshly cleaned. The bowtie tied tight and straight. The black vest and slacks looked pristine. The zombie did not seem to even notice him, but rather busied itself shakily pouring what seemed to be a red wine – or what Eli hoped was red wine – into what must have been intended to be Eli’s glass. The wine splashed about and several drops flew about to drop down and stain the otherwise snow white tablecloth.
“You’ll have to excuse my servants,” the first creature said, smiling a frighteningly toothy grin that showed rows of razor-like teeth glistening in the soft candlelight. “Zombies have their uses, but being waiters is not one of them. Still, you have to work with what you have, I suppose.”
“The… zombies are your servants?” Daniel asked in an unsteady voice, squeezing back as far as he could in his chair as the zombie now moved on to pour wine into his glass.
“That is correct.”
“Then why did you have them attack us in the town?” Matthew demanded.
The smart zombie turned to Matthew, a wounded look on his face. “They did not attack you. I merely sought to contain you. I’m trying to protect you.”
“Protect us?” Matthew shouted. His whole body strained against the ropes, and he looked rather as though if he had not been tied down he would have sprung up and choked the creature in front of him. “With zombies? The very things that have killed and destroyed and converted every single person we know and love? You call that protection?”
The zombie frowned. An expression crossed over its face that looked even, possibly, annoyed. Yet, when he spoke, his voice remained as calm and calming as ever. “That is not my fault. That was humanity’s fault. They created the plague that caused this. You have been undone by your own hand. Before we were able to… shall we say… take control of the situation, much of the damage had already been done.
“Of course, there are those among my kind, I am saddened to admit, who would like to see humanity crumple, to wane into twilight until your numbers are forever depleted. The majority of us, however, we know better. We know that the end of humanity spells the end for us, as well. We are a symbiotic relationship. We need you. Now more than ever before since only so few of you actually remain. You are a precious resource, and we must protect you. That is why I have brought you here. That is why this lovely meal has been painstakingly prepared for you. That is why I must protect you.”
There was silence for a long moment, and the zombie was met by several expressions of doubt and disbelief. “You… need us?” Devin asked. The creature nodded its head a solemn, “yes.” Devin turned and glanced at the others before facing it again.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the creature asked, spreading its hands out wide and smiling an almost wicked smile at them.
“Food stock,” Eli answered. Everyone turned to look at him. “Like cows for Blitz Burgers: to be fattened, prepared, and bred only for food.”
“Well, that’s a rather pessimistic way of putting it, but yes,” agreed the creature.
A dark and choking silence fell over the room. Suddenly, despite the gnawing hunger of only moments before, none of the humans in the room were hungry. Suddenly the end of the world felt all the more final.
“You mean to tell us,” Daniel said after a time, a look of utter disgust on his face, “that you’re keeping us alive only so that you can put us in pens with other humans? As what, as slaves?”
“Slaves?” The creature echoed, its eyebrow’s rising in surprise. “Heavens no. What on Earth would we need you to do for us?”
Silence again as this latest revelation was digested. “You mean, we won’t have anything to do except eat, screw, and then be slaughtered for the midday meal?”
“Well… yes. Minus the slaughtering, of course. We like our meat…” he paused, waving his hand in the air while he searched for just the right word, “…fresh.”
Daniel’s eyes went wide, but he did not seem to be terrified or even disgusted, but rather simply angry. He lurched suddenly forward, straining and pulling at his bindings, but they refused to give even an inch, and he succeeded only in tiring himself out. He fell back against the chair, exhausted, but the anger no less prevalent on his features.
The creature at the end of the table smiled at the futile effort. “Please, don’t get so worked up. You only need relax and…” its voice drifted off as its eyes narrowed and it turned its head away. Suddenly, it sat bolt upright, eyes gazing off into the distance. Slowly it rose from its chair, still focusing on the same spot. Its face contorted into a terrible sneer and a low growl issued forth from the depths of its throat. Everyone in the room was watching him, even the zombie waiter, who had been pouring Matthew’s drink for so long now that the glass was overflowing and red wine ran like a waterfall down its sides and onto the table. Their undead host turned his glance on the creature, eyes narrowing dangerously. The zombie set down the wine container and shambled around the table to somewhere behind Eli. He heard a door open and then close again. Their host took a deep breath and let it out. He made a show of straightening and dusting off his dinner jacket. It was only at this point that Eli even realized the thing was wearing a dinner jacket. In fact, it seemed to be dressed in all very fine clothing.
“Please forgive me,” it said after a time, once it seemed satisfied with the level of fussing over his appearance. “It seems there is some sort of… disturbance. We may be having more guests. If you’ll excuse me…” its voice trailed off as it vanished out of Eli’s sight. It seemed to glide more than walk, but it was hard to really tell, as he only saw it moving for a handful of seconds before it moved out of his field of vision.
There was the sound of a small explosion that rent the air behind them followed by the sound of shuffling feet. “You!” somebody cried, their voice full of venom, and then the sound of a struggle broke out. “Watch out!” somebody else cried. “Don’t let him bite you!” said a third voice.
“Guys!” Matthew exclaimed excitedly.
Eli’s eyes went wide at this unexpected turn of events. He wiggled and pulled against his restraints as much as he could, attempting to pull free or, failing that, at least get turned around. This did not end up working out well for him, and he crashed to the ground on his side – hard. He sighed with annoyance.
From behind him came the sound of an inhuman growl, and then the crash of bodies hitting the floor, followed by the sickening thud of something being shoved through flesh. After a few more seconds there was the roar of a pistol, and then silence.
“Always go for the head,” a voice mumbled behind Eli. “Always, always the head.”
“Sorry, I panicked,” replied a voice Eli didn’t recognize.
Eli glanced side to side nervously, very uncomfortable with the fact that he could not tell at all what was going on behind him. He increased his struggles, but still to no avail. He gave a start as all of the sudden a figure appeared over him, but quickly relaxed when he recognized the familiar form.
“Jay!” he exclaimed excitedly.
The young man stood above him, a very amused smile on his face. He knelt over, and with a grunt of effort managed to pull the chair, with Eli still inside, back into the upright position. From here, he could see the other members of the group, including Amber, Aliyah, Stephan, and, to Eli’s surprise, Gabriel, the preacher. Jay pulled out a knife and cut Eli free of his bonds. As soon as he was able, Eli rose up and stretched, happy to be free once again. He turned and noticed that Kelsey had also come, and had immediately gone to help Matthew. The two were embracing, and feeling like he was intruding, Eli quickly turned away.
The door had been kicked down, splintered wood scattered about the floor. Lying among the wreckage was their zombie host. In its chest was what looked to be the leg of a chair, and in its head was a bullet hole. “That… thing spoke,” Jay said, noticing where Eli was looking.
“Yeah, it was pretty talkative to us,” Eli responded, his voice soft and emotionless.
“Zombies can’t talk,” Kelsey protested.
“This one did, though,” Marshall said, shaking his head. He was facing away from the now twice dead corpse, clearly unwilling to look at it.
“What does that mean?” Jay asked, looking around at everyone in the group. “Are the zombies… are they evolving?” For the first time he seemed to notice the feast splayed out on the table before them. “Are they eating normal food? Are they becoming more… human?”
“The food was for us,” Eli explained. “He wanted to fatten us up, like cows to the slaughter.”
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a scary amount of intelligence for a zombie. Are you sure that was his goal?”
“He told us himself,” Marshall confirmed. Eli nodded, a sour expression on his face.
“This is fascinating and all,” Aliyah interjected, “but maybe we should gather up the food and get out of here. Like, pronto. There’s more of those things outside looking for a meal.”
“Should we take the food?” Eli asked, uneasily poking at a grape as if he expected it to explode upon touch. “We have no idea what they put in it.”
“Aw, come on,” Jay whined, “we can’t not take all this food. I mean, look at it! When’s the last time anyone’s had a freakin’ roast ham or cooked turkey?”
“Actually, I think it’s a roast turkey and cooked ham,” said Eli.
“Does it matter?” Jay shot back.
Eli was about to argue when a thought struck him. He began to look from side to side, and then spun around in a circle. “Our stuff. It’s gone.” He was not entirely sure why that fact surprised him. After all, they were clearly not in the police station anymore. They had been moved to some other location with a dining room and a chandelier, and most likely their captor would not have seen the importance of such supplies. “It must all still be at the police station.”
“Police station?” Jay asked, confused.
“We can worry about that later,” Aliyah said. “For now let’s just get out of here.”
The others muttered their consent and they made their way to the door. One by one they filed out, into a larger room that seemed to be part of a restaurant. Aliyah and the new group led the way across the room to the exit. Various bodies of zombies dotted the floor here and there, motionless, and with their heads all smashed or with sharp objects stuck in them.
“How did you guys find us?” Eli asked Jay as they hurried across the room.
Jay smiled, but there was no humor in the look. “Oh, it was rather easy, actually,” he answered cryptically.
Eli shot him a puzzled look, but neither said anything more. When they came to the front of the building, the answer quickly became clear. The front wall was mostly windows, looking out onto the street outside, and the street was filled with zombies. Eli was surprised to see that it was also daylight outside.
“Oh, let me guess: this was the only building completely surrounded by zombies?” Eli glanced at Jay, who nodded a slow, rather resigned yes.
“When you guys didn’t show up by the end of the day, we knew something had to be wrong.” Amber explained. “So we agreed to send a second party to search for you.”
Marshall clucked his tongue in obvious disapproval. “That was rather foolhardy. What if the same thing happened to you guys that happened to us?”
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, you’re welcome, by the way.”
Marshall sighed. “Look, I’m not saying that I’m not grateful. I am. It’s just, if we were already dead, you could have just gotten yourselves killed as well.”
“Yeah, maybe, but we didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but it was the one we made. If there was any possibility you were alive, we couldn’t just leave you out here.”
Marshall reached over and placed a hand on Amber’s shoulders, smiling comfortingly at her. “Hey, I’m glad you came.”
“Yeah, you better be,” muttered Amber, still sounding a bit annoyed, but she seemed appeased by the gesture.
“Well, now that things are all sunshine and fluffy bunnies, I hope you guys can tell us how we’re supposed to get through a crowd of zombies and out to safety,” Eli said.
Aliyah turned to him and smiled, “That’s actually the easy part.”
Eli’s eyebrows went straight up at her words. “Oh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jay agreed. “We just have to get ready first.”
The new group quickly busied themselves upturning tables onto their sides. After they had done a few, Aliyah motioned everybody over. “All right, everybody behind tables,” she ordered. “And, uh, cover your ears.” This last statement got her a few questioning stares, but she only smiled and nodded in response. Once everyone had done as she asked, she also ducked behind a table. She pulled a small device out of her bag, flicked open a small panel, and pressed a button.
Even with his ears covered, the roar was almost deafening. The room around them shook and rattled, and there was the sound of glass shattering and spraying. Only once all of the racket had finally died away did they dare look over the tables.
The street in a large swath had been pretty much cleared of zombies, though some various body parts and limbs were strewn about, a few of which were on fire. All but a couple of the windows along the front of the building had been completely destroyed. Most of the debris lay inside the entrance hall of the restaurant.
“TNT?” Eli asked, incredulous.
“It’s dynamite!” Jay immediately responded, smiling wide. Eli turned an unappreciative gaze upon the young man. “What?” Jay replied, unfazed. “It is.”
“Let’s just go,” Aliyah said, interrupting their conversation.
They clambered around and over the tables, hurrying outside before the gap had a chance to close. Outside, the zombies did not seem particularly bothered by the explosion, but continued to wander about nearby. For the most part they did not seem focused, just wandering aimlessly, although a few took note of the nearby humans and began turning to follow them.
They ran down an alleyway to a side street, where the SUV was waiting for them. Aliyah was the first to exit the alleyway, and as she did she came to a sudden stop. An enraged expression lit up her face. “My car!” she shouted angrily.
The others came out of the alley around her and quickly saw what she meant. The vehicle was lying on one side, and several zombies stood around it apparently as the ones who had knocked it over.
“I’m sensing a pattern emerging here,” growled Eli.
The zombies surrounding the vehicle seemed to take note of them and began moving in their direction.
“I don’t believe this,” whined Daniel.
Eli glanced around. Not far off there was a compact car parked up on a curb. He ran over to it and tried the front door. Miraculously, it was unlocked. As he opened it, a familiar beeping resounded. A few weeks ago the sound would have been incredibly annoying to him, but at this moment it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
The key was still in the ignition.
He turned to the others, most of whom were now watching him, and he smiled and gave a thumbs up. They needed no further prompting. Within moments they were upon him, piling into the car with hardly a word. He did get one word, though: “Move.” Aliyah said this when she reached the car, as Eli was still standing by the driver’s side door. Eli stepped out of the way and she sat down in the driver’s seat and pulled the door shut before Eli could protest. He shrugged to himself, not really bothered, and waited while everyone else climbed into the vehicle.
Amber was the last to go, and as she prepared to get into the back seat, she stopped, a sudden revelation over taking her. She pulled back out of the car and glanced at Eli. “There’s not really enough room in here for ten of us,” she said. “There’s not really even room for nine.”
“I know,” Eli agreed, nodding. Amber’s eyes narrowed at him. “Just get in the car,” Eli prompted.
“You’re planning on staying behind.”
Eli sighed, and glanced over his shoulder at the oncoming zombies. “This isn’t really the time to be having this argument. Just get in the car.”
“We didn’t come this far to leave somebody behind,” Amber growled. She planted her feet firmly on the ground. “If you’re staying, then I’m staying too.”
Eli rolled his eyes. He turned and cast another glance at the oncoming zombies. As he did, he absently scratched at his beard, which he was surprised to realize must have been growing for some time now. Without any warning, he swung back around and punched Amber as hard as he could right in the temple. She spun a little and toppled over against the car, dazed. Before she had a chance to recover, he lifted her up and shoved her over the laps of everyone already sitting in the back seat.
“Go!” Eli commanded once Amber was fully inside of the car, and without giving anyone a chance to argue he slammed the door shut. Turning, he ran straight for the zombies. Just a few feet short he stopped. “You guys ready for a nice, fresh meal?” He said, waving them over. Most of the group seemed to still want to head after the others in the car, but some had turned toward Eli. He side-stepped away from them, continuing to wave his hands as though beckoning to them, but making sure to keep just out of reach of the creatures. Down the street, out of the corner of his eye, he could see the car pull out and drive away. Silently, he thanked Aliyah for actually listening to him. He then turned, feeling he had distracted the zombies for long enough, and ran for his life.