Chapter 27: A World Apart
Bright morning sunlight fell over the prone form, coaxing it back into the waking world. The figure, Eli, stirred and, with great resentment, opened his eyes.
His entire body hurt. His head hurt, his throat hurt, his back hurt. His hands felt a little like they were on fire. He tried to wiggle his toes and immediately winced. Even his toes hurt. With immense effort he rolled over, and to his surprise found himself on the floor. He pushed himself up and glanced around. For a moment his heart seemed to stop. He did not recognize his surroundings in the slightest. He was in a small, square room. About halfway up all four of the walls they turned into windows that stretched to the ceiling. On one wall there was a door, and on the wall opposite there was a console with various monitors and switches and other controls. There were two chairs below the console.
On the floor was a mattress – the one he must have slept on – and it was tied up in a thick rope. He winced as he realized that he had slept on the rope as well as the mattress, which was probably a large part of the reason why his body hurt so much. In fact, as his mind focused around this revelation, he became more and more certain that he could actually feel where the rope had been pressed against his body all night.
The rope was tied off toward the center of the mattress, and a strand rolled away down across the room where it looped around the floor mounted pole for one of the chairs before bundling up into a little pile on the floor.
Eli blinked rapidly and then cupped his hands around his eyes in an effort to block out some of the sun’s glare. The world seemed far too bright, the creaking of the room and the wind blowing by outside seemed far too loud, and his head felt like it was physically throbbing. On top of that, his brain seemed to be on vacation. He could not seem to wrap his mind around any coherent thoughts. He could not figure out where he was, he could not figure out how or why he was there, and he could not figure out why there was a rope tied around his bed.
He rose to his feet, but only made it about half way before losing his balance and being forced to stumble about in an effort to stay upright. He collapsed against the wall, breathing heavily, and letting its unyielding surface provide him with stability and a respite.
After a time he opened his eyes, surprised to learn that they had been closed. He realized from the wet spot against his cheek that he had fallen asleep leaning against the wall. He pushed himself away from the wall until he was standing almost vertical. The world seemed to dive for cover. Eli blinked several times and shook his head. When his vision cleared, everything looked normal once more.
With much greater balance and determination, Eli stepped over to the door and flung it open. He started to step outside of the room, but drew back with such suddenness that he fell off balance and collapsed onto his backside. Outside the door was only a thin walkway circling the room followed by a drop of twenty or thirty feet. In a striking moment of clarity, he realized where he was: up in one of the guard towers.
At some point in the night, he must have become so drunk and angry that he came to the decision that he did not even want to live near the other people in the group anymore. So, with surprising ingenuity for a drunk person, he had tied up one of the dorm mattresses in a rope and dragged it up a ladder into a guard tower. The process must have been such an exertion that once he made it up into the tower he had just collapsed on the bed without bothering to untie the rope.
Eli let out a sigh of annoyance as he rested his head against the relatively cool metal of a nearby wall. His experience in the zombie apocalypse had been relatively luxurious compared to how it was always depicted to be in movies and on TV. Still, he was ready to have just one night where he slept like a normal person and woke up actually feeling rested and refreshed. Surely, one good night’s sleep was not too much to ask at the end of the world.
He wanted to sit there in that spot for the rest of the day, or at least until his insides calmed down enough that moving around no longer seemed so foolhardy and disconcerting. Yet he knew this was not much of an option. He had none of his supplies up here. There was no food or drink, no bathroom, or anything else he would be in certain need of before long. Judging from the throbbing of his head and the burning in his throat he was pretty severely dehydrated.
With a Herculean effort he somehow managed to make his way out of the room, down the ladder, and across the yard to the cafeteria building. He rounded the corner and headed for the front entrance, nearly bowling over Jay in the process. Jay’s eyes went wide with shock when he noticed the person in front of him.
“Eli!” he gasped in horror, his voice quiet and low but desperate. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Eli stopped in his tracks, eyes narrowing in confusion. “I’m thirsty,” he croaked. Figuring this to be enough of an answer, he started forward again, but the young man grabbed him and pushed him back.
Jay’s voice hissed between his teeth as he spoke. “Are you crazy? After what happened last night?” He stopped and looked around to make sure nobody had noticed them. There was no one around. “Come on!” He grabbed Eli by the arm and yanked him back around the corner.
“I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Eli protested. “So I yelled at Kira. I’ll go and apologize to her and everything will be copacetic again–”
“Kira?” Jay snapped. “You think that’s what this is about? Kira?”
The lines of confusion on Eli’s features only deepened. “What else…?”
Jay reached up and poked Eli on the lip.
The move was unexpected, but even more unexpected was how much it hurt. Eli grabbed his lip, wincing and grinding his teeth to ward off the pain. When this failed to provide any relief, he spun around in a circle stamping his feet. “Gah!” he exclaimed, incoherently, then, “Mother hat sack!”
“Hat sack?” Jay echoed.
“That freakin’ hurt! Why did that hurt?” For the first time Eli noticed that the lip was swollen. “What the hell happened to me?”
“What do you remember?”
Eli grabbed his aching head in both hands and attempted to concentrate through the pain. “Uh, the party. And I yelled at Kira about something. Then I guess I stormed back to the dorms.”
Jay waited for Eli to continue, but instead was met with only an expectant silence. “Really?” Jay demanded. “That’s it?”
“Well, what else is there?”
Jay sighed and answered, “After you left for the dorms, Marshall grew more and more upset over your behavior. Finally he stormed off after you. We followed him, trying to talk him down, but he would have none of it. He found you and grabbed you and shook you a bit. Then he started lecturing you on the way you treat other people, and how surviving in the new world meant co-operation and teamwork and behaving like a human being.”
“What an ass,” Eli groaned, rolling his eyes.
Jay shook his head, a knowing expression on his face. “Yeah, that’s apparently how you felt last night, too. You started yelling back, accusing him of ridiculous things. And then you started punching him.”
“I what!?” exclaimed Eli in thorough disbelief. He groaned and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the nearby wall as images of the much larger man with his frightening muscles flickered through his head. “Let me guess, he proceeded to kick the crap out of me?”
“And how,” Jay answered. “The saddest part, and really kind of impressive at the same time, was how you just wouldn’t stay down.”
As Jay’s story continued, various parts on Eli’s body – parts that undoubtedly took the brunt of the physical punishment – began to throb more and more intensely. So not only had he slept on the world’s most uncomfortable bed, not only had he gotten irrationally drunk, but he had also gotten the shit kicked out of him by the largest mountain of muscle still alive following the zombie apocalypse. He almost felt like just collapsing to his knees and weeping.
“Well, I guess that explains why I feel so shitty. So, what now? I avoid Marshall at all costs? For the rest of my life?”
Jay shrugged. “Nah, probably just until he cools down. I’d give him a few days. Maybe a week, to be on the safe side. I’d recommend you sit up in your tower, play it cool, and generally avoid everybody. If you need to talk to anyone, I’ll be your ambassador.”
“If I’m not supposed to leave the tower, how am I supposed to tell you anything to tell anyone else?”
“I’ll bring you meals. Small ones, mind you, but they’ll be food. And you can leave to go to the bathroom and stuff. I would just recommend doing it when everyone else is out in the fields or something. So you know that no one will be around.”
“So, basically, I’m in prison. It’s the end of the world, and I’m in prison.”
“Hey, don’t whine,” Jay said, waving dismissively. “After all, you brought this on yourself.”
“Did I?” Eli responded. “Really? I mean, sure, I’ve been a bit of an ass to everyone. I can admit that. But yesterday I was hero of the day. I saved two of our people and brought back all our lost supplies. And all that after sacrificing myself for the rest of the group.”
“From the sounds of it, the two you ‘saved’ were the ones pulling your ass out of the fire, not the other way around.”
Eli opened his mouth to protest, and then closed it again. Jay was right, that was how it had happened, basically. “Yes, but they…” he started, but realized it was pointless and stopped. He let out a sigh of defeat. “Fine,” he consented, “I’ll do it. I’ll wait out your prison sentence. Where’s Marshall now?”
Jay tapped on the wall next to them. “Inside. But he won’t be for long. If you’re gonna do something, do it quick.”
“Yes, mother,” Eli muttered. He turned and hurried off around the back of the building, and then broke into a slow run across the field. His body immediately began protesting the exertion and he dropped back to a quick walk. Once he reached the dormitory he hurried inside. He relieved himself and used the sinks to freshen up a bit, even though in his heart he felt that nothing short of full immersion could possibly hope to wash away the grime of the past few days. On his way out, almost as an afterthought, he grabbed his bag of supplies and weapons. He was relieved to find that the bag still contained a couple bottles of water. They were unpleasantly warm, but they were better than nothing at all. He managed to make it all the way back to the guard tower without coming across anybody else. He climbed back up the ladder and entered the room.
As promised, Jay showed up about an hour later with food and refreshments. Eli eagerly tore into both as a zombie might tear into a person. The mental image, to Jay, was more than a little disturbing. He shook his head to clear it and tried to focus instead on what had brought him there. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a couple walkie-talkies.
“Here,” he said, placing them in a line on the ground near Eli’s food, “take these.”
Eli stopped eating long enough to ask, “Why?”
“Marshall feels if you’re gonna be up here, you might as well try and contribute. With these you can stay in touch with the rest of the group, update us on anything you spot going on outside. Or we can call you if for some reason we want to drag your ass down from up here. We got some of our own that we’ll keep on or near us. Leave them on channel one.”
Eli shoved the last bit of food in his mouth and grabbed up one of the walkie-talkies. He turned it over and over in his hands, examining it. “Battery powered,” he noted. “These aren’t gonna last the whole week. They might not last a day.”
Jay reached into his satchel and pulled forth a plastic shopping bag. The bag was bulging at the seams, looking ready to burst. He set it on the floor with a loud “clank.” A few double “A” batteries rolled out of one of the handholds. Jay smiled wide. “We got you covered.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
The two talked for a while longer, and then Jay left so Eli could begin his “sentence.” He lounged around, pacing back and forth about the room, and thinking again about how much he missed the internet and video games. At least when he did his sitting on his butt all day before, he had something to keep him entertained. Stuck in a guard tower, with nothing to do but watch the unchanging scenery was a level of boredom to which he was not accustomed. No wonder people were always farming or blacksmithing or… whatever other things they did before electricity, Eli thought to himself. It was to save themselves from the immense boredom.
In this way the rest of the day passed, and the next day. Jay brought food three times a day, just as he said he would. He would stay for a little while, and they would talk. There was little news, but Eli appreciated the company anyway. Anything to break away from the boredom. For dinner on the second day Jay brought food and drink for himself as well, and they sat at the console and ate dinner together.
“You know Paul?” he asked at one point.
“The guy we found here?” Eli answered. “Yeah. What about him?”
“He’s weird.” Jay took a bite of bread and stared thoughtfully into space.
“Oh.” Eli replied, waiting for more of an explanation. “Well, who could argue with logic like that?”
“He’s not working on any of the projects everyone else is. He’s not even keeping a watch, like you are. He’s always disappearing all day into the office buildings. He won’t say where. Nobody knows where he goes. He comes out at random times to grab food and then disappears again.”
“Maybe he just wants to be alone,” Eli suggested. “Like he was when we found him.”
Jay shrugged. “I guess. I don’t know.” He scratched his chin and poked absently at his food. “That’s another thing, though. I mean, isn’t it weird that we found him here?”
“I’m serious! It’s the apocalypse. Everyone is dead. Everyone. He could have gone absolutely anywhere in the world but he chose to stay here. Why?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Let’s see, stay in a heavily fortified military shelter with tons of food, supplies, and the only place remaining on God’s green Earth that still has running water and working electricity, or… strike it out into a world filled with zombies by himself in the hopes that he’d randomly stumble onto a gold mind. Which would I choose? Hmmm…”
Jay threw up his hands in defeat. “All right, all right, you’ve made your point. He’s not weird. I’m just crazy.”
Eli laughed. “I’m not saying you’re crazy. And I’m not saying Paul isn’t weird. I’m just saying, I think you’re being a little unnecessarily paranoid.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jay muttered and took another bite of food. “So, how about them Dodgers?”
“What sport is that? Football?”
Jay turned and looked at Eli with disbelief. “Baseball,” he said flatly. “You know, I really wonder about you sometimes.”
“Why, ’cuz I don’t know baseball things?”
“Everybody knows baseball things. To not know baseball things is just… it’s just not American.”
Eli motioned out the window. “I don’t know if you’ve taken a look outside lately, but I don’t think anyone’s gonna be playing any baseball any time soon. Unless we teach zombies to play or something.”
Jay was silent for a long moment. “How awesome would that be?” he said at last.
“Now there’s a sport I would pay to see,” Eli agreed.
On the third day Jay was late for lunch and dinner, and did not stay long. He claimed to be busy with something, though he wouldn’t say with what. Probably some new project Marshall had everybody working on like his personal slaves. Eli bit his lip and shook his head at the thought. He needed to stop thinking of Marshall as some dictator trying to build a new world order. He was just a guy, trying to survive, like the rest of them. The sooner he saw things that way, the sooner he could get out of purgatory and back to spending the rest of his life with other living human beings. Undead types need not apply.
So Eli sat at the console by himself, poking absently at his dinner. For some reason, eating alone made the act of eating itself seem dramatically less appealing. Which was odd, really, since before the zombie outbreak Eli had sometimes gone to great lengths to eat by himself. Now all he really wanted was to be with people again.
That was when it finally occurred to him that the only thing stopping him, really, was his own pride. If he just went down below, apologized to Marshall, and begged to be put on some work detail and contribute functionally to the group, they would probably let bygones be bygones and accept him as one of their own. He decided he was going to do just that. He tossed his plate down on the console and stood up. He started to turn for the door, but then froze.
Something had moved outside.
At first he thought he was imagining things, but just to be on the safe side he turned back to the window and peaked out.
Five seconds later, he was diving for the walkie-talkies.