“What the fuck!”
Jenny looked up from the chicken and mushroom instant noodle pot she had been stirring for the best part of five minutes, trying to muster up the merest hint of an appetite for the sorry looking mess that was meant to be her lunch. But with their 96 hour shift at this observation point due to end in less than 4 hours, and knowing they would be back at the Campus that served as the headquarters of the West Country Alliance before nightfall where a freshly enjoying cooked evening meal would be awaiting them, Jenny had almost steeled herself to broach the disgusting slop.
Terry was standing bolt up-right, binoculars still fixed to his eyes. As Jenny stared up at him, she was slightly taken aback to realise that during the entire 6 months the two had been paired up for this regular duty, she had never heard him swear. Jenny put her lunch down and stood, curious as to the why, raising a hand to shade her eyes from the bright midday sunshine.
At first, Jenny could see nothing and then in the far distance, spied a solitary figure on the stretch of motorway they were there to observe, their role to alert the reception centre that lay some 5 miles to the south of their current position if any visitors were heading their way.
‘What is it Terry? Incomers?”
Terry did not answer, instead handing over the glasses.
Jenny took them, taking a moment to zero in on what Terry had been looking at but when she did…
“What the fuck?”
Terry allowed Jenny to continue staring a few more moments before speaking again.
“Seen enough freaks and weirdos to last me a lifetime but this one takes the biscuit.”
Jenny continued to study the figure in the distance for a couple of seconds more before letting the glasses drop then turning to face Terry.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Terry could only shrug. Jenny held out the glasses.
“Keep an eye on it. I better let Control know we have a customer.”
“Are you two pissed?”
Jenny bridled at the accusation, doing her best to keep her temper in check, counting to 3 before replying.
“No Control, we are as sober as judges. But we need orders.”
“How long before you lose sight of it?”
Jenny bit her lip, the 3 count again but this time unable to mute her annoyance.
“As I have told you already, if you took the time to actually listen, we estimate 20 minutes.”
“And you are sure? This is not a wind up?”
Now Jenny did not even make an effort to restrain herself, spitting her answer into the phone.
“It looks like a fucking Zombie, walks like a fucking Zombie and I have no doubt it will moan like a fucking Zombie if we let it get near enough.”
The line went dead, replaced with hold music, a detail that Jenny could still not get her head around. Not even the end of the world as they knew it was enough to kill off cheesy Muzak.
When the phone rang again, Jenny snatched it up.
A different voice now, more commanding.
“You are authorised to fire three warning shots. Whatever it is, something is very wrong. Not willing to risk it. If it keeps on coming after that, drop it.”
Jenny confirmed the instructions, then turned around. Terry already had the sniper rifle up and in position, tripod steady on a concrete block. He was staring intently into the scope, face scrunched up in concentration.
“Control says treat as hostile. Warning shots only though to start with.’
Terry raised a thumb.
Jenny went and stood beside Terry, raising the binoculars once more, her task to confirm the distance involved. She started to call out numbers, reading them off markers placed along the side of the road for that specific purpose, Terry adjusting buttons on his sight accordingly.
As the Zombie again zoomed into closer view, Jenny had to stifle a cry of astonishment, able now to make out more detail. Whoever this weirdo was, then he, and it was definitely male, had done a fantastic job with the make-up. The face was a vision of gore, streaked with red, along with a fine display of bruising that was all hues of purple and black shading, wince inducing to look at, topped off with a Mohican style hair in utter disarray. Now Jenny scanned down, eyes settling on what appeared a terrible wound to the throat, flaps of synthetic skin hanging, exposing a hint of bone along with a congealed mass of fake blood, made to look as though it had only just stopped flowing. Real talent on display and the effort involved in creating this elaborate disguise must have taken hours. The clothing was shabby, with numerous tears and rips on display but that was no surprise. Almost nobody came down that stretch of road looking anything else other than disheveled.
Or else, with this thought bringing on an immediate nausea, the awful notion that it was what it looked like? That just maybe, and the notion repelled her as soon as it sprang to mind, this Zombie was the real deal? A hellish creature from the pages and screens of horror fiction now part of their fucked-up reality. A lost soul condemned to stagger around for eternity, trapped between life and death, consumed by a desperate blood lust to gorge on human flesh? And now drawing ever nearer to their community, threatening to corrupt their fledgling attempt to rebuild a semblance of normality, promising nothing other than even more death and destruction. The definition of the rottenest cherry to adorn the shittiest cake ever baked.
Here they were, 18 months after nothing more than a fucked up mutation of the common cold virus had done its very worst to wipe out humanity, and just as the survivors were trying to make sense of it all, this abomination decides to enter stage right. Posing yet another threat, another reason for sleepless nights amongst all the other barbaric shit they had to contend with.
Jenny wanted to weep, consumed by a flashback to her previous life. Of her deceased husband and sons sitting in the lounge of their beautiful home on the outskirts of Exeter, urging her to join them as they enjoyed Zombie themed nonsense. And her berating them for wasting time on such rubbish.
It had been their routine after rugby on a Saturday afternoon. Back indoors, baths and clean up their first priority before ordering in a pizza. Then Malcolm, with a bottle of wine to hand, and the twins, enjoying a once a week treat of cans of fizzy pop, crammed onto the sofa whilst stuffing down slices of ‘Meat Feast’ and garlic bread, enthralled by cheesy horror films that invariably involved one of the many flavours of the Undead the three of them found so fascinating, with this interest evolving into the obsessional.
Meaning no family trip to a supermarket or shopping centre passed by without the three of them expounding on their favourite subject of the how’s and why’s of surviving all manner of Zombie infestations in such environments. And then, in the year before the Death, on their family holiday spent on a Mediterranean cruise, driving Jenny to distraction with their incessant speculation about both the numerous advantages, and varied drawbacks, of a Zombie apocalypse engulfing the world whilst they were aboard a ship such as that one, the topic dominating the discussion at every meal time.
How did you kill a Zombie? Jenny racked her brains, cursing herself for not taking more notice of their incessant chatter on the subject. There was something specific that you needed to do or else they would keep on coming? What was it? Then a light-bulb moment. A head-shot. Their brains needed destroying. That was it. That was how you stopped the bastards!
Then came the sound of a single shot, making Jenny jump, shaking her out of her heart-breaking daydream.
Through her binoculars, Jenny watched as the road surface, now pitted with sprouting weeds almost waist high in places, erupted in a small explosion as the bullet struck some 10 yards in front of the Zombie. But still Zombie boy kept coming, seemingly oblivious. A second later, another bang, and another chunk of tarmac flying up, now only 5 yards from the still advancing monstrosity.
This time though it halted, eyes now fixed at the small cloud of dust thrown up by the impact of the second round, its top half still jerking in a disjointed fashion but feet frozen to the spot, legs swaying but creating no momentum.
The Zombie now seemed in a trance, staring at the road in front of it, as though trying to comprehend what had just happened, head rocking back and forth as if buffeted by a strong wind. This went on for almost a minute before, and in a sudden movement that caused Jenny to flinch, the Zombie spun around on the spot before starting to head back the way it had come, its gait the same as before although its legs now moving at a much faster and regular pace.
Jenny could not take her gaze from it as it shambled away, her heart pounding, watching until it vanished from sight, disappearing over the brow of the hill. She wanted to scream out in a mix of joy and anger. It was a man. Just a fucked up, mentally ill but living and breathing human being. Not some creature from hell. This entire tragic affair was not about to take another turn for the worse. Part of her wanted to snatch up her submachine gun and chase after the bastard with an intense desire to blow several holes in him, another to hug him, to offer him help and it took Terry tapping on her shoulder to bring her back down to earth. Jenny let the binoculars drop.
She said, as much to herself as to him.
“What on earth was all that about?”
Terry appeared lost for words, puzzlement on his face. He had never been one of natures gregarious types, a character trait that had endeared him to her, making this partnership less of a chore, more of a comfort now with Jenny having come to relish this once a month, 4 day stint out here on this hill, staring out over a deserted stretch of the M5. But now Jenny needed Terry to say something, to offer reassurance, to make her feel safe again.
But all Terry could do was shrug, struggling to formulate his own response to what had just played out.
Then he said.
“Perhaps what they say is true? How you cannot please all of the people, all of the time?”