I wrote this as backstory to my protagonist, Sam, in The Thaw (see the works page for more details). I thought I would post it up here as a companion piece to the Only The Dead story I wrote for my antagonist, which can be found in the TL;DR Press Kindred Anthology. Enjoy!
I was married to Michelle Thurman in the spring of 1989. It was low key. We considered going out to Vegas, but I couldn’t get the time off work, and Michelle couldn’t spare the money. Her father, George Thurman, of Thurman Cotton in Little Rock, refused to attend. He never liked me, and when Michelle told him that she and I were going to be married he cut her out of the family fortune right then and there. I didn’t live up to their expectation of rich, dandy, landowner’s sons that they expected their daughter to marry. It didn’t matter to us; we were young and a little stupid. She got a job waitressing, I worked at the Union Pacific locomotive shop. We made a home in Pine Bluff together, and we had everything we needed and nothing more.
I’ll always call Pine Bluff home. I grew up there, went to school there. I thought I would die there. Hell, I almost did around five years ago. I was driving home from work at the Union Pacific shop, pissed off by something Earl Rodgers, the shop foreman, had said. I had my mind on other things, wasn’t watching where I was going. I barely even noticed that there weren’t any other cars on the road. When I rammed into the man who wandered into the street I was doing almost 40 miles an hour. Flecks of blood splattered up onto my windshield and I slammed on the brakes. I couldn’t keep control of my truck and ended up in a ditch on the side of the road.
My heart was pounding like a jackhammer as I got out and ran over to the guy. I knew something was off the moment I saw him. His chest was caved in, smashed to a pulp, something that would’ve killed anyone else. But he was alive. Or at least, appeared to be. I tried talking to him, reached down to touch his shoulder, and he went to take a bite out of my hand. He was making an awful burbling growl, like a yowling cat drowning in mud, a sound I’ll never forget. In place of an iris and pupil his eyes were milky white. It frightened the hell out of me, it was like staring into the face of something from a horror movie.
Dead on cue I heard police sirens wailing from back the way I came. I clambered back up the ditch and waved my arms as five or six cruisers howled past, none of them paying the slightest attention to me or my wrecked truck. I started feeling a weird sinking feeling in my gut, like something wasn’t right at all. When I looked toward downtown there was a huge plume of smoke. I thought of Michelle, who would’ve gone out to pick up Sarah from school and I panicked. I got back in my truck, reversed up the ditch leaving the guy down there, and hauled ass back toward our house, through the middle of town.
It was chaos in the streets. I’ve never seen anything so awful in my life, not even in the five years since. Cars crashed into each other, clogging up the roads. Buildings on fire with their windows smashed in. People stumbling around with that dead-eye look, shirts and dresses covered in blood, some with holes blown in them. I’ve never been a religious man, something that George Thurman always held against me, but that day as I went through town at a crawl, the dead surrounding me, I prayed harder than I ever had. I prayed that I would make it home alive, and that nothing had happened to Michelle or Sarah. I could think of little else but them.
It wasn’t long before I caught up with the police, or what was left of them. Their cruisers had blockaded the streets in a futile attempt to keep the swarm at bay on the other side. Their corpses were littered across the street and the dead feasted on their flesh, ripping out organs and tearing apart skin right in front of me. I was going too fast and rammed right into them. I opened the door and fell out of my truck, felt their hands grabbing at my clothes. I managed to grab a police baton off the ground and cave in the head of one of them, and he dropped to the ground. I didn’t wait around to see if he kept moving. I ran as fast and as hard as I could, trying to avoid the dead where I could.
The sun was setting when I finally got back home. The neighbourhood was almost empty. Some cars had what looked like people’s gear spilling out of them, where they had been abandoned by their fleeing owners. Michelle’s car was in the driveway and for the first time that day since I left the shop I felt hopeful. But it didn’t last long. The door was ajar, covered with streaks of blood made by dragging hands. My heart filled with dread. I couldn’t move, terrified of what I would find behind that door. I felt that if I could just leave it closed everything could be put back into place, everything could be normal again, but if I opened it that would turn that horrible day from nightmare into reality. Breathing hard I steeled myself. I had to find out what happened to them. I had to.
I pushed open the door and sank to my knees. Just inside the hallway was Michelle, her long hair floating in a pool of blood spilling from her head and neck. There were chunks bitten out of her arms. But what I remember was her dress. It was torn and ruined beyond recognition. I started sobbing and moaning, not believing that it could be true, that my Michelle could be gone. Then I heard a thump and a scream from down the hall, and I remembered Sarah. I grabbed the baseball bat I kept next to the door, the bat that Michelle always thought was unnecessary because nothing ever happened in Pine Bluff, and I ran into the kitchen.
Sarah had crawled up on top of the fridge. She was crying and wailing and the woman underneath her was making the same horrible yowling and growling like the man on the side of the road. The front of the fridge, usually covered in magnets and Sarah’s schoolwork, was covered in grime and blood. I didn’t think twice about it. I called out to Sarah, told her to close her eyes, and I raised the bat and slammed it into the back of the woman’s head with all my might. It shattered like a ripe melon and she fell to the floor, dead for good. I threw the bat aside and grabbed Sarah from the top of the fridge and held her while we both cried on the bloody linoleum.
After a while I came to my senses enough to start to process the danger we were in. I comforted Sarah, took her upstairs to our master bedroom, and told her to stay there. I barricaded the stairs behind me. I went back down the hall, not looking at Michelle, and closed and locked the door, then barricaded it for good measure. As I drew the curtains on all the windows I peeked out onto the street. The sky was blood red and there was an orange glow coming from downtown where the city burned. A few stumbling dead wandered around. I remember weighing up the options, and deciding there was nothing for it, that we had to spend the night in our house before we could get away into the country. We would head for Thurman Cotton and see what became of George Thurman. He had workers, equipment. He might have escaped the worst of it. Or, though I hardly dared to hope it, maybe the whole thing was contained to Pine Bluff. Some Army experiment gone wrong. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
There was a thump in the hallway and a low gurgling moan. Footsteps started slowly scraping along the wooden floor. All the warmth left my body, and a hysterical panic threatened to consume me. My mouth dry, not wanting to see what was coming up behind me, I turned slowly from the window. My wife, the woman I vowed to care for in sickness and in health until death do us part, was stumbling toward me, her eyes milky white. I was frozen where I stood. I knew what I had to do on some level, but the act seemed inconceivable, something so profane and horrible that to think of it turned my stomach. Just as she…it…began to reach for me I thought of Sarah, upstairs and scared out of her mind. All conscious thought left my mind and I acted. I did what had to be done. And when my wife was dead for good, I covered her with a white sheet and took her back to the hallway.
That night was the most terrifying night of my life. We stayed in the bedroom with the lights off. The power was gone. I had enough sense to remember what my pop always told me. During the cold war he was absolutely certain that the Russians would use the bomb, and he’d drilled into me how important water was in the event of a disaster. I filled the sinks and the tub. I consoled Sarah as best I could. She couldn’t even talk, just held a thousand-yard stare. I could barely keep it together for her. After she fell asleep I tuned through the stations on the portable radio, expecting to hear music or talkback. Instead there was only soft static or garbled chatter. Near midnight I stumbled on an emergency broadcast starting, saying that the President would be talking soon. There was a long beep then static, and I couldn’t get anything else.
Sarah woke early. I don’t think I slept the whole night, the silence and pricking heat pressing down on me, Michelle’s lifeless body flashing before my eyes. I packed what food and water we had into bags, found my knife, lighters, matches, and the first aid kit Michelle kept in the kitchen cupboard and thought about what I could do for her to lay her to rest. There was no way I could just leave her as she was. I went back into the hallway, pulled back the sheet, and looked into my wife’s face, the love of my life, for the last time. It wasn’t her anymore. I covered her up, wrapped the sheet around her, and took her to the back yard.
I started digging at nine in the morning and had enough of a grave dug by midday give her a proper burial. I thanked God that we had a closed-off yard. I laid Michelle into the ground. Sarah came and put a flower on her mother’s chest and whispered her goodbyes. I felt like my heart was being ripped out and torn to pieces like the cops I’d seen the day before. We pushed the dirt over her body and marked her grave. Since then, we’ve never been back to Pine Bluff. We loaded our stuff into my wife’s car and drove out of town, heading North. Whenever we reached another blockage we couldn’t pass I just took another car when I could. I figured that the police had bigger problems on their hands than auto theft. Other times we just had to walk. We set out from Pine Bluff for the countryside around Little Rock that day not knowing that the whole world had ended, and what I had seen was only the beginning.