James knew why his son kept looking out the window, and for the hundredth time, he ordered him to stop: “Your mom’s not out there Steve, come over here.”
But the boy disobeyed and kept his hands and forehead on the glass, holding his breath not to fog it. He hadn’t lied when asked about the reason he had messed with the bullets, and his father regretted more than ever lacking the courage to shoot his wife. Now the boy longed to see her, even though he knew the state she would be in would break his heart. It was hard to get past denial in a world where the dead walk.
The man picked him up and sat with him. Steve didn’t lean against him like he would have done with his mother, he stiffened and never quite relaxed.
“I’ll tell you something I heard at school, when I was your age. Back then, zombies only existed in movies, not in real life. But teachers still told us many things about what happens when we die. They said we went in the sky; they said it was the nicest place you could think of, where everyone is friendly and we can play all day long. I think that’s where Maggy is. She picked a comfortable spot right above us, so she can look and see how we’re doing anytime.”
Steve nodded, but James felt that he would never believe it. Wondering if he still believed in it himself, he found out that he didn’t know. It had lost its meaning over the years. Perhaps this is why they didn’t attempt to teach it anymore.
After a long, uneasy silence, he sighed: “We should go back to the Island. Staying alone will make us crazy. Next time Zombie Hunters stop by, we’ll leave with them. Lets start packing the nicest things we have so we can leave quickly.”
James kept himself from thinking by working all the time. He made sometimes reckless expeditions outside to get valuable things he could trade once on the Island. It was his only way to keep himself from crying. It didn’t work all the time, but at least, when he did weep, it wasn’t in front of Steve. Hopefully the boy obeyed him and kept busy as well. He just didn’t have the mental strength to be the ideal father right now, he had to get out.
He forced himself to more discipline one day, when he almost shared his wife’s fate. He saw a single zombie further up the street, and his first reaction was to hasten his pace to see if it was Maggy. Realising what he was doing, he started laughing hysterically, then collapsed and his insane laughs turned into sobs. When he remembered to look up, the zombie he had seen was crouching a few steps away from him, waiting for its cue to make its move. If it hadn’t been a Mercy, he would have died and Steve would have been completely alone. He aimed his gun at the creature, then lowered it. Only an asshole would shoot a Mercy.
Plus, he had a debt to this one. It made him realise how dangerous his attitude had been. He patted it on the shoulder and thanked it; maybe something inside of it understood his feeling. Then he headed home. His son was certainly even more grieved than him, taking care of him should have been his first priority.
Packing up must have given ideas to the kid, because when he made it home, he was already gone. One of the guns was gone, so were several boxes of food, but it was hard to tell for the rest, he didn’t keep a very precise inventory. Hopefully, Steve would have forgotten to take spare clothes. One night in an unheated building would send him running back home before meeting a crowd of Crawlers.
He had just learned that he loved Fred. Fred was a great boy compared to this one. He’d do anything to be with Fred right now. Or even Fred’s father! Fred wasn’t a Zerker!
The sewer’s maintenance tunnel had been open when Steve needed its shelter, and once closed above his head, it couldn’t be opened from outside without special tools. Now he crouched on the damp concrete as the noise tortured his ears. Aware of his presence, the Berserker was beating the steel trapdoor with all its strength. Steve looked through the stuff in his bag and pulled out the bottle of perfume his mom wore for special occasions. He poured a drop on his hand, curled up in a corner and covered his ears, trying to pretend that he was with her, and not so alone, scared and cold.
Eventually, he fell asleep there. Rain running into his shelter and soaking his clothes woke him up somewhere during the night. Shivering, he listened intensely but heard nothing but the rain and wind. The tunnel didn’t fill with water, but everything he touched was wet, and cold, so cold! The rain helped him with something though. The dirt it lifted kept the Berserker from smelling him, and after a while it forgot that he was there and left. Perhaps now was a good time to run for it, there were houses nearby, there ought to be a dry spot in them.
Pushing the steel door open was a great feat for his skinny juvenile limbs, and as soon as it was done, he found himself blinded by the night and rain – there was no streetlights here like there was on the Island – and furiously whipped by the hail. He frequently stumbled as he ran in a direction he hoped would lead him to a house, and laughed with relief when he began to see the welcoming silhouette of a building before him. The door was locked, but he didn’t hesitate to throw rocks at a window until it broke.
He wiped his face on a mouldy curtain, trying to get most of the rain out of his hair. Then he thought of it and found the kitchen, taking the pans out to collect rain. He had brought a powder that disinfected water for drinking, but it took reasonably clean water to begin, muddy puddles wouldn’t do. He then looked for clothes or blankets to keep himself warm while his things dried. Too bad there was no fireplace – although it would have helped little, his matches were soaked.
Everything was damp, but that was better than wet and finally, he could sleep a little more. The clouds were gone when the sun raised.
As he went out to collect his water, he saw that Crawlers had wandered there during the night. No trace of the Berserker, thankfully. He quickly grabbed two pans and retreated indoors.
Why was he there anyway? He wanted to see his mother, of course, but he knew he’d have to watch her from a distance, if he came close, she’d eat him. That’s all she knew now, roam until she found something alive to eat. She wouldn’t recognise Steve or his dad. He knew this all, but inside he couldn’t believe it. She was his mom, she was everything in his world since he was born, how could she forget him? Maybe she would have some memories; if he looked in he eyes, maybe he would see that a little part of her still loved him, and that would be enough. He just wanted that one look, then he’d come running back home, back to the Island.
He climbed to the upper floor and looked out the window. There weren’t so many zombies in the area; he had exited the green zone, but not by far. That group of Crawlers was probably the only one around, she had good chances of being with them. With the distance and their general dirtiness, it was hard to recognise any of them. It was better than usual; the rain had cleaned most of the blood off them and flattened the knots in their hair, but they were still pretty anonymous. He tried to remember what she was wearing when… when she went with them. Shapeless grey pants, and a white shirt. Now the white shirt would be as grey and shapeless as the pants. Her brown hair would be undone and hang over her face. Many of them sported that style, sadly.
They had little chances of seeing him at the window and he wasn’t planning on being loud. The rain had drenched him as thoroughly as them: it had washed most of his smell off when he entered the house. They couldn’t tell that a living boy had been there, but that wouldn’t be true for long. His bladder was threatening to explode, but as soon as he would let go, they’d locate him and break in the house. He couldn’t afford to stay very long and… he gasped in realisation: he had no way out!
He checked every window. Maybe it was one of those streets where there are no backyards and the houses are all next to one another, he hadn’t seen it on his way in, it had been too dark. No, there would be no way to travel from rooftop to rooftop, they were much too far apart and no tree formed a bridge between them. The house’s power line was far from the window, he’d never reach it.
As he reviewed the windows, his heart jumped: this Crawler down there, could it be her? The fat female form was looking downwards, he didn’t see his face, but she had the same proportions as his mother. Her only visible wound was on the arm, where she had worn a bandage before turning, and although they had gotten quite messy, her clothes matched the ones she had. It was worth taking a closer look. Now if only she wasn’t surrounded by all the others…
He took the pistol and made sure it was loaded. Then… it’s not that he wanted to attract them in, but there was no way he could postpone going to the toilet any longer. And he ran to a spot from which he could both shoot into the staircase and out the window. They were slow, and the first ones’ bodies piling up on the steps would slow them even further, he’d have the time to reload when needed, hopefully.
Since they had yet to find the stairs – from the sounds, they hadn’t even made it to the door yet, he took a few practice shots through the window. He aimed very carefully, but four tries didn’t fell his target. It got hit once in the chest though; it wasn’t too far off, at closer range, he’d get them.
It took time before the first one came in sight on the lower floor, but it moaned loudly and the others immediately headed toward the call. Steve managed to shoot them successfully almost every time, they were close enough, and they did grant him enough time to reload, although he couldn’t always add all the bullets the gun could contain.
Despite his quiet sitting position, he quickly tired. His weapon grew very hot and hurt his fingers, and he got desperate to see an end to their numbers. His aim lost precision and they made it increasingly close to him before he could shoot them. When he sighted the bottom of the box between the bullets he had left, he understood that he was losing the battle.
He couldn’t grab both his backpack and the spare box of ammunition, so he only took the latter and ran to one of the rooms. Instinctively, he had picked the one he had seen his mother from. Barricading the door would spare him a few minutes.
Amidst the bumping and beating on the door and walls, he looked out. She was still there! A few of them were still shuffling aimlessly along the wall, and she was one of them. Perhaps they couldn’t hear the moans and calls from the staircase from their position. Very few of them, he could take them out, and a lean tree nearby would probably allow him to slow his drop to the ground. He’d have his good, long look at her and run for his life, he’d make it out of there after all!
The first part or his plan went smoothly. The window opened without much resistance, he slid down and landed smoothly enough, and he didn’t lose the pistol. Quickly, he was ready to shoot down the unwanted zombies.
The others, now inside and many of them upstairs, would take a while to find the way to their expected meal’s new location, so Steve had enough time to see what he wanted to see. He was alone with his mother now, his mother who walked toward him with a painfully vacuous expression. He stepped back.
“Mom! Mom, it’s me, Steve! I came to see you, just… just look at me please. I know you can’t talk, it doesn’t matter. Just look at me, I… I love you!”
Her eyes were in fact looking his way, but remained empty and expressionless. They tracked his movements as he recoiled further, but they didn’t see the boy in the meat she hungered for. The kid would have had trouble shooting should another fiend come his way: tears blurred his vision so bad that he nearly allowed his undead relative to reach him before he found the fence’s lock and put its door between himself and his pursuer.
“Mom! Please look at me! Be my mom just one second. Look at me, love me again! Just once, please!”
He choked as his sobs grew uncontrollable. Her not reacting at all was something he was not ready for. He even tried bargaining:
“I’ll let you eat me! I’ll let you! Just look at me like before, I want to be your little boy again! Just one little second!”
She was leaning over the fence now, one arm stretched out to catch him. There was no violence in her motion, but no care either; she wanted his flesh, she tried to take it, her thinking didn’t go beyond that. He stepped a little further away, she leant a little further forward, until she toppled and landed on her face. She expressed no pain from the deep cuts some untamed bush had inflicted on her cheek and lips as she got back up in slow, listless movements. Even if she didn’t feel it, Steve didn’t like to see her hurt.
The boy considered giving up now. She would not see him, she would not see that he was her little boy! But years after the humans had gone from the Wastelands, vegetation grew tall and thick over previously neatly trimmed lawns; as he turned around, he caught his feet in some tangled stems and fell. It was his turn to get nasty scratches, but he ignored them, he turned toward his mother in a mix of fear and hope. He didn’t care if he died, if it could make her love him again, just a bit.
The gun shook as he aimed it at her head, shook with increasing violence until he dropped it without firing. He would give up life just to feel her embrace again.
He jerked his limbs back as she reached for them, but she soon caught up and then, instead of trying to crawl away, he moved toward her and locked his arms around her waist. He felt something close enough to joy when he felt her arms close around him.
But it was only to grab his hair and yank him upward. He was out of her mouth’s reach when he hugged her like that, and that’s the only thing she noticed. His struggling against that painful pulling threw her off her feet and before he knew it, he was laying in her lap, in a position he had often sought before but that now exposed him to her terrible hunger. She didn’t pause before catching his hand and pulling it at her; she was like a machine, nothing would distract her from what she wanted.
Steve was too small to fight back, as hard as he tried to resist, she was much stronger than him. He twisted his neck to try and find the gun again, but hadn’t located it through the wild weeds when the worst pain he had ever felt erased that concern from his mind. Her teeth easily broke through his tender skin, the thin bones shattered, in a single bite, she tore three fingers off his hand. If the other Crawlers still hadn’t located him, now they certainly heard his shrieks.
He tried as hard as he could not to focus on the pain. That was what they did, that was what he had to expect when he came here, she didn’t mean to hurt him, it wasn’t her fault! Even though she was the cause of his agony, he curled up in her lap and hoped to find comfort in her presence. Wasn’t she his mom?
But nothing he loved so in his mom was there. There was no warmth, none of the nice smells of hers – she smelled like garbage now – and he knew that no matter how hard he pressed his ear against her chest, he would not hear her quiet, reassuring heartbeat. She would not idly caress his hair, she would not look down and smile at him. All she had left to give now was what he was already getting: an evil way to die.
He could ignore everything, he could ignore how utterly she failed to be his mom, to be a person. He could even ignore the pain, although he couldn’t stop screaming. All of this was little, next to that other thing she failed at. She did not love him.
He tried to force her to look at him. As long as he didn’t take his hand away from her, she didn’t care how the rest of him moved, and she held that half eaten hand tightly, so tightly in fact that very little blood made it to the wound, her son would take forever to die. His free hand caught her hair and he pulled it until her face was turned his way. But she still wouldn’t look in his eyes. She was only interested in the next piece of flesh she would devour.
“Come on mom, I’m right there with you, I’m even feeding you right now, shouldn’t you be happy? Just look at me, show me that you know me!”
He was only thinking those words, he couldn’t stop crying and screaming long enough to talk. This was the most painful part of his torture: to see that she did not care about him at all.
She was soon done with the meagre flesh she could take from his hand and moved to his forearm. Blood poured out faster and the boy began to feel numb. He forgot that pressing himself against her would not make him feel less cold and alone. He even smiled weakly: after he died, he would be like her, and they would be together. That didn’t keep his last breath from coming out as a desperate sob.
The boy’s body wasn’t spared the hideous process that had nearly destroyed this world. When it should have begun to stiffen, it started to twitch instead, and soon enough was ready to walk. It heard its kind as they were walking away, resuming their aimless walk across the deserted land, and followed them. The fence slowed it much – it couldn’t think of such complicated solutions as walking around it, it had to climb it, but it eventually caught up.
Many times, the mindless creature he had become ran into what had been its mother. It didn’t look up, nor did the female figure seem to notice its presence. It didn’t care at all.