She is, her mother tells everyone with pride, a normal child.
To be fair, at four years old, she was a normal child. She slept with a nightlight on, surrounded by her teddy bears. She had a favourite pair of socks. Her mother liked to dress her up in pretty, sparkly dresses, and she would parade up and down the hallway, in her own private fashion show. Her father would blow raspberries on her stomach and she would shriek and squeal and laugh, kicking out her short chubby legs.
Her grandmother would bring over boxes of paper and brightly coloured crayons, and she'd clap happily, and spend hours drawing, and when she showed her parents smiled, exclaim about having a talented 'drawer' and stuck it on the fridge door.
Her grandad would dig up some old horse models, and together they'd play Let's Pretend. She'd give her horses high pitched, squeaky voices and her grandad would pull his voice into a low, gruff growl. They'd send the toy horses on magical adventures to faraway places (and once to outer space).
As a four year old, she was very normal. The picture of a young, happy little girl.
Six years later, her mother still tells everyone about her normal child. She doesn't quite believe it anymore, but she tells anyone who will listen.
(They believed her then, too.)
At ten years old, she seems normal enough on the outside. She still has a favourite pair of socks, still has her teddy bears (she outgrew the nightlight ages ago). She still plays dress-ups, still mucks around with her dad. She doesn't like drawing so much now, and the model horses have a place of honour on her window sill, but she hasn't touched them in months.
Her mother watches her as she watches TV with her dad, and can't pick anything wrong with her. She seems normal. But normal young girls shouldn't… shouldn't be obsessed with dead things.
The first time the girl was confronted with death, with real-life death, was a of couple years ago. A magpie had flown into the side of their house, and lay dead in their garden. Her father had explained the concept of death as she squatted by the motionless bird, and she had looked up, seemingly interested.
'So… it's gone? Not coming back?'
Her mother had stepped forward, fingers itching to pull her away from it (God knows what diseases it might have), shaking her head. 'No. No, once something dies, it doesn't come back.'
'Like, at all?' The girl glanced at the bird, then retreated to her mother. 'So, if I die, like, right now? That's it? Where do I go?'
'First of all,' her father said, before her mother could open her mouth, 'you won't die now. You won't die tomorrow. Honey, you're not going anywhere any time soon.'
'But if I do,' the girl said slowly, as if afraid her father would misunderstand her, 'where would I go?'
'Heaven. You would go to heaven.' Her mother had said promptly, pulling the girl towards the house. 'Heaven is where people go when they die. It's a wonderful, blissful place. No more questions now,' she added when the girl looked up expectantly, 'let's get you up to the house and wash your hands. Your father will bury the poor bird.'
And that had been that.
For a few weeks anyway.
The girl had come back with more questions. And then more questions.
Her mother understood that curiosity about death was natural, but was it this natural? Some of the questions her daughter asked… it was too much for a little girl to be thinking about.
She turned her attention back to her girl and husband sitting on the couch, laughing at some gameshow. And told herself not to worry. It was probably just some stage. She would grow out of it.
("All kids are curious at that stage! Soon she'll find something else that'll take her interest. It'll probably be horses. She'll want a pony, I bet you.")
She's eleven years old when she discovers zombies.
Some boys in her class are playing some video game in the school library, one that she can hear from three tables away; gunshots, pixilated soldiers yelling, the boys playing it laughing. A couple of minutes slide by before she abandons her work and wanders over to see what it is.
'Whatcha playing?' she asks, standing on her tiptoes to peek over one of the boy's shoulders. They part a little to let her in their little semi-circle, and one of them points to the screen. 'Luke is killing some zombies.'
'Trying to kill some zombies,' says Luke, clicking away frantically at the computer mouse.
The girl peers closer at the screen. A man – the one Luke is controlling, she guesses – is armed with a shovel and a shotgun, and is swinging and shooting at… things that are running towards him. They look human, but at the same time, not human. They look dead and rotted and wrong.
'Zombies?' she repeats.
'Yeah, zombies,' Luke answers.
'You know, zombies,' one of the boys beside her says. 'The undead. The damned. The ones that come back and try to eat your brains.'
'Come back?' she asks, because her mother told her that things don't come back. 'Eat your brains?' she adds, because it only just clicked.
The boys laugh. 'Yeah, something like that,' Luke mutters, scowling at the screen.
The girl watches, fascinated, as Luke lays waste to zombies, as zombies bite and gnash take chunks out of Luke's character's arm.
(The game, she would learn, was very mild when compared to the real thing.)
By the time she's thirteen, she claims she knows everything there is to know about zombies. Zombie posters plaster her walls, her bookshelf strains to hold all her apocalyptic novels, zombie movies are scattered all over her room. A stuffed, cutsie zombie has found a place with her other teddy bears.
Her mother hates it. 'A young girl has no place with all of this… all of these horrific things? The undead? All of the gore that you watch now! It's unacceptable!' Her mother shouted this at her over the dinner table a few days ago.
'Now, now, darling,' her father had intervened. 'It's not that bad. Zombies are a common obsession among teenagers. It's fine. Although,' he added, turning back to her as her mother's lip curled, 'I do wish you didn't watch things that were so violent. That I don't agree with.'
She just shrugged, picking at her beans. 'It's not that violent, dad. It's just a little bit of blood. Trust me, you should see what the other kids in my class are watching.'
The discussion had ended, with her mother sniffing disdainfully and her father taking too much of an interest in his sausages to supply any other arguments. The girl was glad for that, really.
If her parents didn't agree with what she watched, what she read… she didn't want them to know about what she was researching. Because that stuff was definitely not normal for a young girl.
("Stay away from that girl," other mothers would tell their children. "She's bad news. Stay away from her.")
Her research is dark. Dark and gruesome and chilling.
For a start, it wasn't; all she could find was the typical zombie things – movies, merchandise, zombie marches in surrounding cities. A little deeper brought her into things like exorcism, for some reason, and myths and urban legends about ghosts and serial killers and cannibals.
After reading a gruesome news report about a plane crashing on a mountain and the survivors being stuck for weeks, and finding nothing about zombies, she went the other way.
She researched about heaven, about the cycle of life and death, about the afterlife.
And then, she finds something.
Tales of people dying, but coming back to life. Some of them were dead for only a few minutes, but there's a few that were dead for much longer. Half an hour. A couple of hours. A few days. One man claimed he had been dead for months, frozen under a snow drift, before being revived.
Her mother was wrong. Nothing had to stay dead. Not everything stayed dead and went to heaven.
(There's a reason why everyone claims that, though. They refused to believe the opposite. She knows that now, knows why.)
As she goes deeper and deeper in her research, the less sleep she gets. Her grades start to slip a little, and school suddenly seems a whole lot less important. Really, school doesn't contribute to her future much. What is important is what matters to her.
Her fifteenth birthday comes and goes. Although her parents are fed up with her whole attitude towards everything at the moment (her father calls it being a teenager, her mother calls it unacceptable) they still get her something; a small TV for her room.
Her nights are now filled with horror movies.
Sleep isn't all that important, anyway.
(She will have plenty of time to rest later. Too much time.)
It takes her a little while to realize that she wants zombies to be real. Nothing would make her happier.
It takes her a little less time to start rationalizing to herself. Zombies came back from the dead. People could come back from the dead. Zombies were insane, bloodthirsty monsters. So were some people.
It wouldn't take much for a man to die, come back and be driven insane, into an undead-like state.
It could happen.
It was probable, even.
(The ironic thing was, people should've listened to her when she preached on about the End of the World. They should've taken her seriously.)
She wants zombies to be real, and now that she thinks about it, a world full of zombies would be terrifying. Most people wouldn't survive. It would be like a movie, like one of the classic horror movies.
Her nightly entertainment becomes her education.
Come the apocalypse, she will survive. She'll make sure of it.
(They didn't take her seriously.)
At eighteen, she quits school, and rents an apartment downtown.
Her parents call her irresponsible, that she's got her priorities wrong, but she works three jobs to bring in cash and she reckons she's an expert at making anything into a weapon (she hasn't actually practised it, but she knows all the theory). She's read up on everything defence, and she's working on turning her apartment into a small fortress.
She's replaced all of the locks with something better. She's added deadlocks as well to all doors.
She's hammered some bars on the inside of all windows.
She has stacks of canned food. She's working on a water supply, but she's sure she'll have something soon.
She's started to take self-defence classes as well, trying to turn her body into a weapon, like she's read about. The going's slow, and that frustrates her, but it's something.
Her parents say that she's ruining her life, if she would just go back to school everything would be fine, but she doesn't listen. They know nothing. They think she's being silly when she tries to tell them what she's doing, what she's preparing for, but they never listen. It's always 'come back home' and 'we can fix this' and 'let us help'.
Well, screw them. When the apocalypse comes, she'll see what they think of her then.
(She would take it all back if she could.)
She now has a gun. She doesn't know how to use it properly (she'll teach herself) and she doesn't have any bullets yet, but she has a gun. Every hero in every zombie movie she's seen, in every zombie novel she read, had a gun.
Her arsenal at the moment consists of not very arsenal-ly things. A couple of baseball bats, and couple of golf clubs, a few other blunt objects. A kitchen full of knives. A shovel leaning against the hallway wall.
It's too conspicuous, she reasons, to have actual weapons laying around the apartment. Too risky. Someone could notice, and they'd call the cops. She'd find herself stuck in a prison cell for a bit. If the apocalypse happened then, she's be a sitting duck.
The gun is easily hidden, though. Under a couch cushion it goes, ready to be grabbed when needed.
The bullets, when she got them, would probably go in the spoon drawer.
Her parents called the other day. We are so close to giving up. All you do is stay in that apartment of yours, on the internet, obsessing of this apocalypse of yours. You're only twenty. Please, you can still get a scholarship; you're smarter than this. Come home. We can fix this. Before it's too late.
You're ruining yourself. You're killing yourself.
She called them back. When things are trying to kill you, then you'll be asking me for help. And I want you to remember these things you're saying about me.
(She was so delusional. Did she ever even tell them she loved them?)
She's twenty-two when the apocalypse hits.
Thousands of people die in one day, all over the country, and she stays locked up in her apartment, clutching her gun.
She can barely contain her glee, her horror. They're here. I was right.
No zombies venture up to her apartment. She's barricaded the lobby too well. As soon as the news hit, reporters telling citizen to get to your homes and stay there, she had rushed down and boarded the thing up. She thinks she did quite a good job at it, too. It looked solid enough.
(Selfish selfish selfish selfish selfi-)
From her perch on the arm of the couch, watching the door, she can hear them, the zombies, in the streets below. Moaning and calling out (to who? Who do zombies cry out for?) but they never break through into her building.
She can hear people screaming in the streets below, too. People sobbing, praying, crying out. Dying. Loudly.
She doesn't look out of her window. She doesn't want to think about them. Not now, when it's all happening.
(She should've thought about it. It would've made it easier for her, in the end.)
It takes her only a couple of weeks to run out of food, and she's shocked and disgusted with herself. She had spent years, years, preparing for this, and she can't even support herself for a month?
Stupid. She doesn't even know where she went wrong.
Growling, spitting, she tears through her apartment four times. The only thing she can find is a packet of stale Pringles, buried under the couch.
She doesn't take it well. Not well at all. She knows it's bad to lose your temper, that you have to stay calm in tough situations, but she doesn't care. The freaking apocalypse is happening right outside her window and she has no freaking food. Just… perfect.
Forming a plan takes far too long, and assembling all her gear takes longer. She can't find things that she needs, can't remember where she's hidden everything. It takes her almost an hour to find her gun; it's dusty and dull underneath the couch cushion. She bangs her head on the roof when she goes to grab the golf club from the top of a cupboard. She screams as a spider scuttles across her hand as she reaches for a knife at the bottom of a drawer.
She's unprepared. It's impossible, after all of this time she's spent on it, but she's disorganized.
It makes her want to scream.
(It will make her scream.)
Half way down the stairwell, she realises she's forgotten to load her gun, that she doesn't even have any bullets on her. She leaps back up the stairs two at a time, happy, at least, with the fact that she's strong and fit. Running upstairs doesn't bother her, not even while carrying a baseball bat, a golf club, a (useless) gun, and an assortment of knives. It's too easy.
What's not easy, is finding her bullets. She looks everywhere she can think; under her bed, in her wardrobes, behind the sink. It's not until she's pulling at her hair when she remembers her plans for the spoon drawer.
But when she looks in the spoon drawer, they're not there, and she thinks, did she ever actually get some bullets?
She turns the apartment upside down in her frenzy to find some.
She can't find some.
She takes the baseball bat to the window, shrieking and crying.
(Rash and irresponsible. Foolish.)
She bolts down the stairs for the last time, ready to throw herself into the streets and fight, but as she reaches the lobby, she freezes.
The glass lobby doors are broken, but no one was able to get through.
Corpses, human corpses, have stiffened, forever frozen in a position of clawing at the doors, trying to get through, trying to dislodge the reinforcements she had put up.
Trying to get safely inside their homes, like the reporter had said to.
Some of them – the ones at the back – have half been eaten by zombies. Others were trampled or crushed to death.
The lobby reeks of rotted flesh.
She empties her stomach into a fake potted plant.
(So damned selfish.)
The streets are terrifying. Bodies lay everywhere, scattered around like a messed up Picasso painting. Cars are burnt out, smashed against building or rest upside down, in pools of blood. A baby's pram has been torn apart, scattered around and in the wreckage, a pacifier.
The living dead are everywhere.
They're nothing like they are in movies or video games or books. These are nothing like the dumb, green bodies with outstretched limbs and moans of 'braiiiins'.
These zombies are smart. Smart and vicious. They're not green or red-eyed. They look like corpses, and they act like corpses, and then they lash out as you walk by and shove you to the ground, snapping at your face, teeth clacking, like a rabid dog.
She shrieks, and instinct kicks in, and she grabs its head and twists, throwing her shoulder right around. She hears something snap, and the zombie flails, because it's suddenly staring at the sky and a gush of black, thick blood come spurting from a new slit in its neck and she screams, chocking and spluttering and struggling to sit up.
She squeezes her eyes shut, and when she opens them she's up and running, chest heaving as she sobs and pants, dodging anything that looks human to her blurry, burning eyes.
(Four years ago, it had seemed like a good idea to move as far away from her parents as she could. Oh, how she was wrong.)
By the time she's back at her childhood home, she's realised three things – she's dropped her baseball bat and golf club somewhere along the way; she's swallowed zombie blood, but hasn't turned yet, so changing into one either takes time or zombies are venomous, not poisonous; and that she is not prepared.
The house looks fine, untouched. The car still sits in the driveway. There's only a little blood splatter on the front door. Nothing's burnt.
She walks up the pathway, steps slow, cautious, and she realises another thing – she's not hungry anymore. She's not thirsty. She just feels sick.
She's on the top step, and she's finding it hard to breathe. 'Mom?' she manages. 'Dad? Are- are you there?'
They don't answer, but then again, it would've been hard to hear. She could barely wheeze the words out.
Stomach in knots, she pushes at the door. It opens without protest.
There's a lot more blood splatter inside. A lot more blood, a lot less air.
Up the hallway she goes, the hallway she stomped through every day of her childhood, but she doesn't recognise it now. Too much red. Too wet.
'P-please… I'm sorry. I- I can get us out of here. Please answer.'
She finds them sitting at the kitchen table.
Their faces missing.
(That was the moment when she decided she should learn how to drive.)
She can't figure out if the windscreen of her parent's car is dirty or if her eyes are just not working, but she can barely make out anything. The gear box shrieks at her as she tries to push the engine to work faster, harder, to just get her out of there.
Sobs rip deep from her gut and up through her throat, bringing blood with it. She's still armed with knives, but she's all but forgotten about them. She just wants- she just wants out. She doesn't want to be a part of this anymore. She doesn't want to be in the apocalypse anymore.
She can't believe that she wanted this. She wished for this. Her parents are dead and she was preparing for it for most of her life.
It makes her so sick, and if both of her hands weren't clutching the steering wheel she might just tear her own throat out.
Her sobs turn to screams as she hurls towards the freeway.
(She doesn't realize she's suddenly starving.)
For a start, all goes well; she's on the freeway, she's ploughing through zombies like they were piles of autumn leaves, and, for a little bit, all is well. Physically.
But half an hour passes and the car isn't responding to her as it should, and she's loosing speed. What the hell? she thinks, jamming her foot down on the pedal, but the car just bunny-hops.
'Don't you dare run out of fuel! Don't you dare!' she bellows, punching the dash, but it doesn't listen as the fuel gauge drops to zero, and the car gives up and dies. 'Goddamn it! You bastard!' She's out of the door before the car rolls to a stop, and she's crying and running and clawing at her eyes.
The zombies are already climbing over the rails that guard the road, already picking themselves up from the ground where they were pretending to be corpses. She palms a knife, her fear turning to anger, then fear again, before settling on panicked aggression. She will kill some of these abominations.
There's a cluster up ahead of her, and she sprints towards them, screaming, and she knows she's running to her death, but these things killed her parents and she doesn't care anymore.
They run towards her, and they're everywhere, behind her, around her, and this will be painful and she's terrified but she makes sure her legs don't stop moving, that she still holds her knives at the ready.
But, then, it changes.
The zombies slow down. They stop, and stare at her. They look… confused. Taken aback. It's enough to make her stop.
They keep staring at her, and she turns on the spot, expecting an attack. But they don't. They sniff at the air, stare at her some more, and then… back away?
They're backing away. They're leaving her alone. Unharmed. Uneaten.
She doesn't understand it, but her deteriorating, damaged brain supplies her with one reason: you're immune.
And to her brain, she replies: holy shit.
She's- she's immune. She's invisible to them.
She's the answer to human survival.
With one last glance at the retreating zombies, she pockets her knives and slips over the guard, into the bush ahead. She should head north. Find a safe place.
Her stomach rumbles. She'd kill for some lamb's fry.
(She's not immune.)