December 10, 2009

The thing about the zombies was that they were a total impossibility. The English language is full of constructions that let the speaker concieve of paradoxes and logical scenarios that could not happen. But language is never the world; it is only an abstraction. A representation at best. It turned out that when an actual impossibility rose up in the world people could not handle it. The world suddenly slipped their conceptions and capabilities, and the results were chaos. Rafid himself had never seen a zombie, not directly. Plenty were shown on the news and over Internet broadcasts that he had scrambled to recieve on his handheld. And there were the scores of them that he had come across in the streets and the hills. But he — like most everyone else — had found it impossible to actually look at a zombie directly. The brain simply couldn’t process the reality of the impossible thing in front of it. The best comparison that Rafid could come up with was that looking at a zombie was like looking at a heavily blurred photograph. Or heat-haze rising off of blacktop. Or a phantom shape in the dark blindspot of his peripheral vision. Whatever zombies were, they could not be there. And the mind knew it. So it would prevent them from being observed. The subtle freedoms of language were no defense.


Rafid walked carefully up to the mailbox. The street had looked clear from his vantage point up on the rooftop of the gas station two blocks away, but you could never be sure. The movies had always given conssistent rules about zombies and their behavior but Rafid had quickly discovered that rules didn’t matter very much in this new world. He thought that maybe films were all concerned with conceits like that, as though everything could be wrapped up expained and presented in neat forms. Easily consumable, digested quickly in two hour bites. In reality zombies could be fast or slow, stupid or frighteningly cunning. Maybe it had something to do with lividity, Rafid thought, or rates or decomposition. But there was no way to tell — the zombies were not corpses and they were not alive. And whatever mechanisms they followed were determinedly their own.

It was overcast and the sound of the great lake’s waves rolling up on the beach was deafening. Rafid hoped that the sound would mask his presence. The open parking lot made him much more visible, and he didn’t like that, but at the same time it gave him lots of avenues of escape if he had to run. There was a brief moment of panic when he caught himself thinking about salt spray fine in the air impacting on the sturdy metal sides of the mailbox. But then he remembered that the great lake was fresh water and everyrhing was back to business, although he felt like an idiot.

The mailbox itself was thick, squat, all red steel except for the ubiquitous blue and white logo on the top. The cardboard sign listing times for pickup and transit had decayed badly despite its plastic sheath. Rafid smiled grimly at that, knowing that it was unlikely that there would ever be any more pickups. But that was alright. He pulled open the protective lid slowly so as to avoid as much noise as possible. God alone knew if the zombies would be attracted to the screech of unoiled metal or the bang of an improperly balanced lid.

Once the lid was open Rafd took a slender manilla envelope out of the inner pocket of his weathered army surplus jacket. The envelope was wrapped entirely with fine packing tape to keep out the element. Whoever opened it, should anybody ever find it, would have to slice the whole length of it with a sharp edge in order to get at the contents. Rafid hoped that they wouldn’t inadvertantly rip the pages he’d stored within. Each was thickly covered with fine clear printing in a variety of inks. The thought of his pages being torn so uncerimoniously filled Rafid with a despair that he hadn’t felt since the first few days of the new way. Still he girded himself, allowed a slow blink, and carefully closed the lid of the mailbox. His envelope was whisked away into darkness manmade but nevertheless profound. And it was done, Rafid thought, or maybe started.

Rafid knew that the mailbox was basically impervious to anything short of explosives. The elements would not get in to foul his papers; animals people and zombies would likely stay away. But when the new way went back to the old way or became an unforeseen new way his papers would still be there. Ready to be discovered, and read, and understood. A monument of comprehension in an indecipherable world. For all he knew the mailbox would outlast everything and would stand vigilant over the dust and ashes of their society. Although Rafid didn’t like the thought of the mailbox as a tombstone and his papers an epitaph, he could appreciate the humour in it all the same. Fuck it, he thought, let the ants have it. Let the aliens come down and figure out our memory.

Ducking down into a now familiar crab-like run, Rafid turned and headed for the deserted gas station to bed down for the night. He felt oddly naked, exposed to himself and the world.

The night was a long one, thick and dark. There were few streetlights left despite the power grid still being up and active. Whether this was due to weather happenstance, human agency or zombie hunting tactics, Rafid didn’t know. Did zombies hunt? Rafid considered the question. Maybe they did but at the same time that suggested a level of animality that simply did not apply to them. They seemed to hunt but maybe they were just attracted to fresh meat the way that some plants moved towards water or sunlight. There was no way to tell — the zombies were almost impossible to understand much less predict in a reliable fashion. Rafid thought he heard a small pack of them scuttle by in the watches of the night, but the sound was directionless and faded quickly. There was something that sounded like a car horn around three in the morning, deep bass and sustained as though some large beast had just stumbled into quicksand. Rafid heard it, but ignored it. He’d learned to do so.

The waves rolled in and out all night. Ordinarily they would have lulled Rafid to sleep, but now they kept him awake. He was never so lonely as when he could hear the muted roar of the surf.

The sun came up early, around five in the morning. But the day was just as overcast as the previous evening and Rafid couldn’t bring himself to stir before six. At least Rafid thought it was six. His wristwatch still worked — a solid steel piece of German craftsmanship that he had worn since his teenage years. On the back was an inscription, but Rafid refused to think about it. Besides he’d painted the brushed steel of its exterior with a thick coat of black paint in order to eliminate the chance of reflection. Standing slowly, joints long used to the stiff pain of a night spent sleeping on hard surfaces, Rafid covered and tightly folded the slim sleeping bag he had brought with him. He didn’t want dew to get into the fabric; the last thing he needed was an infection brought on by mould exposure.

Walking across the uneven tarmac roof Rafid selected a corner at a lower elevation than the corner that held his meager belongings. Then he voided his bladder. A thin, weak stream that was still colored healthily but smelled, Rafid thought, as though it were running light on standard mineral and vitamin components. Malnutrition was a disinct possibility — Rafid had never been the most discriminating eater and now his choices of diet were fewer than ever ever before. At least no one could fault him, he thought, what with the zombies being the new standard for lack of discrimination.

Memories of watching zombies eat, though ‘eat’ was obviously a misleading word, crept unerringly through Rafid’s mind as he straddled the black steel fire escape and lowered himself down to the main floor of the gas station. He tried to suppress them but mental control was much more difficult in traumatic circumstances than action movies had lead him to believe. Rafid was distracted most of the time no matter how hard he tried to focus, and when he was distracted the memories of his life in the new way filled his head.

Oddly more disturbing than the memories of the zombies attacking a person was the memories of stumbling across the remainders of said attacks. Human remains sometimes no more massive than a fine slurry puddling on a sidewalk, sometimes as much as a whole limb or even a masticated torso. A taste of slick copper filled Rafid’s mouth as he hit the simple switch on the gas station’s automated coffee maker. He hit the icon for a full pot and tried to take a more distanced perspective as the machine softly clanked through the process of preparing a filter package and boiling water for delivery. What made the victims of the zombies reanimate? Something in the zombies? Or was it something in the environment that effected them all and only waited for the right set of circumstances ro activate and take them over? Rafid couldn’t say. He couldn’t even see any reason why zombie victims would sometimes wake up, and sometimes not.

Rafid stirred his large travel mug of coffee while remembering how he had seen two remainders of exactly the same size react differently to whatever it was that created the zombies. One would come back while the other would remain still. Rafid had even seen parts of remains, a hand or a leg, scrabble back to the state that was neither life nor death, though these pieces posed no threat having no sensory organs. Not that a zombie’s senses could function in the first place — at least not in any way that a human could conceive. As Rafid swallowed a mouthul of the bitter coffee his stomach rumbled in complaint. He hadn’t been able to find any food on his way into town the day before and this gas station had been cleaned out of anything even vaguely appetizing.

The only food he knew for certain was nearby was held in massive coin-operated vending machines in the parking lot. Rafid had debated breaking into these monoliths of sugar and fiber but he knew that they were almost as impenetrable as the mailboxes he relied on. Warily he’d checked the cash registers the night before for change but the drawers were all empty. Maybe the float hadn’t been prepared before the change hit, or maybe other survivors like him had already had their run of the place. It didn’t matter what had happened any more than when it had happened. All that ever mattered — forever — was the moment at hand. Either way Rafid needed coins.

Not that there wasn’t abundent supplies elsewhere. This was the First World after all, in a time of automated plenty. In a town this size there must be easily three or four grocery stores brimming with food, water and sundry items. But Rafid didn’t like foraging when he didn’t have to. So far Rafid had survived by solving problems as they presented themselves, one step at a time, as few steps per solution as humanly possible. Right now Rafid needed food, food was right outside but needed coins, so Rafid needed coins.

And last night in the darkness Rafid had seen the lights of antiquity shining glumly for only his eyes. A video arcade.

There were dozens of reasons why this was a bad idea, but Rafid knew he wasn’t rational at the best of times (and neither were most others he would wager). Realistically running across a few small-town streets might be no more dangerous than the week he spent living on bags of two-day old doughnuts thrown out into dumpsters behind recluse coffee shops. Realistically it might be a whole lot worse. But, he thought, fuck realism. Life wasn’t realistic eighty percent of the time. So the arcade it would be.

Rafid spent a few minutes deciding what to bring with him before crab-walking carefully across halogen infested streets and then a few minutes more worrying that he hadn’t brought what he would need. This wasn’t an uncommon set of mental polarities for Rafid to swing around. One of the biggest questions — before and after the change — was what one would need to survive. Rafid had frankly no idea, then or now. A hammer? How about a crowbar? Batteries? Potable water? Antibiotics? Reading material? The movies Rafid had gone to offerred a bewildering array of items that no one could possibly carry in their entirety, but which were all fundamentally necessary to living more than just one more day.

Frustrated, Rafid had settled on taking a soft hammer and a small pry bar. Neither would be all that useful as weapons, but at least they remained relatively silent in the canvas bag he had brought to catch whatever coins he could harvest. The arade was not dark, which was good because Rafid had not thought to bring a flashlight. Lights of all colors reflected off of dozens of lustrous video game cabinets, providing enough confusing light to navigate by. The back of the arcade, where an attendant would sit ensconsed behind bulletproof plexiglass and begrudgingly dole out change for bills, was swallowed in darkness.

Rafid selected a small row of machines closer to the front door than to the enshadowed back. He did not like leaving himself with two points of exposure, but there wasn’t any choice. Besides, what was he, a commando? Even one point of exposure was too many. Thankfully the games all had their volumes turned down for the night — Rafid was fairly certain that he would hear anything approaching him to attack.

Crouching Rafid put the canvas bag on the ground, pulled out his hammer and pry bar, and started hammering on the locked coin door on the front of a game cabinet. He hit each strike as quietly as he could but even the lightest taps still fell with a thick thudding sound. On the fourth strike the cabinet’s lock sprang free and the door swung open slightly.

Moving gingerly Rafid reached inside and removed the tub that caught coins deposited into the slot. Rafid was gratified at the weight of it — he supposed that the change must have happened just prior to the weekly emptying of the machines by the company that leased them out to the arcade. Vaguely, as he emptied the tub carefully into his bag, Rafid wondered if the mob sill ran operations like this, like they had with jukeboxes and novelty machines back when Rafid’s grandparents were young. This idle thought almost cost Rafid his life, or something very much like it.

As Rafid was elbow-deep in the game replacing the tub (why he was doing this was unknown to him — it was more a reflex to orderliness than anything else) somethig jostled the cabinet sharply from the side facing the darkened back of the arcade. Something that whistled, almost like a moan but also like gravel thrown onto frozen tarmac. Rafid cried out from the pain of the coin door snapping back shut on his arm, and something started to lean or move around the game’s side. It walked into view as Rafid jumped back,scraping the inside of his elbow badly. It was almost tall and had a tuft of red. There was a shiver there, somewhere deep, and then Rafid was up, bag in hand but foresaking tools, turning and running for the front door.

Interestingly, Rafid had not even thought the word “zombie” until he had crossed over the threshold of the arcade entrance.