Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man
by Scott Edelman
Scott Edelman's fiction has appeared in a variety of anthologies and magazines, such as Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic, Postscripts, Forbidden Planets, Summer Chills , and The Mammoth Book of Monsters . When not writing, Edelman edits Science Fiction Weekly and SCI FI Magazine , and in the past edited the fiction magazine Science Fiction Age.
Edelman is something of a zombie genius. He's had stories appear in each of James Lowder's Eden Studios zombie anthologies: The Book of All Flesh, The Book of More Flesh , and The Book of Final Flesh , and he's been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award three times for his zombie fiction. As I read each of his zombie stories I thought for sure I'd found one to include in the book—that there'd be no way he'd top himself after that story, only to discover that each was better than the last. And that's without even mentioning his brilliant «A Plague on Both Your Houses,» a five-act Shakespearean play that he describes as a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Night of the Living Dead.
This story, which is one of his Stoker Award nominees, is not in any way Shakespearean, but one reviewer compared it to the work of another literary legend: W. H. Auden.
Maybe it would be best to begin this way.
Let's start, in fact, on the day that it all started, with Laura already at work in the county library. But here's the thing—as the day goes by, maybe she won't even come to realize yet that the dead are suddenly refusing to stay dead, because life happens that way, with momentous things occurring across town while we, in our homes, in our ignorance, clip our fingernails or floss our teeth. Earthquakes roar, floods rise, towers fall . . . and somewhere on the other side of the globe a man who may not hear of these things for many months, if at all, scrapes with his stick in a small patch of dusty earth and prays for rain. If he ever grows perturbed on that day, it will only be because the rain fails to come, and not due to dark happenings on continents far away.
For our purposes, let it begin that way for Laura, who did not notice her world tilting on its axis. She noticed little that first day of the change because little affected her personally, save that fewer patrons than normal wandered into her branch of the library. The ripples had not yet reached her.
But still, that small alteration to her routine puzzled her a bit, as over the years she had grown accustomed to the predictable rhythms of her week, but she let that feeling drop, and on the whole, it turned out to be an unusually good workday for her. She was able to spend less of her time that shift reshelving books that had been left on tables, and more of it catching up on paperwork, so she ended the day pleased.
As she headed back to her apartment that night, she treated herself to Chinese take-out. Maybe when she unpacks her dinner special, she should even find an extra fortune cookie at the bottom of the bag. Now that would cause her to smile. Because there's something else that you should know about Laura. She's been using the vocabulary words printed on the back of each fortune to teach herself Chinese, not the best method, perhaps, but still, hers, and the surprise cookie put her one word closer to her goal. See, she was planning to visit China someday. Adding that information just about now should help add poignancy to her tale, considering what we already know is inevitably to come and what she does not.
And so, later that night, after the additional reward of a very special episode of one of her favorite television shows, during which two estranged sisters are reunited, plus the rush she got from the way she'd been able to avoid a phone call from her mother thanks to caller ID, she would tuck into bed pleased with herself and with the world and ready to fall into a peaceful sleep, knowing nothing of the chaos elsewhere and suspecting less, much as our man working his field with a stick might finally set aside that stick and stretch out on his straw mat to drift away while looking up at the stars, never knowing that he had just lived through a December 7, or an August 6, or a September 11.
It was only the next day, when Laura slid that morning's newspapers onto the rods that kept them from getting tattered as they were being read, that she learned there had been anything special about the day before. She wasn't sure that she believed it, though. The facts of the miraculous resurrection seemed to her as if they should instead be shelved under fiction. She grew angry with herself, and angry with her former ignorance as well, believing that had such a grand difference been born in the universe, she should have been able to feel it. That the rules of life and death should change without her knowledge and permission didn't seem right.
She overheard much talk at her branch (all in whispers, of course) as to what it meant, and how one should proceed to walk through such an unexpected world, but she knew of no other way to live, and believed that one should accept the directions in which fate pushes us. She had never been able to see a different way for herself before, thanks in part (or so she felt) to the mother whose call she had avoided the night before, and saw no reason that she should try to see a different way for herself now. And so, in the face of the death of death, which would likely cause most people to abandon their routines, she still returned each day to carry out her duties.
Each successive day, however, will bring fewer of the living and more of the dead to browse in her department, until her regular clientele is completely replaced. At first, perhaps, she'll hardly notice that the undead are undead, for there'll be no slavering over her flesh the way she would have assumed. They'll just be shuffling slowly along, extracting books from the shelves, and sitting at the tables much the same way the regulars had. They won't behave so differently from the living, and so she won't notice that they're not living.
But then something will happen that will finally cause her to see and believe the great change that has occurred. Perhaps she'll notice that these new visitors are more intense at their tasks than those who had come before. Maybe it will be the fact that there is no whispering and no cause for her to shush. Or perhaps it's that she finally notices that no one is taking any bathroom breaks. Whatever the catalyst, she will eventually see . They'll seem more serious than those she was used to, and though more and more of them will drift in each day, so that some will finally have to stand, they'll be even better behaved than those who over her long years of service she'd grown used to, who by that time will have been entirely replaced, so that she is the only living creature who shows up there each day. But still, even that, even noting that only the dead surround her, will not cause her to change her routine.
She'll come to understand that the men, women, and children (though they really have to be understood as former men, women and children) are actually looking for something in the pages of those books, something that matters to them a great deal. They're not just going through the rote motions that had obsessed them in life. But what exactly are they seeking?
She watches them eagerly, intently, knowing that if she could only figure out what they sought, that she would find something meaningful there for herself as well, something that had waited just one step ahead of her her entire life.
Somehow it would all start to make sense. All of it.
No, forget that. Forget about Laura and her mother and the stale taste of fortune cookies. That's no way to begin this. It doesn't seem right at all. There's got to be a better way.
I'm going to start over, which is something that's a lot easier to do here on this page than from where I'm standing.
How about this for an opening, then?
The day the zombies came, Emily was dropping by the library (yes, there's that library again; it's important; you'll see) to visit her friend Rachel, which also means that it was the day that Rachel died. But as Emily arrived to take her friend to lunch, she doesn't know that yet. She knew that there was something odd about the day though. In fact, as she parked her car and fumbled for change for the meter, she wondered, what with the strange news reports that had been coming over her car radio during her drive, whether the two old friends should postpone their outing for another day.
Maybe I'll even have her pause for a moment and think it a hoax. She'll wonder whether this was just like that old-time Martian invasion that drove everybody mad when it was first broadcast on the radio, or man's supposed landing on the moon. (Which will have you wondering for a moment which of us didn't believe man ever made it to the moon, Emily or me. It's Emily. At least, most of the time, it's Emily.) And then she'll think, whether the broadcasts were a ratings trick or not, did it really matter? Regardless of the dangers of this world, life had to go on. She knew that. Life happened, and you had to happen, too. There would always be disruptions worthy of locking the doors and pulling down the shades, if you wanted to find them.
As you can tell, Emily is the sort of person who lives in two worlds, both this one, the one we all agree upon as reality, and another one, one slightly askew, to keep that first one at arm's length. She always felt that though a person had to live in the world, it did not mean she had to be of it. One should be able to keep the world at a distance so that it did not disrupt one's plans, and live as if all life's problems were on the other side of the world, as if she lived in a hut somewhere, her husband out most of the day poking at yams in the soil. Together they would be happy, less because of any affinity they had for each other than because of their separateness from society and its ills. They would live in ignorance of headlines and be bound together by that simplicity. The beating drums of the world would appear muffled and distant.
Emily survived many tragedies that way. Compared to her divorce, dealing with the resurrection of the dead would be a snap.
As she walked up the steps of the library, approaching the intricate wrought-iron gates at the entrance, wondering whether she and Rachel should do Chinese or Italian, a man ran toward her and then past her, screaming as he headed for the street. Blood spurted from one shoulder. In Emily's shock, it took her a moment to edit that initial thought to, no, not from his shoulder, but from the place where his arm used to be. She was ashamed to admit to herself that she felt relieved when he passed by her without spattering blood on her new blouse, which she had bought just for this occasion.
As she stood frozen, halfway between the street and the library entrance, one of the undead stumbled out the gates above her after its escaping prey. Its skin was grey, and its clothing still spilled clods of earth from its disinterment. Blood dripped from its mouth. Emily will do her best to force her legs to move before the dead thing shifts its focus to her, but her internal struggle proves unnecessary, as the shell of a man totters as it tries to move from one step to the next, loses its balance, and then rolls past her, tumbling down the length of the stairs.
After it finally struck the pavement, it lay motionless for a moment, and Emily thought it could be taken for a pile of cloth and bones, but then, as she watched, it slowly rose to its feet and looked up at her, really looked at her, she thought. She'd heard the radio hosts surmise that these undead things were beyond thought, but it certainly seemed to her to be thinking, almost considering for a moment whether it could make its way back up those steps to her.
Before it turned from her and shuffled down the street, in search, apparently, of an easier target, Emily would have sworn that it shrugged.
Emily rushed inside, calling out her friend's name. There'll be some personal detail seeded into the text before this so that you'll know that even with what Emily has been handed in life, she is still an optimistic sort, one who even in the face of what she has just seen expected to find her friend alive. (Maybe you'll learn of a lost dog who made its way home, or a parent whose cancer scare passed. Let's make it the dog. I'll have her see one on the street earlier as she parks her car so that there'll be a reason for her to wistfully remember a few details. People are often taught more lasting lessons by pets than by parents.)
From across the room, Emily could make out that Rachel stood where Emily had always found her, behind the counter where she checked out books, but by then, Rachel was no longer Emily's friend. A bite that had been taken out of Rachel's neck had allowed blood to spill down the front of her blouse. Her skin was not yet grey; it was deathly pale, but not yet the color of the creature who had fallen past Emily on its hunt, so perhaps it had happened not so long ago. Emily will think that if only she had arrived a half an hour earlier, perhaps she would have found her friend alive. It does not occur to her to think that if she had arrived a half an hour earlier, maybe they would both be dead. But that's just the kind of person Emily is.
(Thank the dog.)
Emily did not enter the vast room to approach her friend. She hung back in the hallway and noted that no one else remained there, neither human nor zombie. That was a good thing. Emily took that to mean that perhaps she could be safe there, in a building at the top of stairs which seemed untenable to the dead. It all depended what her friend had turned into. It did not seem to Emily as if Rachel had become a predator. Her friend had always been gentle. Could she ever become anything but, whatever the circumstance? Emily did not think that death necessarily had to be a life-altering experience.
Emily noticed that the whole time she watched, Rachel stayed by her station, her fingers on her keyboard, her dull eyes looking straight ahead, waiting . . . but for what? Did some spark that still glowed somewhere inside her still expect customers to come? Maybe she was merely doing what had always been expected of her in life, out of a habit that transcended death. Or was she waiting for Emily, only for a different reason than she would have been waiting earlier, cannily hoping to entice her close, too close, with a feigned calmness that was truly no longer hers? If only Emily could figure it out, unravel the suddenly mysterious why of her friend, she felt that somehow everything would then make sense, and she'd know, with or without a dog, with or without a husband who poked at the earth with a stick, how she was meant to live her life from that day forward.
No . . . that's all wrong, too.
This is getting frustrating. I usually don't vacillate like this, at least not when it comes to putting words on the page. Give me a few moments . . .
I've got it. Let's begin this way instead.
Walter was at the main branch of the library researching his next novel the day the zombies came. (I know, I know. What's with these libraries, you're thinking. Surely there's a more exciting place to go with this. But no, for me, there isn't. And you'll soon see why.) When the screaming began, echoing down the narrow hallways and filling the cavernous room in which he sat, there were so many books stacked about him that he needed to stand to see what was happening. The first thing he saw was that the librarian, who had been so kind to him over the years, but whose name he had never bothered to learn (later, he would berate himself for that), was beating her fists against the back of a man who was no longer a man. The thing was biting chunks out of her neck and spitting gristle as it growled. They soon both fell behind the counter so that Walter was no longer able to see them, but he could still hear the unsettling sounds of feasting.
Walter ducked back down below the wall of books that he had built around him (and I will have to think later about whether to stress the metaphor of this, with examples of how he had shielded himself with books during all other aspects of his life) and crawled from the room, unashamed (well, only slightly ashamed), for he had learned long ago that he was a writer, not a fighter. He did not lift his head, thinking unrealistically that if he couldn't see zombies, they could not see him, until he bumped up against tiny chairs, and realized that he had reached the children's section.
Craning his neck to look up, he saw one of the undead holding a young girl up to its mouth and chewing its way through her organs. Perhaps flecks of her blood will splash onto his face. Perhaps he will only imagine it, as the reality might be too much for you. Or perhaps it will be both, that flecks of blood will splash onto his face but he will only think that he imagined it, because it won't be too much for you; it will be too much for him . The girl wriggled erratically as she died, and Walter, noting that the zombie was too lost in the frenzy of its feast to notice him, leapt to his feet and ran past.
Walter knew the layout of the library intimately, as it had become his second home (well, actually, more like his first home, as his apartment had never become a true home to him), and made his way to the vault in which he knew the rare holdings were stored. At night, it was kept locked, but during the day the staff left it open for easier access. He had a hunch that he could be protected in there. He would lock himself in, and no zombie would be able to figure out how to get in after him. Surely, zombies couldn't calculate combinations. Numbers were too complex for them. All they knew was one body, another body, another body . . .
Getting out again once things had calmed down again, when he would be seen once more as a person, and not just a body, not just a snack, would be easy, because safes were designed to prevent people from breaking in, not out . Right?
He hoped he was right. He was sure he was right. At least that's what he kept telling himself as the air inside the vault grew moist and stuffy, and he struggled, mostly in vain, to hear whether the screaming outside had stopped.
No . . . no . . . no.
I'm afraid that last try didn't hold together any better than the first two. It didn't bring alive what it's like to live among the dead.
But . . . unfortunately . . . that third account is really the best narrative I have to work with. Because that one's my life. Because that one's the truth as I have lived it.
And because now, especially now, metaphor has to go. From now on, I should only write what actually happened.
I should only write the truth.
On the other hand, my old tools seem so reassuring at a time like this, and my old coping mechanisms so tempting. I keep thinking that there must be a reason for that. With so few other comforts left in the world, I hope I can be forgiven for backsliding. (Come to think of it, are there any other comforts left in the world, not counting the mere fact of just being alive itself?) Or maybe it's more than just backsliding. Maybe, like a cigarette smoker teetering on the verge of quitting, I just need one more dose of my drug before giving it up for good.
So let me try once more to explain. I hope that this time it will work out better for you. For both of us.
Here we go . . .
I once knew a woman who loved her husband so much that she could not bear to let him go. When Marilyn swore that she would be true to him in sickness and health, she meant it. But that isn't always such a good thing. For when her husband grew ill, she kept him pinned to life in the hospital when he would have been much happier in the grave. Perhaps in a different story she would have kept him from the grave as a form of punishment, but not in this story, because that would be ironic, and Marilyn loved him without irony. As he lay there while some machines breathed for him, others circulated his blood, and still others carried away his wastes, she would look at him, at the forest of tubes binding him to an unfulfillable promise, and weep.
«Don't go,» she would whisper, repeating it like a mantra, though one with infinite variation. «You can't go. Not yet. You mustn't go.»
But eventually, he went.
Luckily for her, his death came on a day when the dead were no longer dying. When all life signs ceased, the nurses scurried in to the alarms and buzzers they had expected long before. There was nothing more that they could do, and they, at least, having long since lost patience with Marilyn anyway, were glad of it. The most important lesson to be learned in this place was letting go, and they wished that she had not been such a slow student. As a doctor came in to verify what the nurses already knew, and murmured the sympathetic words he had been trained to utter about her loss (so how sympathetic could they have been anyway?), the woman's husband reached out suddenly, grabbed a nurse by the wrist, and ripped her arm out of its socket. The blood splattered the wife across her folded arms, sore from hugging herself as she wept. She screamed, not taking her eyes from her husband as the remaining nurses joined the doctor in wrapping restraints about the man. Once they were done and he was attached to the bed, they all fled the room, carrying the injured nurse with them, leaving Marilyn alone.
As the man (or what was once a man; I have no true word for him, as our terminology has not yet advanced as much as our species; «zombie» seems so fraught with baggage) struggled impotently and snapped at flesh that was out of reach, Marilyn thought that she heard her husband call her name. Buried in his grunts, or so she thought, were sounds she knew so well, murmurs, endearments, the echoes of living words past, and so she stepped closer, stunned to find herself in such a bizarre situation. She had heard from the small TV bolted to one corner of the ceiling that they listened to as she waited for him to wake, that scenes like this were playing themselves out all across the country. Across the world. (Well, not in every corner of the world, as we have already discussed. Somewhere, there will always be that man, happily oblivious, and that stick.) But she never expected to have someone she knew drawn into such a predicament, and especially not herself. Death is what happened to other people. Careless people.
She tilted her head and closed her eyes to listen more intently, and something she heard made her certain. She swore that she could make out her name. And so she moved even closer to him, erasing that final space between them, and let his teeth rip into her flesh, so that she, too, could join him in the only afterlife that people from then on would ever know.
No, that's not right. No one likes reading about people who voluntarily turn themselves into victims. We want to see people who take action, who make choices, who triumph over adversity instead of surrendering to it. So. How about this . . .
I once knew a woman who hated her husband so much that she could not bear to let him go. He was rich, and so tried his best to pay Catherine to leave, but he could never seem to name her price, as she had no price. (Something he found hard to believe, since as I said, he was rich.) And so he turned instead to trying to simply leave her, but none of his escape plans worked. She kept reeling him back in, with the orchestrated disapproval of their friends, the withholding of time with his children, or, at its most drastic, with threats of libels plausible enough that she knew they would stick. Many were the times he flew to the opposite coast in the morning only to be persuaded to return in the evening. She stayed on the grounds of their estate and made sure that he stayed there with her.
Once the zombies came (because, yes, I give up, what else am I supposed to call them?), her job became that much easier. He no longer wanted to travel into the city (which had quickly descended into chaos), and so did his job from his home office, ordering about with phone calls, e-mails and faxes others who did not have the luxury of his monied sort of refuge. As he worked, he would keep an eye on the perimeter of their estate via security cameras, making sure that the outside world did not invade. Catherine had her own security cameras, ones her husband did not know about, and she would check on him often during the day to make sure he had not fled.
This went on until the weight of the outside world and the weight of her husband's inner world grew so great that he could take it no longer. One day, she came upon him slumped in the bath in a room devoid of both his cameras and hers. The water was tinged with red, the cuts on his wrists were lengthwise. In that moment, as he hesitated between life and new life, she hugged him and wrenched him from the water. Not caring that he was covering her with both suds and blood, she dragged him to their safe room. It had been installed to protect them from those who would take their wealth and their lives by force, and now it would protect her from the invisible force that would dare to take her husband.
She knew what was going to happen next, and so she moved quickly.
She set him folded on the far side of the safe room, his legs stretched out on the floor, his back against one of the reinforced walls. She did not know why she took such care as she laid him there. She could have tossed him the length of the room and not caused him any damage. What was to come would come regardless.
She retreated outside, watching him, waiting for him to reanimate. When she saw her husband begin to twitch, she slammed shut the door to the safe room and locked it. She was glad that her husband was back, little caring in what state he was back.
She sat on the king-sized bed, and listened to him slam against the walls of his prison. He would try to break free, continuously, never tiring, and so at last, she would know forever where he was.
That was a bit closer, perhaps, but still . . .
No, that one wasn't right, either. So far, with each of these stories, I'm making it all sound too pat.
I really should stop trying to make sense of it. After all, part of the truth of zombies (and by zombies I mean more than just the raw reality of each individual one of them, I mean the concept, the very fact that they exist) is that there is no sense to them. No one expects a hurricane to make sense, or an earthquake to have a point. And I've learned that about zombies by now, too. But it turns out to be just like the way people look up at the passing clouds and without even trying find a seahorse, a cow, or even Abe Lincoln. I can't seem to stop. That is what I do. It just happens.
It's a compulsion, I guess. I look at life, messy, chaotic, preposterous life, dismantle its unanswered mysteries and incongruous facts, rearrange them until there is a beauty not supplied by random events, and put them back together again so that all the pieces fit. I transform nonsense into serendipity. That's a man up there in that moon, damn it, no matter what I'm told about an accidental pattern of asteroids. And I'm supposed to behave differently in response to this latest upheaval?
So I find myself telling myself these stories, not consciously choosing to start them and seemingly not able to consciously choose to stop. Maybe that's my way of going into shock. But what I saw when I first stepped from the safety of the vault told me that this pretense of attempting to make sense of how I live now, how we all live now, is in itself senseless.
When I finally opened the vault door, the first thing I noticed was the silence. I was amazed by how quiet it had become. No more guttural raging from the undead; no further death throes from the living. As I moved slowly down the hallways, though, I found evidence of each. Red splashes darkened the walls; stray bones littered the floors. But there were no zombies, and no humans. I could easily put together the story of what had happened during my hermitage from the disgusting detritus alone, but I struggled not to. What I had seen with my own eyes had been horrible enough; I didn't want to add my imagination to the mix. And besides, I was too hungry to do so. That and only that was what had overcome my fear enough to bring me out of the vault. I would not have moved had not my body's command been, «Move or die.»
I made my way as slowly as my hunger would allow to the machines I had so often eaten from while researching my previous books. I knew the taste of stale moon pies far too well. My honesty made me put money in the machine rather than break open the glass case, but I felt silly for it. Was there still a world out there that cared?
After I had eaten two bags of pretzels and a box of Raisinets, and downed two cans of orange soda, I could think straight again. Only then did it come to me that I should secure the library's front door, because based on the signs around which I had tiptoed, there had been no one left alive with the luck to have done it before. Except for me, everyone who had been in the library when the attack began had died.
I moved slowly and silently toward the front of the building, and strangely, a part of me felt just as badly for the fallen books that had been knocked to the floor in struggles as another part of me did when gazing at what must have been the sites of fallen people. Each time, I was embarrassed for feeling that way, but . . . I'm a writer. That's just one more action I can't control.
I passed the bank of computers at which I had often sat to check my e-mail, and saw that the screensavers still danced. I couldn't resist. I slapped the spacebar and punched in my password. Amid the spam was a note from my agent, wondering if I still lived. I replied to him that I did, and since three days had passed since he'd sent his message, I asked him the same question. I started browsing through my favorite blogs, discovering that no part of the world had escaped this plague, when I suddenly remembered—the front gate. There'd be enough time for exploration on the Internet later.
As I swung shut the wrought-iron gates at the library's main entrance, I worried that I was being premature by not yet having checked every inch of the building. Was I alone in here?
Was I locking death out? Or locking it inside, the better for it to catch me?
I had to take that chance, unless I wanted to spend my days living inside a locked vault until those outside sorted this all out and we all got back to normal.
As I looked down at the base of the steps on the milling undead, it was as if they could sense me, as if they felt that by merely continuing to live that I was taunting them. They careened off each other as they gathered into clumps. It was unnerving to study them that way, knowing that they were studying me. I moved back from the gates in the hope that I would be less noticeable. It seemed to work. They wandered off again, listless zombies once more; from this height, they might as well have been commuters on their way to work. Only their job was eating the actual commuters, not that this city had any left. There were none of the living left, at least not on the streets that surrounded the library, that much was clear. All of the action was past.
I could not escape, though, the signs of actions past. I had tried before to avoid the implications of such signs, but would the world ever be rid of them? Dark stains everywhere, as random as oil slicks, told me what had happened out there, what I had thankfully missed while inside the vault. Automobiles appeared to have been flung randomly across the landscape outside, one flipped onto its back on the bottom steps of the library, others piled up against each other as far into the distance as I could see. An armored car lay on its side amid the chaos. I could picture the drivers dodging both living and dead, each terrified that he or she would migrate from being one to being the other, losing control first of their vehicles and finally their lives.
I didn't want to keep reliving that, so I looked again at the armored car. It was filled with money, I imagined, which my last royalty statements told me I needed more of. I could probably go out there if I was crazy enough to risk it and grab all the cash I could carry. But what good would that do me now? We had evolved overnight into a world beyond money. A new economy ruled the world, and it was one based on meat. As I stared at the armored car and thought wistfully of a past and future no longer within my reach, I thought I could see something move through a small, narrow window in the vehicle's side. I studied that slot, and though there was no more movement, I could tell that, yes, as I was looking, someone was looking back. I risked stepping closer to the gates again, but unfortunately, at that distance I could not read any expression there. I could barely make out any features at all, an eye, a nose; just enough to tell me that I was not alone.
Then I saw a hand, its curled fingers beckoning me forward.
I was not the last man in the world after all, not some Robinson Crusoe stranded after the rise of the zombies.
Or maybe, come to think of it, I was, and as the tale promised, I'd just found my Friday.
The stories come more slowly now. I know, I know, I promised you that they wouldn't come at all any longer. But if you out there were in here with me, were at my side, you'd see that there is good reason for them to continue.
And besides, maybe this will be the story worth telling.
(Or maybe, just maybe, I will tell them until I finally admit that there might no longer be any stories worth telling.)
So . . .
There once was a woman—I won't give her a name, I won't bother giving any of them names any longer, for after all, aren't they all just archetypes? Aren't they really just you and me?—who had tried and tried (and tried and tried) to have a child, but no matter what she and her husband and the doctors and the insurance companies and the midwives (and the potential grandmothers) did, she kept miscarrying. But somehow, even as her husband suggested, at first gently and then more insistently, that they consider adoption, she avoided the choice he was pushing upon her, and she also avoided despair. She knew that she would eventually have a child, a child of her own, and so she was able to shut out all the voices that yammered around her. And she almost proved those voices wrong, too, by carrying a fetus nearly to term.
So close . . .
But then it died, too, just like all of the others. She could sense the motionlessness inside, the potential that had become merely a weight. She felt the absence in a way she had never known before one could feel an absence. She had always been honest with her husband before. As a couple, they prided themselves on their honesty. But this time she could not bear to tell him the truth. She knew what would happen next, what the doctors would insist, and she didn't want to endure again what she'd endured so many times already. So she prayed, just as, for the first time in her life since she had been a child, she had been praying for a child of her own. And then, just before the next day's already scheduled prenatal appointment, which she had thought she would have to break so as not to reveal what had occurred, she felt movement within.
But the movement felt more violent than any kicking the baby had done before, prior to what she convinced herself was only a brief nap. She could feel things ripping and tearing inside, and her spotting became bleeding, enough to frighten her. She went alone to the doctor, not wanting to have to be forced to tell her husband what was going on, and when the doctor gave her a sonogram, he saw no heartbeat. He was baffled, and did not know what to tell her. Nothing had prepared him for this. How could there be movement with no heartbeat?
And then, perhaps in response to the sonogram's invasion, the movements increased.
The woman clutched her stomach and screamed, and as the doctor rushed to his wall of supplies to find a way to relieve her agony, the baby chewed its way out of its mother's womb and poked its head through the skin of her stomach. The doctor, even in the midst of the insanity of the event, reacted reflexively, reaching for the child, instinctively wanting to see that, whatever else was incomprehensible about this moment, it was healthy, not able to see the dead skin hidden by the blanket of blood. The child snapped at him as it wriggled free from its dying mother, and the doctor backed away hurriedly, tripping over his own feet, and then fled the room.
Or perhaps he should only attempt to flee. Perhaps after he loses his balance, instead of righting himself and continuing on, he should fall to the floor, and the child, the thing, should fall from the mother, now dead atop the examining table, and begin to feast upon the doctor. Perhaps that would make more dramatic sense.
However the scene ends, we should keep in mind that it is a scene which with many variations played itself out around the world that day, as the fruits of failed pregnancies suddenly resulted not in dead babies, but in undead ones. But neither this mother nor this doctor could know that. But even if they had known, what other choices would they have made? There was barely escape from the plague without; how could there be escape from the plague within?
So let's just say that this particular baby struggled its way free from its mother's guts, and slid off the examining table, whether onto the warm doctor or onto the cold linoleum to be decided later. What will happen next would remain the same regardless.
It crawled out of the examining room into an office which by then had been emptied by the (bloodied or unbloodied) doctor's screaming. It pulled and wriggled its way down the street, unable to move in any way other than that of a real baby. Perhaps someday, if it survived, it would learn to walk, though physically it would never have more than a newborn's form, but for now, it crawled, making slow progress. People on the street gave it a wide berth, the trail of blood that it left behind itself clear warning of its intent, and though it grew frustrated, that frustration could not propel it quickly enough to overtake any of them.
But then a dog came over, sniffing, curious, unafraid, and close enough for the zombie child to grab hold of its front paws. It yanked at them roughly, breaking the dog's front legs. As the animal squealed and struggled vainly to retreat, the baby pulled itself forward along the length of the dog's trembling body to reach and snap the back legs as well. The baby had no teeth as yet, and so could not chew its way into the animal's belly as its tiny brain desired, so it had to punch its way in with small but strong fists and suck on the red, raw meat it had exposed.
As the child feasted, it felt itself pulled away from its orgy of blood, and before it could react to this affront, tossed through the air. It bounced off the back wall of a small cage, and as it attempted to reorient itself and go on the attack once more, the door slammed shut.
The woman whose dog had just been killed had a cage in which she would transport her dog to the park each day in the back of her van, and the zombie baby found itself trapped within. It beat blindly at the sides of the cage, but the metal was too strong for it to bend.
The woman smiled as she drove it back to her home. The reason she had a dog, she always knew, was because she could not have a child, and now, most unexpectedly, she had a child. She saw it as a gift from God. She did not care that it was dead, or that she would obviously have to be very, very careful or she would end up dead herself. She would love it for the rest of her life, even after the world came through the other side of this plague. She would tell no one of it, so that when all the other zombies were rounded up and destroyed, her baby would remain safe. She would love it and care for it as long as she lived.
But she would never let it out of its cage.
Well . . . maybe that won't turn out to be one of the stories worth telling. Right now, in the midst of it all, it seems somewhat pointless to even bother creating stories, but I know that someday the world will want to make sense of what we went through together, and someone will have to step forward to do that. That someone might as well be me. So I at least have to try.
One thing I've been realizing, as my subconscious mind weaves life into art (well, let others decide later if there's any art there) is that all zombie stories are true. Also, no zombie stories are true. Because, you see, there are no zombie stories until I write them. The universe has no opinion of us. No matter how much we want to pretend, real life does not contain the quality of story. No arcs, no morals, no meaning. Life is what we make of it.
And I was finally, after a lifetime of typing, in a position to make something of it.
It had been a week since I had taken refuge in this place. Undoubtedly, whoever was inside the armored car had to have been there nearly as long, or he would not still be alive. However long the person had been trapped, he—or she, I shouldn't forget there was a chance that it could be a she—surely needed food by now. And it was up to me to help.
I rushed back to the candy machine that I had long since cracked open, having abandoned the comforting illusion of order that dropping change in the slot had earlier brought me, and filled my pockets with pretzels, beef jerky, soda, and whatever else could fit. The cans, cold through the cloth of my jacket, reminded me that the city's electricity still worked, which had to be a good sign, right? Somewhere out there the wheels of industry kept turning, and human beings had to be the ones turning them. Or so I hoped. I'm afraid I didn't understand enough about technology to know for sure. I'm not that kind of writer. I'd research that after what I told myself I had to do, if there was an after.
I ran down to the ground floor and paused at the far end of the hallway that led to the main entrance, back enough from the gates so that though I could make out the foot traffic, I could not be easily seen. I watched as the zombies moved in their random patterns and waited for the street ahead to clear. There would come a moment, I was sure, in which nothing stood between me and the armored car, and no one hovered close enough to catch me even if I was noticed.
And then, trying not to think too much about it, I ran. It was not a pretty thing, as I am a writer, not a runner. Those two roles cohabit rarely, and certainly not in me. I am ashamed to say that it was not courage that propelled me clumsily on. It was loneliness that had overcome my fear, not altruism.
When I was closer to the armored car than I was to the library's front door, I suddenly thought—what if that hadn't been a living person I had seen staring back at me through that narrow window? What if the guard had died in the crash and was now himself a zombie, and the face was that of something struggling to get out and unable to figure out how . . . and hungry?
It was too late to dwell on that for more than an instant, because out of the corner of an eye, I could see a shuffling form. As I ran more quickly, soda sloshing, the thick back door of the armored car was raised in front of me, and I dove in. The door slammed shut behind me and I turned my head quickly to see that, yes, thankfully, I was visiting someone still alive. The man in the stained guard uniform locking the door looked far the worse for wear than I did, but he was still a man. The air hung heavy with sweat, but after someone has lived in the back of a small truck for a week, I guess I was lucky I could stand it at all.
I lay there, breathing heavily, feeling drained as much from the tension as the exertion, and did not protest as the guard patted me down. I knew what he was looking for, and was just thankful at this juncture that he was eating my food instead of attempting to eat me. He snapped a huge chocolate chip cookie in half and shoved both pieces in his mouth, then popped a soda, which exploded across his face thanks to my mad dash. But he wasn't angry, as he surely would have been back in the old days of only a week before. He just laughed, and took a long pull from the can.
«Thanks,» he said, wiping the crumbs and foam from his face. «I don't think a soda has ever tasted this good. And as you might guess, I haven't had many reasons to laugh in a while.»
I nodded and forced a smile. I was glad to see him, to know that I wasn't alone, but I wasn't happy about the fact that I'd had to come to him, rather than the reverse, to do it.
«Why are you still here?» I said, a little too terse, considering what should be joyful circumstances. «Once you knew I was inside, why didn't you make a break for the library? That place is like a fortress.»
He swiveled clumsily about and showed me his right foot, the ankle of which twisted at an ugly angle.
«I'd never have made it with this,» he said. «Once we flipped, and I felt the snap, I knew that it was all over for me.»
«But you have to try, Barry,» I said. He started when I called him by name, so I pointed at his ID badge, still hanging from his chest pocket. «I didn't want to feel responsible for you starving out here, so I brought food, but it's too risky to do more than once. You can't expect me to continue supplying you. And you can't last forever in here alone.»
«I didn't plan on lasting forever.» He shrugged. The bags under his eyes shrugged with him. «Would have been nice, though. But better starved to death than eaten to death. I'll admit I expected to end up with a bigger coffin. But this one will have to do.»
«No,» I said suddenly and firmly, surprised at myself even as I blurted it out. «I'm not going to let that happen. We ought to be able to get you up those steps and into the library if we work together. I can distract them. They don't move that fast.»
«Faster than me,» he said wearily.
His expression was a defeated one, but I knew better than to accept it as irreversible. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that people want to live.
«We've got to try,» I said. «You don't want me to have come this far for nothing. I ought to at least get a chance to save your life.»
He laughed, which I considered progress. I peered out the small window in the rear door, back up the steps of the library to safety. The front gates looked infinitely far away. I was stunned that I had survived the first leg of the journey. But I knew that regardless of how treacherous it seemed, I was going back. If I was going to die, it was going to be in that library, or at the very least trying to get back to that library, and not in the rear of an armored car. Barry might have been willing to settle for a coffin of that size, but mine had to be a little larger.
And contain the complete works of Shakespeare besides.
Barry had not answered, but it was as if we had made a silent decision. We watched and waited, too weary for small talk (which we both hoped and pretended that there would be time for later), too weary for anything but studying the street, praying for a moment when it would be completely clear, and allow Barry time to hobble to safety. But unlike earlier that day, no such moment came. Each time the random patterns of the shuffling undead had the streets almost emptied, there would always be one lone zombie lingering under a stop light as if waiting for it to change. I didn't really think it could be doing that, responding to the world that used to be, no, not in real life, only in stories maybe, but still, there it was. The lights did not function, and so it stared up at the pole.
Until I grew tired of waiting.
«I'm going to distract him,» I whispered.
The guard ordered me not to in one of those voices guards have and grabbed at my arm, but I leapt through the door anyway, and was back on the street before he could do anything about it. Instead of running immediately toward the steps leading up to the door of the library as any sane person would have done, I ran at the light-distracted zombie, prayed for it to notice me before I got too close, then veered away at the last possible instant I knew I could still outrun it. It was pulled along in my wake by its undead desire.
«Now,» I shouted back at Barry over my shoulder. «This is your chance. Take it!»
I watched as he tumbled out from the safety of his truck and began hopping, but I could not spare him any more of my attention after that. A second zombie, perhaps sensing my presence on that street as I imagined only a zombie could (or was that truly only a power of my imagination?), had come around a corner, and now I had to distract two of them. Luckily, even though my lack of anything resembling an athletic past slowed me down, death kept the zombies even slower. As I ran, it seemed to me that they must only catch their prey by surprise, and with persistence, for they did not have speed on their side. I lured them away from the path Barry had to be taking, but when I saw a third zombie appear, I knew that I could tempt fate no longer. There were getting to be too many trajectories for me to calculate to stay alive. I swooped down on the struggling guard, who had just reached the bottom of the steps, and grabbed him by the shoulders, nearly knocking him down.
As I shouted at him to move, I don't think I used any actual words.
We ran a desperate three-legged race together, dodging the undead who slowly began to follow us as I pulled him up step by step, agonizingly slow ourselves. As we neared the door, I could hear the snapping of teeth behind us, and knew that Barry had slowed me down too much. I dove in, pushing him ahead of me, and from my knees slammed the gates shut behind us. Gasping, I stood, looking in awe at the dead flesh that obscured my vision of anything beyond. They glared at us, but we were protected from them. Once we moved more deeply inside the building, they would forget about us, as they had forgotten about all else, and drift away.
We were safe.
We laughed, and there was a hysterical tinge to our laughter, as I imagined there would always be in circumstances where death seemed so close, and yet was repulsed.
And then a zombie who must have snuck through the door while I'd been outside rescuing and doing my supposedly distracting dance reached out from within the library and, with a sickening groan, completely ripped off Barry's injured leg.
Now here's a story that I think I still deserve to tell. I don't know that there are many more like that, stories that I have actually earned. And besides, I'm doing a pretty good job of proving that there isn't much else that I'm good for.
A writer (again, no names please), no longer having access to a human audience, and unable to stop writing, begins to write stories suitable only for the undead. He cannot write the love stories he was used to writing, because the zombies know nothing of love. He can no longer write stories in which the motivations are based on greed, because zombies know nothing of money. All that is left to him is to write stories of action and adventure (well, boring and repetitive action and adventure), because zombies know of that, in their own special but limited way. Since the zombies know of only one thing, all the stories sound the same, but this writer, he figures that it doesn't matter, because if zombies have one trait, it is patience.
My agent, on the other hand, tells me that my readers do not have patience, and certainly have no desire to read of writers. The only people who want to read of writers, or so he tells me, are other writers. But what does he know? Anyway, at this time, I probably have no agent. And I say this not the way a beginning writer in search of an agent does. I say this because my agent has probably been eaten.
Which some might say isn't a bad end for an agent.
But since he is dead and my fictional writer's readers are also dead, we might as well just move on.
The stories this writer writes all follow the same pattern, as zombies are easily entertained. They begin with the sense that there is walking meat nearby. And then it is spotted. And then it is chased.
And then the walking meat is no longer walking, for the living is inside the dead.
The writer types out many variations of this outline, because that is all that he knows how to do, and when there are no more stories to tell, he's going to continue to tell them anyway. Some of his tales are set on city streets. Some are on country roads. Still others take place in zoos, in shopping malls and schools and airplanes. But whatever the setting, at their heart, they are all the same.
Shuffle a little more quickly.
Run. (Well, as zombies run anyway.)
Run, run, run.
Eventually, this writer, who is obviously not very self-aware, or he would have given up long ago—or if not long ago, at least once his audience had deserted him—realizes that he has written hundreds of such stories. But now that the reams of paper are stacked high next to his manual typewriter (because he refused to let the fall of civilization keep him from his appointed rounds), he had no idea what to do with them. There were no zombie magazines in which to publish them, no zombie bookstores in which they could be sold.
At least, not yet, he thinks.
And so he decides he must go out into the street, the street which he had avoided for so long, and declaim his stories. He expected that this would be the end of him, and he was ready for it. After all, a lion tamer may stick his head into a lion's mouth for a brief moment, but let him attempt to read Hamlet while so inserted and all will be lost. But he had been too alone for too long, and without an audience even longer. Whatever was to happen had to be better than what had happened so far.
But when he actually begins his readings, out in the middle of an intersection that hadn't known a car for years, he was pleasantly surprised. Zombies gathered and approached him, but they only came to a certain point, and then came no further. As he read, they stood about him in a circle and seemed to listen. (Well, he could pretend that about those that had ears, at least.) So he did not stop reading, even as he grew hoarse. He felt fulfilled. He believed that he had at last found the one, true audience he had been seeking his entire life.
But then he realizes that he is getting to the end of the stories that he has brought along with him, and encased in a circle of the dead, as it were, there was no opening in the crowd for him to get back to the additional manuscripts that remained in his hiding place back inside. So when he gets to the end of the last story in his hands, he begins all over again.
The zombies begin to growl. They may like the repetitiveness of theme, but they do not like the repetition of actual stories. He tries to back away, but there is nothing behind him but more of the undead. They move forward, and their circle closes tightly around him until it is difficult for him to breathe from the weight of them. And as they start to tear him to quivering shreds, he has just enough time to think, «Everyone's a critic—«
—before he has no more time in which to think.
But no. That's not right either.
Because even though the ending is horrifying, and the writer's fate undeserved (though I can think of a few publishers who might wish that all writers ended up that way), there's still a moral to the telling of the tale. Zombies are a force of nature, and forces of nature do not come equipped with morals. Forces of nature do not come packaged with a purpose, a message, or a reason. They just are . Which is why the guard was suddenly dead, destroyed just when we thought we'd gotten back to safety.
Or maybe . . . maybe the one thing that forces of nature can share with fiction is that they often bring along with them a sense of irony .
We would have heard the zombie that had slipped in during my trip outside coming toward us if we had not been laughing so loudly after our return to the supposed protection of the library. Perhaps a force of nature cannot allow such joy to continue without a response. We were hysterical with relief, slapping each other on our backs as we extricated ourselves from our heap on the floor, and so I didn't even realize that anything unplanned was happening until the guard's laughter turned to a howl of pain.
I sprung away from him to see that Barry's right leg was no longer his. It was in the zombie's hands, dripping blood. The guard kept screaming while clawing at his spurting leg, which spilled more blood than a body should be able to lose and still have the screaming continue. There was nothing I could do for him, no way to save him. Even if I was able to tie off the leg, to stop the bleeding, he would be one of them soon, and after my leg. I knew what I had to do. I hoped that he was too dazed from loss of blood to realize what was coming.
I helped him stand on his remaining foot. His moaning was by then barely audible, and he was nearly unconscious, which made what I was about to do easier.
I opened the gate that protected us from the few zombies still milling about at the top of the stairs, and pushed him into the midst of them. For a brief moment, he surged with more energy. He mustered a scream, but then the undead began to tear him apart, and the screaming stopped.
While they were distracted in their feeding, I was able to step back from the door without fear that any of them would enter. But still, I kept my eye on them at all times as I circled around the zombie inside that had stolen our rescue from us. It was intent on its snack, chewing on the leg that had broken in the first place to start the chain of events that led us to this horrible event. So it didn't notice me at all as I rushed at it from behind and shoved it out to join his fellows. As I slammed the gate again, this time hopefully not to be opened again until the Earth shifted on its axis once more, I could see that it showed no sign of even having noticed that anything had happened. He just continued attacking the leg of the man I had gotten killed.
See, in a story, this would never have turned out that way. In a story, which has to make sense, which has to provide rewards for its journey, or else we wouldn't call it «story,» Barry would have lived, but life does not often promise such rewards, and when it does, rarely delivers. In a story, the two of us could have struggled to make a life for ourselves here until the world woke from this zombie dream and brought rescue, or until we found a way to make contact with the enclave of civilization that I'd know—well, at least in a story that I'd know and hope—would be out there. Fiction would have given us both a better end.
Unfortunately, I am a better writer than God chooses to be.
For it does not seem as if either rescue or solace will be found. I no longer even think it possible.
No one answers the e-mails I send out on the intermittent days I am even able to send them. No one posts updates to the Web sites I used to visit. In fact, day by day, sites that I had previously been able to visit are gone. I have grown so used to error messages that life itself seems an error message.
With each part of the Web that vanishes, I imagine that a part of the real world has gone as well. When it all goes, I will be alone.
Well, not entirely alone. I will still have my friends. Shakespeare is here. And Frost. And Faulkner and Austen and Carver and Proust. All telling me of the worlds in which they lived. Worlds that continued to exist only because I am still here to read about them. I've always known that fact, and the lesson it taught me is that my world will not continue to exist unless someone is there to read about it.
That is why I have been creating these stories. That's why I've always created stories. But I can't do it any longer. I see that I have lived too long, have lived through the time of my usefulness out to the time beyond stories. I could keep trying to tell them, but what would be the point of that? It's not worth remaining in a world without readers, and I doubt that you still exist.
My world can survive my death. But it cannot survive yours .
Art for art's sake was never what I was about. Art alone was never enough.
So I'm going to stop writing.
And I'm going to start praying.
I've tried it.
And it just isn't working for me.
But it does plant the seed for one last story.
I give you my word. And this time, you can believe my promise.
After the world went to Hell, a priest who had been traveling hurried back to his flock so that they could still make it into Heaven.
He didn't make it home alive, the same way most of the world didn't make it home alive as the disease began to spread. But he made it home.
Newly dead (the reason does not matter), he walked through the night, a stranger to exhaustion, shuffling along the highway toward his church as cars sped by (speeding more quickly when they saw him) filled with passengers in search of a freedom they would never find. By the time he entered his small town, having been on the move for the better part of a week, it was Sunday, and the members of his congregation had made their way uncertainly to their church. They knew what had been going on in the world, that it was the stuff of Revelations come at last, and since they knew that their priest had headed to New York for a conference, they assumed he was dead, and they did not expect to see him again. But they also knew that it was Sunday, and this was where they should be.
They were all sitting quietly in their pews, wondering whether one of them should step forward and stumble through the service, when the priest himself stumbled in. No one spoke. No one fled as he assumed his usual place, even though it was clear what he had become. Because they had faith.
(Something which I do not have.)
He tried to lead them in prayer, though perhaps «tried» is not the best word, as it implies volition, and he was operating on habit and tropism and half-forgotten dream, but regardless, the words would not come, as neither his mouth nor his brain were suitable for speech any longer. So the parishioners prayed on their own, standing and sitting and singing and speaking and remaining silent as they had always done, for they knew well what God expected of them. Their priest growled before them, a deep rumble that some of them felt was not all that much different than what they had already been hearing for so many years.
When it became the proper time for the congregation to receive Communion, the priest stretched out his hands, and with the fingers that remained to him, gestured them all forward. They did not hesitate. They filed toward him, not frightened by his yellow eyes, or the pallor of his skin, or the fact that beneath his shredded clothing his flesh was shredded as well. They felt themselves in the presence of a miracle, and one does not argue with a miracle. They only knew that it was the usual time of the week to be made one with God.
When his flock was lined up before him, the priest seemed to freeze. The momentum of his faith had gotten him this far, but that did not mean that he was capable of much in the way of independent action and thought. As he paused, he was vaguely aware that something more active was expected of him, but the fog refused to lift so that he could see what that something was. After death, if one goes through the motions of life, it can only be by traversing the ruts one had chosen in life. He sensed somehow that he was expected to feed them, but he had not prepared. He had no consecrated wafers with which to proceed, no consecrated wine with which to wash away sins.
So he fed them of his flesh and quenched them with his blood.
He pulled open the tatters of his shirt and tore mouth-sized gobbets from his chest. One by one, he dropped them on waiting tongues, mumbling incoherently each time he did so. Then each of his congregants went back to his or her life, and as they had been promised, knew life eternal.
And as for the priest, he remained in his sanctuary, and fed the dwindling members of his flock each Sunday, until no flesh remained with which he could do so. But by that time, it didn't matter, as there were none left who required salvation.
And there you have it—the last tale I'm ever going to tell.
The last story . . .
I never thought I'd ever consider a story and judge it to be the last. I thought I'd die in the middle of telling a tale. But now . . . why bother? The telling of tales is through. And I, too, am almost through. Let it be the last story, and let it be told by the last man.
The candy machines are empty now, and I've resorted to licking the empty wrappings that I'd previously abandoned. All that's left in the soda machine are a few cans of grape. I've long ago gone through the desks of the missing (why can't I think dead?) workers and found every last candy bar and cracker. Electricity is random, and water has slowed to a trickle, which means that the world beyond this one is sending signals to me that it is running down. Entropy is rising. Soon I will be out of both food and water, and my only choices will be . . .
Do I die because I no longer have anything left to eat?
Or because I let myself be eaten?
There seems to be little difference between the two. Whether I choose death by action or death by inaction, I will have still chosen death. I have been backed into a corner. I guess I should consider that is a good thing, because it means that I will not be a victim in my own death. I will be a participant.
When I go (which will not be long, or else my choice will be taken from me), will I be the last? Isolated as I am, I can't tell. I'll never know. I guess that each of us, wherever we are, will appear to be the last to ourselves. And if we appear to be the last, then we are the last.
But if by some miracle, I am not the last man telling the last story, if there are others who someday read these words, who have managed to restore a civilization to this planet currently hovering between life and death, think of me from time to time as you go about your day. Think of us. I lived in a time of no hope, feeling there was no life outside my own, and with no new life to follow.
I wish that you could know this time, as I have known the times before my own. I wish that I could trust that you would be there to someday read these words, even if you are not human, even if you must be a visitor who travels to our world a million years from now to discover what exists on the third planet from the sun, and all you find is the shuffling undead, the same ones I have known, still hunting, still searching, much like we were, only eternal. Will you be able to figure out who we once were, or will you merely sit in awe and wonder at how such shambling creatures could have built this world and then seemingly forgotten how they brought it into existence. If you come here, to this building, to this vault, to these pages, you will know. It is important that you know.
In any case, I do not think you will be coming, not from this world or any other. I may be imaginative, I may be a dreamer, but I am unable to live in either imagination or dream.
And so I will be gone soon. With my strength fading, and with your future existence to read these words in doubt, I do not know why I struggle to write them.
Well . . . maybe I do.
I can't stop writing.
Well . . . I can.
It will be when I stop living.
And with strength finally fading . . . it is time for me to do both.
I cannot write. I can barely think. I can only choose.
In case you surprise me, and come to read these words, let's leave it like this:
Did I starve? Was I eaten? As long as I do not write the words, I did neither, and continue to exist, in the eternal present, forever alive, as immortal as the undead. I can be with you still.
Whoever you are, whenever you are, as long as you are, if you are . . . keep me alive.
So perhaps I was wrong.
Perhaps art alone, art for art's sake, can be enough. It feels enough now, as I make my choice.
Meanwhile, our man with a stick and plot of land, who toiled on the other side of the globe and slept under different stars (remember him, the one who knew nothing of our roaring earthquakes, rising floods, or falling towers?), wakes before dawn from troubling dreams.
While he'd slept, the strange visions had made sense to him, but once he was awake, it all slipped away. When he rose from his straw mat and woke his son and tried to tell the boy what he had seen, because dreams were meaningful to his people, he remembered nothing of libraries or zombies or the taste of grape soda. All that came to him was the uncomfortable feeling of having been in the heart of a big city, which to him was frightening enough.
He had heard of such places, but knew of no one who had ever visited one, and he was glad that he instead had been born here, with his patch of earth and the mountains that surrounded it, with his stick and a son whom he needed to teach how to survive with little more than that.
But that was enough. Why would anyone require more? A wife for him and a mother for the boy, perhaps . . . but more? Those would be riches he did not need.
Tomorrow, in fact, if asked to remember his dream of the previous morning, this morning, he would answer, «What dream? I remember no dream.» And, though some might choose to judge him and his way of life, he is at peace with the universe as he knew it, and he will go on as before, content, fulfilled, and utterly and happily oblivious to the fact that half a world away, almost the last man on Earth believed that he had finished telling almost the last stories.