I guess I was never the most popular kid, even before Z-day. It's not like I was an outcast or anything... I jut never seemed to be the center of attention, the first one picked for kickball, or the life of the party.
Part of me kind of selfishly thought that it would change when Z-day came... looking back, anyway. Z-day kind of snuck up on you depending on where you were in the country. From what I've heard, it's not like it was even one day. A lot of people say that it all started in Colorado last July 1st or 2nd. I met a guy from Kansas who said he heard it came from Mexico in June. There was a little girl from Maine who got a bad bite. Before she had to be put down, she said it must have come from up north in the middle of the summer.
But anyway, once we figured out what Z-day was, we were awful scared. The first few nights were the worst: boarding up the door in the basement, hearing all the usta-be people kind of drifting by, not quite quiet, but not quite making noises either. Like I said, just drifting. That was pretty scary, knowing that they were out there. Mr. Mase, he used to have himself an ugly cat named Dave... you know, before Z-day. Mr. Mase, we don't know what happened to him, but one of those first nights we sure know what happend to Dave the cat. He got cornered by the garden wall by some of the usta-be people. Even these months later, I can still hear the sounds of that poor old cat screaming and meowing while the usta-bes ripped and chewed and pulled and ate him up.
After things settled down there were, you know, less people around. The alive people, I mean. A lot of the things that made us different weren't really differences anymore... and that was truer each day as there seemed to be less and less of us. Still though, I'm not top of the heap. I'm okay with that... there's a bunch of us who are trying to make due in this old basement. Eddy can outrun any of the usta-bes, and Naomi can go toe-to-toe with one of them, so long as she has her baseball bat.
Me, I don't run real fast, and I know I couldn't fight one of them off of me. Everybody in the basement says that I should just stay away from the usta-bes, because they figure I'd be either eaten on the spot, or bitten and turned.
They don't know my secret though--my sad secret. Round about mid-October, I was on chicken duty. I guess I should have mentioned that for some reason, the usta-bes never ever go after chickens. It's crazy, I know--they'll eat a cat in two minutes, but never a chicken? It's almost like a lousy half-joke. Anyway, we got us a chicken coup in the back of my house that Fran brought when she came to live in the basement with us. So there I was, on chicken duty one morning. It was a real bright day, the kind of day that almost makes you wonder if maybe Z-day was a dream. The kind of day where it's just time to go back to normal things like going to school and having alive parents and TV and electricity and life.
So I'm feeding the chickens and hear something behind me. I twirl around, and it was one of them, turned awful bad. His mouth was a black, oozing hole, his eyes were glassy wax, and his face and arms had this soft, bumpy, gray-brown look to it, like a pig that's been roasted then left out in the sun. I let out a cry, I think, but no one heard me. I backed away--there was nowhere to run. Then I tripped over the bucket of chicken feed and fell into the wooden side of the coup. I hit my head and saw nothing but stars... and when the stars faded, the usta-be man was coming closer and closer, that dark ooze-spit dripping out of his mouth. It was the closest I ever was to one of them. He smelled like a dead raccoon that I saw once--that deep smell of death. I knew that I was going to die--that part of me was going to get eaten up, and the rest of me would be like that dead, carved-out, maggoty raccoon.
I was frozen with fear on the inside, but I doubt I showed much on the outside. What was happening to me wasn't new: millions and millions and millions of people had their lives ended this way since Z-day a few long months ago. The usta-be hand came out at me, the stink pouring off it it, black flies lazily buzzing and flicking across its knuckles. My mouth was open, silently screaming only my breath. This was the end.
The hand was on my head. It felt like a greasy paper bag filled with jelly. Rotten, putrid jelly. But the usta-be didn't launch himself at me in hunger. Instead, his hand dragged across my forehead, and his own browning skull turned ever so slightly. If he was alive, I would have thought he was unsure and pondering. The awful hand slopped the other way on my forehead, and beneath the fear I had the vague feeling that he was looking for something.
Looking but not finding.
Those waxy, barely-seeing eyes flicked from me to something unseen beyond. Its head turned, and the hand flopped down my cheek, leaving a streak of putrid, rotten juice. He lumbered on, moving away from me. I was still too terrified to move, too terrified to even try and run. When he was half a house-length away from me, my wildly shaking hand wiped the stinking, black juice from my face.
Why was I still alive?
My hand dabbed at the juice-stink again... and then a dim, depressing thought started to form in my head. I stood up, not feeling exhilarated by my brush with dead, bur instead feeling alarmingly depressed. Even they didn't want me? I wondered if I should run after him--maybe he'd be hungrier if I showed a little more life.
Even now I didn't have enough smarts for even a usta-be-man-turned-zombie to want to eat my brains?
Can you imagine what that feels like—to not be wanted by the living and the dead? Dejected, I picked myself up. For the first time since Z-day, I hardly looked around me. It felt kind of freeing. We were all so used to being on our toes every moment that we were outside the basement, it had become second nature. Now I didn’t even care.
I made my way back to the basement. Even though I was completely depressed, I still followed the rules; no sense getting a baseball bat to the face just because I was having a bad day. “It’s me, Red. I’m coming back in.” I said it loudly and clearly, so that they knew I wasn’t a usta-be. I heard the door unlock, and it opened a crack. Eddy was at the door as I slid by, hoping he wouldn’t smell the juice stink on me. “Hey, Eddy,” I said cheerily.
He half nodded at me. “Sup, Red.”
I looked around the dingy, dark basement. Naomi was vacantly looking out the small window. Fran was counting our canned food inventory for the thousandth time. Eddy said one more thing before turning to close and bolt the door.