Please note that this is not yet the final version. I am revising one last time.
My Banquet Brain
“You reckon they’re happy?” I gently swung my feet as I scrutinised the tangle of bodies some forty feet below us.
“Well, they certainly don’t seem unhappy,” Ralph said.
“True,” I agreed, listening to the grunts from below. “They seem hungry, though.”
“Only when we’re around.”
“How do you know what they’re like when we’re not around?”
“Check my research paper about the experiment I did.”
“I believe you.” I kept staring at the crawling bodies. They were trying to open the door to the building we were sitting on. Sadly, despite all the brains they might have eaten, their IQs were still approximately equal to a sea cucumber.
From the surrounding area more bodies were heading our way like a slow, steady current. One body was walking a bit faster then the rest and I watched as she reached the main group. Somehow she melted right to the front of the group, who were banging desperately on the closed doors right below us. A few seconds later, there was the sound of shattering glass and various bodies fell through the doorframe. I saw a flesh of red as the faster zombie dropped the brick she had apparently used to break the glass. I glanced sideways at Ralph, raising my eyebrows in surprise.
“I’ve never seen one do that,” I observed.
“She seems almost…smart.”
“Some are smarter than others.”
I knew that, although I had never seen a body as smart as this one. We’d both studied the bodies’ behaviour extensively.
“I wonder if it corresponds to their pre-death IQ,” I mused.
“It does,” Ralph said. He stretched, lifting his arms up in the air. I could see the muscles in his torso expand. He was rather fit – very uncharacteristic for a nerd like him, although probably unavoidable in our current life-style. Too bad he didn’t fancy me. Bv.
“How do you know? And don’t tell me I should read the essay.”
“I wasn’t going to. I know because that one…” he pointed at the woman with the brick, who was now trying to squeeze her body through the broken glass, “…used to share an office with me at the university.”
14 days earlier
Before even opening my eyes, I dragged myself to the window. Blinking against the dull grey light that was too bright for my sleepy senses, I did a quick headcount. Only about thirty. Moaning happily, I let myself fall back onto the mattress and pressed some buttons on my alarm. Another hour would give me enough of an edge.
A furious beeping and I was back at the window. The light was brighter now and it took me a good minute to focus. At least fifty. Shit. Squatting on my bed, I picked up my alarm and checked the time. Then I peered out of the window again. There was definitely something else out there.
Wide awake from the rush of adrenaline, I got up and changed my clothes. I always slept in jeans and a T-shirt, just in case. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to flee the house in the middle of the night and find myself wearing a set of cuddly pyjamas. After brushing my teeth and losing the fight with my greasy hair – I’d have to take a bath soon – I stuffed my meagre belongings in my backpack. I climbed the stairs to the roof and chewed on a few handfuls of cereal. It was dry, sticking to every surface of my mouth. I fervently wished there were cows left.
The roof was flat and showed a whole different kind of city. It was my domain and I knew it well. In this part of town I could travel for miles without ever having to leave the rooftops. Now I crouched down at the edge of the roof and scanned the street. Fifty had been a conservative number. The street was crawling with bodies, crashing around in the shop windows. I carefully considered the distribution of the bodies, especially paying attention to those that were on their way to join the party. It confirmed what I had already guessed: I was not alone.
Staring at the ant hill below, I felt my stomach heave. In addition to the considerable smell, I was always overcome by a strong sense of disgust when I saw so many bodies together. It had something to do with the way they moved as one organism when they got this close together. I shuddered and focussed on the building where I knew there had to be others. I made a quick estimation of their number.
The three options came quickly. Five above average, twelve average or twenty below average, I nodded to myself. That seemed about right. Those were pretty large groups and they wouldn’t want me around. Still, I considered, I should manage at least an hour before they figured out just how tasty my brain was. That was plenty of time to get a bite of the cooked breakfast I could smell even from this distance.
I got back to my feet and started climbing from roof to roof. It was lucky that the buildings were squeezed together so tightly around this part of town. I reached my target after about ten minutes of gymnastics and snuck in through a window at the top floor, about 60 feet above the crawling mass of bodies. I was standing in a dusty, derelict storage space. I could hear voices. I listened for a moment. The others were definitely on the same floor and I could hear most of what they were saying. Both the gist of their conversation and the number of voices confirmed that this was a group of average intelligence. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for some theatre.
“Oh, hello!” I stumbled into the room, looking confused. “Wow, there’s so many of you!”
There were eleven, a quick headcount told me. “There’s a whole bunch of bodies on the street, did you know that?” I asked, wide-eyed. “That’s how I found you,” I added, beaming.
The people I was facing stared at me, frozen in their movements. A few narrowed their eyes in suspicion. The rest gaped at me.
“Yeah, we’ll be heading out before too long,” a bearded man answered. He was holding a sausage on a stick, which I guessed he’d been about to roast it on the messy camp fire in the middle of the room.
“Oh, forgive my manners!” I exclaimed and ran towards the man, my hand extended. “Shirley Templeton. I am so glad to find you guys! I have been alone for days, ever since my old group…” I trailed off, my lip quivering. It had the desired effect – everyone relaxed and continued with breakfast.
“Stu Jensen,” the bearded man answered. “Now sit down, dear. You’re not hurt, are you?” I shook my head furiously, knowing what the question meant. For those of us who were immune to the air-born strains of the virus, there was only one way left to get infected: contaminated saliva injected straight into the bloodstream. In other words: we didn’t want to get bitten. Or drooled on.
Within minutes I was set up with a lovely breakfast. As I munched it down, I only felt slightly guilty for my deceit. This was what the world was like now. One big, ironic joke. The smarter you were, the more dangerous the bodies were, but the easier it was to come up with ways to get food, shelter and water. The dumber you were, the less interested the bodies were in you, but the harder it was to survive simply because of a lack of grey matter. It was a lose-lose situation and the most ironic thing I’d ever heard of. It seemed almost… fair. Equal chances of survival, regardless of one’s intelligence.
I had finished my breakfast and was chatting brainlessly with a skinny woman when Stu, walked back into the room. His face was screwed up like he was trying to process something difficult.
“There is a huge crowd of bodies out there, y’all,” he said after some deliberation. “We’d better get going.” All conversation stopped.
“Back entrance?” a dark-skinned man asked.
“Yeah, that’d be best,” Stu nodded.
The group started collecting belongings, packing them in their backpacks. At least they had figured that out. A couple of months ago I had encountered a group consisting of half a dozen thirty-somethings all dragging along suitcases on wheels. Giant suitcases full of ridiculous stuff. Now all they were dragging along were their decaying limbs.
The group filed out of the room and I got up, too. However, as soon as I caught Stu’s eyes, I knew he had figured it out.
“Why don’t you stay well clear of us, Shirley,” he said with a warning glance.
“It’s not my fault, you know,” I sighed. Stu walked to the window, drew the curtain aside and threw one last look on the street below.
“Damn, Shirley, you must have one hell of an IQ.”
“My banquet brain,” I muttered.
“And we’re just… dry bread or something,” Stu said, giving me half a grin. Immediately warming to Stu, I gave him a sad smile in return. I would never see him or his group again, if they could help it. Dry bread didn’t associate with warm apple pie served with a side of clotted cream, maple sirup and hot chocolate sauce.
“Well, good luck to you. I guess you have to move around a lot more than we do,” he said pensively.
I nodded solemnly.
“We’re going north. Please don’t follow us.”
“I’ll stay here a bit longer,” I said.
Stu disappeared and I watched from the window as the group quickly moved through the back alley and out of sight. Then I climbed to the roof, hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and left the ant hill behind me. Of course the ants would follow me, but they’d need time tracking my scent up this high. As I scrambled from roof to roof, my mind wandered to the one question that had been plaguing me for quite a while now. What was the point of me being alive? I laughed out loud remembering how this exact question had bothered me before this whole thing had happened. When I had a job and an apartment and a complete lack of dead bodies wanting to eat my brain.
The human race was rapidly approaching extinction as the body race grew. However hard we tried to survive, we just weren’t going to win. So what was the point of me? What was the point of those eleven people whose breakfast I’d just shared?
I pondered that question fruitlessly while I made my way through the city. I visited two of my secret hoards, collecting food and water from them. Then I headed for a flat I occasionally used. Large apartment buildings weren’t normally good spots for me as I needed several exits, but this flat was special. I’d installed a zip-line that made the other exits unnecessary.
I entered the flat from the balcony using the rope ladder I had installed. I opened the heavy, expensive glass doors and slipped into the flat. I held my breath and listened carefully. There was no sound. I exhaled and took a moment to enjoy my surroundings. The flat was the most luxurious dwelling I’d ever lived in and probably cost more than I’d make in a lifetime. The living room was sparingly decorated in greys and whites. It always reminded me a bit of a prehistoric cave with its simple, rock-carved furniture. And yet it felt just about as much out of place now, during the zombie apocalypse, as it would have in the stone age.
I walked into the hall, which was tiled with polished, white stone slabs, and stood on my tiptoes to look out of the spy hole. Whoever had lived here – or rather not lived here if I went by the lack of personal items – had to have been rather tall. Seeing nothing but an empty, dirty corridor, I tentatively opened the door. My ears picked up a distant rustling sound. Taking the shovel hanging from the wall, I stepped out into the corridor.
It was as yet deserted. The tasteful grey carpet and the walls were almost completely covered in sticky, red-brown and grey goo and smelled horrendously. Gagging, I stepped into the apartment again and took a deep breath of fresh air. Then I cast another look into the corridor. There they were. Right at the end of the corridor, on both sides, vague shapes were struggling against the fire doors. They were moaning the high-pitched moan that meant they were smelling my tasty brain and couldn’t wait to take a bite. I rolled my eyes and barricaded the door.
Back in the living room, I sat down at the impeccable glass table, got my laptop out and started typing. Even though I had been using computers most of my life, it felt weird using a laptop now. The apartment had no electricity, no water and no gas, yet here I was typing away at my expensive, lightweight laptop.
This morning, just as the indifferent sun cast its light on a crumbling world, I smelled breakfast. Following its trail, I found a seemingly untroubled band of averages enjoying a simple meal and was invited to join them. Sadly, my theatrical skills must be on the decline because my IQ was disseminated in less than half an hour.
I took my hands off the keyboard, reread my words and sighed. Translating my life into a piece of literature still wasn’t making it any more poetic. I had been an English teacher before all of this had happened, working mostly with utterly uninterested kids. It usually took me about a year to convince one or two of them that English did in fact deserve some appreciation, and it was that turn-around that made me love my job. Now I was just a walking dinner party with a minor in dead-studies.
I opened my research file, but I didn’t have anything new to report. I’d have to think of some new experiments soon, if only to keep my mind distracted from the big questions. So I got my e-reader from my bag and settled for a dose of escapism.
Half an hour later, I stopped reading to listen to the muffled bangs that were now coming from the front door. It had taken them surprisingly little time to navigate the fire doors this time. I wondered if I had gained some IQ points or if they had. Considering the harlequin story I had just read, it was probably them.
I yawned and stretched, groaning as my muscles tensed. Then I rummaged through my state-of-the-art survival backpack until I found what I needed. Dragging one of the designers chairs and my laptop onto the balcony, I sat down heavily. The sun was already on its way down, but I guessed I had at least an hour of light left. I set up the small solar panel installation and directed it at the indifferent sun. Then I balanced the laptop on my knee, using a short cable to connect one to the other. A low, satisfied beep told me they were happy to see each other.
I picked up my e-reader. Checking the battery, I saw it had dropped to 12%. I pulled another small cable from the case and connected the e-reader to the laptop, resulting in another satisfied beep. These devices – still going strong in a post-apocalyptic world – always seemed so pleased to be connected. I wondered if they talked to each other as the bursts of electricity moved between them. I wondered what they thought of me. I rolled my eyes at my own ridiculous mind.
I spent the rest of daylight reading another one of the ten thousand illegal books I had mercifully had the presence of mind to upload to my e-reader when there was still an internet. After dozens of hours of practice, I was able to ignore the rustling, shuffling, moaning and occasional banging noise coming from far below me on the streets. I had blocked the entrance to the building, so the three bodies below had zero change of making it to my front door. The bodies that had already been in the building were now either already at the front door, or making their way toward it. The narrowness of the hall ensured they wouldn’t do any real damage, whereas their presence ensured that no living being would bother me either. Some survivors were not exactly neighbourly, and I felt safer with a horde of the dead to protect me.
When the shadows started creeping over my balcony, I collected my little installation and went back inside. I hadn’t been much of a hero to begin with, but these days I was positively terrified of the dark.
I slept a normal, restless night and woke up to the sound of my alarm clock. Automatically, I got dressed, listened to the banging on the front door and then stepped out on the balcony. Below, there were at least seventy bodies moaning away. I frowned unhappily at them, to no discernible effect. Something was off again. I listened for a couple of minutes, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Then I took my binoculars and checked the surrounding area, scanning every apartment and every building. Nothing.
I slid down my zip line with a heightened sense of alarm, leaving the undead mob behind to figure out that the smell of Thanksgiving dinner had disappeared. Even as I stood in the already hot sunlight, there were goosebumps on my arm. The bodies didn’t bother me this way. Whatever it was that was wrong, it was human.
Unable to come up with a better alternative, I set about my usual routine, moving over the roofs. However, as I collected some items and moved from area to area, it became apparent that whatever was off, was following me. Bodies were just that much quicker to catch my scent and start closing in. Either my IQ had doubled, or I was being shadowed.
I crouched on a flat roof as this realisation set in. Shadowed… or hunted? My heart started pounding furiously. I had a small gun in my bag and I got it out now, sticking it clumsily under my belt. At the same time, a slow anger grew. I would not stand for being hunted. I was smarter than that.
More by instinct than anything else I started moving again. First casually, the way I had been moving so far. Then, when I had just crossed to a different roof and felt sheltered by the forest of pinnacles that covered its surface, I dashed forward, jumped to the next roof and took aim from behind an outcrop of scaffolding. For a while, nothing happened. But the hairs on my arms were still standing up and I didn’t budge.
“Alright! You win!” a voice echoed from the roof I had just jumped off. The voice sounded surprisingly… normal, but I remained vigilant. A shape emerged and walked towards the edge of the roof, towards my building. It was a man. Medium hight, brown hair, the usual survival outfit. In his late twenties, I guessed. He looked quite fit, but his demeanour didn’t match that fact. I guessed that he had only recently become fit, out of necessity. I tried to understand what type of person he was, comparing him to pre-apocalyptic times, but I couldn’t quite place him.
The man looked down for a moment, staring down the alley that divided his building from mine. He had his hands up in the air, but lowered them slightly in response to whatever was down there.
“You must be genius level smart, right? IQ of about 140, 150?” he shouted.
That was when I realised what he was. A nerd, a beta geek. One of those guys who already wore survival outfits before there was any surviving to do, just because the clothes were comfortable. The type who was socially awkward enough that he was unlikely to ever get a girlfriend. The type who invented terribly smart machines that no one understood but everyone used.
No longer sensing much of a threat, I got to my feet and looked down the alley myself. There were about a dozen bodies crawling below, all of them trying to mount the smooth walls.
“By the looks of it, that makes me dumber than you,” I said.
“Not by much!” He sent me a shy grin. “Mind if I cross over to your roof?”
He took a few steps back and jumped onto my roof. For a moment, we just stared at each other. I had not been completely correct in my assessment, I realised. He had definitely been a beta geek, a technical nerd, but he’d been one of the more socially able types. Perhaps not a great dresser, but definitely smooth enough to talk to girls.
“Hello, I’m Ralph.” He extended his hand. I took it, scrutinising the expression on his face.
“Shirley Templeton. Why the hell are you stalking me?”
“Shirley Templeton?” He raised his eyebrows, not believing me. As a reply, I raised my eyebrows back at him.
“Alright. I was curious about you, but wasn’t sure how to approach. So I thought I’d check you out for a while.”
“Since when?” Great, a stalker. I sat down, crossing my legs and retrieving a cereal bar from my backpack. He followed my example, but produced a candy bar. For a moment I was distracted – I hadn’t seen a candy bar in quite a while and it looked amazing.
“Oh, I actually first saw you a couple of weeks ago, but you disappeared. It’s taken me this long to find you again. It was kind of a coincidence really. I’ve been tracking large… conglomerations…flocks?… of bodies. Most of the time they’re simply triggered by groups of humans, not individuals. But yesterday something strange happened. There was this larger than usual group of bodies and lots more being drawn in. I waited for a bit and then a group of eleven emerged.” He was talking animatedly now, gesturing wildly with his arms.
“So I thought I’d follow them for a bit, see if I could… ehm… get some lunch off them. I assumed they were mid level managers or something. But after about an hour I realised they just weren’t that smart. And that’s when I figured there must have been someone else in that building. These eleven people wouldn’t attract that big a conglomeration. As soon as I figured that out, I went back and tried to find a trail. That’s how I found your flat. Nice zip-line, by the way. You pretty much worked out I was there right from the start, didn’t you?” He was done explaining and looked at me expectantly. I considered his expression for a moment and then accepted he was probably telling the truth. These days, you didn’t just walk up to people and say hello. Not unless they weren’t that bright.
“Yes. The bodies kind of gave it away.”
He gave me a wry smile. “Well, nice to meet you, …what’s your name?”
He raised his eyebrows.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, like the Beatle.”
He considered that. “Cool. And you chose Shirley as your pseudonym? How does that work?”
“It works,” I shrugged.
“I guess so,” he shrugged in agreement.
“What is your name again?” Somehow I was never able to remember the bit where people told me their name. Not now, not before.
It was quiet for a moment as we found ourselves surrounded by mutual social awkwardness.
“So, you want to… ehm… stick together?” Ralph asked, glancing sideways at me. I considered that question for a moment, taking in his appearance a second time. He still looked like a harmless, reliable geek and I really craved some company. Yet there was one thing I needed to know for sure.
“What are you expecting if we stick together?” I had observed enough survivors groups with a more… utilitarian structure, so I had to ask. Ralph looked at me, dumbstruck. And then I saw comprehension dawn.
“I’m gay!” he laughed.
Okay, so he was gay. I considered the implications. On the one hand it felt like a relief. On the other, a disappointment. This most definitely wasn’t going to turn out like anything in my romance novels. At the same time, I kept looking pointedly at Ralph, demanding a definite answer. He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“No offence, but I really don’t want to have sex with you!”
“Good,” I said and then grinned at the silliness of the conversation.
“The world’s become a bit more direct than before, hasn’t it?” Ralph grinned back. “Perhaps I should clarify though: should we happen to encounter a handsome, living specimen of the male persuasion, I will fight you for him.”
“Fair enough,” I laughed. I was starting to like Ralph. It was great talking so airily about our current situation, laughing even. It had been a long time since I had laughed out loud.
“So, you want to compare notes?” Ralph asked.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t been researching the bodies. Everyone is an empirical scientist these days. We’ve all got a degree in body studies.”
“Fair enough,” I said again, grinning. I had a strong feeling this was going to be great. As I dug through my backpack, collecting my laptop and solar panel, I continued. “So, what exactly is your degree in the field?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard? I’m the country’s preeminent body scholar.”
“Been offered a professorship yet?”
“Nah, universities aren’t very pro active these days. I’m expecting a letter any day now, though.”
By now I had fired up the laptop, located my research folder and handed it to Ralph. He scanned the list, opened a couple of files and nodded in approval.
“Nice to meet a fellow doctor in the exciting new field of body studies.”
“And by the time it stops being excited, we could simply go for a whole new perspective, becoming our own test subjects,” I added without thinking. Ralph fell silent and so did I. We exchanged a glance.
“No worries, I’m sure it’s a rich and fulfilling life, being a body,” Ralph grinned a minute later. I grinned back, but it was halfheartedly. What was it like being a body?
We spent the night in another flat, one of Ralph’s haunts this time. It was even more lush than my prize apartment, and I had to admit I still enjoyed the novelty of living rich. However, the biggest, and most amazing, novelty was not being alone for once. Before finding our beds, we spent several hours talking. It was hard to stop once we began. It was like we were both trying to catch up on the previous months. By the time we finally conceded to our sleepiness, I felt like I had known Ralph my entire life. Sinking deep in the posh bed, I fell asleep immediately.
What was less thrilling, greeting us the following morning, was the sheer number of bodies banging on the door. Outside, half the street was crawling with them.
“Looks like together we’re more than the sum of our IQs,” I remarked.
“I concur,” Ralph nodded, still in his pyjamas. Unlike me, he had refused to make that concession to safety. Or perhaps he just didn’t mind the prospect of being in his pyjamas if we had to move suddenly.
“It doesn’t seem to be that way with the averages,” I said, frowning.
“Not to my knowledge, no,” Ralph replied.
“We’re a dying species,” I said.
Ralph frowned unhappily. “I think you’re right. But it doesn’t seem right. With all our intelligence and numbers, we shouldn’t be defeated by a bunch of slow, mumbling, brain-eating bodies.”
“We don’t have the numbers.”
“No, but we used to, at the beginning.”
“I guess they’re a dying species, too,” I continued. “Or rather, dying again.” I grinned and Ralph responded with a smirk. Then his serious face returned.
“Is that so? Do they really die when they don’t eat?”
“I think so. But we could find out.”
“There’s a body trapped in a cage at the zoo. I locked her in to see what would happen. She hasn’t moved for quite a while.”
“Dead? Whatever that means?”
“Well, I’m not one hundred percent positive. I didn’t approach her close enough to determine her… level of deadness.”
“Let’s go check her out!” Ralph grinned and jumped up. He grabbed his backpack and started collecting his things.
“You know you’re not going to impress that hypothetical gorgeous bloke in your pyjamas, right?” I smirked.
An hour later we arrived at the zoo. It wasn’t a place I was happy to visit, the smell being so repugnant that we had to tie a scarf over our mouths and noses. Fortunately we didn’t have to go far onto the terrain. The cage had once belonged to a black panther, which was now living somewhere in the new wilderness of the city. I had made sure of that.
In the far right corner of the cage lay a grey heap of dead meat, still strikingly human-shaped and wearing contrastingly colourful clothes. There wasn’t the slightest sign of movement. We stood and looked at her for a while. Ralph made some notes and took a photo with his digital camera. Then he tried the door of the cage.
“You got a key?”
Ralph entered the cage tentatively, holding out a baseball bat with one hand. The other hand clutched his notebook and a pen. There was still no movement in the sagged body as we approached it. I stayed behind Ralph, wary.
After a moment’s deliberation, Ralph prodded it with his bat. No reaction. He prodded a little harder. Suddenly there was movement and I jumped back, heart racing. Ralph had reacted the same way and was standing in front of me, holding up the bat menacingly. But the body didn’t move further. All it had done was open it eyes.
We stepped closer again and stared down at the dead woman whose gaze drifted around slowly. A heavenly smile had appeared on her face. She didn’t appear to see – or smell – us at all. Whatever it was she did see, it seemed to make her blissfully happy. Ralph leaned on his bat and raised his eyebrows.
“Well, that’s something. Not dead-dead, but dead and ecstatically happy.”
“Weird,“ I muttered, feeling unsettled by the look of blissful joy on the body’s face.
“Uh, Lennon, perhaps we’d better get going,” Ralph suddenly said, an edge to his voice. I turned around and saw that the zoo had become a whole lot more crowded. From all sides bodies were approaching. Not too many for us to handle, but again more than the sum of our IQs warranted.
“Come on,” I said and carefully exited the cage. “Let’s check next week if she’s still here.”
“Good idea,” Ralph agreed as we climbed to the roof of the nearby giraffe restaurant.
We spent the next week climbing from roof to roof and talking endlessly. We really only had two topics: our past and our present. Our future was simply too grim for either of us to bring up. Yet it was fast becoming the elephant in the room and I knew that before too long we would have to breach the subject.
Six days after our first visit to the zoo, we visited again. The body was still lying where we had left her, despite the open door. Like last time, she gazed up to us with a deliriously happy expression on her face before closing her eyes again. It was rather unnerving and I found myself dwelling on her happiness time and again over the next days.
All in all we had a pretty nice time, even if the sheer number of bodies we attracted meant we had to move a lot more than either of us was used to. There was no sleeping in, what with the moaning waking us up in the early hours of the morning. Or rather, waking me up because Ralph slept like a baby.
The next couple of weeks we spent doing more research. We observed behavioural differences between the bodies – they only varied slightly in their ability to overcome obstacles on their way to a pair of brains – and sought out some more locked in and starved bodies. Like the woman in the zoo, all of them were unmoving but smiled at us in absolute bliss if we prodded them hard enough.
One thing that did become very noticeable as time passed, was the slow but steady increase in bodies following our scent at any given time. We knew what it meant – there was less brain to go around with every passing day. Although the bodies themselves did not pose too great a danger to us, they did make it harder to forage for food. The rooftops were still largely body-free, but supermarkets and warehouses weren’t built on roofs. In addition, food supplies were becoming sparse. Whoever was still alive, they were foraging from the same stores that we were.
Ralph and I had been travelling together for nearly two months when we finally breached the big topic. As usual, we were having our lunch at a nice, cosy rooftop, our feet dangling off the side of the building. Today our lunch consisted of a jar of sliced mushrooms, a can of peaches and a pack of cornflakes. It wasn’t bad, for our standards. There were fibres, fruit and vegetables-of-sorts. Everything the body needs.
“You think we can survive long enough?” I eventually broke the silence.
“Long enough? Until they all stop moving, you mean?” Ralph said, turning his tan face and flashing his thick eyelashes at me.
“How long did it take that body at the zoo to stop moving?”
“About three months.”
Ralph was silent. I waited for a moment, but he did not answer.
“You don’t think we can make it, do you?” I said, feeling my heart sink.
“I don’t know. It depends on food and water,” I considered.
For another moment we just stared at the horde of bodies that had already collected twenty yards below us. There were about thirty and more were heading our way. The situation was deteriorating by the day now.
“No, I don’t think we can make it. Not enough of us, anyway,” I eventually whispered. Ralph looked at me. His eyelashes were wet and stuck together. He put an arm around me and I put my arm around him, pressing my side against his.
“What’s the best option?” Ralph whispered after a while.
“Suicide?” I said inaudibly, scared to say it out loud. But when I peeked at Ralph’s face, I saw he had heard it anyway. His expression was taut.
“There is another option,” he whispered.
“They starve happily.”
“How about before they starve?”
“They don’t seem unhappy,” Ralph pointed at the crowd below.
“They don’t seem happy.”
“Are you happy now?”
Neither of us wanted to answer that question. Neither of us could. We’d forgotten the meaning of the word.
We had been sitting quietly for a long time, holding each other tight, when a loud crash made us jump. When we turned around, a stream of bodies were spilling out of the fire door on to the roof. Of course they were headed right for us. In one movement, we scooped up our things and sprinted away, leaping to the next roof.
Frozen in shock we watched as the bodies reached the edge of the roof. Jumping was not something they were capable of, I was certain of that. Nonetheless, my heart was pounding furiously and I was shaking with fright. Ralph didn’t appear to be in much better shape. This was new. Never before had the bodies managed to find a way to the roof. It was probably a fluke, but it scared the heck out of me anyway.
The first couple of bodies stopped at the edge, accepting the gap as an obstacle.
“They have a sense of self-preservation,” Ralph noted more to himself than to me. A second later a new wave of bodies arrived and instead of stopping, they stepped right over the edge. I felt my stomach heave as they fell down the alley with a sickening thud. I pressed my face between Ralph’s shoulder blades as the sound of thuds continued in rapid succession. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Every two seconds or so there was a new thud.
When I looked up again, Ralph stepped forward and peered down the alley. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“They’re building a bridge,” he said, his voice a monotone but his face a mix of shock and horror. “A bridge of bodies.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, trying to keep my voice from faltering. I dragged Ralph away from the alley, not wanting to see the pile of dead bodies at the bottom. Ralph followed, clearly still processing this completely new display of behaviour. But he could analyse it later.
We both had a restless night, and not just because we had to move halfway through the night as we had been forced to do since about two weeks. The build-up of bodies was so great that they were now likely to crash through doors, windows and any other obstacles by sheer mass and pressure. Depending on the area, the two of us attracted about forty to fifty bodies per hour now and that count was rising exponentially. Survival was starting to become difficult. Of course we could part ways, but I didn’t think it was an option for either of us. We didn’t just want to survive, we wanted to live. And humans were social creatures.
“They are developing some sort of hive intelligence,” Ralph panted when we came to a standstill after fleeing another roof the bodies had managed to invade and were now busy building a bridge across.
“Looks that way,” I said, not wanting to talk but feeling it would be rude to say nothing.
“It’s the first clear proof I’ve seen that they are capable of cognitive development,” Ralph observed in his science-voice.
“Perhaps they have a chance after all.”
I scowled. “Where is your allegiance, Ralph?”
“I am a survival of the fittest kind of man.”
“And your reckon the bodies are the fittest?”
“Well, it certainly isn’t us,” I conceded.
“No, it isn’t. I think we need to make a decision, Lennon. And make it sooner rather than later.”
“To be or to be dead, that is the question,” I said lamely.
“To die or to be dead, more like,” Ralph smiled ruefully.
He was right. We had two options, now that we had decided that living as humans was out of the question. We could either die on our own terms, or we could join the zombie apocalypse. Not an easy choice, to be sure.
“If you want to have sex one last time before…., that’s okay with me.”
I rolled my eyes and grinned. “That is mighty noble of you, Ralph, but you’re insane.” I thought for a moment. “Have you actually ever been with a woman?”
I pondered that for a moment, but didn’t say anything.
“It wasn’t very good. I think that was when I knew for sure that I was gay.”
“Well, if I were a bloke I would have been honoured to get in the sack with you, Ralph.”
We both laughed awkwardly.
“Not to make a final decision, but what option are you leaning towards now?” I asked.
“To be dead rather than die,” Ralph said evenly. “You?”
I thought of the look of pure bliss on the starved bodies’ faces. I’d never seen a dead-dead person look that happy. I could live with that sort of bliss. “Agreed.”
“Ah, we’d make a pair of killer bodies!” Ralph grinned.
“We’d be the best brain-hunters in town,” I laughed back.
We were silent for a while longer, chewing on some stale gum I had found in someone’s kitchen.
“Shall we evaluate again in one week’s time?” Ralph asked.
“Alright,” I nodded. “And the third decision is final?”
“In two weeks we make our final decision,” Ralph sighed.
Two weeks proved nothing too soon. We were rapidly closing in on the moment we would have to move not once, but twice every night. We hadn’t had more than four hours’ sleep in a row for weeks and it was starting to take its toll. Enjoying ourselves was becoming just as hard as avoiding the bodies. And if we couldn’t enjoy ourselves, what was the point of living?
It was a bright morning when we sat down on the roof of an apartment building to make our final decision. I was feeling very nervous. This was the strangest and most final decision I would ever make and the option I really wanted, wasn’t available. On the other hand, I was now tired enough that I was ready to take one of the other options. I just hoped we’d agree.
Last week we had re-evaluated our preference from the top of a ferris wheel. My decision hadn’t changed since the first tally, but Ralph had changed his. He had argued that he had been born human and wanted to die human. A fair argument, but it hadn’t changed my mind. I wasn’t ready to die, and whatever life the bodies lived, it was some form of living. I was convinced of that. And who knew how they might evolve, as Ralph had pointed out? I was ready to put myself in a cocoon and emerge another creature – albeit a disgusting one.
We sat down cross-legged, facing one another. All of our belongings, gathered in two backpacks, were lying next to us.
“Before we say anything, I want to share this with you,” Ralph grinned and pulled out a candy bar. It was one of those packages that contain two shorter bars.
“Give it to me!” I grinned. “Where on earth did you find that?”
“I kind of had it with me all this time. I bought this bar, way back.”
“You bought it?” My mouth was hanging open and I closed it quickly.
“I’m good at saving things. Here.”
The next ten minutes we sat in silence, slowly devouring the candy bars. The taste was divine. Thick, sweet and bulging with calories. A great diet for the post-apocalyptic survivor, I thought to myself.
“Alright. Have you changed your mind?” Ralph asked as soon as we had licked our fingers.
I shook my head. “Have you, since last week?”
He hesitated for a moment. I held my breath. Then he nodded and I sighed in relief.
“We’re going to join the hordes of the dead, then?” I asked.
That was it. The decision was made. But I wasn’t sure how to proceed now. It seemed such a strange thing. I had always figured I would live my life and then eventually it would stop, all by itself. Now I was to actively end my life and the thought terrified me. I stared at Ralph and to my surprise saw that his eyes betrayed nothing of the panic that had gripped me. There was only resolve in his eyes when he averted them and started rummaging through his backpack. He came up with a small vial containing a yellowish fluid.
“This is it. All we have to do is rub some of this in an open wound. It’s saliva from one of them.”
My panic only grew. “How long will it take? What if you change faster than me? What if I change faster than you?!” I jumped to my feet and started pacing around. I clenched my fists and swung my arms around awkwardly. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t!
“You know how long it takes,” Ralph said quietly. He walked towards me and wrapped his arms around me. “Don’t worry. I have thought of everything. Dying never scared me, and changing doesn’t either. Now, tell me how long it takes.”
“Four hours until the subject is loses consciousness. Two days until the subject wakes up again,” I said, nervously. It was the four hours that were scaring me. What would happen to me then? How would it affect my mind? Tears were soundlessly streaming down my cheeks now. Ralph reached out and wiped them away.
“You’re ready?” I asked him.
“Yes. We’re getting to the point where I’m constantly scared and it starting to wear me out. I’m ready to move on.”
I took a deep breath and watched as Ralph collected a small jar from his pocket. It contained several bright pink pills. He looked at me as he shook some out on his hand.
“Ironic, isn’t it? The colour?” He gave me a smile, but I couldn’t return it.
“These are sleeping pills. One will put us out for about four to five hours. We’ll take two just to be on the safe side.”
“And when we wake up, we’ll be different creatures.” I liked Ralph’s solution. If I were to change into a mindless creature, I didn’t want to feel it happen.
“Let’s do this,” Ralph said, sitting down and placing a small knife, the bottle of pills and vial of saliva in front of him.
“Now?” Panic was rising again.
“Why prolong the inevitable? But it’s your call. We can wait, if you want to. I would just prefer to do this before it happens the messy, painful way.”
That decided it for me. I nodded, sat down and rolled up one of my sleeves. Ralph looked me in the eye, took the knife and made a tiny scratch on my skin. Then he did the same on his own arm. There was hardly any blood, but it was enough. The next moment he offered me a can of soda and two pink pills.
“Geez, where did you get all that stuff?” I asked, not having seen a can of soda since I last saw a candy bar that wasn’t Ralph’s.
“As I said, I’m good at hoarding stuff,” Ralph grinned. When I didn’t immediately take the can, he used it to swallow his own pills. Then he offered it to me again. Trying not to think, I took it and gulped down my pills. The soda was flat, but the insane sugariness was wonderful. I had missed that.
Now there was just on step left. Ralph hesitated for a moment, but by now I had found the right state of mind. So I grabbed the vial and took a handkerchief from my backpack. Carefully I soaked a corner of the handkerchief in the saliva. Then, after a deep sigh, I I pressed it against the small cut on my arm. There was a faint burning sensation, but nothing too painful. As I soaked another corner in the saliva, the flesh around the cut was already turning a strange grey.
“Wow, that stuff is potent,” Ralph said, staring at my arm. A second later I pressed the infected handkerchief against his wound. That was it. We were both doomed now.
As I tried to think of something to say, I realised the pink tablets were starting to kick in. I was having trouble concentrating, even more so than would be expected from someone who just infected herself with a zombie virus. Ralph yawned and looked at me.
A moment later we were curled up on the dusty concrete of the rooftop, Ralph’s arms around me. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open now, so I knew it was time for that final remark.
“I love you, Ralph.” My voice came out strange and slow.
“I love you too, Lennon,” Ralph muttered slowly in my ear.
“See you in the next life.”
Fifty-two hours later
Suddenly I was aware. I had to open my eyes. I waited a second, but my eyes hadn’t opened. I tried again. Now I could see something. But more to the point, I could smell something. It was calling out to me, or rather singing sweetly and deliciously. I tried to get to my feet to follow the scent, but my body was being difficult. With much effort I eventually managed to get up. Oh, that sweet, sweet smell! I started dragging my limbs towards the roof’s exit. Then I stopped. I was supposed to remember something. After a moment I turned around – not an easy feat. Oh, yes. Ralph. He was lying on the roof as if he were dead.
“Grrrrmphl!” I called out his name. He didn’t react, so I tried again: “Grrrrrmphl! Gmmmm!”
It helped. Ralph jerked his limbs in various directions. Ten minutes later he was standing besides me.
“Kkkkkrrrrt!” he said referring to the mouthwatering smell calling us both.
“Kkkkkrrrrt!” I agreed.
Then we started dragging our dead bodies forward, determined to find the source of that scrumptious smell, and – more importantly – beat the other bodies to it.