Day 11, Month 4: Tom

Posted: May 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Tom had been up for several hours surfing the internet, making his usual rounds at each of his favorite websites. Normally, he’d be in bed by now, but his attention had been captured by a rash of gruesome videos just posted to several of the internet’s seediest gore-fest websites… websites to which Tom was no stranger. He fancied himself as a bit of a gore-hound but as more of a curiosity than anything else. On a visceral level, he sincerely enjoys seeing death, or at least the process of dying. He has a fascination with the human condition, what it takes for the human body to cease functioning, and especially how the human body will do anything and everything it can to live. He is constantly amazed at some of the accounts told of amazing feats of survival, how some bodies could be so wrecked, so mangled, yet survive, but then, how something simple like an accurate bullet or unanswered bacterium might end a life. He is in awe of the mind-body connection and how in many cases, it seems a horribly injured person could survive such drastic injury through sheer willpower alone. He had hoped that he would have that level of willpower should the need arise, but he is happy to be the observer of that character quality, instead of the demonstrator of it. The many horrible deaths he had been reading about lately could very likely not have been prevented, even though those that are now dead might have possessed this quality.

For the past few months, he had been seeing news reports and reading eyewitness accounts about these murders- as they’ve been called- but even decent footage is scarce. By now, there were several hundred gruesome videos of the murder victims and maybe a few dozen that captured footage of the supposed murderers, but most were shaky, grainy, or even fake. Some websites were vigilant about weeding out the fakes and some of the better websites were very good about only posting the videos worth watching, of which there were very few. Because of the relatively low number of decent footage of these victims and attackers, there seemed to be a sort of outcry against “the system,” making the accusation that videos were being suppressed.

There were the usual conspiracy-type websites that were claiming that the bloody deaths were all part of a cover up, with the usual explanations ranging from a new flesh-eating bacteria for which medicine had no cure, or a precursor to the end of the world due to some Mayan prophecy, or even an alien virus accidentally set free from Area 51. As all conspiracies go, it wasn’t the wide-ranging amount of information that drove the movement; it was the relative lack of information that brought the interested into the fold and made them believers. Indeed, whatever information that was available was incomplete and confusing, providing more questions than answers, pouring more fuel onto the fire of speculation. There were some circles that had mentioned the idea of a zombie outbreak, but this was not anything like anyone expected. Society hadn’t collapsed. There weren’t roving mobs in the street looking for their next meal. If they were zombies, they were unlike anything in the movies.

As Tom scrolled down the list of new videos, his cursor hovering over each one, a pop-up window gave a brief description of the video itself. For now, there were less than ten good videos, each a different length and of varying quality. He hoped that there would be more as the evening went on, but the world went from a relative information blackout for weeks to having real, tangible information about these strange deaths was a more than adequate respite.

Excitedly, Tom clicked on each of the videos and watched them in their entirety. Most of them were dark or had poor resolution, some with the camera shaking so badly that the images were mostly impossible to make out. “These are supposedly the good ones,” Tom thought. Combine the bad video quality with the novice narrators’ voices talking throughout the videos- some not even in English and most of them scared out of their minds, with half of them vomiting within seconds of finding the mutilated bodies- and Tom was beginning to think that this boon of information had not moved anyone any closer to understanding extremely rapid increase in murder in the world, much less his own city.

Not that he thought it was his job to stop any of those murders. He wasn’t a cop, but just a nineteen- year-old clerk at the grocery store outside of his neighborhood. But, as seemingly all internet-empowered citizens feel, something had to be done and the cops weren’t doing enough of whatever that was. Tom knew, though, if the opportunity arose, he would be able to fight his way through whatever or whoever tried to get in his house. He turns his eyes to the sword he keeps sandwiched between the box-spring and mattress of his bed. Only the black handle is visible, with the scabbard and blade hidden from view.

He had always been a fan of fighting blades and owned many of each: swords, knives, daggers, pocketknives; practically one for each day of the week, one in every room of the house, and one for any possible occasion. He bought this particular katana during a visit to Japan with his mother only a couple of years ago. It was there that his fascination with bladed weapons took hold and he bought this sword- his first- from a sword-smith at a market on Honshu, the main island of Japan. He had to bargain and plead with his mother to spend the amount of money the vendor asked, but only after he agreed that it would be the only souvenir from the Land of the Rising Sun that he could afford to purchase, would she allow him to buy it. The sword represented his very deep appreciation for a long-lost art- an art he felt needed more practical exposure here in the States. He’d spent several hours looking at videos detailing how to use the weapon and even visited the city college gym to observe some experts practice, but ultimately, the amount of time required to become truly proficient in the dueling arts was prohibitive- at least in his mind. He was going to go to college soon. He was going to meet girls, get a great job, and make lots of money. Why would he ever actually need to kill someone with a sword or defend himself from an attack from one? This was Twenty-First Century America, after all. Not feudal Japan.

After re-watching the newly-posted videos once again, hoping that an even newer new video would be posted so he could justify waiting up for so long, Tom finally gives up. If there was going to be another video, it probably wasn’t going to be tonight. Besides, he was getting tired. His eyes were starting to hurt and his breathing was becoming slow and shallow. Sleep would overtake him soon and whatever was waiting for him out there on the World Wide Web could wait a few more hours. Tom finished getting undressed, crawled into bed, and almost immediately fell asleep.

Several hours pass and Tom is awakened by his mother, Anna, softly rapping on his bedroom door, whispering his name with each impossibly light touch on the door frame. “Tommy. Tommy, get up.” At first, Tom wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or it was real. His question is answered, however, as Anna taps on the door again, quietly speaking his name once more, “Tommy. Tommy, get up. Something is going on next door.”

Next door. The neighbors. Those neighbors. Perpetual partiers. Tom could never figure out what they did for a living, but whatever it was, he wanted in on it. They never seemed to go to work, but had a party almost every night. Throngs of college-aged women and men lounged around the front and back yards at all times of the night, with a few of them occasionally making out on the patio in the backyard. Or on the porch in the front yard. Or in the front yard. Half of the time, most of them were drunk. The rest of the time, they were attempting to get drunk. At first, they were loud and wildly inconsiderate, playing their loud music and drinking games all night long. Tom attempted to inject himself into the scene a couple of times, hoping they would see his relative lack of booze and sex and have some compassion for a nerdy neighbor. No such luck. Seat’s taken. Party is by invitation only. No one here is interested in what you have to offer. Rebuffed at every turn, Tom finally decided that if they weren’t going to let him in their inner circle, maybe it was time to see to it that they weren’t going to have an inner circle.

It took multiple calls to the police and multiple cruiser appearances before the neighbors finally got the message that all that noise and debauchery simply wasn’t acceptable in civilized society. They might not have to work, but every other person in the neighborhood does. And they’re making everyone jealous. If you can’t keep up with the Joneses, keep the Joneses from making everyone else feel bad about it.

While the parties as of late were relatively tame and tolerable- it seemed there was finally an unspoken, mutually agreed upon level of noise and sex that was allowable- tonight was just a little bit different. As soon as Tom came to his senses from being woken up by his mother, he knew exactly why she was attempting to wake him up. The noise from below wasn’t so much louder or more intense as it was… different.

Tom puts on a pair of sweat pants and shambles toward his mother, opening the door just wide enough to press only his face through the opening between it and the door frame. He hides his body behind the door and cranes his neck around it to talk to her, as though she had never seen him without a shirt on before tonight.

“Mom, I don’t know how many times we have to have this discussion, if you want me to wake up, just make more noise.”

“I know, Tommy. I just don’t like scaring you.” Anna obviously deeply loves her boy Tommy, but their relationship, as all mothers’ and sons’ relationships become, had been strained over the last few years. He wanted more freedom but didn’t want to move out of the house. She took his not moving out of the house as a sign that he wanted to continue their relationship as it had been.

Immediately frustrated, Tom huffs his reply, “Mom, you won’t scare me… just… never mind. What do you need, mom?” Tom was hoping that his mother would not make him go over there another time. He could hear the unusual amount of noise coming from the duplex below, but he didn’t want to think of what new kind of sex or drinking- or sex and drinking- game they would not invite him to.

“Tommy, I heard screaming. You need to go check it out. Please. For your only mother.” Anna, though in her forties and no longer spry as she once was, still had the ability to get men to bend to her will, whether it was through a look, an inflection in her voice, or just because most men, and especially Tom, knew that resistance was truly futile. She would get what she wanted. She was just that headstrong. Tom imagined that his mother might never die, that her willpower might be so strong as to be an actual superpower.

Resigned, and with the experience of fighting these losing battles with her before, Tom agrees. But before he lets her see victory, he makes her wait for it, making her think that he’s thinking about it, that just this once, he might deny her. It’s a little triumph he feels he gets when he does this, making her wait, giving the illusion that she is at his mercy. Anna waits patiently, allowing Tom to feel this tiny bit of success. But she is never fooled.

“Alright, mom. Just go back to your room and I’ll take care of it. I’ll get dressed and go over in a minute.” Secretly, Tom hopes that the neighbors would simply calm down and finish whatever game they were playing and that he wouldn’t have to confront them over it. But deep down, he knows that will never work. Just as a football fan couldn’t actively will a quarterback to throw the ball to the open receiver he couldn’t see, Tom knew from experience that waiting it out and reaching out through the ethereal plane to get his neighbors to tone it down simply didn’t work. He is either going to have to take care of this himself or it was going to be yet another call to the cops. He was hoping for the latter, though the former might not be so bad if they finally decided the squeaky wheel needed to get some grease. He’s not sure what his mother would say about that, but at least she wouldn’t be able to harass him about how much noise they were making.

Anna heads back downstairs to her room, shuts the bedroom door and lies back down in her bed, covering up. She thought that she might be able to get back to sleep if she could just relax. But that scream. That horrible scream. It wasn’t natural and Anna’s mind could not stop thinking about it, nor could her brain tone down the activity of her sympathetic nervous system, forcing her heart to pound and her rate of breathing to rapidly increase. She lays on the bed, on her back, eyes wide open, ears hyper-attuned to every little sound, her brain involuntarily analyzing each noise to determine the potential menace that might come of it. There would be no sleep for her tonight.

Tom puts on a tank top and slides some old sandals on his feet. And then changes his mind about his outfit. If they were going to invite him into the party, he didn’t want to be the worst dressed there. No pretty girls would ever talk to him and no one would give him any alcohol if he looked like a poorly-dressed dork. He needs to look respectable and at least like he could handle himself, not like he just hopped out of bed and had no business being there. If he could look like he belonged, there would be a better chance of him being accepted. And drunk. And laid.

Tom trades his pajama pants for some light-colored blue jeans and his tank top for a plain, black t-shirt. He adds socks and a pair of sneakers to his ensemble, checks his appearance in the mirror on his wall, and thinks to himself that he’s ready. If there was ever a time they were going to let him join the party, this might be it. He takes a deep breath and turns around to leave his room.

Before Tom makes it to the entrance to his bedroom, he hears a loud banging coming from the living room downstairs. At first, he thinks it’s the stereo system from the neighbors- maybe they turned up the volume for a good song. But the severity and irregularity of the pounding, along with the lack of accompanying singing or other instruments, gives Tom second thoughts. He opens his bedroom door and listens more intently. Immediately, he concludes that the pounding is coming from his own front door, not his neighbors’ stereo system. The hair on the nape of his neck stands on end as he realizes that someone is attempting to break in.

Tom quickly turns around and grabs the handle of the katana protruding from between his mattress and box-spring. He pulls the curved, twenty-five inch blade from its resting place. The tip of the sword lightly strikes the metal-wrapped mouth of the scabbard, making a slight pinging noise as its shiny blade slides into view. With his right hand down by his waist, holding the handle by his side and the sword projecting itself forward, Tom half runs, half speed-walks out of the bedroom door and then to the stairway. Grabbing the handrail with his left hand and then allowing gravity to help him, he bounds down the stairs. He can hear the pounding on the front door growing louder with each step. As he reaches the second half of his descent, he sees what is making the noise: the front door is being assaulted with heavy, rhythmic blows. He can actually see the center of the door bowing and the entire wall shakes with each hit.

By the time he reaches the final few steps above the intermediate landing, the doorjamb splinters and the door completely gives way, flying open with explosive force, lodging the door handle in the wall. A woman is standing in the doorway, surveying the apartment, head tilted backward with her nose in the air, sniffing. The noise of her slow nasal inhalations sounds like an old bloodhound searching for contraband. Tom can hear the woman wheezing through her rapid breaths, much like one would breathe during an intense cardiovascular workout.

“Is she smelling my place? What the hell…?” Tom thinks. Within that fraction of a second, the woman runs straight toward Anna’s room, smashing headlong into her door, bouncing backward from the impact and falling on her hind end. He hears Anna yelp from the other side of the door. The woman jumps to her feet and tries again, this time using her shoulder to attack the door. The door breaks free from the door frame and the woman stumbles into Anna’s room. Tom can see Anna has already gotten out of bed on the far side of the room, putting the bed between her and the invader. She is screaming in pure panic. But Tom is frozen in surprise and fear, in the exact spot where he stopped descending the stairs when the woman broke through the front door.

“Tommy! TOMMEEEE!!! Help me!” It’s apparent she’s crying and the ‘me’ on the end of the sentence sounds like ‘me-hee-hee.’

Tom snaps out of his frozen state, yelling, “Mom! MOM!!! I’m coming!” As he finishes out the last few steps and then rounds the bannister before the final two steps, another woman runs full sprint through the already-broken front door and into the living room, heading for Anna’s room. When Tom reaches the bottom step, the new intruder stops short and turns to face him. Tom sees that her face is covered in blood, which soaks the front of her t-shirt and shorts. He only vaguely recognizes her as the neighbor he occasionally sees at the mailbox. She is no longer as pretty as he remembers, and before now he hadn’t realized how short she is, probably only five feet tall. She leans forward, hands and arms reaching out in front of her, and charges.

She moves inhumanly fast, with speed that suggests she might have been an athlete before she changed into the creature she is now. Even though the front door is the entire room away from the bottom of the stairs, she reaches Tom in less than two seconds, just long enough for Tom to grab the sword with both hands and raise it in the air to strike her. But her speed outmatched his skill with the weapon and she collides with him, striking the left side of his torso with her left shoulder, sending him backward on to the stairs. He trips on the bottom step and falls backward, and she follows him to the ground, growling and gnashing her teeth in a desperate attempt to bite him.

Reflexively, Tom is able to break his fall with his right hand, extending it backward and catching it on the top step of the intermediate landing of the stairway, but still maintaining the grip on his sword with his left hand. If it were not for that small landing and the diminutive size of his attacker, Tom would have completely fallen backward, possibly striking his head on the floor and knocking himself out or stunning himself, both of which would have eventually been fatal. Instead, he awkwardly sits down on the small platform, continuing to fall backward with his back striking the wall behind him, stopping his movement. The woman also seems stunned for a moment, but the reprieve is all too brief. As Tom attempts to shove her away, she bites his left side, into the shirt and skin covering his left latissimus muscle, at about the tenth rib.

The pain is excruciating, worse than Tom has ever experienced, worse than he could ever imagine a human bite could be. The pain from the woman’s teeth puncturing his flesh, and the rush of fear that comes immediately after, causes a ringing in his ears forces him to cry out. His mind is suddenly focused on his intense agony and how to escape it. He struggles to get away from the woman, but she is pulling against the piece of flesh on his side, exacerbating his pain. He pushes and kicks with his feet, attempting to move backward, his efforts quashed by the wall at his back, his feet sliding on the carpet. Instead, he turns slightly sideways and grabs the bannister spindle behind him and to his right with his free hand. He pulls himself up one step. At the exact same time, the woman, likely in an attempt to get a better grip on Tom’s flesh, slightly slackens her iron bite and Tom is able to pull free. Tom pulls himself up several more steps to the middle of the staircase. The woman, now on her stomach, rights herself up to all fours and glares at him, her mouth opening and closing. Tom immediately realizes that she is chewing the bit of skin and clothing that she was able to tear from his side. The pain is still more than he can fathom and he thinks that he is probably bleeding to death from the wound. The thought occurs to him that this woman- this zombie- has just bitten him and now he will become like her. But his thoughts are cut short as the woman starts up the stairs toward him.

Anna moves away from the intruder, toward the night stand by the bed. She opens the drawer, but keeps her gaze on the woman now in her bedroom. The intruder appears to be in her early twenties, but otherwise very similar in size and stature to Anna. The woman is breathing heavily, almost wheezing, like she might have been a heavy smoker. The invader looks at the bed between them, almost confused about how to conquer this obstacle. Anna reaches into the drawer and fishes around blindly, her panic growing with every breath. She breaks her gaze for only a moment and sees what she has been desperately trying to find: a four-inch boot knife. She grabs it clumsily, the blade pointing toward the outside of her hand. In that moment, however, the intruder has jumped on to the bed and is scrambling toward her. The zombie lunges at Anna, colliding with her in mid-air, taking her to the ground.

The woman’s strength is inhuman and Anna cannot hold her away. She bites into Anna’s left shoulder and pulls upward, stripping a small piece of flesh off like one would pull tape from a cardboard box. Anna screams in pain which is beyond anything Anna has experienced in her lifetime. She realizes in this moment that she is going to die at the hands of this woman. If only Tommy had gone to check on the neighbors or called the police when she told him to, this would not be happening. If only Tommy would get in here and help her.

“Tommy!”

She is only a couple of steps below him so Tom kicks his pursuer with all his might, landing the blow to her lower face, striking her nose and mouth. He hears a loud popping noise as his shoe connects, her nose breaking and lips bursting. As she stumbles backward, what seems like entire pints of blood gush from her nose and lips, coating the front of her chin and shirt, spilling onto the floor. For the first time, she screams a loud, murderous scream- partly in pain, mostly in fury. She starts pawing at her face and eyes, attempting to clear her vision and ease the intense pain from her broken nose and teeth. Tom realizes that this might have bought him a few seconds, but maybe this doesn’t matter, as she is in a blind rage now. Whatever he does, it needs to be quick. And fatal. In a matter of a few seconds, one of them is going to die. “It’s going to be her or me,” he thinks.

“Tommy!” Tom realizes that his mother is still trapped in her room with the other woman, very likely being attacked- mauled- by her in the same way he has been, or even worse. He can’t help her right now, he concedes, as any attempt to get past his attacker would end up with her on his back with more of him in her mouth than he would care to think about. There is no easy way. He must kill her. The thought reminds him that he does have an advantage over his attacker. Steel. Hardened, folded, sharpened steel. He brings the handle to his chest and grasps it with both hands, fingers facing inward, like he might drive it down toward his feet, into the ground if he were standing upright.

“Her or me.”

In complete desperation, Anna scrambles backward, attempting to move out from under the woman. It’s only half as effective as she would hope, since the only direction for her future murderer to fall is left or right, which are both blocked by the bed and wall. And since the woman is constantly attempting to bite her, she is bearing down against Anna’s left arm- pressed against the woman’s upper chest, but weakening from both pain and muscle failure. Anna has only one option now: the knife in her hand.

She had taken a self-defense course several years ago, but did not commit to practicing the techniques she learned there. If she had remembered them, she could have easily flipped her attacker over and disabled her in only a couple of strokes with her knife. But the fight or flight or response changes the human brain into an unrecognizable, useless, mound of gray flesh. No matter the intellect or prior planning, the sympathetic nervous system is the great equalizer, and in many cases the great handicapper. Without intense, specific training to overcome its crippling effects, humans become nothing more than scared or hyper-aggressive animals, either cowering from or lashing out at the perceived threat. Human beings lose whatever humanity they might have, the advantage of a developed frontal lobe completely disappearing.

With short, quick strokes, Anna stabs the knife wherever she can, slicing with the blade toward her own body. Most strikes simply glance off the woman’s skull, but opening up large gashes in the zombie’s scalp. Within only a few seconds however, the woman’s entire head is covered in blood, pouring onto her face, draining down onto Anna. With every cut of the knife, Anna sharply exhales, yelping like a tennis player hitting a ball over the net.

But one lucky thrust is all she needs. Instead of cutting the back or top of her attacker’s head, Anna thrusts the knife into the thinnest area of the skull- behind the woman’s left eye- in the temple. The knife lodges there and when Anna attempts to pull it out, it remains stuck, like it’s somehow caught on the skull bones. Anna leaves it and continues to punch the woman on the head with hammer fists, though her blows are useless without the knife. The woman has become too heavy and after a dozen seconds, Anna’s muscles finally give up, allowing the woman to fall on her, literally head-butting Anna in the mouth and nose. Anna’s lips are cut open on her own teeth and blood pours into her throat from the back of her now-broken nose. Anna partially swallows and begins to cough on her own blood.

But the attack is over. The knife severed an artery in the zombie’s skull, giving her a very quickly advancing brain hemorrhage. Anna, still coughing from her own blood is able to push the zombie off of her just enough that she can sit up. Then she moves to kneeling on all fours, coughing and spitting blood onto the brown carpet. Her eyes are watering, her head is screaming in pain. Her shoulder is oozing blood from the bite, which also burns with extreme agony. Her entire chest and face are covered in blood, both hers and the zombie’s. And then she remembers Tommy. Why hadn’t he shown up to help? Something must be wrong. He could be in danger and she must help him. Using the side of the bed, she pushes herself up from the floor. She slowly staggers toward the door, breathing heavily through her mouth and still wheezing from the exertion of only a few moments ago.

Like an ancient explorer planting his nation’s flag into the ground of undiscovered land, Tom thrusts his sword at the woman’s head. The curved tip strikes her left cheek, but then glances into her eye socket, finding the eyeball to be a willing and easy mark. The sword glides through the fluid-filled organ and then easily pierces the paper-thin bone behind it. The brain is as tender a target as the eyeball and the sword easily slices through all the way to the back of the skull and then out of the occipital bone behind. Death is instantaneous and the woman slumps onto the stairs, her head held up by the sword to look at Tom, as if in a final, dead stare.

Tom moves the sword left and right to see if the woman responds. But there is no response. He slumps backward, his head resting on the steps, looking upward at the small light globe in the ceiling. His side burns even worse now that he’s looking up and thoughts turn to how long he has before he changes into one of those things. Minutes? Hours? Days? Did he have to die first? Would the virus kill him and then change him? How long until the government found a cure? Could he hold out that long? He had seen nearly every zombie movie ever made and none of them prepared him for this. Like every movie-goer, he was certain that he would be one of the survivors, one of those that helped humanity restore its rightful place on the earth. He never thought he would be one of the very first that might change. What would his mother do without him around?

His mother. Tom places his foot on the dead woman’s face to steady her head and he pulls the sword out of her skull. The sound is disgusting, like the squashing of raw burger meat being made into patties. The sword is covered in blood and brain matter.

He stands up and runs down the rest of the stairs, on to the intermediate landing and then leaps into the living room, bypassing the final two stairs. He turns to face his mother’s bedroom doorway. His adrenaline is pumping again, his heart racing.

In the dark, he sees a bloody, shambling woman in the doorway of his mother’s bedroom. He stops, hoping that his eyes are deceiving him. Her wheezes confirm his greatest fear. He was unable to save her.

The woman coughs and starts to walk toward him.

“Her or me,” he thinks.

He raises his sword and charges forward, intending to take revenge for an untimely death. The woman puts her hands out, ready to attack him as he gets closer. He will not give her that chance.

“Her or me!”

Cleanly, the sword passes between the left ninth and tenth ribs, severing the woman’s spleen and then passing out between her ribs in her back. The woman chokes in pain, looking down at the fatal wound. She looks up at her attacker, with both despair and confusion on her face.

“Tommy! Why?”

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