Year 2, Month 1, Day 30: George Centro

Posted: September 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

Human evolution runs on a clock… and our time is up. – George Centro

At first, life continued as normal, as though the undead incursion wasn’t happening everywhere. This wasn’t global war. These weren’t natural disasters or biblical plagues. Why should anyone discontinue their normal routine? The apocalypse had come, however. The human race simply didn’t recognize its arrival.

Most of the undead were spotted at night, just prior to dawn. By the time daylight shone through the buildings and trees, the zombies were gone. Only the signs of their appearance remained: half-eaten dead or decomposing bodies, grieving families, fearful citizens. There were abounding rumors that these creatures might be harmed by daylight, which is why they were rarely seen during the day. Maybe they had their own social order. Maybe they didn’t like “real” humans and didn’t want to stick around to endure the eventual ridicule that we as a race heap on those that are different from us.

No one really knows where they went during the day and nobody could say if they had some kind of aversion to sunlight. Or the city. Or crowds. Or ridicule. Understanding zombie behavior wasn’t a priority for anyone, especially since there were so few of them at first. There wasn’t the expected massive conversion of humans to zombies, rioting in the streets, or immediate economic collapse. It was a slow, protracted apocalypse, like the proverbial frog in the frying pan that never realizes it is being boiled. The change occurred so slowly, most saw the incursion as being under some semblance of control.

Before long, the population of entire towns simply disappeared. Some were turned. Others were killed. Many moved to the larger cities. Those that were left pillaged and preyed on those that didn’t. Or couldn’t. Without law enforcement or emergency services, areas with small populations fell into chaos and ruin. The infrastructure experienced the same slow death as our species. The incursion was never under any control.

Society as a whole was behaving as a gravely injured organism, cutting off the flow of important resources to less important areas so higher functions could continue. The larger cities were inadvertently amputating the suburbs and rural areas from the body of human civilization, leaving those that did not immediately move to the relative safety of large numbers to fend for themselves and then eventually die. Soon, that wasn’t enough. All but the largest cities became a wasteland.

Even those will soon succumb.

Our lives are a constant battle now. Not just against the undead, but against our own nature, against previously conquered foes. Disease. Hunger. Thirst. Each other. The lucky few were able to find sufficient shelter and keep it maintained and safe for extended periods of time. We count ourselves among that number. The gated apartment community provided a place to sleep and a fence to keep others out. The food had run out long ago, but there are still plenty of places that had stocks of food and other resources. We just have to go get it.

John was right about the school. It was deserted, but also pristine- a combination not usually found, at least not since the demise of our civilization. The entire world now seemed to be a study in entropy: buildings falling into disrepair or being burned or destroyed by the lawless and disorderly with nothing new being built and nothing old being restored or maintained.

But the high school was recently built, one of the last building projects completed before the start of the apocalypse. It was sturdy and had many years before it needed even preventive upkeep. As we approached, we could see that not even any windows were broken. It seemed to be hidden from the ravages of the apocalypse and its accompanying horrors.

The front doors were all glass, with the only metal on them being frames and the horizontal cross-bars that contained the locking mechanisms and handles. Eight in a row. Unbroken.

It was like we were looking back in time.

We park as close to the front doors as we can, each of us getting out on the side of the vans closest to the doors, putting an impassible barrier between us and anything that might be waiting for us, living or otherwise.

We brought two minivans, one for the passengers and one for the cargo we hoped to find. Jennifer and Brian stayed behind with their weapons and radios, waiting for direction. Hopefully, we wouldn’t need to carry everything back through the school and Brian’s van could be driven around to the chained up loading door we saw on the right wing of the school as we reconnoitered the exterior of the building. Those doors were locked, so we’ll need to go the long way. If we had to, we would simply break down all the front doors and drive the vans through the school. We’ll want to avoid that. This place might be useful at some point in the future: To us or someone else needing some kind of respite.

I grab the brushed metal handles of each door and pull. None of them give way except the right-most door. It pulls easily and I open it to its widest. Instead of stale, stagnant air we have come to expect from deserted buildings, cool air rushes out. The ventilation system is working, which means someone is or was here. There is no power grid, so there must be a generator somewhere, maybe on the roof. More importantly, there is someone to maintain that generator.

Squatters almost always equal trouble. But a squatter that has enough technical expertise to keep the ventilation system in a building this size running might be civilized, even cooperative.

Doubtful.

Damn, this apocalypse has made me so cynical.

Seven of the doors were locked, leaving only one way in and out without breaking the glass or unlocking additional doors. And who knows where the keys are; this area of town has been deserted for months now. The possibility that the janitor or groundskeeper is still around not undead is nil.

Maybe the occupants have the keys. Maybe we won’t have to kill them.

As I enter the school, the familiar smell of death surrounds me, forcing me to grimace and setting off ancient, involuntary alarms in my head. By design, it’s a smell to which I will never acclimate. This building doesn’t smell strong like we’ve come to expect, though, and the muted scent is probably due to the ventilation system transporting the odors all over the school from a single place.

Some buildings are full of the rotting dead, the putrid scent detectable from far away as if it were a warning to the living. Occasionally, vagrants or vigilantes live in places like that. How they overcome the constant, involuntary revulsion, I will never know. But maybe only having to face the smell of the dead and the visit of the occasional hungry or curious zombie is better than both the ravenous undead and the murderous living.

Despite most of the lights being out, we can easily see that the area is quite clean. No blood or viscera on the floor. No smears on the wall. No arterial spray on the ceiling. A welcome sight, believe it or not. But the smell of death means something was here. Or still is.

Where the dead rest, the undead lurk.

The main hallway has a map of the school hanging by the entrances of two hallways, one each on the left and right.

Steve takes one off the wall and studies it for several seconds. The frame is a simple black plastic border and the plain letter-sized map is kept safe behind a sheet of thin, cheap plastic.

Lowest bidder indeed.

Steve easily breaks the frame in half over his knee, removes the paper map, and hands it to me.

“Tom, hold on to this. It looks like the cafeteria is at the end of this right hallway, like we thought.” I take the map from Steve and offer it a quick glance. It appears to be an evacuation map, just detailed enough to satisfy the city’s fire safety requirements. From our position, all arrows point to the entrances behind us. The map is barebones, but more than we had one minute ago.

From where we are standing, the school looks like an upside-down cross with a bulbous “foot” end. Several classrooms and offices line the main hallway on both sides and the arms each have multiple classrooms. We entered on the “head” end.

This is not a very big school. I would estimate the total number of attendees might have been about five hundred. This is good for us because we won’t have much ground to cover. But there won’t be much in the way of supplies. We’ll take what we can get. I fold the map and stuff it in my right pocket.

There’s no point in exploring the hallway to the left. We’ve learned not to waste our time.

Steve gives the signal and the six of us take up our positions as practiced: Steve and I in the front, John and Ken directly behind and to the left and right, and Pete and Josh farther back, directly behind Steve and me but walking backward to keep watch on our escape if we need to retreat. From above, we’d look like a misshapen rectangle, with the points facing the direction of hopeful advance or potential retreat. This was Steve’s idea, the configuration comparable to the military’s wedge formation.

We move slowly, with minimal light. There is enough light to see, but not enough to see well. Our steps are gentle and short. We all have flashlights, but only Steve and Pete use them, one in front and one in back. This conserves batteries and hides our numbers against potential human attackers. Zombies don’t care about flashlights; whether we had one or six burning bright, they’ll run straight for the closest living being they can hear or smell.

Almost immediately, Steve calls for a halt. He shines his light down the hallway and we all see it at the same time: a blood pool with streaking behind it. Not an uncommon sight everywhere else, to be sure, but given the hospital-like cleanliness of what we’ve seen so far, this discovery chills me. I am more afraid of what this one blood pool means than I have been of any I’ve seen. Something is very wrong here. The omnipresent scent of death adds a sense of dread in the deepest and oldest portions of my brain.

Keep moving. Follow Steve.

As we pass each classroom, we check the doors to ensure they are locked. Most are, and those that are not, John or Ken lock them as we pass.

It feels like we’ve been walking down this hallway for hours. My heart is racing and my forehead is slick with sweat; I can hear the swish-swish, swish-swish of my heart in my ears. My sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, clouding my thoughts. I attempt to control my breathing and perform complicated math problems in my head to distract myself. I close my eyes to take a long, slow breath. As I open my eyes and exhale, I realize that I have almost passed Steve, who has stopped, his light shining on the tiled floor.

We finally arrive at the blood. Unlike our usual finding, this might be fresh blood, maybe a day or two old. There’s an initial pool, but the then an elongated smear, as though someone had an enormous, bleeding wound and then was dragged through their own blood, their clothing sopping it up like an old, saturated towel and then transferring it back to the floor as they were dragged.  It leads forward and as Steve follows the wide trail with his light, it slowly curves to the left, finally disappearing behind a slightly open door about a hundred feet ahead. The volume of blood does not subside as the dragging pattern moves away from us.

“This is not good,” Steve quietly remarks, without taking his eyes off the end of the streaked bloody trail. “Zombies don’t drag their victims; they kill and eat them in the same place.” He steps forward, immediately behind the dried pool and kneels down, scanning the brownish-red floor around him. By habit, we maintain the short distances between us.

John approaches and kneels, too. He observes, “There aren’t any hand or knee marks in this blood. The person wasn’t wounded and crawled away; they were mortally wounded and then dragged into that room. They’re likely dead, but what killed them isn’t. I saw some cast-off on the wall over there,” he shines his light on the pale, white wall, revealing a stripe of brown, dried blood to the rest of us, “consistent with being stabbed or enthusiastically sliced.”

I don’t like the idea of being enthusiastically sliced. “Time to go, then?” I could only hope.

John speaks again, “No, we have six and the likely numerical advantage. It looks like there is only one. Plus, he has a knife and Steve and I have guns. Those are good odds. Let’s follow the trail and see where it takes us. It’s better to deal with it now when we might have surprise and aren’t in a hurry to leave than to have to fight our way out of here through this way again if we run into more trouble ahead.”

The plan was to exit out of the doors in the cafeteria, but no plan survives contact with the enemy. Let’s hope we do.

Steve interjects, “Good plan. We don’t need a fight on two fronts.” He stands up, walks around the dried blood pool and continues forward, also avoiding the smeared blood trail. We follow in kind. Slowly.

A noise, like something is being hit. Ahead of us. From inside the room.

Steve raises his fist. Stop.

The hitting sound creates an invisible wall of fear, directly in front of me. I feel like I cannot continue moving forward. My legs are like lead.

I immediately start to second-guess myself. Was I only lucky in my first encounter? What would have happened if I didn’t have the high ground?

Even though the wound has long healed, I am still aware of the bite on my side. And I’m reminded of my mother, as I always am.

Her face. The shock of being killed by her own son.

So much blood and death. At my hands.

“…Tom. Got it?” I don’t even know who is speaking.

“Tom, John is coming up with us. Move over.” Steve.

“Right.” I move to the right, still only half in reality.

John signals to Josh and they switch places in the formation. Ken and Josh lock the two remaining doors on each side of the hallway as we approach the end of the bloody trail. John walks next to Steve and me. Pete is still in back.

Smack. Louder as we advance.

It has to be a zombie. But that makes no sense, unless the blood pool belonged to an undead and it somehow overcame exsanguination and killed its attacker.

Shit. I hate zombies.

As we approach the classroom door, Steve stops, kneels and signals us to approach. “Listen, the low light in the hallway is all we have, but it’s still better than most get when clearing a room. I don’t want to give up the element of surprise. We’ll take the room like we’ve been practicing.”

Smack. Something- a hand?- is hitting a something else hollow and metal. A steel door?

We line up next to Steve and each try to get a look into the skinny window. I see three figures. Two standing around. The other has his hand in the air or against a door in the back of the classroom. It’s probably the one making the noise, slapping the door. I’m confident they are all undead.

Smack. The hair on the back of my neck stands straight.

They want what is behind that door. And now I want to know what it is. Or who it is.

John speaks up, “I only saw the three. One looks bloodied. Could be the bleeder from out here.” Everyone else nods in agreement. Three against six. Pretty good odds, especially if one is nearly dead and the other is distracted for long enough with the door.

Smack. Pete jumps.

“Okay, this outside door opens inward to the room, like the others. So, we could either lock it and they’ll stay in there for a while, or we can take the room,” Steve says. “The way the door opens would keep them there, versus a door that opens outwardly.”

Smack. I can’t wait to stop whatever is doing that.

John immediately casts his vote, reiterating his previous thoughts. “Take the room. Better to do it now when we’re ready for it than later when we might not be.” He looks at each of us as he speaks, as if to will us into agreeing with him. The rest of us give a hesitant but approving nod.

Smack. We have to stop that noise.

“Okay,” Steve begins, “John and I will go in first with the rest of you in tow. We both have the guns and experience, so it should be easy. John, you take left, I’ll take right and then both take the center. That means the rest of you follow us in, alternating behind one of us, as we rehearsed earlier today.” Standard military and law enforcement housework. “Stay behind the guns.” Don’t have to tell me twice. The rest of us only have large knives and baseball bats. I’ll just cut whatever comes close.

At least zombies don’t shoot or stab back.

We line up on the wall. I look ahead and see that I’ll fall into Steve’s line, right after Pete. It’ll be easier to watch John, as he goes first, straight in. Steve pushes into the room immediately afterward, through the door and directly right, hugging the front wall of the classroom.

John’s pistol spits three bullets as soon as he enters the room. He wastes no time, his Elzetta pistol light illuminating the target not even twenty feet in front of him. His suppressor all but silences the weapon. No loud report. No deafening discharge. Just the ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink of the slide’s action echoing in the cinder block room. Blood, cranium, and brain matter literally explode, coating the wall, ceiling, and floor.

My revulsion nearly makes me miss my cue to follow Pete into the room.

Steve is a little slower; his target wasn’t right in front of him like John’s was for him, so he needed to scan and move to the right at the same time. His back is against the wall, and he’s walking sideways, his customized AR-15 raised with the light scanning for his target. Pete is immediately behind him, almost pushing him.

The edge of the light catches the other zombie and Steve adjusts his aim to fire. The main cone of light falls on his target. It’s very close, even closer than John’s was to him.

But no shots. Instead, I see his light jerk up to the ceiling and then drop to the floor. I hear Steve fall to the ground and the AR-15 skitter across the tiled floor. Through the dim, reflected light, I see Pete trip, too.

I stop moving.

Josh’s light comes on and swings toward our fallen teammates. Ken finally enters the room- late- his light switching on and turning toward the scuffle, too. Their collective light reveals three bodies on the floor, all of them writhing around, two of them attempting to get up and away from each other.

Three bodies. Oh hell.

A deafening scream and the lights reveal why.

The third body has its face buried in Pete’s torso, pulling away clothing, skin, and muscle. The floor below becomes a rapidly spreading pool of blood.

Another figure enters Josh’s beam of light, arms outstretched. Within half a second, it falls. On Pete. And bites down on his neck. Blood immediately pours out.

Pete’s piercing scream turns into a wet, gurgling cry.

I’m frozen. I don’t know whether to pull Pete away, attack the zombies, or stay where I am out of fear of being shot. I don’t know.

My lizard brain is in control.

Time has stopped. I am completely unaware of my own body, or of anyone else around me. My head is drowning in my primordial instincts. I can only watch Pete being eaten, slowly and painfully being killed, as though he were in another room separated by a glass wall. I can’t even speak.

Ka-chink! Ka-chink! Ka-chink!

John’s gun again. The slide’s report causes me to snap out of my stupor and involuntarily turn my head toward the sound. His light reveals a similar scene as before: exploding zombie brain matter. From the one slapping the door.

His light turns to meet the others’. My gaze follows his beam.

John yells, “Help him! I don’t have a shot!”

I’m the closest.

Flight turns to fight.

Before I’m even aware of it, my parang has found purchase in the kneeling zombie’s head. Pulling on the handle doesn’t free the large knife from the zombie. The blade isn’t as easy to remove from the zombie’s skull as it was to embed. Instead of the parang being pulled out of the zombie’s head, the entire zombie is pulled away from Pete, like a bull being led by the ring in its nose.

One more pull and the creature is pulled away. I place my foot on its shoulder and yank the parang one more time to free it. I immediately swing again, miraculously striking the exact spot once more.

The sharp blade bisects the zombie’s skull. Bone and brains separate.

Chuk! Chuk! Steve’s suppressed AR-15 finishes off the other one.

I turn and see two bodies on the floor, both immobile and bleeding profusely. Josh and Ken hurry over to help remove the lifeless creature from Pete. I see John scan the room with his pistol light.

“Pete! Stay with me buddy!” Steve’s face betrays him, however. One look at Pete and I know it, too. Even if he were on an operating table, his wounds would be fatal. We can only wait for the end.

Steve kneels down and holds Pete’s hand. Within seconds, Pete loses consciousness. We gather around him and kneel, each of us reaching down to grab his hand or touch him in some way, as if our life force could be transferred to him, to revive him somehow.

We remain silent as the involuntary agonal breaths begin. Pete’s life ends with him surrounded by his friends and brothers-in-arms.

We live in a dying world filled with death. It never gets easier.

It would be easy to take our time here and mourn. But, we must keep going.

“John, you and Ken take Pete back to the vans and get back here. We don’t leave anyone behind.” They nod in agreement, step to Pete’s head and grab him by both arms, under his shoulders. They get him up and turn him around so that his arms are resting over their shoulders and around their necks, in a two-man casualty carry. They are both in excellent physical shape, so they should return quickly.

Steve remains silent until John and Ken have left the room with Pete’s body. He inhales deeply and exhales slowly.

“Okay, we need to keep going. John and Ken will be back in a minute. Let’s make sure this room is completely clear.”

We spread out with our lights, ensuring there are no additional surprises.

After a few seconds, “I got something over here!” Josh calls out.

In the far corner, Josh is standing over a corpse. A bloody trail leads from the corpse to the entrance to the classroom.

One mystery is solved. It’s impossible to tell if this one was alive or undead, but it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like he attacked this one out in the hallway, dragged it in here and then was attacked by these other three. That one that Steve and Pete tripped on was mostly disabled…” Josh starts.

“… and then the other two came in and he made the choice to retreat,” Steve fills in. “I’ll bet that’s who is in this closet.” He points his light toward the door as he says ‘closet.’ “I just can’t figure out why he would drag the one in here.”

My turn, “Well, I guess we can ask him. We’re going to let him out, right?”

Steve thinks for a moment. “We should. Josh, you and I will stand away from the door. Tom, you open it, but don’t stand in front. Wouldn’t want you to run headlong into a bullet. Knock first to see if we get a response.”

Josh and Steve stand away from the door, lights pointed downward. I put my parang away and stand with my right shoulder on the door and my hand on the knob.

With my left hand, I knock.

Nothing.

One more knock.

“I’m coming out.” From inside the closet.

I turn the knob and pull the door open, being careful not to expose myself to whoever is inside.

Steve’s AR-15 is pointed at the man, his Elzetta light shining brightly. “Put the knives down, sir. We’re not here to hurt you.”

“We don’t have a problem. I’ll put them away.” The man’s voice is rough, like he’s older. I hear the sound of knives being sheathed.

“Step forward. What’s your name and why are you here?”

“George. George Centro. I live here. I’ve maintained this building since everyone left the area. I had no problems until this group showed up.” He gestures around the room, obviously referring to the four undead invaders. “They were more than I could handle, obviously. I’m glad you came. I ran out of water a few hours ago. I don’t know how much longer I would have lasted here.”

“Probably only a couple of days without water.” Josh begins. “How did they get in and why did you drag the one from the hallway to this room?”

“I let them in. One at a time, though. I didn’t think they would team up on me like they did.”

The insanity of that statement forces me to release the doorknob and walk toward Steve and Josh. “You LET them in? Why the hell would you do that?”

My presence surprises him. I can see a wry smile appear on his face as he realizes that there are three of us, instead of two, as if he is giving silent acknowledgement of our tactic.

“I’m doing my part. And come on, don’t act so self-righteous.” He looks around, “It’s not like you’ve never killed any of them. It was either them or me.”

Them or me. I am instantly endeared to this man.

I can see Steve thinking about this. “Fair enough. We’re here because we need food and water.”

“There’s plenty there and I’ll help you load it up. It’s the least I can do. What are your names?”

Steve introduces us. “We need to wait a minute until our other guys get back. They should just be a minute or two. But you can lead the way, since you know your way around,” he instructs.

George starts walking toward the classroom door, “We can wait. They need to hurry, though. The sooner we start, the sooner you can get out of here…”

John and Ken return, their lights announcing their arrival.  Steve makes the introductions, “John, Ken… meet George Centro. He was holed up in this closet until we arrived. Did you get Pete to the van?”

“He’s in the back of Brian’s van, covered up with one of the tarps. I don’t know how Brian is going to take sitting there with Pete in the back. I’m losing my appetite for staying here, too.” Neither John nor Ken acknowledges George with anything more than a nod.

“The gang’s all here, then. Let’s go. I’ll lead.” George is already walking toward the door as he speaks. In the dim light, I see Steve give a small shrug to John.

We’re out of the room in a few seconds, but then George stops and turns toward me, “Do you ever wonder what all of this means?”

At first, I’m not even sure he’s talking to me. I look around at the others to gauge their reaction. Before I can see anything from my friends, he continues his questioning.

“Yes, I’m talking to you. Do you ever wonder why this happened, why, now, at this point in our history, we’re seeing zombies? I mean, why not during the Dark Ages? Or after Europe started exploring the rest of the world? Or after we developed the atomic bomb? Why now?”

I can’t say I’ve never thought about this. Maybe not in such terms, but I’m sure it’s perfectly normal for anyone to ask why the world is why it is and why it behaves the way it does. That’s basic premise for all of science, right? “Not really. I’ve just tried to live one day at a time, honestly.”

George studies my face for a moment. “Tell me, Tom, what purpose do you think the undead has in the greater picture of humanity? Everything has a purpose, right?”

“I… uh… well… I don’t know. I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it like that.”

“No one does. No one thinks about their fate until it is upon them. And then they try to reason with it. But it’s too late by then.”

I can see his point. How many times have we heard the story of the man on his deathbed wishing for one more day and what he could have done to have it?

He stops walking and turns to me, “I can tell you haven’t really thought about this much. But I have. This is evolution. The undead are nature’s way of telling us that we are obsolete now and that it’s time to move on.” His pause indicates that he wants me to respond, like a teacher attempting to prompt an answer from a student.

I oblige. “This can’t be evolution. If that’s true, we’re done. Humanity is over. ”

A smirk appears on his lips, as though my answer was expected. “Yes. Human evolution runs on a clock… and our time is up.” He clenches his fist at chest level for emphasis, as if he were the villain in some kind of overacted movie.

“You imply that there’s pressure for us to accomplish something, and that if we don’t, we’re to be replaced. I don’t think that’s how evolution works.”

For the briefest of moments, his face changes. A hint of… anger? I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it or if the low light is casting shadows on his old face. “Humans in their current form are weak, hesitant.” His emphasis on the word ‘hesitant’ is strange, said through his teeth with his lips drawn. “The undead are pure predators. Hard to kill. Strong. Fast. Merciless. They are the inheritors of the earth.” He stabs his finger toward the classroom we were just in.

A lot to consider, to be sure. “I don’t really follow. There are plenty of animals that are essentially brain dead killers compared to us. Evolution doesn’t need to make any more. We have survived and reached the top of the food chain because of our advanced brains, not because of our hunting ability. This is a step backwards, not forwards.”

George squares his body toward me, “That’s not how evolution works. Yes, sometimes an evolutionary change is better and moves the species forward. But sometimes the change isn’t better or worse. All that matters is that the new species survives. Clearly, from a mental or intellectual perspective, the undead are a step backward. But survivability is what matters, not thinking ability. Judging by the state of our race, it’s apparent which of the species has a better chance at survival.”

His point is valid, honestly. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about evolutionary development. I don’t know that he does, either. But I can’t help but to find some kind of kinship with this man. He’s spent some time thinking about his purpose in this new life, about humanity’s role in the apocalypse. He’s been through a harrowing, personal experience here and has survived. That’s something to be admired, at least. But I still have doubts. “If the point of evolution is to survive, what happens when there are no more humans to turn into zombies? I don’t see any of them doing the undead nasty to make any more.”

“How do you know? How do any of us know anything about them? We don’t. Nature makes a way. We may not be around to see it, but life will perpetuate itself.” I can’t help but think I’ve heard this before.

Steve interjects, with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “Look, I’d love to hear about the benefits of the evolutionary process, but we have to get going.”

George purses his lips, raises his eyebrows, and turns his head slowly toward Steve, as if the interjection interrupted a complicated thought. A second later, his face softens and he blinks. His arms come up to chest level, palms out- like a low surrender, “Okay. Let’s get this done. I don’t want to stop you.” And with that, he turns his head and then his body toward the cafeteria and starts walking.

We were already near the end of the hallway, so it only takes a few seconds to reach the large double doors of the cafeteria. They aren’t windowed like the classroom doors, but they open outward, toward us. We’re standing in a large, square vestibule, more than twice the width of the hallway. The alcove for the doors is only as wide and tall as the doors; the rest of the open space is opposite of the double doors, about a third of it being a continuation of the hallway and the rest looking a larger alcove on the opposite side of the cafeteria doors . It’s possible a person could hide in either alcove without someone else in the hallway being able to see them.

“George, what’s your take here? Are there any surprises we should know about?” John asks.

After several seconds, George finally speaks up. “There’s a couple undead in there.” He must have noticed the aggravation in our facial expressions. “They make good guard dogs. I can’t watch this whole place by myself.”

John, after a long silence and then a quick, loud, frustrated sigh: “How many, George?”

“I don’t know. They’ve been in there a while. I was locked up for a couple of days so I haven’t checked on them. For all I know, they could have died of dehydration.”

Dehydration? We never really paid attention to the ones we encountered, whether or not they were exhibiting any signs of dehydration. It’s not like they’ll let us do pinch tests on their hands. It does make sense, though, and it creates far more questions than it answers. This is something to explore later.

If we get out of here.

John, clearly irritated, speaks again, “This is what you’re going to do: you’re going to open one of those doors and we’re going to kill every last of those bastards. And when you open the door, you had better open it wide and stay out of our line of fire.” He motions to the door on the right as he speaks, the flashlight on the end of his pistol giving direction to which door George needs to open.

George’s expression doesn’t change. “Alright. Fair enough. You let me know when you’re ready.” He walks toward the right side door of the cafeteria.

Steve puts his tactical skill to work, pointing with his hands and head as he gives instructions “John and I have the guns, so we will be in front. We’ll create a breach with the open door, allowing them to only move through a limited space. If we have to retreat, we’ll move backward down the hallway, forcing them to turn the corner if things get too hairy. Stay out of our way, to our left. If something gets through, it’s your responsibility to take it out. If he’s right and there are only two or three, we should be okay. Just stay out of our way.”

Ken, Josh, and I stand to Steve and John’s left, close to the large alcove. Steve and John raise their weapons, their lights practically burning a hole in the door. The only sounds are that of the weapons in their hands and our knives and swords being unsheathed for battle. I decide to use my sword instead of my parang. This is less close quarters than the classroom. I have room to use it properly.

“One. Two. Three!” John gives the signal.

George pushes the lever with his thumb and pulls the door toward him, backing into the corner. He pulls the door all the way to the wall, so that he’s completely shielded in the small triangular space formed by the door and the corner of the wall.

The smell of hot death rushes from the room. The strong odor envelops us. Ken vomits.

Low growls penetrate my consciousness. Not one or two.

Many.

Shit.

“Shut the door, George!” I shout. “Shut the damn door!” No reply. If it didn’t require me passing in front of the lines of fire, I would have done it myself.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

The lights are shining into the sea of darkness beyond the doors, but reveal nothing. Where could they be?

John and Steve hear it, too. “George! Shut the damn door! GEORGE!” They are both yelling.

John points his pistol to the ceiling and takes a step toward the open door.

Steve is completely aware of John’s double-mindedness. “John! Stay here! We’re committed! I need you here!”

John stops, as if to consider this, frozen between his responsibility to Steve and desperation to close the door.

There is no time to change the plan, which is falling apart more by the second.

The closed door erupts, the handle striking and then bouncing off the cinder –block wall as though it were rubber, leaving a gray mark where the paint has been chipped.

“Shit!”

Instant chaos.

Shit.

Immediately, Steve is firing into the horde of zombies. John’s pistol lowers, the firearm spitting flames and projectiles into the hungry, screaming wall of death.

“Back up! Back up!” I can’t tell who is yelling. Even though the guns are suppressed, the reports from their firing in the enclosed area echo off of every wall multiple times. The growling and yelling of the zombies and my own heart and racing thoughts are drowning out any attempt at meaningful communication from anyone else.

Josh, Ken, and I are separated from Steve and John. The virtual river of zombies flowing out of the cafeteria keep us from them and force us to back up into the alcove in hopes to keep a low profile.

The undead are more attracted to the noise of the guns than Josh, Ken, or me. This is lucky for us, not so much for John and Steve.

They move backwards, away from the crowd of undead, their guns constantly firing. There are so many that even if they miss their intended target, something behind gets hit anyway. Their luck holds, as the walls of the hallway keep them from getting flanked and the zombies that fall become obstacles to the ones behind. The undead spend more time tripping and attempting to stand than they spend moving forward to attack. The more that die, the larger the obstacles.

The rest of us are cut off from John and Steve. We can’t get through the mob and the constant gunfire pushes us backwards to avoid being hit. Before long, I sense the wall at my back. Josh and Ken are in front of me, but to my left, side by side.

I didn’t think there could be more zombies, but they continue to pour out of the double doors. George must have spent days, even weeks, collecting them here.

As John and Steve move farther away, the zombies exiting the cafeteria are less attracted to the noise.

And more attracted to us. Several break away from the main group and shamble toward us.

Shit.

The first three bear down on Ken right away. He easily dispatches the first with his bat, but the remaining two attack in tandem before he can return the bat to its ready position.

Josh’s bat is quick to assist. But not before Ken’s left forearm is full of zombie teeth. His scream pierces the dark, penetrating to the oldest parts of my brain, which ensures I understand that danger is near. I understand his pain. I have felt it before.

Josh’s second swing takes down the zombie, but two more take its place. I feel helpless as I watch multiple zombies close in on my friends.

Only now do I grasp why George emphasized that humans are hesitant. And why he thinks we will not survive the undead onslaught.

Zombies have no fear. They can’t consider the consequences of their actions. They have no ability to second guess themselves. They just kill, with no hesitation. They don’t retreat, even as their undead comrades are being completely decimated by the hail of bullets.

At last, I understand. I understand why my mother died. I understand why Pete died. Hesitation to kill. My hesitation.

In combat, the warrior that strikes last… dies. Hesitation is a symptom of unpreparedness, not with equipment or training, but with mentality. If I am not prepared to kill without hesitation, I will die. Those are the only two choices.

Kill or be killed.

Them or me. If my hesitation is a handicap, I must overcome it. I must evolve. But how?

Drops of sweat run down my back. I can feel more of it on my forearms, running onto my wrists and on my palms.

In my palms. Which are holding my sword.

It’s as if I’ve discovered fire for the first time in human history.

The beautiful and deadly steel in my hand calls out to me, like we are symbiotic beings, requiring each other for existence. I look down, to confirm that I’m still holding it. I walk toward my friends.

Preternaturally, the sword rises into the air and swoops down on its first victim. A clean kill. I raise it again. And kill again.

Josh and Ken are moving, backing away from the cafeteria, deeper into the larger alcove. Over the gunfire and the thuds of their bats striking undead skulls, I can hear their heavy breathing. I can see the dim light reflecting on their sweaty faces.

John and Steve are at least alive, though I can’t see them. They are still firing. The sound is still reverberating on the brick walls. The lights on their guns are still illuminating the hallway, allowing me to see.

Another death, this time from a sideways cut, taking the head completely off the shoulders.

My subconscious is taking over. In my mind’s eye, I see myself in the fitness center, standing on the rubber mats, practicing my strikes. I unconsciously count each stroke, as if this were just another workout.

Four.

Five.

Six.

I can see past the crowd of zombies in front of me, into the cafeteria. There are no more zombies exiting, but there are at least 15 zombies in front of us, hungry for blood, brains, and flesh.

I see George, who has moved from behind the door. He’s watching us, making no effort to aid. I see a metallic object in his right hand. His large knife is drawn, but he’s not moving.

The sight is enough to disrupt my muscle memory.

The next downward stroke isn’t hard enough and deviates right. Instead of cleaving the skull, the sword merely cuts off an ear and then lodges itself in trapezius muscle and collarbone. Pulling on the sword only draws the zombie toward me.

I pull again but only draw the zombie closer. It’s screaming- rightfully so- but so are its comrades. The screaming is distracting, frightening, unnerving.

I must get my sword back.

I see George walking toward me. The zombies that are directly behind my most recent victim are closing in on me.

I am not ready for them.

 

School Map

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Comments
  1. Emma says:

    Good job!

  2. […] Year 2, Month 1, Day 30: George Centro […]

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