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I didn't shoot the bitch until she started eating Alan's face. Before this whole thing began, I'd never shot anyone in my life. Not once. I never held a gun until a few weeks before Hamelin's Revenge started. Hell, I never even referred to women as bitches. But that's what she was. And I had the pistol in my hand.
And I shot her.
Cue "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix.
This thing… this plague; it changed people. Not just the dead ones, either. It changed everyone. Changed me. I'm a different person now. Listen… you never know what you'll do until you find yourself in an impossible situation, so don't ever say never. Survival instinct is a real motherfucker, and when your back is. against the wall, everything changes.
I know. It did for me. It all changed for me.
My name is Lamar Reed and this is the way the world ended.
It started with the rats. They swarmed out of the sewers about a month ago. Well, maybe
isn't the right word. Swarm indicates speed, and the rats were anything but fast. The first attack took place in New York City during the evening rush hour. Imagine it. Sidewalks bustling with activity, crowds of people rushing to catch subways and trains and buses, streets choked with gridlock, taxi-cabs weaving in and out of traffic, horns blaring, manhole covers clanging as trucks drive over them. And then, in the middle of all this chaos, the rats slowly crawled out of a sewer grate on Thirty-first Street and attacked people-climbed up legs, raked at stomachs with their sharp little claws, sank their yellowed incisors into cheeks and thighs and necks; anywhere they could find a soft morsel. The rats fed.
And the rats were dead. I should mention that. Wasn't weird enough that rats attacked commuters en masse. They were
rats-guts hanging out, limbs and tails falling off, and big, ulcerated wounds on their sides, infested with maggots. Rotting meat on the run.
Oh, we didn't know it at first. I remember watching it on the news that evening. Sitting on my couch in East Baltimore, eating bologna straight from the package and ignoring the stack of overdue bills. Watching the news, wondering when the cable would get shut off for non-payment. Wondering where the hell my unemployment check was. The mail lady hadn't brought it yet, and things were tight. I'd come up with some cash a few weeks before, but it all went to my mortgage. Like sticking one finger in the dam while three dozen more leaks sprang up.
The news caught my attention because of the fucked-up factor. Rats attacking pedestrians? Crazy shit. But when the first reports started trickling in that they were dead rats-not dead as in some frantic stockbroker flung one to the ground and stomped it-but dead as in the living dead? That shit was off the hook. People scoffed, the media pundits argued, and the authorities refused comment. The cable news channels carried live footage. MSNBC called it a riot. CNN speculated about a possible terrorist attack. 1 don't know what Fox News called it because nobody I know watched Fox News. One thing that appeared clear was that nobody knew what the fuck was going on. New York's hospitals filled up with wounded pedestrians. Most of them suffered from bites, and others had been injured in the chaos that followed-trampled on as people fled. A few suffered heart attacks brought on by the stress. The people who'd been bitten got real sick. Then died. Then came back. Just like the rats.
They were dead, but they still came back.
The media called it Hamelin's Revenge. They came up with the name almost immediately. Hamelin's Revenge: the return of the rats the Pied Piper was hired to get rid of. But in that old story, when the mayor refused to pay, Hamelin-the Pied Piper-came up with another plan. That's how they spun it, anyway. Seems nobody bothered to tell the media that Hamelin was the name of the town, not the Piper himself. But that didn't matter. In their version, Hamelin's Revenge was when the Piper decided to get even. He took all the kids away and returned the rats to the village. Now the fairy tale had come true. The rats returned all right. And hell followed with them. Just like the Bible verse or the song. Hell.
By midnight, New York City's hospitals became slaughterhouses. Like I said, the infected died, and then came back. And they came back hungry, man. Zombies. The White House press secretary actually used the word during a news conference. Until then, the media were calling the attackers cannibals. But after the government confirmed it, zombie was the buzzword. They attacked the living just like the rats had done. They bit and clawed and fed, gorging themselves on the flesh of the living. The victims who managed to escape got sick with Hamelin's Revenge a few hours later, just like their attackers had. Then they died and came back. And the ones that got ripped to pieces, the ones who ended up (for the most part) inside the zombie's bellies? What was left of them came back, too. They didn't need arms or legs or internal organs. As long as there was a brain left attached, something to control the motor function and impulses, the remains came back. A CNN anchor actually walked away from the news desk after they showed footage of an armless corpse wandering the streets, trailing intestines behind it like a dog leash. You could hear her sobbing off camera, and some producer or technician begging her to go back on the air. She never did.
The chaos spread throughout the five boroughs. By dawn, the National Guard locked down New York City and quarantined everything. Blockaded the bridges and tunnels and left folks to die. A few soldiers even fired on civilians as they were trying to escape. Gunned them down in the dawn's early light. It was for the good of the country, the media assured us. New York was a biohazard area. Nobody could get in or out. But Hamelin's Revenge managed to escape. Hamelin's Revenge said "Fuck you" to the barricades and armed guardsmen and quarantine signs. The disease raced like a California brushfire. Cases popped up in Newark, Delaware; then Trenton, New Jersey; and then on to Philadelphia. By the next evening, it had arrived here in Baltimore. Martial law was declared nationwide and the army was mobilized. That was like pouring perfume on a pig. The troops were good at killing zombies, but they couldn't shoot a disease. All it took was one bite from an infected mouth. And you could get it even if you weren't bitten. One drop of blood sprayed from a bullet's exit wound. Pus from an open sore splattering on you as a zombie attacked. Inhale it or ingest it; get it on your lips or in your eye and that was it. Say good-bye. You got sick. You died. You returned. Folks that died from heart attacks or cancer or stabbings or car wrecks-they stayed dead. But anyone who came into direct contact with the zombies-anyone who managed to get infected-joined the ranks of the living dead.
And those ranks swelled quickly. First the rats. Then people. The disease jumped to dogs and cats in the second week. Other animals, too. They said on television that a cow attacked an Amish farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It sounds kind of funny until you think about it for too long. Then it just becomes a mind-fuck. Zombie cattle… this time the hamburger eats you-starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Mr. T. Sounded like a really bad Sci-Fi Channel movie.
Elsewhere, a pack of dead coyotes ripped a mother and her baby to shreds in the Hollywood hills. Gruesome shit. A herd of zombie goats devoured ranch hands in Montana. An undead bear caused chaos on the Ohio turnpike. At least the disease didn't spread to the birds. If it had, well… for years we'd worried about the avian flu. The idea of birds spreading Hamelin's Revenge was terrifying, because birds are everywhere. No matter where you go, there are birds. Ain't anywhere you can run where a bird can't find your ass. The birds didn't catch it, at least that we'd seen, but many other animals did. Not all of them, but enough. Sheep caught it, but not pigs. Horses were immune, but cattle were not. Apes-death equaled zombie. Deer-their deaths were old school.
And of course, some species that seemed immune at first later became vulnerable. Squirrels didn't seem affected at first, which was weird, since they're just rats with fluffy tails. But later, they caught it, too. With all the cross-species jumps, there was no stopping the disease. It happened very quickly. America fell. South America. Canada. Then Hamelin's Revenge made it overseas and infected Europe and Asia and the African continent. Then it traveled down to Australia. Last thing I saw before the power went out for good was grainy footage of a million zombie rats swarming over a million humans in Mumbai, India.
Suddenly, I didn't have to worry about past-due utility bills or if the cops had figured out that I was the one who robbed the Ford dealership during that test-drive. I didn't have to think about whether or not I had the balls to do it again. I had more important things to focus on, like staying alive and not getting eaten by my neighbors-or shot by some stupid motherfucker.
See, it wasn't just the zombies that we had to watch out for. If it was, and if the president and Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and the rest of our government had acted quickly enough, then maybe none of this would have happened. But they didn't. Just like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and all the other national disasters. When faced with an unimaginable crisis, the government failed to respond in an effective and timely manner. Maybe they couldn't. I mean, there's probably no FEMA playbook for what to do when dead folks start running around eating people. It's not the sort of thing the government plans for. It's an unimaginable scenario.
But it wasn't imagination. It was real.
In the weeks that followed there were dangers other than just the zombies. Looters and gangs of armed thugs roamed the streets. Cops and National Guardsmen who'd gone off the deep end shot the dead and living indiscriminately. America returned to the glory days of the Old West. Things like innocence and guilt didn't matter. The only law that mattered was the law of the gun. They evacuated Washington, D.C., and sent the president, his cabinet, and all the king's horses and men who worked in the House and the Senate off to secure underground bunkers in Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania. They were supposed to be able to run the country from there. They didn't. Things fell apart.
Our cities and towns resembled Somalia or Beirut. Well, to be honest, my neighborhood had been like that even before Hamelin's Revenge. Only difference was now the rest of the country got a taste of what it was like to live in the ghetto. Instead of drug gangs and tweaked-out freaks on crystal meth or crack, we now had vigilantes and zombies. Not much of a change, and in either case, the cops still didn't show up when you called them.
I remember a press conference with the secretary of state. He was sweating like a pig. Looked nervous. He assured the reporters that President Tyler, the vice president, and cabinet members were all fine-and that the crisis was passing. Things would soon be under control, and society would return to normal. Until then, martial law would remain in effect as a cautionary measure.
Except that nobody was calling the shots. The person in charge was the guy with the most firepower, and that changed from moment to moment.
People didn't aspire to cure the disease or stop it from spreading. They only aspired to not get eaten by a zombie. They'd always worried about their careers and homes and favorite television shows and what their most-loved Hollywood starlet had done. Now the only thing they worried about was staying alive. And the worst part was that if you'd asked people, they probably couldn't tell you why they bothered resisting. Did it matter? What was the point? The zombies outnumbered the living. Why not surrender, or eat a bullet? Like I said, survival instinct is a motherfucker. You do what you have to, even if you don't understand why.
Some people had higher aspirations, of course. When there's blood on the streets, there's money to be made. That's an eternal law in the ghetto, and the rest of the world learned it soon enough. Stocks, bonds, shit like that-worthless. Cold hard cash ruled the day, and price gouging was common. Twenty bucks for a gallon of gas or a bottle of water. And when the cash became as worthless as the paper it was printed on, the barter system took over. Your wife-your daughter-in exchange for what you needed to survive.