By Ben Herr
I crouch between two holly bushes, breathing heavily. My hiding spot is nestled between two houses within the sprawling development I’ve spent this wild night in. I may not be in the best hiding place, but at least I can clearly see the only two ways to get to it. The coast is clear on both, yet I can’t escape the feeling of being watched. But it’s probably just paranoia. As much as the movies love the jump scares and surprises, they never capture the feeling that every bush, corner, tree, building, or garbage can hides a nemesis. At least, not to the level you actually feel it when you find yourself dead center in the first known, real life zombie outbreak.
I hear the dreaded music again, and I hit the deck, scooting as close to the wall as I can. I can picture what is coming perfectly, for I’ve seen it at least a dozen times tonight. Yet I feel the need to get another look, that somehow, this is also the first time. I crawl along the wall to the house’s front corner and crouch behind another decorative holly, peering around the corner to get a better view.
The well-paved, marking-free road is empty, but not for long. As the tinkling music box tune becomes more audible, he rides around the corner. It’s one of what I call pipers. The zombie pedals a rickety bike around the community, ever so slowly, and ever so unsteadily, an old music box playing a repetitive, eerie tune from the basket in front. The music is accompanied by a mild chorus of growling from the ever growing crowd of walkers not far behind. The music seems to draw them together; avoid the pipers and you can avoid the zombies, I’ve learned. But I notice a hobbling figure come out of the darkness on the far side of the street to join the crowd. My heart pounds as I twirl around, having forgotten to check behind me. There are still more out there who haven’t yet joined to packs.
I think about how I got stuck in this disaster. I suppose it’s no different than Little Red Riding Hood. A simple trip to Grandma’s house landed me in great peril. And now I’ve been running around for hours, lost and disoriented in the development, unable to find a way out, and turned back by a piper whenever I get close. Perhaps this is why I can’t shake the feeling of being watched.
With the pack almost even with my hiding spot, I realize it’s time to get out of there. I scurry to the back of the house and scan the terrain. A joint system of back yards, with the next row of houses about 50 yards away. An old shed stands about halfway through the open space. I’ll make it there first.
I take a few more breaths, then dart to the back of the shed. My head goes on a swivel, looking to see if I drew any attention, but the night remains still. I creep to the front of the shed, ready to run to the next row of houses. I take a few breaths, trying to keep my breathing quiet and under control, when the shed door flies open, slamming into my forehead, and a growling zombie stumbles out.
“Why was there a zombie hiding in a tool shed?” I wonder, losing precious moments as the creature closes the few paces separating us. I frantically backpedal to stay out of reach, creating enough space to turn and run. Yet as I turn, my feet tangle and I start to fall. My head turns forward just in time to grab onto the tire swing directly in front of me. I hold on as I swing forward, then start to spin as gravity pulls me back. I’m heading straight for the zombie. Fortunately, the swing rotates my legs forward, and I’m able deliver a strong kick to the thing’s chest, knocking it down. I let go and drop to the ground.
For the first time, my thought is not to flee, but to fight. Though I have nothing to fight with apart from the tire I regain control of as I stand up. The zombie is coming back. With no other option, I push the tire over its head and down around its arms, forming more or less of a straight jacket. Then with a strong shove, its feet leave the ground and it starts swinging back and forth. I give it a strong kick to add a spin to the zombie pendulum. Inspired by the weak growl that escapes its lips at the peak of each swing, I take mental note to patent an idea for an undead grandfather clock.
I’m not sure what to do with the zombie now. This is the first one I’ve encountered and dealt with, instead of simply running away. I haven’t yet considered the ethics of killing a zombie. I don’t even know what’s making them zombies. Virus? Supernatural miscue? I think of the pipers. Hypnosis? I understand nothing of the situation, nor can I formulate any guesses that make logical sense. The whole situation reeks of an elaborate explanation that will never be made clear.
I figure the zombie won’t be going anywhere soon, especially if zombies are still affected by inner ear function, so I decide to check to the shed for anything useful and leave poor creature in its swinging prison. I am surprised to find a well stocked tool shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, sledgehammer, pickax, screw drivers, crow bars, hedge clippers, machete, rope, weedwhacker, and chain saw. My hand hovers ironically over the chain saw for a few moments of consideration, before I pass over it and choose the pickax.
After dashing away from the shed and the immobilized zombie, I find a dark corner to hide in. I spend some time trying to retrace my steps, trying to regain a sense of direction, but I am irreversibly lost and confused. The roads loop around too much and end in too many dead ends to make any sense of where I have gone. What was a large housing development before now seems like an endless jungle of identical buildings, with legions of chiming pipers patrolling the paths. There is but one option: Keep going. I look around once again, searching for the invisible pair of eyes that I keep sensing, but see nothing.
Pickax over my shoulder, I move forward, now more deliberately, trying to track where I was going and where I had come from. For the next 10 minutes there was neither sign of life nor unlife. I follow roads, cut through properties, and double back when I suspect I’m going in circles. But I still feel no closer to finding my way out by the time I see another piper.
This time, I see them even before I hear them. A massive pack is scattered along the road in front of me, walking from my left to my right. The piper is already so far past, he disappears from view shortly after becoming visible to me. I think through my options to go back, but it is a long way. I would try to wait it out and let them pass before I keep going.
I drop to the ground and crawl the remaining 30 feet from my vantage point in a cluster of trees to the nearest house, ending behind the glass-enclosed back porch. I then follow it to the back corner where I can watch what is happening without risking much visibility. From my spot, I watch them file past like an unending row of stumbling ants. Again, I wonder, what were they? Was there anything human left? Were they animal, lower than animal, or still almost human?
A twig snaps behind me, throwing my heart into a frenzy. Involuntarily, I spring up and spin around. I am frightened by one thing, and terrified by another. I am frightened by a lone zombie hobbling toward me, no more than 20 feet away. I am terrified, however, by the sound of shattering glass. The pickax is still over my shoulder when I spin.
Surprisingly, the lone zombie stops in its tracks. Startled? Scared? Or just distracted? I am frozen, still tense, still kicking myself for blowing my cover. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. The parade has stopped following the music box and has turned off of the road and toward the houses, approaching in a wide, sweeping wall. Going forward, or even sideways, is no longer an option; I have to, once again, turn back.
But the lone zombie still stands in my way. I would do my best to make quick work of it, but we seem mutually frozen. It stands there, staring at me, looking almost uncertain, and I stand still because I don’t understand why. I look into its vacant eyes and see nothing flicker, no gleam of humanity as I had hoped. A few moments later it again starts forward, coming for me with a growl. I lift the ax and give it a broadsided blow, knocking it off balance enough to run by.
It doesn’t take long before I have once again put good distance between myself and the zombies. I no longer have a plan for where I am going. I no longer feel I can do anything but aimlessly wander. I can only think about what is really going on, and about that lone zombie. It looked completely unlike a human, yet did not look completely brainless and dead. It looked somewhere slightly in between, or at least, like it was battling to become so. What was it?
For that matter, what am I? How do I know I am fully human? I think of the events of the evening. They seem far from sane. I look at the pickax in my hand. I have ended up with far from the most practical weapon from the tool shed. Had I made the selection because it seemed awesome, or was there some unknown factor in the decision? I think of how I was seemingly blocked at every turn in my attempt to escape from a place that makes a corn maze seem like Alcatraz. Either I am the unluckiest of unlucky survivors, or I am doing, thinking, or perceiving something wrong. So something, perhaps, is working to keep me in.
What did the movie characters do? When things went wrong, they always found a way or a reason to keep going. But this brings another thought to mind. In the movies, they often have the same pop culture knowledge of zombies as the real world. They reference the knowledge of zombies, but act as though they are seeing them for the first time. It seems scripted to us, the viewer, but seems real to them.
I think again to unshakable feeling that someone or something is watching me. I realize it’s not just the fear that zombies are near that I just don’t see. It’s something bigger. The puzzle pieces fall together. Am I just a character being written, or more likely filmed, into existence?