I remember being eight years old and rummaging through the steering room of our yacht. I came across some old registration papers for a man named Benjamin Ohne. I know for a fact that we have no relation to him, and when I showed my mom, she took the papers out of my hands, and I never saw them again. There’s a conspiracy between parents and grandparents to hide this truth from us, not just me, but all of us younger than twenty. I keep asking the same question though: Why did we give up the land for the ocean? I used the Fleet’s network and did a search but all I could find was current news and old historical documents. Nothing about the last 20-30 years. There’s a gap no one wants to fill, and it’s time I took matters into my own hands.
We live on a yacht and water wraps the entire horizon of our world. Our ship is one of many in a rag-tag fleet of boats made of other yachts, skiffs, whalers, a Mississippi steamer, several dozen Chinese junks, an icebreaker, a super tanker, and a few old U.S. destroyers. An aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, is the center of our fleet. I had heard that she used to launch F-15s and other cool looking jets, but nowadays I see the deck used more as a vast clothes line for laundry than for landing jet planes. We live in the Atlantic; we’re not going anywhere. Sails replaced engines. The wind steers us. Ropes tether us together just in case we stray too far, and you don’t want to stray too far.
Every night, while everyone’s asleep, I go topside and sit on the deck. I listen to the water lapping against our yacht’s hull and let the warm night breeze brush against my skin. I feel like I should be able to hear birds, but for some reason, I haven’t heard one or seen one since I was six.
On the horizon I see the lights of the Enterprise flicker on. She is a bright beacon in an otherwise dark world. I hear the motor of an old biplane whirling to life and see it run along the deck of the Enterprise and shoot into the sky. It flies into the darkness and vanishes into a large silhouette. It can’t be, I think. But it is. Land ho.
I head below deck quietly and shake Aaron awake. “Dude, we’re near land.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Aaron says.
“Don’t wake mom and dad.” I slip back into my room and change. There’s a satchel of stuff I lug back to the dingy attached to the end of our yacht house. There’s enough supplies for a day or two, but we won’t stay out long. My brother comes out with some algae and fish. We eat while we work ensuring everything is ready. I untie the boat and we shove off.
The sky changes gradients of blue. The fleet is a spec where the sun rises. My arms burn, but the sight of buildings illuminated by dawn pushes me on. The answers are coming.
We paddle by the Statue of Liberty. The ocean narrows into a river. Buildings line either side of us and bridges span across the water. On the bridge, cars wait with open doors for their owners to return. It looks like their drivers left them in haste. Aaron pulls out my dad’s binoculars and scopes out the land.
“There’s nobody here,” he says.
“Take over for a sec, I want to see.” I gaze into the abandoned city. Trash tumbles through where people used to walk. In some places new life buds through the asphalt. Along the water, we spy a harbor with tall fences. Barbed wire lines the top of them making it impossible to climb over. What happened here? Why did our grandparents leave this all behind?
Aaron and I beach our boat on the sands and set foot on dry land. There’s no rocking or swaying. Solid. Dry. Ground. I had only been on dry land once before, when we were on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific a couple of years back, but this is Aaron’s first time. How strange, no birds still. Just the wind howling and water sloshing against our dingy.
We wander around the beach. Trash lies around us — old cups of Starbucks coffee, crumpled sheets of the New Yorker, cups, bottles, cans, and shopping bags from Macy’s, Neimann Marcus, and FAO Schwartz. Someone’s cellphone is buried in the sand; the battery’s dead. There’s blood on the back of it; I drop it and wipe my hands against my shirt. I know its been dried for years, but still. There’s danger here in the silence.
“Mikey!” All my senses tingle. I take off in the direction of his voice and grab a plank of wood stuck in the gravel as I run by. A wall of rock obscures my brother. “Mike!” I run faster around the rock wall; Aaron stands alone holding something metal and rectangular in his hands. My heart slows; I lower the stick, but I am conscious that the city scrutinizes our every move.
“What is it?”
“It’s a broken camera.”
He hands me the machine. I open the side flap and pop out an SD card. “Nice. Come on!” We head back to the boat. I take out my backpack and pull out a netbook. The kinetic charger’s plugged into the back so I know there’s juice. The SD goes into the side slot and to my surprise the machine detects it. Double-click. I get a file directory. DSC3843.jpg. Open file.
A man and woman pose together with the city skyline behind them.
“Hey Mike,” Aaron says.
“Hold on.” DSC3844.jpg. The photo is an image of a dark and blurry man. DSC3845.jpg. More blurry figures but the cameraman’s made progress down the street. Whoever he is, he’s in a hurry or being chased. The woman from before is running and mostly off-frame. DSC3846.jpg. Is this a joke? The picture is of a boy. His mouth bloody. He snarls at the camera. His tiny hands curled and ready to kill. DSC3847.jpg. The woman lying on the floor. A group of people are helping to calm her. No, wait…
DSC3848.jpg. “Holy shit.”
“Mike! Let’s get out of here.”
I face the city. Aaron stands on the boat gripping an oar. They’re everywhere. Decomposed human bodies amble to us. A woman’s ribs show through her tattered peace-symbol T-shirt. A man’s skin flakes off and his jaw is missing. They’re falling over the edge of the sidewalk, crashing into the sand dunes. They crawl towards us. I jump out of the boat and push it back into the river. I’m stepping on something hairy. My toes touch what feels like a muddy nose. Tree branches wrap around my legs.
No, a hand grips my leg. I’m pulled under. I see below the water for an instant. Skeletal faces snap their jaws at me.
My brother grabs me by the scruff of my neck. A ghoul bites into my leg. I scream. Aaron pulls me into the boat and behind me, a ghoul rises from the river. Its skin blue and gray. The eyes missing. Jaw agape wailing silently. He stumbles to us. Aaron clobbers his head with the oar. The waterlogged gray-matter squishes and flies apart. Hands grip the side of our dingy pulling at it.
I grab an oar and jab the water. Aaron does the same. We paddle back to the middle of the river. The ghouls swarm the river bank and collapse into the water.
We row hard and fast.
The city is alive. Ghouls roam the streets. Some run. Most linger or limp. Where did they all come from? They all seem to be attracted to us. We pass under a bridge. Corpses rain over the edge of it. The ghouls explode into parts as they hit the water. “Don’t look! Keep rowing!” My arms are on fire, but I can’t quit now, not with Aaron onboard.
Open water at last. I lie back. My leg throbs. Pain shoots through my body. Aaron takes over the rowing. I tend to my wound. The blood oozes out black; the bite mark looks gangrene. Without the adrenaline I can really feel the pain now. “I’m not feeling so hot,” I say.
Off in the distance, the whine of a motor draws closer to us. Aaron shouts and waves his hands. I see blurry figures alongside our boat, but I know they’re not ghouls. They move with intelligence.
“Aaron! Thank God!” That’s my mom.
“Michael! Keep it together, son!” That’s dad.
“We’re going to have to take his leg off. Now.” That’s Doctor Winters. “Get him to bite on this.” Dad sticks a metal handle in my mouth. Hot pricking sensations bite at my leg. Deeper and deeper. I howl and gnaw at the metal stick in my mouth. A saw buzzes. Blood splatters. Then a splash. “Let’s get him to the Enterprise.”
I open my eyes. How much time passed? My leg itches but when I go to scratch there’s just the bed linen and the mattress underneath. Doctor Winters and my dad come to my bedside. “Good to see you awake son,” Winters says.
My dad hugs me. “Thank God.”
“What were those things?” My dad won’t answer.
Doctor Winters obliged my curiosity: “Some people call it Judgement Day, everyone else has no idea how it happened or why it happened, but fifty years ago the entire world changed when the dead woke up and claimed the land. Some of us were there, some of us were children.” He eyes my father squarely. “This generation’s lucky enough not to know that horror, but I reckon we can’t hide it forever. You’re all gonna have to know.” He handed me my netbook. The photos are still on the desktop.
“Just tell them the truth, son,” Winter says.
Notes: Okay, this was inspired by a dream I had last night. It goes something like this: I’m investigating a downed airplane and buried in the floorboards of the plane is a digital SLR camera. I pry the camera free, pull out the SD card, and carry it back to some little computer and view the images on it. What’s on the film? The undead. Whoever owned this camera shot pictures of them up close and personal. A kid with blood oozing from his mouth – that’s the only image I remember from the dream and the one I put in the story. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a zombie dream. I don’t consider them nightmares.
I’ve studied dream analysis before. Neuroscientists, believe dreams are a survival mechanism. Dreams are like a computer randomly sampling files on your harddrive and coming up with a new one. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but common symbols crop up in dreams such as a dark, shadowy figure chasing after you. Another common one is falling from a great height (or lucidly flying). It’s the brain trying to cope with surviving horrific things. I guess after so much Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, the Walking Dead, and World War Z, zombies are the dark and shadowy figures of my dreams. And I usually have a shotgun in hand.
Bring on the Apocalypse. I’m ready.