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I, Zombie

Hugh Howey

Page 1

  Part I • The Hunger

  Gloria • Michael Lane • Jennifer Shaw

  1 • Gloria

  There was a hole in Gloria’s smile the size of an apple. When she ate, much of what she chewed passed through her cheek and spilled down her neck. And when a scent caught her attention—usually the smell of the living—she would lift her head to take a sniff and feel the air pass through her open face to hammer her rotting teeth.

  Gloria was dead, and so were her teeth, but they were all still sensitive to the pain.

  Bowing her head back over her meal, she tried not to watch what she was doing. The stench and texture were visceral enough, the taste both revolting and sickly soothing. A pack of five or so ripped into the man, the scene calmer than a big feed. There were grunts and contented smacking sounds, not the angry roars from those on the outside clawing to get in. Instead, she and four other monsters huddled together like hyenas on the Serengeti. They rubbed shoulders and listened to the sounds of flesh tearing and tendons snapping, the hotness of the man up to her elbows, blood dripping from her chin.

  Gloria ate, and much of what she chewed spilled down her neck.

  The revulsion she felt was mental. Gloria wished it were physical. She wanted to vomit, dearly wanted to vomit, but she couldn’t. The meat of the man tasted too good. It satisfied too deep and strong a craving, this new hunger that reminded her of all her old and equally primal urges.

  There were two years in high school when Gloria had tried to become a vegetarian. This monster she had turned into reminded her of those years, of the meals that came after she’d given up trying to be good. She remembered how badly she had felt for that chicken even as she tore through its meat. There was a night out with friends, laughing, spilling beer, a hundred screens of sports she cared nothing about, and baskets of wings. She had held one, fingers sticky with sauce, a bite taken out of the flesh, and she had looked down, had seen those tendons and bone, and had realized what she was doing.

  Even then, Gloria had known it was wrong. But she loved it too much. The taste was always stronger than her compassion. And so she ate and felt sick at the same time. She loved the meat and hated herself.

  The dead body in the blue jeans and ruined button-up reminded her of that chicken wing. It was barely recognizable as a person anymore, covered in its own sauce. The pack grew to seven, and the man’s lower half was dragged away and fought over. More yummy disgustingness spilled out from his torso and spread across the warm pavement. The monster across from Gloria scrambled for the same slick ropes as she. The purple meat slid through both of their hands, their lips dribbling sauce back down on their food, fighting for scraps.

  This other monster’s fingers were missing from one of his hands, bitten off, leaving him with a stump. Gloria saw the familiar black char of an original wound, the bite that had infected this man, working its way up his wrist. Still, he clawed for the meat with what was left of his hand. Like Gloria, he was only half in control of what he was doing. They were along for the ride, each of them. At the wheel—but without the power steering.

  2 • Michael Lane

  Michael remembered being a boy. He remembered the times from before. Michael could remember everything.

  He remembered doctors in white coats telling him that his mother was still in there, that she was still alive behind those glassy eyes and that distant stare. In his more hopeful moments he would sit by her side, hold her hand, and believe them. He would pretend it was true.

  And when her wheelchair squeaked and rattled with another shaking fit, Michael would squeeze her withered and trembling hands and talk to her, try to reason with her, ask her to please stop.

  These were the times when he believed the doctors, when he thought his mother was still in there, peering out. He would talk to her like this when he was most hopeful. He would talk to her calmly.

  And then there were days when he didn’t believe, when he couldn’t believe—and he would have to scream.

  Michael Lane remembered screaming at his mother. He remembered this as he staggered through the apartment, knocking over furniture, chasing her hissing cat.

  “Wake up!” he would yell at his mom, back when he could yell at anything.

  “Wake the fuck up!”

  And he would shake her. He would want to hit her, but he never did. At least, he didn’t think so.

  It had been tempting at times. Not because he thought it would do her any good or snap her out of the degenerative palsy into which she had fallen, but because punching a hole in the wall didn’t make him feel any better. He wasn’t pissed off at the wall. Walls were supposed to just sit there. That’s what walls did.

  His mother’s old black cat stood in the corner by the radiator, its spine arched, fur spiked, pink tongue and white teeth visible as it hissed at him. The damn thing was thin as a shadow. Starving. Michael was starving, too. He closed in, remembering the doubts he’d had about his mother’s condition. Those doubts had nagged at him for years.

  What if his mother was just acting? What if this was her way of avoiding the world? He hadn’t been able to stop thinking these things. Michael had watched his father crawl inside a bottle and die there just so he didn’t have to get up and go to work. It wasn’t long before his mom retreated behind a vacant gaze, leaving him and his sister to pay the bills, to change her stinking bags, to roll her from one sunny patch by the window to another. His mother had become a potted plant they fretted over. No, that wasn’t right. Couldn’t plants at least turn their heads and follow the sun? Weren’t they better than her in that way?

  Falling forward as much as lunging, Michael seized the weak and cornered cat. Sharp claws gouged his hands, burning where they broke the skin. He ignored this—he had no choice—and concentrated on the past. The times he had screamed at his mother were painful memories, so Michael orbited those. Pain was a distraction from what he knew he was about to do. And so he tried to remember if he had ever hit his mother, even a little. He couldn’t. Couldn’t remember. Maybe he had.

  The cat clawed at his face as he bowed his head into its fur. It batted at his unblinking eyes, and Michael—the memory of Michael—recoiled in fear. But the body he was trapped inside did not pull back. The hunger was too great, that mad craving for meat too strong. Not this meat, perhaps. Not cat meat. But he was barricaded inside his apartment with little else. He had locked himself inside, thinking he was safe, that he’d be okay. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t safe. He wasn’t okay.

  Michael’s teeth sank past the fur to tear at the animal’s flesh. The cat was a screaming, writhing blur. It clawed at his open eyes, tore at his ears, while Michael ate.

  He couldn’t stop himself.

  This was not him.

  The blood ran down his throat, warm and foul, the cat’s shrieks fading to rattling groans, and he could taste it. He could taste the meat. But this was not him. This was not Michael Lane.

  Michael remembered being a boy, once.

  He remembered the doctors telling him things, how a person could be locked away inside a body they couldn’t control.

  And Michael never believed them, not really.

  Until now.

  3 • Jennifer Shaw

  A grist of bees. A bevy of deer. A mob of—

  What was a mob again? Yaks?

  Emus. It was emus, Jennifer decided. But what animal made up a gang? Or a boil? Wasn’t there some creature that combined to form a bloat? Bloat was taken, she was pretty sure.

  Jennifer drifted back to the games her father played. This was but one of many. She remembered hanging from his arm, her sister on the other side, as he swung them through Central Park Zoo. He called them monkeys—

band!” she and her sister would squeal.

  “You little gorillas. ”

  “A troop!”

  “You smelly baboons. ”

  “A flange!”

  “I’m not smelly,” her sister would add, pouting.

  Up and down the tree of life they would climb, learning useless facts that made their peers roll their eyes and their teachers clap with delight. Their father never taught them state capitals or anything normal. Nothing other people might already know. He filled their heads with reptiles and minerals and trivia. Jennifer never saw a garter snake slither through the grass without thinking: There goes Massachusetts.

  “A family is more than just its members,” their father had said. “Together, we become something different. ”

  He said this a lot after their mother left. Swinging them through the zoo, he had shown his girls all the animals that hate to be alone, that prefer to go in groups. Each group had its own name, he taught them. In company they were something more than they could be in solitude.

  So what was this, Jennifer wondered? What had she become? What was she a part of?

  It couldn’t be a plague; those were locusts. Couldn’t be an intrusion because of the roach. And wasn’t a group of midges called a bite? She was pretty sure that was right. Shame, that one. And mosquitoes were a scourge. All the good ones were taken.

  Herd. Herd was overdone, as was pack. Too many animals shared those. Too obvious.

  And then it came to her.

  It came to her as the skull Jennifer was trapped inside lolled down, as the nose that used to be hers twitched at the smell of meat.

  An arm lay on the pavement, a torn sleeve wrapping it like a cloak, a cloud of flies drawn to the rotting meat. Its owner was long gone.

  Jennifer had no appetite for it. She lumbered onward, no longer in control, forced to see whatever her head saw as it followed some scent, some impulse, some new reflex.

  And for a moment—because of the dismembered arm, perhaps—the direction of her gaze allowed Jennifer to study the feet, her feet, and the feet of those around her. The bare feet and the feet in ragged slippers; the work boots and the worn trainers; the feet sliding and dragging; the feet of the people bumping into her, all of them moving in one direction, upwind, toward the smell of living meat.

  She was one of them, and Jennifer knew what she was, what the group would be called.

  She filed this trivia away. She took it with her as she disappeared into the recesses of her recollections, back to the times before she’d joined this trembling mass, this vile and grotesque thing her flesh had become. She skipped into the past, swinging on her father’s strong arms, beating her sister to calling this one out:

  “A shuffle,” she cried. “A shuffle of zombies!”

  And the animals of Central Park Zoo paced inside their cages, watching her and her dead family stagger by.

  And they were all afraid.

  4 • Michael Lane

  Michael was suffering from withdrawal. He wasn’t sure at first—it was hard to tell one madness from the other—but now he knew.

  He still had the taste of cat blood in his mouth, could feel this voice in his head, this lunatic starving for meat, this new animal in control of his body. And behind the thick curtain of horror that had drawn shut across his awareness, a tiny, familiar, persistent shout could be heard: he needed a fix. His veins hungered for the prick of steel, for the warm flow of numbness and that perfect release. He needed it now more than ever before. An overdose, Michael decided, would be fucking heavenly. A way to go. Any way to go for good.

  The kit was on top of the fridge. Everything was there to help him die in bliss. He could sate the urge to which he’d been a slave for longer than he could remember, for longer than he’d ever been in control of himself, for almost as long as his mother had been seized by her blank stares and her shivering fits.

  But now there was a new monster guiding his hand, dictating the direction of his mindless stagger. And this new thirst, this awful craving, carried him not toward the kitchen, but toward the door to his mother’s room.

  The cat was dead. Michael had eaten most of it. Its fur was still stuck in his throat, his body too dumb to cough it up. It left a powerful tickle he could do nothing about.

  With the animal gone, there was only one other scent of flesh nearby, only one other piece of meat in the tiny apartment.

  Michael’s bloodstained hands banged and gouged at the door, swimming toward the smell of flesh on the other side. He cried out in silent despair, knowing what the monster in him craved. There was no controlling it. He couldn’t even command his swollen tongue to lie still—it lolled with every grunt and seemed to fill his mouth with its writhing. It felt liable to choke him.

  His fingernails caught on the door’s panels and bent backward. The smears of cat blood on the door looked like something a child would come home from school with and be proud of, or something one of the museums uptown would charge millions for. Michael felt a swallowed laugh, thinking of that door hanging on a wall with his name under it. The world’s first zombie art. His laugh came out a gurgle.

  The gory brush strokes, meanwhile, worked their way toward the doorknob. Had he been thinking about how to open the door? He tried not to, tried to conceal this knowledge from his terrible side, but picturing the mechanism brought it to the surface. One monster spoke to another, and crimson claws fell to the fake brass.

  Michael couldn’t control it, couldn’t stop himself. All he could do was spill secrets to this dark animal inside him. All he could do—as ever—was betray his mother. Or maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was chance, he thought, as he watched a torturous eternity of banging and fumbling. Maybe it was just bad luck, all out of his control.

  The handle twisted, and the door popped open. Michael lurched forward, a passenger, a man beating on a window, begging the conductor to stop, to let him out, to let him just jump out and please run him the fuck over.

  His mother was by the window, right where he’d left her two days earlier. The curtains rustled in the breeze. It was cold in the room, and the smell of flesh was intoxicating. It bled into his rush for a fix. It confused him, this lust for eating the living. A warm patch grew around his crotch, and Michael realized his bladder was letting loose. He was an animal. Untrained. Barbaric. Just needs and impulses, cravings, and a mass of muscles that drove him toward sating those cravings. Simple as that. His ability to do as he chose—if ever he’d possessed that skill at all—was gone.