There are only two types of people in the world: those who have had The Conversation, and those who will die when the zombie apocalypse arrives.
Luckily for Gary, we’ve had The Conversation. That’s why he knew to contact me first.
That call had been thirty five minutes ago and, as much as I love him, if he doesn’t get here soon I’m leaving alone. It isn’t safe to stay in the house any longer.
* * *
We had The Conversation on our third date. We talked through exactly what he should do and where he should go when the apocalypse strikes. He found it funny; another one of “Claire’s concerns”. I think he thought it was endearing. But people like Gary have always needed people like me: the planners, the preparers, the ones with the baseball bat by the front door.
Well, today it had happened. And, to his credit, Gary had done the right thing.
“Claire?” He had sounded scared on the phone.
“What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I’m coming to you. Stay where you are.” He paused. “Where are you?”
“At home. What’s going on?”
I could hear shouting in the background. “It’s happening Claire; you were right. This guy at the station, he was… Jesus Christ! He came back from the dead!”
“Is this some sort of religious thing?”
“What? No! It’s zombies Claire. Zombies! They’re attacking people.”
Okay. Wow. I forced myself to remain calm. “Remember what we talked about,” I said. “You have half an hour to get back here; we’ll grab the bags and then we leave. If you can’t get here, we’ll meet at the Community Hall. It’s likely the phones will stop working so you have to promise that you’ll remember the plan and stick to it.”
“I love you and I’ll see you here soon.”
I had ended the call. I couldn’t believe it; I have to believe it. It is actually happening.
And so I wait. I’m in the hallway with my back to the wall, watching both the front and back doors. One hand rests on the handle of the baseball bat and the other fingers the knife in my coat pocket. My heart is racing but the shape of the blade in my pocket helps keep me calm.
Two bags wait by the door, ready to go.
I will give him ten more minutes.
* * *
I hear the gate squeak and I’m moving: out of the hallway into the front room, squaring up with the baseball bat, ready to take a swing at anyone who isn’t Gary.
He shouts my name as he bursts through the front door. Idiot.
“Be quiet. We don’t want to draw their attention. Where have you been?”
Gary’s gaze flicks back and forth from me to the back door. “The bus got held up in the roadworks. Sorry.”
“You took a bus? Why are the buses still running?”
“It’s weird out there. I don’t think people have worked out what’s going on yet. If I hadn’t been there when that guy got back up and…” He trails off. “People are going to have a hard time believing this is actually happening.”
I think this through. I had always imagined that the apocalypse would be obvious, but what he is saying makes sense. Most people are not prepared to believe that this could happen. Apathy is going to get the majority of them killed.
“Look at this.” Gary has opened up Twitter on his phone. “These people must have been in town when it started.” He shows me a photo of a crowded platform. It’s blurry, but that is clearly a zombie.
“It looks just like that scene from Zombie Station.” I have made Gary watch a lot of zombie movies. Research.
“It sort of does, I guess. I mean, not exactly.”
I stop him from heading further into the house. “No. We have to go. The house isn’t safe.”
“Shouldn’t we wait here for a little bit, just to be on the safe side?”
I hold out one of the bags. “We’re done here. We need to leave.”
For a moment, I think that he’s going to argue with me. Then he takes a bag and I push him out the front door. He takes a final, rueful look behind him.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s only a house. We don’t need it. This is all about survival now.”
* * *
The plan was always that we would go to the Community Hall. It’s big enough that it can hold a good group of people, but not so big that it can’t be defended. It has a kitchen, toilets, and a big store room full of food. Plus, I have a key to the front door.
Gary leads us down the road. I want to stay near to the edge, close to cover, but I’m also worried that I won’t be able to see danger coming. The winter sun is throwing deep shadows across the road and I stare hard into them, watching for zombies.
“I don’t like this,” I whisper. “It’s too quiet.”
There are very few people in the streets. A handful of cars pass us, but none are speeding by.
Gary doesn’t look at me. “If we’re lucky we might get to the Hall without even getting a glimpse of a zombie.”
I swing the baseball bat a couple of times. “I was never that lucky. Just well prepared.”
We leave the houses behind and enter the park; it’s the quickest route to the Community Hall.
“Keep to the central path, away from the trees.”
I follow Gary, sweeping my gaze from left to right, watching for movement. My heartbeat drums in my ears.
Gary freezes in front of me. “What’s that?” He is looking at a small stand of trees.
I squint in the sunlight. “I’m not sure. Could be a-”
Three zombies lurch from the trees. Gary stumbles backwards into me, swearing, but I am already in motion, stepping around him, baseball bat raised. My peripheral vision blurs and I focus in on the zombies, staring down a tunnel at them. I swing the bat.
“What are you doing?” Gary is screaming at me. I can feel his hands on my rucksack, pulling me backwards. Despite the danger, I still feel remarkably calm.
“We need to take them. They can’t follow us to the Hall.” I shake myself free and I’m running towards the zombies. Throw them off guard. Keep moving. Do what’s unexpected.
Then I’m on the ground. Something has hit me from the side and taken me to the floor. I flail around, feeling the hard earth grinding beneath my body. Don’t let it bite you.
“Claire! Stop it.”
I swing my elbow and connect with something hard. Rolling away, I pop back up onto my feet. Gary is lying on the grass, holding his nose. I glance across at the zombies.
“What are you doing?”
“Me? What are you doing?”
We back away across the grass. The zombies stutter forward once more.
“We can’t let them follow us. We have to protect the Hall. Let’s take them down now. I can do it Gary. They’re slow.” I grip the handle of the knife.
“No Claire, please.” He holds onto me tightly. I want to attack them, but I don’t want to fight Gary. I let him pull me away.
We turn and run.
* * *
We work our way down an alleyway between two buildings. I sidle up to the corner and glance into the waiting street. Gary creeps up next to me.
“Where?” He mouths the question at me.
I twitch my head towards the corner of the building, holding two fingers up. He grimaces. I hold out the baseball bat, but he shakes his head. I nod mine. Come on Gary, you need to step up. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out the knife. Gary’s eyes go wide.
“What the-” he mouths.
I mime stabbing in mid-air. He shakes his head but reluctantly takes the baseball bat from me.
I try to swallow down the fear rising in my throat. My grip on the knife is so tight that my knuckles have turned white.
Gary presses his mouth against my ear. I can feel the heat of his breath. “Please. Don’t do this. You’ve seen them, let’s find another way around.”
I turn my head and kiss him quickly on the lips. Then, spinning away, I round the corner quietly and spring towards the zombies.
“Watch out!” Gary’s voice echoes out of the alleyway and I’m caught, halfway between the zombies and safety.
The zombies see me. For a moment, no one moves. Then a zombie jerks its head up, staring at Gary over my shoulder. My nerve fails; I have to protect him.
I’m running. I grab Gary’s hand as I pass the end of the alleyway and now we’re sprinting away down the street. He manages to knock the knife from my grasp as we run. Gary, you’re an idiot.
The cold, winter air catches in my lungs as we pound down the pavement. Running alongside me, I can hear Gary breathing heavily. He no longer has the baseball bat. We’re being chased; we’ve lost our weapons; none of this was in the plan.
I look back and they are still behind us. They’re not slow, they’re fast. In the movies they’re never this quick.
Gary points. “The Hall.” He is panting hard.
We sprint between cars, weaving our way across the car park. Reaching the door, I try to calm myself enough to get the key into the lock. My insides are twisted with fear and my breathing is coming rough and ragged. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and relax. The key slides in and I hear the catch release.
Turning to Gary, I suddenly realise that he is no longer next to me. Where is he? I spin round, looking for him. There he is, halfway back across the car park, bent double with his hands on his knees. Behind him: zombies.
He looks up as I yell his name. Gary, run! He straightens up and takes a step towards me. Then the zombies are there, dragging him to the floor. I lose sight of him beneath the bodies. But I hear his screams.
I feel in my pocket but, of course, there is nothing there. The knife is gone. Gary, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I slump down, my back pressed against the door of the Hall. He was so close. Why didn’t he keep running?
Gary’s screams die away; his last breath drifting away across the car park in the breeze. One of the zombies lifts itself off of his body and stumbles towards me. Panic returns. I drag the door open and fall inside, rolling over to throw my weight against it and force it shut.
Inside, in the darkness, I scream, letting anger and despair fuel my howl.
* * *
The whole Hall is dark. I try the light switches but they refuse to turn on. I drift through the rooms in darkness, blundering into bits of furniture.
Gary was part of the plan. He was meant to be here. I curl up on the floor in the middle of the main hall and wrap my arms around my knees. What do I do without him?
No! This is wrong. Gary was part of the plan, but it was my plan. And it had nearly worked. Gary deserves to be remembered by someone, so I need to survive. I need to remember him.
I wipe my sleeve across my eyes and get to my feet. It is time to woman up.
Click. The lights snap on and I am blind. There are people all around me. I push them away. I knock into them. I’m blinking hard but I can’t see. Arms grab hold of me. No, please. Not now. I’m meant to be safe here. Calm down, voices whisper. You’re safe. They are lying.
I push away and stumble clear of the crowd. Blurred faces become recognisable. Why are they here?
“What’s happening?” I am backing away from the crowd but there are more of them behind me. Hands take hold of me and guide me to a chair. My sister is here. Why? She steps forward, smiling, pointing. There’s a banner above her head. “Surprise!” it says.
The door at the end of the hall is opening and figures are lumbering through. I fall from the chair and push myself away across the floor. There are too many people inside. We’re trapped.
But as they step into the light, the zombies are straightening up. They’re laughing. They split apart and, walking between them, is Gary.
What is happening? My heart leaps. And, yet, at the same time, an icy cold feeling of dread sparks into life in my stomach.
“Yes! Boom! That was amazing.” Gary advances towards me, arms wide. He has the biggest smile on his face. “You have no idea how much effort this took.”
“What’s going on?” I ask again.
He waves his arms at the crowd. “It’s a surprise, just for you. Everyone knows how mad you are about all that apocalypse stuff, so we created your own little zombie adventure.” Gary turns to address the crowd. “Claire came tooled-up with a baseball bat and a knife. Always prepared.”
My Dad is there; he’s smiling.
“We just about managed to keep the undead out of her reach, though.”
The crowd are laughing. I feel sick.
* * *
There’s food, so most people are eating. I am at the far end of the room, away from everyone. Every time I look at the crowd I feel the fear. Gary sits down beside me. I can’t look at him.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Aww, Claire. I’m sorry.” He puts his arm around me. “But you have to admit that this was a pretty fantastic surprise. It had you fooled, didn’t it? I genuinely thought you were going to attack them in the park. You’re something else, you are.”
He offers me a plate of food but I shake my head.
“Why did you do this?”
“Because you love it so much. What would be better than your own apocalypse? I can’t believe it went so well; I was sure you were going to work out what was going on.” He is laughing. “The only thing we stuffed up was at the house. Craig and Carly were going to jump out at us from the kitchen, to give you your first proper scare. But they must have been held up somewhere.”
“Craig and Carly?”
Gary gets back to his feet. He kisses the top of my head. “It doesn’t matter though, because it all worked out brilliantly in the end.”
I watch him walk away from me. Leaving me.
Craig and Carly. I let their names sit on my tongue for a moment. I don’t know them.
I think of those final few minutes, waiting for Gary to get home. If only his bus hadn’t been late. If only I hadn’t had a plan. If only he had been there to stop me.
I feel the empty space in my pocket.
I’m sorry Craig. I’m sorry Carly. I didn’t know.