by Ross E. Lockhart
“It used to start getting light again, didn’t it, right after the winter solstice? Not this year. Look out there, dark as pitch, dark as sin. You know they’re out there, waiting, hungry. Morning’s not coming.
“And this side of the wall? Listen. Those idiots are singing Christmas carols. Talk about denial. The world is running down. Hell is full, the dead walk the earth, and those fools back there are singing ‘Oh Holy Night’, drinking cider, and swapping presents while you and me watch the perimeter.”
She pauses, sets her rifle against the short wall, then coughs into a handkerchief. You look her over. Dirty, but aren’t you all? A survivor. Thin face, showing every one of its sixty-odd years in lines and crevices. Grey hair peeks out from underneath the scarf tied around her head. She wears a man’s jacket over a worn red flannel shirt. You realize that you don’t know her name. You should, there are only a few dozen of you left. She stops coughing, and you think you see red staining the handkerchief as she tucks it back into her pocket.
“Got a smoke?” she asks.
You fish out a cigarette from your own crumpled pack, light it from yours, and hand it over. She takes a long drag, and you go back to watching the distance as she continues.
“It’s hopeless, hopeless. We’ve had a good run, but the human race is over. Homo sapiens will be superseded by, what should we call them? Homo muertos? Walking, eating, dead things that they are. The light’s not coming back. One by one, they’ll get us. Eat us. The ultimate consumer.
“Pleasant thought for Christmas, eh? Remember when ‘consumer’ meant something else? Shoppers filling the malls, searching for deals. Remember Santa suits and candy canes and silver bells and carols—dammit!
She stops, as if to listen to the distant off-key wassailing, then drops her cigarette to the ground, smashing the life out of it beneath the toe of her boot. She continues, “Dammit! I don’t hate Christmas, really. I just can’t believe it’s been a year already. I used to love Christmas. Back when the boys were growing up it was always our family time, our special time. But time passes. Keith got killed by a sniper in Iraq. The first war, that is. Kevin moved East with that girlfriend of his. We’d get phone calls, letters, but, you know. I never liked her. I guess that’s why Harry and I opened the bed and breakfast. You know, so we could be with other people, surrogate family, for holidays. I’d decorate the place, Harry’d haul in a twelve-foot fir tree, we’d make mulled cider, big ham or turkey dinner, the works.
“And then there was last year. Remember, we had those weird storms all December long? Messed up phones, radio, Internet. Sunspots, they said. Cosmic rays. What’d they know? Usually, we’d have a full house for the holidays. Last year, only two guests. Ben Shepherd was one of them. A doctor, nice man, out from New York with his boyfriend. Oh, what was his name? Robert? No, Donald King. Lovely couple. Lovely. They’d stayed with us a few years running. It was a quiet Christmas eve, cold, but snowless, and after a nice meal and glass of wine by the fire, everyone had gone off to bed. Visions of sugarplums, you know?
“It was about midnight when the knock came. It woke us up. I pulled on my robe and followed Harry down to the door. Standing there were a man and woman. Mexican, I think. She was pregnant. Out to here,” she indicates an enormous belly with a sweep of her hands. “He said they’d been driving through town and were attacked, that crazy people had chased their car off the road, that they’d run all the way up to our place. You and me, we know what happened now, but back then, well, it all seemed like a little much. We let them in, sure, and I took the woman into the kitchen to get her some food while Harry and the man, I think his name was José, tried to call the police.
“After I got her under real lights, saw her face, I got worried. She was in a bad state—her face was all scratched up, her shoes gone, her feet bleeding. She had a big wound on her arm, looked like toothmarks. I tried talking to her, but nothing. She just stared at me, big-eyed, like she was scared senseless.
“I set a big plate of leftovers in front of her, then went upstairs to see if I could wake up Ben and Donald. Ben was a doctor, remember. I thought he could look at her, help her. On the way back down, Harry met me on the stairs. ‘Phone’s out,’ he says. Maybe he can drive them into town in the morning. Harry’s worried, though. Says the man, José, is hiding something. Says he’s holding his arm funny, like he’s been shot or something. Wonders if they’re illegals, on the run from the cops, something like that. Say, you got another smoke?”
You give her another one, light it, then turn back to the perimeter, scanning for motion in the distance, your rifle at the ready.
“Harry says the man’s in the kitchen with his wife, that her name’s Maria. He said she don’t speak English, not even a little bit. About then, Ben comes down the stairs, Donald behind him. ‘Where’s the patient,’ he asks, very professional. I tell him the kitchen, then lead them down to where the two of them are waiting.
“Thing is, they’re not just sitting at the table eating leftovers. No, she’s down on the floor, on her back, knees up, moaning and cussing in Spanish. He’s behind her, holding her head, saying her name over and over. There’s a big puddle on the floor, her water’s broke, but there’s blood, too. Lots of blood.
“Ben pushes through us, says ‘It’s okay, I’m a doctor,” to the man, tells me to start boiling water, you know, all that stuff you see in the movies. He has Harry and Donald start gathering up clean towels. I think he was just trying to keep them busy, out of the way.
“Ben washes his hands, then kneels down beside Maria, checks her pulse, her vitals. Looks worried. Starts asking José questions, but he’s useless, doesn’t seem to understand a word, just keeps chanting his wife’s name over and over, ‘Maria, Maria, Maria.’”
She drops her cigarette, crushes it, then moves over to lean against the wall. There are tears in her eyes. Not mists, but streams, rivers flowing through the canyons the years have etched into her face. Her hands shake, as does her voice as she continues. “So Maria, she starts cresting, but it’s all wrong. All wrong. Instead of the baby’s head, a hand comes out, a tiny, perfect hand stretching out into the cold fluorescent lights of the kitchen. It closes, then opens, then closes again. Ben’s panicked. ‘It’s a breach birth,’ he says. ‘She needs to be in a hospital. Call 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1.’
“But remember, the phone’s not working, there’s nobody to call. So Donald says he’s going to drive into town, get help. He heads out, but he’s back inside of ten minutes. Says there’s crazy people out there, standing in the road, moaning. Says they attacked his car, started shaking it, trying to turn it over. Says he had to kick out the back window, run back to the house. He yells for Harry to lock the door, wants to know if he’s got any guns.
“And the baby? Well the hand just pulls itself back inside of her, like it’s seen too much, like it’s given up on being born. Maria, she starts turning blue, coughing, sputtering. Her eyes start rolling around inside her head. José’s no help. He’s crying, weeping. He starts pushing Ben, yelling at him in Spanish. And then—”
She stops, pulls out her handkerchief, coughs into it again. This time you’re certain. Blood. She’s coughing up blood. Soon, the fit is over, she tucks the handkerchief back into her pocket. Red stains her teeth.
“Then it happens. Maria convulses. Shudders. Her eyes roll back into her head. Blood trails from her nose, her mouth, her… It’s terrible. The husband gets louder, I’m sure he’s shouting something like ‘you’ve killed her’ at Ben. He takes a swing, catches Ben in the eye. Harry and Donald move in, hold José’s arms, try to hold him back. Harry’s got the shotgun, he presses it into my hands before grabbing him. José just keeps raving. I don’t know much Spanish, but I know he said something about Ben’s mother. I can only guess what.
“And then she moves. Maria. For half a second I think she’s okay, but then she’s up in Ben’s face, her fingers wrapped around his face, tearing at his throat with her teeth. José’s screaming. Donald shouts ‘get her off, get her off.’ Blood is spraying from Ben’s neck, spraying everywhere. Donald lets go of José, tries to pull her off of Ben, tries to do something.
“Harry tries to keep hold of José, but can’t. He pulls away, tries to get to his wife, but slips in the gore on the floor. Down he goes, his head striking the corner of the table as he falls. Donald pulls Maria off of Ben, but as Ben crumples to the floor, she sinks her teeth into Donald, digging into his cheek, tearing flesh away.
“Harry tries to get across the room, but José grabs his leg, clawing and biting him. He’s changed, he’s turned too. ‘Infected,’ as we say today.
“‘The gun,’ yells Harry. ‘Use the gun.’ I look down at the gun in my hands. I’ve never fired one before, never had reason to. I knew Harry had it, but it was always an abstract, a relic, a throwback to another time, a mythic hunter-gatherer past. But I did it. I pressed the barrels against the back of José’s head and pulled the trigger. Bang.”
She raises a hand to her face, wiping tears from beneath her eyes, then clears her throat. Her voice has grown hoarse with the story, and is practically a rough whisper as she resumes speaking.
“I shot her, too. There wasn’t anything that could be done for Ben and Donald. Harry lasted a day before he turned and I had to do him, too. Some Christmas present that was. By that time those things had the house surrounded. Guess they could smell me or something. Took me three days to work up the courage to make a run for it in the Land Rover. Glad Harry always kept the gas tank full. Few more days, I found my way here.
“So now we wait. Counting down the minutes until they finally overwhelm us. Think about it. We’ve got, what, thirty, thirty-five of us in here? And how many of them out there? Six billion minus thirty-five? We ain’t got that many bullets. We ain’t got that much food. And, Christmas carols or no, we damn sure ain’t got that much hope.”
She stops, and you follow the line of her eyes out towards the perimeter. One of them is standing there, a half-rotted corpse in an ill-fitting Santa suit. It holds a severed arm in one hand. Your hands tremble as you start to line up your rifle, get ready to take the shot, but she’s quicker than you. Her rifle cracks and Santa falls down, the top of his head blown clean off.
You look up at her. “Merry Christmas, kid,” she says. “Thanks for listening.”