This story appeared in Unquiet Earth anthology by Static Movement in 2010, and again in Death Zone and Other Stories, by Pantoum Press in 2011. It is the seed for The Risen series -the first being, Undertaking Hartford. If you like it, please share.
by Mitch Lavender
I never knew my mother. My biological mother, I mean. I don’t even know much about her, but I’ve been told she was pretty and she died giving birth to me.
They told me she wandered into Hartford, an outsider, lost. She was very sick and very pregnant. Douglas knew she was infected, but she was also in labor. They didn’t kill her because they thought they could save the baby. The story goes that she died just as I took my first lungful of air. Just as I began breathing, she stopped. When I ask if they shot her in the head, the answer is always that they made sure she stayed dead. But I know they did. What else could they do?
Douglas and Emily took care of me and raised me. Having just lost a daughter, I guess I was their surrogate child. I would see the sadness in Emily’s eyes sometimes. There is a certain look she got and I knew she is thinking of her daughter. I don’t know how the girl died, but it was just before I was born. Still in mourning, they took me as their own.
Back then, no one knew what a child born from an infected womb would be like. Would the child also be infected? I didn’t become a zombie but still, I was different, and I knew it. I never fit in with the other children in Hartford.
That’s how it goes. Life is a game of poker. Douglas said it is a game of chess, but I like poker. You get a good hand or you get crap. Whatever you get, you play the hand you are dealt or you fold. It’s not dependent on strategizing. It just happens, and you make the best of the cards you are dealt. Just like life, it’s random.
Fighting is like chess, though, and the zombies are pawns, advancing slowly and methodically. The strength was in their numbers. Their strategy was simple and effective: overwhelm the living with their sheer numbers. In a battle, men can be routed. They can be scared by a few well-placed grenades in their ranks, injuring, killing, or sending them fleeing, disoriented. Not The Infected, they will march on. And unlike men, when Infected get injured, they keep fighting. Only damaging the brain will stop them.
I was fourteen when Douglas took a stray bullet in the leg and was wounded so badly, it had to be amputated. He became a burden on the town and was consumed. As was The Law, anyone who could not provide was to be eaten, and in this way, they lived on by providing nourishment for the strong. I didn’t question it, but I observed. My father was killed, skinned and cooked.
This has always been the way of things in Hartford. My father and mother never ate any of Gracious Stew, lumpy with human flesh, and neither did I. Instead, we would hunt. Deer, rabbit and wild boar were all common and there for the taking. Most of it went to The Hartford Council, but we were allowed to keep enough for ourselves.
Cannibals. The first time I had heard the word was when my adopted mother, Emily used it. That’s what she called them. I assumed it meant ‘heartless bastards’ or something similar. And, as was The Law, she was also beheaded and eaten. You do not blaspheme The Council. I watched, and when I allowed myself to cry, I made sure that it was away from the others and I was alone.
Two moons after this, I realized I could walk among The Infected and not be attacked. I was hunting and came across a group of them. They didn’t attack me. I even felt some kinship with the undead. Perhaps this was a parting gift of my doomed, biological mother. The Infected weren’t malicious and cruel; they simply did what they did, like any feral animal. I had seen true evil, and this wasn’t it. They weren’t like the cannibals in town.
As I looked down on the gates to Hartford, The Infected shifted restlessly behind me. The stench of decay and rot is overpowering but invigorating. I raised the megaphone and shouted, “At nightfall, we charge. My army is over five-thousand in number and they obey only me. Hartford will fall. You will die, and true to your own law, you will be eaten.”
I lowered the megaphone and added, “Remember Douglas an Emily.”