Edition 26: Outbreak by Adam Kotlarczyk
Symbiosis can be a very intricate and subtle process. It can be a community of organisms living and working together for the betterment of them all. Adam Kotlarczyk takes this idea and works it in delightfully into this post-apocalyptic snapshot.
We’re all having dinner when my friend Kris collapses. Tony had just broken some bad news to us:
“Saw some Hendersons yesterday,” he says, working on an apple. “A whole mess of them.” Tony has these beautiful, sincere brown eyes, and he wields them like a superpower. We’re all about 90% sure he was a used car salesman before. He knows just how to use them to get an effect. Now the effect on the group is anxiety. All eyes turn to Phil.
“Hendersons?” says Phil, digging his fingers into his gray beard. “Why would they be all the way out here?”
“Water, I think,” says Tony, looking around the room. “Any rate, the pond is where I saw them.”
Fresh water is touchy. It’s trickier. We get it from the lagoon down by the engineering building, but we have to keep an eye on it. We keep a reserve, bottled up and left to sit in the basement of Eisenhower Hall, but it isn’t much.
“They didn’t do nothing to it,” says Tony quickly.
“You sure?” asks Cly. Her hand goes to the cartridge belt she wears. It’s a bit dramatic; except for hunting, none of us has had to fire a round in over a year. But she likes the look, I guess.
“I watched them the whole time,” he says.
“I wonder what they were doing?” asks Phil.
“Scouting,” says Cly.
“Maybe nothing,” I say. “Maybe just looking for some supplies.”
“Maybe,” says Phil, but he is clearly unsettled.
“The Hendersons shouldn’t have a beef with us,” says Tony.
“I’d still feel better if we increased the watch,” says Cly. Phil assents and orders it. No one can travel alone for a couple days, and one of you has to be armed. At least until we figure out what the Hendersons wanted. Phil is just telling us this when Kris collapses, drops her fork and falls out of her chair into a bent-up pile on the floor.
It’s my shift watching her in the infirmary when she comes to.
“Adi will be glad you’re not dead,” I say.
“Adi?” she says. “Why?”
“He thought it was something in the meat, thought maybe he prepared something wrong.”
“Hell,” says Kris, feeling her face for her glasses. I gesture to the table next to the bed and she picks them up and puts them on. The big lenses make her face look round and full. “If his cooking hasn’t killed us yet, I don’t think tonight was going to do it.”
“Last night,” I correct.
“Christ,” she says.
It’s good to hear her up and cussing again. We were worried. Bad enough we’ve got this stuff with Hendersons. Tensions are running high around the campus.
“Glad to see you’re up,” says Phil, walking into the room. He’s smiling but you can tell he’s concerned. He and Kris are about the same age, fifteen or twenty years older than me, and get on well. Even now they share a look and a certain affection is evident, though I’m not convinced it’s romantic. Adi has a theory that they knew each other before, but I’m not totally sure.
“Any idea what happened?” Phil asks her.
He asks her because there are no doctors now. At least none that I’ve ever met. And that means we are all doctors of a sort now. Real doctors, they were among the first to be killed. Then the whole infrastructure of medicine broke down. There was no one to teach it, no one to put their hands on your hands and tell you if you were doing it right.
There were books, at least for a while, before people burned them or stuffed their clothes with them as insulation to stay warm or used them as toilet paper. The one thing we had going for us, the thing that helped us learn quickest about medicine, was the cadavers. We had mountains of them back when it started.
But Kris has no idea what happened—no memory, hardly, of the incident at all. We all throw some ideas around.
Whatever it is, she’s going to be bedridden for the time being, so we’ll have to adjust. Stroke and seizure are two of the most likely candidates, we think. But even if we’re right, no one knows what to do about it. We can only hope it was a fluke, and that she gets better soon.
We have to hope that it wasn’t the first sign of something awful to come.
After a few days, Kris isn’t better. She looks gaunt, rings around the eyes. She acts like she doesn’t want me to visit, but I know better.
“How are you?” I say.
“Dying,” she says.
“That’s all of us,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, “but some of us are doing it more efficiently.”
A nice breeze blows through the open window, rattles the screen. It feels good to have air circulating in the room.
“What are you doing in here all the time?” asks Kris. “Don’t you have chores or something?”
“They can wait. I don’t mind sitting. Used to do it for my job. I was a professional sitter, you might say.”
“What did you do again?”
“Same as everyone else, twenty years ago. Sat in my cube and stared at a screen and clicked my mouse until my wrist got sore. Then I’d go out for a cigarette. Then I’d come back in and start all over. Did that for days, for weeks. Could have been years, if…”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “If.”
“At the time,” I say, “I thought it was a horrible, mundane ritual.”
“And now?” she asks.
“Now I don’t know what I miss more: the air-conditioning or the cigarettes.” That gets a snort from her.
“The Great Mystery of the Cigarettes,” she says.
No one knows what happened to cigarettes—they disappeared shortly after the governments dissolved. The prevailing theory at our camp and others is that all the cigarettes that could be found were hoarded up somewhere by some aspiring warlord, but that he met the fate that all warlords meet, and his stash of cigarettes sits waiting somewhere like El Dorado.
“Can’t picture you at a desk,” says Kris, still bemused.
“I know. I used to keep a photograph of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden next to my computer. To remind me, you know, that there was something more out there. I wanted that chance to be outside, to live free and connect with nature. It’s cliché to say it was a light at the end of the tunnel, but it at least offered me the suggestion that there was something meaningful out there, and I could get to it, eventually, if I put in my time for a few years or decades at a desk first.”
“Get enough nature now?” she asks.
“To hell with nature. Too cruel.”
She turns her head to the window.
“It’s not cruel, TJ,” she says. “It just doesn’t give a damn.”
Meals are more of a challenge with Kris still ailing. She was our fetcher of water, bad hips and all. It’s a simple task that lets her contribute, and you can’t underestimate a thing like that.
Meals are a pretty big deal. Food takes more work than it used to, so it really has to be a team effort. Tony gathers the fruit—we’ve got a decent apple orchard growing in the old Quad. He’s tall, was a power forward on his college basketball team many years ago, and has those long, lanky arms that reach deep into our storage bins or, if it’s those blessed two or three weeks of autumn, right off the trees themselves.
Adi gets the meat ready. He’s our utility man, does a little bit of everything. We think he used to be some kind of engineer. He butchers the meat, seasons it. If it’s something bigger, he salts and smokes what’s left and stores it in a cellar that he rat-proofed so that we can have it later.
But the water is trickier. We get it from the lagoon down by the engineering college, but we have to keep an eye on it. It’s a small lagoon, and if an animal were to die in there, we’d have problems. Or if some group like the Hendersons were to poison it to get to us.
During dinner, the Hendersons come up again. Seems they’ve been spotted near the lagoon, two or three of them who took off wildly when they spotted Cly keeping watch.
“What do you think they want?” asks Phil.
Cly doesn’t hesitate:
“They want our camp. We’ve got it pretty good—old college campus, roofs over our heads, green space and fresh water. Crops. They’re stuck in a shitty little town. Half the buildings probably already rotted apart. They want our homes.”
No one has a response to this. Not out loud, anyway. But I have a response, internally. Even as my epiphany is taking place I realize how it is an unnaturally calm, rational decision based on the evidence, a process of elimination. But then, maybe it’s just another one of those things that we’ve been conditioned to think of as being dramatic but isn’t. For me, it’s an evolution of thinking, a natural progression to an inevitable conclusion: I realize that I’m going to kill myself.
Suicide was definitely not original with me. Immediately after things started going bad, there was a rash of it among the millennial generation. If we’re being honest, they weren’t exactly in the best of spirits before, so no one was really surprised when they started to off themselves.
Give them credit: they were organized. Lots of groups and pacts in those days, and it wasn’t unusual to be scouting a town and come to a park where the corpses of hundreds of young people festered in a circle, all with gunshot wounds through the brain or heart. In some rare instances we saw, it was thousands.
“You again?” she says, one eye blinking open. “Don’t you have some chores?”
“Nope,” I smile as big as I’m able, to mask my concern.
“What about protecting the compound? From Hendersons?”
“Cly is taking care of all that.”
“Cly’s a paranoid psychopath who desperately needs to get laid.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
“Get out of here, dummy. You watching me die ain’t doing either of us any good.”
“Neither is you doing it alone,” I say, “If that’s what this is.”
“That’s what this is,” she says and rolls over to face the wall.
She fades in and out of sleep for a few minutes. During one of her waking moments, she grins.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” she says. “Surviving all that twenty years ago. And now this.”
“The Great Zombie Apocalypse,” I say. She starts to chuckle but it turns quickly into a weak cough.
“It was kind of a disappointment, wasn’t it?” she says.
“No global thermonuclear war,” I say. “No 400-foot tsunami.”
“No archers fighting for their communities,” she joins in.
“No giant asteroid crashing into the earth, no hunter-killer robots, no Australian motorcycle gangs, no artificial intelligence trying to take over,” I say, and by now we’re both laughing and coughing.
“No rapture,” she says, snapping her fingers in mock disappointment. “No great flood.”
“No alien ships blowing up landmarks.” I’m holding the side of her bed.
“No harvesting of humans to use as batteries, no alien machines hatching out of the ground, no time travel of any sort,” she spits out and we laugh again. It takes a minute for us to catch our breath. We wipe the tears from our eyes.
“Daily life just got harder,” she says.
“We never even got a Patient Zero,” I say.
“Remember when everyone thought it was a mutated form of Ebola? Thought illegal immigrants were bringing it in?” She chuckles.
“Right until that first walker appeared,” I say. “Why did all the movies make it so dramatic? I feel like we’ve been gypped.”
“There was a little drama,” she says, “At the beginning. Dodging the rape gangs and the vigilante groups. Lots of people living out the violent fantasies they’d been gleefully dreading for years.”
“They didn’t last though,” I say.
“It’s not a sustainable paradigm,” she says.
There’s a theory around camp that she was a professor here before. Sometimes she sounds like one. “The human organism was designed—if for no other reason—to sustain itself. To survive. So those groups dissolved.”
“The movies made it look like we’d be having a lot more fun.”
“The movies,” she repeats. “Maybe because it was a chance for people to hope for something different, no matter how horrible, to shuffle off the extraordinary mundanity of everyday life. Maybe it was a chance to teach—a giant morality play to show dramatic, didactic consequences for some of our practices: toxic waste makes giant mutant monsters, global warming floods the earth. You know. A warning, a corrective.”
“I think,” she says, ignoring me, “that deep down, our obsession with the end of the world was a hope—a desperate one—that we might find a purpose, a meaning, in the end of the world that we never could quite find any other way.”
“How did that work out for us?”
“Yeah, well,” she says. “Who knew the actual apocalypse would be just as banal as anything the pre-apocalypse ever produced?”
“You’re getting philosophical in your old age,” I say.
“I’ve always been philosophical,” she says. “Just wasn’t much use to me lately. Seems they shut down the philosophy factory about twenty years ago.”
I sit with her until she drifts back to sleep.
A few days later it’s Cly who finally brings up what most people have been thinking.
“Do you think she’s turning?” asks Cly.
“What?” said Phil, “You mean into…”
“I don’t think so,” says Adi firmly.
It’s a touchy subject. In the early days, no one was really sure how many were killed by the virus and how many were killed by people terrified of the virus. There are some theories that the number of actual zombies was quite small. In the Great Zombie Apocalypse, it was possible that very few had actually become zombies, and of these, it was impossible to discern who was truly walking dead from those who were driven by grief and helplessness to stuporous madness.
“TJ,” Phil says to me, “you’ve been spending a lot of time in that room. What do you think?”
“I don’t see it,” I say.
We’ve seen people turn and we’ve seen people just die, plenty both ways. There weren’t always specific symptoms. But nothing about her suggested to me that she was turning. Of course, there’s no way to be totally sure.
She had held us together in those early years. Nobody is saying anything about that now. We were scattered and scared, people who’d lost everything and didn’t have a place to go.
I was just a couple years out of college when it hit. I went to find my parents but they were gone. Work was canceled by then. What else was there?
So I came back to the college. I guess it was the only other safe place I’d known. I’d studied accounting here. Debits and credits. Tax laws. Vice President of the Young Republicans.
The campus was virtually empty. A real ghost town. Everyone who’d been here had gone home, tried to. I took up in a dorm room with a Wal-Mart cart full of canned foods and bottled water and waited.
“We haven’t even seen one in a season or two,” says Tony. “But…”
“Yeah,” says Phil. “We didn’t get here by not playing it safe.”
“No,” says Adi. “No, no, no.” He leaves.
Cly looks to Phil, her eyebrows raised. Phil looks away.
“Not yet,” he says.
“Not you again,” says Kris the next time I see her. She looks terrible. She hasn’t touched her food—hasn’t eaten for a couple of days, Adi says.
“Me again.” I smile.
“Christ almighty,” she says. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What am I doing?”
“Sticking around to see if—when I kick off, to see if I become one of those things.”
“I hope you do,” I say. “At least then you’d shut up.”
“Goddamn you,” she says.
“Yes,” I say, “He did.”
She rolls her eyes. We stay in the room like that until the shadows start to lengthen across the tile floor. For a while I think she’s sleeping.
“I know why you’re really here,” she says quietly, “Why you really come.”
“Hell,” I say, “I’m just hoping you’ll want some pity sex.”
She chuckles at that.
“I am,” I say. “So tell me why I’m really here.”
She shifts her weight on the bed, leans forward on one shaky arm.
“It’s not fair what happened,” she says.
“No, dummy. Not this whole goddamn mess. I mean, what happened to you.”
“How old were you when it hit? When I found you here in the dorms?”
“Twenty-two?” I say. “Twenty-three?”
“Christ, twenty-two. Twenty years ago. A whole life ahead of you. Career, love, family.”
“Lot of shit ahead of me, too,” I say. “Layoffs, heartbreak, dead pets. Dead parents.”
“You got that one anyway.”
“What can I say?” I say. “I got all the bad and none of the good stuff. Lot of people did. Apocalypses are funny that way.”
“No, dummy. You didn’t get all one and not the other. Your thinking isn’t right.”
“My thinking? I’m not…”
“What? Not the one dying? I wonder.” She looks out the window. “Maybe that’s why.”
“Illuminate me, then.”
“Your mistake isn’t thinking you got all one and not the other—that your life is all shit and none of the good stuff. Your mistake is thinking that they’re two separate things. They ain’t. They’re the same. You can’t get one and not the other. You just weren’t old enough yet when all this happened for you to realize it. You don’t know how to look for it.”
“Thanks, Nietzsche,” I say.
She rolls her eyes at me.
“As long as you’re going to sit there and watch, you might as well make yourself useful,” she says. “Go to the library and get me a book. Read to me.”
“What do you like?” I ask.
“Realism,” she says, “I need a break from all this shit.”
On the way to the library, I wonder how I’m going to do it. Cly would never lend me a gun; she’d figure out my intentions and wouldn’t let the compound lose a defender, not with Hendersons at the gates. But it would be easy enough to steal one.
Then it’s just a matter of choosing—my head or my heart? Worst case there’s a brief moment of realization before it’s all finally over. But that’s a hundred times better than ending up in a cook pot with Hendersons lighting the fire and dancing around you.
The air in the library is dry and cool, the smell of sunbaked bricks and paper. A shaft of sunlight catches a thousand particles—skin cells, probably, of people long passed—drifting upward, swirling, falling slowly back to the worn rug.
I went through a bad time when Kris first found me. It was funny—on my own, I was fine. But once she started finding us on the campus, bringing us together, mending our torn clothes, giving us chores and errands to help keep us alive, that’s when I went through my darkest hours.
There was a time where I couldn’t work. Physically I was fine. But I didn’t want to see any of them—Phil, Adi, Cly. I didn’t want to be part of the community. Every day she came to my room. She asked me to talk. I didn’t speak. So she started coming with books from the university library. She’d sit on the foot of the bed and read to me—sometimes classics, sometimes trash romance novels. History, philosophy, science, literature—it didn’t matter. What mattered was the voice, the narrative.
In all honesty, I think it was doing her as much good as me. Who knows what she left behind, who she lost. There was an edge to her sense of humor and energy and sarcasm that could only be filling the void for an acute loss. But it worked. Slowly, I came out of it.
I was reborn, though not in the religious way people used to mean. I came out and talked to people, first just her, then, slowly, to everyone. I knew that I could survive.
As I look through the shelves searching for books, I can picture her in here twenty years ago. She’d have been about my age. I can picture her roaming between the dark shelves, alone in the dusty silence.
On the way back to her room, I stop by the dorm. Adi tells me Cly is out watching the lagoon. I slip into her room and take one of the pistols, a police-issue .45 that she has scavenged about a dozen of. I hide it in my waistband under my shirt.
“Sometimes I pray for a ghost,” she says.
I put the book down. We’re a hundred pages in to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“You want to see a ghost?” I say.
“That’s right,” she says. “I’d like to see one. Maybe try to talk to it, ask it some questions.”
“Haven’t you seen enough undead things in the last few years?”
“You don’t understand,” she says. “I’m not afraid. I was never afraid of the walkers.”
“Bullshit,” I say.
“I’m serious. Zombies are boring. Like all scavengers. Who’s afraid of buzzards? Or crabs?
“They’re weak,” she says. “Most of them have broken bones, torn muscles—structural defects that a lust for human flesh just can’t overcome. Sure, every now and then you come across a fresh one, or at least you used to, right when it happened. But no fine motor skills, no fast twitch muscles. I never feared them so much as loathed them for showing what could happen, what the human form could become.
“Besides, they can’t talk. And I want to talk to a ghost. I have questions about what comes next.”
“Now I know you’re losing it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I know,” I say. “I bet you wish you were. I wish you were.”
There was wide agreement in the camp that losing one’s mind was the best way to go—to drift off into some blissful unawareness and maybe forget the bullshit of the last twenty years. What a blessing it would be not to remember. To have no idea how good things could have been, or once were. It would be better to have lived entirely in the immediacy of survival. I secretly hoped for Alzheimer’s, when the time came.
“I don’t wish it,” she says. “I hurt right now, but I don’t want to lose what I’ve got. These years, they aren’t what we thought they’d be, but they’re something.”
“Yeah,” I laugh, “They’re sure something, alright.”
“Oh Kris,” I say. “How can you be? Every day here is hell. We don’t know if we’ll have enough food to last a season. We could run out of water. We live a couple miles from a clan that wants to eat us. They’re going to be here in a couple days. And you want to remember this?”
“Hendersons? They’re not coming, not for us,” she says quietly. Before I can ask her why she’s so sure, she continues, “There were always dangers and shit, TJ. Always.”
She sighs and takes a deep breath. I can hear a faint rattle as she inhales. “We’re no different now than we were before. Than we ever were, really. Stumbling around trying to make sense of a stupid world. Some of us try to find meaning, some think they actually do find it. But most of us have given up on finding it and are trying like hell to make some. Even if you know you’ll never succeed, even if you fail every time, you still have to try.”
The next day she slipped into a fever. She didn’t know where she was, or when. She started calling out to invisible people, names we’d never heard before—memories or hallucinations, we weren’t sure. She didn’t recognize us anymore. We kept a 24-hour watch on her. Cly put a pistol in the bedside table, told us all where it was, in case she did turn.
The day after that Kris died. She didn’t turn. We buried her in the old football stadium with the rest. All those empty bleachers looked down on our little ceremony. Then we rolled the artificial turf back over the lumpy ground.
And two days after that, two Hendersons came into camp, in rags, arms raised, begging for water. Their own camp had dissolved, they said. Cly didn’t believe it but Phil took them in, kept them under watch.
A week later Adi finds me in front of the library. It is a sunny summer day, hot but not too humid. The corn in the quad is just tall enough that you can hear it shuffling when a good gust of wind comes along. Adi is carrying something.
“She liked you,” he says.
“She liked all of us,” I say.
“She did. The way she looked after us. A mother hen. A foul-mouthed mother hen. Cooking, cleaning, sewing our torn clothes.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Woman couldn’t sew worth a damn.”
“No,” he laughs, “She sure couldn’t.”
A bird is singing in a nearby elm tree. Adi looks in its direction, though I can’t be sure if he’s appreciating the song or thinking of a way to snare and cook the bird.
“We cleaned her room out,” he says. “She left things for us.”
“Gifts?” I say. He nods.
“Sort of. She knew.”
“Sounds like something she would do,” I say.
“This one had your name on it,” he says and holds it out to me. It’s a can of paint. There’s a brush duct taped to the side.
“The hell am I supposed to do with this?” I say.
“Paint, I guess,” says Adi, still holding it out.
I take it from him. It’s heavier than it looks; the handle digs into my fingers. The label is too faded to read and peels off the side in wide strips, revealing a smoothly polished silver can underneath.
“What color is it?” I ask, but Adi just shrugs.
I walk with the can and brush to the brick west wall of the library. With my knife, I pry open the can, half expecting the contents to have dried up years ago. The petroleum smell of the chemicals inside is overpowering; it makes me lightheaded and brings back a flash of memory.
I dip the brush in the paint, a small sea of cobalt blue, watch the liquid creep up around the edges of the bristles, slowly soak into them. I swirl the paint. Then I put the brush to the wall.
I paint. I paint the things I have seen. I have no training as a painter, don’t know anything about art. The marks I make are as foreign to me as they must look to Adi, crude petroglyphs squeezed white-knuckled from an unwilling brush. But then I start to move beyond it. I paint more, things I haven’t thought about for years, things I’ve never seen. Things I’ve never thought about, never let myself think about. The brush seems at times to guide itself. Adi is watching me, not saying a word, and I can feel the tears burning down my cheeks, but I don’t give a damn. I paint the sea and the sky in a world with no warlords. Sometimes my knuckles scrape the bricks and I bleed, red and cobalt blue, but I don’t stop. It’s a world that isn’t and that never could be, but I don’t step back and look. I just keep painting.
When I’m done I’ve used more than half the can and the west wall is a mural of harmoniously disconnected painted images. I smudge away what’s left of the tears, streaking my face a rich blue.
Then I reach behind my back under my shirt and get the pistol. I hand it to Adi. He doesn’t look surprised, doesn’t react. He takes it in his hand, checks that the chamber is empty, tucks it into his own waistband. He nods to me and turns to walk back across to the east side of campus; I watch until his form is absorbed in the lengthening shadows of the elms.
A writer and teacher living near Chicago, Adam Kotlarczyk’s fiction has been published in journals such as The Tishman Review, Yellow Chair Review, and The First Line, among others. His scholarship has appeared in publications like Notes on American Literature and The Illinois Association for Gifted Children Journal. He has a Ph.D. in American literature. In his spare time he is an avid golfer and enjoys traveling with his wife, Laura. You can also find him on Twitter as @TheKayCheck