M. Rose Flores © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Those are not people. The way they move, the fact that when we wave, they don’t wave back, and the way they are all shambling toward us down the paths to either side. It all collectively spells zombie.
“Hello,” calls Calvin.
No answer. Damn it.
None of us has the energy to fight any more. We spent the whole night fighting to get to the island. We watched our people get maimed and die; Calvin’s Nana Mae sacrificed herself to save him, my sister Mel, and their new babies. Five other people died too, though I didn’t know any of them well. They were all Marco’s people. Now we’re all one another’s people. What a way to make a family.
Toby is looking pale. His younger brother Jax, though much smaller than Toby, is doing his best to keep him upright. The place where Toby’s hand used to be, before it was clawed by an Abnormal zombie and then cut off by me to prevent infection, is wrapped in a bandage from what I’m guessing is a very limited supply. I think everything is probably limited. There wasn’t much time to pack or prepare after Mel’s labor screams drew in the horde last night. It’s not her fault. Birthing twins with nothing stronger than ibuprofen must be agony. But we had to leave in a hurry. We made it all the way to Alcatraz, barely. And now, apparently, we have to fight again.
I’m too exhausted to cry. We are broken, for the second time since this all started. It’s cold and drizzling. There’s a thick fog rolling in. At least it isn’t dark anymore.
“What do we do?” asks Sylvia, holding her kids close to her body.
“Same thing we’ve been doing,” answers Marco.
When he doesn’t offer anything else, Calvin steps in. “We should get the injured and the kids somewhere safe, right?”
“They’re still far enough we can probably slip by them on that road—” Calvin points to the right. “—and come back out once you’re all safe inside. Shouldn’t take long to clear the island; there don’t seem to be many here.”
“It’s a big island,” says Marco. “There will be a lot more up there than you think.”
“Can’t say I’ll be much use,” says Captain Jacob, stepping forward through the group. He’s cradling his arm. I can guess what comes next: He edges his sleeve up, wincing, to reveal a definite bite near his elbow. The veins around it are black, all the way up and down his arm, peeking over the collar of his shirt.
“Captain,” breathes Amy, our doctor, “why didn’t you say something?”
“Call me Jacob; I told you. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Happened so fast. Had to get us here either way.”
Amy examines the wound, touches his arm where the veins disappear under his sleeve. “There’s no way this hasn’t reached a main vessel by now,” she says, feeling his face for fever and shaking her head. “I’m so sorry, Jacob.”
“I appreciate it, Amy. But there’s no need. I’ll have to show someone how to drive the ferry. Murray?”
“Of course, Jacob.”
“It has been an honor to know all of you,” Jacob says. “Marco, you take care of these people. You got us this far. Soon you’ll all be safe.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” says Marco, who looks on the verge of tears.
“Don’t be. I did my part. I can live with the result. Or, I guess I can’t.” He chuckles at his own dark joke, but it turns into a coughing fit that makes his whole body tremble. “Come on, now, Murray. We haven’t got all day.”
Murray follows Jacob, catching him as he stumbles getting back on the boat. Jacob looks back and lifts a hand in goodbye to all of us. He doesn’t have long. Another family member lost, claimed by the infection.
“We should go,” says Ana, ever the stoic. “They’re getting closer.”
We move up the wider path as quickly as we can, although every one of us is exhausted and several of us are in some way incapacitated, so we’re not as fast as we need to be. The path switches back and forth as it ascends.
“Stay together,” Calvin whispers as the first few zombies notice us.
We do as we did last night, shuffling the less capable into the middle of our huddle as we move. However, now, so many more of us can’t fight than can. When the zombies get to us, we are less efficient than we have ever been. It takes me two hits to take down one zombie, even though I sharpened my axe the other day, and I have to put my boot on its head to get the axe back. I haven’t had to do that in ages. Calvin gets one on the first try, but it takes him a second to pull his knife free. Somehow, we escape. But just up the path, more swarm toward us. Not many, but there are always more.
“I think we should run for it,” says Ana.
“Marco, what do you think?” asks Calvin.
Marco deliberates for a beat before he answers. “Yeah.”
Calvin takes the lead, and we run to the top of the path, which opens into a sort of courtyard surrounded by buildings. Up here, with nothing to follow, they have congregated. Gaping mouths and grabbing claws close in as they lurch toward us.
“What do we do?!” cries Adrienne, the oldest little kid.
One of Mel’s newborns starts to wail in her arms.
“That way!” shouts Marco. “It leads to the cell house. Go!”
The path, which runs alongside a building marked Administration, is narrow enough that we have to go single file. Mercifully, it also means Calvin can easily fight off the two zombies in his way. One, Calvin throws over the railing. It doesn’t die, but it’s not right there anymore. The second, Calvin simply stabs.
Behind him, Marco is giving directions. “Turn here, this way!”
More zombies. Tons more. We run, faster, but not by much, and the fog is making it impossible to see more than five yards ahead. The dogs, running behind us, don’t seem to be in danger. The zombies don’t go for them when there are people around. I take out as many as I can, but it’s not near enough, and what little energy I had left is sucked away. My knees wobble, and I fall.
“Cate!” Mel’s voice sounds like she’s sobbing.
The group stops. In the middle of a bunch of zombies. Because I couldn’t keep my damn legs under me for a few hundred feet. Calvin rushes toward me as a zombie closes in. It’s leaning over me, claws and teeth tearing at my jacket, my hair, my skin. I shield my face with my arms because I don’t know what else to do. There is another one on me now, and I’m stuck. At least I won’t come back. At least I don’t have to put Mel through that.
I feel the weight of one zombie yanked off me, and as I peek through a crack between my arms, I see Calvin destroying it. But the one he didn’t get sinks its teeth into my wrist. I cry out. It’s an unreal kind of feeling, being bitten by something that intends to eat you. The terror and shock, the disbelief. But on top of everything, soaking through it, is the pain itself. The amount of pressure a human jaw can exert is unreal, and when it’s applied to all the little bones and nerves in your wrist, it is excruciating.
“Cate!” shouts Marco as Joaquin shoots the thing, effectively ending it. But the shot has drawn in more.
“Let’s go,” I say through gritted teeth, putting as much pressure on the wound as I can with my other hand.
“Up those stairs and through the door,” Marco says. “We’re almost safe.”
We’re losing momentum again, and both Toby and Mel are very pale. I’m sure I don’t look so hot either. My wrist is bleeding a lot. And I have no hand to fight with.
“There might be more in the cell house,” warns Marco.
“Figures,” says Ana.
“We can’t go in, then!” Mel protests.
“Can’t go back,” says Joaquin. “They’re building up out here. We have to go in!”
We file in as Calvin, Joaquin, and Ana try to keep them back. But before they can shut the door, the horde busts in.
“Run!” shouts Calvin.
“Run to the end, find a cell, everyone!” calls Marco. “The cells don’t close on their own, somebody has to stay out here to close them. Hurry!”
He sprints to the very end of the long row of cells, up a staircase, and stops by a big white box on the wall.
“Marco, you’ll die!” I shout, as Amy’s wife, Tanya, ushers me down the row.
“He’s the only one who knows how to do this,” Tanya snaps, shoving me into a cell and stumbling in behind me.
The door slams shut. A million zombies claw through the bars at us, their trapped prey. Everyone is screaming. Both dogs are barking. All at once, the cell closes in on me. Four people and two big dogs seem like a lot more when the place they’re crammed into isn’t even five by ten. I want to escape, to breathe something other than putrid flesh and excrement and old sweat. The smells, the closeness of Tanya and Jax and Toby, it’s dizzying. I sit on the cement-filled toilet. Chaz cowers behind me, still barking. In front of us, hands reach in, gray faces chew and snarl. Milky-white eyes stare through us. I put my head in my hands.
“Is everyone okay? Tanya?” Amy calls for her wife.
We are all trapped.
“I’m here,” calls Tanya. “Cate’s with me. We’ve got Jax and Toby in here. Dogs too.”
At least the doors closed in time.
The doors! He closed them!
“Marco!” I scream.
“Cal?” Mel’s voice is choked and shaky. Her babies wail.
“I’m here!” Calvin shouts. “Amy, Joaquin, and Ana— We’re all safe. You okay? Babies? Kids?”
“I’m okay!” Mel says. “David, babies, and kids are here. Where’s Sylvia?”
There’s no answer. Only zombie groans and the sound of nails and teeth scraping the bars of the cell doors.
“Where the hell is she?” asks Tanya.
Chaz and Duchess bark and snarl at the intruders still scrambling to get to us.
“Marco!” I shout once more. This time, it’s my voice that shakes. My gut tells me he just sacrificed himself to save us. He would. I know that. But I can’t make myself believe he’s really gone. We just got here! He’s my only friend in the world, and I need him. I get up and walk as close to the bars as I can, to hear him better when he answers. “Marco?”
No reply. Come on. Say something.
A small fraction of the knot in my stomach unwinds. “Where are you?”
“Second level. I shut the stairwell door behind me.”
I want to tell him he’s a fool for doing what he did. But he saved us, and he’s all right. I accept the win in this avalanche of losses.
“Tanya,” calls Amy. “You’re with Cate?”
“You have to help her.”
Tanya whirls around. “Right. Cate, give me your axe. Roll up your sleeve; I have to see where the infection has spread to. Hurry up, or you’ll lose your whole arm.”
I lean back, out of her reach. “Tanya, it’s okay.”
“Damn it, Cate, we’ve lost enough today!” Tears fill her eyes. “I’ll have none of that martyr bullshit. Give me your axe.”
“No! It’s…” I glance at Toby. Shit. This wasn’t how I wanted anyone to find out. I’m not even sure I do want anyone to find out. But here we are, so I take a deep breath and say it. “I’m…immune.”
“You’re kidding,” says Jax. It’s barely audible over the din.
Toby watches me but doesn’t say anything. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking since I was the one who cut off his hand not even five hours ago.
“You’re immune?” Tanya repeats, narrowing her eyes. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been bitten before. Right after all of this started. And last week, before we left the apartments, an Abnormal scratched me.”
I roll up my sleeve to show them. The scabs have finally gone. The black veins all around the new pink scars are hard to miss though. Below the scratches, the new wound still bleeds.
“My God,” says Tanya. “Well, we have to stop the bleeding anyway.” She takes a handkerchief out of her pocket and wraps it around my wrist. The pressure feels good, but it pulses underneath. My own heart, pumping the ineffective virus through my body.
Without warning, Toby stands up and stabs three or four zombies as they press against the bars of our cell. They drop but are instantly replaced by more. He stabs a few more, grunting and yelling every time. After a second, he sits on the one cot that has no mattress and puts his head in his hand.
“Tanya?” calls Amy. “What’s happening in there?”
“We’re all okay,” Tanya says, still looking at me as though I’m not quite human. “Cate is fine. Apparently, she can’t be turned.”
“Can’t be what?” asks Ana.
“I can’t be turned. I’m immune to the infection.” I say it so quietly I’m not sure anyone hears me.
“Well, lucky her,” says Ana from the farthest cell.
I never intended to share this information with everybody, or anybody who didn’t already know. Especially since I wasn’t sure how I felt about it myself. I’m still not sure. When Marco compared it to a superpower before, I felt more optimistic about it. How could it be a bad thing, right? But now, when I’m staring Toby in the face, it feels unfair. How did we know he wasn’t immune? He could be. Any of us could be. But then again, who would want to wait around and find out?
“What do we do about the zombie situation?” asks Tanya after the silence drags on way too long.
“We’re stuck for now,” calls Calvin. “Does everyone at least have some water?”
“We do,” answers Jax.
“So do we,” says Mel.
There’s no answer from Marco.
“So, we wait it out,” says Calvin. “Hope they get distracted, or we just keep killing them as they get close enough. Eventually, there won’t be any more. Unless anyone else has a better idea?”
No one does.
There’s grunting and the sounds of bodies dropping as the others start taking down the zombies they can reach. I force myself up and start to do the same with my uninjured hand. Tanya joins me. Jax follows. Toby stays where he is.
The dogs keep barking. Two of the kids are crying and asking for their mother in Mel’s cell. Sylvia must be dead, but how do you tell two children who lost their father a few hours ago that their mother is probably gone too? And how did she get separated from the group? Mel tries to comfort them at first, but eventually, she deteriorates into sobs herself. She asks Calvin when it will be over, if it will be over, and between killing zombies, he says he hopes so, not to worry, and he loves her.
The fog had lifted for a while, allowing some blue sky to peek through the barred windows. But it comes back even thicker, and it starts to rain again. Big, noisy droplets this time. It’s loud enough to compete with the sounds of death and heartbreak inside the cell house.
When the zombies have been cleared out, Marco opens the cell doors and returns to the first level, and Calvin strides over and slams the door to the outside shut. I turn back to the carnage we inflicted, and my stomach roils. I don’t know if it’s the blood loss, the number of dead bodies piled up around us, or the smell. I guess it’s probably all of the above.
In the cell we just left, Jax and Toby sit with their heads together. Jax reaches out to touch Toby’s bandaged arm, but Toby pulls away. When I see the expression on his face, the guilt makes my insides twist.
“Hey, guys,” says Joaquin, walking into the cell. “Toby, can I pray for you?”
Toby nods, so Joaquin kneels, puts a hand on Toby and the other on Jax, and starts to recite a prayer.
In the next cell, Mel feeds one of her babies on the cot while Marco wipes the dirt and gore off Francis’s little face. Ever since Marco found him in the dumpster, it seems Francis trusts no one but him. No one can blame him. Being five years old and orphaned would make anyone cynical.
“Here, let me help you,” says Ana, kneeling in front of Adrienne, who wraps her little arms around Ana’s neck and weeps. Sylvia is still nowhere to be found. Nick and Adrienne are likely orphans now too. The same as Francis. And Marco. And me.
David just sits there, staring at the wall. His face might appear blank at first glance, but there’s unimaginable pain there. His wife Eunice didn’t make it more than five feet onto the dock last night before the zombies got her. And David saw all of it. How does someone recover from losing their wife that way? If it’s anything like losing my mom was for me, he won’t recover. I don’t think any of us will.
“Hey, my love,” Calvin says to Mel. He picks up one of his babies and kisses the top of their head. He’s leaning all his weight on his left leg. The prosthetic attached to his knee must be killing him.
“Did you get them all?” Mel asks.
She takes off her glasses and bows her head. More tears slip down her face.
“So what now?” I ask.
Calvin waits, watches Marco for a second. Marco finishes cleaning Francis’s face and moves on to Nick’s. He says nothing.
“We’ll sleep in whatever part of the building smells the least like death,” Calvin suggests, “and take shifts through the night. Tomorrow, we can clear this block. Make it habitable. What do you think, Marco? Marco?”
Without looking up, Marco shrugs. “Sounds good.”
He must be exhausted. He’s not acting at all like himself.
“When you’re done here, we’ll suss it out, cool?”
“Don’t worry about it; you go ahead.”
Calvin regards Marco, narrowing his eyes. “All right. Cate? Shall we?”
“Why me?” I whine. I was this close to finding a place to lie down. Stink or no stink.
“Because the buddy system works.”
“But can’t Joaquin go?”
Calvin glances back at Joaquin, who is still on his knees next to Toby. “Joaquin is busy. So is Ana. That leaves you and me, kid. Let’s move out.”
I grumble into a standing position and trudge out of the cell. Calvin hands the baby he’s holding off to Tanya, who sits down next to Mel and starts to sing the baby a song.
We end up having to search for no more than a few minutes. There’s a library off to one end of the building, and it is totally corpse-free. It’s also book-free. The smell isn’t as bad, but there’s nothing but a few wooden benches and some shelves.
“It will not be a comfortable night,” I say as we walk back to tell the others.
“That’s okay,” says Calvin. “Probably safer to sleep light tonight.”
I utter a one-syllable reply. “Mmh.” At this point, I don’t care how or where I sleep, as long as I do.
“You doing okay, kid?” asks Calvin, turning away from the bare-bones library to face me. “Hell of a night we’ve had.”
“I’m…” I feel the familiar prickle around my eyes, the rush of heat to my face. I press my knuckles into the inner corners of my eyes, not gently. I don’t know why, but I’m angry with myself for this sudden onset of feelings.
“Hey.” Calvin steps toward me and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“This sucks,” I choke out. Tears falling freely. “So many people died last night. And all the time. All the fucking time, Cal!”
Calvin scoops me into a hug. It’s uncommon coming from him but welcome in my moment of utter, embarrassing weakness. “Hey, shh. I know it sucks. I know. But you want to know what?” He pulls back and smiles gently, inviting me to ask.
I wipe my eyes, more softly this time. “What?”
“We made it. Cate, we’re here. Hard part’s over.”
The last couple of tears find their way down my face, but I smile. Calvin is right.
“So,” he says, “go tell them what we found?”
Once everybody is cleaned up as much as they can be and wounds are tended, we all shuffle into the library and find a spot along the wall to lie down. Everyone except Jacob and Murray, who are still out on the boat. I’m glad Jacob isn’t alone in his final moments. I hope Murray is okay. In the morning, we will check on them and find a place to bury Jacob or maybe both of them. It’s still light outside; when I check my watch and it says 4:30, I wonder for a moment if the battery died. But of course it didn’t, I remind myself. The watch is kinetic. It moves with me and stores the energy. It can’t die.
Before I fall asleep, I think about the last day I saw my mom and stepdad alive, my seventeenth birthday, two years ago. The way my mom got all excited about giving me the watch even though we were experiencing the actual apocalypse. The way she told everyone to look for birthday candles when we went out searching for food. It’s getting easier to remember the good stuff. I can’t shut out the moment she died, but I can paper over it with random nice things most of the time. It’s a temporary fix. I know the worst memories will sneak up on me eventually, but it’s easier to fall asleep with a patchwork of happy thoughts than with the hole in my heart spewing the darkest stuff.
We spend the next day clearing out the cell block and the entirety of the next ten days making the island habitable. Sylvia isn’t anywhere, inside or out, alive or dead. Not even a body. It’s both a relief and not at the same time. At least no one had to find something horrible—a mostly-eaten Sylvia or worse, a mostly-eaten zombie. But the fact that we can’t find her points pretty directly to the conclusion that she is not coming back. On the third day, Nick and Adrienne stop asking about her.
After the initial clearing, the zombies don’t seem to be an issue at all. The ones we found on the island must have already been here when they died because we don’t see any more after they’re gone. They’re still floating, bloated and gray, in the San Francisco Bay, and if anyone gets too close or makes too much noise it riles them up. But they’re so immobile we don’t bother killing them unless they’re Abnormal zombies, and with their human eyes, those are easy to spot.
The seabirds that nest all over the island are an excellent source of food. I never thought I’d have scrambled eggs again, and the metal cups from the gift shop make excellent single-serving pots in which to cook the eggs. We do not eat the seagulls. No reason to risk it when nobody is quite sure of their role in the outbreak, and there are so many other kinds of birds to eat anyway. Mel says she is sure she can get some vegetables to grow, so we haul this creepy wax figure from one of the buildings out to the garden to use as a scarecrow.
We also find out from the informational plaques and brochures all over the island explaining that not only does the island run on solar power, but there is also a decent system in place for collecting rainwater in several giant cisterns outside the rec yard.
“And by simply boiling it,” David tells us, “we can make the water potable, useable for everything from drinking to washing up.”
Eventually, he warns us, when summer comes, or if it doesn’t rain enough, we will have to find another source of fresh water. But we have time.
I’d have thought Marco would be a wealth of information about Alcatraz, and maybe he is, but he spends a lot of his time exploring the island by himself and cleaning the interior of the cell house. To his credit, it’s spotless, and on one of his exploratory laps, he does find a small rowboat. It’s too small for more than two or three people, but still worth keeping. Murray insists we use the ferry for as long as it’s practical, and while it will be easier for heavy hauls when we go to the city for supplies, I suspect part of his reasoning is the ferry’s connection to Jacob. The big giant boat and its salty old captain were the reason we all got here safely. Most of us.
We set up a patrol similar to what we had in the apartments in San Francisco with at least one adult awake and alert at all times. We all partake, even Mel after a few weeks. But when Calvin and Ana start leading group training in the mornings, Marco doesn’t show up. After a few days, it seems as though he’s finding reasons not to. After a week, he stops coming up with excuses. More than once, I see him hanging out in the Warden’s House, this big overgrown structure that wasn’t kept up the way the others were. He’s usually drawing or sometimes just sitting, staring off into the distance. I want to join him, but it’s clear he would rather be alone.
The days, having fallen into a routine, start to blend together. The grass and weeds begin to grow over Jacob’s grave; the autumn weather gets colder and wetter. It doesn’t sink in that this is a permanent arrangement, that we have arrived at our destination, until little green sprouts start poking up from the dirt in the newly tilled garden—the vegetable seeds Calvin’s Nana Mae collected for this reason, and Mel somehow managed to keep after Mae died. Something about knowing we have our own food growing makes it feel real. We’ve made a home on this island. We’re here to stay.