I will always remember the rag man, not necessarily for the rags of clothes he wore, his thousand-yard stare, or his way of talking like he was the only one listening, but for the story he told me. You see, stories have become our method of introducing ourselves. The other questions we would normally ask have been rendered useless. There is little point in asking what your job is when you have no job. There is no point in asking what their favorite TV. show is when there is no longer any real functional electrical system. There is no point in asking about their family, you get the point.
I have no real method of telling time anymore, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would assume at least two years have passed since it all started. It feels longer than two years since those undead things came along and began to gnaw down on population to nothing but bones. When they came, the modern world was lost. Generators fell into disrepair and we were plunged back into what felt like colonial times. I was a huge fan of movies, which unfortunately were one of the many casualties of the undead. I have since picked up a new hobby. You could call me a collector of sorts; I gather stories.
I collect all sorts of stories, but the ones that intrigue me most are stories from the zombie apocalypse. Those stories are the most appealing to me because everyone has a story. They usually pertain to what they were doing the day of the initial outbreak. Some are sad, some are funny (Like this one about a girl who had decided to try DMT for the first time in her life and thought the zombies were a hallucination brought on by a bad drug trip for a week straight before realizing that that was way too long to be hallucinating.), but only one has really resonated with me these two years.
I met the rag man in a burnt-out building. I had been moving from place to place looking for somewhere to stay. The allure of the fire he had built was too great. I ventured into the deteriorating building ignoring my fear that I could be walking into an ambush. I just wanted a place to stay for the night where I wouldn’t drift off to sleep in fear that I would be woken up by one of those things gnawing on me.
I found the rag man crouched in front of the fire. He barely acknowledged my presence. Where most would draw their weapon and demand that I identify myself, he merely craned his head up to take a quick look at me before dropping it back down to the crackling fire. I took this as an invitation and sat down near the warmth. It had been the first time in weeks that I was able to warm up my body from the cold night’s air. The crackling and roaring fire brought back memories of spooky campfire tales and roasting smores.
I call him the rag man because he gave me no formal introduction. He was a haggard looking man in about his fifties. His beard looked like a razor hadn’t touched it since the undead started walking around. He was emaciated and in a world where everyone is practically a walking skeleton, saying he was gaunt is no understatement or literary flourish. His clothes had been reduced to rags by months of strenuous activity. It looked like he had bundled up with two or three layers of clothing, but all had been worn down to strips and rags. We regarded each other in silence for a few moments before he began talking without introduction or statement of intention.
He began, “The first few days of the outbreak, we took shelter in a building. It was in that office building where we eked out those first few days. We ate the food that we found in the break room. A lot of people talked about what was happening. The general consensus was that the military was on the way. They had to be, I mean this was America we are talking about. We expected the military resurgence to be quick and effective. We thought of this hellish plague as being something that would be solved in a matter of days.
“I had my first real encounter with an infected the night we first went into the office building. One of my group suggested we search the area to make sure we were truly safe in this barricaded building. Most of the employees had fled. It seemed like no one wanted to spend the apocalypse in their old place of work. There was no one except for one lone worker who had decided to go down with the ship. He was dressed in a white button up shirt that was stained red. Of course I was the one who found him and had to take care of him.
“He slowly turned towards me. His mouth was stained red and he had recently begun to rot. I grabbed the closest weapon I could find which was a red stapler. I stepped towards him and swung down with all my might. The first blow knocked him right on his ass. I thought I had killed him, but when he started getting up, I quickly realized how resilient these things were. I struck him again. And again.” At this point, the rag man became quite animated and pantomimed his vicious attack. As if lost in a trance, he re-enacted the attack and brought his right hand down on an invisible target.
The rag man continued as he emphasized his story with his actions, “I must have beat its head in with that red stapler twenty or thirty times before it finally stopped moving. I took one last look at that bloody, boney mess that was once its face before I threw up in a near-by trashcan. I then dragged the body over to a window and shoved it out. I didn’t watch it impact on the street below. I went back to the others and didn’t breathe a word about what I had done.
“I wasn’t sure why I never told them. I think in the end it was a few parts guilt and a few other parts not wanting to scare them. I had just killed what was once a man quite brutally. I had beat him to death with a stapler in my hand until his face split open and his brains started leaking out. The other part was fear. I didn’t want to scare them by letting them know that there were those things here in the building and they were practically impossible to kill. Looking back on it, I wish I had told them.
“We sat huddled in that building for days. I mentioned maybe leaving to find another place or scavenge for food, but my thoughts were quickly shot down. They were convinced that the army was coming to the rescue and they were only days away. They didn’t want to risk going out into this new and dangerous world. They just wanted to hunker down and wait.
“We woke up the next day to the sound of a helicopter flying overhead. It took me a few seconds to make the connections. The others knew the implications right away and they shot to their feet and began tearing away the make-shift barricade we had set to keep those flesh-eating fiends out. They flew out into the streets, waving their hands and trying to catch the helicopter’s attention. They made so much sound...
“They thought that the helicopter was the military coming in to save the day. I didn’t. I saw it as the last dying gasp of the entire system collapsing under the onslaught of the dead. That helicopter wasn’t here to begin the evacuation of civilians, if anything it was fleeing from the base as the undead creatures swarmed over it and gnawed everything to bones. I stood in the doorway and watched them shout and wave.
“It was in that moment that I realized the difference between me and them. It was hope and fear. They had hope and thought the military was about to come riding in on their white horses and save the day. I had fear. I had faced one of those undead things. I knew how resilient and practically impervious to damage they were. I knew that no one was coming to save us and the only option we had left was to save ourselves. It was my fear that saved me.
“They made so much noise.” The rag man paused like there was something he really wanted to say, but couldn’t find the words. His eyes were red and wet with tears. I wasn’t sure if it was the smoke or his memories that made them look that way. He continued, “The sounds drew so many of them. In the space of a few seconds it was too late and they were on them; scratching, biting, tearing away at their flesh. They tried to wade through the undead horde to get back into the building, but it was too late. I did the only thing I could.” His voice cracked and he took a few seconds before he was able to finish that thought. It came out sounding rhythmic like the tolling of a death knell, “I. Shut. The. Door.
“I knew that there was nothing more I could do. There were so many of those undead bastards and I was so terrified. If killing one of those things was so hard, how could I manage fifteen? The zombies were distracted now, but if I let them back in, it would be the death of us all. I started barricading the door. Some made it through the masses of undead flesh and started pounding on the door. I tried to shut my ears to their supplications and pleadings.
“I kept telling myself that it was too late for them. I told myself I could make it through all of this if I just shut up and ignored them. I could survive if I abandoned them. They realized what I was doing to them and their begging about being let in turned into curses. They- They called me the worst names imaginable.” His entire body sagged like he was a balloon that someone had stuck a pin in. He deflated and managed to squeeze the last words out, “They called me terrible names. They called me, ‘Friend,’ ‘Husband,’ ‘F-father.’ They- they-”
He completely sank into himself and dissolved into tears. He sobbed and wept incoherently. He said nothing for the rest of the night and I said nothing to him. There was nothing I could say to him, nothing I wanted to say to him. We both went to sleep on separate sides of the fire and despite the warmth, I felt a chill throughout my body. I’m not sure why the rag man told me that story, did he want someone to confess to? Did he want to be punished for abandoning his family?
I’ll never know the answer to that question because when I woke up the next morning, the haggard, ragged man was gone. Only the smoldering fire was left behind as proof that he had in fact existed. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure if he was even alive to begin with. I mean how could a man survive after something like that, after losing, no, abandoning his family? Was he just another victim of the zombies? Was he just another one of the walking dead?
Written by EmpyrealInvective