Here’s the thing about the Zombie Apocalypse: It ain’t that bad. I guess I can see why it would ruin your day if you woke up one morning and found a herd of rotting zombies moving over your lawn, eating your Labradoodle or Shih Tzu or whatever, but that’s just not how it went down. Not in my neighborhood.
It started in the summer, or we think it did, but who knows how long those things were roaming around, freezing under overpasses and being mistaken for homeless people. We were sitting on the stoop—Tiana, Marcus, and me—when we heard yelling at the end of the street. Normally, a little argument on a hot summer day isn’t enough to get anyone’s attention, but this was happening right in front of Marcus’s house. Tiana lived on the third floor of the same triple-decker I lived in, and we spent most of the summer either sunbathing on her porch or sitting on the steps of mine, gossiping about the kids in our school.
“Back up! Back up!” someone said. People crowding around the gate in front of Marcus’s house, but one man was inside the fence, brandishing a baseball bat. Marcus’s mother, Miss Pauline, was on the front porch waving a broom and screaming.
We froze for a moment, confused more than scared. No one messes with Miss Pauline. No one. She’s the unofficial mayor of our neighborhood. She makes a regular habit of dragging smart-mouthed kids, and disrespectful teenagers home by their arms—and their parents don’t dare complain about it. We all have a Miss Pauline story. When I was 13 she caught me kissing Joey Henry in the alley behind her house, and she dragged me home to tell my mom what I’d been up to.
“Amber, that boy is too damn old for you. He’s fast. You know what that means?” She didn’t expect an answer as she hauled me up the front stairs to my house, where the porch light was off even though it was dark out.
“Yes, Miss Pauline,” I said. Joey was already old enough to drive—had an old Honda Accord with tinted windows—and whenever he came or went everyone knew it because he played his stereo so loud, plus he had one of those ridiculous mufflers that makes your car sound like a bumblebee on speed.
“You want to end up like that Norton girl?” Miss Pauline asked. Tina Norton lived a block from my house, and she was just a couple years older than me, though you might have guessed she was closer to 30. The year I was 12, Tina Norton got pregnant—and not just a little pregnant. Like, waddling down the street in sweatpants and a t-shirt that’s three sizes too small with her belly hanging out eating a chipwich from the ice cream truck-pregnant. This didn’t surprise anyone since this had been the fate of most of Tina’s sisters—and she had a lot of sisters—but all you had to do was see her in those sweatpants to know you didn’t want to end up like her. So I told Miss Pauline so.
“Well, then, you need to stay away from Joey Henry and all the boys like him.”
“All the boys like him?”
Miss Pauline knocked on my door. “Yeah, all the boys who want to get you alone in a dark alley. Stay away from them, little girl.”
The door opened and a man stood shirtless behind the screen door.
“Who are you?” Miss Pauline’s voice belied her surprise.
“Who the hell are you?”
I looked up at Miss Pauline’s face, her dark eyes sparkled with anger and the few lines that creased her cocoa-colored forehead grew deeper, the way they always did when she was yelling at Marcus to clean his room.
“Sir,” she said with mock-respect, “I am Miss Pauline Hicks, and I’m looking for this girl’s mother.”
He looked at me for a few seconds before finally recognizing me, probably from the pictures in the house.
“She’s sleeping,” the guy, who I later came to know as Ron, told Miss Pauline. I don’t think he realized he was doing it, but he stood up a little straighter and puffed out his bare chest before bringing a bottle to his lips to take a swig.
Miss Pauline considered him for a moment. When she finally looked at me I looked her in the eye and hoped she understood what I was trying to tell her—which was that I had never met this man before in my life and didn’t want to spend another night in my room with the door locked.
“Well, I was just coming to tell her that Amber is going to be spending the night at my house. I don’t suppose that will be problem, will it?”
I breathed for the first time in what felt like forever.
Ron began to answer but Miss Pauline didn’t wait. Instead she turned around, headed down the steps, and took me with her. We walked past the first few houses in silence, but Miss Pauline had taken her hand off my arm and put it around my shoulders. Just before we stopped at the gate to her chain-link fence, Miss Pauline said, “Guys like that, Amber, guys who want to get you alone in a dark alley… don’t lead to anything good. You find a boy who wants to hold your hand while you walk down the street in broad daylight, OK?”
I nodded. She took me inside and made me a bowl of macaroni and cheese because I was starving, and she let Marcus eat some too, just to get him to stop asking me questions about what I was doing there.
Like I said, everyone has a story like this about Miss Pauline, so even if an outsider was dumb enough to mess with her, there would be a dozen guys in the neighborhood ready to stop him.
Tiana, Marcus, and I ran down the road and pushed our way through the growing crowd. The guy with the bat—which turned out to be Malik Wallace, who drove a bus and lived next door to Marcus and his mom—was standing over a crackhead he’d just kneecapped with a baseball bat. One of the guys standing behind me said, “That ain’t no regular crackhead. He must be dusted, or something.”
He was right. We had no shortage of addicts in our neighborhood, and I’d never seen one on crack who was so focused that, even with legs that now bent in all the wrong directions, he was still trying to claw his way to…well…someone. It didn’t seem to matter who. Anyone who got too close, or made too loud of a noise, seemed to be his target. A meth head I could see, but not a crackhead—though the gray skin looked about right.
We started to hear the sirens then, and a murmur went through the crowd. Everyone was getting their story straight. No one wanted to see Malik go to jail for helping Miss Pauline, who was yelling about how the addict whose legs were bent at unnatural angles had tried to break into her house, but was so out of his mind on drugs he couldn’t even open her screen door. Instead, he’d just punched his way through the screen and tried to crawl into the house. She’d beaten him back with the broom, but Malik was just getting home from a shift when he saw all the commotion. He’d grabbed the baseball bat he kept in his car and given the guy a couple good whacks to the abdomen, but this nutjob was so out of control it wasn’t until Malik had completely obliterated his legs that he no longer posed a threat.
“I must of broke every rib in the guy’s body and he just kept coming at us,” Malik said.
“It’s alright Mister Wallace,” Miss Pauline said. “If it weren’t for you, Lord knows where I’d be.” All the while the crackhead kept trying to drag himself around the yard—eventually getting close enough to someone to warrant a kick in the teeth (which didn’t seem to bother him at all). Eventually, we just locked the gate and waited for the police to arrive, watching the man like a deranged zoo animal safely behind its enclosure fence.
It reminded me of the time there was a rabid raccoon in our yard and Tiana and I sat on the back porch of her apartment and watched the guy from animal control shoot it.
The police screeched to a halt at the corner. The crowd had thinned by then. Half the neighborhood had outstanding warrants, and many of them had gone home as soon as they heard the sirens.
“Alright folks, move back, move back,” the police told us all as they approached Miss Pauline’s gate. They were familiar faces around our neighborhood. Officer Helmann, who had been policing our streets long enough to know Miss Pauline by name, stopped to talk to Malik about what happened, while his much younger partner tried to push back the crowd. No one liked the partner, Officer Gregory. He was silent most of the time and yelling when he wasn’t. Even Officer Helmann seemed frustrated with his partner—often shaking his head at the younger policeman like you might at a particularly dumb dog that was just never going to learn how to stop jumping on visitors.
“Why aren’t they doing anything to help that guy?” I asked. Marcus and Tiana looked at me like I had two heads, but I was right, it was strange that no one seemed to care about the injured man who was, seemingly, so high on drugs that he still didn’t realize his legs were busted.
Officer Helmann pulled his partner aside.
“Looks like we got another one,” he said.
“Second one this month.”
Both officers continued to take statements from the people still milling around, but no one ever tried to talk to the victim—who only seemed capable of making raspy gurgling sounds. Eventually, an ambulance arrived, but it didn’t have its lights on, and there was no siren. The people who got out of it looked less like EMTs, and more like something out of a science fiction movie. They were dressed in Hazmat suits and used what looked like oversized salad tongs to cram the still moving man into something that resembled a body bag, though he clearly wasn’t dead.
By then there was only a handful of us left: Miss Pauline, Malik, my friends and I, and Jackie and Christie—grown sisters who shared a duplex and essentially functioned as the neighborhood’s version of a gossip magazine. They knew everything and told everyone.
“Something ain’t right,” Malik said.
“Told you!” I jabbed Tiana in the ribs. Marcus had moved on to comfort his mother who was more upset by what these strange EMTs were doing to the injured man on her lawn than she had been by all of what transpired earlier in the day.
“What are they doing?” She cried out as the police put on long, black rubber gloves and helped the EMTs stuff the attacker into the bag and hoist it onto a stretcher. Even inside the thick black bag the guy continued to fight, making horrible sounds and clawing at it from the inside. Eventually they just tossed the whole bag into the back of the ambulance, closed the doors, and all got into their vehicles and left—leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’d just seen.
Everyone had a theory. Some people just thought it was more police brutality. Some thought we were seeing the start of some new drug epidemic, and that our intruder had been on the same drugs as the guy in Florida who ate another guy’s face. Still others, remembering the raccoon from my backyard, wondered if the guy was rabid. And then there was Mulder, the guy who lived across the street from Marcus and Miss Pauline, and had earned his nickname by being the resident conspiracy theorist. One week he was going on about government satellites. The next he was obsessed with 9/11. Lately, he’d been watching Doomsday Preppers on TV and lecturing us all on the need to prepare for Armageddon.
That winter Mulder had begun a stockpile in the basement of his tiny one bedroom house. From what most of us could tell, it was mostly food and water, though some thought he might be hiding more dangerous supplies in his basement. No one minded much, because, despite Mulder’s determination to always assume the worst was coming, he was a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. It didn’t matter if he had a box full of grenades or a rack full of rifles, because he was always so nice. It was the punks on the street, with guns tucked into their waistbands that we worried about.
But it was Mulder who first suggested the Zombie Apocalypse was upon us. Of course, no one believed him in the beginning.
By day, Theresa is the editor of two magazines. By night she is a reader and writer of books, NPR addict, and avid gardener. This story is the first chapter of an unfinished book. You can find her at Writer.Editor.Storyteller.