So one day, some nameless and now long-forgotten man dies. He is buried in a shallow grave by his friends, as is now their custom. But along comes a dog, or a wolf, which smells under the loose soil the irresistible scent of slightly putrid meat. The dog digs and finds a hand. It pulls it up from the soil with its jaws, but then becomes distracted in its task and runs away. Along come the deceased man’s friends once more, and what do they find? A pale, dead hand, pushing up through the soil, as if clawing for the sky. Their friend, though still clearly dead, attempts to escape from his grave and walk! And thus the undead enter our cultural memory once and for all. That image, of the pale, decaying hand emerging from the grave, can still be found on endless movie posters and horror novels. From that primal fear would develop the mythology of the zombie and the vampire and countless other incarnations across time and cultures.
But why does this haunt us so profoundly? After all, a shambling, decaying man should present less of a physical danger than a quick, strong, able-bodied man who wishes us the same harm. If anything, such a man would be easier to outrun, outwit, and eventually put down. Why would mankind spend a hundred centuries obsessing over such an easily vanquished opponent?
For the answer, we must look to the ant.
As I alluded to, even before civilization began to emerge, agriculture must have seemed to early humans an inconceivably brazen attempt at playing God. Why, to refuse the nuts, berries and game that were naturally placed before you by providence and to instead plant and grow your own? It would be the ancient equivalent of some mad scientist today promising to grow a child in a vat. This bitter divide among early man finds its way into our mythology with the story of Adam and Eve—the decision to abandon the self-sustaining garden in favor of food that only grows reluctantly from the ground by “the sweat of thy face.” But this kind of audacious assault on nature—an act not observed in any other of the world’s creatures—required man to accept (or believe, if you prefer) that he was unique. Blessed. Divine. The planet is there for the taking and he must believe that he is destined to subdue it. Thus mankind embraces his identity as an eternal creation, a being above and beyond the physical. A being capable of choice, where all of the other beasts and fishes function according only to the simple arithmetic of crude instinct. A bear’s actions can be boiled down to hunger, or fear. But a man is capable of decision, because he has this indefinable but all-powerful spark. This is what makes him man.
But then man observes the ant.
Clearly no individual ant possesses this same spark. No ant ever created a work of art, or felt love, or loyalty. No ant ever thought through a decision—ants mindlessly follow pheromone trails, to the point that if the leader forms a circle, the colony will follow it around and around, endlessly, until all have died from exhaustion.
Yet, they create vast colonies, with separate chambers for the hatching of eggs and waste and storage. They grow and harvest fungi for food. The tunnels are designed with ventilation to the surface to carefully regulate temperature and air quality. A human would need years of formal study to learn all of the various principles and skills required to build a structure as complex as those created by the “mindless” ants.
So what, then, makes humans so special? Of what good is this explosive wonder we call imagination, or the internal monologue we call our “mind” or “personality”? Of what value is the divine “spark” that we believe grants us dominion over all, including those ants? All of our greatest achievements can apparently be duplicated without it.
That is why we fear the zombie. The zombie looks like a man, walks like a man, eats and otherwise functions fully, yet is devoid of the spark. It represents the nagging doubt that lays deep in the heart of even the most zealous believer: behind all of your pretty songs and stained glass, this is what you really are. Shambling meat. Our true fear of the zombie was never that its bite would turn us into one of them. Our fear is that we are already zombies.
8 Days, 12 Hours Until the Massacre at Ffirth Asylum
John noted that somebody could actually chart in miles per hour the speed at which the panic and bullshit rippled outward from Undisclosed.
They left the highway to get gas about an hour north of the town, and at that point everything still seemed just a couple of ticks off from normal. The convenience store was busy but not crazy. John bought cigarettes and two Red Bulls and even chatted with the girl at the counter about what was going on. She talked him into getting a couple of hot dogs that had been slowly rotating in their warmer for a week or so. Amy grabbed a huge bag of strawberry Twizzlers and the biggest Diet Mountain Dew they had. Amy paid and John promised to pay her back. Then he had a moment of panic when he wondered if the guy who wrote his paycheck every two weeks was even still alive. Or if the bank where he had his checking account was still standing. If not, then what? He had nothing. Just the clothes on his back.
Then, when he and Amy stopped at another convenience store just twenty-five miles up the road, both of them urgently having to use the bathroom for different reasons, the place was a madhouse. The lines to the gas pumps led all the way to the street, blocking traffic as people waited to turn in. All of the bottled water, milk and bread had been stripped from the shelves. An Indian guy behind the counter was arguing with someone about a per-customer limit he had just imposed on everything in the store at that moment. Everyone was on their phones, yelling about packing up, getting the kids from basketball practice, heading to Mom’s house. Yes, now, they’d say. A curfew was coming. Martial law was going to be declared for the whole tri-county area. Or the whole state. Or the whole country.
“Terrorist attack” was the key word in all the conversations. A biological weapon, released by a cop who went crazy and became a jihadist. The stuff made the skin rot off your bones, ate through your brain, made you kill your family. Highly contagious. Countless infected may have gotten out of the town before the government sealed it off. We could all be infected for all we knew. Some thought this was what the government wanted. Some thought the government itself released the pathogen.
John and Amy got out of there as fast as they could, not even stopping to buy a courtesy item which Amy said was her normal policy when using the bathroom at a business. John said that was the kind of rule that got suspended during the apocalypse.
John was trying to stay calm because Amy was getting worked up and panic has a way of multiplying when you have two people’s fear flowing back and forth, creating a feedback loop. She kept asking questions that he didn’t have answers to. Wouldn’t somebody from the government come looking for them for breaking quarantine? Wouldn’t they know to look for the Bronco? He didn’t know.
They were heading back to her dorm at the university because they had literally nowhere else to go. But Amy kept asking questions about that, too. Wouldn’t they come looking for them there? If the infected were dangerous, shouldn’t they get some guns or something? John thought all of those were great questions but he wasn’t entirely clear what he was supposed to do about any of them. Say they dumped the Bronco. Then what? Walk? Steal a car?
Yes, somebody would eventually come knocking at the dorm if they stayed there too long (though he thought the government had bigger fires to put out at the moment) but goddamnit, they needed to stop somewhere and sit down and reorganize. He had just slept for a couple of hours the night before, in a chair at the police station. He just needed to … reset himself. Get something to drink.
Yes, it would be nice to have the flamethrower plus a shotgun and ten or twenty boxes of shells. They didn’t. He also didn’t have the cash to buy a gun, but even if he did, he was pretty sure if they stopped at a Walmart they would find the line to sporting goods wrapped around the store. All of the guns would be gone, along with all of the ammo and cleaning kits and knives. Also gone would be the camping supplies, the water purification tablets, the tanks of propane, the batteries, the hand-cranked emergency radios and so on. This is a part of the country that created a nationwide ammunition shortage the day after they saw a non-white president won an election. They’ve been waiting for this shit.
Not that John could criticize, because he knew better than any of them what was coming—what was really coming—and here he was, driving in the night in Dave’s beat-up Bronco, without so much as a flashlight in the way of emergency supplies. Not that he would put it like that to Amy. Goddamn he needed a drink. Just to get things back on an even keel.
John cursed himself. Or rather, he cursed the past version of himself for so thoughtlessly screwing over the current version of himself. Everything that would come in useful right now was in the trunk of his Caddie. The Caddie that was parked outside of the burrito stand the last time he saw it, but that by now was either impounded by the government, or stolen, or on fire, or flipped over in a riot.
They were on the exit ramp headed to Amy’s campus when her phone chimed to announce a text message (by playing “One Night in Bangkok,” a private joke between her and Dave). Amy opened it, then scrunched up her face like she’d just watched a waiter at a restaurant slap a squealing live pig on the table in front of her.
John said, “What?”
“It’s … a text. From David.”
She said nothing else. John’s brain seized up.
She read it off her screen: “‘I want you to know that I am fine. They have asked us to stay here as a precaution. Ignore the rumors, everything is fine and they are treating me well.’”
John and Amy both were silent for several seconds. Finally, both burst out laughing.
Amy said, “If David wrote that, I will eat this phone.”
John said, “‘They’re treating me well’? I want you to seriously imagine those words coming out of Dave’s mouth. He wouldn’t say that even if they were treating him well.”
“They might as well have had him speaking Japanese.”
“I have his phone in my pocket, by the way.”
The laughter died as quickly as it had come and Amy said, “Why would they send me a fake text?”