My Friend, the Zombie

by Regina Glei
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I was desperate. I had always boasted it could never happen to me, but now it had. I was lost.

I didn’t have the slightest idea where I was or how to get back to civilization. I had wanted to get away from stress at work and I had wanted to find out whether I was really ready to pop the question to Nadine and to start a family with her. Now I was more alone than I liked and afraid I would panic and lose it completely if my guts realized the deepness of the mess I was in.

I checked my provisions, two half-liter bottles of water, a sesame bagel with cream cheese, a chocolate bar, a tiny box with 37 orange Tic Tacs, less than two calories per mint. Great. I was hungry and ate the bagel.

At least I had found this cave. It provided much needed shelter from the roaring thunderstorm that was happening outside.

I looked behind me into the cave; it was pitch black. I had no idea how deep it was.

“Jeez, I hope there’s no bear denning in this cave.” I whispered to myself, fearing that I had leapt out of the frying pan into the fire.

I stared back at the cave entrance. Sheets of water poured down the mountain. The thunder was deafening. I jerked at every lightning bolt, and there were many.

Shit, I was in trouble.

I whirled around at a strange sound behind me. Movement. I jumped to my feet, pressed my body against the wall. Oh my God, a bear?

It didn’t sound like a bear, it sounded like walking. Heavens! A human?

“Hello?” I shouted hopefully into the dark.

“Yes, who’s there?”

“Oh, thank God! I’m Darren Jamison, I’ve been hiking and got lost.”

The person came into view. He looked weird. He wore a torn, dirty and rumpled tuxedo. He came closer and goose bumps crawled up my arms and neck. The man had a deep festering gash across his entire and extremely pale, almost gray face. His blond hair was dirty and ashen. His blue eyes shone like beacons in the dark cave. They didn’t focus on me but on the cave entrance.

“What happened to your face? Are you alright?” I asked.

“Darn, I’d never thought I’d make it,” he said, ignoring my question.

“Make what?”

“Get to the surface. Awful weather though.”

“Where do you come from?” I asked, as he stepped towards the sheets of water coming down and stretched his hand out to wet it. The weirdest thought shot through my mind: the guy looked dead. I couldn’t call it anything but that.

“Down there,” he said, with a slight nod of his head towards the back of the cave. He wiped his face with the wet hand and sighed with relief.

“What’s your name?” I asked, wanting to establish that before getting into details of “down there”, looking dead, tuxedo and the wound across his face.

“Tristan Howard, nice to meet you,” he said, turning to me and smiling. His gash shimmered with the moisture on his face.

“Nice to meet you, too. How did you get into this cave in a tuxedo?”

“Oh, that’s a long story, Darren,” he said, as he stepped away from the wet cave entrance and sat down on a dry rock.

I decided to sit so that I was exactly opposite him. I wondered if he was real or if, in my panic and dehydration, I had gotten delusional.

“We have to wait out the storm before we can go anywhere, so let me hear it.”

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Um? Pardon me?”

“Which state?”

“Um, Colorado.”

“Rocky Mountains?” he asked and pointed with his thumb towards the cave entrance.

“Yes. Sure.”

“Aha,” Tristan said and patted dust from his tuxedo.

“Where did you think we were?” I asked, discarding the delusion theory. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with those questions even after smoking a joint.

“No idea,” he said and stretched his bones. The joints in his knees and arms audibly cracked.

Another lightning bolt flashed close by and I presume split a tree, since there was something like an explosion–it was damned loud. I jumped to my feet and stared through the sheets of water, while Tristan’s chuckle at my fright drowned in the immense rolling of thunder that followed almost instantly after the lightning bolt. The wretched thunderstorm was right above us.

I stared back at Tristan after the thunder ebbed away.

“Where do you come from? Why the tuxedo, and what’s that gash across your face?”

He touched it gently and let his finger run over it. As he did this, I noticed something else: stench. There was suddenly a foul, sweet-sour stench in the air. I swallowed hard at its implications.

“You wouldn’t believe me anyway,” he said and left his gash alone.

“Why? You’re a zombie or something?” I asked, trying to sound cool about it.

He looked at me through his steel-blue, very alive eyes. No, zombies’ eyes were duller, weren’t they? At least they were in the movies.

“Yeah, something like that,” he said.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me.”

We stared at each other. I was still standing, my muscles tensed and ready to jump and run.

“Why don’t you sit down? Don’t worry, I’m not a zombie in the Hollywood sense of the meaning. I won’t jump on you and bite you.”

Not in the slightest reassured, I slowly sat down again, not taking my eyes off of him. I wanted to hear his story, despite the danger that I was about to wet my pants.

“Down there…” He pointed into the impenetrable darkness of the cave. “This cave here leads straight down into hell. Well, not straight. It’s a long, windy road up to the heavens, my friend.”

I stared at him, the silence weighing heavily in the cave. He didn’t elaborate and suddenly looked a bit sad and tired.

“You are kidding me,” I said.

“Wish I was.”

He looked back at me. Well, that gash on his face was pretty convincing.

“What’s the date?” he asked.

“Um, 4th of August, 2009.”

“Oh,” he said and nodded.

“You’re not trying to tell me you’re actually dead, Tristan, are you?”

“I’m afraid so, yeah…”

I chuckled. It was a helpless, overwhelmed kind of chuckle. If I ever made it back home and told anyone about him, they’d put me into an asylum. Nadine’d think I had gone nuts.

“When did you die?” I asked and I’m afraid my voice had a mocking undertone.

“12th of October, 1990,” he said, without even a hint of mockery.

“Oh, really? How?”

“Got shot.” He pointed at his chest, his formerly white shirt was brown and dirty. Yes, it could have been dried blood.

“Then I fell into a shattered window and slit my face open. Took me a few hours to die; the body doesn’t let go easily.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, except for “Aha” and he nodded to confirm.

“And you spent the last nineteen years in hell?” I asked, trying hard to keep my composure.

“Yes, I did,” he answered, without the slightest hint of humor. In fact, his blue eyes burned into me so intensely that they started to erase doubt.

“What’s it like?” I whispered.

“Can’t recommend it.”

“Well, I bet not.”

Another lightning bolt flashed outside the cave. I jerked. He didn’t. The thunder rolled while he stared at me. This was crazy; I had thought my life was threatened by being lost in the wild, by nature–not by somone undead.

“Even though you got killed, you got into hell, not heaven?” I asked.

“Contrary to common belief, most bad guys kill other bad guys, not good guys.”

I swallowed hard. “You got a point there.”

He smiled. Hard to believe, but he had a nice smile.

“And now?” I asked. “What will you do now?”

“Take revenge. Haven’t seen the guy who killed me in hell yet, suppose he’s still alive.”

“And after that?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Guess I’ll hide among the living. Any place is better than hell, you know.”

I couldn’t help it, I had to chuckle. “This is crazy.”

“I suppose it is,” he said.

We both looked at the cave entrance. The rain got a bit lighter; there were a few seconds between the last lightning bolt and the thunder afterwards. The storm was moving on.

“Looks like the worst is over,” I said, to have something to say. My mind was racing. I wondered which was more dangerous, Tristan or the mountains?

Tristan didn’t care to comment.

“And down that cave is hell?” I asked.

“A part of it, yeah.”

“How long did it take you to get out?”

“A few years.”

He said that casually, as if it was nothing.

“Years?” I repeated incredulously.

“The better part of the nineteen I’ve been dead, yes. Think about it, if it was easy to get out of hell, the world would be swarming with zombies, right?”

“Sure,” I said and shuddered.

“Why were you so eager to get out?”

“As I told you, revenge.”

“Yeah, but I guess many people in hell would like revenge. You must have had some additional motivation.”

“Yes. The guy who killed me also killed my wife and my daughter.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Nadine’s lovely face flashed by my inner eye. Yes, I’d go to hell and back too, to avenge her death if someone killed her.

“Guess my daughter went to heaven, haven’t seen her down there. My wife and I set out together to get out of hell. But she gave up along the way,” he said, avoiding my eyes. There was bitterness in his voice, suppressed rage.

“So, in a way I lost her twice.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. My words felt feeble, even to me.

“You got a wife?” he asked.

“Not yet.”

“You got a girlfriend?”

“Well, yes.”

“Take good care of her.”

“I intend to.”

We stared out into the rain. Visibility was improving; I could see the mountain opposite again.

“What’s the name of they guy you want to kill?” I asked suddenly.

“Why do you want to know?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’d like to read in the papers one day that he was brought to justice.”

Tristan smiled again. “You believed every word I said so far?”

Ice-cold fear rushed through my veins. Could he be something worse than a zombie? Was there anything worse? A demon perhaps? The devil himself?

“Why should you lie to me?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Bad people are famous for lying.”

“How many bad and good guys did you kill?”

“Did you ever kill someone?”

“Of course not.”

“Then I won’t tell you.”

His logic surprised me. “What difference does it make? I suppose there are degrees for badness, but I don’t believe that someone who killed only one person is less bad than one who killed a thousand.”

He got up suddenly and I was on my feet faster than the speed of light. I stumbled backwards as I got up. My getting up and stumbling were not conscious. It was instinct, my body’s cry to protect itself.

Tristan chuckled at my behavior. “Let’s go, the rain has almost stopped.”

“Go where? I’m lost. I have no idea how to get out of the mountains.”

“Don’t worry, I can smell humans from miles away. I’ll find us a way down.”

“And then?”

“Then you’ll get on with the rest of your life and I go about my revenge.”

“Okay,” I said. “Go ahead, I’ll be right behind you.”

He grinned at that and stepped towards the cave entrance. If I stayed in this cave I’d die, I knew that. Maybe not by the hands of hordes of zombies coming out of its impenetrable depths, but by starvation for sure. I looked one last time into the unfathomable darkness behind us. In a perverted way, it was tempting to take a closer, deeper look into this cave. As fantastic as it seemed, I believed Tristan. The way he looked, the gash, the paleness, the tuxedo…but what was more convincing than all of that was the reeking smell: foul, rotten, decomposing. There was no lie in that smell. And if he was real and didn’t lie, that cave led into hell…an incredible thought. I had not much time to linger on it though, since Tristan had left the cave and I knew I’d better too.

The rain had almost stopped and had turned into a light drizzle. Tristan walked ahead, weaving between the trees. We passed the one that had been hit by lightning, it still smoldered but it hadn’t started a wildfire, the rain had been too heavy. The tree had been split in half. The two halves bent to either side. It looked grotesque.

The zombie in front of me walked calm and steady. I looked at his shoes, and realized for the first time that he had none. Torn cloth wrapped his feet–one of the wings of his tuxedo.

“What happened to your shoes?”

“They didn’t survive nineteen years of walking.”

“Oh.”

Ridiculous and yet plausible.

He had a brisk pace and I had to struggle to keep up with him. I was torn between hope and fear. It felt good to walk purposefully again, instead of staggering around without knowing where to go. But Jesus, I was following a presumed zombie!

“Hey, don’t you enjoy being out of hell? I mean, it must be hilarious for you to be back in the open, see the sky, see some trees.”

“What does it matter? I’m dead. Beauty only touches the living or angels.”

“If you say so…” I muttered.

We walked on. The fear in me was eating away at the hope.

“We should’ve stayed in the cave for the night. We’ll never make it back to civilization while the sun’s still up. Now we’ll have to spend the night in the open. I’m not sure I like that.”

“I don’t care if it’s night or day,” he said.

“Does that mean you can see in the dark?”

“I’m dead, there is no day or night for me.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s all the same colorless monotony.”

“Really…holy shit. But not for me, I won’t be able to see in the dark.”

“Then you’ll put your hand on my shoulder and I’ll lead you.”

“Okay. That’s it. Stop!” I said and stopped where I was. Tristan stopped as well and turned around to face me, between the trees.

“This is crazy. You’re telling me you’re a zombie escaped from hell who can see in the dark and I’m supposed to trust you and let you lead me through the woods during the night to my doom or what? No way!”

“Your choice, Darren. You trust me and let me lead you back to civilization and your girlfriend, or you get back to the cave and starve there, or you wander around the woods until you drop. What shall it be?”

“Why don’t you kill me right away?” I shouted.

“Why should I? Killing you won’t bring me back to life. By definition, I guess I’m a living dead, yeah, but this ain’t Hollywood and I get no benefit from killing or eating you.”

“But why should you help me?”

“Why not? Maybe I killed a few people when I was still alive, but I always had a reason. I didn’t kill at random or for the fun of it. And while I was not killing people, and that was most of the time, I loved my wife and daughter, I went to Disneyland with her and bought her ice cream and I helped old ladies across the street. Why shouldn’t I help a lost hiker if I have the chance?”

I stared, baffled, at him for a few seconds. He sounded so genuinely honest.

My prospects were limited. I had a slight chance of survival if I trusted him and, I was convinced, none if I stayed on my own. Some rescue team would probably try to find me, but they would be looking for a needle in a haystack.

I decided to take my chances with the zombie.

“Okay, no offense, let’s move on.”

“Good,” Tristan said and nodded.

And we moved on. I asked him to slow his pace and he did. Darkness fell and I put my hand onto his shoulder. His tuxedo was cold and clammy. I forced myself not to think about on whose shoulder my hand rested.

The night was horrible. Pitch black. I couldn’t see a thing. Above us was a slightly gray glow. Clouds obscured the view to the stars. I couldn’t see the moon shimmering through the clouds anywhere.

I tried not to think about my life being at the mercy of a zombie. I thought of Nadine–that helped. Yes, I’d propose to her, if I got out of this alive. We’d buy that house at the end of town that she fancied and get a dog and go about making babies, lots of them.

I was exhausted, thirsty, hungry, sore, but I didn’t ask Tristan to stop and rest, fearing to wake up dead if I fell asleep.

We didn’t talk much; I had no energy left for it, my thoughts wandered around rosy and living babies.

Finally, it became morning; the black world turned into gray and then light. The sun broke through the clouds; morning wind blew them away. At seven in the morning, the sky was steel blue, like Tristan’s eyes.

I stumbled behind him, hardly able to stay on my feet. I had drunk the last of my water some time during the night.

The sun beat down on me through the trees and I knew and felt that soon I would be at the end of my strength. There’d come a point when the thought of Nadine wouldn’t be powerful enough anymore to keep me on my feet, nor would the fear of becoming a wandering zombie like Tristan.

Tristan suddenly stopped, so abruptly that I bumped into him. At arm’s length, the stench had been present, always, but it had been bearable. Now, with body contact, the stench was overwhelming. I backed away from him, coughing and gasping.

“Sorry…I wonder how I can hide that smell among the living,” he mumbled.

“New clothes and lots of perfume,” I said. “Why did you stop?”

“Your salvation is near,” he said and pointed to the valley we had just reached.

I followed his outstretched arm and gasped again. There were houses down in the valley.

“Oh my God…” I whispered.

Tristan chuckled. “I don’t think God had much to do with your salvation.”

I stared bluntly at him.

“Come on,” he said, with a grin. The sun shone into his pale face, utterly pale, snow-white with a hint of gray, and the big brown gash stared at me. He turned away from me and resumed walking.

Dazed, I stumbled after him. After a few steps, I put my hand onto his shoulder again, otherwise I would have collapsed. He let it happen.

At the outskirts of the village, he stopped again and turned to face me.

“I guess this is where we part.”

“Yes…thank you. You saved my life,” I muttered.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Yeah, I guess I’d better not. Nobody’d believe me anyway.”

He laughed out loud. It was the first time I’d heard him laugh. He had a nice laugh, too.

“Good luck with your quest,” I said.

“It’s not a quest, just revenge.”

“I hope you can rest in peace after that.”

“I don’t think so, but thanks anyway.”

“No. Thank you.”

“Have a nice life, Darren.”

“I’ll try.”

He nodded, turned around and set out on a path that would take him around the village. I stared after him until I couldn’t see him anymore. I shook my head, wondering whether he had been real; wondering, if he was, then how many of his kind were walking among us.

I tried to swallow, but I had no saliva left in my mouth. Time to get help; time to go home to Nadine. I turned around and staggered into the village like a zombie.

One Response to “My Friend, the Zombie”

  1. mfowler says:

    Favorite line: “Ridiculous and yet plausible.” A fun read!

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