A man finally achieves status -- at a price. Featured in "Separate Worlds" (Feb. 2012).
Top of the World
Frank stood tall, stretched out his arms and let the cool breeze wash over him. It felt so wonderful against his skin. Even better was the sun’s rays as they warmed his face. He felt as if he had been born again.
He opened his eyes, gazed out over the horizon and smiled.
The sky was blue, interrupted every now and then by wispy white clouds. The sun shone brightly, the first time he had seen it in at least a month.
Somewhere a bird screeched. He turned his head and watched a red-tailed hawk soaring gracefully to the west. Wow, he thought. How long had it been since he’d seen a bird?
Then, his ears picked up the wailing again. His smile faded a bit and he stepped forward, leaned out and gazed down.
They were still there.
Ashen-faced, hollow-eyed, gaunt, stumbling.
Once they had been his neighbors, his friends, his co-workers. Now, they had become the living dead.
Frank didn’t know how it happened. Maybe something had come with the storm systems that had blackened the skies for the last month.
He really didn’t care. All he knew was that it had happened.
The wind gusted and swirled, and he knew he was done.
Despite the hopelessness, he glanced back over his shoulder, through the valley between the mountains and saw the helicopters circling around the main airport. They were dropping off the hundreds of people they had airlifted out of his town.
Frank knew it because he had been the decoy. Why he had volunteered, he couldn't really say. Maybe because he felt he hadn’t been carrying his weight lately. Not at the job. Not in his community. He was never going to get to the top, so why not?
He had driven the truck full of rotting meat slowly through the streets to attract the zombies, who rushed after him, reaching for his cargo like dope addicts.
Zombies, he mused. They certainly didn't look like the zombies of his favorite Universal movies or even the ones in George Romero's films. No, the zombies in those flicks were just people under tons of makeup. These zombies, the ones screaming for his flesh and blood, they wore no makeup. They were real and he recognized them far more easily than he recognized a Duane Jones or Mantan Moreland or any of those other actors from the silver screen.
There was Elise Bennett, his next-door neighbor for the last thirteen years. She'd lusted after his body for the longest time. Now, he grimaced, she really wanted his body.
He spotted Dwayne Cottell, who had once tried to sell him life insurance -- yeah, more like once a week. Dwayne in his bleached white dress shirt, his jet black suit and his awful tie that looked like Harvey Keitel might have worn it in Mean Streets. Had Dwayne been wearing that suit since this whole catastrophe happened? Frank couldn't imagine the town's top insurance salesman ever wearing any item of clothing longer than half a day.
Not too long ago, he'd seen Avery De la Costa among the hungry masses. Avery had designed the town's evacuation plan as mayor. Then, he went home to get his kids and found them being tended to by Mary, his loving wife, who had put up with her husband's affairs for far too long. And since she'd had no qualms about feasting on her three darling daughters, she had no reservations about attacking him.
That fact alone made the situation real to Frank.
When the nightmare had started, most people thought the infection -- that's what the Centers for Disease Control had called it -- was random, possibly from tainted food, like all those salmonella cases in the news recently. No one noticed that the birds had disappeared and that even the stray cats that once plagued every neighborhood were nowhere to be found. Unlike animals, humans missed those signs. That's why everyone was caught off-guard when dozens and then hundreds of townspeople changed. Too late, after Mayor De la Costa had been bitten by his wife, did anyone realize the infection could be spread by transference, like rabies.
Suddenly, friends became enemies. Families turned on each other. Worst of all was the revenge.
These zombies seemed only to care about the need to feed. They could still run except they had no coordination and, more often than not, ran into immovable objects or each other. Frank had watched that spectacle with grim amusement when he had driven the meat truck.
However, another thing the zombies did have was the desire for revenge. Oh, yes, it was uncanny, chilling and unnerving. Upon turning into zombies, people immediately settled unfinished business, as if the change had removed some kind of moral barrier the people had possessed in life.
Desiree Hooper headed directly to the house of her husband's mistress and turned her so that she could do the same to Desiree's unfaithful hubby. Andrew Milken, perennial nerd and target of half the football team, got into the locker room at the high school and soon had linemen voluntarily stuffing themselves into lockers. Frank had heard all of this on the news and he believed it every word. He'd seen Elise knock finally knock some sense into her wayward teenage boys, Eliot and Edmund by knocking their heads together. Her awful jokes about the two of them not having half a brain between them made a sick kind of sense after she finished with them.
At least, she "cared" enough to rend the very flesh and make sure they didn't become like her.
Frank swallowed hard. When had his humor become so gruesome? Prior to this day, his jokes had merely been cheesy. Now, he had gallows humor, though with good reason.
The CDC desperately needed a distraction to get the trapped survivors out of town. Bringing National Guard trucks through the streets only invited the undead in droves, adding, unfortunately, a squad of soldiers to the zombie ranks. Those poor soldiers retained enough of their former intelligence to use their truck to smash into barricaded houses to open holes for the undead to pour through. The occupants never had a chance.
Apparently, after settling scores, the zombies began to lose their intelligence wholesale. They devolved into the mostly mindless monsters Frank saw below him. In a way, that was good because it made it easier to avoid them. On the other hand, Frank was sure most cops would tell him that a mindless mob was the absolute worst thing to deal with as their actions would be unpredictable. Unfortunately, with the soldiers, intelligence wasn't being lost fast enough.
Frank had seen enough. He crawled on top of the roof of his house with three Molotov cocktails. Not quite to the top, he mused, as he took care of the truck and two of the soldiers. One of the other zombie guardsmen retaliated with a rocket launcher. Alas, the woman's rapidly declining mental faculties had her aiming the wrong end at him and she blew herself up along with her fellow soldiers.
The blast brought the rest of the zombies in the neighborhood out of hiding. Frank could only gawk as front doors on houses up and down his street opened and zombies stumbled into the streets. Save for the uncoordinated movement and the fact the zombies still knew enough to open doors, this could have been any typical morning of kids going to school and parents heading for work. Fortune blessed him, though, as none of the creatures -- they certainly weren't his neighbors anymore or human, for that matter -- bothered to look up. There was no way he could have gotten back inside his house without being seen and he doubted his fortifications could have withstood the hungry hordes. This wasn't Vincent Price and Last Man on Earth after all. This was real and none of these houses were sturdy like those made in the old days.
It took a night huddled next to the chimney, shivering in the chill air before Frank felt safe enough to crawl to the edge of the roof and look down on the street. It was clear, though he did see the occasional face or two peek out from behind blinds in the few houses with survivors. This made him happy. He'd seen more than a few survivors bitten or scratched by zombies before getting safely inside their houses. He had yet to see any of them exit those abodes as zombies, meaning the disease or infection or whatever it was might not be an instant death sentence. Of course, he thought morosely, the injured could have changed and been too occupied feasting on family members to come outside.
The circumstances were grim. The government couldn't get the people out safely. Rescuing one family with a helicopter only brought the zombies out in force, their combined strength breaking down doors. National Guard pilots had freaked out at having to leave behind innocent people caught on rooftops by the zombies, especially when, all too often, those people's kids were watching their parents be eaten alive.
No, there had to be a way to get all of the survivors out at once and flown safely to quarantine zones. Since no one quite understood what made people zombies, the rescued had to be kept separate from others until they were diagnosed as uninfected. It would probably be horrific to be watched, like guinea pigs, by an army of scientists and doctors. And it would be brutal, with nothing to do but remember lost loved ones or think that the excessive sweating by a fellow citizen might mean infection, it beat being watched by zombies any day.
People in quarantine still had faith and hope to hang on to.
Authorities had spent countless hours thinking of one idea after another, only to have it shot down by reality. Then, it hit Frank. Not that he wanted any credit for the idea, but he had spent too much time cooped up in his barricaded home watching old science fiction movies. In one of those flicks, which had Mexico City besieged by giant scorpions, a truck full of fresh meat had been driven through the streets to lure the largest monster to the sports stadium where the Mexican army waited.
He'd phoned his idea in with more than a little urgency. He was down to half a gallon of milk, three slices of bread and about two Ramen noodle cups. The CDC agreed, as they had come up with a similar idea but could not find anyone brave enough -- or crazy enough -- to drive the truck.
Frank simply grabbed a few important items, including his will, though he didn't know why. He had no one to leave anything to. Then, he'd climbed out on his upper roof, jumped to the lower roof and leaped on to the top of a National Guard three-quarter ton truck as it crashed through his backyard to get as close as possible to the house. And atop it he stayed, primarily because it hadn't dawned on him to wear an athletic cup until he landed.
The plan worked better than he'd hoped. All the zombies sniffed the fresh meat (ironically, from Audacious Barbeque, Frank's favorite food joint) and the race was on. Any stragglers were shot in the head by snipers in helicopters overhead or by soldiers in the trucks that raced through the now empty streets to get the survivors.
As for Frank, he knew his fate, so much that he had refused to have anyone ride shotgun with him. He had lured the zombies into the old National Guard armory, which, ironically, had been shut down years ago because the state thought it was too old be of any use. With sickening determination and a strange will to see his newfound mission through, he had blown the zombies' brains out, even as he retched at taking the lives of so many people he had known in better times. And take many of them he did, with the various handguns he'd gotten from what remained of the city's police. It would have been too difficult to try to reload while driving, so he had to grab a different gun when he ran out of bullets with the previous weapon.
Then again, it wasn't like he had been forced into any of this. After all, he had volunteered to do it, to give the National Guard time to do its thing.
Now, he was on top of the roof of the power plant, barricaded in, unable to get out, hoping his former neighbors and co-workers below stayed mindless. He didn't need them remembering their former intelligence and figuring out how to get at him faster. Of course, they would get to him eventually. A wise man once said a room full of monkeys on typewriters would, if given enough time, write a bestselling novel.
That knowledge made it easier to accept that feeling the breeze turn into strong gusts meant that no helicopter could risk the updrafts cycling through the mountains to get to him. He'd hoped, but in the back of his mind, he knew. There was always the possibility that he'd made a one-way trip. But, it was worth it. He had saved lives. He had made a different. He carried his full weight for a change.
He patted the pistol in his shoulder holster. He'd been careful to save the the one bullet and he knew how he would use it.
Not just yet, though.
He sat down on the roof, crossed his legs, closed his eyes and let the sun warm him and the cool breeze wash over him again.
Top of the world, he thought. Top of the world.