She was kept in the garden. The man who loved her had built her a shelter, a basic shed; she roamed outside it like a guilty dog who was too nervous to return to her kennel. She had been there three months before I arrived; dirty, frightened and willing to accept help from a man who kept his bitten, virus-ridden girlfriend chained up like a bitch in the yard. I could see his perspective. I even felt pity for him. Many of us still living had killed loved ones to survive. More of us had simply allowed loved ones who had turned to die in order to survive. Not this guy. This guy still had hope.
I had been wondering for some years, the village I grew up in gutted by the zombie-esque plague that had torn its viscous way across the world. It was a like a bad film, like the TV shows and computer games except it was really here and people you knew were trying to eat each other alive, had lost their humanity and acted like rabid animals. It had been five years since it had given birth to itself and no-one believed in a cure anymore. I was seventeen when it began, glad school was finished and that I soon would be at university living the life I knew I was meant to live. Then we were cordoned off, everywhere was cordoned off, until no-one was in control anymore and I’d watched everyone succumb and there was no more food left in the shops near me and I quietly stole off in the night with weapons, night vision glasses and the will to put one foot in front of the other, if nothing else.
When I first saw him, he started and we looked at each other for about ten seconds. Then he smiled, waving the saw he had been yielding before putting it down. He was tall, intimidatingly tall but also had a very goofy smile. He was one of the living; and that was enough for me to believe I could trust him. I also think sometimes you get a good feeling from people, and when you do you should follow that instinct. That works the other way around too.
When we were about twenty yards from each other he stopped short and spoke.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me.”
“But you should be,” he said, “I’m a strange man. You’re a young woman. Something to think about.”
We both laughed gently. Then he explained, “I’ve got one of them tied up in the back garden. She’s – was – my wife. Dangerous place for you. There’s me and a zombie here.”
I considered my options. He seemed very open and kind, but perhaps that was a double bluff. On the flip side I had found myself in a deserted beach town, no idea if there were any other people alive or dead lurking around. It was cold and damp and night was drawing in. He was the first person I had spoken to in a long time. I came forward and went into his house.
He seemed a little awkward, but also pleased. I felt a little pleased too. We were instant friends, if only because circumstances had made us so. He had somehow the capacity to rustle up some tea and biscuits. That alone made me feel like I had come home.
We sat and ate and drank quietly for a while and he told me his name was Frank. I ended up in the guest room next to him every night for a long time. He taught me everything he knew and reminded me of my older brother Owen. I never went in the garden, although I used to watch her through the kitchen window sometimes. He might have loved her but I would have happily chopped her down if she came loose.
They had been together for ten years and had gone to the beach town to get away from the city for a long weekend. There had been an outbreak while they were there, one of the first ones. They had woken in the night to find that the sixty-year-old owners of the small bed and breakfast had been turned, and he had no trouble in despatching them out right. He had more trouble fending off the entire town.
He did have some advantages. The house was the final one on the edge of the town and he could see them coming, he was naturally smarter than them on account of still being human, and he was physically bigger and stronger than any of them. She sounded pretty tough too, she barely slept for keeping watch and barely ate and then one day her courage faltered only for a moment when she saw a ten year old boy that reminded her of her nephew and in that moment the boy bit her and it was done. While she was turning Frank thought quickly and chained her up to a wall hook in the garden because he knew he would never kill her.
He pulled the chain taut and dragged her and drew a radius on the ground so he would always know how close he could get to her. He had been feeding her meat whenever he could. Sometimes she went hungry, often in the early days. As did he. I asked him once if he didn’t want to let her die.
“She’s still in there,” he insisted. He gulped his tea, cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat.
“Not that you’d know it. She shits everywhere. Foams at the mouth. Eats raw meat like a beast. At night she sometimes makes eerie sounds like no animal you ever heard. But she proved to me she was still her when I was building the shed. I’d never built anything before. I was purely a white-collar worker before the plague came. Managed to knock myself out. And when I came to she was standing about two feet away from me with a face like that girl from the Exorcist. Panting. Dribbling. Sweating. I could see her contemplating the taste of me in her eyes. I jumped to my feet and got out of her reach. She wanted to eat me and she could have. I was in her radius. And she didn’t.
She also kicks up a racket for me whenever a fellow zombie starts to wonder this way. She can smell them a mile off.”
Eventually we managed to get the radio going, and one day I heard word that the plague was waning. Later, I decided I was going to join a community of survivors only ten miles away. I begged Frank to join me but he wouldn’t leave her. It was with a lot of regret I left him behind. I was sure he would not survive. His love for that creature was a sickness.
In the new place, we were all filthy and bitter and grieving but society started to form again, with elections and arguments and the lights on. Some parts of the world were largely unscathed. A programme of extermination was agreed upon and squads of soldiers started to return to the cities and fields. Their one rule was kill or capture.
I have never so much wished I didn’t have a conscience as the day I decided that I had to go back to warn him. I couldn’t even tell the friends I had made, nor my girlfriend of the time, as they would have raised the alarm. So again I found myself walking into the night, heading for a mild beach town that had once been filled with old people, fish and chips, and nights in front of the telly.
When I got there, he was so happy to see me, it was hours before I could tell him. He had acquired beers which we shared in the front room listening to the radio. Everyone loved the radio in those days. They had managed to find old records and would broadcast the most mismatched music alongside each other, dub step and then classical and then R ‘n’ B and then electro. And people would dance to every song. But I didn’t dance that night. After I had eaten and was on my second beer I told him what was coming.
He was quiet for a while, before thanking me.
When I went to sleep that night I kicked the sheets around me and couldn’t sleep and seriously contemplated just going out there and killing it myself.
“What’s your place like for drugs?”
“Yeah, we’ve got some going.”
“Anything that can knock you out cold?”
“Yep. As you can imagine, that stuff is all the rage. A lot of people can’t sleep at night or look at their own faces in the mirror in the morning.”
“Can you get me some? …Can you get me a lot?”
And even though I thought it was a stupid plan that was going to get him killed I helped him anyway. Because I remembered that he had helped me, and that I probably owed my life to him. And also I liked him and in contrast to the zombies that roamed I hadn’t lost my humanity. So I snuck back into the commune and traded for drugs and got out of there that same night.
I turned up at his house and dumped everything I had acquired on his kitchen table.
“You know this is a horribly bad idea?”
He looked at me, listening.
“They will probably kill you if they think you are harbouring one of these things.”
He spoke to me for the first time in anger.
“She’s not a thing, she’s my wife.” He shouted.
“She’s not human anymore! You’re going to get yourself killed!”
I felt bad for a moment and said more calmly, “She’s not who she was to you. That woman died. And what you are keeping in the back garden is an insult to her memory and is a danger to you and to everyone else still alive.”
He told me to get out. So I did.
I forced myself to stop thinking about him. Us humans got stronger and got the plague under control and then there was even a vaccine. And life began again. I had a wife of my own. I even had a job. When things felt settled I told Olivia, my wife, about Frank, and she got my conscience going again. I realised that I wanted to know what happened to him. And she set about finding him for me.
Both he and I had been drawn back to the city. Most survivors were. We felt there was safety in numbers. And one April day, we agreed to meet. Just the thought that he had survived was enough to cheer me, but I worried that whatever it had taken to survive might have broken him.
And then there we were, and I knew straight away from the warm smile he gave me that he was ok. We hugged – actually for the first time – and laughed and smoothed away little tears of emotion that had formed in our eyes. And he told me what happened.
He took my hand and shook it in both of his saying, “Thank you for coming and warning me. If it wasn’t for you – I don’t even want to think about it.”
We found a pub and got comfortable.
“I kept a needle fresh and ready for her. Day and night. I thought more about the soldiers coming than I ever had about the plague. Then one morning I woke up and it was as if a voice had spoken in my head telling me: Today. Today soldiers are coming. Got together a tranquillizer dart. Shot her with it. Let loose her chains. Carried her into the house.”
“Pumped her with the strongest sedatives you had given me. Rummaged around for old make up from the previous owner of the house. Spent hours trying to get it right. Had to keep washing it off and starting again. She lay as dead as anything in the bed. It felt nice to be there with her again. Thought I was wrong about the soldiers. Fell asleep.
“Knock at the door came. Felt sick walking to answer it. I was willing to kill them to protect her. But I knew I wouldn’t manage it. There were five of them. Strong young men. Armed to the teeth. Not the stupefied zombies I had gotten rid of in the town.”
“They came in. Asked what my situation was. Told them I lived here with my wife who was ill and asleep upstairs. They said they were clearing the town of zombies. They needed to search the property. I said, Be my guest. They seemed subdued, or bored. As if they had done it a thousand times before. Perhaps they had. When they went upstairs I found myself praying. Never believed in God but it was all I could do. Just listen for the gunshots. I heard the door of the bedroom be pushed open. Feels like I’m still there, in that moment, waiting, thinking it’s her death and I’m helpless. I’ll never be out of that moment. Yet it was as short as anything. They looked in. One of them apologised for disturbing her. Shut the door. They went in every room. Then came down to talk to me. “We’re going to search your garden and throughout the area.” They told me. “Please do!” I said. My voice sounded panicked. Like I was lying about something, Which I was. They went outside. I could hardly believe it. I could only guess that they thought no-one would try to subdue a zombie and keep it in their bed. They cleared the area. They even gave me some leaflets telling me where to find other people and safety, and advice on handling zombies. I laughed at that one. Had a drink to celebrate. Went upstairs to share my joy with her. She leapt up and bit me on the shoulder.”
“That’s right. I was one of them. She was free. I was one of them. We lived for some weeks out there. Eating wild animals. Possibly people. Neither of us remember. She doesn’t remember anything from all those years.”
“Yes. Like I said. We’re one of the cured.”
I had assumed that she was dead. I should have thought of it myself – after the kill or capture squads came the vaccine, and then the cure. According to Frank they were rounded up like common beasts and taken to a specialist hospital; where the doctors made the happy couple well again.
T.S.J. Harling has studied literature at BA and MA level, and is embarking on a PhD in the subject. Her literary influences include Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Shirley Jackson and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Born in France, she grew up in South East London and is now a citizen of the world. You can connect with her on Twitter @tsjharling