I don’t know how we made it through that first summer. At first, when there were just a few of them out there, they were pretty easy to get away from. But as the death toll of our own grew, of course, the numbers of the walking dead grew as well. I mean, it’s easy enough to salt, and burn, and chop off the heads of all the corpses you can see, but you can’t take care of the dead you don’t know about.
We all put up a brave front at the very beginning, thinking we could win. We formed zombie-killing posses, blew up buildings housing dozens of zombies—we hoped—came up with new ways of disposing of the dead. But it wasn’t long before we were all holed up in our basements with our families and as many supplies as we could rustle up, fire and firearms handy, ready to protect our own to the bitter ol’ end.
During a particularly optimistic period, we ran a primitive network of crank-powered ham radios between each house so that we could communicate with one another. For a while—like, two or three weeks—that was great, because it helped to know that you weren’t the only family in town left alive. The kids really liked it, because then they could blab to their friends about how their parents were driving them crazy, and how they wanted to go outside and play, and all that kid stuff. Some kids started making up their own radio shows, like they were running some sort of network with plays and music and even a mock call-in show. It’s just amazing how kids can bounce back from things, even something as horrible as being chased by hordes of bloodthirsty zombies. Absolutely amazing.
Yep, the radio was fun for a while, then someone’s—I don’t want to remember whose—house got overrun, and zombies tore up the floor trying to find the people inside. We could hear the zombies groaning and ripping at the wood with their nails and teeth over the staticky airwaves, and you can’t just turn off the radio when someone you care about is about to die on the other end. It went on for hours, the lurching, the stomping, the sound of floorboards and walls splintering. The only noise from the family was the baby’s muffled wailing, which was probably how the zombies found them in the first place. I turned the volume of the radio way, way down, and took it to the corner to listen to so my wife and kids wouldn’t have to hear the eventual screams. After that, the radio wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Overall, though, life in the basement was pretty tolerable, and was probably going to stay that way so long as nothing bad got down there with us. When June and I first got married, we lived in a tiny studio apartment with a bed in one corner and a hotplate and beer fridge in the other, and we were darned happy. You don’t need a lot of pretty things when you’re in love, and you don’t need a lot of silly things when you’re trying to stay alive. Me, my wife, and our two girls were just fine living in the basement, which was nearly twice as big as that studio apartment fifteen years before had been. We had food and water, we had shelter, and, with a little luck, we had the time to wait out whatever was going on with the world. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing ever is.
The one thing we hadn’t taken into consideration was the cold. We spent the whole summer sweltering in the basement, the humidity in the closed space just about unbearable, the smell of mold constantly in the air, to suddenly being cold. That’s how we knew winter had come. We were cold all the time, and there was no way to build a fire in the closed-up dank basement.
After about a month of huddling together under piles of blankets and dressed head-to-toe in our deep winter gear, I decided to risk prying the boards off of one of the windows so that we could have enough ventilation to light up the stove. June and I figured that between the four of us, we could move the wood stove over to the window—with the pipe hanging out, so that if anything tried to get in that way, it’d get torched. Zombies didn’t seem to like fire too much, and we hoped that a red-hot iron pipe would cause the same kind of aversion in them that an open flame did.
It was something else to pull those first boards off of the window and see the sunshine for the first time in months. Four months, to be exact. I mean, I could tell that the days and nights were passing from watching the tiny holes in the boards covering the windows, but I hadn’t seen a whole windowpane’s worth of sunshine since we’d gone into the basement. It was beautiful. The glass was so cold it hurt to touch, of course, but the pale blue sunlight reflecting off the snow outside was beautiful.
And there were no zombies outside the window. Nothing was moving. It was as still as winter in Minnesota should be, without even squirrel footprints marking the hard white snow outside.
“June!” I said. “Mary! Allison! Come here!” I waved furiously at my girls and made them come from the corner they were huddled in to look out the window with me. “They’re gone!”
“They can’t be just gone,” said June, always the pessimist, but almost always right. “Maybe they’re just on the other side of the house.”
After much furious debate, we finally decided that June and the girls would stay in the basement with one of our shotguns, and I would take the other and head upstairs to see whether the zombies were truly just hiding on the other side of the house. This was my proposal from the beginning, but it took some talking to get June’s permission.
“You better not get killed out there,” warned my wife as I pried open the board nailing the basement door shut as quietly and efficiently as I could. “Don’t forget to say something intelligent and human-sounding when you’re back at the door, or I’ll shoot you,” she added, patting the rifle stock menacingly. “If I think it’s a zombie coming down here for one moment, I’m just going to shoot.”
“Yes, dear,” I said, tugging at the boards a little less quietly. Four months together in the basement was more than even a couple deeply, deeply in love could take, much less a couple that had been married for as long as we had been. I finally ripped the last nail loose and carefully turned the door handle, rifle cocked and ready to shoot at anything that moved. June stood on the step right behind me, ready to shut and lock the door as soon as I stepped out.
“Any password I should ask for?” she asked as I turned to say goodbye.
“Just open the door for anyone speaking English,” I answered, feeling a little giddy with anticipation. “I won’t come back here if I’m being attacked or chased, either,” I added, feeling more than a little guilty for saying it as soon as I did. “I won’t be gone long, but if they’re out there, and they see me, I just won’t come back here.”
“Wow. Thanks,” said June, shutting the door. Yep, she was pretty pissed off. We both knew that I wasn’t so much going outside to see how the world was doing as I was stretching my legs and taking a walk.
The house was as quiet as death—I mean, real death, not the shambling death that groaned and howled over our heads all summer long. It had been pretty cold in the basement, but a solid month of huddling with my family wrapped in blankets was no preparation for what was probably a fifteen below degree day in the sun. I could feel the mucus inside my nostrils and around my eyeballs growing sticky and hard, and I quickly pulled the scarf up over as much of my face as I reasonably could.
I picked my way through the living room nobody had lived in for almost half a year, trying not to trip over the overturned and shattered furniture that covered the floor. Whatever had been in here had been real mad. I wondered if the zombies could smell us living people right beneath their feet, and whether or not they had been trying to find us specifically while they had been in here.
The house was completely empty. I poked my rifle into closets and under beds, kicked at piles of ripped clothing in case something was hiding underneath them, and even tramped through the attic a bit before giving up. So far, so good. I checked my rifle before heading out into the front room, and out through the gaping front door. I was so riled up from the sheer tension that I almost took the scarf off my face so as to see better, but a tiny bit of remaining sanity made me keep it on so as to not lose the tip of my nose to frostbite. My hands were shaking so bad that I’m not sure I would have hit a zombie if there had been one waiting for me outside, but luckily, there wasn’t.
The only thing waiting for me outside was an endless, unbroken field of pure white snow, frozen so hard that you could have skated right across it. The only thing that was out of place were all the new trees and bushes that had sprung up all over my lawn.
“What the hell?” I said aloud after a couple of moments of just staring. I mean, we hadn’t been in the basement long before for a forest to spring up around our house. I kept the lawn pretty damned clean of debris during the summer, and one season of negligence shouldn’t have produced so many damned trees. I stepped off the porch and headed over to the nearest white clump, curious as to exactly what kind of tree could take over so quickly.
As I grew nearer to the tree, I could tell that maybe it wasn’t a tree. The gray hand poking out through the snow was a dead giveaway, in fact. I stopped in my tracks and raised my rifle at the thing, waiting to see if it moved, or made a sound, or if any of the other hundreds of trees around me were going to do anything. If those things could have moved at all, I was shit out of luck, because I could now see that probably all of the trees were really zombies, and they were everywhere.
But they didn’t move. Not a single one of them. It was so quiet and still out that I cold have heard a bird sing a mile away, and I heard nothing. It was kind of like I imagine space would be, and it was too much.
“Hey!” I shouted, more to hear the sound of something than to actually get anything or anyone’s attention. I lifted the rifle up and held it at the ready. “Hey!” I shouted again, demanding some sort of reaction. And I got none. I went over to one of the zombies and kicked it as hard as I could, shaking loose pretty much all of the snow that covered that ugly thing. Still nothing. It just stood there, eyes crusted over with ice, glistening from the ice crystals covering its skin. I kicked a little harder, and its arm came off.
“Holy crap!” Again, said for my benefit. Nothing moved, spoke, moaned—nothing. I turned back to the house and shouted, “June!” Now I was running, despite the pain in my lungs from moving against the frigid air. “June! Mary! Ally! June!” I tore through the house and back to the basement door. “June! June! Don’t shoot!” I shouted, pounding at the door. “They’re all gone! You’ve got to see this! Open the door!”
“Mark?” called my wife through the basement door. “I hope to God that’s you out there. I’ve got a gun!”
“Come on!” I called, a little quieter now. “Get dressed and come on out! It’s so cold out here it killed the zombies!”
I heard something scratching on the other side of the door, and a few moments later, the door slowly swung open. My wife stood there, her rifle cocked and ready to go, Mary and Allison standing behind her, dressed in mismatched winter clothes from head to toe and wrapped in blankets. “Oh, my God, it is you,” said June when she saw me, lowering her gun and carefully putting it on the ground. She threw her arms around me, and I could tell that she had been crying.
“I swear, this is all worth it,” I said, laughing, leading her and the girls through the house and to the front door, trying to distract her from the torn-up state of the house. “Those are our zombies,” I said, gesturing grandly at the landscape outside peppered with frozen corpses. “They can’t move. They’re all frozen, “
“What the hell does that mean?” asked June. “Does that mean that if we get a good thaw, we’re going to be living in the basement again?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” I said, truthfully, tugging at my wife’s arm to get her to move. “All I know is that right now, they’re frozen stiff, and there is absolutely no reason why we can’t be outside, breathing fresh air and enjoying the sunshine.”
“And the -45 degree wind chill,” grumbled Allison, shivering. Still, even she couldn’t help but turn her face up to the sun, blinking against the brightest light any of us had seen for months.