Carrie Ryan’s first novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth debuted to great acclaim when it was released in 2009. The sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves, came out earlier this year, and the third volume, The Dark and Hollow Places, is due out in Spring 2011. Our next story shares the same milieu as her novels, but takes place several hundred years earlier. Another piece of Ryan’s zombie fiction appears in the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. Her love of zombies is all her fiancé JP’s fault. Since becoming infected with the zombie bug, she has begun converting her friends and family to her cause, much like a zombie would.
In Poetics, Aristotle recommends that storytellers observe a unity of time (no large jumps forward in time), place (one location), and action (few or no subplots). Well, things don’t get much more unified than a couple of characters on a lifeboat. Hitchcock used this scenario to great effect in his World War II-era film Lifeboat, in which the survivors begin to suspect that one of them is a German agent. Gary Larson, author of the beloved newspaper comic The Far Side, repeatedly used gags involving lifeboats. (In one such strip, three men and a dog draw lots to see which of them will be eaten—the dog comes up a winner, and looks suitably smug.)
Our next tale also utilizes the grim immediacy and forced intimacy of a lifeboat scenario. “My original idea for this story was to have infection break out on an airplane, which caused airports to constantly divert it,” Ryan says. “As I thought more about the idea, I wanted to simplify it and boil it down. I was out to dinner with friends and talking about my idea, and my fiancé suggested using a boat instead. I’d been doing a lot of research into The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for another project so the first line was obvious, and the entire story unfolded from there. I love using zombies in my fiction because it allows me to ask what differentiates the living from the dead. How do we determine our own lives and futures beyond mindlessly doing what someone tells us?”
FLOTSAM & JETSAM
by Carrie Ryan
“Water, water everywhere, and—”
“Damn it, Jeremy! If you say that one more time…” It’s when I see his face fall that I swallow the rest of what I’m going to say. But the unspoken words circle my head, the rage stinging just under my skin. Honestly, I’d love nothing more than to reach across the tiny little raft and rip his throat out with my bare fingers.
I close my eyes, try to inhale slow and deep. I feel him shift, feel the ripple and dip of the rubber underneath us that pushes me just a little off balance. To avoid the urge to kick him, I pull my legs up to my chest, resting my forehead on my knees.
“Sorry, man,” he says, his voice a tiny defeated squeak.
I press my face harder against my kneecaps, digging the prickle of my unshaven chin into my skin. Trying to focus all my pain into a single point. Trying to burn out my frustration. Waves dip and tumble underneath us, tilting us toward the sun and then away, water whispering around our tiny octagonal rubber island.
The cruise ship still hulks on the horizon and no matter how hard I try, I can’t resist staring at it. Bright orange specks hover around it like chiggers—other lifeboats stuffed with other potential survivors. I start to unroll the nylon canopy, attaching it to the raft walls and pulling it over the inflated cross bar arcing across the center of the raft when Jeremy glances at me, looking startled.
“We could go back,” he says, hesitant. “We could try to get closer. Just to see.”
I stop struggling with the canopy and close my eyes tight again, curling back over my knees. “No,” I tell him, my voice echoing between my legs.
He sighs and dips his hand over the edge of the raft. I can hear the drip of the salt water as it plinks from his fingers. I should tell him to stop, tell him that the salt’s not good for him.
But we both know it won’t matter. Not in a few days if the reports have been right.
Jeremy has nightmares. Not that I don’t, but Jeremy’s are bad—worse than bad: horrific. The first two days on the life raft neither of us sleep. Instead, we sit here, eyes riveted on the gigantic cruise ship as we drift farther and farther away.
It’s during the second night when he finally falls asleep. I’m still staring at the ship, struck by how bright and dazzling it is—how it looks exactly like all the commercials as it lights up the night. I even start to think that perhaps we’d been stupid to evacuate so hastily and that maybe we should circle in closer, see if they’ve somehow been able to contain the infection.
That’s when Jeremy starts screaming and thrashing around. It makes the little raft buck and dip, one of the sides catching a wave and letting water slosh in. I jump on him, pinning him down and he swings at me before I’m able to get to his hands.
He wakes up with me straddling him and panting hard, my heart loud like gunshots in my ears. He doesn’t know he’d been having nightmares and he frowns, his face draining.
“Get off me,” he says, twisting to the side, and I let go his hands and scuttle back to the other side of the raft. He looks at me like I’m a monster and it makes me feel awkward and weird.
“You were screaming,” I tell him but he just grunts and won’t look at me. He keeps staring at the ship, watching the lights glitter like nothing’s changed. I pull my legs up to my chest and tuck into one of the corners, making sure no part of me touches any part of him for the rest of the night.
Smoke billows from the ship on the fourth day. It’s been dry, the sun burning and keeping us sweltering under the sagging canopy. I think about licking the sweat from my arms but it’s full of salt—just as useless as the water surrounding us.
“You think Nancy and them are still on there?” Jeremy asks. He’s pressed against the only opening, blocking the fresh air. I nudge him with my foot and he moves over slightly. I wonder how the hell eight people are supposed to survive on this tiny thing, how they could ever stand each other.
Eight supply pouches ring the inside of the octagonal raft, one per potential survivor, and I give each a name. A friend who was on the ship with me that I’ve left behind: Francis, Omar, Leroy, Margaret, Nancy, Micah, and Tamara. I know that leaves Jeremy out, but I don’t care. I wasn’t supposed to end up on this stupid life raft with him in the first place. He wasn’t even supposed to be going on the damn cruise and wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Nancy and her soft heart and inability to say no to losers.
Jeremy cranes his neck around and looks at me. “Should we look for them? Maybe pull a little closer to see if they’re on other rafts?”
I shake my head, dig my fingers into my arms until I’m pinching the muscle. I should tell Jeremy I saw them already. The night we jumped ship I saw them running. Saw the blood and bites. Saw the expression on Francis’s face.
Fucking Francis, I think to myself. Of course he’d have been the first one bitten.
Jeremy wears glasses and the lenses are crusted with salt. Everything’s so layered with it that he can’t even find a way to clean them anymore and so he doesn’t bother. Just stares at everything through the white haze.
I hate looking at him like that. It makes him look like he’s already gone. Like he’s already one of them.
He doesn’t think I know about his bite. His hand keeps slipping to it, pressing against it, tracing the outline of it under his shirt. I pretend not to notice but it’s not like he’s being subtle about it. If I hadn’t seen the raw red ring of bite marks along his ribs that first night I’d struggled with him during his nightmares, I’d have figured it out eventually.
I mean, Christ, it’s running towards one hundred degrees every day and even though we huddle under the canopy of the life raft, it’s not like it’s cool in the shade. I ditched my shirt the first day but Jeremy still keeps his on and I don’t care how self-conscious and scrawny he might be: when the temperature hits triple digits and you’re stranded with a guy in the middle of the damn ocean while the world falls apart, you lose things like modesty.
If I can watch him slip into the water to take a dump, I can deal with his pale thin muscles and a chest like a plucked turkey. I may not be the smartest, but I’d have figured out he was hiding something under that shirt.
“How long you think it takes them to turn after they’re bitten?” I ask him. I know I’m an asshole but I’m bored and I wonder how much I can prod and poke at him before he admits the truth. Plus, he’s smarter than I am. Jeremy’s the one who first figured out that we needed to get off the ship, even though they hadn’t called an official evacuation. He was the one keeping up with the news when the rest of us were testing out our fake IDs in the bar and pretending everything was going to be okay.
He swallows, sharp dagger of an Adam’s apple dragging along his throat. “Depends how bad the bite was,” he says, pinching the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger.
I stare at him, willing him to have the balls to tell me himself but he just shifts and stares back at the boat. “Maybe we should pull in closer,” he says. “Just in case someone needs our help.”
I shake my head. “No,” I tell him. “Too risky.”
The thing Jeremy doesn’t understand is that the first time he fell asleep, I couldn’t resist the pull of all those lights. That promise of safety and warmth—the idea that everything was under control. So I’d paddled us closer.
There were people everywhere, all over the decks. Running. Screaming. Jumping. They were panicked and desperate. I saw other lifeboats rocking as they fought against them, the living and the dead.
Something had flashed in one of the windows and I stared at it, trying to see what was going on inside. That’s when I saw a hand, fingers scratching at the glass. That’s when I saw the teeth and mouth, banging against the window again and again, desperate to get out.
Even though I’d smothered our emergency beacon light, I felt like the thing was staring straight at me. That more than anything else she wanted to rip every bit of flesh from my bones and pull apart every muscle. Open me up like a frog on the dissection tray.
I’d let us drift back away then. Just before Jeremy started screaming. Just before I saw the bite marks along his ribs.
“You ever had sex?” I ask him.
His back stiffens, his shirt sticking to his body. Even though we’ve been rationing water he’s been sweating a lot—too much. His skin’s hot and flushed and he wants me to think it’s from the sun and heat but I can smell the way his wound’s festering, the sweet putrid stink of it. He pulls his head under the canopy and slumps against the wall. “Why?” he asks.
“Why sex? It’s supposed to be pretty damn good,” I tell him, trying to lighten his mood.
“Supposed to be?” he repeats, raising an eyebrow.
I scowl, cross my arms over my chest. “Don’t you think about those things, being out here?” He starts to look at me funny and I think about the night I pinned him in his sleep. I roll my eyes. “I just mean, it’s not like we have anything else to do but think. It’s just sex is one of those things I’d planned on doing before I died. I’m kinda pissed it might not happen.”
He shrugs. “Who says you’re going to die?”
I notice he doesn’t say “we” and I swallow, my tongue suddenly feeling a little thick. Scrunching down until I can prop my feet against the raft wall, I stare up at the peak of the canopy, watching it stretch and ripple over the inflated support bar. “What do you think’s happening back home?” I say. It’s a question I’ve been trying desperately not to ask but it’s all I can think about recently. Well, that and sex.
Jeremy’s silent and I let my head flop over until I’m looking at him. He’s staring out at the horizon but from here all I can see is gray water, gray sky, gray life. Slowly I push myself to my hands and knees and crawl until I’m sitting next to him.
The ship’s farther away now. We’d lost sight of it the day before and for a while we’d been panicked, not realizing until then how much we needed to have it out there even if we kept our distance. How empty everything seemed without it.
But then we’d seen the smoke rising out of nowhere and we’d paddled toward it until we saw it billowing from the decks of the ship. For most of the day it’s been listing to the side, slowly and inevitably capsizing.
“I think they might all be gone,” Jeremy finally says softly, before dancing his fingers along his side as if I don’t know what he’s hiding.
Every time he falls asleep, Jeremy screams. He never remembers it, or at least never acknowledges it. It’s driving me insane and a part of me hopes the infection goes ahead and takes him soon so I can be done with it.
The thing is, it’s not like Jeremy or I were being stupid. It’s not like we didn’t know how the whole thing works: someone gets bitten, gets infected, dies and comes back from the dead hungering for flesh. We’d seen the movies and played the video games. We knew.
It’s just…when it came down to it, it wasn’t that easy. It was never supposed to be real, never supposed to actually happen. Everything got confused and strange. We lost our friends trying to run through the cruise ship and we fought over taking a life raft and ditching or staying for official evacuation orders.
Really, this isn’t what was supposed to happen at all—this isn’t how it was supposed to end up. We’d treated it like a joke because we’d have panicked otherwise. “Ha-ha, the zombie apocalypse’s hit, let’s take a life raft and run.”
Ha-ha, joke’s on us. Or them. I can’t remember anymore.
Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t just make more sense to confront Jeremy and force him overboard. After all, it’s not like he has a chance of surviving this, and in the meantime he’s taking up resources that I might need.
Neither one of us says anything but we both know: if there was going to be a rescue, it’d have happened by now. There’ve been no planes, no coast guard or bright orange helicopters. Our little raft beacon chirps and blinks away merrily, sending little distress “rescue me” signals out into the world that either no one’s there to hear or they’re too busy ignoring us.
We know this. Just like we know that land can’t really be that far away—we’d been on a cruise after all. The whole point is to visit all the islands—they have to be out here somewhere.
But we can’t bring ourselves to lose sight of the ship to find out. Just in case.
I don’t realize what it is at first, the huge groaning noise like a whale’s swallowed us whole. There’s this massive, deep popping sound, a high-pitched whine and then the sound of the world sucking itself up with a straw.
The wave hits not too long after, tossing us around the boat. I grab the canopy trying to hold on and end up tearing part of it away from the sides.
“What the hell?” I ask, running my fingers over the raft to make sure nothing’s damaged.
Water knocks us around, up and down and up and down, and Jeremy’s at the flap, staring out in the night.
“No!” he shouts into the darkness and I suddenly realize just how dark it is. It’s nothing; pure absolute emptiness. The cruise ship’s gone, devoured by the ocean.
Jeremy jumps into the water and starts swimming as if he could somehow bring it back from the depths. I can’t even see him, he’s been swallowed up already, but I hear his splashing.
“It can’t go yet!” he screams. “I’m not ready. I’m not ready!”
I kneel in the boat, my arms over the side trying to feel for him as I listen to him beat at the waves and curse everything for taking away the ship once and for all.
When I finally get him back on board he shivers in my lap, his arms crossed tight over his chest. “I’m not ready,” he mutters, turning his face to my chest as tears burn hot against my skin.
I hold on to him, letting the raft rock us both, the silence of the sea settling around the sunken ship our only lullaby.
“Jenny Lyons,” I tell him and he cracks a small smile.
“Her?” he asks. “Really?”
I shrug. “It was eighth grade and computer class.”
“Didn’t she have braces then?”
He shakes his head.
“How about you?” I ask.
If possible, his cheeks pinken even more.
“Oh don’t tell me, sweet sixteen and never been kissed?” I mean it like a tease.
“More like eighteen,” he says staring at his lap.
I feel my smile tighten as I think about the bite on his ribs and suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
It’s pitch-black dark when he finally comes clean. “Listen, I gotta tell you something,” he says. He must have known I was pretending to sleep because he doesn’t bother trying to wake me up first.
I shift a little, feeling the boat rock slowly under my movement. We haven’t seen anything else for days: no ship, land, rafts. Only so much nothing that it feels like we have to be the last people left.
As he explains I bite my teeth together as hard as possible, wondering if I can break them—break everything and be done with it.
“I’ll go overboard, if you want,” he says. In the darkness his voice has no body, no infection. It just is.
“But then you’ll turn into one of those things,” I tell him.
His breath shakes. “I’m going to turn into one of those things no matter what,” he says.
I push my fingers into my eyes, trying to poke them hard enough to bring tears because it’s the only way I can think of to unleash the searing pain inside. “Is that what you want?” I ask him.
“If I stay on this raft and turn, I’ll go after you,” he finally says. He pauses and in the emptiness our hearts keep beating. “I don’t want that,” he adds softly.
“So you think you can take me?” I ask him.
He doesn’t laugh, not really. It was a lame joke anyway, but I do hear him exhale a little harder as if he’d thought about laughing. “You have to promise me you’ll throw me over when it happens,” he finally says. “Promise me you’ll make me sink.”
I press my fingers harder against my eyes.
“Promise me.” His voice is urgent.
I shake my head. “I promise,” I mutter.
“I think Nancy had a little crush on you,” I tell him. It’s a thick soupy day, taunting us with rain and I’m organizing our water bottles to catch what I can. My mouth tries to salivate at the thought of it, cool and wet, sliding down my throat, filling every dry space inside me.
“I hope so, since she’s the one who bit me.” He’s leaning back in the shade of the canopy, shirt off now that I know his secret. I can’t look at him without glancing at the bite festering along his ribs. It’s like he’s proud of it, forcing us both to deal with it.
And then I realize what his words mean. “So you knew.” I don’t ask it as a question. I turn to face him. “If she’s the one who bit you, you knew about everyone else. Francis, Nancy and the others.”
“Why do you think I told you we shouldn’t wait for them?” he asks. Red streaks along his skin, marking every vein through his body with an infection whose heat sometimes radiates along the rubber of the raft.
“Then why did you keep asking to go back if you knew?”
He shrugs, stares at his hands. “I wanted to be wrong. Doesn’t matter now, I guess.”
And he’s right. We lost sight of the last raft two days ago.
His hands are hot as he grabs for me. He’s gasping for breath and at first I think he’s turned, gurgling on moans, but then I realize he’s trying to say my name. “Get up,” he says, shaking me, but his muscles are weak from so many days of disuse and I’m still much larger and stronger than he is.
“Get up,” he prods again.
He shoves something into my hand, the lanyards that lashed the flap of the canopy shut. “Tie me up,” he says. “It’s time. Tie me up, sink me.”
It’s been harder and harder for me to surface from sleep and I struggle to understand what Jeremy’s saying. He’s wheezing now as he takes my hands, wraps my fingers around the ropes, pulls them tight along his wrists and elbows.
His skin’s dry and cracked and I try to blink the salt from my eyes so I can focus on what’s going on. It’s dark in the little raft, pitch-black swallowing us everywhere with just the tiny hiccups of the alert beacon flashing.
Jeremy knotting the ropes. Using his teeth to tighten them.
Me winding them around his torso, tucking up his knees.
Jeremy’s eyes glassy and bright. His chest barely moving.
I don’t know what to say. What to do. What to tell him.
I slip my fingers into his. “I’m sorry, Jeremy.”
Dead eyes. Still heart.
Waves tilt and whirl as his body becomes a shell.
I breathe in. Hold it.
And before the light can flash again he explodes, straining and struggling.
I see the perfectly straight teeth, the gleaming white as he tries to lunge for me.
As he snaps at the air.
Screaming, I throw myself across the raft. Pushing and forcing myself back. Wishing the walls could absorb me. Keep me safe. His moans are like growls, guttural and wet. He’s insane with what looks like agony and rage and a desire so intense I can smell it.
Beneath me the entire raft bucks and swirls, his movements teetering us around, his feet ripping at the canopy overhead as he tries to gain his balance, tries to push himself closer to me.
I can’t get near him, can only watch as he pulls and pops against the ropes. Can only hear the strain on his joints, the snap of his wrist breaking apart under the twisting jolts. It’s too much. I can’t stand it, can’t be near him anymore. Can’t see him like this.
I dive through the opening in the canopy into the night, letting the waves close over my head until I can’t hear, can’t see, can’t forget as the raft twists and shudders above me.
“Do you believe in God?” I ask Jeremy. Water pools around the divot in the raft where I’m crouching and I’ve pulled open the canopy, hoping the sun will burn it away so that my poor chaffed skin can find relief.
Jeremy bucks against the soggy ropes holding him tight. I’ve lashed him to the other side of the raft and used strips of my shirt to tie his mouth shut. He still manages to moan, deep nasal sounds that reverberate through the raft so that I’m always feeling them even when I shove my hands to my ears.
I tried to push him overboard, I swear. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let go of him.
He’s all I have left. I couldn’t drift away from him on the empty horizon.
“Blink once for yes, twice for no,” I tell him, staring into his face. He doesn’t blink, just tries to lunge for me, his shoulder buckling back at a sickening angle.
“Jeremy?” I whisper. It’s night, pitch black, and I swore I woke up to screaming. I swore I woke up to Jeremy and his nightmares.
The raft shudders. Jeremy still desperate to escape. Still desperate for me. I shake my head, feeling like my ears are full of water, every sound distant and dull.
“Jeremy?” I ask again.
Carefully, I crawl across the raft, my muscles having a hard time keeping me from falling over. The bottom sags every place I set my hand and knee, feeling as if it too is giving up. I pull myself face to face with Jeremy, too close to be safe.
“Is there anything left?” I ask him.
And I can’t tell if he’s shaking his head or if he’s just twisting against his ropes to get closer to me.
I’m pretty sure Jeremy’s been talking to me. When I wake up I’m positive I hear his voice in my head. And when I’m staring at the horizon, trying to find shapes in the wavering distance, I swear he’s saying something.
“You promised.” He’s starting to sag against his ropes. His body’s pretty torn up, joints dislocated and his left arm fractured where he pulled too hard. His skin’s tight over his face, cheekbones sharp and accusing.
“I’m not ready,” I tell him.
“Neither was I,” he says.
I turn away again. Nothing inside me is willing to cooperate anymore. Everything shudders and falls apart, muscles failing to fire, bones shifting under my skin so that I always hurt.
“You promised,” he says over and over and over again until I almost do want to throw him over just to shut him up.
It’s raining, so our water bottles are full again. One of the survival pouches has a fishing kit and I’ve been sitting here for a while staring at the gleaming little hook. Part of me wants to draw it along the raft, wondering if it’s sharp enough to gash the boat and sink us both.
We ran out of food three days ago, so I don’t have anything to use as bait. I’ve tried using just the hook but nothing bites. I stare at Jeremy, at the flesh flayed off his broken thumb. His moans are more like whimpers now and my stomach heaves as I pinch at his skin, tearing the little flap off.
I shove it on the hook and toss it in the water and wait, thinking of the fish circling underneath us, wondering if eating Jeremy’s undead flesh will cause them to turn as well. Thinking of the feel of their meat on my tongue, the thick oily taste of it, makes me weak with desperation so intense I tremble.
Hours pass, the storm dwindles and nothing. Wincing, I close my eyes, cut a sliver of my own skin away. As soon as the scent of my blood hits the air, Jeremy explodes, thrashing harder than he has in days. Startled, the hook slips through my fingers and falls away into the depths.
I sit staring at the bloody flesh in my fingers, red and bright and wet. Inside I’m empty, nothing but water sloshing through my veins, nothing but the taste of salt coating my tongue. Slowly I raise the bit of skin to my lips and close my eyes.
Jeremy moans and writhes as I force myself to swallow.
It’s dark again, so dark that nothing makes sense. There’s a storm whipping around outside, dragging the raft and tossing it around. I brace my hands against the walls and try to hold on tight but still I’m thrown into Jeremy, thrust against him again and again.
Everything’s soaking wet, water seeping through tears in the canopy even though I’ve done my best to lash it shut. It’s slippery and I can’t keep my balance. I reach for Jeremy’s hands.
“I don’t want to be alone,” I scream at him, my throat raw and cracked. “I’m scared.”
It’s too hard to keep doing this, to keep surviving. I’m exhausted and my body’s beyond pain: salt leaches into my cuts, my skin’s tight and shrunken with sunburn and my stomach is so empty I’m frightened it no longer exists.
“I’m afraid to die,” I tell Jeremy. His fingers grab for me, clutch on to me as if he understands what I’m saying. He seems so much stronger than I am.
I kneel in front of him and pull the scrap of shirt from his head, unleashing his jaw. He snaps and moans, louder than the roar of the storm. My breath is shaking as I reach my arm up to him, push it toward his mouth.
A wave crashes down on us, flooding the tiny raft and in the murk of it I feel the sharp sting of his teeth closing around me.
I rest my head in Jeremy’s lap and stare up at the calm blue sky. There’s something comforting about him, about the feel of him underneath me like I’m a kid curled up on my parents’ bed on a Saturday morning.
Already I feel the sear of the infection, my body offering up little resistance. I’ve been shutting down, muscles twitching, throat closing, stomach ceasing to rattle and growl and my heart a bare whisper. I haven’t felt my toes for a day and what bothers me is that I no longer care.
“My dad made the best waffles,” I tell Jeremy, staring at the clouds. “He’d leave the butter out overnight so it was soft and melty. I’d drown them with syrup.” I run the tip of my tongue against the roof of my barren mouth, trying to remember the feel of it.
I’m so wrapped up in the memory that seeing the bird doesn’t make sense, doesn’t penetrate the fantasy I have in my head of a table heaped with food. But then the bird screams and I jolt up, my head colliding with Jeremy’s chin, snapping him back.
“Oh my God!” I shout. “Oh my God!” There’s a tiny spit of land cresting over the horizon. Exerting every force I can muster from my muscles, I hold my hand up, trace the curve of a tree with my finger. We draw closer and closer, the island growing larger and larger, the infection inside me roaring hotter and hotter.
I’m weeping, barely able to move.
Jeremy sags against the wall next to me, red gashes covering his body where the rope’s rubbed him raw. I put my hand on his foot and he twitches, leans toward me. “We made it, Jeremy,” I say with cracked lips.
He leans toward me, his mouth finding my knuckles. He’s so weak now, so torn apart from struggling that he can barely bite, and what hurts more than his teeth grazing my flesh is the sting of salt from his lips penetrating the raw skin.
My eyes blur with tears. “We made it,” I whisper. Overwhelmed with a crush of emotions so intense I can’t even untangle them, I hug him tight, press my face into the curve of his neck and pretend his struggles are joy at being saved.
© 2010 Carrie Ryan