Who We Used to Be — David Moody

David Moody’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies The Undead and 666: The Number of the Beast. His zombie novel Autumn and its sequels were originally self-published and released for free online; the books have been downloaded more than a half-million times and are currently being rereleased in print by Thomas Dunne Books. A film based on Autumn, starring Dexter Fletcher and David Carradine, was released in the U.S. earlier this year. Moody’s novel Hater is also currently being adapted for film, with Guillermo del Toro producing and The Orphanage’s J. A. Bayona directing. Moody’s other novels include Dog Blood (the sequel to Hater), Straight to You, and Trust.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins was recently asked if, since he did not believe in any sort of afterlife, he was afraid of death. He replied that he was not afraid of death—after all, the universe had existed just fine without him for billions of years before he was born, so why should it trouble him to imagine that it would go on existing without him for billions of years after he’s gone? Rather, he was afraid of dying, because current laws compel dying patients to endure a torturous gauntlet of pain and suffering rather than letting them decide for themselves when to let go.

“I think many people assume that if they really did find themselves facing-off against the living dead, they’d react like the people in the movies and books: they’d hunt out weapons and supplies and fight off wave after wave of the dead,” Moody says. “I think the reality would be very different. Many people would just implode. Others would deny the impossible events unfolding around them and try to continue with their day-to-day as usual.”

Our next story questions the logic of trying to survive for as long as possible when all you’re doing is wasting precious time and effort prolonging the inevitable. “It’s like keeping a dying patient alive by pumping them continually with drugs which make them feel worse,” Moody says, “but sometimes you just have to accept that letting go might just be the kindest and most sensible option.”

WHO WE USED TO BE
by David Moody

There was something beautifully ironic about the way mankind completely overlooked its own annihilation. Our society, for too long increasingly focused on the irrelevant, wasn’t even looking in the right direction when more than six billion lives were abruptly ended. Had anyone survived, they’d no doubt have been able to come up with a thousand and one half-baked, incorrect explanations: a mutated virus, terrorism, scattered debris from a comet tail, a crashed satellite leaking radiation…. Truth was, even if by some chance they had stumbled on the right reason, it wouldn’t have made any difference. And anyway, if anyone had been watching, then what happened next would have been even harder to comprehend than the sudden loss of billions of lives. Just minutes later, as if each person’s individual death had been nothing more than an inconvenient blip as trivial and unimportant as a momentary power-cut in the middle of a reality TV program, every last one of the dead got back up again and tried to carry on.

***

Simon Parker had been in his home office when it happened, poring fanatically over business projections. What he’d originally envisaged as an hour’s work had, as usual, wiped out his entire Saturday morning. But it didn’t matter. The work needed to be done. Without the business they could kiss goodbye to this house, the cars, the holidays…. Janice and Nathan understood. He felt bad that he’d left his son on his own for so long, but he’d make it up to him when he got the chance. He knew Janice wasn’t bothered. She’d just got back from shopping, arms laden with bags of clothes and other things they didn’t need. Retail therapy kept her happy.

Simon mistook his death for a blackout. There were no choirs of angels or long tunnels leading towards brilliant white lights, no endless flights of heavenly steps to climb…. Instead, his death came as a sudden, crushing pressure followed by absolutely nothing. One minute he was staring at the screen searching for a particular line of figures, the next he was flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling, unable to focus his eyes. He immediately began to search for explanations. Had he suffered a heart attack? An electric shock from a faulty power outlet? A physical manifestation of the stress-related problems his doctor had repeatedly warned him about? He tried to shout for Janice but he couldn’t speak.

His sudden paralysis was suffocating and terrifying but, to his immense relief, it was only temporary. With an unprecedented amount of mute effort and concentration, he finally managed to focus his eyes on the light fixture above him. Then he slowly turned his head a little. Then, with even more concentration and effort, he was able to screw his right hand into a fist and bend his arm at the elbow. He managed to draw his knees up to his chest and roll over onto his side. Then, having to will every individual muscle and sinew to move independently, he hauled himself up. No sooner had he stood upright when his center of balance shifted unexpectedly and he staggered across the room, stumbling like a new born animal taking its first unsteady steps in the wild. He tried to aim for the door but missed and hit the wall, face-first.

That didn’t hurt, he thought to himself, panicking inside but unable to show it. Leaning back, he slid his hand under his shirt and pressed his palm against his chest. Fingers must still be numb, he decided. Can’t feel anything. Got to get help. Got to get to Janice.

Leaning to one side until he over-balanced again, he rolled along the wall until he reached the open door and fell through. He staggered a few steps further, then landed on top of Janice who had collapsed halfway down the hallway. His son Nathan watched them both from where he lay on his back at the very top of the stairs, with his head lolling back and eyes unfocused.

***

Both immediately suspected as much, but common-sense prevented Simon and Janice from accepting they were dead for a considerable length of time.

They had gradually been able to move around with a little more freedom and control and, between the pair of them, had dragged Nathan down into the living room. When the TV didn’t tell them anything and the phone calls they tried to make went unanswered, Simon went outside to look for help. What he saw out there confirmed their bizarre and improbable suspicions.

When he left the house, Simon had braced himself for the expected sudden drop in temperature outside. He was only wearing a thin T-shirt and jeans—putting on anything else in his current ungainly state would have been too much of an ordeal—and yet he hadn’t felt a thing. He hadn’t felt the rain he could see splashing in the puddles around his bare feet, or the wind which whipped through the tops of the trees he could see behind the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac.

He’d originally planned to try and get to Jack Thompson, a retired GP who lived several doors down, but he hadn’t even reached the gate at the end of his own drive before he’d lost his nerve and turned around. His hearing was strangely muffled and unclear, but a sudden noise over to his far left had been loud enough to hear clearly. He turned towards the sound, struggling with knees which wouldn’t bend, hips which wouldn’t cooperate and feet which were heavy as lead, and saw that Dennis Pugh, the pompous, odious property developer who lived directly opposite, was trying to drive his car.

Obviously stricken by the same mysterious affliction as Simon as his family, Pugh’s bloated, unresponsive right foot had become wedged down on the accelerator pedal while his left foot had slipped off the clutch. With inflexible arms he fought to control the car as it careened forward at speed, clipping the low stone wall at the end of his drive then swerving out across the road and missing Simon’s gate by the narrowest of margins. Simon watched as Pugh ploughed down Kathleen Malins from number seventeen before smashing into the back of a builder’s van. Pugh half-climbed, half-fell out of the wreck of his car and staggered back towards his house, crimson blood dribbling down his gray face from a deep gash across his forehead.

Simon barely even looked at him. Instead, he watched Kathleen—one of Janice’s circle of friends—as she tried to get back home. She was crawling along the road, badly broken legs dragging uselessly behind.

Safely back inside his house, Simon leant against the door and tried to make sense of everything he’d just seen. He caught sight of his face in the long mirror on the wall and squinted hard to try and force his eyes to focus. He looked bad. His flesh was lifeless and pallid, his expression vacant and dull. His skin, he thought, looked tightly stretched over his bones like it belonged to someone else, as if he’d borrowed it from someone a size smaller.

***

Nathan sat in front of the TV while his parents had a long, difficult and surreal conversation in the kitchen about their sudden, unexpected deaths and their equally sudden and unexpected reanimation.

They had all stopped breathing but quickly discovered that by swallowing a lungful of air and forcing it back out again, they could just about speak. The Internet was still working—thank god—and they stood together over Simon’s laptop, prodding the keyboard with cold, clumsy fingers. While most major news portals and corporate sites remained frozen and had not been updated, they were able to access enough personal blogs, micro-blogs and social networks to answer their most pressing questions: Yes, they were dead. Yes, it had happened to everyone, everywhere. No, there was nothing they could do about it.

The film that Nathan had been watching on TV ended and was replaced with nothing. Simon returned to the living room, his legs stiffening, to see why the sound had stopped. He picked up the remote and began flicking through the channels. Some continued with their automated, pre-programmed broadcasts as if nothing had happened. Other stations remained ominously blank. Some showed a screen of unchanging, unhelpful emergency information and one—a twenty-four-hour news channel—just showed an empty desk, the tousled hair of a collapsed news anchor visible in the foreground of the shot.

“Getting stiff,” Janice said as she lurched into the room and fell down onto the sofa next to Nathan.

Rigor mortis,” Simon wheezed as he sat down heavily opposite them, barely able to believe what he was saying. “Won’t last long. Read it online.”

“Scared,” Nathan said quietly, the first word he’d managed to say since he’d died.

“I know,” Simon replied, trying to focus on his son’s face.

“We’ll all just sit here,” Janice said, pausing mid-sentence to swallow more air, “and rest. I’ll get us some dinner later.”

***

Rigor mortis kept the family frozen in position for almost a whole day. For a time, they were barely able to speak, let alone move. In the all-consuming darkness of the long winter night, Simon stared into space, unblinking, and tried unsuccessfully to come to terms with what had happened.

His family was dead, and yet he felt surprisingly calm—perhaps because they were still together and they could still communicate. Maybe the loss would hit him later. He tried to imagine how any of this could be possible—how their brains could even continue to function. He wondered: Is this strange state of post-death consciousness just temporary? Would it last as long as their physical bodies held together? Or might it end at any moment?

He tried to distract himself with other thoughts but it was impossible. Everything had changed now that they were dead. Janice’s earlier words rattled around his head: her instinctive offer of a dinner he knew she’d never cook. He realized they’d never eat or drink again. He’d never again get drunk. He’d never smell anything again, never sleep or dream, never make love…. For a while that really bothered him. It wasn’t that he wanted sex—and even if he did, his sudden lack of circulation meant that the act was a physical impossibility now—what hurt was the fact that that aspect of his life had been abruptly ended with such dispassionate brutality.

Silent, unanswered questions about trivial practicalities and inconveniences soon gave way to other more important but equally unanswerable questions about what would happen next. What will happen to our bodies? How long will we last? For how long will we be able to move and talk, and see and hear each other?

As the long, indeterminable hours passed, still more questions plagued him. He thought about Janice’s faith. (Although he believed her regular trips to church each Sunday were more about seeing people and being seen than anything else.) Was there a god? Or had the events of the last day been proof positive that all religions were based on superstition and bullshit? Was this heaven—if there was such a place—or its unthinkable opposite?

He suddenly remembered a line from a horror film he’d seen once and adapted it to fit his own bizarre circumstance. When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk their living rooms, hallways and kitchens.

***

The next day, Janice had been the first to move. With a wheezing groan of effort she’d pushed herself up out of her seat next to Nathan—casting a disappointed glance at the large yellow stain she’d left on the cream-colored leather—then dragged herself upstairs on all fours. Simon went back to his office, leaving Nathan in front of the now lifeless TV. He needed to find answers to some of the many questions he’d asked himself last night.

Simon got lost on the still-functioning parts of the Internet. It took him a frustrating age to type and to move the mouse—he could barely hold it and click the buttons today—but he still managed to waste hours searching pointlessly as he’d regularly done before he’d died. He heard Janice crashing about in the kitchen, and her noise finally prompted him to move.

He checked in on Nathan as he passed the living room door. The boy looked bad. His legs and feet were swollen and bruised. His skin had an unnatural blue-green hue and one corner of his mouth hung open. A dribble of stringy, yellow-brown saliva trickled steadily down his chin, staining his favorite football shirt.

“Okay son?” Simon asked, having to remind himself how to talk again. Nathan slowly lifted his head and looked over in the general direction of his father.

“Bored.”

“Just sit there for a bit,” he said between breaths as he carried on down the hall. “Mum and I will work out what we’re going to do.”

Janice’s appearance caught him by surprise. She’d changed her clothes and was wearing a dress she’d bought yesterday.

“Might as well get some wear out of it,” she said.

“You look nice,” he said automatically, even though she didn’t. Always compliment your wife, he thought, even in death. Truth was, the way she looked made him feel uneasy. By squeezing herself into such a tight, once-flattering dress, she’d highlighted the extent to which her body had already changed. Her ankles were bruised and bloated like Nathan’s (because the blood which was no longer being pumped around her body was pooling there—he’d learnt that online) and her belly was swollen (most probably with gas from countless chemical reactions—he’d learnt that online too). Her once-pert breasts hung heavy and unsupported like two small, sagging sacks of grain. She lurched into the light and, just for a second, Simon was thankful for the frozen, expressionless mask that death had given him and which hid his true reaction.

Janice looked grotesque. She’d covered her face in a thick layer of concealer which appeared even more unnatural than the jaundiced tinge of decay her skin had shown previously. She’d applied mascara (managing to coat her eyeballs more than her eyelashes), eyeshadow and lipstick with clumsy hands, leaving her looking more like a drunken clown than anything else. He didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.

“Just want to feel normal again,” she said. “Just because I’m dead, doesn’t mean I have to forget who I am.”

For a moment the two of them stared at each other in silence, standing and swaying at opposite ends of the room.

“Been trying to find out what’s going to happen,” Simon told her.

“What do you mean?”

“What’s going to happen to us. How bad things will get before…”

Janice moved unexpectedly. She didn’t want to hear this. She headed for the dishwasher which she hadn’t emptied since they’d died.

“Don’t want to know…”

“Need to think about it. Got to be ready for it.”

“I know,” she wheezed. She squinted in frustration at the white china plate she held in her hand. It was dirty again now that she’d picked it up but she put it away in the cupboard anyway. “How long will we have before…?”

“Depends,” he said, anticipating the end of her question. “Could be six months. Need to keep the house cool, stay dry…”

She nodded (although her head didn’t move enough to notice), stopped unloading, and leant heavily against the nearest cupboard.

“We’re lucky really,” Simon said, pausing to take another deep breath of air. “Six months is a long time to have to say goodbye.”

***

By mid-afternoon the street outside the house was an unexpected mass of clumsy, chaotic movement. More and more dead people had dragged themselves out into the open as the day had progressed. Simon thought he recognized some of them, although they were pale shadows of who they used to be.

What were they hoping to achieve out there? Surely they must have realized by now that the situation was beyond hope? No one’s going to help you, he thought. You can’t cure death or make it any easier—these people needed to get a grip and get back indoors. Some of them began to squabble and fight, unable to react to their impossible situation in any other way. Most, though, simply staggered around aimlessly.

Simon watched them all walking in the same clichéd, slothful way—shuffling and stumbling, legs inflexible, arms stiff and straight. That was one thing those horror film people got right, he decided. They were out by a mile with just about every other aspect of how they’d imagined the dead would reanimate, but they’d got the painfully slow and clumsy zombie walk spot-on.

Zombies, he thought to himself, smiling inwardly. What am I thinking? He cursed himself for using such a stupid word. He wasn’t a zombie, and neither were Janice or Nathan.

Where was Nathan?

Janice was in the kitchen, still cleaning and fussing pointlessly, but he hadn’t seen Nathan for a while. He tried shouting for him but he couldn’t make his voice loud enough to be heard. The boy wasn’t anywhere downstairs and Simon couldn’t face the long climb up to check his room. He lurched into the kitchen.

“Where Nathan?”

Janice stopped brushing her lank, greasy hair and looked up.

“Thought you with him?”

Simon walked past his dead wife and headed for the utility room at the far end of the kitchen. Using the walls and washing machines for support, he hauled himself along the narrow passageway and looked up. The back door was wide open. The whole house would no doubt be freezing cold but, as they were no longer able to feel the temperature, humidity, air pressure, or anything else, neither of them had noticed. He squinted into the distance and thought he could see Nathan near the bottom of their long garden. There was definitely something moving around down there….

He went out to investigate, struggling to keep his balance through the long, wet grass. The shape slowly came into focus. It was Nathan, crawling around on his hands and knees.

“What the hell you doing?”

“Playing,” Nathan answered, still trying to keep going forward, unaware he’d crawled headfirst into an overgrown bramble patch. “Lost ball.”

“Inside,” Simon ordered, leaning down and trying unsuccessfully to grab hold of his son’s collar. Nathan reluctantly did as he was told. He reversed direction and shuffled back out, dragging spiteful, prickly bramble stems with him which refused to let go. He stood up, fell back down when one of his legs gave way, then got back up again.

“What you doing?” Simon demanded, managing to swallow just enough air to make his voice sound almost as angry as he felt.

“Fed up. Want to play…”

Simon grabbed Nathan’s hand and dragged him back towards the house. He stopped and held the boy’s discolored wrist up closer to his face. His paper-thin skin had been slashed to ribbons by branches and thorns. His ankles were in an even worse state. Flaps of flesh hung down over the sides of his feet like loose-fitting socks.

“Look what you done! Won’t get better!”

Nathan snatched his hand away and trudged back towards the house, zigzagging awkwardly up the boggy lawn.

***

Simon’s eyes weren’t working as well as they had been earlier. It was getting dark, but when he looked outside it was still bright. The light was moving, flickering.

“Think it’s… a fire,” Janice gasped, inhaling mid-sentence. “House on fire.”

He turned around to look at her. She was scrubbing at a dirty brown handprint on the wall, her barely coordinated efforts seeming only to increase the size of the grubby mark. He noticed that she’d changed her clothes again. Probably for the best; several large, bile-colored stains had appeared on the white dress since she’d started wearing it. Now she wore only a shapeless, baggy pullover. He noticed that lumpy brown liquid was dribbling down the insides of her bare legs and splashing on the carpet between her feet.

“What we going to do?”

Simon had been trying to think of an answer to that question all day, and he’d come to the conclusion that they only had one choice now—to barricade themselves in the house and try to maximize the time they had left together.

Earlier, when it had been lighter and he’d been able to see more clearly, he’d watched the chaos on the road outside with a mixture of fascination and unease. Their quiet cul-de-sac had become a seething cesspit of activity. There seemed to be a constant flood of people filling the street, marching incessantly towards nothing. (Just like in the films, he thought.) He remembered how he’d seen several of them trip and fall, only to be trampled down by countless others who were being forced forward en masse by the pressure of the swollen crowds behind. The street had become little more than a putrid, flesh-filled channel, ankle deep in places. But still they came, and still they fell. Stupid. Pointless. He was glad he’d had the foresight to have a gate installed across the drive. It made it easier to protect his family from the madness outside.

And what about Nathan? He’d caused irreparable damage to himself whilst on his own outside, and that had only been the beginning of his problems today. In punishment, Simon had sent him to his room, only for him to stumble back down an hour or so later, clutching his stomach. He’d fallen off his bed and had torn a deep gash in his side. Struggling to coordinate their clumsy and frustratingly slow movements, he and Janice had patched up their son as best they could. They packed his gaping wound with towels, then wrapped virtually an entire roll of gaffer tape around his misshapen gut to keep the wadding in place. He now sat on a stiff-backed chair in the corner of the room, under orders not to move.

“What we going to do?” Janice asked again. Simon had lost himself in his thoughts. That kept happening.

“Stay here,” he eventually answered. “Open windows upstairs…make it cold. Block doors.”

“Go out,” Nathan grumbled from the corner, trying to pick a maggot out from a hole in his left leg just above his knee. The bones were sticking out of the ends of two of his fingers, making them as difficult to use as chopsticks.

“Not out,” Simon snapped, conscious that their conversation was beginning to sound primitive and almost totally monosyllabic.

“Yes, out!” Nathan said again. “Bored here.”

“Can’t,” Janice said, positioning her tottering, half-naked frame directly in front of what was left of her only child. “Listen to Dad.”

“No point…”

“Go out and get hurt!” Simon yelled.

“Already dead!”

Nathan’s bizarre but factually correct response completely floored his father. His response, like many parents who lose an argument with their child, was to ignore him.

“Not going out. End of talk.”

***

The dark came again, then the light, then the dark. The family had barely moved in hours but, as dawn broke on the fourth day after death, Simon was forced to take action. When the bright sun was finally strong enough for him to be able to see out with his increasingly weak and useless eyes, he saw that the front of their house was surrounded.

He staggered towards the window and squinted out. The number of dead people crammed into their crowded cul-de-sac had continued to increase. During the night just ended, the size of the crowd must have reached critical mass. The gate had finally given way and their block-paved driveway was now filled to capacity with rotting flesh. There were hundreds of them out there, faces pressed against his windows and doors. Furious and frightened, he hobbled over to one side and pulled the curtains shut.

“What matter?” Janice croaked from where she lay slumped in a puddle of herself on the floor.

“Outside,” was all he said as he limped past her and headed for the hall. Janice picked herself up and followed, her rapidly escaping, putrefying innards leaving a trail on the carpet behind her. Nathan watched his parents disappear into the gloom of the rest of the house.

In the hall, Simon looked at the front door. He could see them moving on the other side. Barely able to coordinate his movements, he purposefully collided with the coat stand by the mirror, knocking it sideways. It clattered down and, more through luck than judgment, became wedged across the full width of the door. Janice bent down and started to pick up the bags, coats, hats, and scarves which had fallen off and lay on the floor.

“Windows,” Simon groaned, already moving towards the next room. Janice followed, desperately trying to keep him in focus as he stumbled into his office. She saw him grab at the venetian blind with bloated hands. His stiff, twisted fingers became caught in the metal slats and he fell, pulling the blind down and revealing another mass of cold, emotionless faces outside. Janice tried to help him up but she couldn’t. When he crawled away from her she dropped to her knees and tried to pick up the blind.

“Out!” he mumbled, pulling himself back up, using the door frame for support. Janice, momentarily confused and disorientated, managed to work out where he was standing and shuffled towards his voice. Once she’d gone past him, Simon made a grab for the door handle, catching it with his fourth downwards swipe and managing to pull it shut.

They stood together in the hallway, leaning against each other, unsteady legs constantly threatening to buckle. Simon concentrated hard and forced himself to swallow air.

“Back door,” he said. “Then safe. All blocked.”

He pushed Janice away so that he could move again. She toppled back, then lurched forward, her face slapping against the wall like rotten fruit. Instinctively she took an unsteady step back and tried to wipe away the stain she’d left behind. She was still rubbing at it several minutes later when Simon limped back towards her.

“In,” he wheezed, his voice barely audible now. Together they crashed back through the living room door. “Block it.”

“Careful,” she mumbled as he moved towards the bookcase adjacent to the door. “My things…”

She began trying to pick precious items and heirlooms off the shelves—a trophy, a crystal decanter, a framed photograph of the three of them—but Simon wasn’t interested. Summoning all the effort he could muster, he pushed and pulled the bookcase until it came crashing down across the living room door, trapping them safely inside. Janice stood and looked at the mess. Simon collapsed. He aimed for the sofa but skidded in another rancid puddle and ended up on the floor. He was past caring.

They were safe. The house was secure.

After a while, he looked around the room. Something was wrong. He knew his eyes were failing, but he could still see enough to know that someone was missing.

“Where Nathan?”

***

Janice and Simon lasted another eighteen days together. They sat slumped on the floor at opposite ends of the living room for more than four hundred hours, longer than anyone else for several miles around, still recognizable when most others had been reduced to slurry.

It felt like forever; hour after hour, after silent, empty hour, they sat and remembered who they used to be and what they did and how they’d miss all that they’d lost. Had they been capable of feeling anything, the end would have finally come as a relief. More than a week after they’d died, first Simon and then Janice’s brain activity dwindled and then stopped like batteries running flat.

***

Nathan only lasted a day after going outside. His dad had been right about one thing: by staying indoors, in cool, dry conditions, their rate of decay had been slowed dramatically. But Nathan hadn’t wanted to sit there doing nothing. In his one long day, he played football (after a fashion), made friends with a frog, chased a cat, tried to climb a tree, and explored that part of the garden that Mum and Dad didn’t like him exploring. And even when he couldn’t move anymore, when everything but his brain and his eyes had stopped working, he lay on his back on the grass and looked up at the lights and the clouds and the birds and planned what he was going to do tomorrow.

© 2010 David Moody