Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man by Scott Edelman

Scott Edelman’s fiction has appeared in a variety of anthologies and magazines, such as Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic, Postscripts, Forbidden Planets, Summer Chills, and The Mammoth Book of Monsters. When not writing, Edelman edits Science Fiction Weekly and SCI FI Magazine, and in the past edited the fiction magazine Science Fiction Age.

Edelman is something of a zombie genius. He’s had stories appear in each of James Lowder’s Eden Studios zombie anthologies: The Book of All Flesh, The Book of More Flesh, and The Book of Final Flesh, and he’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award three times for his zombie fiction. As I read each of his zombie stories I thought for sure I’d found one to include in the book–that there’d be no way he’d top himself after that story, only to discover that each was better than the last. And that’s without even mentioning his brilliant "A Plague on Both Your Houses," a five-act Shakespearean play that he describes as a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Night of the Living Dead.

This story, which is one of his Stoker Award nominees, is not in any way Shakespearean, but one reviewer compared it to the work of another literary legend: W. H. Auden.

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.

 

Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man
by Scott Edelman

Maybe it would be best to begin this way.

Let’s start, in fact, on the day that it all started, with Laura already at work in the county library. But here’s the thing — as the day goes by, maybe she won’t even come to realize yet that the dead are suddenly refusing to stay dead, because life happens that way, with momentous things occurring across town while we, in our homes, in our ignorance, clip our fingernails or floss our teeth. Earthquakes roar, floods rise, towers fall … and somewhere on the other side of the globe a man who may not hear of these things for many months, if at all, scrapes with his stick in a small patch of dusty earth and prays for rain. If he ever grows perturbed on that day, it will only be because the rain fails to come, and not due to dark happenings on continents far away.

For our purposes, let it begin that way for Laura, who did not notice her world tilting on its axis. She noticed little that first day of the change because little affected her personally, save that fewer patrons than normal wandered into her branch of the library. The ripples had not yet reached her.

But still, that small alteration to her routine puzzled her a bit, as over the years she had grown accustomed to the predictable rhythms of her week, but she let that feeling drop, and on the whole, it turned out to be an unusually good workday for her. She was able to spend less of her time that shift reshelving books that had been left on tables, and more of it catching up on paperwork, so she ended the day pleased.

As she headed back to her apartment that night, she treated herself to Chinese take-out. Maybe when she unpacks her dinner special, she should even find an extra fortune cookie at the bottom of the bag. Now that would cause her to smile. Because there’s something else that you should know about Laura. She’s been using the vocabulary words printed on the back of each fortune to teach herself Chinese, not the best method, perhaps, but still, hers, and the surprise cookie put her one word closer to her goal. See, she was planning to visit China someday. Adding that information just about now should help add poignancy to her tale, considering what we already know is inevitably to come and what she does not.

And so, later that night, after the additional reward of a very special episode of one of her favorite television shows, during which two estranged sisters are reunited, plus the rush she got from the way she’d been able to avoid a phone call from her mother thanks to caller ID, she would tuck into bed pleased with herself and with the world and ready to fall into a peaceful sleep, knowing nothing of the chaos elsewhere and suspecting less, much as our man working his field with a stick might finally set aside that stick and stretch out on his straw mat to drift away while looking up at the stars, never knowing that he had just lived through a December 7, or an August 6, or a September 11.

It was only the next day, when Laura slid that morning’s newspapers onto the rods that kept them from getting tattered as they were being read, that she learned there had been anything special about the day before. She wasn’t sure that she believed it, though. The facts of the miraculous resurrection seemed to her as if they should instead be shelved under fiction. She grew angry with herself, and angry with her former ignorance as well, believing that had such a grand difference been born in the universe, she should have been able to feel it. That the rules of life and death should change without her knowledge and permission didn’t seem right.

She overheard much talk at her branch (all in whispers, of course) as to what it meant, and how one should proceed to walk through such an unexpected world, but she knew of no other way to live, and believed that one should accept the directions in which fate pushes us. She had never been able to see a different way for herself before, thanks in part (or so she felt) to the mother whose call she had avoided the night before, and saw no reason that she should try to see a different way for herself now. And so, in the face of the death of death, which would likely cause most people to abandon their routines, she still returned each day to carry out her duties.

Each successive day, however, will bring fewer of the living and more of the dead to browse in her department, until her regular clientele is completely replaced. At first, perhaps, she’ll hardly notice that the undead are undead, for there’ll be no slavering over her flesh the way she would have assumed. They’ll just be shuffling slowly along, extracting books from the shelves, and sitting at the tables much the same way the regulars had. They won’t behave so differently from the living, and so she won’t notice that they’re not living.

But then something will happen that will finally cause her to see and believe the great change that has occurred. Perhaps she’ll notice that these new visitors are more intense at their tasks than those who had come before. Maybe it will be the fact that there is no whispering and no cause for her to shush. Or perhaps it’s that she finally notices that no one is taking any bathroom breaks. Whatever the catalyst, she will eventually see. They’ll seem more serious than those she was used to, and though more and more of them will drift in each day, so that some will finally have to stand, they’ll be even better behaved than those who over her long years of service she’d grown used to, who by that time will have been entirely replaced, so that she is the only living creature who shows up there each day. But still, even that, even noting that only the dead surround her, will not cause her to change her routine.

She’ll come to understand that the men, women, and children (though they really have to be understood as former men, women and children) are actually looking for something in the pages of those books, something that matters to them a great deal. They’re not just going through the rote motions that had obsessed them in life. But what exactly are they seeking?

She watches them eagerly, intently, knowing that if she could only figure out what they sought, that she would find something meaningful there for herself as well, something that had waited just one step ahead of her her entire life.

Somehow it would all start to make sense. All of it.

No, forget that. Forget about Laura and her mother and the stale taste of fortune cookies. That’s no way to begin this. It doesn’t seem right at all. There’s got to be a better way.

I’m going to start over, which is something that’s a lot easier to do here on this page than from where I’m standing.

How about this for an opening, then?

The day the zombies came, Emily was dropping by the library (yes, there’s that library again; it’s important; you’ll see) to visit her friend Rachel, which also means that it was the day that Rachel died. But as Emily arrived to take her friend to lunch, she doesn’t know that yet. She knew that there was something odd about the day though. In fact, as she parked her car and fumbled for change for the meter, she wondered, what with the strange news reports that had been coming over her car radio during her drive, whether the two old friends should postpone their outing for another day.

Maybe I’ll even have her pause for a moment and think it a hoax. She’ll wonder whether this was just like that old-time Martian invasion that drove everybody mad when it was first broadcast on the radio, or man’s supposed landing on the moon. (Which will have you wondering for a moment which of us didn’t believe man ever made it to the moon, Emily or me. It’s Emily. At least, most of the time, it’s Emily.) And then she’ll think, whether the broadcasts were a ratings trick or not, did it really matter? Regardless of the dangers of this world, life had to go on. She knew that. Life happened, and you had to happen, too. There would always be disruptions worthy of locking the doors and pulling down the shades, if you wanted to find them.

As you can tell, Emily is the sort of person who lives in two worlds, both this one, the one we all agree upon as reality, and another one, one slightly askew, to keep that first one at arm’s length. She always felt that though a person had to live in the world, it did not mean she had to be of it. One should be able to keep the world at a distance so that it did not disrupt one’s plans, and live as if all life’s problems were on the other side of the world, as if she lived in a hut somewhere, her husband out most of the day poking at yams in the soil. Together they would be happy, less because of any affinity they had for each other than because of their separateness from society and its ills. They would live in ignorance of headlines and be bound together by that simplicity. The beating drums of the world would appear muffled and distant.

Emily survived many tragedies that way. Compared to her divorce, dealing with the resurrection of the dead would be a snap.

As she walked up the steps of the library, approaching the intricate wrought-iron gates at the entrance, wondering whether she and Rachel should do Chinese or Italian, a man ran toward her and then past her, screaming as he headed for the street. Blood spurted from one shoulder. In Emily’s shock, it took her a moment to edit that initial thought to, no, not from his shoulder, but from the place where his arm used to be. She was ashamed to admit to herself that she felt relieved when he passed by her without spattering blood on her new blouse, which she had bought just for this occasion.

As she stood frozen, halfway between the street and the library entrance, one of the undead stumbled out the gates above her after its escaping prey. Its skin was grey, and its clothing still spilled clods of earth from its disinterment. Blood dripped from its mouth. Emily will do her best to force her legs to move before the dead thing shifts its focus to her, but her internal struggle proves unnecessary, as the shell of a man totters as it tries to move from one step to the next, loses its balance, and then rolls past her, tumbling down the length of the stairs.

After it finally struck the pavement, it lay motionless for a moment, and Emily thought it could be taken for a pile of cloth and bones, but then, as she watched, it slowly rose to its feet and looked up at her, really looked at her, she thought. She’d heard the radio hosts surmise that these undead things were beyond thought, but it certainly seemed to her to be thinking, almost considering for a moment whether it could make its way back up those steps to her.

Before it turned from her and shuffled down the street, in search, apparently, of an easier target, Emily would have sworn that it shrugged.

Emily rushed inside, calling out her friend’s name. There’ll be some personal detail seeded into the text before this so that you’ll know that even with what Emily has been handed in life, she is still an optimistic sort, one who even in the face of what she has just seen expected to find her friend alive. (Maybe you’ll learn of a lost dog who made its way home, or a parent whose cancer scare passed. Let’s make it the dog. I’ll have her see one on the street earlier as she parks her car so that there’ll be a reason for her to wistfully remember a few details. People are often taught more lasting lessons by pets than by parents.)

From across the room, Emily could make out that Rachel stood where Emily had always found her, behind the counter where she checked out books, but by then, Rachel was no longer Emily’s friend. A bite that had been taken out of Rachel’s neck had allowed blood to spill down the front of her blouse. Her skin was not yet grey; it was deathly pale, but not yet the color of the creature who had fallen past Emily on its hunt, so perhaps it had happened not so long ago. Emily will think that if only she had arrived a half an hour earlier, perhaps she would have found her friend alive. It does not occur to her to think that if she had arrived a half an hour earlier, maybe they would both be dead. But that’s just the kind of person Emily is.

(Thank the dog.)

Emily did not enter the vast room to approach her friend. She hung back in the hallway and noted that no one else remained there, neither human nor zombie. That was a good thing. Emily took that to mean that perhaps she could be safe there, in a building at the top of stairs which seemed untenable to the dead. It all depended what her friend had turned into. It did not seem to Emily as if Rachel had become a predator. Her friend had always been gentle. Could she ever become anything but, whatever the circumstance? Emily did not think that death necessarily had to be a life-altering experience.

Emily noticed that the whole time she watched, Rachel stayed by her station, her fingers on her keyboard, her dull eyes looking straight ahead, waiting … but for what? Did some spark that still glowed somewhere inside her still expect customers to come? Maybe she was merely doing what had always been expected of her in life, out of a habit that transcended death. Or was she waiting for Emily, only for a different reason than she would have been waiting earlier, cannily hoping to entice her close, too close, with a feigned calmness that was truly no longer hers? If only Emily could figure it out, unravel the suddenly mysterious why of her friend, she felt that somehow everything would then make sense, and she’d know, with or without a dog, with or without a husband who poked at the earth with a stick, how she was meant to live her life from that day forward.

No … that’s all wrong, too.

This is getting frustrating. I usually don’t vacillate like this, at least not when it comes to putting words on the page. Give me a few moments …

I’ve got it. Let’s begin this way instead.

Walter was at the main branch of the library researching his next novel the day the zombies came. (I know, I know. What’s with these libraries, you’re thinking. Surely there’s a more exciting place to go with this. But no, for me, there isn’t. And you’ll soon see why.) When the screaming began, echoing down the narrow hallways and filling the cavernous room in which he sat, there were so many books stacked about him that he needed to stand to see what was happening. The first thing he saw was that the librarian, who had been so kind to him over the years, but whose name he had never bothered to learn (later, he would berate himself for that), was beating her fists against the back of a man who was no longer a man. The thing was biting chunks out of her neck and spitting gristle as it growled. They soon both fell behind the counter so that Walter was no longer able to see them, but he could still hear the unsettling sounds of feasting.

Walter ducked back down below the wall of books that he had built around him (and I will have to think later about whether to stress the metaphor of this, with examples of how he had shielded himself with books during all other aspects of his life) and crawled from the room, unashamed (well, only slightly ashamed), for he had learned long ago that he was a writer, not a fighter. He did not lift his head, thinking unrealistically that if he couldn’t see zombies, they could not see him, until he bumped up against tiny chairs, and realized that he had reached the children’s section.

Craning his neck to look up, he saw one of the undead holding a young girl up to its mouth and chewing its way through her organs. Perhaps flecks of her blood will splash onto his face. Perhaps he will only imagine it, as the reality might be too much for you. Or perhaps it will be both, that flecks of blood will splash onto his face but he will only think that he imagined it, because it won’t be too much for you; it will be too much for him. The girl wriggled erratically as she died, and Walter, noting that the zombie was too lost in the frenzy of its feast to notice him, leapt to his feet and ran past.

Walter knew the layout of the library intimately, as it had become his second home (well, actually, more like his first home, as his apartment had never become a true home to him), and made his way to the vault in which he knew the rare holdings were stored. At night, it was kept locked, but during the day the staff left it open for easier access. He had a hunch that he could be protected in there. He would lock himself in, and no zombie would be able to figure out how to get in after him. Surely, zombies couldn’t calculate combinations. Numbers were too complex for them. All they knew was one body, another body, another body …

Getting out again once things had calmed down again, when he would be seen once more as a person, and not just a body, not just a snack, would be easy, because safes were designed to prevent people from breaking in, not out. Right?

He hoped he was right. He was sure he was right. At least that’s what he kept telling himself as the air inside the vault grew moist and stuffy, and he struggled, mostly in vain, to hear whether the screaming outside had stopped.

Sigh.

No … no … no.

I’m afraid that last try didn’t hold together any better than the first two. It didn’t bring alive what it’s like to live among the dead.

But … unfortunately … that third account is really the best narrative I have to work with. Because that one’s my life. Because that one’s the truth as I have lived it.

And because now, especially now, metaphor has to go. From now on, I should only write what actually happened.

I should only write the truth.

[End of Excerpt]