The zombies attacked their home late at night on a Monday.
Johnny and his wife were in bed, their infant daughter sleeping between them. He’d been staring at the ceiling in the nearly pitch-dark room when he heard glass shatter. He jumped out of bed, instinctively grabbing the steel bat. The one he leaned against the wall every night before turning in; the one he prayed he’d never have to use.
“The boards will hold them,” his wife said to him, whispering so she wouldn’t wake Izzy.
He stood in front of their bedroom door, the bat slung over his right shoulder. He was suddenly aware of every sound—his own breathing, his wife’s, Izzy’s; the ever-present howling outside, the noise he couldn’t get used to, the noise that had kept him from having a good night’s sleep for the last nine days. More glass breaking.
You’ve left us alone for over a week, he thought. Why are you coming here now?
Howls and yells. Thumping and banging, as their arms and feet and heads hit and kicked and butted against the plywood he’d used to board up the patio door in the guest bedroom. Rebekah had convinced him to cut a hole through their home to put in the sliding glass door last summer, to increase the value of the house and give them access to a backyard deck. They hadn’t built the deck yet; he’d planned to, this summer. He’d already requested the time off at work.
It’s a strange thing to be thinking about at a time like this.
He felt a hand on his arm and almost jumped. Or swung.
“It’s okay,” Rebekah said. “It’s me.”
“Stay with Izzy,” he whispered, his voice betraying him by breaking.
The banging against the wood grew louder, more insistent. Thump! Thump! Thump!
Are you banging to be let in? Johnny thought. As if you have a right to this house? This is our home, and you won’t enter it. Father, don’t let them; don’t let them break through that wood, Lord. In the name of your Holy Son, in the power of Your Holy Spirit, keep our house safe and secure as You’ve done since all of this started, Holy Father. Have mercy on me and my family, Lord, according to Your great mercy.
Izzy stirred in bed. She sat up. “Mommy?” Her voice was soft and scared.
I’m scared too, little one.
Rebekah walked back to their daughter and whispered that everything was going to be okay.
Izzy refused to sleep in her coat, so she’d been sleeping on it. As Rebekah slipped Izzy’s hands through its sleeves, she said, “I want you to play silent monk now, darling.” Then Johnny saw his wife pull their daughter into an embrace and, for a mad moment, he wanted to drop the bat and go to his family and wrap both of them in his arms.
He started. They’d broken through. He hadn’t heard it break, but the plywood had given. The howling was loud and getting louder, as loud as someone standing in the hallway outside their bedroom.
Something hard hit the door and jostled it with a loud bang. A second hit, followed by another. Bang! Bang! He took a step back with his right leg, gripped the bat tighter. Bang! and the door looked like it might fly off its hinges.
“I’m here,” Rebekah said from beside him. She held her own bat, though hers was made of wood. He only had the one steel bat, and by the time he thought to buy a second, they’d all been sold out.
“Stay with Izzy,” he said again.
Rebekah didn’t move.
“There’s a lot of them,” he said, raising his voice a little to be heard over the assault on their bedroom door.
Rebekah looked back at Izzy. “We meet at the church?”
He nodded. Outside the door, the howls of the zombies became even more frenzied. “Wait until I draw them away, but don’t wait too long, okay?”
She didn’t say anything; they’d already gone over this and he knew she didn’t like the idea.
“Okay, honey?” he said.
The door flew open, the lock breaking, the top hinge ripped right out of the wall. Johnny swung without thought or discrimination, aiming for whatever was convenient. He connected with the head of the first zombie, cracking its skull and sending it to the ground. He broke the arm of another, then smashed his bat so hard against its face that he heard its neck snap. His third target was a tall zombie in a dirty business suit, and the bat cracked its short ribs and maybe punctured its lungs; whatever happened, that zombie fell too. Something warm and wet suddenly splashed across his face—blood; guts too, maybe. Rebekah had swung with her own bat, although the plan was for her to hide in the attached bathroom.
More zombies were stepping over their fallen comrades and entering their room. Johnny raised his bat over his head and brought it down with all of his might on one of their heads; the zombie stumbled backward and made a strange, sad gurgling sound before it dropped. Momentarily distracted, Johnny paused; a zombie grabbed the bat and tried to wrench it out of his hands. Johnny kicked the zombie in the leg, then let go of the handle and threw a punch at the side of the zombie’s head. The zombie dropped the bat and Johnny bent down to grab it off the floor.
Rebekah continued to grunt and swing, taking down her own share of zombies. He was proud of her. “I’m not a delicate flower, you know?” she said to him once when they were still dating—he couldn’t remember why. No, she wasn’t a delicate flower—she just looked like one.
Zombie bodies were filling the narrow passageway just inside their bedroom door. He felt vomit rise into his throat; the smell was overpowering, the stink of human bodies that haven’t been washed in weeks, the stench of feces and urine, of blood dried and crusted on dirt-stained flesh and clothes.
He stood. From the bed, he heard Izzy start to cry. She’d kept quiet longer than he’d expected, even after all the games of “silent monk” they’d played in the last week to help her practice.
“Please,” he said to his wife. “Now.”
Without waiting to see or hear if she’d listen, he attacked another zombie, having to swing the bat twice before the large man dropped. He heard movement behind him, but didn’t turn to look.
“I love you,” his wife said, then he heard the bathroom door close.
“I love you, too!” he yelled; then, “I love you, little one!”
He climbed onto their bed, tried to open the curtains but tore them off in his ferocity. “Come on, you freaks!” He swung the bat against the large window above the headboard; he hit it a second and third time, then used the bat to clear a path, sweeping away the broken shards that still stuck out from the frame.
The light of a full moon streamed through the broken window and cast a bluish glow on the garish scene. Bodies filled their bedroom floor, as if he and his wife were great serial killers amassing trophies. He couldn’t help but think that the bodies on the ground looked as human as any other body, if only dirtier and bloodier. It was the walking zombies—the howling, crazed creatures trying to bite or bash with their fists whatever was in their way—that were obvious for the monsters they were.
A few of those zombies were banging against the bathroom door, and Johnny knew it wouldn’t take much for it to give. “Over here, you brainless brutes!” he yelled. He tried to swing at a zombie who had climbed onto the bed, but the mattress and swirled piles of covers were too soft and he was too unsteady to give it any real power. He used the bat to push the zombie off the bed instead.
He couldn’t stay there, but he wasn’t jumping out the window with zombies clamoring to get into the small bathroom where his wife and daughter were hiding. Taking a deep breath, he played his Hail Mary card, in the hope that the pastor from Alabama was right. He tried it: “In the name of Jesus Christ,” he said, “the Son of God—”
He didn’t need to finish; at the name of Jesus, he sensed as much as heard or saw the zombies stop and turn to face him as if with one will. He climbed out of the window, sticking out his right leg. Their house was a bungalow and he was less than ten feet from the ground. The night air was cold; he was dressed in jeans and a sweater and even had running shoes on, but no jacket. His jacket was in the bedroom closet; they’d gotten a bit lax after a few days.
Someone grabbed his left leg; he kicked reflexively and made contact with something (a shoulder? a face?), but the zombie didn’t let go. He kicked again, then again, striking something each time. Still the zombie held on, and started pulling him back in. Fighting against the rising sense of panic, Johnny dropped the bat out the window, grabbed the sill from outside and launched himself away from the house. His plan had been to land on his feet face-forward and roll, but he stumbled backward instead and fell down without a chance to brace himself. Winded, he pushed himself on his side with effort, then up to his knees. He looked around, trying to control his coughing and to focus. The bat”¦he didn’t see it. As his desperate gaze swept their backyard, his heart drummed against his chest, louder and harder. The bat had to be there, he’d just tossed it—
Something metallic glinted in the moonlight. He scrambled over and grabbed the bat, then rose to his feet.
A zombie fell out of his bedroom window head-first and broke its neck. A pang of sadness struck through him, and he almost reached out to—what? help? straighten out its neck so the body didn’t look so mangled and pathetic?
Johnny forced his gaze to the zombies trying to jam themselves through the newly-installed patio door and into his home. He yelled at them and they turned and looked at him. “What are you waiting for?” he yelled again. “Come on!”
Another zombie followed the first through the bedroom window; it landed on its legs and seemed to break or sprain something. Still it hobbled toward Johnny and he swung his bat to drop it.
“Come on!” he yelled again, then checked over his shoulder to make sure the way was clear. He ran backward to an unbroken part of the large wooden fence that separated his backyard from their neighbors to the east. “Come on!”
As long as they didn’t swarm him all at once, Johnny knew he’d be okay. Most of the zombies weren’t a big threat on their own; many had banged their heads against so many locked doors, or tore at them with their bare hands, that they’d dislodged most of their teeth or ripped off their own fingernails. Some zombies were missing one or both eyes. So long as he kept the fights one-on-one, and he had a bat and they didn’t, Johnny wasn’t worried about any individual zombie. It was when they came at you together, with one grabbing your hands while another tore at you”¦he’d seen the same image played out countless times in videos on the internet and on the news, when all of this had first happened. It was when they came at you together that”¦he pushed the images away.
Again he swung and almost took off the head of the fastest zombie coming after him; then swung again and took care of the runner-up. Johnny kept one eye on his bedroom window; it was dark and empty with no more zombies coming through. Finally he thought he saw a small bundle get lowered down, then a bigger one landing softly behind it. His wife picked up their daughter and began to run around the side of the house. She was supposed to wave at him to let him know she and Izzy were okay. But, Johnny figured, maybe she forgot, or maybe she felt, now that everything was actually happening, the second that action would take was a second they couldn’t spare.
Johnny followed at a distance, knocking down zombies when they came too close. Throughout he tried to keep one eye on the shadow about a dozen strides ahead of him now. She seemed to be carrying Izzy with both hands. Had she lost her bat at some point? Johnny wondered, and for a moment thought of heading back to look. They could always come back for it later, though; the priority now was to get his family safely to the church.
Rebekah turned the corner at the end of their street, and headed west. He followed, scanning the driveways and homes to either side and the way ahead. It was clear for the most part. The zombies he saw were keeping their distance and didn’t seem that interested in him or Rebekah. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed his suspicion; some of the zombies who’d attacked their home were still giving chase, but they were slow and lumbering and were falling behind.
Johnny returned his gaze to his wife and daughter; he was ready at a moment’s notice to race up to them if he felt they needed his help. But they turned north on Main Street without trouble. Two more blocks and they’d be in sight of the church.
He tripped, his foot catching in something, and he let go of the bat as he put out his hands to stop the fall. He’d been so focused on making sure the way was clear for his wife and daughter that he’d neglected to check his own surroundings.
A growl drew his attention. He turned over, pulled himself away and up onto his elbows. Two zombies were on top of one another. Both of their faces were now turned toward him and they growled at him again, practically in unison. His gaze drifted down their naked bodies. With a jolt of shock, he realized they’d been having sex when he’d tripped over them. The thought paralyzed him in place, but suddenly a sharp, hard pinch on his right calf made him yell out in pain.
I’ve been bit, he thought, in a strange mixture of sadness and acceptance. He wondered what that meant for him, how long he had. He put aside that thought for the moment and kicked with his other foot at the head of the zombie whose mouth was still wrapped around his leg, the zombie’s teeth still digging into his flesh and drawing blood. The other zombie, the female, shrieked with an ear-piercing yell, perhaps in displeasure or protest at Johnny’s attack on her mate.
The female crawled out from underneath the male zombie and tried to reach for Johnny’s neck, but he pushed its hands away even as he tried to kick and dislodge the male one. Blood was pouring down his leg now, and he felt himself start to go faint. I’ve been bit, he thought again.
For some reason he looked up the street, searching for his wife and daughter. Was there any point in calling for help? Would he even want to call them back? But they were gone, and the largest part of him was glad for it.
His gaze locked with the female zombie’s. Her eyes were listless and droopy, but he sensed a degree of intelligence behind her gaze that he hadn’t expected to find. Even as he stared at her, though, she clawed at him, tore a small chunk of flesh from his cheek, and barely missed taking out one of his eyes.
Johnny punched her in the face with all of his strength; her head snapped to the side, but her arms kept trying to reach for his own face or neck. He grabbed her right arm with one hand, her elbow with the other, and snapped. The crack was loud. She never yelled in pain, though, and still tried to attack him with her other arm and was now trying to crawl on top of him with her naked body, maybe to pin him back to the ground. Repulsed, he pushed her away hard, then drove his heel into the other zombie’s head; that zombie stripped off more skin from his leg, and Johnny cried out again. But at least he’d gotten loose of the zombie’s bite.
Johnny felt around for the bat without allowing his gaze to leave the female zombie’s. He found it, picked it up and swung just as she lunged at him. Without a chance to brace the swing, though, it was only powerful enough to daze her. Johnny took the opportunity to rise to his feet despite the burning pain from his right leg.
He held the bat in both arms. “Get out of here!” he yelled, expecting his tone to have more effect than his words, the way one might yell at a pair of dangerous dogs.
The female zombie’s right arm hung at a weird angle by her side. He thought he saw her smile. Somehow that simple little twitch of her lips, more than anything that had happened that night, sent shivers down his spine.
The male zombie stood too. In the moonlight, Johnny thought he saw his own blood like dark ink smeared around the zombie’s mouth.
The shivers multiplied, and a cold sweat broke out over his body. Or was that more than shivers? Was this simply fear he felt, or was it the first step and symptom of his own transformation into one of them? He tried to push the thought away. Maybe the bite, bad as it was, wasn’t enough to transmit whatever needed to be transmitted to turn him into a zombie. Maybe the carrier had to be cut and bleeding in its own mouth too, which Johnny couldn’t be sure was the case for the male zombie. Tears welled into his eyes, but he tried to force them away. Whatever else the cold shivers meant, he definitely recognized fear inside of him. He didn’t want to turn into one of these monsters, didn’t want to lose himself, didn’t want to attack other people and claw at them and bite them and maybe devour them if he could. He was afraid; afraid of all of that and afraid of never seeing or at least never recognizing his daughter again, of never kissing his wife again or making her laugh, of—
Please God, don’t turn me into a zombie, he thought, looking up at the sky reflexively. A long shadow covered the full moon in part, as if even it wished to pull an arm across its face to shield itself from the horrors below. The moon could shield its eyes, Johnny thought, but he’d prayed to God—and God didn’t shield His eyes from any horror, did He? Far more than that, He took the horrors of the world onto Himself, to save it. And what’s come of your world now? Johnny couldn’t help thinking the thought, but he chased it away quickly as he’d chased away so many other thoughts lately. You know what fear is, he thought. You were afraid once too. Help me overcome this fear as You overcame Yours. Help me be strong as You are strong. Be my refuge, be my shield.
The female and male zombies were inching closer to him, their wary gaze fixed on his bat. “Leave!” he yelled again, and spoke with such authority that they stopped moving at least. But he noticed that they’d attracted the attention of others. Two zombies he could probably handle, even with the fire burning in his leg. But more than that and he was at risk of being overwhelmed.
He walked away backwards, favoring his left leg. The pair followed, and more were approaching from all around. He gripped his bat tighter.
“If you come any closer,” he said to the two as he continued to retreat, “I’ll bash in your heads.”
They snarled or laughed at him, he wasn’t sure. Then, as if responding to an unseen and unspoken command, in one instant they both launched themselves at him. But he was ready and swung at the nearest zombie, then pivoted and swung again. It was enough; the first wasn’t moving on the ground, and the other was down and twitching at his feet.
Something grabbed him from behind, wrapped its arms around him, lifted him up and seemed set on crushing him to death. He kicked backward with his good leg and hit the zombie in the shins, but had to elbow it in the face twice, blood gushing out of its nose and onto him, before it let go.
He half-ran, half-hobbled down the street, trying to outpace the zombies that had zeroed in on him, and to avoid the zombies ahead. One block. Another. The streets were bordered by abandoned cars that had been pushed off to the sides. Some of the houses had been burned down; others were still or newly on fire. The blaze lit up the macabre scene on most of the front lawns. Dead and decaying bodies were strewn about, like Halloween lawn decorations taken to a morbid extreme.
Johnny wondered if the fires were accidental or the work of the zombies. Or even if they were set by surviving humans, perhaps as a way to control disease by burning up dead bodies. Or control the real disease by burning up living zombies.
He pushed himself to run in spite of the pain, the church looming into view when he passed the apartment buildings that towered over the corner of Down and Main. The three domes of the church were like dark beacons, the sight of the large golden cross glinting in the moonlight at the top of the largest dome filling him with relief for the first time that night.
A zombie sat on the curb, leaning against the pole of a bus stop sign, backlit by the burning two-story house behind him. He seemed to be the only zombie around. Although his leg screamed in pain, Johnny refused to give it any attention but forced himself to keep going. The zombie’s head was slouched down, and he was either sleeping or dead.
He arrived at the church without encountering any other zombies. He’d come up on its northern side, from Down Street, but went around to the front entrance off River.
The church, St. George, was actually a cathedral. Half-moon marble steps led up to the main double doors set in the center of the western face of the church. The doors were large oak ones, each ten feet high and carved with a simple bordered pattern of squares and rectangles.
He climbed the steps and almost collapsed at the doors, but leaned against the bat to hold himself up. His leg throbbed. He was still bleeding from there and from his cheek. He used the sleeve of his sweater to wipe away the blood on his face.
With the fleshy part of his left fist he knocked on the large wooden doors, creating a deep, reverberating sound. He remembered Easter midnight services, which he and his parents attended every year when he was a kid. The priest and the entire congregation stood outside in the cold midnight air, protecting the vulnerable flames of their candles with cupped hands, and the priest knocked on the doors. “Lift up your heads, ye gates!” the priest called out. “Be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” Then the doors would come open and the lights in the church would come on. Christ had broken down the gates of death, trampling them down by His own death. The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!
It had been a long time since he’d attended Easter matins service.
He knocked again, then tried to listen for any sounds inside. What if the church were empty? he wondered. But it couldn’t be. If no one was inside, Rebekah would’ve waited for him here—there were no zombies around to scare her away.
“Hello?” he yelled, dropping the bat and knocking with both fists this time, over and over again. “Is anyone in there?”
He allowed his forehead to drop to the door and rest against it. What if the church were empty after all? What if Rebekah had been chased away by zombies and was hiding somewhere else for the moment? Where could they go? This church was supposed to be their Plan B. They didn’t have a Plan C.
“Is anyone inside?” he yelled again, his voice sounding in his own ears as ragged and worn-out as he felt.
Before he could knock another time, he heard a voice from the other side of the doors. “Who are you?” The voice belonged to a young man, Johnny thought, and it betrayed a large degree of reservation or fear. He didn’t recognize it.
“My name is Johnny Salibi,” he said. “I’m Rebekah’s husband. Please open the door.”
There was only silence on the other side. Johnny couldn’t understand; he obviously wasn’t a zombie (yet, he couldn’t help but think). Why wasn’t this man opening the door?
“If you have any love for Christ our Lord,” Johnny said, pain and weariness forcing a note of desperation into his voice, “you will let me in.”
“Stand back,” the man said, then Johnny heard a lock being flipped and he stumbled away a step as the large door swung out.
Subdeacon Michael held it open; Johnny placed the voice now. The subdeacon was several years older, of course, probably in his mid-twenties now. At six-foot-three, Johnny considered himself tall, but Michael had a few inches even on him. Much fewer pounds, though. And where Johnny’s face was usually clean-shaven (because hair grew on his face unevenly, as was now being evidenced by a week’s worth of growth), Michael had a full thick black beard that reached down to his chest, as if in harmony with his black tunic that stretched to the ground.
“Get in, quickly,” Michael said, then closed and locked the door behind him. He held a cross and an unlighted flashlight in his left hand. His eyebrows went up at the sight of Johnny’s cheek.
Relief swept through Johnny and an overwhelming sense of joy almost sent his feet dancing even as he felt he wanted his leg to be amputated and the pain with it. Subdeacon Michael was obviously healthy, even if the dark fleshy circles under his eyes betrayed that he’d been getting about as much sleep as Johnny himself. But he wasn’t a zombie; the church was safe, as they’d hoped.
The doors separating the narthex from the nave were open; large windows ran along the sides of the church, and let in enough moonlight that Johnny could see it was empty. Two candles set at the entrances to the nave were lit, their flames flickering and sending dark shadows to dance on the walls and across the faces of the Theotokos holding the Christ-Child and of St. George slaying the dragon.
“Is everyone in the basement?” He didn’t hear any sounds coming from below, but the door leading down there was closed.
Michael had been staring at Johnny’s leg. He nodded, then he said, “You’re hurt.”
A momentary temptation to lie passed. He didn’t want to be kicked out of the church (or killed on the spot by Michael), but if he were turning into a zombie, he even more didn’t want to endanger a churchful of people, including his own wife and daughter. “I was bit,” he said. “Hard.”
Michael nodded again. Whatever fear his voice had betrayed before was now strangely gone, although he continued to look at Johnny with a mild apprehension, as if half-expecting him to turn into a zombie at any moment. “We have bandages in the office,” he said. “We should get you cleaned up before we go downstairs.”
Johnny wasn’t sure he understood, but his nerves were so frayed that he didn’t want to argue. Mostly he just wanted to sit down and press something against his leg until the bleeding stopped and the throbbing went away. “Whatever you think best,” he said, “but can you tell my wife I’m here first?”
The subdeacon brought his right hand to his beard and scratched the bottom of his chin. “Your wife is Rebekah, right?”
Johnny didn’t say anything. By the light of the candles, he’d seen the features on Michael’s face pull together in a mixture of confusion and concern as he asked the question.
That night had been a long series of frights and attacks of panic, from the moment Johnny first realized the zombies were trying to break into their home until he saw Michael and thought they were safe. But none of it compared to the desperate fear that now gripped his heart with icy fingers. “My wife Rebekah was just ahead of me,” he said, speaking deliberately but quickly. “She was just ahead of me, she should be here. With our daughter.”
Michael’s face had cleared of confusion; only concern remained. He stared at Johnny as if trying to find the words to say what he was thinking, but there was no need. Johnny already knew the truth. Rebekah had never made it to the church.