The Calm after the storm
av Linda Jonsson
A lone hummingbird flies through the sky. From up there, the old landmarks of the abandoned city can be located; the dilapidated bridge to the east, the large green speck that was once a park up north, and the tip of the statue in the southwest, nowadays missing its head. Signs of spring are visible everywhere; in the greenness of the trees, the blossom of the flowers, the warmth of the western breeze and the brightness of the beaming sun, shining down on grey buildings from a blue sky. Spring has always presented itself the same way in New York – from its founding in 1624, through decade after decade, century after century. Only one thing is out of the ordinary this time; the streets are empty. No children playing in the parks. No lovers proclaiming their love to one another on the top of the Empire State Building. No honking taxicabs. No rush-hour in the subway stations. No people. No nothing. A ghost town - that is, with the exception of the boy sitting in the upper-right window in the tallest building.
He is alone – not that that is something he isn’t used to; people lost the privilege of company a long, long time ago. Brown locks fall over his face, hiding the pale blue eyes behind a veil of hair. His cheeks are stained with dirt and
grease from who even knows how many weeks ago - time is not important anymore, anyway. The shoes on his feet are worn-out, having gone from a beige color to the one of a dark brown. The light-washed jeans have ripped over the knees, displaying scars and bruises on the kneecaps underneath. For the first time in months, the red jacket is not needed. Good, he thinks, red is the worst color for hiding, anyway.
He has always loved heights. Before it happened, his family used to go on trips to various national parks around the continent every year, hiking over mountain after mountain. A good memory – one of the few things that keeps him sane, nowadays. His mother would scold him if she knew that he had wasted precious energy to climb thousands of stairs, just to fall asleep to this particular view. But that’s the thing: she is not here. No one is. At least, that’s what he’s hoping for; what he’s counting on. Encountering one of them now, this late in the afternoon, after a day without any food but a tin of dried peaches – which tasted like feet, by the way – and ten mere sips of water… he- he could not do it; he would not make it.
“When did the world become this fucked up”, he murmurs to himself. And he is right – the world is, indeed, fucked up. It has been for almost a year now. Had the boy been keeping track, he would have known that it was actually, in fact, exactly a year ago tomorrow since it started.
Lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t remember to check the floor before nightfall. Nor before he jumps down from the window sill, to rest for the night. Nor before he closes his
eyes and falls asleep on the ground. A beginner mistake. He knows better. Mistakes get you killed.
It’s not the sun shining on his face that wakes him up, as it usually does. This time, a growl – the kind that manifests from the stomach and crawls up through the wind pipes, spilling out from the mouth in a hissing whisper – does the trick. In an instant, he’s up on his feet.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid”, he murmurs to himself, multitasking by stuffing the red jacket down into a rough-looking backpack while repeating these words over and over. “You’ll get yourself killed, fool.” And, as on cue, footsteps echo through the corridor outside of the room.
A quick sweep over the room, and then a double-check over the shoulder, assures him that he has left nothing behind. Necessities are scarce; leaving something behind is yet another mistake he cannot make tonight. With careful, careful, careful steps, he sneaks up to the door. Holding his breath to not make a sound, he leans out of the doorframe to gaze down the corridor. His eyes have not quite adjusted to the darkness, but there is no mistaking the dark silhouette slowly making its way towards him. With each new step, the creature steps on debris on the ground, clearly announcing its presence for anyone within earshot.
Dammit. In this darkness, there is no way he will be able to find his way around the debris without making a sound. His only chance is to run. Run. Run. Run. Do it now.
Him falling asleep before checking that the floor was clear was a stupid mistake. But he is no beginner, he has survived this far for a reason. He made sure to map the layout of the building in his head as he made his way upstairs. To the
right, there’s a flight of stairs leading all the way down to the ground floor. He can make it. He’s fast – he has managed to survive this long, after all.
It takes the stalking predator three seconds – three long seconds – to react after the boy has slung himself out from the doorway. Then, it shrieks and charges after him. And so, the chase has begun.
The emergency exit door down to the stairs is, thankfully, unlocked. As the boy pushes himself through it with full force, he throws a glance over his shoulder. In that exact moment, the predator rounds the corner, crashing into the opposite wall. The dim light of the emergency exit sign casts just enough light to illuminate the face of the zombie, as it bares its teeth at him and charges once more.
Run. Faster. And so he does.
When there’s one, there’s always more of them, he thinks. Zombies don’t roam around alone. They move in packs. Packs of dummies. It is highly unusual of the Diseased – as the zombies often are referred to as – to move this far up a building. They usually keep to the ground floors, avoiding steps because they, well… are clumsy walkers – and walking up is a whole new level of advanced; too advanced – or at least, it should be. This one obviously didn’t get the memo. And of course, he has to run into the only zombie in the whole damned world intelligent enough to get to the top of a skyscraper. Seems about right, with my luck, he thinks.
The zombie cannot possibly outrun him. Feet coordination is the one advantage humans have. It can,
however, throw itself down the stairs, therefore reaching the bottom before him. God forbid.
He manages to get down the first hundred-and-forty floors without any complications. Sure, he is extremely out of breath and the sweat is flooding down his back like crazy, but as long as he’s no one else’s food, he’s happy. What’s concerning though, is how the zombie keeps up the pace remarkably good. Not faltering once. Are they evolving? God forbid such as thing to happen. Should that be true, it’s game over. Mankind would not win that war.
With only ten floors left to go, flickering light from street lights outside starts to illuminate the stairwell through the windows. Most prominent of all now illuminated objects is the open door. The open door. The open door.
The boy halts in his step. An open door is never good – especially when he did not enter this way through, when he wasn’t the one to open it. Squinting his eyes, he makes out three dark figures, waiting at the bottom of the stairwell. One on one is odds he can beat – three against one, however… no one makes it out alive from that.
His stalker has managed to cover two stairs during the time he has stood there thinking. Two stairs - making the distance between him and something that wants to bite into his flesh, only three stairs. There’s no time to waste.
To the right, there’s a broken window. Jumping from there is the same as a death sentence. Actually, jumping from as little as two floors is pushing it. From three you’re lucky if you walk away with your legs intact. At ten… you’re dead meat. But as he looks back at the zombie behind him - now only two stairs away - and the three waiting
unknowingly downstairs, he realizes that those odds aren’t really in his favor, either.
So he climbs up on the railings, and in one swift move, throws his whole body towards the window. In the air, memories of being thrown high, high, high up in the air by his father come crashing. He used to scream out in fear when the gravity began pulling him down, down, down towards the ground again. But every time, he landed safe and sound in his father’s embrace. This time, however, there’s no arms to catch him. Only concrete and broken glass.
He lands with a thud on a balcony-like extension. Thirty centimeters further out, and he would have tumbled to his certain death. A feeling of warm, hot liquid dripping down his spine informs him that he landed on broken glass. Other than that though, he is, surprisingly, okay.
Looking over the edge, the urge to jump intensifies. End it, a dark whisper prompts him. End it, and reunite with your family. It’s not like he hasn’t thought of taking his life before. Maybe then, he would be reunited with the people he loves – no, loved, past tense – in whatever place we end up in after death. Suicide would be better than being infected. But he doesn’t want to give the Diseased the satisfaction of finding his crippled body after the fall, making him their personal meal. Therefore, he pushes himself up into a kneeling position, and comes up with a plan instead.
The first thing he notices are the cobbled stones protruding from the façade. “I can climb this”, he mumbles to himself. Stepping away from the somewhat safe extension
is harder than it should be, though. One wrong move, and you’re dead. Well, maybe it would be for the better.
Shaking from both adrenaline and fear, he begins the descent down to the ground. Sweaty palms make the climb hard – even for him, who has climbed thousands, if not millions, of buildings by now. The sound of growling Diseased intensifying does, however, motivate him to climb faster. Five minutes later, his shoe soles touch the ground, and he cannot help but send a thank you to whoever his guardian angel is – because that angel is doing one hell of a job.
Before the zombies are given a chance to locate him again, the boy dashes into the shadows of the night. He used to be terrified of the dark – now it’s his best friend. Growing up, you learn that it’s not the darkness that is dangerous, but what it hides; the shadows conceal him from far more gruesome creatures than whatever he made up in his imagination as a child.
New York had been safe for a while. Although the disease started here, the meatheads of zombies rushed from the city to chase after people to… well, eat. If they have returned, there really cannot be much left outside of the city. Nothing left to search for. It’s just me. Just me.
The boy strolls down the street for a while – obviously alert, but also deep in his thoughts; after a while you master the skill to do both at the same time. The streets that used to be drowned in lights are now pitch black. It’s sad, what the world has come to. How it came to this is unfathomable, as well as that it happened so freaking fast. Too fast. Way too fast.
Up ahead, one of the old advertising screens is still on. After the virus outbreak, they changed them all to news screens – to spread news as fast as possible, in any way possible. When quarantine was enforced there was no need for advertisement, anyway; after all, no one left the house - and the last thing on anyone’s mind was shopping.
He stops in front of the screen, gazing up at it. How it’s still functioning after an apocalypse is beyond him, but somehow it’s reassuring to see the same headlines now, as he did back in his house with his family for what feels like an eternity ago. He used to cry. Usually every night. Out of anger and out of fear but mostly out of sadness. For what he had lost, and what he might lose still. The crying stopped after a while, though. A person only has so many tears to spare.
The news reporter is a woman. Her black hair radiates health with its voluminous, shiny curls, and the welcoming hazel eyes draw in any watcher. And that smile – it could melt glaciers. It’s weird to think that she’s probably dead by now.
The sound has cut out, but the subtitles are still rolling across the screen. He’s trying to concentrate on the words, but standing there, surrounded by nothing and no one but empty buildings and cannibalistic creatures, he only manages to take in some of the words. “Scientists fear – virus mutating – something worse – cannibalism – highly contagious – unstoppable – deadly – wipe out populations – end of times”, same old, same old, at this point. And they were right; this virus sure as hell mutated. “It’s harmless”, everyone used to say. It wasn’t. “It’ll go away soon”, they
said. It didn’t. “It’s no worse than the common cold or influenza.” It was. Much, much worse.
The boy turns away from the screen. Watching old news is bad. Forward is the only way to go - looking back won’t do any good; he knows that. And yet, it pains him to turn away, because what if – what if – a new broadcast starts playing all of a sudden, proclaiming that “everything will be okay” because “we have finally found a cure”. It’s a new year, after all, with new possibilities - maybe 2021 could be a new start.
But no such thing happens. So he walks away. He can’t very well stand here all night, waiting for something that won’t happen. Sooner or later the Diseased will find him – they always do. Better find somewhere safe to stay, or start running.
As he disappears into an alley on 42nd street, once again engulfed by the darkness of the night, alone in the world, the news broadcast on the screen starts over again from the beginning. Once again, the black-haired woman smiles at the camera. “Good evening, America.” A quick flick of a curl. “Tonight, we will once again focus on the Coronavirus pandemic. New research shows that the virus has the potential to mutate into a new virus, that virologists all over the world state, and I quote”, a short pause for a giggle, “’could make people go mad – to the point of acting like zombies portrayed in science fiction’…”…