It came on so fast, the virus, that people couldn’t even prepare for it, although those Y2K survival kits wouldn’t have helped anyway. I remember seeing the first victim on the Channel 9 news. His face was gaunt, boneless, and his lips curved downwards in an exaggerated purple frown. He was just nine years old, the newsman reported, and an only child.
Since then, I saw more and more families torn apart by whatever this disease was. People became grotesque versions of their former selves, hiding away during the day until moonlight bathed the open empty streets. The Afflicted (as they came to be known by the survivors) only ventured out at night, sniffing out human flesh as their source of sustenance. At first, no one seemed immune to the Affliction. Those who were once lawyers, teachers, and doctors now scavenged through rubble in abandoned buildings, sniffing out the trembling bodies of people cowering in closets. The shuffling of heavy feet in hallways, the sound of bones crunching between sharp teeth, the screams in the darkness-all of these noises became common to our lives.
None of the zombie movies I had watched in my life before could have ever prepared me for the real thing. Kneeling behind hay bales in the corners of barns as the Afflicted stumbled by us, we prayed we would go undetected, begged for a miracle to save us…and we had somehow continued to evade the walking dead.
My brother, David, and I were the only ones left, as far as we knew. We hadn’t seen other survivors in months. I figured that we were somewhere in Oklahoma, based on the signs announcing Tulsa that I had noticed during yesterday’s daytime walk. I also guessed, from the brilliant yellows and ruddy browns of the leaves on the trees, that it was probably late October, maybe even Halloween. That meant that we had walked from our home in Annapolis halfway across the country, and it had taken us nearly two years, by my best estimations.
We had run out of food by now, of course. It didn’t take long, considering that the last of the food stores had been destroyed by government watchdogs. After all, it was the food supply that had somehow become infected, and it wasn’t really any surprise with all the genetically modified products and pesticides we digested on a regular basis. Hungry and tired, we’d taken refuge in an old office building, the computers and desks sitting silent in cubicle-rows.
Now, David rested on the floor, leaning back against a partition wall. He watched me as I sat on a rolling chair, sharpening a thin piece of plywood.
“Meggy?” he asked.
“What?” I answered absently, my thoughts focused on getting my rudimentary knife ready for any inevitable battle. I could sense the twilight approaching, and we would need to take shelter soon.
“You know what we have to do.”
I shook my head, still not really listening. “What, David?”
He sat forward, leaning his forearms on his knees. “I’m starving.”
My attention shifted. I had an inkling what he was referring to, because the idea had been in the backs of our heads for weeks now. We couldn’t live on berries and field mice anymore.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I muttered. “Of course we’re not going to do that.”
He wiped his palms on the faded denim of his jeans. “Look, we’re already dead, OK? I know that I’m hungry, and I’m sure that you’re just as hungry. There’s only one solution left.”
“Stop. You never know what we might find in the next town.” I turned away and went back to my wooden weapon.
David snorted. “I’ll never make it to the next town. I need to eat something with substance, or just die here in this place.”
My heart sank at his words. I swiveled around in my chair to look at him. There were bags under his eyes, and his hair looked brittle as straw His skin was so pale, and he seemed much older than his seventeen years. I knew that he was right, that he wouldn’t make it much further, especially with the Afflicted lying in wait to pounce and eat.
“And how do you propose we decide who it will be?” I hated considering what one of us would soon be forced to do.
“Let’s draw short sticks. It’s the only fair way.” He sounded so matter-of-fact, as if he had been thinking about this for a long time.
I closed my eyes, trying to conjure up some other solution, but nothing came to me. David knew what we needed to do, and I sighed. We had to take action soon, because the sun was beginning its final descent. The Afflicted would be waking…
Wordlessly, I walked to the office break room where I found two coffee stirrers. Returning to my desk, I cut one stirrer down. I palmed the straws and held them out to David.
He didn’t even hesitate as he pulled one of the sticks from my hand. It was the shortest one. I felt nauseous.
“No, David, this is just silly.” I started to turn away, but he circled his fingers around my wrist
“Just do it, Meggy!” The desperation in his voice and my hunger and fatigue motivated me. I knew that I had no choice.
Taking a deep breath, I lifted my knife and slashed in one smooth motion. As I watched my brother drift away, I poised the knife over him and began to cut. I tried to shut out the gooey sounds as I worked. What have I become? Is this what it feels like to be one of the Afflicted?
Pushing that last thought from my mind, I raised the flesh to my lips, sniffed once, and chewed. As I sat crossed-legged, ravenously feasting, the Afflicted began to rise from their slumber, starting their nightly hunt over again, outside, under the Halloween moon.