Work Week

Work Week

Monday

8:00 am — As it has for the past ten days, the knocking and rattling continued unceasingly, echoing from the office’s lobby and throughout the nearly empty building. Work Week

Monday

8:00 am — As it has for the past ten days, the knocking and rattling continued unceasingly, echoing from the office’s lobby and throughout the nearly empty building.

In the CEO’s spacious-yet-once-tasteful office, the building’s only resident and last employee sat hunched over his radio, slowly turning the dial, listening to the hiss and hum of dead air. He was filthy, his hair and beard greasy and matted, hanging black and unkempt over his tattered flannel shirt. Dark stains, dried and crusted, covered his clothes. His eyes were intent and piercing, staring with a quiet ferocity at the radio as he spun the tuner, his head cocked to the side, dog-like, listening for any sound of living humanity.

The tiny office was filled with an odd last-minute assortment of survival gear. Several cartons of Campbell’s soup, loaves of bread that were starting to show green around the crust, strips of vacuum-packed beef jerky, and hundreds of condiment packages, looted from an empty McDonald’s. An M-16 was propped up against the wall next to the desk, locked and loaded with a fresh magazine, within arm’s reach.

This was what remained of CEO Sam Rockman’s privileged life.

He reached the end of the radio’s dial, switched it over AM, and began to slowly turn it again, backwards this time. 1210 was still off the air, having finally given out the previous day. They had been the last to give out, stubbornly remaining on the air for a whole three days longer than any other radio or television station before either being overrun by the monsters outside or the employees and soldiers themselves running away and joining the ensuing chaos of the collapsing world.

Empty soup cans littered the corner of his office, silent sentinels around an overflowing trashcan that sat in the middle of the mess. He didn’t care if they attracted rats or mice; in fact he hoped they would. The idea of fresh meat made him salivate, and a captured rodent would be a blessing.

He reached the end of the dial and turned off the radio. He used to run it back and forth several times on each band, but he only had two fresh AA batteries left. He needed to conserve every resource he possessed, especially now with the power off.

He yawned, put his head down on his desk, closed his eyes, and didn’t sleep.

12:00 pm — Sam stood, stretched. With each passing day, he found it more and more difficult to open his lunch. His constantly trembling fingers strained to tear open the shrink-wrapped plastic that coated the beef jerky. He hunched over his mahogany desk and ate, his empty eyes staring blankly at the wildlife calendar that hung over his now-useless computer terminal. He finished his meager lunch in four bites, taking his time chewing not just because he wanted it to last, but also because chewing the tough strips of dehydrated meat made his teeth and jaw hurt. He finished, picked up his canteen, and took a shallow drink of water. Yet another valuable commodity he struggled to conserve, rescued from the toilets in the building’s restrooms and saved in as many bottles and cups as he could find scattered throughout the now-empty office.

He stood up, checking his watch.

Time to make the rounds.

He slipped down to his knees, using a small dental mirror that he slid beneath the door to check the hallway outside of his office. All clear, as he prayed it would be every time he performed this ritual. He stood, his rifle in his arms, and stepped out into the hallway, leaving the door open behind him.

The executive offices lined the hallway in which he stood. Each door of Mahogany Row was closed but unlocked, a simple but effective warning system should anything, or any thing, manage to get into the building from the managers’ offices. If a door was opened, he’d know immediately his fortress had been breached. Or, if pursued, he could slip into one of the offices, lock the door behind him, and hopefully make his escape via a window. He paused in the hallway, head cocked, listening to the distant rattling of decaying fingers and hands on the building’s doors and windows.

Usually he was able to tune them out, but when he listened, it was all he could do to keep from screaming.

The hall was empty, save for Carole McWilliams at the far end, still dead on the floor. He smiled grimly, amending that last. Carole’s leg was in view, dead on the floor, the rest of her out of sight and under a desk, where she had fallen. Her eyes would be open if he cared to look, the blood from the tiny .223 caliber hole in her forehead dried, and the puddle beneath the exit wound in the back of head coagulated and crusty on the floor. If he looked, he would see those things. He wouldn’t and didn’t as he passed her body, moving out to the main floor, walking slowly as began to make his rounds of the building’s defenses.

The main floor was huge, row after row after row of cubicles and dead computer equipment. The computers weren’t all that was dead, though. Numerous bodies were scattered haphazardly, in various stages of decay, some baring the marks of fingernails and teeth, missing chunks of flesh.

All of them had an identical hole in the forehead, although several of them had multiple gunshots scattered over their rotting torsos.

He had learned quickly that it took a headshot to make them stay down. You had to learn quickly in order to survive in this new world.

He walked past all of them, not looking at any of them, lest he might recognize a former employee or co-worker. To the best of his knowledge though, only Carole had come back to work. The rest were strangers, “…probably looking for a job,” he muttered, laughing shrilly to himself at what he considered to be a fine joke.

He reached the end of the main aisle, turned left, eyes scanning back and forth, searching, looking for any sign of movement from anything that might still be alive, but seeing nothing. Only the constant rattling and pounding, and that wasn’t made by anything still living.

The doors leading to the lobby were locked, but he had still nailed planks across them, hoping that would keep the creatures at bay should they somehow manage to smash through the bulletproof glass. He now thanked God that the government had required such tight security in the contract; at the time, he remembered thinking what a waste of money the glass had been. He doubted they would manage that, though, breaking the glass, but Sam Rockman hadn’t reached this level of executive management by not covering his tracks carefully. From the IRS to the walking dead, Sam Rockman was always prepared, yes Sir.

He edged close to the door and peered through the narrow window that he had left uncovered, straining to see what he could of the doors as he always did, and, as usual, failing. The builders never thought of this problem, he thought, watching the vaguely human shadows flicker on the wall, accompanying the mindless pounding.

He left the narrow window that looked into the lobby, finished his inspection of the floor, and headed for the storage area and maintenance department. The storage area was on the other end of Mahogany Row, past the IT offices, and on the other end of the cafeteria. He walked past the rows of closed office doors, past the men’s and women’s restrooms, and then entered the cafeteria. He kept his eyes straight ahead, not looking to either side, not wanting to see the bloody handprints on the white walls or the four dead children that were scattered over and under several of the lunch tables.

He opened the door at the opposite end of the cafeteria, slipped through it, and strolled down another corridor of closed doors and empty offices. He hated coming back to this end of the building, living in fear, to the point of nightmares, that he might get caught back here while on patrol. None of the offices on this end of the building had windows or access to the outside, and to be caught in one of these by the legions that hungered for his flesh would certainly mean having to shoot himself in the head. Dying by starvation was too much, and worse, it would mean joining the masses outside that were so anxiously beating on the doors and windows to get in. Even though a devout Christian, Sam didn’t think the Good Lord would consider suicide too heavy of a sin as opposed to Choices B and C, which were both unfathomable.

The maintenance room was a two story area divided into several rows of tall shelves holding skids of boxes, paper, computer equipment, and forgotten junk collected and stored over the years. At the rear wall of the room was the loading dock, composed of two huge doors large enough to back a rig’s trailer up to for unloading. The room was expansive, poorly insulated, and mostly metal. At times, the room reverberated with a hollow pounding from fists on the heavy bay doors, but for now it was silent.

A ladder was attached to the wall adjacent to the loading dock’s doors. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and scaled the ladder, flipped open the access door to the roof, and crawled out.

The spring air was fresh, the sun warm upon his face, but the underlying sticky-sweet stench of rotten meat that pervaded his nostrils made him want to gag. He left the access door open behind him and crawled over the small sharp stones and clumps of stale goose shit that littered the roof, taking care to avoid the cups and pans he had set out to collect rainwater, making his way to the edge of the roof above the loading dock, where he peered down into the employee parking lot below.

For once, it was just about empty. Only seven of the things wandered about, mingling among the three abandoned cars that were parked haphazardly in the lot. No, wait…eight… His eyes had spotted the small child-sized monster hunkered in the shadows of the recycling dumpster, rocking back and forth on its diseased haunches.

He slid backwards and turned around, taking care to make no noise lest they might hear him and begin to pound on the doors again. He crawled briskly to the other side of the building, overlooking the lobby and manager’s entrance.

He moaned softly, looking down. His car was destroyed, the brand new Porsche that he had saved for so long to get, only six fucking months old, now sat in the space with his name neatly stenciled on the pavement, windows smashed in, body covered with dents, headlights knocked out, paint scored and gouged from the multiple blows of blunt objects.

“Motherfuckers,” he whispered softly, his mind not dwelling on his steadily regressing vocabulary that two months ago would have shocked his God-fearing nature.

The knocking and banging was louder on this side of the building. He craned his neck over the edge, peering down straight down into a mess of shattered skulls, chewed bodies, rendered flesh, and broken limbs. The mass of undead was countless, at least a hundred strong, gathered at the thick glass windows and doors, banging steadily and mindlessly, using anything their warped and damaged limbs could hold. Rockman saw sticks, broken metal pipes, even a torn off windshield wiper (bastards, that’s mine!) being hammered against the building by the rotting horde.

He opened his knapsack, pulled out a pair of bird-watching binoculars, and peered out into the woods across the once-busy road that ran in front of the building. Nothing stirred that he could see, no wildlife, natural or unnatural. On the road itself, next to a flattened groundhog, a corpse fumbled and mouthed, empty eye sockets gaping blindly as it tried to drag itself across the road to Rockman’s building. It could not walk; a tire tread had flattened it’s grey belly, crushing it’s back and the useless legs it now dragged helplessly behind itself.

Rockman resisted the urge to raise his rifle and end the creature’s unnatural life. To do so would be tantamount to suicide, since it could attract more of the things with the rifle’s report, as well as remind the ones still walking outside that there was in fact a fresh human still in the building.

He crawled away from the edge of the building to the center of the roof where he was well out of sight of the ground below. Standing, he could see several of the other buildings in the park, one or two of which were surrounded by the creatures. He wondered if there were and living people in any of them, eking out a meager existence and trying to survive. He held his binoculars up to his eyes, focused in on the windows and lobbies that he could see, searching for any sign of human activity.

Nothing…

5:00 pm — Dinner consisted of a can of cold soup from his supply cache. He used a plastic utensil from the employee cafeteria to scoop the room temperature chunks of beef, rice, and vegetables out of the can.

Never before had Rockman ever held such a deep appreciation for pop-top cans of soup. He hadn’t thought of a can opener in his mad dash through the grocery store three weeks ago, desperately trying to fill up a cart amid his fellow looters, all the while keeping a fearful eye out for either the soldiers, who at that point were shooting looters and rioters, or the walking dead. He supposed that by then the soldiers weren’t that much of an issue. More than one looter in the grocery store wore combat boots and carried an M-16.

He ate the cold soup and stared at his silent radio, wondering if he should even bother searching the bands. Desperation won out and he switched it on, slowly turning the dial and craning his ear to the static as he dialed first the AM band, then the FM band. For a desperate moment, he thought he heard a voice on the old 94.1 rock station, and he hung on for several long minutes before finally giving up and moving on. Once again he wished for a ham radio set.

He turned it off, unaware of the fat tears rolling silently down his gaunt cheeks, and hunched protectively over his nearly-empty can of soup, mindlessly chewing his cold dinner.

9:30 pm — He paced, back and forth, back and forth, in his office, talking to himself. The boredom was relentless. He eyed the door, his eyes resentful of his imprisonment, and he longed for the days of sanity and peace.

He often talked to himself, a habit that he had never possessed before, but now he took to with a thoughtless relish. For a long time, he had considered himself the most intelligent person he knew. Now he set about proving it, holding long conversations with himself, arguing how the country should have dealt with any number of issues before anarchy, chaos, and the general end of civilization set in as the dead began to get up and walk.

“Of course racism is wrong, but affirmative action is even worse!”

“Welfare reform should never have been a necessary issue. Welfare never should have happened to the extent that it did in the first place!”

“Martial law should have been declared last month when it all began, and anyone caught out in the streets should have been shot on sight! Then they never would have been able to get out of hand in the first place!”

Goddamn liberals and their civil rights… Rockman thought. Ah, too late for common sense now…

He sighed, brushed a tear from his cheek with the back of his hand, then paused, sniffing the air.

God, the smell, the smell…

Tuesday

7:30 am — The smell was too much, too overpowering, too thick as it slowly permeated the entire building. The sickly over-ripe smell of rotten fruit, sweet and sour and ripe with decay, seemed to saturate everything. Everywhere the smell followed him, clinging to his clothes, his very being. He sighed, fighting the feelings of sickness and revulsion at what he knew he had to do if he were to stay in his office sanctuary.

The bodies of the true dead were rotting where they lay, strewn about the office and left wherever they fell. When the radio and television stations were still on the air, the military and scientific experts had been first ordering, then demanding, and finally pleading and begging people to first destroy the brains of the dead, and to then burn their bodies.

“What people do not realize is that these corpses, these individuals, while they may have been family and friends in life, they are potential ravenous monsters, plague-bearers, and they will spread this plague unless you DESTROY them. First their heads, the brain must be subjected to a severe trauma, such as a gunshot or a club, and then total destruction through fire, to prevent their contamination from spreading to and infecting the living.”

“Amen and amen,” said Rockman to himself, that particular radio interview still very fresh in his mind.

But he had been weak, two weeks ago, when he came back to work. He’d been loath to touch the ones he’d had to kill, especially after…

“…Carole,” he whispered, looking down at his former secretary, sprawled across someone’s cubicle work-station, her once-not-pretty-but-handsome face smeared with crusty brown blood. He blinked back tears, and moved on.

He had no idea how many of the dead were in his building. He’d supposed about twenty or so, but he knew that it was just a guess. The haze he had been in, running on pure adrenaline…after the hunt, he had collapsed in his office and slept for almost fifteen hours, something he’d not done in years.

He slowly walked up and down the rows of tastefully decorated employee cubicles; each touched up with little individual tastes of home they had brought with into the workplace to make a long day that much easier.

Nostalgia struck him unexpectedly. Before the world had gone insane, Sam would sometimes do just this, but with a less-grim purpose, staying late into the evening to work, and then wandering up and down the aisles before he left for home, looking at each employee’s desk, imagining their life outside of work from their desktop décor.

As he walked, clipboard in hand, a breathing mask from the maintenance room over his nose and mouth, he fancied himself again to be back in business, counting production, tallying numbers, marking progress…and as he counted his numbers, tallied his progress, he began to realize the extent of his new project. The whole bodies wouldn’t be an issue, there were exactly twenty-seven corpses in various stages of decay, some ripe and bloated from internal gas, others deflated and sunken, their features waxy and discolored, marinating in dried puddles of their own leaking juices.

Fucking hell I should have known better, he thought…

The bodies wouldn’t be an issue, but the parts would be. Pieces, limbs, and organs, all lay strewn throughout his building, usually sitting in the middle of a putrid puddle of cracked and dried blood, but not all were marked in such a manner. He paused in his search, next to a cubicle with “Dennis Lingg” neatly engraved on a nameplate. He studied with morbid fascination at a finger, sitting amidst various pens and pencils in a coffee mug, poking out at him as though beckoning.

“And how in the hell did you get here, little buddy?” he mused, resisting the urge to break out in giggles. He used a piece of paper towel to pluck it out and deposit it carefully into the janitor’s large rolling recycling bin that he pulled behind him with his search.

It was early afternoon when Rockman finished collecting the various pieces and parts strewn throughout the building. He wasn’t entirely comfortable when he finished, still vaguely uneasy about the possibility, the probability, that there were leftovers, but for now, the job was finished. Anything else would just have to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

He wheeled his recycling bin, now packed full with the ripe and rancid meat of humanity, into the cafeteria’s kitchen. He picked the largest of the three walk-in meat freezers, and rolled the bin into the back corner. He didn’t bother dumping it out.

The other twenty-seven cadavers were dealt with efficiently, if not quickly, using a handtruck that he modified with a wooden pallet. He stacked the bodies like cordwood, hauling six or seven at a time, dumping them on the freezer floor and using the handtruck like a battering ram to shove them back against the recycling bin and wall.

He thought that moving the children would be the most difficult task, but he proved himself wrong when he finally came to Carole’s body, which he had saved for last. Rockman cried silently as he rolled her remains onto the pallet, her body sounding like two strips of velcro being pulled apart as he peeled her out of the puddle of dried intestinal fluids and brain matter that spilled around her on the carpeted floor. He breathed in great ragged gasps of air through his breathing mask, trying to will himself to not smell her rotting remains. He couldn’t bring himself to manhandle her off the handtruck as he had with the other bodies and use it to shove her into the pile. She was my secretary, she IS my secretary, not just another body in a seat…

He finally left her on the floor of the freezer, sprawled out with her limbs askew, her open eyes staring at him blindly, the bullet wound in her forehead looking for all the world like a third eye, staring accusingly at him, through him, seeing him for the sad and pathetic little man that he really was.

How many bodies did you step on to claw to the top, Sam? Aside from God Almighty, only Carole knew, and like the good employee she was, she kept her mouth shut.

He shuddered, whimpering, squeezing his eyes shut. Finally, he threw his jacket over her face, backed out of the freezer, and slammed the door.

He was finally finished cleaning his nest.

7:25 pm — Or so the face on his wristwatch informed him, although he was no longer sure that it was correct. The watch had stopped sometime while he busily cleaned house. He muttered several curses under his breath, regretting the piece of shit $3,000 diamond-faced platinum jewelry, over a more sensible and non-winding $50 digital Casio.

Thoughts of dinner passed through his mind, but the thoughts of the well-stocked freezer with its cordwood stacks of diseased meat quickly banished any desires for a cold can of chunky soup or the stringy and tough beef jerky.

He did a quick tour of his now-empty office, now truly feeling for the first time as though he were alone in the world.

Where’s everyone at?

“They’ve gone home to the meat locker,” he answered his slowly slipping mind, barking a laugh that seemed to echo across the floor of cubicles.

He walked slowly back to his office, locked his door, and closed his eyes, his empty stomach growling faintly as he tried to take a nap.

Early evening — Rockman stood at the edge of the roof, frantically scanning the treetops to the north of the business complex. His heart pounded in his chest, and at the moment, he didn’t care whether or not any of the zombies below happened to look up and see him.

Dammit, where are you? his mind cried, sweeping back and forth with the binoculars. “Please come back, please!” he whispered hoarsely, trying to resist the overwhelming urge to break down in tears, before screaming out in anguish, “OH PLEASE GOD, PLEASE COME BACK!”

He had heard them about ten minutes before, at least two of them, clattering over the business complex to the military base several miles to the north. He had risen from a sound sleep, a scream on his lips, believing his building was being overrun by the creatures. After his initial panic, recognition of the noise set in, and he had tripped and stumbled across the office to his window, peering out just in time to see the tail ends of several Cobra gunship helicopters vanishing across the trees in the direction of the Navy base.

Safety be damned, and his common sense and intelligence abandoned his mind to be replaced by the pure and utter joy of the village idiot in a pumpkin patch. He fled his office, raced down the hall to the maintenance room, quickly scaled the tall ladder, and flung open the door to the roof. He leapt to his feet, jumping, screaming, waving in the direction of the distant sounds of the rotors, screaming and crying for them to come back…and finally…now…he just stood there, waiting, at the edge of the roof, his expression transforming minute by long minute from feeling the thrill of imminent rescue, to the despair of being the last sailor on the sinking battleship, watching the rescue boats leaving him in his wake.

It was the hungry moaning from below that finally brought him from his reverie. His eyes dropped to the ground below, and he shuddered in revulsion, seeing the groping hands and gaping mouths reaching up for him. He instinctually reached for the last comfort he possessed, the rifle that he carried over his shoulder—and he froze, horror and shock overwhelming him, not finding the strap slung over his shoulder as it always was when he left his office.

I forgot it…

He fell over himself in his haste to get out of sight from the hungry dead, tripping and landing hard on his rump on the gravel rooftop, mewling softly as he began to tremble, sudden terror gripping him as he looked back at the open door that led back down into the office.

What could be down there, waiting for me?

Rockman’s hands opened and closed unconsciously, his mind remembering the calming weight of the rifle.

They’re all dead, there’s nothing alive down there…

“…because I killed them all, cleaned the mother fuckers out, Carole, too” he croaked, his voice rasping against his throat made dry.

He forced himself to slowly descend the ladder, all the while his eyes searching for the things that he knew were in the darkness below, waiting for him. When his foot touched the cold cement floor, he cried out, his mind conjuring rotting fingers clutching his toes instead of the cool safety of the hard cement floor.

He released the ladder and immediately crouched down, a cornered dog about to face an unknown adversary, his legs trembling, his eyes darting to and fro, searching for whatever might be hiding in the darkness, his mind screaming at him, calming him, reasoning with him, nothing is here, you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe…

They’re coming for me, I HEAR them!

Rockman hadn’t run this fast since his platoon was ambushed in 1969. He sprinted through the aisles, down the hallway, through the cafeteria-turned-tomb, and down Mahogany Row, all the demons from his mental hell hot on his heels and hungering for his flesh. His office door was exactly as he had left it, open, and he cursed himself for his stupidity as he dove into his office like a rat into its hole, slamming it shut and locking the bolt behind him. He swooped down on his rifle, holding it mother-like, weeping, his hand caressing the cold barrel. His chest pounded, he could hear his heart racing, and tears streamed down his cheeks. As the pounding of his heart subsided, a different pounding emerged, louder now than it had been in several days.

They had seen him, once again reminded of his presence, and were renewing their desperate search for an entry into his lair.

Wednesday

Late Night/Early Morning — He started awake, listening, head cocked to the side. Did he hear footsteps? He slowly reached out, picked up his rifle, checked the safety, and approached the door. He pressed his ear to the thick wood, eyes closed, listening as closely as possible.

Nothing.

Slowly, taking care to make not a sound, he dropped to his hands and knees, sliding a tiny dental mirror beneath the door, turning it back and forth, examining the hallway to either side of his door.

Nothing.

He started to turn it back, freezing instead, his heart pounding in his rib-lined chest. He stared, a whimper in his throat, his knuckles turning white with fear as he unconsciously gripped the mirror’s handle.

Ben White’s office door was ajar.

He knew he had closed every door on Mahogany Row, knew it beyond any shadow of a doubt.

His mind raced. If one of them had gotten in, any number of them could have as well. His defenses were breached. A low moan escaped his throat, and his tongue slid over his dry, cracked lips. He held the mirror, not moving a muscle, his breath low and ragged, waiting, watching.

Come out, come out, damn you! his mind screamed, demanding to see the thing that had somehow gotten in.

Nothing.

Only the distant rattling and clawing could be heard, far off, behind more supposedly locked and barricaded doors.

He bit his lip, blinked, waited.

Knock, clatter, roll, SMASH!

He cried out in surprise and jumped to his feet, pacing back and forth for a moment, his arms shaking, his rifle cradled like an infant in his arms, whispering over and over, “This is my company, my office, get out, get out, get out!”

Each time he turned, his eyes would dart to the door. Three he paused as he paced, each time reaching out to tentatively touch the heavy deadbolt. He finally took a deep breath, willing his nerves to calm, leaning heavily on his desk, his eyes locked on the barricaded door. Finally, he dropped to his knees, crept back up to the door, slid his mirror back under, angling it towards Ben’s office…which was when froze, the glass suddenly reflected yellow eyes, staring intensely back at him, a twitching nose, and a black face tick with matted hair, barely inches away from his own, and a loud piercing “HISSS!” of surprise, and Sam shrieked in terror, recoiling away from the door.

From beyond the door, the sound of fast paws pounding the carpeted floor faded as the surprised creature vanished up the hallway.

He leaned back against the wall, sobbing, rifle at his side.

A cat, only a cat, only a stupid fucking cat…

“…but how did it get in?” He wasn’t aware that he had spoken out loud.

Sam stood up, unlocked his door, and stepped out into the corridor. He glanced up and down the hall, checking both ways as his mother taught him, and, keeping his back to the wall as the Army had taught him, slid over to Ben White’s office. Again he did a quick cursory search of the office with the mirror, finding nothing as he prayed silently. Finally, angling the mirror up, he saw what he had heard. The ceiling’s vent hung open, and a dry vase with dead flowers lay smashed on the floor. Somehow the cat had gotten in through the ventilation system, White’s vent had been loose, and it had dropped down to the desk and knocked off the vase. He let out a low sigh of relief.

“But why was his door open?” Again he spoke out loud, this time purposely so, musing.

He pulled it shut, then pushed. It opened easily without turning the knob. The latch was stuck. He shook his head, gritting his teeth, wiggled the knob, and pulled it tight. The latch clicked home in the doorframe, this time keeping it shut when he tugged and pushed on the handle. He allowed himself another small sigh of relief; his sanctuary was still safe.

But then he froze. How many other doors had he missed that weren’t really locked?

For the next hour, Rockman strode from door to door throughout the building, checking each one, making sure that those doors that were meant to be locked were locked, and those he had meant to be unlocked were in fact still unlocked. He checked and double-checked every single latch, shaking each handle and twisting as he passed.

Apparently, his guest was lucky; it seemed to have found the only office with a door that wasn’t properly closed.

Speaking of guests…

Sam’s mouth began to water.

Early Morning – In the office, the bright morning sunlight shone brightly though the windows of the production area, illuminating the cubicles. A soft and kind voice could be heard, calling softly, nicely, “Heeeeere, kitty kitty kitty…”

Sam quietly walked up and down the aisles, his eyes peering this way and that, searching, eyes quick for any sign of movement. “Heeeeeere kitty kitty kitty, I got some nice milk for you, come on, puss!” He grinned darkly, his eyes shiny with anticipation, his stomach in knots over the thought of a fresh meal. “Kitty…niiiice kitty, come on, puss, WHERE ARE YOU LITTLE FUCKER!?”

But so far, the little fucker was carefully eluding him. His finger tightened reflexively on the rifle’s trigger as he held it ready, scouring the aisles and the dark areas under the cubicles, searching, searching, searching. His stomach rumbled loudly, and he swallowed acid just as a flash of movement from the far left caught the corner of his eye. He spun up and stood, rifle up and ready at port, just like the good old days of hunting gooks in the bush, but the cat was gone, shooting down the hall towards the cafeteria. He strode after it, a mirthless smile of grim resolve on his face, a man destined to a fresh meal of stray cat that would be better than any goddamn Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham could ever be.

The doors along the hallway were all closed, and Sam turned the corner to the cafeteria, he stopping in the doorway. Without thinking, he unconsciously checked the safety, snapping it first to the “on” position, then back again to the “off” position, as he lifted his M-16. He brought the rifle up, jacked it firmly against his shoulder, and crept silently into the cafeteria, staying to the right so that nothing could pass him on that side. Quietly he crept, his booted feet treading over the tiled floor with an uncanny silence that would have made those black pajama-wearing sons of Gonorrhea-ridden whores proud.

And suddenly, there it was: perched on a table at the far end, licking a paw, his ears flat back on its sleek furry little head as it licked away, unmindful of Sam’s presence, or the rifle barrel that swung slowly around to bear on it’s target. He aimed, carefully, slowly letting his breath out, slowly breathing back in, slowly, carefully, his finger tightening, his aim solid, and then, at that second, the second of seconds, his prey started, head lifting to look at him, wild yellow eyes baleful and full of contempt, and Sam squeezed the trigger. The M-16 barked once, and the cat flipped over, a beautiful midair backwards somersault worthy of a 10.0 by the cruelest Olympic judge, spraying a neat arc of blood as it turned before finally crashing into the floor, a lifeless black heap spilling out it’s engine oil and waiting for the fucking frying pan.

Sam’s delirious whoop of joy exploded in the sudden after-silence of the rifle’s report, and the hungry man went to claim the spoils of his hunt.

Mid-Morning — Once a year, during the summer, his office held an employee appreciation day, where the staff would hand out gifts of jackets, hats, bags, whatever they could find to stamp a company logo on, out to the hourly workers who slaved all year. They would also grill hamburgers and hotdogs, he remembered. Sam found it in the back of the storage room, along with a bag of charcoal, and he dragged it out and down the hall to the cafeteria.

His cat was where he left it, the carcass laying skinned, bloody, and empty on a wooden butcher block in the cafeteria. He had painstakingly divided the parts, laying the bloody pieces out on the wooden block. Four legs, front and back, the ribs cracked and broken down the spine, each bloody rack lying adjacent to the severed legs. The head he had thrown away, along with the fur and intestines, none of which he could bring himself to even consider eating. There hadn’t been much left of the animal’s head anyway. The bullet had found its mark well, and most of it was blown apart and now painted the wall behind the table where he had shot it.

The animal had been skinny, he observed. The meat was lean, and it would be tough, but beggars could not be choosers, and fresh meat was still fresh meat.

The ones waiting for him outside knew that fact of life well. This was definitely a world that would eat you alive.

Sam dumped the charcoal into the grill, then stared blankly at the pile of dirty black coals sitting in the grill’s pan. He uttered a short barking laugh, as he realized that he had nothing to use to light the fire, and he spent another few minutes searching the kitchen until he found a book of matches. He lit the fire and retrieved the cat, carefully arranging the meat on the grill, his mouth wet with saliva, a line of drool running from the corner of his mouth, unnoticed, down his chin. It only got worse as the odor of cooked meat began to permeate his senses, his eyes wide and white as he gazed at the cooking meat, his belly rumbling non-stop, sensing the meal about to come.

He forced himself to take his time. He was once an officer, still a gentleman, now a successful CEO. He was civilized, dammit.

As dinner cooked, Sam gathered a clean plate, fork, knife, and napkins, arranging them neatly on the table next to the grill, keeping one eye on the cooking meat as he patiently waited.

He deemed it done about 30 minutes after he had laid the meat down, using his fork to pin a leg down and his knife to slice it down to the bone, checking for redness. He was satisfied, seeing that it was thoroughly cooked. He normally preferred his meat rare, but now…who knew what the cat had been eating to survive, or what diseases it might have been carrying? The risk was worth filling his belly, but he was going to eat this steak well-done!

Sam lifted the parts from the grill, placing half of them on the plate. The other half of the animal he carefully arranged in a Tupperware dish for later. He sat down, laying his rifle on the table to his side, and stumbled through a pre-meal blessing.

“Lord, thank You for this meal which you have brought to me, from Thy bounty and please Lord, bless me and keep me safe and others too, amen.”

He picked up his knife and fork, breathing in deeply, the scent of the meal filling his nostrils, a smile of expectant satisfaction on his face, cutting off a long strip from the leg, lifting it to his mouth, wide open…

…and that was when the explosion ripped through the building.

He was still holding the fork as he picked himself up from the floor, dazed, blinking, then broke and grabbed for his rifle, which was also laying on the floor next to him. He jerked to his feat, staggering, then broke into a shambling run for his office. He was halfway there when another explosion rocked the office and knocked him sideways into the wall. Distantly, he realized that the explosions were coming from outside, not inside, and he could hear through the haze distinct pops cracking from somewhere beyond the trees.

Gunshots, he realized, leaning against the wall for support, when he heard the distant sound of breaking glass. Trembling, wide-eyed, jaw slack and mouth open with disbelief, Sam tried to gather his strength and he stood straight. As he raised his rifle, shadows began to flicker on the hallway walls, and in the production area at the end of the corridor. The sound of shuffling feet drifted towards him.

Oh God, oh God, oh God, Thou art my shepherd, as I wander in the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, oh good God, help me, Jesus, why me why me why, God…

Sam turned and fled.

Thursday?

He had no sense of time. He couldn’t tell if it was early morning or late night. The events from the moment of the explosion were burned forever in his brain, and the cinema of his mind re-played them non-stop, over and over.

He didn’t even try to sleep. He couldn’t close his eyes for longer than the time it took to blink. Hunger gnawed at his stomach. He shook in fear every time his stomach growled, convinced that the horrors wandering the hallways would hear and come for him. Sam hugged his knees to his chest, his eyes wide and staring, hiding under the receptionist’s desk in the front lobby of his building.

***

Sam had run back through the building, away from his office, when he suddenly found himself in the storage room. For a brief moment, he looked at the doors, which for the moment were silent, but he didn’t know what lay beyond them out in the parking lot.

Scuffling sounds from the hallway, and Sam crouched down, eyes wide, when he remembered the ladder. He swung upwards, scaling the rungs quickly, not looking behind him, throwing open the trapdoor on the roof and immediately lifting his arms to shield his eyes from the burning intensity of the sun.

It took him a moment of squinting to realize he was wrong; the sun was to the west, it was evening, and nearly covered with the black oily smoke that rose from behind him and to the left. He turned to face it, blinking, trying to adjust his eyes, moaning softly.

Beyond the trees, flames rose high into the sky. The military base was on fire. The distant sound of gunshots still cracked, sporadic now, and then after several long minutes, died out altogether. For long minutes, Sam stood on the rooftop, watching, waiting, praying, when he heard it again, the sound of his saviors, the distant whine of helicopter blades beating the air, heading towards him, above the smoke, then directly overhead, loud, he imagined he could feel the downdraft from the blades.

He yelled, danced, waved, shouted, and then screamed, horror and anguish, panic and disbelief, misery.

The helicopter continued on, flying southwest, and the sound faded away.

Below him, the loud CLANK of something heavy falling to the floor, resonated up through the trapdoor.

Oh Jesus God, no fucking cat this time, no Sir, not this time…

He crept to the edge and peered back down into the hole, seeing only shadows in the dark room below, fumbling around, bouncing off the shelves and stacks of boxes, the putrid stench of decay wafting upwards, a groaning and rasping from rotting throats grating across his eardrums. So far they had not yet looked up. And even if they had, the dynamics of the ladder would have escaped the wrecked and ruined logic of their dead brains. He hoped.

Sam shuddered and closed the trapdoor, softly, very softly, so as not to alert them to his presence. He knew they could hear.

He sat down on the gravel roof, opened his bag, and began to sort through it. The flickering flames of the burning naval base to his north, along with the slowly setting sun, gave him plenty of illumination with which he could take stock of his at-hand supplies and weigh his options.

In the end, he had just over 200 rounds of ammunition, 60of which were loaded into clips for his rifle. The rest of it remained in his bag, loose. He had no food on him, and his canteen was sitting in the cafeteria, next to his…

God…dinner…

“Food,” he moaned sadly, “I want my fucking dinner…”

He wiped a hand across his sweat-beaded forehead.

The helicopter had flown southwest. He entertained the idea of catching up to it, getting their attention, but he knew perfectly well that he’d never be able to fight his way through Christ only knew what to catch up to a chopper flying hundreds of feet up and probably faster than any car he could even hope to commandeer. Maybe they’ll come back…

He slipped over to the trapdoor, cracked it open, and peered inside. More shadows seemed to lurch around below, yet he could still not make out a headcount of the enemy. Dropping down the ladder and into their midst would be a painful and unwelcome suicide. He dropped the trap shut again and moved to the edge of the roof, looking down.

The zombies below were largely gone now, more than likely having made their way inside his building. He spied a group, clustered around the shipping entrance, and could see some of them disappearing into the office. Aside from three or four others, the outside was clear.

The same was true for behind the building. No more were present, although the numbers had not seemed to dwindle, either.

He quickly circled the roof’s perimeter, feeling like a laboratory rat, searching for the piece of cheese. Only in Sam’s case, his cheese came in the form of a large tree, a thick branch that hung only a few feet away from the roof’s edge. A short jump, and it wouldn’t be too hard to catch the tree limb, climb down to the ground, and figure out what to do from there.

***

Hours passed, although time now had no meaning to him. The lobby began to grow lighter, as early morning came, and he did not move. His stomach audibly groaned, hunger cramps racking his body, but he did not acknowledge the pain.

He blinked, twitched, stirred, moaned softly, “Where is everyone?” softer still, “Carole? Where are you?” I need a new secretary…get this ship afloat again…

***

He missed the jump.

Weakness from hunger, shaking hands, the Will of Almighty God, or the man in the moon deciding to shit on his luck, Sam fell to the ground after taking a running (shambling) leap, soaring (flailing) through the air, and feeling the bark of the tree limb slip through his grasping claw-like fingers. He didn’t even have time to cry out as he plummeted to the ground, multiple tree limbs breaking his fall before he fell to a heap on the ground below. A runaway locomotive of pure burning agony shot up his side, and his shocked brain dutifully reported that more than his fall had been broken; several ribs were popped as well.

Thirty feet away, rotting heads turned and leaking eyes focused on a warm meal.

He groaned, struggling to his feet, gasping for breath, the pain in his side motivating him to live, goddammit, MOVE! He reached for his M-16, gritted his teeth and grunted as he swung it Clutching his side, Sam moved, shambling painfully around to the side of the building, his eyes open and alert for the things that hunted him, his rifle up and ready as he hauled ass for the nearest window. It was locked, of course. Thoroughness was known to be one his specialties.

He pointed the rifle and squeezed off a three-round burst. The high-velocity rounds shattered the window, and he used his arm to knock out the remaining glass from the edge of the frame. The contract required bulletproof glass, but he had cheated in a few places. The utility room he was looking into was one of these places. He heaved his pack into the room, took a quick check of the area around him, noting the nearest thing to be about 20 feet away and moving not-so-fast, its pace hampered by the twisted and broken leg it dragged behind it.

The room itself appeared to be empty, and the door was still shut. He groaned, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, planting both hands on the window sill, and dragged himself inside, steeling himself to the pure agony that roared in his chest as he dragged his injured body over the high sill. He fell in a heap on the floor, gasping, tears stinging in his eyes, trying to catch his breath.

Shadows flickered at the gap between the door and carpet. The doorknob jiggled, back and forth, twice. Sam lurched to his feet, stumbled across the room, and dropped his weight against the door as it began to slowly swing open. The door slammed shut, and he groped at the lock, finally engaging it with his shaking fingers. He stepped back, his head swinging to the left and right, frantically, searching for anything to put to use in an escape attempt. At the window, a soft grunting and uttered gibberish announced that he wasn’t alone; a ghoul was groping in the room, straining to reach him, its fingers clutching air as it watched him with ravenous eyes.

He un-slung his rifle, raised it to his shoulder, and stepped forward to the open window. With the barrel inches from the ghoul’s forehead, he squeezed the trigger, knocking the creature over backwards as it’s rotted brains sprayed out behind it. Gracelessly, it collapsed in a heap.

He gobbled laughter, high-pitched and cackling; his eyes locked on the fallen monster, and he screamed at it, “I am not your goddamned cat!”

Motion expanded his narrow scope; at a quick glance, he spotted five more closing in on his position. He stepped away from the window, again frantically searching for a way out of the tiny utility room. Finally, he looked up, seeing only the ceiling tiles out of reach overhead.

The crawlspace…

As the first ghoul in the pack closing in reached the window, Sam slung the rifle over his shoulder and turned to the metal shelves on the wall. Carefully testing the strength of the shelf, he tentatively lifted himself up off the ground, scaling the shelves like a ladder. Using one hand, he lifted a ceiling tile, peering up into the crawlspace.

Network cables and electrical wires were strung throughout the space like spaghetti for as far as he could see, which was not very far. The inky blackness was broken by sporadic spots of light appearing from the office below. He clambered up into the darkness, quickly and carefully, trying to keep on the metal grid. He turned to the open space below him, reaching down with a foot, and kicked the metal shelves over. They fell over with a booming and echoing crash, probably attracting more of the things, but at least now the way up was effectively blocked. The damned things would never be able to right the shelves and climb them.

He turned into the blackness, and began to crawl over the ceiling, taking his time and moving slowly, testing the weight with each gentle step. He quickly realized that he had no directional bearing up here; his first thought had been to go back to his office and gather what he could. Within ten minutes, he realized that he wasn’t even sure if he was moving towards his office. He looked over his shoulder, hearing the sounds of metallic clunking and knocking. The ghouls had gotten into the utility room, and he imagined them reaching and stretching up to the hole in which he had vanished. He smiled grimly, then resumed his slow and methodical crawl forward.

Sounds from the utility room weren’t all that he could hear; sounds from below reached his ears, banging, knocking, footsteps, grunted growls, and more. The living dead blundered through the hallways below him, wandering aimlessly from office to office and throughout the production areas. Much like my employees used to do, he thought, repressing a shrill giggle that threatened to burst from his lips.

A spot of light in the crawlspace attracted him, and he made his way over to it. A dim view of the production area below through a crack in the tile confirmed his fears. At a glance, he could a pack of eight or nine of the zombies wandering along the row of cubicles, making their way in the direction of the cafeteria. Keep your fucking hands off of my cat, he thought, an irrational wave of jealousy washing over him. They wouldn’t even be interested in the cooked animal, and they got it. “Un-fucking-fair,” he whispered savagely, his eyes gleaming with hatred and hunger.

Looking down, he got his bearings; his office was off to the left. He turned in that direction, making his way to the next distant spot of light.

This proved to be the lobby, and he stared down with a renewed interest. The lobby appeared to be empty, and he could hear the sound of the things working at the glass doors. He craned his head, trying to get a glimpse of the doors, barely realizing they were still closed and locked when the ceiling gave way below him. The sensation of free-fall, the receptionist’s desk below rushing up to meet him, the solid THUNK! of his head striking wood as he landed across the desktop, and then blackness as he rolled to the floor…

Friday?

Late Afternoon — Rockman sat on the floor of the lobby, staring blankly at the horde of creatures clawing, scratching, and pounding on the glass in their relentlessly futile effort to reach him. His rifle lay at his side, his knees drawn up and tucked beneath his chin, his arms hugging around his legs. His eyes were empty, and he stared forward without blinking. Every so often, his head jerked to the side or his head twitched. A string of saliva hung from his lower lip, puddling on his bloody shirt.

The low moaning of the walking dead were taking on voices to his tortured mind. “Join us,” one seemed to whisper, “Let us in,” said another, grinning with a lipless mouth, reaching for him, reaching out to him. Their voices were rising in concert, a deafening crescendo of ruptured windpipes and tongues swollen with rot and decay.

His sleepless eyes, red and lined with fatigue, blinked, and a smile formed on his lips, a smile that would have made any normal person turn and cross the street. He lurched to his feet, his rifle forgotten, falling sideways, his hands clutching and grabbing for purchase, finally digging into the receptionist’s desk just in time.

He didn’t notice the fingernail from his index finger, shorn off in his mad grab, or the blood that now dripped freely to the floor.

Sam laughed out loud as he stumbled forward, his forehead smacking against the cold pane of bulletproof glass, his face less than two inches from the putrid flesh of the thing that gaped and gibbered and moaned on the other side. Giggling, he stared into its dripping eye sockets, laughing maniacally as he mimicked the things jaws which worked mindlessly up and down around blackened teeth.

“What’s your name?” he asked, snorting back another stream of giggles, his face suddenly deadly serious as it always was at any given time during the work week. “What’s your name, son? Bob, is it? You need a job, Bob?” The stupid rhyme was too much for him, and his serious façade collapsed into a mirthful insanity. He howled with laughter, doubling over, the flare of agony as his ribs scraped against each other going unfelt as he pounded on the glass in front of the creature’s face in his good humor. “Oh, oh dear, oh my dear God, I’m s-s-sorry, Bob,” he said, “I-I don’t know wh-what came over me!” He straightened back up, grinning at the creature who moaned and gibbered back, teeth gnashing. “You want a job, Sir?”

And why not? he asked himself.

“You look like a well-dressed young man, Bob,” he said, giving the once-human being a careful look-over.

And indeed he did, for Bob was dressed neatly in his nicest khakis, a neat and well-pressed shirt buttoned up under his chin, an Italian silk tie knotted around his throat. Never mind that they were torn, bloody, ragged, or even that half of his face had been chewed off at some point, or the three bullet holes stitched neatly across his chest.

After all, his mind whispered, anyone can be down on their luck at some point.

Bob grinned promisingly, and Sam smiled back, his eyes rolling, for he would be proud to have a gentleman this neat and well-presented as a team leader.

“Maybe even a manager, Bob,” he whispered, grinning, “How’d that make you feel, huh? I bet that’d make you fall down on your knees and thank the good Lord!”

He turned, focusing on a gorgeous young lady with bright blonde hair that hung limply and tattered across her pale body and sagging breasts. “You seem to be missing a blouse, sweetheart, but that skirt does become you,” he said, grinning, licking his wet lips. “You need a job also? My secretary’s recently retired,” he told the grinning lady who reached for him so longingly, and he laughed, laughed harder still, “Yes Ma’am, she’s retired and gone to Florida!” He grinned back, his bloody hand clawing at the glass as he touched the yellow-green streak her exposed flesh oozed across the glass where she pressed herself on the other side. “You’ll be happy to know we have health benefits, I’m sure!”

Sam stared out into the mass of humanity waiting outside, hungry, poor, in need of jobs and salvation, and only he could help him with these things now. The poor young woman, sick, but so enthusiastic…

Well-dressed Bob, just a bit disheveled, but such an impressive young man, surely he had at least his Associate’s Degree.

And others…plenty of others…his business could go on…work would continue…he was still a success story…life would go on, with his new employees…

“You’re hired, Miss,” he told the young lady, his voice soft, so soft, as his shaking fingers fumbled the keys out of his pocket. Shaking harder than an epileptic, he somehow managed to slide the right key into the safety-lock and turn it, throwing open the double doors, throwing them open wide to the hungry dead who moaned and gibbered in anticipation, surging into the building as Sam Rockman began to howl with laughter.

“You’re ALL hired!” he shrieked, his voice shrill with glee, as they began to feed.

Chris Loveless

October 8, 2004

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