Surviving the apocalypse comes with unexpected perks.
By “perks” I mean bullshit, of course.
I’d been in Camp Elderwood for a grand total of three days. Our first couple of days had been spent “processing,” meaning showering, medical checks, getting ID badges, and all the fun stuff you thought you didn’t have to do anymore once you were done with school.
Bureaucracy survives, people. Oh, does it survive.
On the fourth day, life really began.
By “life” I also mean bullshit.
I had expected Samuels to put me on desk duty right away. He’d given me a crash course in Post-Apocalyptic Wound Treatment & Care, but c’mon, at a new job you ease people into things, right? Let me try my hand at being a receptionist. I had spent the last few years in front of a computer, anyway.
Instead he jerked me into an OR full of bleeding people.
“They just came in an hour ago,” he said. He pushed a medical kit into my right hand, firmly closing my fingers around it so I didn’t drop the damn thing.
Oh God. I hadn’t had enough coffee for this.
“I’ve already triaged,” he said. “The family over there, you can wrap them up without trouble. I’m going to start stitching the others.”
“Do I…I mean…” I looked uncertainly at the kit he had slapped into my hand.
“You can do it. I believe in you.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
I approached the people timidly. There were four of them, all looking like they’d been through the wringer. Ash, blood, and God knew what else clung to them, and the stench of decay clung to their clothing.
All the world smelled like decay these days.
I forced myself to smile.
None of them smiled back. Actually, they looked about as thrilled to see me as I was to see them.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m Vibeke.”
Samuels drew the curtain, effectively partitioning the room so we couldn’t see the people on the other side anymore.
“Ow! Don’t stab me with that!”
We sure as shit could hear them, though.
“It’s a painkiller,” Samuels said. “Relax, please.”
“Ow! He fucking stabbed me!”
My quartet stirred uneasily, and I made myself smile at them. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m…not here to stab you. I’m just bandaging things.”
The bravest of them, a guy around my age, cleared his throat. “Are you, um, qualified for this?”
What was I supposed to say? No, bro, I was a desk jockey like you up until a couple weeks ago. That wasn’t the sort of reassurance they wanted, and frankly I was pretty sure being blunt with people would get me sent right back to my tent mate, Augusta, for further reeducation. So I tried to look resolute and said, “I am. I was an EMT in college and I’ve been working with Dr. Samuels since I got here.”
I didn’t add that I’d only gotten here a few days ago. If they were confident in my skill set, maybe they’d squirm less.
He nodded, and stuck out his arm. “Well…go for it, I guess.”
Perfect. Something for me to look at.
I washed my hands, pulled on a pair of gloves, and set my kit down next to the guy.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Joe,” he said.
Joe had a nasty series of weals on his upper arm, and I took care not to make any faces as I started cleaning them out. These were definitely not bite marks; someone had gone after him with what I assumed were blunted weapons, judging by the bruising around the biggest of them. The bizarre etiquette guide Augusta had bestowed upon me the day before indicated that I was not to ask what happened, which meant guessing.
Altercation with the living. And not living people used to hurting one another, either.
Well, if Samuels had triaged already, then I was willing to let it go.
I continued my cleaning and bandaging, trying to fall into a sort of rhythm. Just focus. Just focus. It was just me and the seeping wounds and the gauze. No screaming patients, no irritable doctors, and no zombies.
“Jesus fucking Christ, he’s dead! Run!”
The shriek carried in from the corridor, and I paused in my bandaging.
On the other side of the curtain, something metallic bounced off the floor, as though Samuels had dropped a tool in surprise.
Footsteps pounded outside the doorway.
Did I say no zombies? Silly me. Clearly I hadn’t thought that one through.
There’s always zombies.
“Where did he come from?”
I handed the gauze roll to the man I was bandaging up. “Hold this,” I said, and crossed the room to peer around the curtain. Samuels was still there, performing the intricate task of sewing part of a terrified woman’s knee shut. A scalpel lay on the floor, but other than that, nothing seemed out of place. The other person awaiting stitching gazed toward the door, eyes big enough to use as tablespoons.
As far as post-apocalyptic surgery went, this was about as intense as it got.
Someone else outside screamed, presumably as they turned the corner and came face-to-face with a slobbering zombie. The footsteps broke into a run and abruptly faded away as whoever it was made for the nearest exit.
The absence of running feet was filled in by the low, rattling moan of the undead.
They’re nice in that way. They always leave a calling card.
I cleared my throat. “Did you hear that?”
“I did,” Samuels said. “Vibeke, would you be a sport and check on it?”
He glanced up, then nodded toward his work. “I can’t exactly move at the moment.”
So finish your stitching and go look. He was technically the ranking officer here. I was just an underling.
But if I did nothing, we’d probably get eaten, which meant I had to do something.
The zombie in the hallway moaned again.
I sighed, scooped up the scalpel on the ground—it wasn’t like Samuels could make use of it
now anyway—and stepped outside.
Two of them stood out there in the hallway. The male, clad in a red shirt and a bloodstained pair of fuzzy boots, had obviously been dead for a while; his eyes had sunken deeply into his head, and skin had began to slough off his hands. The female was dressed in the pale blue scrubs the nurses around here wore, though I’d never seen her face to face.
I couldn’t see a death wound on the dude, but the nurse was missing part of her throat. Blood and part of what might have been her trachea dribbled and drooped over her front.
I ducked back inside. “Two of them,” I said. “Nurse and a guy in boots. Nurse has dark hair. Hasn’t been dead all that long.”
“Probably Lavinia and that lumberjack they brought in,” Samuels said. He inspected his stitching, then added another along the edge of the cut. “Lavinia did not believe in the dead rising.”
How he could speak so calmly while stitching while zombies rampaged outside remained a mystery I would have to contemplate (and maybe emulate) later. “What do you mean, she didn’t believe in the dead?” I asked.
“Yeah,” the girl getting stitched up said. “I mean…they’re right there. What’s not to believe in?”
“The power of denial can be a powerful thing. Some people refuse to believe anything’s happening at all.” Samuels glanced up at me again. “Any sign of soldiers?”
“Dammit. All right. Get to the lobby. This is precisely why we all learned how to use the radio. Call Hammond and ask for help.”
My heart sank into some area near my stomach. “Me?” I squeaked.
Samuels nodded again toward his precious embroidery. “Well, I’m not doing it,” he said.
I stood there sputtering for a moment.
“Vibeke, I can’t leave these people without compromising this lady’s knee, and I’ve never…had an altercation with the undead. Meanwhile, you escaped Astra. I have faith in you.”
Right. At least someone did.
This little scalpel wasn’t going to do it, though. I scanned the room, searching for something larger. Samuels was adamant that this particular facility couldn’t perform larger surgeries—Elderwood Community College hadn’t exactly been set up for anything besides the hurts incurred by clumsy coeds. Cuts, bruises, some broken bones, maybe the occasional STD…nothing like the workload we were currently dealing with. But come on, there had to be a bone saw or something lying around somewhere. Anything that didn’t require me getting right up in their rotten faces to use.
No saws. No drills.
We did, however, have a fire extinguisher.
Well. It’d do.
I yanked it off the wall and scurried back into the hallway. The ghouls had come a little closer; the man moved around easily enough, well-acquainted with his rigor mortis by now. The woman shuffled with more effort, her hands held out like she was trying to keep her balance. It was such a human gesture that I paused to look at her, to see if she really was dead and not just bleeding and injured.
She saw me, lifted her head, and let out that keening moan. I could see her vocal cords rattling as the sound emerged, and more black blood dribbled down her front.
Nope. Definitely dead. Very dead. Incredibly dead, even.
They both fixated on me. I stepped backwards, toward the lobby and its radio, waving the fire extinguisher at them like a matador might taunt a bull. “Hey, zombies,” I said. “Walk this way. I’m ringing the dinner bell. Full buffet and I’m on the menu.”
I flinched even as I said it. Vibeke, that was a horrible pickup line even before the end times.
They came forward, as I knew they would.
All I really needed to do was get them past the door where Samuels had set up his temporary OR. If they got inside and started wreaking havoc amongst all those scared, injured people, it was game over.
I would probably also get fired, but that was beside the point.
I hopped from foot to foot. Anything to keep their attention.
They stepped past the door. I kept waving my hands, even danced a little two-step.
Couldn’t be too careful.
When they got within five feet of me I turned the corner and darted into the lobby, and nearly tripped over a small child. The fire extinguisher almost flew out of my hands, but I yanked it close to me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked, glaring down at the kid.
“We were told to wait here for the doctor,” a woman, presumably his mother, said from a chair on the other side of the room. She held a magazine in her lap. “Why are you holding that? Is there a fire?”
Something here didn’t add up. “Did you not hear the screaming people?” I asked. “They must have run this way.”
“They did. I don’t know what was bothering them.” The woman turned the page.
Man, Samuels wasn’t kidding about people being in denial.
Behind me, the ghouls let out triumphant moans as they turned the corner.
The woman, of course, let out a scream. I dropped a hand, grabbed the kid by the collar of his corduroy jacket, and yanked him upward. He was small enough that I could shove him out into the center of the room, toward his screaming mother and away from the moaning ghouls. I turned around, bringing the fire extinguisher up in front of me. I pulled out the safety pin, took aim, and squeezed the handle.
I don’t know what I expected to happen. I probably figured they’d react like the living: grab their eyes or throats, struggle to breathe, or maybe just shatter into a million pieces, because I’d seen it in a movie once and really, why the hell not?
Instead, they just became powder-covered zombies.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered.
I did the next-best thing and swung the extinguisher at Lavinia’s head. It cracked against her skull, making a really nice ringing sound, but it didn’t seem to have an immediate impact. Obviously I needed to work on my upper body strength.
The woman was still screaming.
I stepped backward, away from the undead, and nearly stumbled over the kid again. This time, I grabbed him by his collar and shoved him at his mother. “Lady, go for help! Go find a soldier!”
She kept screaming.
She might have been worse than the zombies.
I swung at Lavinia again. My shoulder made a popping sound, not entirely used to swinging upward with heavy objects. My arms vibrated as it thunked against her skull, the fire extinguisher flying out of my hands and slamming into the opposite wall.
At least I managed to make her topple over. She landed on the ground with a heavy thud.
The lumberjack—really, Doc, a lumberjack? He’s in Uggs—grabbed at me, being the more agile of the two. I ducked him and ran for the desk.
The lady still screamed. She had cowered in atop herself, her hands over her head.
Oh for fuck’s sake.
I picked up the radio fumbled with it for a second, trying to recall which button did what. All of us had learned how to use it, and even made a successful call with it, but there’s a huge difference between dialing up command to chat and trying to summon a rescue when there’s zombies trying to eat you.
I found the right buttons, though, and switched it on. Static bounced out of the line; someone on the other end would have heard me turn it on, and checked in immediately.
“Hello?” someone asked. “What’s wrong?”
The kid hadn’t moved toward his screaming mother. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have, either. She had curled up into a small ball on the chair, her shrieks bouncing off the walls.
The zombies, perhaps more interested in a slightly easier snack, began migrating toward the child and his mother.
Yes! Give me some wiggle room, kiddo. Maybe I’d make it out of this after all.
Wait. No. I had not just advocated them eating a helpless child.
“This is Vibeke in the medical unit. We have two zombies on the loose.”
“What? Can you repeat that?”
Dammit. All they heard was screaming. “Shut up!” I barked at the woman. Then, to the radio, I said, “We have two zombies in the lobby! Two of them! Send soldiers!”
“Copy that,” the voice said. I hoped that meant they were sending people.
Lavinia and her lumberjack had almost reached the kid. I was pretty sure letting a small child get devoured alive on my watch meant I’d be get fired and/or permanently exiled from camp altogether, so I grabbed the nearest item off the desk and hurled it at them.
The stapler bounced off the lumberjack’s head.
Okay, not the most effective use of a ranged weapon. I admit that.
I looked around for something else, but all the desk possessed were lightweight items. Paperclips. A scheduling book. There was the computer, but it seemed anchored to the surface with several large metal supports.
People at Elderwood Community College were stealing old PCs? Interesting.
That left the chair.
It would do.
I grabbed it, wheeled it around, and rushed the ghouls.
I crashed into the lumberjack, the chair knocking into his legs and sending him slamming into Lavinia. She toppled over like a bowling pin, which meant he went over, too.
They landed on the floor in a glorious undead heap.
I would have grinned at my handiwork, but these guys probably didn’t have the decency to stay down for long. “Get moving,” I said to the kid. “Now!”
He scrambled backwards.
The woman was still screaming.
I hauled the chair back, then began rolling it forward hard, shoving it into the zombies. I don’t know what I was hitting. I didn’t really care, so long as I was keeping them from getting back up. Plastic hit flesh, over and over again, and the dull thuds began giving way to something juicier.
“Vibeke! Stand back!”
The deep, authoritative ring of the soldier’s voice commanded instant respect. I scrambled backward, leaving the broken, bloody chair and two mangled but still mobile zombies where they were.
Gunshots rang out, the reverberation echoing off the room’s walls. The kid covered his ears.
After a moment, all went still. Except for the woman in the chair, who kept up her steady wail.
“You can stop screaming now, ma’am,” one of the soldiers said. Five of them stood there. One came over and began poking at the ghouls with her rifle. Another crouched down in front of the kid. The third moved over to the woman, who continued to shriek. There were no words—just high-pitched screams that threatened to pierce my eardrums.
“She’s lost it,” I said.
The fifth soldier, possibly the leader of this squad, looked at me. “Are you the only one here?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. “Kind of,” I said.
“Are there more of them?” She had to raise her voice to be heard over the screams.
The soldier stared at me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There were those two. It’s a big facility. Maybe they bit other people.”
She lifted her own radio to her lips. “This is Poltava. Two bogeys down at the medical facility. Might be more. Send backup so we can do a sweep.”
“Any injuries?” the man on the other end crackled. “Who’s screaming?”
We both looked at the woman in the corner.
“No injuries,” Poltava said. “No physical ones, anyway.”
“Backup’s on the way. Start posting soldiers in there. I don’t just mean daily sweeps.”
It must have been Hammond on the horn with her. Poltava nodded. “Roger that,” she said, looking over the lobby with a sort of resigned wariness. I didn’t envy her; this building was a giant maze. Samuels and I only used one hallway’s worth of rooms; there were probably dozens of others buried inside, used for labs, for experiments, for storage.
Plenty of places for dead people to hang out in.
The woman’s voice finally cracked, broke, and shattered. She sagged against the soldier trying to talk her down, sobbing, random words spilling from her mouth.
The kid just looked at her, seemingly unmoved. The soldier next to him took his hand. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go sit outside for a bit.”
The boy looked at the dead bodies, then at me, and then followed the soldier out.
Poor little guy.
I looked at Poltava. “Do I need to give a report or anything?”
“Not unless you’ve got something to add.”
“The nurse is named Lavinia,” I said. “Or was.”
“Yeah, I gathered.”
“Doctor Samuels said she didn’t believe in the undead.”
I was hoping for some sort of eye roll, or at least a curl of the upper lip. Instead, Poltava just stared at the re-deceased, then at the poor, broken woman in the chair. “Wish I had the luxury of not believing in ‘em,” she said. “I’ll get someone in here to clean them up.”
At least I didn’t need to scoop up the bodies. That meant I was moving up in the world,
We turned around. Samuels was standing here, his eyebrows lifted in an unspoken question.
“Hi Doc,” Poltava said.
“Nice of you to join us,” I added.
“Forgive me, I had patients to attend to. As do you, Vibeke.”
I blinked at him.
“Joe is still waiting for you to finish his arm.”
Poltava switched her gaze to me.
“I was just out here fighting zombies,” I said. “With my bare hands, I might add.”
His gaze drifted toward the chair.
“And a chair,” I added, somewhat belatedly.
“And we’re all very grateful. But you do have a job here.”
Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable. Didn’t I get a break? A cookie? A priest or something?
All of my thoughts, which had raced a zillion miles a minute while fighting, came to a crashing halt. I could smell the reek of decay on the dead, see the sorrow etched across the faces of all the soldiers, Poltava included. And me—what did I feel? Something? Anything?
My head hurt. That was for sure.
“Vibeke,” Samuels repeated.
Right. I had a job to do. People needed help.
I started down the corridor.
“Wash your hands, please,” Samuels called after me. “Don’t want to infect them with that zombie goop.”
“Captain wants us to call them revenants,” Poltava said.
“Sure,” Samuels replied. “That’ll catch on.”
The two continued to speak for a moment, but their voices faded as I rounded the corner and reentered the hallway. I stepped back into the makeshift OR. Everything seemed pretty much as I’d left it, though the curtain was drawn back and everyone seemed much calmer.
“Hi guys,” I said, walking over to the sink and washing my hands and trying to pretend I hadn’t just bludgeoned two undead people into submission.
My arms tingled. Weird muscle response, maybe. Or just my nerves firing on all cylinders, waiting for the next time to strike.
My hands shook. I kept them under the water until they stopped, then soaped up. Couldn’t leave any blood on me. Bad luck or something.
I shut off the water and turned back to my patients, hoping I looked somewhat stable, or at least in control of my faculties.
I, Vibeke Orvik, had just pummeled the undead in my place of employment, and now was going back to work.
Because that was the world I lived in now.
I figured they might thank me, or at least ask if I was all right.
The man I’d been bandaging held up the gauze roll I had left with him. “So…are you gonna finish this?”
Apparently they had gone to the Augusta School of Post-Apocalyptic Etiquette, too, and figured asking questions would just lead to more trouble. No one was about to ask me how I was, or what I’d been through, or whether the zombies were gross.
Fine. I could deal with that. Less talking.
I took a deep breath. I’ve got this. I’ve got this. I’ve got this.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get you fixed up.”