With one day left to go until All Hallows Eve, Liam King’s short story brings the supernatural to NUIGalway, leaving us with the protagonist, Nate, as he climbs up the chilly and fly-infested stairwell of the English Department Tower Block to submit his essay… but something isn’t quite right.
Nathan hated the stairs. Whose idea was it to have the English department at the top of a tower, anyway? On essay mornings, with four to a lift, you nearly always had to take the things, and after all that, you didn’t even get a nice view. Just gravel, pipes, the roof of the concourse, and maybe the occasional seagull; if you could see anything between the sheets of water hammering the windows in the first place. At least he didn’t have to stay long. Just get to the submission box, deposit the essay, and then go. In and out, stopping for nothing and no one. One foot, then the other. A bluebottle landed on his forehead halfway up, and was crushed to a smear under his hand. He blinked at it. Normally the things were more alert than that, they were tricky to kill outright unless you trapped one against a window or a lightbulb. Another half dozen or so buzzed ahead of him, bouncing off the stone walls. Nate glanced over his shoulder. The place should have people to deal with that kind of thing, right? It was an empty stairwell with no windows, hardly the spot for a swarm of flies in October. Strange. He kept climbing.
Pausing for breath at the top of the stairs, Nathan opened the door, and was glad he had hesitated. A wave of flies swept into the air to greet his entrance, buzzing away from the windows with a whispering hum that seemed louder than his footsteps. The smell of rot rose. Nate almost ran back through the door to the stairs, taking deep breaths. That and other unidentifiable smells prompted another spate of coughing. If he hadn’t skipped breakfast that morning in order to get the essay in on time, he would have lost it then and ruined the carpet. As it was, the sandwich snatched in Smokey’s almost ruined someone’s poster to re-sell ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. He moved deeper. Alright, now, he definitely needed to get out of here without being seen.
He was no stranger to these situations in theory. But one thing the horror flicks never managed to convey was the smell of these things. Or the flies, busy trying to shatter the windows and let in the driving rain that would knock them out of the sky if they ever succeeded. Nathan took another deep breath, glancing downstairs. It would be so easy to just walk away, something seemed seriously wrong here.
But the essay still had to be delivered. Nate covered his mouth with his arms, took one last breath, and dived in properly. Several bluebottles abandoned their quest to bounce off the windows in order to chase him, but Nate ignored them, forging his way to the essay submission box. Well, at least this explained the lack of people around, nobody could really be expected to work under these conditions. He hadn’t heard anything by e-mail as to what to do in the event of evacuation of the department, so something sudden must have happened. There hadn’t been a sign on the door or anything.
He slipped on something wet, the neatly double-spaced essay escaping his grip, and landing in the middle of a pool on the ground. He snatched it up with a curse, and tried to put the now crumbling piece back into the box, but it was now stained… brown. That couldn’t be good. Now that he looked around, there were a few similar stains dotted around the area, including one on the ceiling. Someone had messed up the decorating for Halloween, or some strange prank had gone badly wrong. This seemed too far for even the most extreme trick.
The bloody handprints on the box were the final straw. Nathan hesitated still, but a 10 percent penalty wasn’t worth this, and his submission was ruined anyway. Something very strange had happened here, and he was not the man to investigate these things. Standing, he almost ran back to the elevator, punching the button hard. In his current state, he didn’t want to slip and fall down a flight of stairs. He didn’t know what had happened here, and he didn’t care to find out. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the corpse stepped out of the elevator right in front of him.
Nate would have liked to say that he was able to deal with this well. But he wasn’t able to breathe. It was pure reflex that took him back four steps until his back hit the window, which shivered in its frame but didn’t break. He recovered just enough to bolt to his left, open and dive through an office door, throw the nearest chair against the back of it, and sit down. He took a few more breaths, calming enough to take out his phone. The advent of the undead qualified as an emergency by his personal standards, and this had already gone way too far to pass as some kind of joke. Unless it was a hidden camera show, but he’d deal with that when it happened. He’d been lucky so far, but that didn’t have to last. In accordance with traditional narrative convention, that was when he looked up and saw the other corpse.
It was slumped over a desk, head planted in the middle of someone’s personal file. Well that explained why the door of the office had been unlocked. One of the staff had made it to work this morning. Nate was no corpse expert, but it did seem as though it was a little… drier than it should have been. He was dialling when the dead body coughed.
The phone slipped through his fingers and cracked hard onto the carpet, the battery bouncing out of its casing. He would have picked it up, if the body hadn’t chosen that time to raise its head.
Nate stayed still, wondering what he should do. These things were supposed to be infectious, right? What was the best way to deal with them?
“If you’re some guy in makeup, now’s the time to say so, my friend,” Nate said, standing up while still leaning into the door as much as possible, considering his options.
He couldn’t stay there for long. He’d have to leave the door exposed to deal with the new problem, but he didn’t want to do that sooner than he had to. The undead staff member failed to respond other than trying to get up. Nathan tried to move towards it and failed to make his body move. He had no idea what to do, and didn’t have the will to do it if he wanted to. The traditional method was a headshot or club, but how did he really know that? Because he’d read it somewhere? Not something to bet his life on. The undead professor moved forwards, and Nate stared at it. A truly animated body advancing was a terrifying thing. If it was not alive, why would hitting the brain be relevant? Would it kill him at a touch? What was really the right thing to do here? If he guessed wrong, he might not get another chance.
The zombie rounded the desk, and Nate moved.
Picking up the chair he’d been sitting on, Nathan threw it at the zombie as it stood. The staff member was knocked over backwards, and the weight of the chair and zombie proved enough to shatter the window behind it. He saw the thing’s expression flicker just before the chair knocked it through and into free-fall. Good enough, for the time being. Nate leaned back against the door, breathing hard as the rain started to drench the office, including where he was sitting. That had gone well.
Great… zombies. If George Romero’s still alive, when I get out of here, I’m either going to kill him or send him a cheque.
He waited, to silence from outside the door, not even the trademark moaning. He took another breath.
“Okay, so, there’s a zombie in the English department. Why hasn’t anyone noticed?”
“Well, at least it’s zombies.” If I was dealing with a vampire or a demon, the only thing to do is call Blade or Buffy or Van fucking Helsing, and hope I’m not already dead by the time they arrive. But the undead are generally vulnerable to conventional weapons, used by ordinary people. That would be helpful if I had one.
Sadly, English departments were sparse on ornamental swords and heavy candelabra, so unless he could come up with some kind of thumbtack nail gun slingshot hybrid, he was pretty much on his own. Even the chairs in the seminar room were too light to use as heavy weapons. Probably to prevent injury at Ulysses seminars. Crap. All he had to work with was a computer CPU or maybe a hardback book. All of which were now getting increasingly wet and useless thanks to the now broken window. So was he, come to think of it. He’d need to move soon or maybe get sick, and zombie apocalypses weren’t known for their healthcare standards. But there was one thing to do first. He re- assembled his phone, and pressed record.
“Apocalyptic Log, Entry One. Ha… Now there’s one thing I never thought I’d say.” Better to leave something behind, maybe. For posterity. Or something. “So, I seem to be in a zombie apocalypse. Unless I’m hallucinating. That would be nice. Shame I don’t have that much imagination. I think I can rule out some weird prank, the college doesn’t have enough money to waste on something like this. Also, that would mean I just killed one of the English professors. Which would be bad. ”
No one answered him. A shuffling noise from outside. He almost stopped speaking, but the noise didn’t appear to pick up speed or close in.
“Where the hell is everyone who works here, anyway? What happened? Nuclear explosion? Virus? Ancient Celtic burial ground? Or maybe judgement day. I wonder how much of a sin movie piracy is? Oh, wait, ‘thou shalt not steal’ is a commandment. Fuck. Unless it’s Ragnarok instead. Then I get to be killed by the Frost Giants… I think.”
Some thumping from outside, something being dragged along a wall. But now that he was talking, Nate couldn’t stop, narrating his thoughts as he slowly became drenched from Galwegian weather.
“Note to self, research theology. Also, food preparation. Also, zombie killing. Crap, I need to make a list. Wouldn’t want to forget something useful. Are there silver ornaments up here? Wooden stakes. Arcane rituals for the banishment of ghostly presences?” It seems unlikely, but so did the mass rising of the dead to feed on the living until this morning. “Maybe the heads of the college faculty have secretly been a guild of necromancers all this time. That would explain a lot. I mean, wizards usually live in towers, right? That dead guy sitting at the desk casting unholy rituals that slowly corrupted the pure innocent souls on campus. The NUI movement is a council of mages bent on world domination! I think I saw that in the prospectus, come to think of it.”
Pressure on the door. He put more of his weight on it.
“Hang on, Nate, maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe this is a localised outbreak, I’ll be able to call for help. But we’re an island, they might just leave us to our own devices until the zombies all rot away. No, wait, the Gathering is on this year, there’ll be a bunch of people who’ll come to help their relatives. Probably be a UN blockade, though. Resolution number 3214: ‘what to do in the event of zombie attack’. Can the undead swim? I can’t remember, I don’t think so. Unless the things are sentient somehow. Maybe they have special forces. Zombie pirates? Zombie robots? No, organic parts, they’d be cyborgs. Is that the word? I can’t remember.
Now a scratching noise.
“Maybe zombies aren’t the only things around? Maybe there are ghosts, or golems or something too. Vampires. And then we can all escape during the Great War between the undead and the vampires. And then the Formorians and the Tuatha De Danann show up, and we all live happily ever after. Damn it, where’s Cuchulain and Achilles when you need them? Batman, for God’s sake.”
A thump on the door he was leaning against, finally. More pressure, and now the moaning was starting up. At least two voices. The undead outside had either followed his trail, or heard Nathan considering his options. He took a breath.
“Or, maybe, just maybe, I’m going to die here. It’s possible that these things don’t… They might not be bound by the rules of narrative convention. So… No one’s coming to help me. There doesn’t have to be a last minute escape. Sometimes, there’s no easy way out.”
He clicked off the recorder. The whole monologue had been a waste of time. What had he learned? What vital information had he transmitted? Nate glanced at the essay still clasped in his right hand. It was shivering against his thigh.
“Perform a close reading of Rudyard Kipling’s If.”
“I don’t want to die…” He closed his eyes. Blinked several times.
“Advantages. This is a tower, they can’t swarm. Plus, it’s probably well supplied with water and teabags. There are worse places to be at a time like this. Not many, but I can work with this. I can do something.”
But that was not so easy to follow up as it might seem. For a start, he couldn’t assume that these things acted like traditional undead. Come to think of it, he hadn’t actually been attacked yet. Maybe they just hadn’t had the presence of mind to recognise him as a threat, and the whole idea of killing people had come from various movies. Maybe the things were peaceful. But he’d have to step outside to prove it, and if he was wrong, he would probably die.
One thing had been established. These things were not merely people with bad hygiene, makeup, or victims of infectious diseases. They were truly dead, the flies and the smell proved that much. But that was the sum total of his knowledge. They also hadn’t tried to kill him, but he’d been fairly quick about getting the hell out of the way. What did that leave? If he lived long enough, they’d rot away to nothing, but he could easily catch something off the bodies or starve before then. Dead professor was dealt with, but how long could his luck last? He might have already caught whatever was causing the undead plague, if it was contagious. This was not the time to make assumptions, so he wasn’t all that inclined to rule out necromancy, it made as much sense as any other explanation, and the why wasn’t all that important just now. There was nothing more to be done. Well, one thing. His situation wasn’t going to improve by sitting here, and if he didn’t move soon, he’d be due to get the flu.
Nathan stood, picked up a hardback book, and opened the door.