“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Confucius.
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
“We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.” – Isabel Allende
His arm, the one in which he held the hunting knife flew back reflexively and to his extreme relief, John felt the blade sink deep into the cushiony flesh of the pursuing thing’s repugnant decomposing face. He tried to withdraw it while simultaneously running for his life, but his hand, now covered with the puss-like viscous substance oozing from inside the creature’s wound, slid from the handle as the beast crumbled to the floor leaving the blade sunk deep inside its skull and lost to him forever.
He could hear them; what sounded like dozens of them now only a few feet behind him and he could also see the open door just up ahead. That room, whatever it might be would have to be his sanctuary; at least he hoped it would serve as such, even if only for a brief time; perhaps just long enough for him to come up with a plan. The door grew closer, only a few inches away, but just as he placed his right hand on the knob, he felt something grab onto his left shoulder.
Once again, reacting with the skills he had been taught, his left elbow shot up and back with lightning speed at what he correctly assumed was the appropriate height. He was rewarded with the satisfying feel of cartilage shattering under the impact of his blow and he heard a guttural moan as the creature’s nose was apparently obliterated and its many tiny broken bone fragments driven upward into the thing’s putrefying brain; immediately destroying whatever it was that allowed the foul abomination to still be walking the earth.
As John backed quickly into the small room and slammed the wood-paneled door closed behind him, yet another one of the rotting beings thrust its hand between the door and the jam. Its decaying fingers with segments of yellowed bone visible in places where the flesh had rotted away were instantly severed by the impact of the closing door. The digits fell to the floor where they continued to wiggle like mindless worms for a few seconds before blessedly going still.
John stood gasping, trying desperately to catch his breath, his heart thudding maniacally, feeling as if it might explode inside his chest. The air in the room was pungent not only with the stench of them, the creatures on the other side of the door, but also from something inside the tiny room itself. Looking about John immediately saw the room he had chosen for his temporary refuge was a small bathroom.
Glancing up at the ceiling, John estimated the room to be about seven feet wide by ten feet long. At floor level, a toilet, a vanity, sink and a shower stall area took up most of that space. Since there was no longer any electricity anywhere in the world, the only light available came from a small window located a foot or two above the toilet.
John’s hopes that the window might provide a means of escape were dashed when he saw how small the opening was. Even in his thin and starved condition, the window was far too small to allow him to crawl through. And although he was unfamiliar with the building or this apartment, he was fairly certain he was on either the third or fourth floor. He had lost count as he had been running for his life up the dark interior stairway. Even if he was able to fit through the tiny window, the fall to the ground might kill him or even worse, it might cause him to break a leg and then he would never be able to outrun them.
He decided instead to look around the room and see what he could find to help him. He had to use his training. He had paid a lot of money to be trained how to survive and as such, he was supposed to have gained the necessary knowledge for just this sort of situation.
John lifted the lid of the toilet seat and was revolted to find it filled to the brim with human waste, both solid and liquid. With the contents exposed to the air, the stench became overpowering. He let the lid fall shut and leaned against the wall holding back the bile, which was working its way up from his practically empty stomach. He hadn’t eaten in days and couldn’t afford to lose whatever little nutrition remained. The door to the bathroom rattled as one or more of them slammed their fetid fists against its panels and clawed like a pack of rats trying to get in; to get to him. John understood time was of the essence.
The best thing for him to do was to focus on what his mentor, Sam “Sergeant” Steele had taught him. Sam Steele was the former Special Forces soldier and multi-degreed black belt who had instructed John’s survival class. John had taken the class on a whim, never believing he might actually need it. The first thing Steele had told the class was, at a time of crises they should always keep their cool and use their cunning and intellect to find a way out of trouble.
One thing Steele had stress repeatedly during their sessions was that when everything fell apart and the world was thrust into chaos, “even the great will fall”. It was one of his favorite sayings. By that, John assumed he meant that no matter how big, how strong or how well prepared someone might be, even the best of the best could slip up and could fail. Steele taught John and his fellow survival students to use their wits to resolve any deadly situation they might encounter.
“Almost anything can be turned into a weapon for self-defense,” the Sergeant had always said. “Just use your ingenuity and common sense to figure out how to find and use whatever is available to create weapons to guarantee your survival.”
John knew now was the time to put the Sergeant’s teaching into action. Although it was almost impossible for him to concentrate with the ungodly stench of the confined space combined with the steady pounding on the door and the horrible grunts and scratching of the undead creatures beyond it, he did his best to determine what he might use to defend himself.
He understood that sooner or later he would have to go back out there among them. He had few other alternatives. He could stay in the foul-smelling stinking hot bathroom and eventually starve to death, or he could kill himself. Neither of those options was any more appealing than trying to fight his way out. “Even the great will fall.” He heard the voice of Sergeant Steele say again in his head.
John reluctantly approached the awful toilet once again and removed the porcelain lid from the water tank on the back of the unit. It felt heavy and solid and although a bit unwieldy, it might make a good head-bashing weapon. He reached inside the back of the tank and removed a long copper rod, which supported the ballcock flushing device; this toilet’s flushing days were long gone. He had to work it back and forth a few times until it eventually broke off at the handle. Connected to the arm was a small chain used to lift the rubber water release stopper. Both the arm and the chain might prove useful to him.
Just above the small bathroom window over the toilet hung a tattered curtain. John reached up and pulled down the thin, sharp curtain rod. It was one of those two-section types made of light gauge metal with ninety-degree bends on one end of each side used to attach the rod to the wall-mounted fixtures. He removed the tattered curtain from the rod and set the two parts of the rod along with the toilet tank parts on the filthy linoleum floor. The steady banging and scratching continued, on the other side of the door.
Then he noticed several thin gnarled fingers creeping through the one-inch space at the bottom of the door. One of the creatures was apparently trying to reach under the door; perhaps to attempt to pull the door open – as if they possessed such intelligence – or more likely, the thing was just trying to reach underneath in a futile attempt to grab him. John picked up one of the two parts of the curtain rod and using the right-angle side like a handle, drove the sharp end down on one of the fingers, severing it cleanly. The flimsy rod bent and John’s hand slid along its edge resulting in a small laceration on his palm.
The creature withdrew the remainder of its fingerless appendage from under the door leaving behind a snail trail of some greenish-black fluid. A few drops of John’s own blood dripped on the floor near the opening at the bottom of the door. The creatures on the other side must have smelled the scent of fresh blood because they began to bang against the door even more desperately as if working themselves into a state of frenzy.
He wiped the palm of his hand on his filthy jeans and examined the wound, happy to discover it was not deep and would not need to be stitched. He’d have to clean the cut somehow soon if he hoped to avoid infection. In the world, as it presently existed, an infected cut could be fatal.
“More.” John said with frantic desperation, “I need to find more weapons; something besides these few crappy things.” He threw the now worthless broken curtain rod against the door, causing a fresh round of groans and scratching from the creatures on the other side.
John went to the wall-mounted medicine cabinet but found nothing inside of much use, save for a collection of expired prescription drugs which he supposed he could use if he ever decided to kill himself. He had no idea what they were but was certain that swallowing all of them might possibly be fatal.
“Maybe not.” He said slamming the cabinet door with frustration. He knew he could never kill himself, no matter how much he thought about it, not unless he had no other alternative and unless he could make certain he would not come back as one of those horrible things. He did manage to find a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, however, which he quickly used to clean out his cut. He would worry about finding some way to bandage it later.
On top of the vanity, below the medicine cabinet, he found a pair of six-inch-long stainless-steel hair trimming scissors sticking out of a wicker basket along with a hair pick equipped with five long metal pointed rods extending out from the handle. These would most certainly come in handy albeit just for the sort of up close and personal self-defense he was hoping to avoid. The pounding on the six-panel door continued as the thin pieces between the cross members began to vibrate with each subsequent impact looking as though they might not hold out much longer.
John imagined the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of Steven King’s “The Shining” where Jack Nicholson breaks through a similar door with an ax; sticks his face through the opening and says with his trademark Nicholson grin, “Here’s Johnny”. He knew when whatever was on the other side of his door finally did break through, there would be no cleaver tag lines spoken, just growls, grunts, and a savage desire to rip his insides out.
He next opened the two doors on the base cabinet of the vanity and began frantically looking for other helpful items. He found a can of hairspray, which still seemed to be quite full. He wished he could have found a cigarette lighter. He thought he had read somewhere once that the contents of a pressurized can of hairspray could be potentially flammable. Maybe that was anurban legend, maybe not. If he could find a lighter he might be able to test it out by devising a makeshift flame thrower.
However, there was no lighter anywhere. Apparently, whoever lived last in this apartment was a non-smoker. John thought, “Looks like all that healthy living didn’t do very much good once the dead started roaming the streets.”
There was little else of any defensive value inside the cabinet except for one thing, which he was very happy to find. For some reason, someone had left a full roll of duct tape in the cabinet. As any do-it-yourselfer or survivalist will tell you, duct tape can most certainly be your best friend. Score one for the good guys. John also found a spare roll of toilet paper and used it to fashion a makeshift bandage for his hand, which he coated once again in peroxide then secured with some of the duct tape.
The rest of the stuff inside was just a variety of shampoos and conditioners and other such hair care products. Perhaps if John had some working knowledge of chemistry, he might be able to concoct something dangerous from the various ingredients; but he didn’t so he closed the doors in frustration.
God! The place smelled disgusting! And John suspected it was not just the stench from the overflowing toilet, which was accosting his senses, but something else; because there was a much more rank and rotten stink lurking just below the foul reek of fermenting human excrement.
He turned around and examined the shower curtain and its rod, which was mounted high above his head. “Yes” John thought with great satisfaction. It was apparent that the rod was not one of those flimsy thin-walled types you often found in home centers; the kind, which was nothing more than a frail tube of metal plated with brass or chrome or sometimes coated with a colorful decorative plastic. No sireee; this baby looked to be old school. John was certain it was constructed from actual heavy-gauge galvanized piping, not much for fashion or design, but strong and reliable. This meant it would most definitely serve as a good weapon. Not just to shove into their slack-jawed mouths and up into their rotting brains, but also to be used as a club to cave in as many skulls as possible. His martial arts training had included bow staff technique and this rod would fit the bill perfectly.
John reached up and grabbed the left side of the rod, jerking and pulling on the pipe with all of his might, trying desperately to rip it from its wall anchor. When it finally did let loose, John fell backward landing butt-first against the cracked Formica top of the vanity with a painful jolt. The right side of the rod then fell from its holder, crashing to the floor, as a buzzing swarm of thousands of blue-black flies rose up and surrounded John’s head. He swatted frantically at the air around him scattering the pests in all directions and dropping his side of the curtain rod to the floor with a metallic clang. When the swarm finally dissipated, John’s breath caught in his throat at the sight before him, the reason for the revolting swarm of flies.
Someone, probably the former inhabitant of the apartment, was sitting in the tub, leaning against the back wall. At first John feared the horrid mess might be one of them, waiting to take him down, but then he realized what he saw could no longer do him or anyone any harm. He also understood at once, where the other foul stench had been coming from. It was from the fetid stinking mess of putrefying humanity, which was all that remained of the decomposing body in the tub.
The cause of death was apparent by the shotgun lying against the thing’s chest. The barrel was pointing up toward a place where the thing’s head should have been; its skeletal finger still locked around the trigger. John reached out to retrieve the shotgun from the rotting body’s clenched fingers. He tugged carefully but it wouldn’t budge. The files which had once again returned to the corpse now flew about the remains angrily. John knew he would have to tear the gun-free and likely sever the corpse’s fingers in the process. Then he realized he was simply not up for such a task. His stomach was already on the verge of vomiting and would only need a little persuasion to push it over the edge. He simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. He convinced himself the shotgun was likely empty anyway as the owner would have only loaded enough shells loaded to do the job.
Besides, he already had a handgun of his own tucked into his pants near the small of his back, but that was as useless as the shotgun would surely be because it too had no bullets. If those creatures broke through the door too soon, perhaps he could bring himself to quickly rip the gun from the cadaver’s grasp and use it as a club, perhaps not. But either way, the gun was going to stay where it was for the time being.
As John reluctantly studied the corpse noticed a strangely interesting pattern of brown and gray fragments of flesh and gore stippling the back wall, resembling some twisted, horrific work of bizarre modern art. The stump of the body’s neck was infested with larvae and insects. The front of the hideous cadaver’s formerly grey tee shirt was dark with congealed blood. John could tell it had once likely been a man. The queasy feeling began to return with a vengeance, but John still could not take his eyes from the horrifying sight.
The flies had now returned to their task of laying eggs in the rotting corpse. What appeared to be hundreds of holes had been bored in the bloated body’s decomposing flesh as maggots made their way freely beneath the mottled skin, which throbbed disgustingly as their bodies squirmed about. John was now barely able to control his urge to vomit. Then he saw a particularly large insect, a worm of some sort slithering just below the flesh of the body’s headless neck, resembling the pulsations of a vein in the throat of a living person. John could no longer hold back his retch.
John vomited what little remained in his stomach into the bathtub, coating the corpse and shot gun with the vile fluid and disturbing the swarms of flies once again. As he heaved uncontrollably, he felt some of the wretched insects trying to fly inside his mouth. This only served to nauseate him even further as he puked and spat out a mixture of bile and still moving insects.
He managed to fall back away from the horrid scene, sitting down on the floor with a thud, unable to support his own weakened body as he leaned his back against the doors of the vanity and stared without really seeing at the mess of what had once been a living human being. He realized he would never bother retrieving the shotgun now.
Since the plague had started, John had seen many sights no man should have to endure. And he truly believed he had seen just about every vile thing imaginable. But the condition of the maggot-infested carcass in the shower had taken revulsion to a new, previously inconceivable level.
John suddenly felt as frighteningly unprepared for what awaited on the other side of the bathroom door then he had ever been in his life. For the first time ever, John was starting to question his own sanity. After all, what sane man would want to survive in such a world as now existed. Suicide was likely a saner act than attempting to go on living.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, just suck it up!” John heard a voice shout in his befuddled mind, “Who… who was that?” he heard himself say aloud. Then he realized he recognized the voice in his mind for what it was; the voice was that of Sergeant Steele. Then he recalled Steele telling his class in his patented snarling sergeant’s voice, “When the airborne defecation hits the rotating ventilation people, even the great will fall. But not you… not my students… you people… you will survive… because dammit, that’s what I’ve trained you to do!”
But John still had his doubts. He knew there were likely dozens of those ungodly things out there and he was on his own. If it was true that even the great had fallen, what chance could he possibly expect to have? Then he remembered his training and getting up from the floor and dusting himself off John prepared to go to war as he had been taught by his mentor so many months ago.
He lifted his end of the heavy shower curtain rod and let the curtain fall back into the tub covering the hideous cadaver. Then he began to fashion his arsenal of weapons from the various items he had found in the bathroom. As he did, he was worried he might not finish in time as the thin panels of the door seemed to be bulging inward under the constant scratching and pounding pressure of the creatures beyond.
First, John took the remaining half of the thin metal curtain rod, and using the roll of duct tape he wrapped the L-shaped end of the rod to protect his hand from any more cuts and forced the metal piece he had taken from the toilet tank, down through the center of the curtain rod to reinforce it and give it a bit more strength, securing it also with duct tape. He realized the chain at the end of the metal tank arm was too short and too flimsy to do him any good, so he wrapped that and taped it to the rod as well to keep it out of his way.
The six-inch scissors he had found were tucked into his back right pocket to be used only as a last resort in the event of close combat. He put the hair pic with its metal tines into his left back pocket. His hand brushed across his empty handgun. He was reminded of the shotgun resting in the hands of the rotting body in the tub. Once again found himself fighting the urge to vomit. He closed his eyes for a moment and regained his composure.
Then he went back to work, taking another piece of duct tape and securing it to one side of the can of hairspray with plans to pull it over the top of the push-down aerosol button and tape it to the other side when the need arose to provide a constant stream of spray. Even though it might only be a momentary diversion, it could provide him with the second or two he needed to survive.
The toilet tank lid would be one of the first weapons he would use when the creatures broke through the door. Next, he hoped to use than the heavy shower curtain rod although it was too long to use properly in the close confines of the small bathroom. He was certain when he was out in the main room this would become his weapon of choice. As such, John wrapped the middle section of the rod with duct tape to give himself a more secure surface for gripping the weapon. He did the same thing with one side of the heavy toilet tank lid, as its surface was far too smooth to have any natural gripping capability.
John put the remainder of the roll of duct tape into his jacket pocket for future use, assuming he still had a future and prepared himself to face the enemy. The curtain rod now leaned against the outside wall of the shower where he could quickly grab it when he was ready. He didn’t exactly have a plan, but he did have the start of a strategy, which he hoped would save his life.
He set the toilet tank top and the can of hairspray on the vanity then grabbed the sharp window curtain rod by its now-protected taped handle. He stood silently staring and the ever-weakening door as the undead creatures began breaking through the thin wooden panels. Slivers of wood splintered as boney fingers worked their way through the newly made openings. John recalled the words of Sergeant Steele telling his class to remain calm despite the desire to panic in such situations and to keep their heads clear.
“You won’t have the luxury of being scared, people. You cannot panic. You don’t want to run around like a bunch of chickens with your damn fool heads cut off. You will be strong, you will remain calm, and you must think, think, think people!”
John had no idea how many times he had heard the sergeant repeat those and other similar mantras. He drilled his ideas into the psyche of his students until they became second nature – not so much a thought as a reflex. Luckily for John, that was exactly what happened to him.
Dead fingers began to tear the door panel to bits and not unlike the image he had imagined earlier of Jack Nicholson, one of the horrid creatures put its face against the opening, its one dead filmy eye looking into the bathroom directly at John with a savage and wanton hunger. Its other eye was missing, leaving a maggot-riddled blackened orifice, which oozed some brackish dark green fluid. Without a moment’s hesitation, John pressed the thin, reinforced rod deep into the creature’s exposed remaining eyeball and up into its brain. The thing let out a mournful cry and fell backward, collapsing. John could see several others perhaps three of four of them milling about outside the door, looking down at their fallen comrade, but obviously not comprehending what had just happened to him.
John took advantage of the creatures’ moment of confusion to make his move. Grabbing the bathroom door handle he pulled it quickly inward. One of the creatures must have been holding onto the handle on the other side because his rapid motion caused the beast to fall into the room landing face-first on the floor in front of him. As the creature started to get up, John grabbed the toilet tank lid and brought it down hard on the top of the creature’s skull, caving it in amid a flying flurry of flesh, skull fragments, brain matter, and gore. The creature went limp at his feet.
Another one of the things started to step over the corpse of the first to get at John. But thinking quickly, John grabbed the can of hairspray and securing it in the shooting position with the duct tape he blasted it directly into the oncoming creature’s eyes. It let out a cry of anger or perhaps pain; John didn’t care which; and while the thing was distracted, he brought the toilet tank lid down on its head shattering its skull and breaking the lid into several fragments as well, rendering them both useless. Then he saw his chance to escape.
Three of the creatures remained outside in the other room and were several feet from the doorway. John grabbed the heavy shower curtain pipe and ran into the room with all the speed he could muster, holding the rod out in front of him horizontally. One of the creatures was caught in the throat and its neck was broken, severing its spinal cord and destroying it instantly. A second one made a clumsy lunge for John, and using the pipe like a bow staff, John struck it with several rapid-fire blows that dazed the creature enough for him to swing a final head-crushing bash.
He quickly spun the pipe, and as the final creature made his attack, John thrust the rod forward, into the thing’s gaping mouth and up into its maggot-infested brain. It fell to the floor with a thud. John tried to pull the pipe from the reeking carcass but discovered it was stuck. He supposed had he been willing to take the time he might have eventually worked it loose, but he decided it was better to cut his losses and get out of the place as quickly as possible and find a new safe house where he might hide.
John slowly approached the door leading out of the bedroom and was surprised to find the living room of the apartment free of creatures as well. Now he just had to make it out into the hall which would give him access to the rest of the building or to the outside if he so desired. He was lucky; the hall was empty.
Creeping stealthily down the hallway, John kept his eyes and ears open for more of the horrid things while trying unsuccessfully to find another open apartment door. As he turned the corner, he stopped in his tracks; his breath catching in his throat. There were at least ten of the wretched beasts huddled around the disemboweled corpse of some poor soul, they had cornered and overpowered in the corridor. John realized they had not yet noticed him. He thanked all that might still be considered holy in this atrocious hell on earth and slowly backed away from the scene of wanton butchery.
After a few feet, John was about to turn around when he felt himself back into something. He stood stock-still and could hear a faint wheezing followed by a guttural growl coming from behind him, starting low like the gentle rumble of a motor but slowly growing in volume and sounding more ominous by the second. John knew without looking what was waiting behind him and hoped he was lucky enough that there might only be one of them.
Reacting at once, John simultaneously reached into his left pocket and retrieved the hair pick with the metal-pronged handle, while sinking down, spinning and bringing up his right arm with the intention of getting it around the creature’s head. If he did the move exactly as he had been taught and at the same time swept with his right foot, he would bring the creature down while his left hand came up with the hair pick and pierced the creature’s eyeball and brain.
The move went perfectly except his aim was slightly off and the pick sunk into the thing’s cheek which didn’t serve to do anything but anger it further. The undead thing lay on the floor of the hall on its back grabbing pathetically at the comb still sticking out of its face. That was when time seemed to come to an abrupt halt for John.
What he saw shocked him to the very core of his being. This creature was not just another one of those unnamed walking meat sacks; this creature was one he recognized. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was… but how could a possibly be? It was Sam Sergeant Steele, his survival coach; now reduced to a brainless bag of rotting flesh. John thought to himself “Oh my God! Sam was right. Even the great have fallen.”
The Sam creature started to get up for another attack, but before it could, John reached into his right back pocket and withdrew the six-inch scissors. Without a moment’s hesitation he sunk the tip of the scissors deep into the gray-filmed eye socket of his former mentor, pushed it up, up into its brain and watched his former friend go limp falling back to the floor with a thud.
John quickly rose to his feet, sprinted down the hall away from the carnage and suddenly found himself outside once again. There fortunately were none of the horrible creatures anywhere in site and John was able to make a safe getaway; guaranteeing his survival for at least one more day. He had no idea how long he would be able to subsist in this horrifying new world and he understood he would have to measure his existence one day at a time. But he knew with the training he had received from the man he had just put down; he might last longer than he imagined. As he walked away, John took one last look back at the building he had just left, said “Thanks Sam” as his voice caught in his throat and his eyes welled with tears, then he headed down the alley: always alert and always vigilant.