DEAD THINGS

by Matt Darst

Ian doesn’t want to believe the monsters are here. Isn’t another explanation possible? Maybe the prints are those of someone extremely weak? Or dehydrated? Maybe someone hurt himself or herself coming over the ridge?

“Not likely.” Wright explains. Severe thirst might make someone delusional, perhaps even enough to walk around without shoes and make a jump from a small cliff. But there’s more to it. Wright’s hand hovers above the track, above the heel, making little circles. “That’s an imprint of bone. There’s no flesh on the heel of the foot.”

Van is nervous. “The funny thing about mint juleps is…they taste horrible. The name implies refreshment, but they are anything but. Nothing more than bourbon with a garnish. It may as well be parsley—”

“Van, shut up,” Wright interrupts. “I think it best that we keep this between us for now.” And then she adds, “Boys.”

Again with the “Boys?” It cuts Ian to the quick. Sure, he’s not her equal, but a boy? Van, maybe.

But Ian is more than a kid.

Wright sees Ian’s consternation, mistakes it for fear. Good, she thinks. He should be fearful. Her satisfaction, though, is hollow. It is tempered by an urge, an ache, a compulsion to somehow reassure him.

Maybe she’ll relieve him of point tomorrow.

She orders Van to kick dust over the prints. “There’s no need for anyone to worry about this now. Let’s move.”

Just footprints, Wright thinks, probably a week old, heading on a diverging angle. Everything is fine. No. Certainty is a death sentence.

Wright decides to march them another dozen miles. She doesn’t want to face Heston or the questions he will ask. So, she pairs with Burt. The Hestons can accompany each other, at least until Wright needs more answers.
Thirty minutes pass, Burt and Wright nary sharing a word. But Burt has theories of his own, and he can’t help but cut the silence to disclose them.

“Have you ever seen a vampire movie?” Burt asks sheepishly, almost as if he’s walking by himself.

Wright cleans the barrel of her pistol. She does this effortlessly while walking, while still scanning the tree line. She’s done it a dozen times since the crash. You can never be prepared enough.

She reminisces about watching the Son of Svengoolie with her father Saturday afternoons. One scene sticks in her head: some actor fending off a vampire, maybe Christopher Lee, with a couple of candlesticks held to form a rudimentary cross.

“Sure,” she says.

Burt steels himself for his next query. “Did you ever wonder,” he gulps, “if there’s any truth to the vampire mythos?”

The vampire mythos? Wright guffaws. “Like Dracula?”

“No,” Burt replies, gruffly. Dracula, or Vlad Drakul, was as much a vampire as Princess Diana. Bram Stoker ruined a man and his Romanian heritage like some paparazzo. Imagine how all of England would have reacted if Stephen King had accused the Princess of lycanthropy.

“Like George Hamilton, then?” Wright jokes, eyes still on the landscape.

Burt thinks her question is a serious one. “True,” he says, “George Hamilton played Dracula. But Dracula, again, was not a vampire. And vampires definitely aren’t tan. There is something, though, in his portrayal, like Bela Lugosi’s, like Gary Oldham’s, even like the guy who played Blackula, loosely based on folklore.”

Wright holds the barrel of her pistol to her eye, inspects it against the dying light. She is losing patience. “Your point?”

She’s subtle, Burt muses wryly, like the Incredible Hulk at a tea party. Myths generally arise from a need, a need to explain something that can’t be clarified, either through experience or science. “Maybe the vampire myth just served to explain something that people were witnessing.”

Wright is clearly annoyed. “Do you think people witnessed some guy turn into a bat?”

“No, I’m not talking about bats. Vampire bats don’t even come from Europe. That’s just another myth created by—” But Burt digresses. “What I’m really talking about is the formation of a core belief of corpses returning to prey on the living…and consume them.”

“Mythology, Burt,” Wright shakes her head. “You just said it yourself: vampires are a myth. All myths can be explained away by good science. Example: the Cyclops, not a giant with a single eye, but an elephant skull discovered by the early Greeks mistaking the enlarged sinus cavity for an eye socket.

Witness the creation of a fiction.”

“Granted, but I’m talking about vampires.”

He’s right. Best to stick to one supernatural beast at a time. “Have you ever heard of rabies?” Wright asks.

“It’s like distemper, right?”

“Kind of,” Wright says, remembering her conversation with Dr. Heston. “But it presents…uniquely.” Does Burt recognize the symptoms of those infected? The face and body contorting, animal-like; the violent behavior, especially the biting; the pain caused by intense sensations, like direct sunlight; the nausea induced by strong odors, like garlic. “Sound familiar?”

So she does know vampire mythology. “Yes,” Burt allows. But can she explain away other bits, like escaping their graves to feed on their victims’ blood?

“Poe,” Wright says. Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven,” “The Telltale Heart,” and “The Premature Burial.” It is this last story that offers clues.

In it, a man suffers from catalepsy, a disorder that suspends animation, often mistaken for death. In the 19th century, embalming had yet to come into existence. So they would hold wakes, staying up, hoping death was temporary. Still, an occasional coma victim would wake, finding himself buried alive, tearing himself apart to escape the grave.

Burt offers another argument, “What about the bodies being disinterred? What about what they found?” Wright doesn’t question there’s evidence, archaeological and historical, that people dug up suspected vampires. But their descriptions, horrifying enough to spark an epidemic, also accurately depict the natural process of decay.

Villagers exhumed a body, found fresh blood dribbling from the mouth and assumed the cadaver had recently feasted. But corpses liquefy, swelling as they decompose. Blood naturally bubbles, escaping from the mouth. The abdomen bloats, too, leading one to suspect the belly is full of flesh and blood. Couple all this with the homeless who took shelter in tombs, coming and going by night, Wrights says, “…and you have a legend.”

Burt shrugs. “Still…”

“Still what?” Wright demands.

“Still,” Burt continues, “it seems these monsters”—he fans an arm around his head, indicating the space surrounding them—" easily could have been mistaken for vampires by peasants in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Wright raises a brow. “Just what are you getting at?”

“What if this has happened before?” Burt posits. “You know, but on a limited scale?”

Wright scoffs. Is Burt actually suggesting a historical precedent for this plague? Ridiculous.

“Why?” Burt poses. He challenges Wright: Compare the similarities between these creatures and the vampires of folklore. Not the Hollywood Dracula crap, but the certified dead rising and killing, communicability through a bite, and their manner of destruction: fire and decapitation.

“But vampires are killed by wooden stakes,” Wright states. “These are not.”

Burt shakes his head. Vampires are only killed by stakes in “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and in other fictions. They were not killed that way in folklore. In European tradition, vampires were pierced, held fast to the ground by a wooden stake, sometimes of ash, pounded through their chests. The stake only prevented them from moving. They still had to be decapitated or burned. Either method sufficiently destroys, or at least inhibits communication, with the brain. “Maybe,” Burt continues, nodding at Wright’s handgun, “even better than that thing.”

Wright can’t believe they’re having this discussion. The whole concept is insane. She says so. Then she tells Burt to shut up.

They walk the remaining miles in silence.

Then they set up camp.

City Hall. The building houses both the city and county governments, although some dispute whether the latter qualifies. Usually the Hall is noisy with activity, the voices of aldermen, lobbyists, and protesters, stirring together into a blur. Nothing here is pure. Laws and policy are watered down, adulterated by anyone whose voice rises above the clamor.

But as Peter surfaces on the escalator, the Hall is quiet. I need to get to the street, he thinks. As he exits a revolving glass door, the noise returns in a rush. Sirens, klaxons, alarms, all signaling emergencies, all competing for attention. But which is more important? The ambulance taking the secretary dying from a torn jugular—torn by the teeth of a bike messenger she greets every morning—to Rush’s emergency ward? The black and white cruiser crawling through stacked traffic, unclear as to where to start to address the spreading chaos? The firefighters elbowing their way through the crowd, moving like salmon upstream, going who knows where?

This is not how emergency response is meant to work. This is not how Homeland Security, nor FEMA, nor the CDC intended it.

Peter has taken the courses, trained at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, readied to assume a supervisory role in an event or incident. But it doesn’t take a mathematician to see things are out of hand and growing exponentially. There’s no established incident command, no objectives, no plan. Peter has a choice.

He chooses to go home to his family.

There is no shame in that. This is a free-for-all.

He grabs a bicycle, the one abandoned by the messenger, and makes his way north.