The Dark and Shadowy Places

A couple of weeks ago on author Chuck Wendig’s blog, he posted a writing challenge called The Subgenre Blender, giving two lists of subgenres of stories, and with a random number generator, asking us to pick 2 and write 2000 words about them. I just so happened to get something i’m interested in at the moment, and that is zombies. I’ve been reading a lot of zombie books lately (The Reapers are the Angels, The Raising of Stony Mayhall,  World War Z, Feed, and currently Parasite (though not really a zombie story), and that’s not including the triology I read a year or so ago, Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands & Teeth trilogy), and quite enjoying them. So without further ado, here’s my latest zombie story, The Dark and Shadowy Places. Please let me know what you think of it!

My name-, well, that doesn’t matter right now. That’s the least important part of this story. The important part is that the world has always been back and white for me. And I’m not just talking about life and death, like most would assume these days, though it is pretty black and white in that regard as well. But I mean literally. I only see in black and white. Or shades of grey if you want to get technical about it. I can’t see colours. No need to pity me though. I was born like this, which helps, somewhat. Some genetic abnormality or something they said, though no one in my family has had this condition, I’ve checked. In fact, hardly anyone has it. And most of them that do, or did, aren’t around anymore. For reasons I’m sure you can guess.

I’ve looked for a cure but it doesn’t seem like there is one. At least not yet. And not seeing colour puts me at a slight disadvantage. Okay, if I’m being honest, quite a big disadvantage. Especially at night. I try to avoid dark, shadowy places, which is just plain common sense nowadays. I mean, it used to be common sense back then too, but for a totally different reason. Before, the only thin you’d be avoiding by keeping away from the dark and shadows were unsavoury people – muggers, drug dealers, prostitutes, burglars and the like, that would cause you harm. And I’m not putting anything against them, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been very nice to find yourself in some dark alley with those types of people around, but at least your chances of coming out the other side, alive, were more likely.

But now, unless you’re totally insane, the dark and shadowy places are abandoned, by even the muggers and drug dealers and psychopaths. And all the unsavouries, if they value their lives, have found safe places indoors to ply their trades.

The dark and shadowy places are now the domain of the reanimated deceased. That’s  the PC way of saying the living dead. Zombies, if you want to be downright crude.

They seem to favour the dark. Maybe, like me, bright lights bother them.

Though the lights of a big city will do nothing to scare away those who are hunting, who are hungry.

There is nothing that will stop a hungry walking deceased person besides the standard of targeting the brain – but not just the brain but the brain stem. The movies got that part all wrong. You have to sever or damage the brain stem. That shuts them down, turns off whatever internal battery that has somehow been flicked back on again after death. And doing that is harder than you think.

A gun works well to give you a bit of a reprieve, give you a few extra seconds. Shooting them usually knocks them down, as if they’re a leaf being blown about by a breeze, but they immediately start getting up again so you have to be fast with your sword when they’re down. It takes a lot of strength. And most swords aren’t feathers, that’s for darn sure.

But they’re by far the most popular weapon. There’s been an increase in sword fighting classes and a drop in self defence since this whole thing started. Hand to hand combat isn’t all that effective fighting something that is dead and that will continue to try to attack and eat you, no matter how many punches or roundhouse kicks you throw. Swords give you a little bit of distance, which is why the longer the sword, the better, but if you don’t already have one, you probably won’t have much luck finding any in stock at your local Walmart.

I was lucky. Mine were handed down to me. Ceremonial Japanese fighting swords that my father had above the fireplace mantle, just as decoration, can you believe that? People had swords as decorations in their hoses before the dead started coming back to life and instead of peacefully shambling around, came back craving anything that had a heart beat and fresh blood pumping through their veins. Dad’s swords were in perfect condition, but didn’t remain that way for very long.

I had conditioned myself for the past two years, since all this started, to not go out at night and be safe at home by dusk, just in case. But tonight I had broken my self imposed rule. My swords were strapped diagonally across my back in their harness, their handles within easy reach. I wore skin tight thick leather motorcycle pants, which were almost a universal fashion these days, it was only sensible, and a snug long sleeved shirt with an equally form fitting motorcycle jacket on top, though I didn’t own a motorcycle. Thick leather gave you that little bit of extra protection. And it helped that I was slim, too. It helped to be in good shape. I’d lost a bit of weight and toned up over the last few years. Being at all out of shape meant your chances of living very long in this brave new world weren’t very good.  The dead weren’t all that fast, but it did help if you could run, and put some space between you and them, at least until you decided what you wanted to do – either run and hide, or maybe get help, or if you decided to face them yourself. Before the world changed, before all this started people used to make jokes about it. People who ran used to say to those who didn’t, “I’ll be able to survive the zombie apocalypse!”

Yes, running is good. It’s helps you to stay alive. But you can’t be like Forrest Gump and keep running your entire life, because there will always be more dead people, slowly but surely following you. You’ll run out of steam at some point. They won’t. And that’s the crux of it. Which is where weapons become useful.

I never leave the house without my swords. And I try not to leave the house at all, if I can help it. I order food online and get it delivered to the house; I have a fenced yard if I want to get some fresh air or some vitamin D. But a little sunshine is over-rated I think when there are legion of human-esque things wandering around out there with you as the only thing on their menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There’s only one thing that will get me to leave the safety of my self-sufficient stronghold, a.k.a. townhouse (but one that’s reinforced with steel doors and barred windows). The one thing that would make everyone with an ounce of brain cells leave the safety of their houses, apartments, condos, homeless shelter.

The alarms. It meant evacuation. It meant there had been a breach of the walls that surrounded the city, and that the tall fence surrounding my back yard and the steel doors were no longer the comforting safety that they pretended to offer.

So it was that that had me striding across the city with my Japanese ceremonial swords at my back. I wasn’t thinking, not really, not clearly. The only thing I was thinking of was getting to the muster area. The safety zone, the meeting place where everyone was supposed to meet when a failure happened. Like when a fire happens in a building, there’s always the place marked out on the map where everyone needs to meet, on the grass, outside.  I was on autopilot, moving swiftly in the general direction but not fully paying attention to the encroaching dark and shadowy places that grew larger every night, as if the dark, not just the undead was taking over the world.

The alarm was like a beacon. A long, continuous blaring noise, that roused people from their beds and their couches, attracting them like the dead to a beating heart.

One thing I should’ve learned by now, something  I did know, but for some reason, with the alarm blaring I had forgot for an instant, and that is all that it takes, is that you always need to be on your guard when you are outside. Whether it is first thing in the morning, or high noon, or as the sun is setting. In the before times, people were constantly distracted by technology, staring more at their cell phones and laptops and handheld computers than being aware of their surroundings. There was even the odd story of people walking into moving buses because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going!

You couldn’t be like that anymore. Not if you wanted to live, anyway. You had to pay attention at all times. You had to look. You had to listen. And for me, I had to look harder than most other people because I couldn’t differentiate things as clearly as those would could see the full spectrum.

My foot drifted across the subtle demarcation between the living world, and the dark, shadowy part of the world. Their domain.

I felt it first like a shiver of electricity, running up my spine and tugging on the small hairs on the back of my neck. I felt it before I heard it. Before I heard the shuffling noise of them moving, before I heard their deep, ragged breathing, like the growl of a wild animal, which drove a spike of fear into my chest.

Instinctively I turned my head in the direction of the sound, just in time to see fingers the colour of the pavement, cold and grey reach out and grab my arm, tugging at me. I yanked my arm free, thankful I wasn’t wearing something loose that they could pull towards them. As I pulled my arm free my hand moved behind me to the hilt of my sword and I slid it free with a whoosh that had a slight ring to it. I swung without much thought. The sword came down on the creature’s arm severing it through it’s form arm, the grasping hand falling to the ground, and for a few moments, it still moved and spidered its way across the ground toward me. I stomped on it, grinding the heel of my steel toed boots into the appendage, squishing it into the pavement as if it were a cigarette butt.

The man didn’t blink, didn’t stop, didn’t even seem to notice it was now missing a large chunk of an arm. It just kept moving forward.

I stepped backwards, stumbling slightly in my haste and raised my sword again, at the same time pulling its twin free of its sheath. I was already panting and out of breath. I hadn’t come across one of them for awhile. And never like this, never this close.

I was dimly aware that the alarm had stopped ringing. There was a strange quietness that hit my ears, a quietness brought on by a sudden lack of a sound you had been hearing for awhile.

That wasn’t a good thing. If the alarm had stopped, that meant the muster area had been sealed off already. If you weren’t behind the walls by the time the alarm had been turned off, you were on your own.

The thought slammed its way through my mind, nearly distracting me from what I was trying to do. I was on my own. I squinted, trying to focus on the man-thing that was just a slightly different shade of gray from the dark shadow that surrounded him. I swung again. One of my swords sliced into the skin of his torso and lodged itself between ribs. The other sword, the one in my dominant hand, hit the thing in his neck, shoving it sideways slightly, pushing it further away from me. I released my grip on the one that was tightly stuck between the ribs and gripped the other with both hands, pulling it away from it’s neck and swinging again. This time it did it’s job, the blade slicing cleaning through, dislodging the groaning head with it’s gnashing teeth from the rest of its body. It tumbled in almost-slow motion and rolled back into the dark. I didn’t even wait for the body to follow its lead, I turned and ran.

I ran until my lungs burned and I revelled in the feeling. Any discomfort meant I was still alive and that was something to be happy about.

Ten minutes passed, then fifteen, then twenty. I didn’t realize the safe zone was so far away. And then the grey steel loomed in front of me, almost indistinguishable from the rest of what I saw as my environment. As suspected, the doors were closed, sealed shut with pneumatics.

I debated banging on it, asking them to open the doors but I knew it was futile. I was out, and everyone else was in. That was the protocol.

I turned and surveyed the abandoned city streets, cast in a strange pale glow from the street lamps, that people could have told me were purple for all I knew, whatever purple looked like.

It was me, Shar Flanagan, the girl who can’t see anything but shades of dark and shadow against them and all that entailed.

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