Fiction: The Perfect Gift
Today's installment of holiday cheer in our "25 Christmas Eves" series is a nice little zombie survival tale, set in a post apocalyptic wasteland. Just in time for the holidays.
By: Erin L. Snyder
Deb woke up while Keeve was strapping the shotgun to his back. She stood up, stretched, and came towards him. There wasn't a lot of light in the room - just what seeped through the boarded up window - but it was enough to see she was worried. Keeve, satisfied the shotgun was secured, held her and kissed her on the lips.
“Uh,” he said, laughing. “Your breath’s not too good.”
“Yeah,” she laughed back, before growing serious. “Where are you going, babe?”
“Oh. Yeah. I left you a note. Thought I’d grab some supplies from town, you know.”
“Jesus. I should come,” she said.
“No. Look, I love you, but we both know I’m faster.”
“I can outrun any bee,” Deb replied.
“I know you can, but I don’t want them following us back here, clawing at the door and all that. Remember October? We had to kill them right on the porch. Still doesn’t smell right out there, either.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Deb reminded him, poking him square in the chest.
“Didn’t say it was,” Keeve said, defensively. “I just don’t want it happening again. Look, there are just some things I want to pick up, okay? It’s no big deal.”
Deb tilted her head and crossed her arms. “This better not be about tomorrow.”
The corner of Keeve’s mouth curled up into the slightest smile against his will. He wiped his face with his palm to try and hide it. “No idea what you mean. Is it our anniversary or something?”
Deb smacked him on the arm. “Come on. You know as well as I do tonight’s Christmas Eve. Come on, Keeve, I don’t need anything. You’re enough, and... I don’t want to lose you.”
“Relax,” Keeve said, “it’s me. I can handle myself.”
“Isn’t that what Chuck said? He was good, too. But sometimes, people go out alone and don’t come back. Or worse. Keeve, I love you. I can’t stand the thought of ever having to....”
“You won’t,” Keeve said, gently raising her chin up with his thumb. He looked her in the eyes and said, “I swear, Deb, I’d never put you in that spot. I’ll take so much care nothing’ll ever happen. But if I ever screwed that up, if I ever got bit... I’d make sure I didn’t put you in that situation. I’d end it there, the way Chuck should’ve. Nice and clean, out like a man. I promise.”
“Please don’t go,” Deb said. “I know you’re good; you’re the strongest man I’ve ever met, but I want you here with me today.”
Keeve smiled. “Don’t worry so much,” he said. “I’ll make it back. Nothing’s going to happen to me out there. I won’t do anything stupid: if the bees are out in force, I’ll bail.”
Deb nodded. “You’ll need the glock,” she said, her voice cracking a bit.
“I was just about to grab it.”
“And one of the bats,” Deb said.
“I take too much with me, I’m not going to be able to carry much back,” Keeve said.
“Yeah, well, long as you come back, I don’t care about the rest. I mean it: the only thing I want for Christmas is you. Nothing else matters.”
“I’ll be careful,” Keeve promised again, before putting the glock in his pack, alongside a bottle of a water, a jar of peanut butter, and a flashlight. He pulled the pack on one shoulder and adjusted the strap until it was as comfortable as it would get. Then he grabbed the bat, looked out through the boarded windows, and opened the door, keeping the bat in front of him. Deb had picked up the rifle, in case there were any “surprises” on the porch, but it seemed safe.
Keeve headed out, while Deb locked the door behind him. There was nothing outside the house they were living in, so he hurried down to the street and climbed on the motorcycle he’d found a few months earlier. He walked it down the street a ways - starting it would make noise, and the last thing he wanted was to attract the bees. Once he felt he was far enough, he climbed on and fired it up.
He started toward the city, veering around the rusting husks of cars crashed years before. Every now and then, he’d see a bee stumble out of the woods, likely drawn to the noise. Even at the relatively slow speeds he was moving at, he didn’t have any trouble avoiding them. A few years earlier, back when they’d first risen, he’d have stopped to fight, shot them up until he was out of ammo then turned tail back to wherever he’d been holed up with other survivors. Back then, most everyone was angry, panicked, and itching for a fight. A lot of people died in those days, trying to fight this like it was a war. Hell, that was almost him. It would have been him, if he hadn’t found Deb. She’d saved his life by giving him a reason to live it.
At some point, it became abundantly clear there were too many to kill. The trick was finding a way to outlast them. Sure, bees are tough, but they need to eat. And, frankly, there wasn’t much of a food source left. The human survivors were holed up in small communities or pairs, like him and Deb, and the bees had managed to get most of the dogs, cats, rats, and mice they were likely to get.
When bees get hungry, they’ll go for bugs. But half the time, they don’t chew them right, and the bugs wind up eating the bees from the inside out until they just fall apart. It’s not pretty, seeing a decomposing human body crumble like that, but that’s dropping a hell of a lot more than bullets or chainsaws.
Keeve parked his motorcycle on the outskirts of the city. Driving it into the city was more dangerous than being on foot. It was easy enough to see bees coming in the country, but the city was compact; too many places to hide or scurry out of. Besides, there might be worse things in the city than bees. Most survivors were just trying to get by. But it wasn’t like the outbreak favored good people over bad. Everyone came to the city to scavenge, and seeing as he was alone, Keeve wanted to keep as low a profile as possible.
There was a time stepping foot into the city meant certain death. More people meant more bees. But they used up their supply pretty fast. By the end of the first winter, the majority of bees were just bodies again. As for the rest, most were missing limbs and so slow you almost wanted to pity them. Others just wandered out into the wilderness in search of food. As the years passed, their numbers kept dwindling.
The problem is, a lot of the ones who were still out there - the ones who still had both legs and arms - they were real dangerous. Natural selection in motion: the bees who were left were deadly. Some were stronger, others faster. Some just seemed to have better instincts for the hunt. It didn’t really make sense: bees couldn’t think, not really, but they didn’t all always behave the same way, either.
Of course, some of them were just new. Hell, Keeve had more than one friend who was likely still lumbering through those streets, looking for roaches, rats, or people to gnaw on. He just hoped he never turned out that way.
He started in, avoiding any obstacle that could potentially be hiding bees. He’d seen enough people who’d crept up along cars only to get dragged underneath to resist the urge to attempt to use cover. Same went for building fronts: bees don’t hesitate coming through glass. Not for a second
The best strategy is to stay out in the open. That way, if anything comes at you, you can deal with it.
He didn’t have to wait long before finding something to deal with, either. A bee missing its legs began crawling out from beneath a car. He used the bat and made short work of its head. Another two appeared in the shattered doorways of what had once been appartment buildings. Keeve maneuvered so they wouldn’t reach him at the same time. He considered the gun, but decided the noise would make too many problems.
The first moved a good clip, though, and he found himself second-guessing his decision to stay with the bat. But Keeve had some experience with bees: he swung away, breaking bones in both arms, then taking out its right knee. The bee kept at him, of course, but it fell over and was forced to crawl.
Keeve stepped back, then brought the bat down. In all likelihood, this bee had been around for years and had likely killed more than a few people in that time. But in the end, it didn’t fare any better than the one he’d shut down trying to get out from under the car.
That left one more, and it didn’t look too tough. It was short and, as Deb would’ve said, already busted. It moved with a limp, and its arms didn’t work so well. Even so, Keeve took it seriously. He stayed focused and finished it off with a sideways hit to the head. Then, after making sure there were no more around, he retched from the smell. Rotting flesh and decomposing brain are odors you never get used to.
He forced down some of his water then pushed on through the streets. Another bee showed up at the corner of Eighth and Main. He took out one of its legs, then left it hobbling. It was considered somewhat unethical not to finish bees since they were still dangerous, but he didn’t want to push himself. Crushing human skulls wasn’t exactly pleasant work.
He reached what had once been the shopping district soon after and pulled out his flashlight and gun. He found what he was looking for - a jewelry store - and set the bat and pack down outside. Then he pushed the door open with his shoe, and raised the gun.
He didn’t see anything, so he said in a low, firm voice, “Hey. My name’s Keeve. I’m not a bee, so if anyone’s in there, don’t shoot.” He shined the light around and didn’t see anything. He glanced over his shoulder, too, in case there was something coming up behind him. There wasn’t.
“Look, if anyone’s in there, I don’t want to hurt you. If you’re in there, let me know.” Still nothing. He stepped in. It was dark and musty, but so was everything. It didn’t smell particularly bad, though, and he didn’t see anything. He moved in slowly, half expecting something to come at him from behind the counter. But there was nothing there. He checked the back room next, starting with the same greeting. There was no one there either.
Once he decided the place was secure, he shined the light into the first case. It mainly held necklaces, so he moved on. A few of the glass cases had already been smashed open, and a handful of the jewels were gone. He found the engagement rings soon after. Unfortunately, those cases were still intact and locked, so he’d have to break the glass.
He chose the one he wanted first, then smashed the top of the glass with the butt of his gun. The sound reverberated through the building, and he cringed.
He grabbed the ring, shoved it into his coat pocket, and ran. There were three bees on the street when he reached the door. One was missing most of its face: Keeve shot it through the head first, so he wouldn’t have to keep looking at it. Then he picked off the other two.
He scooped up his pack and started running, leaving the bat behind. The noise brought more, but he ignored them. The only bees he took out were the ones in front of him. The rest, he just outran. He was exhausted by the time he reached the bike. He started it up and took off as soon as he was seated.
When he knew he was free of the city, he stopped to rest and finish off his water. Then he pulled the ring out of his pocket. Would Deb find it tacky? A marriage proposal in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Who did he think would perform the ceremony?
He pushed those thoughts away. Deb would understand: this was a symbol. It represented his love for her and his commitment to spend the rest of his life - however long that might be - at her side. They didn’t need a priest: they’d marry each other. He relaxed: an engagement ring: the perfect gift. What was he worried about?
He took his time returning home: this would be a Christmas to remember. He thought about stopping off at a gas station and rummaging through the ruins to see if they had any wrapping paper, but he decided that really would be stupid.
The only question he had left was whether he should wait until tomorrow to give her the present or hand it over tonight.
It was early evening by the time he approached the area where he lived. He stopped early and began pushing the bike back. He was tired, and his attention was elsewhere. By the time he heard the bee stumbling towards him, it was almost too late.
He dropped the bike and jumped away, just the bee lunged at him. If it hadn’t tripped over his falling bike, it would have had him. As it was, he barely got the shotgun out in time, barely leveled it at the bee’s head and pulled the trigger.
From the neck up, the bee just dissolved in front of him, its body collapsing on the ground. Keeve stood up and looked around frantically. He’d had close calls like that before, but this was different somehow: he had so much to lose now. That, and he was so close. If it had gotten him... if it had bitten and killed him before he could turn his gun on himself... it was too horrible to think about. The idea of dying was one thing; breaking his promise to Deb was another.
He was breathing frantically, glad to be alive. “I’m alive!” he shouted, since Deb must have heard the shot. He didn’t want her thinking he’d been too slow.
He still couldn’t hear too well from the gunshot, so he had no idea whether she was calling back. He hurried towards the house, shotgun still in one hand. With the other, he rooted around his coat pocket until he found the ring.
He ran towards the door, still keeping an eye out in case there were any other bees around. But he didn’t see any. At least not until he reached his lawn.
There were at least twenty - more than he’d seen in years - lying in front of his house. The bodies were scattered, each with one or more holes in its head. There were more dead on the porch, mainly around the door.
The door they’d clawed open.
Keeve charged. “Deb!” he screamed, approaching the stairs. A half-decomposed bee stumbled out at him and he took its head off. Another was in the hallway: he pulled out the glock, blew it away, and kept going.
The thoughts came quickly now. He should have been here. Why did he leave? How did this happen? It’s okay - she could be holed up in the back. Deb’s a survivor: she’s lived through worse than this. She....
She stepped out from the kitchen. Keeve was standing on the other side of the living room. He stepped back, as she stepped forward.
Not stepped; lunged. When the bees got to her, they must have eaten some of her leg before reaching her throat. There were chunks missing from her all over, but not so much she couldn’t come back. As one of them.
She was still beautiful, even now. There’s no greater compliment Keeve could have paid anyone: even with the wounds and empty eyes, she was beautiful.
“I should have been here,” he said aloud, raising the gun with both hands. She took another step towards him, and he took another back down the hall. He stared at her down the barrel. At her face. Her lips.
He stepped back again and she forward, like it was some kind of dance. His eyes went out of focus from his tears, and he looked at the gun then at his hand. There was something in it. Something....
He opened it. The engagement ring lay still in his palm. He aimed the gun with the other but couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Slowly, he lowered the gun and distantly felt it fall from his grip. Then he let the ring tumble, hitting the floor and rolling against the wall.
It was stupid. The idea it meant anything. It wasn’t a symbol: it was cheap garbage. All Deb ever wanted was what she still wanted. He held open his arms and closed his eyes as she embraced him.
The perfect gift. Himself. All she’d asked for on Christmas.