The Old Town Hall
James tucked his 9mm into his back pocket as he departed from his crumbled home. He did not know why he still bothered to shut the door, since anything that wanted to come in would find a way eventually. Looking around quickly but cautiously, the street seemed rather deserted except for a few stragglers far down on Lucas Street to the right.
He walked down the deserted road, being careful to avoid the sharp glass and random bodies of familiar faces around him.
It had been four months since the onset of the undead.
“Hey Bill,” he said to his neighbor as he picked him up on the way. “Crossbow still working?”
“Wouldn’t leave home without it,” Bill smiled weakly before closing the door behind him.
Bill and James had gone to the same high school some twenty years ago and were never anything more than classmates and teammates on the local soccer team. Now they were the only two people left within five blocks.
“I found her,” Bill said quietly, “I found Susan. She wandered back to the house finally last night. It’s still strange to look into the eyes of one of them as a child, so young. She barely looked like my sweet Susan anymore.”
Silence hung in the air as James let his voice trail off slightly. James remembered Susan, who was around seven when this all began. Bill had been a single dad for quite a few years since his wife ran out on him for the postman. James’ wife, Daphne, had helped any way she could; they had never been able to have children of their own.
“I’m sorry, man. I really am. I had hoped that maybe she’d never come home, for your sake that is.” James offered.
Bill nodded solemnly as the two headed up Jefferson Ave. toward the Old Town Hall. James, as well as nine other people including Bill, remained in their small town of Oak Crest. Once a week on Tuesday afternoons, the ten remaining people would gather in the Old Town Hall, one of the few places not completely overrun with the undead. There was no distinct leader of this small group; they were simply too tired to argue over who was best fit to lead. Any survival instinct or desire to fight was forced out of them many weeks ago.
James noted how the streets felt quieter on that foggy afternoon, or maybe he had simply gotten so used to blocking out the sounds of bones breaking and human flesh being torn. The sound was eerily similar to macaroni and cheese being stirred slowly in a large crock pot. Sounds like that had become so common place they replaced the expectation of hearing birds chirp in the morning. Spring was fast approaching and there were no robins in sight. Only the sound of organs and intestines being strewn throughout the town were heard instead.
The two men came to the town hall and knocked on the door four times in quick succession as was customary. Lucille, an elderly women from about a half mile west from the Old Town Hall, opened the door and smiled at the two as they entered. Nathan, a former Marine, came in from around the corner to do the inspection for bites. James and Bill disrobed without much thought and Lucille turned around blushing slightly.
“Clear,” said Nathan, “I think Gretchen and Peter are about to start with dividing up the rations if you want to go along.”
James saluted Nathan casually, almost mockingly, and they continued on. After about a month of the initial infection, people began to realize that the infection was spread through bite. The original thought was it was some strain of Mad Cow disease which led to a lot of starvation cases early on. Eventually though, the mode of transmission was discovered. Yet not before millions had been killed. Statistics were a bit fuzzy even before the news channels cut out completely, but the words “pandemic” and “plague” and “apocalypse” were thrown around.
As they entered the town hall, James saw they were the last to arrive. Gretchen and Peter, the only surviving couple, were standing at the front with the food ready. Before all of the hysteria had his the town, Gretchen was an EMT and Peter a former Marine. Harry, the old elementary school principle, sat along on the far right, looking bleaker than usual. Maybe his wife had paid him a visit last night as Susan had done to Bill. The one remaining child, Rachel, sat with Olga, who had become a surrogate mother type to the teenage girl after her family was killed. Insane Larry stared wide-eyed at Bill and James as they sat in the chairs of the old senate chambers.
“When will we finally accept who is really behind all of this?!” shouted Insane Larry who stood suddenly as everyone was getting settled in. “We know those mutha fucking Nazis, those damn Mexicans, and the gays are all in on it, not to mention Obama. You know he’s an atheist Muslim? All those goddamn liberals have been ruining this country for decades now and we know it’s their pot smoke and music that really started this a—”
Nathan slapped Insane Larry upside the head as he and Lucille finally came into the room. Larry grumbled and sat, finally giving in to obedience. These outbursts were sadly normal nowadays. Everyone sighed, shook their heads, and kept their attention at the front of the room. They went through a list of anyone who had died in the last week that they had known, and Susan was on the list as well as about fifteen others. Apparently a lot of family members had been wandering home in the last two weeks. This was causing much stress for everyone and the creation of the new rule: kill all who enter your home on sight.
“We all know this must be done, as we discussed last week,” Gretchen said to which her husband nodded. “We don’t mean to be harsh, but whether it is your elderly mother or disabled aunt or twelve week old newborn crawling back up your stoop, you need to shoot.”
The audience cringed. Of the two of them, Gretchen was far blunter about the realities of Oak Crest. Peter, more soft spoken, still had this hint of an edge to him that let you know he was not to be messed with under any circumstance. James had this odd feeling though he could not shake, one that had been building ever since Gretchen and Peter took over rationing the food a month ago. They had agreed, they all had, in the beginning of all of this that no one person would lead. And this still held true. But now it began to feel like there were two leaders in front of them at the pulpit on Tuesday afternoons.
“Now listen here,” Olga said as she stood with her hand still on Rachel’s shoulder. “It is much easier for you to take such a stand, Gretchen, when you still have some family left. Just think though, think of us who still might have someone wandering home, like a child for heaven’s sake.” Olga’s hold on Rachel tightened noticeably.
James kept his eyes focused frontward; he had known this debate would erupt eventually and wanted more than anything to take his food for the week and sneak out through the back door.
“I think we have to remember Gretchen’s experience in the medical profession as an EMT. My wife knows what she is talking about, as hard as it may be to hear,” Peter said.
Clearing his throat loudly, Nathan stood next. “Have we considered though, Peter, that it’s all more than muscle memory as Gretchen suggested last Tuesday? I mean, it’s a logical argument, but have we even thought of the idea of these…these things becoming sentient again?”
James felt Bill sit up straighter in his seat next to him. He could sense him looking at him for approval, but James betrayed that look and stared directly at Peter’s eyes. The heat in the room was strikingly higher, radiating off of Gretchen. Her hair seemed redder than it had moments before.
“What on God’s earth are you talking about, Nathan?!” Gretchen squealed, “Sentient? As though they are human? We have to remember, everyone, that these things are not human any more. We have to believe that!”
“But that’s just the thing,” Nathan continued, leaning forward slightly toward the front of the room, “we don’t know anything about this disease, about any of this, we have no proof that it isn’t like the flu and goes away in a couple weeks.”
“It’s been months though, Nathan!” reasoned Lucille.
“Honestly, we can want them to get better, but maybe they can’t,” offered Rachel.
“Either way, the real concern right now should be divvying up the food,” said James.
“They aren’t people, we can’t think like that! I had to kill my Susan, I had to!” cried Bill.
Gretchen, red with fury, banged her gavel against the pulpit furiously. One by one each member of the small group sat, but Gretchen continued to crack her gavel. Peter approached her and took the gavel calmly from her hand. Gretchen was shaking and looked to her husband for comfort. The fact that they still had each other, regardless of what anyone would admit, made all of them envious.
Peter spoke, “There is one man who had remained silent here, isn’t there, Henry?”
Gretchen’s eyes widened and everyone turned in their seats to look at Henry whose face was buried in his hands.
“He-Henry?” Lucille said timidly.
Henry raised his head from his hands, his face stained with tears. His chest was raising and falling rapidly as he searched for the right words.
“I…” Henry started, “I just couldn’t kill Zachary, Peter, he’s only a boy.”
There were audible gasps heard throughout the small crowd and confused, accusatory whispers. All sat more rigidly in their seats as they looked to Gretchen and Peter to see what would happen. Both of their eyes looked dead and cold.
“You have put us all in danger now,” Peter said in a low voice.
Taking the gavel, he rammed it into the side of the podium in one swift movement, causing the head of it to break from its base. Silence fell on the small Senate chambers of Oak Crest.
“Gretchen, lock back up the food!” Peter shouted in his wife’s direction. “You,” he spat at Henry, “you are coming with me.”
His old army muscles still powerful, Peter grabbed the father by the scruff of his collared shirt and dragged him through the chambers.
“Follow me if you ever want to see food again! And leave your weapons!” Peter yelled while Gretchen was returning with the key to the food safe prominently held in her hand.
Everyone dutifully, though with evident fear, rose form their seats and followed the couple dragging Henry through the streets. The old school principle lived about a block from the Old Town Hall so the trip was short.
Within minutes, the small gang stood in Henry’s front hall of his crumbling townhouse. Gretchen grabbed Henry by his hair and demanded to know where his sixteen year old son, Zach, was. Zachary had been a football player and a good math student before the outbreak. James remembered his paper route when he was a younger kid and how friendly he always was to his wife, Daphne.
Henry, blood spilling from his mouth where Peter had punched him upon entering the house, pointed a shaking finger toward the master bedroom which bore a strong deadbolt. A faint growling could be heard from behind the door. Peter reached in his back pocket and pulled out a pistol he handed to Nathan. Gretchen worked a bobby pin on the deadbolt.
“Please, Nate,” said Peter, his voice softer, “you know we have to do this to be safe.”
Nathan looked at his friend and old army comrade with obvious difficulty. He held the gun in his hands carefully, looking from the gun to the door where Gretchen had finally jimmied the lock. He sighed, his voice shaking, and gave Henry a look that said, “Sorry.”
Rachel buried her head in Olga’s chest and James placed a comforting hand on Insane Larry who was mumbling and sobbing slightly. As the door closed and Gretchen stood guard outside, Henry stopped struggling. He knew it was over. After a few moments, a loud bang could be heard from behind the door and Nathan yelled out of anguish at what he had just done.
Returning from the room with some blood on his shirt, Nathan nodded to Peter and returned his pistol to Gretchen. Gretchen smiled to her husband, as though they had just shared an intimate night of lovemaking and kissed him on the cheek. The sight of it made James’ stomach turn.
“Now,” said Gretchen, “we need to make sure nothing like this little mishap ever happens again.”
Cocking the gun, she pushed Henry onto his knees. It took James seconds to realize what was going to happen next, but by the time he realized it, it was too late. Gretchen had taken the shot, right between Henry’s eyes, and the old principle’s body slumped to the ground.
“Throw his body out back,” Gretchen said and Peter agreed, “The stragglers will take care of the remains.”
Nathan, the look of shock evident on his face, took a hold of Henry’s body, his eyes hard. Within minutes, the body was gone and the remaining members of the group stood in an icy muteness. James heard Gretchen’s voice, but it sounded miles away. His gaze was foggy and his mind racing. He heard her say that the food this week would be hand delivered by Lucille later today and that they would continue next Tuesday as planned.
Back home James collapsed against his closed from door. Standing slowly after a couple moments, he headed out to his garage and to his backyard wear a faint mewing sound could be heard. What appeared to be a woman’s body was chained to the back of the garage. Her tongue had been cut out to avoid detection and her teeth filed down to avoid a bite. James sat next to Daphne, held her close, and rocked back and forth with her as the sun set.