Short story: The Midnight Shuffle Part III & IV

Author’s Note: Find Parts I & II here. The two extracts below are drastically different – one focuses on a more humorous, benign family get-together, and in the other Gemma experiences her first zombie horde in all its glory. Unfortunately no Part I write from this moment on will have a first sentence that’s provoked quite as much conversation from people I know:

“What do you do the morning after a one night stand when you cough and a decaying penis falls right out of your very own, very alive lady parts onto your shower floor?”

Seems that’s on my record for good now. ✌️


PART III

As a society, we’ve been sharing our lives with the undead now for almost four years and the number of people with major anxiety has reached an incredible height. The chemical-ceiling has been pushed to the point where there’s call for more antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds than any of the pharmaceutical companies are able to make.

The doctors who prescribe them are on them, the bus drivers, the teachers, the students, the professionals, the parents, the children. 

In fact it would probably be more accurate to say we’re living in a half-zombie, half-medicated human world. 

Funny that. 

My dad’s one of those people; constantly anxious, alert, paranoid, while also taking a real macabre interest in the capture of zombies. It’s only by necessity that I have to loudly state my name before setting foot in his front door. The first time I went home after news of the outbreak, he clocked me over the head with part of a kitchen drawer and knocked me out. After that he somehow managed to drag me over to the living room, shuffling his own tiny frame (only being 5 foot 3) to tie me up and interrogate me with personal questions until his wife, Mag, got home.

I stared up at her, my left eye twitching with mini waves of orbital pain. Dad stood at the conservatory door, shovelling spoons of porridge from a bowl into his mouth without breaking eye contact.

“Jesus Alan. Look at her. Has she been bitten?”

“No.”

“Is she trying to bite YOU?”

He swallowed a bite and took a noisy gulp of air. “No.”

“More’s the bloody pity. Has she asked you for her phone yet?”

“Yes.”

“Then for Christ’s sake, leave her alone.”

Thankfully, this time they were already expecting me and I’m greeted calmly at the door. Dad seems a little more excitable than usual, which I quickly find out is due to our zombie neighbour becoming particularly violent over the last few weeks with his family.

“I spotted him outside on the lawns of the suburb,” Dad said breathlessly, gesturing me into the living room to sit down. “He was knocking over garden gnomes, DEFECATING…” he raised his finger and his voice in joyful outrage, “in fountains and generally leaving parts of himself all over the place. Eventually he got taken away but the final police chase was – pretty exciting!” 

As all the educational pamphlets stress, the majority of zombies are slow and stupid. If they had a chance, they would crack your skull open and tip your squishy brain matter into their mouths like a fresher drinking out of a chalice at a fraternity but, early on, they’re mostly far too shambolic to find anything to eat. It’s common to see a zombie looking in your direction and simply opening its mouth, as if it thinks a vortex is going to bring you spinning towards it for a bite. It’s very rare to actually be chased, yard for yard, by a zombie. 

It’s claimed that zombies are only likely to chase as they get older. Apart from the limitations of having grossly decaying limbs which are inclined to fly off every which way as they try to run, older zombies are usually quicker, stealthier and more violent. Newly made zombies (only about 2/3 weeks infected) are usually easy to spot as they are more mournful and peaceful – as if they’ve just realised that this ended up being their life (or death) and they’re really bummed out about it. 

Dad makes me jump by shoving a present into my stomach. 

“His head came off as they dragged him away – did I tell you that Gemma? Our neighbour Derek.”

I look down at the present in my lap. It’s beautifully decorated and alarmingly heavy. 

“No – you mention.”

“Well, he looked like he was sprinting away, then did a U-turn and came charging towards the police – teeth bared! We watched it all from the kitchen window.”

Mag rounds the corner and leans against the doorframe to watch Dad talk, holding two cups of tea.

“Poor Derek, he used to be such a feeble man,” he continues. “Before he even got to the police, he tripped over that really big pavement outside his house, toppled over and his head popped clean off like a cork!”

I look at the woman who my father has neatly tried to place in the hole mum left as she gets up and stares at the place where Derek had seemingly fallen on the lawn. She’d always been really friendly with the family next door, Derek especially. As far as I know she only has a few friends on this suburb who are still classed as living. 

“Like a cork!” Dad repeats, clearly expecting more of a reaction from me. 

I turn to look at him. “Yes, sounds horrible. I had a zombie forced to clean my car on the way here today. It was really sad.”

“There’s a lot of that going on now – it’s very common.”

Quite out of the blue, a blood curdling scream shimmers in through the window from across the street, and I jump for the second time. Dad continues to smile in my direction. His meds have truly flattened him out.

“Don’t worry about that – happens all the time. Happy birthday! Open your present!” 

It feels like we’re constantly seeing new zombies and hearing that people are being bitten, but the government insist that the number of zombies is staying consistent at just under half of the population. In the same way they estimated in the early nineties that one in every ten family members are gay, the government now say that out of every ten family members, you will probably have four zombies.

We’ve actually done really well in that respect. As far as we know, in our close family we only have two zombies – and they aren’t anyone we interact with on a yearly basis. We heard that my father’s sister was sitting asleep in her conservatory when a hapless creature smashed through the glass ceiling and fell onto her, gnashing. Apparently it was trying to get an injured bird and just happened to be extremely lucky that the glass smashed and my aunt is in a wheelchair.

The other zombie is a teenage cousin which everyone is actually quite pleased about. He was basically a little shit before he was bitten, and now is far more agreeable for his family as a member of the undead. He even has a job now when he didn’t want one before, which his mother is very pleased about. 

I wonder if any of them have remembered it’s my birthday. 

I start to unwrap the present, quickly reaching a cardboard box. I pull the sides out with my nails and find – sitting cosily amongst some coloured tissue – three books, a large gun and some pepper spray.


PART IV

I tried to shake off the idea that the highlight of my twenty-ninth birthday was spending an afternoon with Dad discussing the different ways in which a head can disconnect from a neck – and decided to go to the club with a friend instead. The government constantly warn about going into crowded, public places but I figured I would be fine, newly armed with my pepper spray.

I wasn’t worried about hordes – while scary, they don’t happen very often and mostly depend on whether they are new zombies trying to be rebellious, or older, ruthless zombies drunk on the idea of food or sex. I’ve seen only two hordes since the infection started but they were both terrifying. The biology of a horde means that even the most placated zombies, new or old, draw strength from a crowd and become lethal.

The first horde I saw happened just outside a school, on a road I had to drive down to get home from work. There was some traffic, but generally everything seemed pretty peaceful.

In hindsight, the first few weeks after the infection should have been the time when we all ran for our lives. But it wasn’t like it was in the movies. There was no global attack – no indestructible force of nature. The infection was discovered a few times; it entered the public consciousness on three different occasions, making waves a little more each time. The government hid most of the attacks, the scientists claimed the viruses could be controlled and generally, we chose to ignore it. No-one wanted to believe that zombies were real. So we didn’t. 

There were reports of deadly and often sexual crime increasing every day. Witnesses were interviewed blaming the violence on hooded youths, gang culture, frenzied fever and mental instability. No-one wanted to think there was something new to face – not with all the crap that already existed. So we all blamed it on the things we were comfortable with; the evil we were used to. 

People died by our hands too – wrongly accused and hunted down by well-wishers. But that was OK to us, it was easier.  

Outside the front gates of the school I had to park my car up on the pavement because the traffic was so confused and panicked. Someone had shouted what sounded like “BOMB” a few metres from my car and started an automatic freak out. I found out later that she was shouting “RUN”. Vehicles starting revving up against each other, and three or four tried simply driving through each other, pushing cars almost onto their side with their nose in their desperation to get out of whatever situation it was.

Then the children burst from the school and started running towards the cars, squeezing in between the tiny gaps left by bumpers and doors; some of them abandoning the road entirely and climbing on top of the cars to jump from roof to roof. Some of them were too small to jump. 

I tried to reverse my car out but there was no way to go. I was stuck on the pavement, pressed up against a wall on one side, in full view of the school gates. From my position I could see a swarm of hundreds of children, all wearing red school jumpers. They clung onto each other while running like little children do, casting terrified eyes forwards and backwards – desperate for someone to instruct them or an adult to lead them in some direction. I could see a teacher over to the left but she was doubled over and staggering away, unable to help anyone. 

In between the crowd of red I was beginning to see black and brown shapes – moving quickly and with purpose, pulling down groups around them. I tried to get a better look by climbing into the backseat where I didn’t have another car blocking my vision. They looked like charred adults and I briefly entertained the thought that there really had been a bomb and the whole staff group had been caught in the explosion. 

It was like watching a tidal wave move down the playground. There was a group in the middle who had decided they were going straight for the gates and others on the sides branching off to try to scale the walls on either side. People closer to me were starting to get out of their cars and shout for their children, or just running away. If it wasn’t so terrifying I would have laughed to see so many adults running from a group of children. I guess we did know – in our gut – what was happening. 

I started to see gaps in the crowds and some of the children were on the floor. The shapes were jumping from child to child, pulling them down and burying their heads in them. One particular girl who caught my eye, a sweet blond child with a headband, still had her backpack on and was trying to run away from the group of adults behind her. I watched with the morbidness of a powerless bystander as something too fast to see pulled on her bag and stripped her away from her classmates. Her terrified cries were lost amongst all the screaming, but I couldn’t take my eyes off this one child as the crowd parted and I got a glimpse of the attacker ripping her entire blond scalp from her head and pushing her body down to the ground, which was starting to stain as red as the jumpers. My eyes stayed in the same place while my head went somewhere else. I’m still not sure where, but it left me for a few moments while my mind struggled to stay together.

I tried to turn my attention to my legs which were juddering up and down. Laying my hands on them, I tried to breathe calm but the bones jumping around under my skin were distracting; my legs looked as if they were gearing up to run away too, and such was my fright that I worried they would somehow take off and leave me behind. 

The next few minutes went quickly. One particular adult was trying to bite the people around them but had been trussed up in a rainbow blanket by an imaginative group of parents, effectively pinning its arms to its sides. It tried to jump at a small child who dodged around it and kept running as the thing lost its balance and fell backwards. 

I shouted out of my sun roof at a few kids who were lying on the concrete, trying to get them to respond. A few moments after being attacked they did start to stand up, their ripped body parts and flesh falling right off them and to the floor. They turned their heads to the sky and inhaled deeply, no longer looking to run anywhere. Instead the three of them seemed to channel the fear around them and started charging at others; hitting them with such force that you could hear the thump and see them bounce off, undeterred. 

I slid down in my seat and watched out of my windscreen as the blond girl I’d seen a few minutes ago mounted my car and jumped over the wall, slathering. Her ripped, gory scalp twinkled in the sun, the extra pieces of skin and blood falling down the sides of her face like tendrils of hair. 

I heard a cry and jumped as a tiny boy ran into my car in terror. God knows how he had outrun them all, but he hit my side door and panicked, knowing he had nowhere else to go. Swallowing my heart which was doing its best to rise out of my mouth, I unlocked the door and forced it open just enough to grab the nape of his school jumper which was soaked with sweat and drag him inside.

I pushed the locks down again and pulled the child down with me onto the floor of the backseat. The horde, which had doubled in size since it had barrelled through the school, seemed to be moving in just one direction and my car was in the perfect position to be used as a mount. I wrapped my arms around the sweaty 9 year old and prayed they were too concerned with jumping the wall than looking in the car. He lay with me, silent as the grave while we rocked with the car as child and adult jumped onto it with renewed strength. 

I found out later that his name was Nathaniel and he was only one out of about 20 kids who had found places to hide away. The horde had gone on towards the airport, where they were destroyed en masse by armed forces. 

Nathaniel’s almost 13 now. I still talk to him.


GIMME YO’ FEEDBACK!

Yup, these two together make for a long read. But I really loved writing the horde scene here. I did get feedback from a fabulously talented friend and writer on the first draft of this a few years ago, and he argued that Part IV is so distressing and awful that it seems entirely out of place from the comedic crux of the story. I do agree with him – it either needs a bit of humorous relief, or the other chapters need to be bulked up with some heavier stuff.

I’m not quite sure which would be more effective. And I do have a little soft spot for this horde scene.

What do you think? Let me know! Should I kill my babies? Should I remove Part IV altogether, or is there a way I can save it?

Have a great week y’all and Happy Halloween!

Header photo by Chris Hall on Unsplash

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