9: Walking Among the Deceased
Taylor scanned the assembled zombies as they approached, Phillip flexed his fingers, ready to leap into action, but Jefferson calmly surveyed those ahead of them. Leza’s song kept her undead humming, but none of the humans knew what to expect. Leza’s history with human volunteers wasn’t entirely reassuring. The human volunteers could follow Leza’s lyrics, a mixture of reassurances and simple instructions. The zombies seemed unsure of the humans, but as neither reacted negatively, they grew used to the others. They studied each other, but Leza didn’t give a second glance to either as the men followed, the zombies tagging along.
The men kept their eyes focused ahead, terrified of unintentionally challenging their hosts, but couldn’t keep from surreptitiously monitoring them. While they seemed cautious, they’d relaxed over time—probably due to their innate trust in Leza. As she continued singing, they got into the rhythm and focused on her song rather than the humans.
The men paid close attention to Leza’s melody and the zombie’s responses. Once they grew more comfortable with the situation, Leza encouraged Phillip to take over the song to gain experience. It was rough at first, since he was understandably nervous, but as he gained familiarity he relaxed and the undead did as well. The songs seemed to calm both humans and zombies.
As Phillip continued, Leza sidled up to Jefferson.
“I’ve been watching you. You’ve quite adept. You keep monitoring everything, responding to the location of everyone around you and keeping your escape routes planned.”
He glanced at her, measuring her response. “It’s how I learned to survive. Is it a problem?”
She cracked a grin, her eyes alive with the joy of life, which stood in marked contrast with how she chose to live her life. “I’ll be honest, I’d prefer you didn’t kill any of my people, but no, I admire and respect your abilities.” She studied the other humans before continuing. “It’s clear you don’t like me. I’m curious why you agreed to join if you don’t trust my motives?”
Jefferson sighed, though he wasn’t obvious about it. “The opportunity to understand my opponents was too valuable to pass up.”
“That’s why I value your presence. Once you realize you can attract more flies with sugar than vinegar, I’m confident you’ll begin applying my techniques. That will save more lives, both your people and mine. If I can facilitate the few remaining human outposts to work with zombies, I’m hoping everyone will prosper—or at least function better than they currently are. You’ve got to admit, my people are healthier than your typical undead. There’s a reason for that.
“You think strategically. Even now, you’re evaluating how to respond if the tide turns. You already have a plan if my people attack.” Noticing his involuntary glance, she continued. “Let me guess, you’ll take out Zeb,” she said, indicating an undead farmer walking near Jefferson.
“As I said, I’ve learned how to survive. As you’ve noted, you can’t attract attention when outnumbered. Yeah, if things turn sour, I’d get behind your friend, slit his throat and allow the other zombies who’d attack to provide enough distraction for me to slip away.”
“What about your teammates? You’d leave them to their own devices?”
He glanced at them, Phillip getting into his song, before shrugging. “I’m a realist. The odds are clearly overwhelming. If I tried to communicate or fight my way to them, we’d all die. Instead, if I slip away, I can at least report back what happened and which mistakes were made. Does my admitting such make me untrustworthy?”
“Not at all, it’s how I think. I’m always monitoring everyone around me. I’ve lost too many humans and my people to trust things will go smoothly. I’ve got to monitor everything to guarantee things don’t unravel, redirecting everyone if someone screws up. Heck, I constantly monitor them all to ensure they don’t wander off and cause trouble elsewhere. I prefer someone who’s on the top of their game. Hell, even if you end up killing more zombies by applying my techniques, I’m hoping you’ll survive longer and develop a core group of zombies around your compound. If you learn to domesticate the good and eliminate the bad elements, it’s a win for us all.”
“I must say, you’re a complex woman. You don’t play the expected roles, though I’ve got no clue what your role is. I’m surprised you’d concede the loss of your people, but in my case, I’d consider the knowledge gained a fair exchange for the loss of our team—assuming someone survives to pass it on.”
“Again, that’s my goal. I want you to survive. If humans and zombies can help each other, then we’ll all succeed.”
“So aside from not being killed, what do we gain from feeding your zombies fresh blood, aside from training them to associate humans with food?”
“They already make the association. Instead, you’ll demonstrate they’ll do better protecting you than attacking. If they trust you, they’ll chase off any wandering zombies from their turf, which makes you safer.”
She took a moment, noticing how her people were responding. Even as Phillip continued his song, Leza began a counter tune, calling individual zombies back before they wandered off, redirecting others, before she turned back.
“The zombies are largely self-sufficient, but prefer structure over wandering and hunting aimlessly. They need fresh blood on a regular basis. By supplying the blood you wouldn’t consume, you make life safer for everyone. If you also supply the structure they’re missing—objectives, patterns, expectations—they’ll reciprocate, seeking ways to return the favor.”
“So how safe will they be when trained? Will we need to remain inside anytime they’re outside, or can our children shepherd our stocks while the zombies guard them from meandering undead?”
“It’s a gradual process. It’ll take time until you trust each other, but yes, your older children will be safe around them—once they’ve learned how to communicate and redirect them when they go astray.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s hard to swallow at the moment. By the way, where the heck are we going?”
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” With that, she excused herself, approaching Phillip and taking over his song. Singing commands the humans now recognized, she directed everyone down an abandoned side street, the weeds trampled down. They marched past decrepit, boarded-up homes before stopping at one with fresh flowers growing in planters on the front porch.
Leza’s song became more complex as she issued instructions to various individuals, different groups scattered, seemingly moving at cross purposes, although none collided with anyone else.
Phillip stopped to pick a leaf off a plant and sniff it. “Peppermint?”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t believe how much the dead require to freshen their breath, but they notice the difference. They’ve taken to picking their own. Since they don’t get much enjoyment from the taste, they only select a single leaf every few days, but it makes a significant impact. I tried getting them to brush their teeth, but it’s a mess having them all spit outdoors. I’ve fluoridated multiple yards before giving up on it. Their teeth are as healthy as they’ll ever get.”
By the time they reached the house, the zombies dispersed, tackling different tasks, several even standing guard as Leza opened the door, ushering the humans inside.
“Is this your home?” Taylor asked, studying the layout. While still dusty, the windows were uncovered and light filled the house. They noted the zombies outside, and the undead could observe both them and Leza. Though spider webs were visible in the corners, the various knick knacks and picture frames were recently dusted. Rather than sitting to talk, she led them into the kitchen, where she began collecting supplies: bowls, cups, measuring spoons, flour and sugar. Soon, she started mixing ingredients.
“When I first arrived here, I picked this as the most habitable building. My people know to find me here, so even if they wander off, they’ll return here on their own. Just as they appreciate structure, cooking and gardening gives me a focus I can lose myself in, without fear my friends will get into trouble.”
“What’s to keep them from wandering off if you constantly call them back while walking anywhere?”
“Again, it’s familiarity. Once they associate a particular place as a safe home, they’ll return to it and will remain as long as they don’t feel compelled to leave. Don’t worry, though, we won’t stay long. I’m planning on having us all sleep in the woods tonight. It’ll be nerve wracking, but it’ll teach you that you can trust my undead, just as you will your own. You won’t get much rest, but you’ll learn more than you could in a month of afternoon sessions.”
“Yet, in all your previous attempts, your guests never survived the night,” Jefferson reminded her.
“Yes,” she sighed, stirring the mix rather than using electric tools. “That haunted me for a long time, but I feel secure you’re the people who can survive. You’re experienced, you understand what not to do, and with a few techniques to control the situation, I believe we’ll all succeed.”
“You realize we brought our own rations,” Jefferson told her. There’s no need to feed us. We’re prepared to eat on the run if necessary.”
She giggled. “This isn’t for you. I do this for myself and my family.”
“You honestly think of them as your family?” Taylor said, watching several doing some unknown task in the backyard. It took a moment, but he noticed a few leaning over a pen. “Damn, they’re feeding chickens!” he mumbled.
“Absolutely. I’ve lived with them for years. I trust them and we depend on each other. We each possess weaknesses, but we make allowances and forgive each other.”
“Like when they eat your guests?” Jefferson asked.
She glared at him, striking the rim of her mixing bowl with her wooden spoon. “Those were accidents, triggered by unexpected events beyond anyone’s control. The humans panicked, and my folks responded to their triggering events. In time, you’ll learn to recognize those triggers and avoid them. I’m convinced my biggest problem was helping loners, rather than people with support.”
“Assuming we survive that long,” Phillip mumbled, opening a couple cupboards and examining her supplies. “Do you need anything? We have spare foodstuffs, which might be fresher than what you found.”
“I investigate resources as I travel. If you’re ever planning a long journey, ask and I’ll direct you to safe refuges and supply depots. While wandering, I locate and secure supplies I keep environmentally controlled. But thanks for offering.”
“I should have recognized you wouldn’t need any help.” Phillip examined the glassware, striking the edge of a crystal Champaign glass. “If you can survive for years living with the dead, surely you don’t need fresh flour.”
“If you need a break, the house has heat and a pump for fresh water. I picked it because it’s got a full tank, a gas stove and a propane heater. There’s no indoor plumbing, but there’s an outhouse out back.”
“We can hook you up with a solar panel so you’d have electricity,” Taylor offered, trying again. “It would make life easier.”
“Nah, I don’t spend much time here.” Leza doled out balls of dough on a prepared baking pan. I sleep with my people. They feel lost without me. If I’m there, they don’t get so antsy they’re liable to trouble anyone nearby.”
“Thanks, we appreciate it,” Jefferson said. “Say, are any of these possessions yours?”
She laughed, dolling out her batter with an ice cream scoop. “Ha! They’re all mine. The original owners have been dead for the past decade. If you’re eager to pry, the pictures on the coffee table are of my family.”
That got their attention, and all three men approached the kitchen door, glancing out. “You’re zombie family, or... ?”
“No, I don’t possess the necessary supplies for a photo lab, and the undead aren’t particularly fond of flash photography. They’re the few photos I kept of my parents and me from ... happier periods.”
“You seem plenty happy with your new family,” Phillip called as the three men studied the designated pictures. “You were young here, I’m guessing seven or eight? How long ago were these taken?”
“You shouldn’t ask a woman her age; especially when so many of us have been dead for so long. But they were taken after the apocalypse started and before my parents were killed. That was about four years after the apocalypse began, but I’ve never had any means to mark time. Instead I count the seasons, which isn’t a precise measurement. I keep thinking I’ve lost a year or two between significant events in my life.”
“You were quite attractive, as were your folks,” Jefferson said. “May I ask how they died?”
“No, you shouldn’t. They died like everyone dies nowadays, but the zombies took me in after they passed, and we’ve looked after each other ever since.”