Eyes slowly blinking to wipe out the muddled confusion in his head he woke in darkness. As his eyes slowly adjust to the dim haze of the room his brain wandered aimlesslyunable to capture thoughts. There were small flashes of a child’s birthday and a woman laughing… then nothing.
Tentatively he sat up only to bang his head. For a moment the meager light was replaced with a brilliant flash of red pain. It narrowed down to a pinpoint of vision and finally his adrenaline kicked in. “No!” he heard himself croak in a voice raspy from lack of use. After a tense moment of breathing heavily it passed. His gaze trailed up to see the metal bunk above. When he finished his silent but heartfelt discussion with the bunk rail he realized his eyes had adjusted to the light.
He was in a prison cell.
This realization did not send off immediate waves of panic, as he was expecting. This caused a deeper stirring of unease in his mind. Why would he feel at home in a prison? The cell itself was everything he imagined it would be. Four walls, a toilet in the corner and the presently hated bunk. It looked like every movie he could remember… could he remember prison cells from movies? This one looked bigger than he expected. He racked his brain for something familiar to tie to the feeling. Did it seem big because he was used to a smaller cell, or because he had never been in one before. This looked like it was for a white collar prisoner maybe… or a death row inmate? Why couldn’t he remember any of this?
He gathered his courage to look down at his clothes. Damn. An orange jumpsuit hung on a lanky frame. The fit gave him the impression he had suddenly lost a lot of weight or that this wasn’t his personal jumpsuit.
“That’s ok,” he thought trying to settle the wave of panic threatening to rise. “Maybe you just needed fresh clothes.”
Rather than calm him, this thought seemed to feed his unease as he followed its thread. “Wait, why would I be in a prison getting fresh clothes. Why would I think that?”
He started up, but the blackness began at the edges of his sight. He sank back on the bunk and tried to control his breathing. Looking down at his hands, they appeared large and capable with jagged nails and a layer of grime.
“Working hands,” he thought. Not a clue really, but they looked like they could do some damage at least.
There was another word that resonated in his mind. Slowly he rose and started to really look at the room. It was then he noticed the door was locked. He looked at the large grimy room in the gloom and finally started to realize that the small trinkets, almost nothing really, but probably meaningful to the inhabitant of this cell, were scattered around the floor. A crushed photo lay at his feet. Gingerly he bent to pick it up and slowly opened it. The image in the photo was that of a man holding a smiling little boy, but he barely noticed. His focus was on the red sludge caked onto the creases. He stared at the floor now, and realized the grime was more of this sludge, and there were lumps further away. Shaking he turned to the bars of the cell and hoarsely yelled, “Help!”
Finally it hit him, that for a prison, this place was deathly silent. There was no sound of life; Inmates talking from one room to the next, the steady drum of guards moving through their sections, the hum of electrical current that comes from heaters, surveillance cameras and smuggled radios. All of these sounds were missing. You could hear nothing.
Silent except for a dragging sound from below.
It was faint, but steady. Slowly it entered his awareness, and as he heard it, finally one thought crystallized in his foggy mind.
Shawn spun around quickly. He did not have time to marvel at his memory returning, he needed a weapon, and a way out. He gave the bars a shove in frustration. With a groan they broke free of the hinges and clanged to the ground. The crash echoed throughout the cell block. Shawn wondered how long it took for the sound to fade away. He decided his calculation of five hours was probably not accurate, but the product of his concussed, adrenaline-ridden mind.
“Great, now every rotter in this section is headed my way,” he thought. Then he belatedly noticed the gaping hole across from the bunk.
“How badly was my head hit?” he wondered. He had started to fill in the gaps. His shift was almost up for the night when another guard had lurched in holding his bloody face. Before he had finished collecting a bet from Geoff and changed into civvies, it took out half the guards working that night. He had seen Greg go down, while he and Andrew had kept each other’s backs. They may have been ok, the Warden had come in and started to rally the troops, when that dumb-ass punk Ted got bit.
“I set you all free!” he had screamed in pain and rage as he locked himself in the office and had overwritten all the locks to the cells.
At first the wave of rioting inmates looked like they would take out the zombies. But the plague inside those undead parodies of his friends, worked their way into every abrasion. Riots are always ugly, but that… was a living meat grinder by the end. He didn’t know about the Warden, but he thought that all the other guards were taken out. His last coherent thought was of Andrew yelling for help. Unable to get to him he had locked himself in a cell to keep out everyone- everything else.
“What the hell happened to this cell? And how am I not one of them?” Shawn’s feeling of unease had returned. Now it had brought an army of dread to back it up.
This was not the time to stop and ponder.
He looked around for his baton, and remembered it was in his locker. He still didn’t know why he was wearing a prison uniform, but it meant his keys were missing too. The keys that he had used to lock himself in this cell…
In the hall he spotted Andrew. What was left of him anyway. From his feet to lower torso he remained mostly intact. Up above, his jaw and neck had been gnawed away. The top of his spine poked out of the gristle, and the hole had allowed his brain matter to leak out onto the floor. Fighting the urge to hurl Shawn took little comfort that his best friend had never turned. Then Shawn looked for the baton. He saw it flung a few feet further down the walkway near the shower. It was at the feet of the shuffling corpse who had been making it’s way toward him, ever since he woke up.
“It’s just one. You can fight it, you took out plenty of them.” Shawn knew he was giving himself the Hail Mary speech. There was not time to think when it started, and he hadn’t been beaten or full of hopelessness then. This was now.
The zombie wore prison orange. It’s face had been laid open from the right eyeball to the jaw curving slightly at the end. A flap of skin peeled away the face and left the skull bare, the ear dangling down and pulling more of the flap with it like a pendulum with every lurching step.
Shawn felt tired. That was not good. He should feel scared or horrified or at least have energy from the bolt of adrenaline he got when waking up. Instead he felt like it might be best if he just lay back down on the bunk. Sighing he looked at the broken wall. In the debris he found a piece of concrete the size and shape of a football. Looking back up he hefted the rock above his shoulder and gave the saddest impersonation of a spiral he had ever seen. His coach in high school would have screamed so long and so loud his face would have turned that special shade of purple. “Coach is probably a zombie now,” Shawn thought idly as the chunk of wall sailed through the air.
The rock knocked the head clean off the zombie. The head tumbled through the air, skin flap finally flinging itself clear as the body dropped like a marionette whose strings have been severed.
Shawn took the Heisman pose.
Slowly, listening with every step for new sounds of danger, he creeped over towards the shower and claimed his prize.
Eyes moving rapidly in a sweep, Shawn squatted with his back against the wall to retrieve the night stick. “I’ve to calm down,” he thought.
Once the former prisoner had toppled, his disjointed feeling of apathy had disappeared. The earlier panic came back. “This is what shock feels like,” he marveled. “I had always hoped it would be more helpful to my survival. What the hell body?”
He took slow deep breaths to steady his racing heart. The blood rushing through him was pounding in his ears, and at this rate a zombie would be on top of him before he knew it. It took a while. It was time he could not afford. He was sure there would be others coming towards the sound of the crashing bars. But if he thought about them, his heart would start to race again, so he focused on his breathing as best he could.
Finally he stood and peered around. For a long moment he only heard silence. Then he thought he heard something else. It was an odd sound. It took him a minute to think of what it could be, or why it would sound wrong in his ears. When he figured it out, the relief was almost as staggering as the panic had been.
What he heard was breathing. It was quiet, but close by . More importantly it was steady. Zombies occasionally took a breath to make noise or as a residual reflex from when there were alive. Only a real live person needed to breathe all the time. As softly and carefully as he could manage he walked toward the showers. The breathing sound stopped for a minute. Shawn stopped with it. Then as it resumed, he moved into the room.
The tiled walls and floor were coated with dried blood. In the far corner lay a pile of corpses. Disjointed body parts and men with their heads blown off were heaped one on top of the other. It looked as if they had been rotting for some time. As soon as he thought entered his mind, Shawn gagged from the smell. It was everywhere really, but that amazing adaptability living things possess, had tuned it out. The moment he thought of the smell, there it was, clawing at his nose and trying to tear out his soul. He violently shoved the smell aside. Another living person was more important than one fifth of his senses.
“Hey,” he whispered as quietly as he could.
There was a pause, then just as quietly a response.
“Fuck off,” said the only other living person left in the prison.
Since Shawn knew every guard in the place he realized as soon as he heard the voice he had found a prisoner.
“Shit,” he thought to himself. Aloud he said, “Hey man, we have to get out of here. I don’t know why you were in prison, and I don’t care. The world has ended and whatever was going on before ended with it.”
“Listen,” Shawn continued, “You may have had friends in here. I had friends too. It don’t matter anymore. They are not your friends. And I may not be your friend either, but it’s just you and me. left There’s them and there’s us. So whatever you did before, I don’t care. If we don’t team up, we’ll be joining the other side.”
The voice coming out of the pile was so soft he almost didn’t hear it.
“I killed a man to get in here.”
“Well,” Shawn replied philosophically, “Let’s hope you didn’t lose that skill.”
“Where the hell we gonna go?” whispered the voice. “We gonna die anyway.”
“That may be true,” said Shawn. “I don’t know why we’re still alive, and I don’t know what’s happened to the rest of the world, but I sure as hell want to find out. I figure if we can get clear of the prison we may have a shot. There’s weapons in the Warden’s office. Maybe he’s holed up in there and we can bust out of this place with him.”
“Nah, El Capitan went down last, but he went down,” said the voice.
“Shit. Where?” said Shawn.
“Dunno,” said the voice.
“You don’t know?” said Sawn incredulously. “I thought you just said you saw it happen.”
“Man, there were zombies and I was trying not to die. My priorities were elsewhere,” came the annoyed response.
“Ok, Ok. What’s your name?” sighed Shawn.
“AJ,” said the voice.
“Well AJ, I know that the Warden kept the keys to his office on him at all times. I also know he kept the lock combination in his wallet. We’re gonna need those to get guns. I don’t know about you, but I want a gun,” said Shawn.
“A low chuckle came from the pile. “Warden lost his wallet. In the mess, I saw Big Dan lift if from him.”
“Let me guess, you don’t know where Big Dan is either,” growled Shawn.
The pile heaved and body parts tumbled across the tile. Out of the corpses rose a man caked in rot and grime. He was medium build and his eyes burned bright with rage and fear. Other than that, it was almost impossible to tell what he looked like for all of the blood and gore that coated his jumpsuit hair and skin. Shawn hoped AJ didn’t have any cuts on him. Adding to his fearful appearance, he held a riot shield. With all the blood and the shield, Shawn imagined he looked more like a Roman soldier in battle than anything else.
“It was crazy in here man. You know where all your people are?” asked AJ.
“My people are corpses AJ, just like yours,” said Shawn. “Right, we need to search for that key and the combo. Then we’re gonna get into that office and get those guns. And when we do-”
AJ interrupted, “When we do that pig, I’m gettin outta this here block.”
“But what’s out there?” Shawn wondered silently as they walked out of the shower. Is it any better than this?”