The me youâ€™re currently reading about isnâ€™t yet privy to the weeks of profound reflection and hope-shattering carnage that have made me who I am at the time of this writing.
That version of me just killed his first Decayâ€”twice. He still has Faith Heller on the brain and lacks the guts to tell her so. He still counts being fired for assault and destruction of property as his biggest worry (assuming Past Me survives a zombie-ish apocalypseâ€”but that’s kind of a given, isn’t it? I mean, I’m writing this right now, so I must be the hero, right?). This Albert Wilson of the past has been anything but a hero, and is still finding excuses to escape the man he is meant to become.
I’ve been running all my life, and most of the time I’ve been trying to run from my life. Or at least, a life different from the one I’m comfortable with.
When I say “comfortable,” I don’t necessarily mean I like my life as it is. I just mean that the prospect of anything different scares the hell out of me. It’s why I talk Faith’s ear off about insignificant crap with no thought for whether or not she wants to listen, or God forbid, has something significant of her own to say.
It’s why I throw myself into a mindless rage at the slightest question of my intelligence instead of showing my intelligence by walking away from a conflict. I would rather be respected as “the crazy guy you don’t mess with” than improve myself and let the world be because I know and fear that for all their academic idiocy, these skeptics are socially superior risk-takers who dare to live a better life than I could ever aspire to.
I could give thousands of examples of how I was hard-wired to ruin my life in the face of change, including my current choice to close myself off from the truly terrifying world of infection and mutation that lurks outside these four crumbling walls. But I probably wouldn’t be alone in this mess if I hadn’t alienated my parents and all but ruined a future of my own making.
I wasn’t a perfect student in grade school, but I put everything I had and every bit of help they gave me into becoming the best student I possibly could. And I was a good student. Of course, social awkwardness and a desperate need for approval got in the way, along with my potentially self-destructive time management skills and occasional bouts of depression and defiant laziness that had me frequently putting off assignments I deemed pointless until the last inspiring, flop-sweat-inducing second possible.
As usually happened in those days, I was able to bounce back from ruin (often at the cost of my parents’ sanity) and go on to the next day as if nothing had happened. But that didn’t cut it once I entered college and began working towards a degree in Computer Science.
I chose a local university out of convenience, and the major out of the idealized fantasy in my mind that I would go in, go through the motions as usual, and come out four years later knowing how to code the next Street Fighter all by my lonesome.
From the day I got my first system, I wanted to become a video game programmerâ€”a career choice my successful parents were extremely vocal against. My dadâ€™s a geneticist and Mom is a famous mystery writer who made a fortune from her controversial Getting Away with Murder series. Seeing how versatile a student I was, they each wanted me to follow in their footsteps. I couldn’t escape my creative or scientific roots, but I was fascinated by technology from an early age (and obsessed with video games), so I jumped at the first school to accept me with nary a plan in my head to get me through successfully.
I only knew that I no longer wanted to rely on my parents for their help or reap any of the benefits of their fame and fortune as a way to pay for college, so I applied for several federal and major-specific grants as well as a job at the local grocery store.
My grades began slipping as the novelty of the major quickly wore out and my instructors’ incompetence grew tiresome. When my mother confronted me about my sudden and unexpected academic decline, I insensitively lashed back at her and my father, citing his preoccupation with his work and her constant intrusions on my privacy as excuses for my poor performance. I even accused them of being hindrances to my quest for independence. I had a dorm reserved shortly thereafter, and moved out of their house by the end of the week.
Parents always turn out to be right about one thing or another; having become an independent man, I continued to phone in my academic performance, all the while shopping around for that elusive, attention-grabbing “perfect” major, which led to me quickly accumulating a formidable pile of debt.
People throw the word “irony” around quite a bit, often using it incorrectly in their efforts to appear intelligent in the eyes of others, who are usually no worldlier than themselves. It’s like “you and I” or “literally” or “whatnot.” It’s annoying and lazy and stupid and I tire of hearing it.
True irony isn’t about invincible zombies or stickers on cookie sheets or men who hate dogs. True irony is when you’ve denounced genetics and creative writing and your parents for a life of video games, only to find yourself in the middle of Resident Evil, running from something truly worth fearing, and ultimately winding up back in your parents’ house, where you start writing a book about your life that no one will ever believe happened.
The Universe can be funny that way.
Whether it’s with purpose or not, the fact remains that the Past Me on D-Day is still running from change, and that I still elected to throw myself into immediate danger in the name of getting it all over with.
I dare the Universe to make a joke out of that.
Passing the coffee stand, I noticed Faith was nowhere to be seen. I was worried about her, and I knew I had to search the store for her later, if she was even still in the store. If sheâ€™s even still Faith, my mind offered unhelpfully.
I continued my mad dash to the front of the store (once again with no successful plan in mind), noticing with each reflexive glance down an aisle that a Decayed host patrolled the length of every single one, like those ghosts who stalked the mazes in a game of Pac Man. Even if the dozen or so hosts who had just spotted me were as sluggish as the other two, the same could not be said for the Plague that remained in my periphery every time I turned my head.
Already feeling out of breath, I dared to stop just long enough to futilely chuck my frying pan-club at the advancing goo.
Not having to lug around the heavy, cast-iron skillet gave me a second wind and I began to run again, but now I had no weapon.
I glanced to my left, seeing the little lighter display at the rightmost end of the front service counter, and turned to pass between two checkout stands, toppling a magazine rack behind me as I ran.
But that did little to stop the Plague. For the first time in my life, not running would prove to be my biggest mistake. At the display, I reached down, selected a two-pack of Bic lighters from its metal display hook, and opened the packaging. The next thing I knew, something wet and slimy had a hold on my arm. In a state of excruciating pain and suddenly unable to scream, I watched with a humbling species of horror as the Plague began invading the space between the cells of my flesh.
I knew what would happen to me if the goo succeeded; I had seen the results for myself and I knew its rage from the look in the veteran’s eyes, but what I found most disturbing was that the invasion was not merely physical; the Plague had somehow gotten inside my head. The sensation was like an itch in the center of my skull, the feeling of two ancient, bony hands digging through the massive library of my thoughts. With that sensation came an animalistic squeal that I recognized
(created out of my memory?)
as the noise made by the red slugs in Slither, the only zombie comedy film I liked up to that point in my life. These days, not so much.
I soon discovered that if I concentrated on that squeal hard enoughâ€”an action I took with the utmost caution because I suspected that psychic focus would work both waysâ€”I could hear the random-yet-structured voice of a hive mind. It was the roar of a bustling flea market crowd gathered with the intention of feasting upon souls and minds and human flesh; not a hive, but a demonic Horde.
As I drew closer and closer to that psychic tipping point, that pinnacle of mental oblivion, I had another out-of-body experience. This wasn’t like before, when my subconscious mind had pointed out my impending embarrassment. As I left my body this time, I could feel a single black eye opening behind my own baby blues, in the same place where those hands of death were still engaged in their neural expedition.
Suddenly, I was looking at myself through the eye of the Hordeâ€”the Plagueâ€”but also through my own, like a man standing before a tri-fold mirror, staring at a trebled, soulless infinitude of his own image.
I watched as my infinite selves shrank and disappeared into a dark horizon, and I shuddered in fear at the realization represented by that hopeless imagery. If I continued observing myself on a superficial level, as the Horde was no doubt doing, I would fade into nothingness and become yet another of its Decayed instruments.
So rather than escaping outward from my body, I journeyed farther inward, to the epicenter of my mind. There, I immediately understood its nature and purpose for what I had intuitively known it to be all along: a sophisticated supercomputer. The human mind could be programmed; the Plague was right about that much. But it didn’t count on going toe-to-toe with me. In seconds (countless lifetimes to a computer, but more than enough time from my point of view), I had my brain fully firewalled against the mind-controlling goo that was still trying to etch itself into my skin.
I once again had control of my mind and body. But the Plague would not relinquish its hold on my left arm, and that meant I had to fight the overwhelming urge to succumb to the pain and drop the lighter I still clenched tightly in my right hand.
Thinking only of my own survival, I struck a flame and, with agony shredding my nerves, held it to the Plague that now covered my left arm from wrist to elbow.