Introspections #1: Me, Faith & Zombies

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    My alarm woke me at four o’clock one morning, blasting “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, even though the volume knob was set to zero.
    Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Albert Wilson, and I have a broken alarm clock. Feel free to chime in with a “Hello, Albert!” so we can get this meeting of Broken Alarm Clocks Anonymous under way.
    You might be wondering why any person in their right mind would want to wake up at four in the morning, and you would be in your right mind to think that getting up any time before nine a.m. is an act of insanity. But as my story unfolds, you’ll find a strong work ethic is the least of my problems.
    Keep in mind that everything you are about to read, no matter how strange it seems, actually happened. Oh, and I am sane, by the way.
    I know what you’re thinking (and if we ever happened to be in the same room and we made eye contact, you’d find out just how true that statement is). Every nutcase denies insanity before they do or say something crazy, right?
    I really am sane; I try—with a questionable degree of success—not to make the same mistake more than once, and I know the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s just that, as I huddle in a dark, dusty corner of what used to be my parents’ house, using what little electricity remains in the condemned-looking building to record my life story on an old laptop computer (and eat, and not freeze to death overnight), the view through my shattered, boarded-up living room window makes that line between fantasy and reality a little blurry.
    You know what? The world outside my living room window on a daily basis is so far beyond fantasy or reality that it renders blurry an understatement.
    You may live in a universe where aliens, zombies, vampires—and whatever personal demons send you screaming into a cold sweat in the middle of the night—are just the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. You’re probably married to your high school sweetheart, living the white picket fence dream with two kids, a dog, and a house fit for the average sitcom family. You smile and wave at your neighbors on the way to work, unaware that your long-faded nightmare was really a glimpse into the universe next door.
    Welcome to my universe, Good Neighbor, where the shadows grow teeth.

    There was a time when my worries were as unremarkable as anyone else’s, when my world was much the same as yours. Back then, I worked at a grocery store to pay my way through a less-than-stellar academic career at the local university, going through the day-to-day motions without more than a passing thought for the things that go bump in the night.
    But one day, that all changed.

    On the day in question, I get myself scared out of bed at the unreasonable hour of 4 AM, quickly silence the most annoying song in recent memory with a good, hard smack to the Snooze button, shovel down a bowl of Cheerios with some random late-night anime as background noise, throw on my work uniform—a white shirt, red, gold, and green tie, and black slacks, socks, and shoes that make every customer assume I’m a manager, which in turn gives them free license to complain about me when they realize I don’t know how to bend the laws of reality (I have since made a friend who can get pretty close to it, though)—and make the fifteen minute power-walk to the store where I do such fun things as sweeping dead leaves off the sidewalk, lifting flimsy garbage bags that are overstuffed with half-consumed slushy drinks and cans of fermented Dr. Pepper, and scouring the parking lot with a toothbrush.
    I made up that last part, but when you have mild OCD like I do, you might as well be using a toothbrush to clean the parking lot. I’ve since gained some perspective on days such as this one, but as a neat-freak and a bottom-tier employee at the busiest unionized grocery store chain in the world, I can say with some certainty that my life prior to D-Day sucked.
    But it wasn’t without its perks; as the sliding doors parted, I noticed Faith was opening the coffee kiosk that morning. As I often do, I immediately pictured myself diving over the counter, pulling her close to me, and giving her one of those dramatic, spur of the moment rom-com kisses that go on for fifteen minutes while the sky fills with fireworks and the Goo-Goo Dolls show up for an impromptu concert to close out my ridiculous happy-ending fantasy. If you can’t tell, I have a massive crush on the girl.
    I was snapped back to reality by a customer who elbowed past me on his way through the doors, nearly knocking me over in my uncoordinated love-funk.
    Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed the ashy skin, the yellow teeth, and the shambling gait that anyone with half a brain to munch on would report to the manager so he could call an ambulance and remove the guy from the store before anything weird went down.
    But seeing as how we only use ten percent of our brains, and roughly nine percent of my usable grey matter was lost in the thick fog of HornyLand, the customer was gone by the time I regained my senses. The Goo-Goos’ concert of my daydream resolved into their much-adored-but-overplayed single, “Iris,” which currently permeated the store’s pristine atmosphere courtesy of a company-sponsored pop music station that ran pretty much night and day. On occasion, when I was working early or late I would become privy to one of the benefits of graveyard shift counter-culture.
    Whenever possible, one of the night crew guys would plug in his iPod, replacing the constant stream of cheesy pop music and poorly concocted product endorsements with an all-night playlist of rap and heavy metal that promptly and perpetually lifted my spirits. This was not one of those occasions, so I desperately needed coffee (which would also bring me face-to-face with Faith).
    Trying not to look like I was about to fall on my face, I broke into a short, clumsy jog and threw my favorite barista a friendly wave and a smile, which immediately felt even more lame because her kiosk was like, ten feet from the door.
    Panting as if I had just sprinted to work, even though I hadn’t broken a sweat and Faith most likely saw me standing outside and staring at her stupidly, I ordered my usual: a marble macchiato with whipped cream and a slice of cinnamon loaf, then headed to the break room to savor my fuel before the clock struck seven and I had to get to work.
    I’ll try not to bore you with a minute-by-minute replay of my typical day. For one thing, it’s boring and typical. For another, I think Faith deserves a manuscript all her own, and not just for the obvious reason. And finally, I’d rather skip to the part of my boring, typical day when the entire world goes to Hell.
    I basically spend my day thinking for, and cleaning up after, every customer who walks in the door. I don’t much mind the cleaning aspect, and the majority of customers I encounter are pleasant enough. I even strike up conversations with some of them when I’m sweeping the store or putting unwanted items back on the shelves. These so-called “safety patrols” are also good opportunities to investigate new items or eye-catching packaging, and, of course, steal glances at Faith.

    Faith is 5’8″, a little taller than me with a cute face—not supermodel-perfect, but natural and full of character. Her eyes are unreal, though: big, crystal clear pools with flecks of emerald that call to mind a beautiful, underwater forest that the right man could get lost in for days.
    Her hair is the first thing I ever saw of Faith, and it is the last thing I think about before turning in for the night. She came in for an interview one day, and she was wearing the kind of conservative outfit that left everything to the imagination (company standard—the girl had done her homework) while still managing to make her butt look good. Her melodious voice caught my attention, and I looked up from the order I was bagging just in time to see the writhing braid of red hair that grew to her waist, snaking back and forth in time to the metronomic motion of her aforementioned booty (I really must stop listening to rap music). That was the moment I fell in love with Faith Heller.
    They made her cut the braid shorter upon hiring her, since no one likes to find a two-and-a-half-foot hair in their coffee, and now she wears it up in a ponytail that pokes through the opening in the back of her black-and-green barista’s hat. But that first image of her long, pendulous braid doing its cobra dance with each click of her heel will never leave my memory.

    I’m incredibly inept when it comes to engaging the opposite sex in meaningful conversation—or the same sex, for that matter. I think I relate better to children and animals (with the ironic exception of dogs, who can smell my anti-canine disposition from miles away and often take me by surprise for the sheer, tongue-lolling pleasure of it) better than I do people my own age.
    So even though I’ve been crushing on this girl since Day One and have continued to subject her to my embarrassingly transparent shenanigans every wasted moment I get, I’m too socially awkward to tell Faith how I really feel about her.
    I tell her stuff. I ramble on about my bird and my parents and my housing history and my old jobs and what book I’m reading when I should be all over her instead. A conversation with me is like listening to a nerd on crack who’s interviewing for a job at a bookstore for exotic pets.
    We share our taste in music (I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, she likes the Backstreet Boys), books (Stephen King vs. James Patterson), TV (The Mentalist vs. Life), and any other pop culture medium you can think of. We’ve even gotten into some heated religious discussions a couple of times (she’s a devout Sunday Christian, I’m an Agnostic Deist—somewhere between needing proof of God and thinking He took an indefinite sabbatical after six hardcore days of setting the Universe in motion). After our latest theological throwdown devolved into shouting, mean-spirited laughter, and childish name-calling, we both immediately decided to never again criticize each other’s beliefs, nor even broach the subject of religion at the peril of our developing friendship.
    Speaking of my shenanigans and putting our friendship in peril, I was passing the kiosk on a safety patrol (pushing this big, blue dry-mop ahead of me as I always do) when Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” gave way to “Faith” by George Michael. I locked eyes with You Know Who and pointed from her to a nearby speaker. Hey, girl! This is your song! that gesture said. She gave me the kind of confused look you get from a dog when you’re showing it how to roll over, then smiled back at me as the first verse kicked in and I began lip-synching into the broom handle, putting on my stink face for the high notes and strumming my leg like a guitar during the solo.
    I love that goofy, crooked smile of hers.
    Just so you know, I can neither sing nor play an actual guitar, and at some point I got so into the music that I started rapping the Everlast verse from Limp Bizkit’s remixed version of “Faith”—out loud.
    If you’re waiting for me to say this was another one of my wacky daydreams, I’m disappointed to inform you that you will be waiting a loooong time. The good news is as follows: the store was dead at this time, so the only person who saw me make a fool of myself (other than that brief instant when the song was almost over and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience) was Faith, and she didn’t look at me like I was crazy…much.
    The bad news is about to get worse, so strap in folks!
    Remember how I said that when I go walking the store, I sometimes get distracted by ostentatious packaging?
    After my little sold-out show at the FaithDome, I gave a charming bow and rounded the corner to the baking aisle. As I stood pondering the cosmic irony of non-stick pans with adhesive labels, I felt a finger slowly tapping me on the shoulder.
    This is where my typical day took an atypical turn for the gates of Hell.
    When I told you the store was dead, that wasn’t a figure of speech. I turned around with a finely tuned “May I help you, sir?” waiting on my lips to find a zombie staring at me.
    And it wasn’t even Halloween.



    This is shaping up to be good. Your storytelling is good and voice is great. I love your final line and your shadows have teeth line.



    This sounds pretty good



    Timedrop23: This is what happens when I don’t think, folks. I numbered the friggin’ topic instead of just calling the whole thread “Introspections” and numbering my replies as chapters. Can a mod fix this for me or am I stuck with it?
    Whatever the case, back to another Introspection by the IntroSpectre himself, Albert Wilson…


    IntroSpections #2: Welcome to the Dead Parade

    From my blog, “Welcome to the Dead Parade #1: Back From the Dead,” posted April 17, 2006:

    This first installment of my own Dead series begins with a nod to Return Of the Living Dead. The inaugural film in this five-installment zombie-athon is absolutely the stupidest a zombie movie can get in terms of quality. The acting and special effects are terrible, even for the 1980s. The severed zombie limbs are yellowish and rubbery, looking more like a necrophiliac’s vibrator collection than actual dead flesh, and every line is delivered in a frenzied one-note scream and accompanied by a Matthew Perry-like windmilling of the arms. But in terms of concept and message, the movie and its first sequel are self-referential comic genius. A high school student is interning at a cadaver supply warehouse, wherein two drums (military property) containing dormant reanimated corpses and the airborne toxin used to create them are stored. The teen and his smart-mouthed mentor accidentally open one of the drums and are immediately under siege by the living dead as they are slowly turned themselves after having inhaled the toxin. The usual “if they bite you, you become one of them” rule applies, but in a funny twist, Return takes place in a “real world” kind of setting where the two main characters have seen Night Of the Living Dead, and they find that severing a zombie’s head doesn’t seem to work like it does in the movies. Apparently, you have to burn this particular brand of zombie to kill it, after which its ashes become the airborne toxin, and then… you get the idea. Even funnier is the idea of giving these zombies the ability to speak; once they have killed a rescue party, the zombies use the CB radio to call for another police car or ambulance as if they are ordering takeout.
    In Return Of the Living Dead 2, the crew decides to bring back the cast of the first Return, but put them in a new setting with different relationships. The intelligent, indestructible zombie premise persists, as do the comedy, stupidity, bad acting, and special defects. But again, there is genius hidden in pointlessness as one of the characters expresses a feeling of deja vu; that he has been around these same people, and has been attacked by zombies, before.
    The only decent installment across the board is Return Of the Living Dead III. In this second sequel, a couple have decided to run off together, against the wishes of the boy’s military big-wig father. They are run off the road by a military truck carrying…you guessed it: barrels full of indestructible zombies and reanimation gas. The girlfriend dies, but the boy decides to sneak into his father’s research compound and use the toxin to bring her back to life. What follows is part morbid love story, part twisted road movie, and all zombie flick. No bad acting, no bad special effects, and an unbelievably heartfelt ending.
    But despite the C-list star power of Peter Coyote, Return IV and V are modern-day violent duds. The zombies have fallen victim to convenience and are now killable by conventional zombie-slaying means. Return IV, a.k.a. Return Of the Living Dead – Necropolis, aims low at being a Resident Evil knockoff, and in a nod to the first two films, ROtLD V – Rave To the Grave recycles the cast and crew of Necropolis. This time around, the toxin gets used as a psychedelic at a Halloween rave party, and the results are brain-dead and stoner-stupid.
    Return & Return 2: D+, Return III: B-, Necropolis: C-, Rave: D-


    I used to love zombie movies, probably more than the average person should.
    I’ve downloaded and watched every zombie movie and TV show available in digital format (even the god-awful Return of the Living Dead sequels and conceptual zombie flicks like The Birds and Terminator), I’ve read Stephen King’s Cell roughly ten times since it came out, and I review it all on my blog, which you just experienced for yourselves. It only attracted a few thousand hits in the years between April 2006 and D-Day, but I enjoyed writing it. Perhaps when this is all over, I’ll post my story for the world to see. But since I’m still here and the Decay still shamble through this city’s streets (and God only knows how many others), there’s still a tale to tell, so I might as well get back to telling it.

    Here’s another bit of perspective I gained since D-Day: When zombies were just instruments of creative social commentary, I respected the creators of the original Return for hiding a brilliant irony amid an abundance of the moronic. Being a real world human in the face of something zombie-like that can’t be killed in the same manner as a movie zombie, I would have preferred to go on scrubbing toilets and wiping Dr. Pepper-hol off my shoes for the rest of my life.
    But we can’t choose what form the proverbial fan-guano will take when it taps us on the shoulder or drops at our feet, so I’m stuck in a living horror movie, getting the kind of firsthand experience every fanboy (including myself) would have given his, uh, first hand for.
    Not so much now.
    Don’t ask me why a zombie would be tapping me on the shoulder instead of biting my throat, or how it had gotten into the store without raising an alarm because I don’t know (but now that I think about it…). I don’t even know how I did what I did next. Not knowing things sucks, especially when you’re faced with your first zombie attack.
    My brain is an amazingly unpredictable thing when I feel threatened. I’m either so focused that my body just reacts to whatever is coming at me and I can deal with it with laser precision, or I lunge blindly at my attacker like a feces-hurling gorilla, only to wind up flat on my back with a person much smaller than myself crushing my crotch beneath his foot.
    Let’s just say that if self-defense skills were the primary requirement for a job, my rejection would be immediate and accompanied by a chorus of laughter and pointed fingers, which I would not be privy to enjoy since I would be unconscious by then.
    Truly seeing the zombie for the first time (the grey skin that hung loosely around its lifeless eyes and gaping mouth, the yellowish-grey teeth mottled with specks of black, the dark, swollen tongue), I could feel my fight or flight instinct taking over almost instantly. It was like I was shaking from head to toe and frozen stiff all at once, every possible scenario playing through my mind in that ethereal, unfinished way it has of presenting things when I’m trying to think at the speed of light, and then the world disappeared before my eyes in a white-hot glare.
    When I came back to myself, the zombie was crumpled to its knees, indicating that I did not just get my butt kicked for the tenth time in my life. Somehow, I had deftly unclipped the handle of my floor mop, broken it in two over my knee, and shoved both pieces into the thing’s eye sockets.
    From around the splintered shafts where its lifeless eyes had been, there oozed some unknown oily substance that seemed to move of its own accord, progressing sluggishly at first, but then dividing into several smaller pieces that scattered throughout the store with projectile speed. I kept my distance, just barely hurdling over one of the black pellets. I knew instinctively, even following this, my earliest of encounters with the Decay, that touching the black stuff was a bad idea.

    You’ve heard me use words like “Decay” and “D-Day” several times now, and I think it best that you hear from the present me what Past Me is up against here.
    It all begins with “the black stuff,” which I call the Plague. The CDC (what’s left of them so soon after the Plague hit the fan), in their understatement of what they have yet to fully comprehend, call it the Hydra Virus.
    Whatever you want to call it, the Plague is a symbiotic parasite, a living organism of unknown origin that takes control of its host while consuming it from the inside. Only, at the time that Past Me was opening his first can of Decay-Con, It hadn’t figured out how to perfectly bond with human physiology, so the host’s body tissue would react as if poisoned, aging and atrophying at an accelerated rate until the host was just a walking pile of Decayed flesh with nothing but the Plague in its veins to hold it together.
    The Decay have no functioning brain, so not even headshots or decapitation can put them down. What’s worse (as Past Me is about to learn), such trauma only serves to splatter Plague matter everywhere, so the more Plague you shed, the more Decay you have to deal with (which is where the CDC got their stupid code name from—if you don’t know what a Hydra is, bone up on your Greek mythology, dude).
    About D-Day: the D stands for Decay, as you can probably guess. For me, the day that the Decay first entered my life was October 10, 2009. For almost every living person I’ve come in contact with, the date of D-Day has been different. We even suspect (and fear) that the true D-Day was farther in our pasts than any of us dares to think. But to reveal any more at this point would spoil what you are about to read, so let’s see what D-Day has in store for Past Me.

    The Decay I had just dropped wore a faded blue denim vest over a black tee shirt boasting the slogan, “I’ll have whatever kind of day I damned well feel like!” His clothes and a floppy green VFW cap that had been pushed askew in the fall were the only indications that this zombie-like thing was once human (and apparently, said human wasn’t too fond of customer service personnel).
    A Decayed host has no mind of its own, as Present Albert has already told you, but before Past Me whited out and turned the undead veteran’s eyes into ruptured sacs of Plague jelly, I could swear I saw something in them that was less mindless hunger than a mixture of fearless hatred and malevolent intelligence.
    To my mounting horror, the not-zombie reached blindly up to the two splintered shafts protruding from its face where its eyes had been and yanked them free.
    As the sightless, undead thing staggered to its feet to pursue me, I looked around desperately for some kind of weapon. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a large frying pan hanging in the cookware section near the ironically packaged baking sheets, grabbed it with one groping hand, and swung at the thing’s deformed skull with all my force like a demented tennis player.
    I landed a direct blow to the side of its face. The impact rippled through its flapping, ashen flesh, sending bits of blackened brain matter, yellowed cranium and decayed teeth flying through the air, and splattering the frosting section with more of that seemingly sentient black goo.
    I stood at the ready, feet spread with a two-handed grip on the frying pan, just in case two punctured eyes and a caved-in skull proved not to be overkill enough for the veteran-thing laying at my feet.
    From the corner of my eye, I saw the goo starting to twitch and ripple on a can of peppermint frosting just inches from my head, and decided I would be better off getting the hell out of there. I hurdled over the body of the Decay I had twice killed, being careful not to make physical contact with it or any of the Plague pouring from the side of its head.
    I made it to the end of the aisle before almost crashing headlong into another Decayed host. The man it had been was so comically dressed I almost didn’t register the danger until it was too late. Blocking my path was a tall, gangly white guy (but how can you tell with all the life and color sucked out of his skin?) dressed in a Rastafarian stocking cap, lime green leggings and shirt, and baggy neon orange shorts and sneakers. I could see that the Plague infection had caused half of Mr. DayGlo’s dreadlocks to fall off, taking the flesh from the right side of his skull with it, all the way to the bone. With no lid tissue to hold it in, his right eye hung by a blackened optic nerve, swinging lazily across his exposed cheekbone.
    Sufficiently terrified and disgusted, I reversed direction, narrowly escaping Mr. DayGlo’s grasp, only to see that the splattered goo had begun to drip down to the floor and join with the puddle forming at the side of Mr. VFW’s shattered skull, and I knew I was screwed.
    If I tried to jump Mr. VFW’s corpse for a second time, the Plague mass would most likely grab me and that would be the end. On the other hand, if there was one host shambling around in here, there were sure to be more, and if I took a wrong turn one of them would grab me and the Plague would have me anyway.
    I can wait patiently for a long time if I need to, but where bad news is concerned, I prefer to get it over with whether that turns out to be a good decision on my part or not.
    So I thought, Screw it, leaped over the gathering Plague-puddle, and ran like hell.


    IntroSpections #3: Man On the Run

    The me you’re currently reading about isn’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 Decay—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 apocalypse—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 programmer—a career choice my successful parents were extremely vocal against. My dad’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 she’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 enough—an action I took with the utmost caution because I suspected that psychic focus would work both ways—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 Horde—the Plague—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.


    IntroSpections #4: Through the Fire and Flames

    The effect the fire had on the Plague was immediate. The squeal I had heard inside my head came again, this time as a fully audible shriek of agonized fury that vibrated my skull and made the door on the cigarette case shatter behind me, sending tiny, jagged breadcrumbs of safety glass plinking to the tiled floor. To my shock, the Plague began growing spines and whipping appendages and snapping jaw-like structures in a fit of poorly directed, futile rage.
    I felt a stabbing pain in my right wrist as one of the jaw-things managed to bite me, and knew I could not ward off such a formidable creature with such a small flame.
    But I kept it burning all the same as I ran once again, making the short but agonizing journey to the aisle where we sell lighter fluid.
    Not to get you Loyal Readers sidetracked from the imminent danger Past Me has currently found himself in, but the barbecue supply aisle at my store always seemed to convey a mixed message about the proper care and feeding of animals. It isn’t just the barbecue supply aisle, it’s the aisle where everything ends up because it doesn’t logically go with anything else. Yes, it’s mainly filled with cat food, dog food, and enough collars and leashes and fuzzy, squeaky things to keep your pet amused as you play with the toys yourself, but the remaining space is occupied by poison, motor oil, a variety of tape and rope, and (most importantly for Past Me) anything you could possibly need to set something on fire.
    I know. I tend to haphazardly change the tense of my verbs, and right now you’re probably thinking that temporal confusion is a maddening subject, aren’t you? Well, let me just say that Present Me—or Future Me if you like that better—has dealt with his fair share of time-space anomalies, so I don’t exactly care if you’re confused by my inconsistencies with time. As I’ve said, my scope of experience with the confusing, tragic, and all things beyond comprehension would make you feel like a grain of sand on a beach, so just go with it. I do.
    I found the lighter fluid easily (you know, because of that whole spatial memory Rainman thing I do), and because of that whole I-don’t-have-three-arms thing we humans are known for, and that whole rushing-into-action-without-a-plan thing I do, I fumbled stupidly to keep the lighter burning on the black blob covering my left arm and reach for and open a bottle of lighter fluid with that third arm I don’t have.

    Another interesting diversion for those of you who are waiting for me to stop avoiding what’s to come and just get to the big, exploding point of it all, but haven’t stopped reading just yet: I am slightly ambidextrous. I was also born with brain damage, which I have come to believe is just one in a series of unfortunate events that ultimately led to my surviving D-Day. And if you could ask my parents, they would insist that I was born to survive.
    I came into the world blue as a Smurf and half-dead. My doctor was an apathetic moron at the mercy of the inferior medical practices of his time. I had to be force-fed because I refused to eat, and I aspirated on the formula.For those of you living in a universe without WebMD, aspiration is a fancy word for choking on something and throwing it up at the same time. And that was just my first day in the world.
    Whether as a consequence of the aspiration or because of the hole in my heart, I wasn’t breathing properly either. If not for my father giving me CPR, I wouldn’t be trying against all logic and human physiology to set my own arm on fire, and you certainly wouldn’t be reading about it because I wouldn’t be hunkered down in the middle of the road to Hell writing this right now.
    With no oxygen going to my brain, my motor-control center was damaged. That in itself led to several complications that have both haunted me and blessed me in turn all my life.
    As I said, I am slightly ambidextrous, but I wouldn’t have gotten that way if the brain damage had not first made me “severely right-handed” (that’s an optimistic way of saying I didn’t use my left hand at all). So my parents trained me to use my left hand by forcing me not to use my right, and here we are.
    I suck at pretty much every sport that involves hitting, kicking, catching, or throwing anything (so let’s just say every sport), I take at least twice as long to accomplish something as other people—although that has gotten better over the years—I went through a phase where being in a room with large numbers of people would make me black out and/or have seizures (that and my nascent heart condition are genetic on my father’s side), and of course there are the social awkwardness, OCD, and the impulsive, self-destructive behavior I mentioned before.
    I am seriously screwed up, but my parents did everything in their power to make sure I survived and succeeded. The rest is up to me.

    So I did the second stupidest thing I could possibly think of because the most stupid thing I could think of at the time was to just stand there, inches away from salvation, with a lit flame to my arm, for the rest of my steadily shortening life.
    I shut off the lighter.
    With that decision came more agonizing pain as the Plague began working double-time to invade the flesh on my arm, but I focused on the task at hand (no pun intended), pulling a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid from the shelf, the lighter gripped loosely between the bottle and the palm of my hand.
    Glad I wouldn’t have to unscrew the cap, I gripped the lighter fluid’s tilt-open nozzle between my teeth and pulled, a hint of pent-up gas fumes puffing their way down my throat.
    Coughing, in pain, and getting closer to a life as a professional meat-puppet by the second, I squeezed an entire liter of lighter fluid onto my arm and dropped the empty bottle, being careful not to toss away the small Bic that would ignite my salvation, and struck a flame once more.
    They say it isn’t the fuel that ignites first, but the fumes it puts off. And with a whole bottle of lighter fluid dripping down my arm, I’m surprised my body didn’t go up in flames. But as I watched the small flame from my lighter ignite the air above my arm, cascading through the rising fumes like some infernal waterfall, I got the sense that something else was off, although I couldn’t immediately tell what it was.

    Then I saw my face, poorly reflected in the half-inch metal cap of the lighter I was holding. That sudden disembodied feeling came again, and I was speeding through my thoughts, each one poking out at my careening consciousness like spokes on the drum of the world’s most intricate music box. No control this time; no invading Plague to give me a purpose, no nemesis to keep me grounded, just my mind getting lost in itself at a million miles an hour.
    Just like that, I knew what was off. With the speed and complete absence of control that I was being thrown around my own headspace, I could feel my mental firewall crumbling away, and I could hear a thought coming to me over and over again; a maddening, one-word mantra in a voice I did not recognize as my own: Vaaaaacksssssssss, Vaaaaacksssssssss, Vaaaaacksssssssss. Though it reached me with the pathetic force of a whisper in a hurricane, it had a venomous intensity I could only attribute to the Plague. Even burning to death, it had tried to take advantage of my vulnerable mental state and control my mind.
    That familiar feeling of skeletal fingers probing through my thoughts made something click into place in my mind, and I was able to stop the hectic pinball motion of my thoughts, and traverse them confidently like the stacks of a library. Apparently, my spatial memory gift could work inside my head just as well—if not better—than it does in the outside world.
    I was also able to use that alien voice and its ethereal, hissing mantra as a strong beacon, which led me to the place where I had heard that cerebral click.
    By no coincidence, it was the exact same spot where the Plague had first tried to invade my mind. Floating in the air like a video game power-up (perhaps because my subconscious designed it this way) was a miniature of the music box drum I had pictured earlier. One of the spokes was glowing, pulsing in time with that serpentine chant.
    I touched the glowing spoke and felt a sharp pain. A spot of blood formed on my index finger. Apparently, you can also bleed when you’re dreaming…or whatever this was.
    Only, it was too dark to be blood. It had the same oily appearance as the Plague puddle that had chased me and was trying through fire and flame to turn me against the world in which I live. As in a nightmare, I could only stand and watch as everything within my field of vision was covered in black. Through the encompassing darkness, I could see ghosts of the world as the Plague meant it to be. I saw myself, shambling through the streets, my lifeless eyes surrounded by rotting flesh, my hands mere twists of bone and frayed muscle. I saw faint suggestions of creatures no man could survive witnessing in their entirety. I saw murder and carnage on a global scale that could not be sated with one planet. I felt the depthless hunger and hatred this being had towards all things Other, especially Others who challenge its power, like I did.
    “Albie?” A woman’s voice, calling to me from some far-off place.
    With that, my body (if you could call it that right now) started shaking, my head flopping every which way like a dashboard hula dancer, and the pinprick of pain in my finger spread up my arm, growing into a howling agony as the dark world before me erupted in a wall of fire.

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