The Clothed Heart, by Chris Castle
Looking down you would only see a part of the story. You would see a priest chasing the monster through the near deserted streets. Behind the priest is what passes for a policeman in these new times, a gun strapped to his waist but not registered. These two men would be racing by upturned bins and broken city shops to chase a monster. In the eyes of the scattered folks in what used to be the capital of the country, maybe even the world, these two men are the heroes.
What are they chasing?
If you look closer, in amongst the alleyways and shadows, a monster lunges and lurks and staggers. It is a thing from old comic books, groaning theatrically, with arms outstretched. It is a man, or used to be, but even that is hard to place in a glance. The face has been erased through disease, the skin putrid. Everything about the creature smacks of death, though it is clearly still living, if indeed, living is what you call this sorry state. It shambles and rambles and is a horror movie cliché, back when movies still existed. It is a boogieman to scare the children who stray too far from the porch at dusk.
And yet, if you were to study this monster’s eyes you would see a surprising thing. The pupils dilate and the irises and corneas are still in the socket, where they should be. But there is more to it than that. Look closer and you would see something that is oddly missing from our heroes, devoid in the most basic form: passion. The creature- termed as ‘zombie’ by the few men and women left in the street and ‘un-dead’ by the more learned men who still, albeit underground now, have their laboratories and carry out their experiments- has a fierce light burning that sets it apart from the others in this story.
As the monster pushes back against the brick wall of the alley, it clutches something to its chest. Remember, now, this is not the stuff of hackneyed high-school tales; it is not a human head or child’s hand. No, what the creature clutches is a patch of cloth. The cloth came from a dress, a dress worn by someone, something, dear to the monster. In the world before The Event his name was Daniel Mears, a single man and unhappy. After becoming infected, he fell in love. The thought of the creatures having feelings outside of hunger is an alien concept to the priest and the fake policeman. If someone were to tell them this fact, the priest would dismiss it with an angry wave of the hand and the policeman would laugh and later turn it into a dirty joke to tell the people he pretends are his friends. And yet, it is true.
The monsters are the heroes in this story.
After The Event, the uninfected lived a life of ragged opulence; they stole for there were no longer rules; they screwed and drank and took all manner of drugs because people, when offered a life with no consequences, always choose the most obvious pleasures. No-one travelled freely, or claimed priceless works of art just to admire in their broken homes. No, the men and women took and consumed and when they found resistance, took again, by force. The few good people were first outnumbered and then dispatched. To offer themselves respectability, the men and women made the creatures their enemy and more importantly, a threat.
But was this really true?
The infected did not seek out human meat and most subsided on shrubs and plants. One city, rife with trash, was cleaned within weeks by the un-dead and on the whole, the planet became a healthier, more vibrant place, through both the monsters hunger for rubbish and the total lack of man made pollution. A joke sits uncomfortably inside these facts, doesn’t it? No, the creatures did not attack on any level, unless assaulted first and even then, their form of self-defence was meek. They did not bite or ravage, but merely flail, trying to bat away their opponent with weak arms or frail legs. It was not a contest.
So what did the creatures do?
They gravitated to each other. Below, in their bunkers, the scientists observed and became fascinated by the monsters innate ability to find each other. Within weeks of the event, settlements had been established, where the un-dead came together and…dwelled. To the men and women, it would have been a scene of horror and low comedy; the monsters staggering aimlessly and groaning as if in complaint. To the scientists below, it was a revelation to follow the moans as they became a form of speech. The tone and length of a sound indicated agreement, expression; sometimes displeasure, or even love. The brushing, which the men and women mistook for clumsiness, was in itself, a form of contact, of friendship. What else, the scientists pondered, was the human handshake?
A community borne out of tragedy began.
It should have been the men and women. Humanity should have been forged from the darkness and brought new light. Instead, all it harboured was addiction and need. The human enclaves took on a form nothing short of debauched squalor. It was the stuff of Roman times in their antics, although it differed from that period in their total lack of regard for the future. No, in these hellish places, the survivors set about destroying themselves with a new relish unseen for generations, while on the outskirts, the monsters gathered.
This was where the community lay. To the untrained eye, the areas were little more than tin shacks and dirt and yet, underneath ran certain logic. The shacks were sturdy and withstood the unpredictable weather. Their location was well judged, situated around fresh water and natural food supplies. A survivor comedian alluded to their seeming lack of intelligence with a trademark joke: ‘those crazies don’t fear nothin’ except…you know…can openers.’ Yet, the creatures ate from the land and pinpointed, in their own way, ongoing resources. The comedian, in his castle, ate from dwindling cans and discovered he was slowly dying from bodily infections.
In the months after The Event, these communities grew and prospered in their own way, until the low murmur of groans became an almost settled hum. To an untrained human ear, it may have sounded like contented bees going about their work. No addictions slowed their progress; no bad attitude hampered their work. Slowly, they began to find a purpose again, until even that tiny part of their mind that still mourned for a previous life stilled, and found a sort of peace.
And so, the humans sought revenge.
It was thought that it began with the church, embarrassed at its ineffectual nature and dis-heartened with the men and women delighting in their heathen practises. But this, in fact, was a lie. It began, as most human endeavours did before and after The Event, out of boredom. One day, a gang of men and women, seeing a community of creatures, went about picking them off, one by one, with high powered rifles. As they did, their cheers could be heard echoing for miles. Their high-fives were vigorous and when the community had been utterly stilled, they rutted in triumph, passing each other around like party favours and ripping open cans of beer and popping champagne corks in celebration. In that moment, this new practise of killing as entertainment began.
It became a craze, perhaps the first new fashion-trend since The Event. Bereft of glossy magazines and celebrities, the idea of any new entertainment was seized upon with an enthusiasm. A loosely styled guideline was established, scoring marks for the most kills, extra points for headshots, etc. etc. Soon, celebrity was back on the agenda. One prolific marksman, ‘Jed 27,’ had his tag sprayed from wall to wall and soon became the new world’s first hero. Over time, people were soon appraised by the style of their rifle, their numbers on the board. In this way, a new class system was established, with the most proficient killers as elite.
The communities dwindled and took to the shadows. Gone were the times when they could establish themselves by fresh water and almost daintily scoop flowers in their broken hands and marvel at their simple beauty. No, all such times of calm and happiness were erased with that first shot. They bickered for the first time, more out of fear and confusion than anger at each other. Even in their reduced state, they raged at the injustice of their plight. Soon, relationships were broken, either through human extermination or bewilderment and the creatures were on the verge of destruction, either through elimination or their own squabbling disenchantment.
It was the creature clutching the piece of cloth to what was once its heart-and now, was again, in its own way-which saved them. It was furious like all the other’s, but burned with something else, something deeper: vengeance. A lot of the practicalities of their community stemmed from this creature’s simple guidance. Something logical remained in its hollowed brain and guided them when needs required. Now, the creature was a thing split in two: the cold logic of new plans burning and accelerating in the fibres of its ruined skin and pure, utter vengeance.
The creature gathered them in the shadows and the filth. In the dirt, it traced circles and squares. These were instructions; basic and simple and brilliant. The others shambled forward and nodded in imperceptible agreement. The creature looked around them and stepped up to each, its eyes gleaming and more…alive than any of the others. It straightened the shoulders on one and tightened the fingers on another. To each comrade, it offered an improvement, an instruction, something that made each of them more than it had been just moments before. Each of them complied not out of subservience but with willingness. By the time the creature had returned to the master-plan scrawled in dirt something had changed. The rabble had become an army.
And so, we return to the first scene in this story. The monster, clutching the cloth to its chest stands in the alleyway, seemingly worn down and exhausted. The priest and the wannabe policeman confront it in the mouth of an alleyway and each scream in triumph. They watch the hapless thing slump around a final corner and slow to an easy walk, complacent in victory. The policeman draws his weapon, the priest withdraws a knife that has been tucked inside a well worn bible and the two grin in a fashion that makes them look more unnatural than any un-dead creature. Together, they turn the corner.
The army is waiting for them.
The screams that follow are brief but incredible. In far off pockets of the city, men and women prick their ears away from their hobbies and listen. In amongst the fog and haze of their brains, they wonder what they have just heard. Some look out of smeared windows, others return to their excesses but all of them have registered that first scream. One or two wait for a few moments, expecting something else to occur. When it does not, they breathe a sigh of relief but cannot quite shake that ear-piercing scream from their heads. In amongst their befuddled minds, they recognise it for what it was: a warning.
The creature stills the army when the task is complete. A few surge towards the city but are stopped by the creature as it stamps a foot fiercely into the concrete. It will not be a single attack. It would leave them exposed for one thing; it would not be wholly satisfying, for another. Instead, the creature points in various directions and the army disperses, exploring routes and accessing tunnels, learning to adapt to their new environment as they did before. Gone are the searches for fresh water streams, however; gone are the simple discoveries of new shrubs and berries to eat. Now, their home is in the city and their food will have bones to pick and flesh to strip.
And in that way, the creature becomes the monster the men and women have always claimed to fear.
Chris is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 350 times in the past year, in everything ranging from horror to drama and also including children’s literature and is currently working on a full-length novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org