29 AZA, by Adam Knight
The boy—I guess it’s a boy—is nine or ten years old, but there’s no way to see his face. He wears black trash bags, one covering his torso, others on his arms, legs, and face. The seams are duct taped. An old ski mask conceals the eyes. He wears vinyl gloves and black galoshes. Not a trace of his skin is visible. He even took the care to write the insignia on his chest and CLEANUP PATROL on back in yellow paint. Crudely done, but accurate. So accurate that it makes my stomach feel as if it’s bottoming out.
–Trick or treat, he says, his voice muffled in plastic. He sounds like them. The PATROL.
Mutely, I hold the bowl of candy. Do I tell him? Does he have a grandfather to tell him the stories? Statistically, a living grandfather is unlikely. He’s a survivor’s child, and there weren’t many survivors.
He’s too young to understand. He knows the CLEANUP PATROLS from history, not memory. If he had lived through them, he’d never dare such a costume.
The kid shifts his feet, and the swishing plastic throws me back twenty-nine years. Houses were abandoned mausoleums. Their tenants roamed the streets, eyes vacant, heads sunken and bruised like rotting melons. We, the survivors, hunkered in the school gym. For months at a stretch, we guarded the exits, checked one another for infection, waited as the adrenaline ground our nervous systems into dull, useless knives.
Then the cavalry came. Fleets of bombers criss-crossed the nation’s skies, spraying the antidote to eradicate the infection and give the diseased their eternal rest. Then came the sorting of the dead. CLEANUP PATROLS rolled the dead into the center of the street and swept through town, wearing airtight vinyl suits, guiding the bulldozers that pushed the dead into The Incinerator, the hastily built monolith that devoured the dead and exhaled human smoke nonstop for two years. The haze smelled like burned pork. It still hangs over the city.
–Hey, old-timer, you okay?
I look down. I’ve dropped half the bowl of candy on the ground. I stoop down to pick it up. Old-timer. Twenty-nine years AZA—After the Zombie Apocalypse—the world population has yet to reach three hundred million. Many of those are survivor children.
Do I tell him the stories? How my wife, who before the ZA was a professor and endowed with one of the sharpest minds I knew, became a drooling, moaning thing as her cerebral cortex turned to soup? Tell him what it was like to see the CLEANUP PATROL roll my wife and son into the road for the ‘dozers? To watch the plume of smoke rising in the distance, choking the city in a brown haze?
Once the infection was done, some survivors took up looting, tribal violence, and reckless promiscuity. The world had nearly ended, the savage survivors argued. What outdated moralities could possibly hold us back? I never participated. I returned to my empty home, pilfered only what I needed to survive. I never indulged darker impulses. Except once. It was an old Colonial wreck down the street, more eyesore than house. My wife was gone, my son was gone, all my friends and family were gone, and that ugly heap of boards still stood. I got roaring drunk and threw Molotov cocktails in the cracked windows until I was sobbing, howling, and my shoulder felt like molten lead. In the crackling, red-hot silence I heard children screaming in the attic. They must’ve been hiding up there for months but not known the ZA was over. I tried to tell myself they were infected, too, and I was doing the world a favor. But I couldn’t get myself to believe it. Just like I couldn’t get myself to walk away. I just stood there in the street until the cries stopped and I smelled burning meat.
I put a candy bar in the kid’s bag, then a handful of them. I lose count; it doesn’t matter. No stories tonight. Let the boy keep the holiday in his own way, and I can keep it in mine.
–Happy Halloween, I mouth. The boy looks at me, then into the bag, then walks away without saying thanks.
I am a writer and teacher in northern New Jersey. My stories have been published in several anthologies, including Song Stories, Vol. 1, The Big Bad Anthology, Told You So, Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever, and Villainy. I have also ghostwritten a non-fiction book, and am under contract for two more.