The Farmhand, by Jennifer Zoia
Hope can give people the will to achieve great things, it can also lure them toward grave mistakes.
In the spring battles of 2011, the entire mid-Atlantic had fallen. From cities to small villages, the Living had been slaughtered. Movies always show swarms of undead crowding the streets, but the fact is that once the war passes through, their numbers are pretty sparse. The town of College Park, Maryland, just a few miles from Washington, D.C., had 25,000 citizens before the war, but was now home to just one hundred undead.
In College Park’s second summer as part of the Zombie Controlled Zone, vegetation was reclaiming the land that had once been paved and built up with liquor stores, cheap apartments, and fast food restaurants. Small trees pushed through the cracked pavement of U.S. Route 1 and tall grass weaved around the empty lots where buildings had burned.
The shining exception was the University of Maryland. The stately red brick Colonial buildings still stood, their tall white columns strong and their windows sparking in the sun. It was home to nearly 30,000 Living. When the war had drawn close, the students and faculty undertook a massive effort to isolate themselves. A wall went up around their 1,250-acre campus. They took advantage of their engineers – and the University’s endowments – to make it indestructible and insurmountable. Concrete graded for nuclear bunkers was poured into the forms: five feet thick, nearly twenty feet high, and fully covered in razor wire.
A single entrance remained on Campus Drive. It was blocked with heavy steel gates that featured their own barbs and razors. When the infection had come and the war had followed, the students and faculty moved in and locked the gates up tight.
The problem was, no one in the great University had considered the possibility that the Living could lose the war. Once the battle was over, the zombies controlled the town and the thirty thousand souls became prisoners in their own fortress.
After the terrifying early weeks of isolation, hope returned in the form of a single military truck. Through hand-passed memos, they learned that although the Army had been largely defeated, they still controlled the Baltimore-Washington International Airport twenty-five miles to the north. As the battle raged on its perimeter, they were conducting a slow, methodical rescue mission, bringing the Living to the airport from secure pockets around the region and then flying them west to the zombie-free territories.
On Sunday and Wednesday nights, the military truck arrived at the campus and evacuated exactly one hundred people. It was a joyous turn of events, even though it would take over three years to move everyone off campus. The timeline was long, but it brought hope to a populace who had thought they were doomed.
There was not enough food to sustain so many people for three months, let alone three years, and that realization spurred the University into action. It returned to its roots as an agricultural school in an extreme way. The students and faculty dug up the malls and sports fields. Using the vast stores of seeds set aside for research, they planted, first early crops – peas, lettuce, radishes, carrots – and then food for summer and to take them through the winters – corn, pumpkins, zucchini and summer squash, soy beans, onions, and potatoes.
Nearly fifteen thousand of them had been rescued so far. The ones left kept planting, weeding, hoping, and waiting for their day to rejoin the world.
* * *
Carter Coolbrook – his friends had called him C.C. – rolled stiffly out of bed in the same overalls he had been wearing for two years. He liked skipping the ritual of dressing every morning and undressing every night. He had embraced his new life as a farmer, and was as happy as he could be given the circumstances. Almost everything about this new life was better than his old one.
This was true for most zombies. Once the soldiers left and the chaos subsided, the zombies’ days were quiet and peaceful. After returning from death, their critical thinking skills were still present, but dulled. Emotions were gone, so they were neither impulsive nor aggressive. They were like bigger, stronger versions of ten-year-olds heavily dosed with Valium…except when they were eating.
C.C. had reflected that the war was something of a no-win situation for the zombies with respect to food. Zombies need to eat the Living, and so the Living want to kill the zombies. To protect themselves, the zombies had to kill the Living in great numbers. If they did this successfully and won the war, they were left victorious over a territory with no Living and thus no food. It was a bit like if like the Living won a war against their crops. But when the battles ended in Maryland, C.C. realized that the university could be their salvation. Thirty-thousand Living were locked up in there, enough to feed a lot of zombies for a long time. If they managed things right, they could keep a good supply of food coming out of the place for years.
And so C.C. declared the University his farm. He monitored it daily to make sure the Living, his livestock, were surviving. His most important task was to find a way to harvest a steady supply of them from their walled fortress. For this, he thought he might need help.
* * *
The campus did not house every one of the Living in College Park. There was one more: Martin Watts.
When the war came, he didn’t go to the university until it was too late. They had locked their gates, and no matter how much he pounded and pleaded, they would not let him in. As the first zombies appeared in the streets, he retreated to his house, fists bloody, and with a new, red, blinding rage toward the institution. He had hidden in his basement for a month while the battles raged outside. The doors were barricaded and the windows barred. He cooked on a hot plate until the power died, and then lived on cold canned food and dusty boxes of cereal. When a week of quiet finally passed, he had come up to find College Park a smoking ruin, emptied of people.
C.C. had spotted him that morning. Martin was standing dumbly on his front lawn, squinting against the bright sunlight. He was the first non-military Living that C.C. had seen outside the university for weeks. This could be the one he needed; he could be the farmhand.
C.C. approached, and when Martin saw him, terror struck him with the force of a train. He wet himself without noticing. C.C. was tall and his overalls were caked with dirt, blood, and what may have been matted hair. Large chunks of flesh had been ripped from him, and the stringy gouge in his neck caused vomit to rise in Martin’s throat. His body was frozen, but his mind raced. Can’t believe I hid all that time to be killed now, the first time I come up. Goddammed university fucks locking me out while they’re all playing it up inside and poor schmucks like me are left here to be zombie food. That fucker is big, oh god it’s going to hurt, why did I ever come out of the basement, Jesus Christ what am I going to do, I can’t do anything, I’m going to die, fuckers locked me out here to die.
When C.C. spoke to him it was thick and slurred, like a drunk talking through a mouthful of marbles. His tongue was partially torn away, and it had swollen after death. He forced the words out.
“I nad kill ya, nad ead ya. Bud you gadda help ush. You help ush and we all leave ya ‘lone. Nobody ead ya.”
They talk, Martin thought. He had never heard one talk.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
C.C. explained, dribbling out sticky streams of words. Bring him people from the university, he said. Find a way to make them come voluntarily and bring them to a place where the zombies could eat. There were a hundred zombies here, and they each needed two Living a week. Supply those feedings and C.C. assured him that he would be left alone.
Martin hardly understood the beginning of the conversation, between the garbled mouthfuls of syllables that C.C. spat out in fits and his own buzzing terror. As C.C. went on, though, Martin calmed down and he listened. He started nodding, and by the end, he was enthusiastic. His horror and fear had receded. Yes, this would work. He could get back at those elitist bastards who had left him to die, and save his own ass at the same time. Now he would be the one protected, and they would be dinner. He even had a plan. It came to him fully formed in an instant, as if God himself had put the idea in his head. He was sure it would work. They all think they’re so smart, but now they’ll get what they have coming to them.
“I’ll need a few days to get everything together. Four days from now, and I’ll bring you the first load. You see the bowling alley up by 193?” He pointed toward the stout unburned building atop a small hill. “I’ll bring them there and send them in though the loading dock. Let them all come off the truck, and then I’ll close the door and you can have them.”
C.C. agreed. He had the farm, and now he had his farmhand. This one Living would do what he needed. And if he failed? Well, then C.C. would have him for lunch and find another way to get the livestock out of that pen.
Martin set about his task with revenge-fueled glee. He found an abandoned unmarked tractor-trailer that started, and he drove it back to the BP station on Route 1 to inspect it. There was enough diesel in it for a lot of trips, and he would find a way to get more when he needed it. He spent half a day unloading a pile of electronics from the trailer – plasma TVs, DVD players, cameras, cell phones. It left him with an uncomfortable alien feeling. So many expensive things, all worthless.
From the Home Depot across the street, he took a large speaker and mounted it on top of the truck. He wired that to a spare battery and to the radio mic in the cab.
By the afternoon of the second day, the truck was ready, but he waited until after dark to make his approach. The powerful engine roared through the silent night. When he reached campus, he backed up as close to the gates as he could, and heart thumping with excitement and anxiety, started to broadcast over the speaker in his most official voice.
“Attention. This is the United States Army. If there is anyone alive within your walls, please come toward the sound of this speaker at the front gate. Attention. This is the United States Army. If there is anyone alive within your walls, please come toward the sound of this speaker at the front gate.”
And they came. Within five minutes, there were hundreds of them, crying and screaming, cheering just on the other side.
“This is Major Matthew Martin.” He made the name up on the spot, and it sounded good to him. Official and clean cut. “We are evacuating civilians from the area. Our information is that there may be thousands of you inside.” A cheer went up. Yes, they cried, Yes we are thousands. “We are only equipped to take one hundred at a time, and we can take the first group tonight. There are documents in the trailer explaining the situation and procedures in fuller detail. When your people board tonight, someone should retrieve these and pass them back in so you will be prepared for future extractions.”
These he had made up on an old typewriter that he had found in the basement of his rented house. Before the war, no one would have believed such crude things came from the government, but now they looked exactly like what a military unit with limited power might assemble in the field.
“When I give the signal, you will send a group through the gate. They must immediately board the truck. We will proceed to the airport, stopping at several secure locations along the way. The infrastructure problems will make this a long trip. We recommend each person bring a full day’s worth of food.”
He had thought up the food part on the short drive down to campus. He was running low at home. With their rations, he would be well fed for a long time.
On that first night, he gave them twenty minutes to assemble. There was chaos on the other side of the wall. Celebration and protests, sobbing and fast-paced conversations. And then they came. He felt the trailer rocking as they climbed in and scampered toward the back. Then the trailer door closed, and the big steel gates boomed shut on the university.
Martin drove. After a few minutes slowly bumping along the broken street, he flipped a switch so he could talk into a speaker that he had installed in the trailer.
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome aboard. We will make our first stop at a secured location here in College Park to make final checks before we move on to US-95. The trailer will pull up to the building, and for your safety you must exit. The building is secured, and this will allow our staff to inspect the trailer while you are protected from any potential zombie infractions. Is that clear?”
There were cheers from the trailer, almost hysterical with joy and relief. Martin eased over the pitted roadway and after fifteen minutes, pulled into the bowling alley parking lot. He backed up to the loading dock door, which was open and waiting.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen. When I’m finished with these instructions, you’ll need to open the gate and move into the building. The lights will remain off until the loading dock door is closed and locked so we do not attract the attention of any zombies in the area. Leave your possessions in the truck so you can move quickly. We will move out as soon as inspections are completed. Do you understand?”
“Okay then. Move!”
They did. They jumped off jubilantly, and in less than two minutes, the loading dock door slid shut. I just outsmarted them all, Martin thought. Now they’ll see what they get for locking me out.
Inside the building, C.C. watched the large group of students and faculty assembling in the open space. His farmhand had come through.
From their place in the darkness at the back of the bowling alley, the zombies of College Park moved forward. Some of the university people froze. Some screamed. A few tried to run, scampering along the slick floors, but to no avail. C.C. seized a young man of about twenty by the hair. The boy let out a screech as C.C. bit into his shoulder. At the first taste of blood, the zombies reacted like sharks in a feeding frenzy, consciousness shutting down and hunger instinct taking over. They ripped flesh off the bodies in great shredded mouthfuls, sometimes shrieking to the sky in triumphant whoops. They reached in and scooped out cupped handfuls of blood and innards, and pulled entrails into long ribbons before slurping them down like giant noodles. They cracked open the skulls like eggs, plucking out chunks of brain. They gorged until almost nothing was left and at the end, they collected their piles of bones so that each might spend the next few days sucking out the sweet marrow.
Martin laughed at the muffled screams from inside, feeling a jittery mix of triumph and terror. Once he had heard enough, he pulled his truck out and headed back to his house. From the trailer, he collected a cornucopia of food and stuffed himself until he thought he might be sick. That night, for the first time since the war passed, he slept full, content, and without fear in his bed on the second floor.
C.C. arrived the next morning and sat on Martin’s lawn in his dirty overalls, waiting for him to come outside. Eventually, Martin did, though with some trepidation. He had done as he was asked, but being in the presence of a zombie made him extremely uncomfortable.
“Good, farmhand,” slurred C.C. He nodded with authority. “Dwice a week n we leave ya ‘lone.”
“Twice a week,” Martin acknowledged. They looked at one another for a long moment, and then C.C. turned and left.
Over time, Martin got even better at it. The campus trusted him. Their affection ran so deep that at Christmas, after six thousand of them had been brought to the bowling alley, one of the students had even left a wrapped present in the back addressed “To: Major Matthew Martin, From: The University of Maryland”. It was a bright red sweatshirt that said “Terps” in gold script across the front. Now they treat me like one of them, he thought. Fuckers lock me out to die, but now they’ve come around.
C.C. was as pleased as his current faculties allowed him to be. He enjoyed monitoring the farm, watching the Living move around with so much purpose and determination, tending to their crops and buildings. The farmhand was working out well, too. After the first week, it was not hard to convince the others that he was off limits; if he went, their food went with him.
* * *
Jessica Homer was crying inside the campus walls. Her boyfriend, Ryan, was part of the group scheduled for evacuation that night. She and Ryan had only been together for three months, and he had been slated to leave before they had even met. This prevented them from going as a couple unless Ryan wanted to give up his spot and go later. Jessica insisted that he go, and they spent weeks of nights engaged in conversations that lasted into the early morning, planning what they would do when they were together again in the west.
Jessica was an electrical engineer and worked in the power building. Among old supplies in a basement closet, she had found a set of two-way radios. She charged these over several days and tonight, as Ryan finished his packing, she brought them out. One for each of them, she said. She didn’t know what kind of range they had, but she and Ryan could keep talking for as long as they lasted. He could tell her what the ride was like along the way, and she could be with him just a bit longer. He took the radio, and took her in his arms. They held one another until the clock tower rang nine, signaling that it was time for him to head down Campus Drive.
She walked with him, sad, anxious, excited, and nervous. They stood in the warm air holding hands until the rumbling diesel motor approached and the truck was at the gate. They kissed one last time, and then he was gone, running out and leaping aboard with the other ninety-nine.
She pulled out her radio, sat on the curb, and waited.
Before the truck had even pulled away, he came through. “Can you hear me, Jessie?” he asked.
“I can. You sound great. Just keep it open and let me hear what’s going on.”
The others at the gate saw the radio and came over. No one knew what the ride was like, but they all were desperately curious. Everyone who had sent their friends and lovers off tonight – hundreds of them – grouped around her in a circle, silent and listening.
Over the radio, they heard chanting and cheering from the back of the truck. Ryan’s voice sometimes broke through, exclaiming at a large bump they hit or commenting on the darkness. Then, the Major’s voice came on with his instructions about entering the loading dock and locking the door. “We’re going in now,” Ryan said. “We’ll finally get to see some new people!”
There were banging sounds as they left the truck, and a bumping metal cacophony as the loading dock gate slid closed and locked. Then near silence for almost a minute.
“Where is everyone?” Ryan asked someone in the group.
“Dunno,” the voice replied. “Maybe they’re more toward the front.”
“Hello!” cried another. “Where is everybody?”
There was a shuffling over the staticy radio. Then, barely audible on their open line, came a voice from far away, like it was in another room. “…gonna get what’s coming to you, motherfuckers!”
“Was that Major Martin?” Jessica whispered to the girl sitting next to her. And then the screams began.
“No, no!” cried one, and “Oh god,” from another. There were wordless terrified howls, joining in a gruesome choir. On campus, jaws fell open, hands went to mouths, but no one spoke.
There were moans over the radio, and then ripping sounds, like silk being torn. More yells and cries, human mingling with zombie. There were thumps and bangs and after nearly a minute of the terrible chorus, one final loud boom, as the radio hit the ground. Then silence, terrifying and merciful. Jessica and the others were crying now, holding each other as great grieving sobs came over them. They shared the burden of that initial shock together, and when they had composed themselves a bit, they went out to share the horrible news of the fate that had befallen nearly fifteen thousand of their number.
Martin arrived at campus the following Wednesday, wearing the red Terps sweatshirt against an unusually cool night. He backed the truck to the gates and called for them as usual. He glanced up at the stars, waiting for the familiar groan of the gate and the shaking of the truck as the students climbed aboard, but it didn’t come. Where the hell were they? He had heard the echoing of the speaker against the wall, so they must have heard. It was the only sound around here, and they were usually waiting for him right on the other side in a big anxious group. He tried again, but still no one came.
Martin climbed out of the cab and walked around to the back to check the gates. There was a piece of paper taped to one of them. It looked like the doors had been opened just a crack and an arm had quickly reached out and slapped it on crookedly with a strip of packing tape.
In black magic marker on a single white sheet of paper was a short message: “We know.”
Martin’s belly flipped inside him. A numbness spread from his ears, which started ringing in panic, across his cheeks and down his neck and shoulders. His muscles all felt suddenly weak, as though they had fallen asleep and he was just now trying to stand on them.
With watery movements, he climbed back into the truck. What am I going to do, he wondered. The agreement. C.C.. I’ve got to do something. I’ll find another way. I’ll break in and kidnap them. Something. C.C. will have to give me more time. He knows I’ll come through. If I just explain it, he’ll understand. He’s got to. What would they do without me? Those zombie fucks need me. But I shouldn’t meet him at that bowling alley tonight, not with all the rest of them there. That would not be safe. Let him come to me. He piloted the lumbering truck north on Route 1, back toward his house.
At the bowling alley, C.C. was growing impatient. The farmhand was late, and he had never been late before. The truck sounds were gone, yet there had been no delivery. This was bad. He did not understand why the farmhand would break their agreement, but he would certainly go and find out. C.C. stalked down the center of Route 1 in jerking steps. On Martin’s street he saw the tractor-trailer parked in front of the house. He stomped into the front yard.
“Farmhand!” he roared in his cotton mouthed voice. “Farmhand!”
Martin stepped out onto the front steps. “C.C. Buddy, let me explain. I don’t want you to worry. Somehow, they found out what we were doing, but I’ll fix it! Just gimme a couple days and I’ll come up with a new plan. I’ll keep bringing them, man, seriously. I’ll find a way to trap them or something. I swear it. Just a couple more days is all I need.”
C.C. moved toward him, groaning.
“No, no, man, C.C. It doesn’t have to go like this.” Martin backed up, bumping against the door. “You need me! How else are you gonna get them? I’ll get you those university fuckers, man, I will.”
C.C. climbed the steps and grabbed Martin by the arm. He yanked, and Martin’s shoulder made a popping sound as it dislocated from the socket. He yowled in pain and tried to pull his arm back, but he no longer had any power over it. The arm of the sweatshirt tore off and slid down past his elbow.
C.C. held on and sunk his dull teeth into Martin’s fleshy bicep. The zombie’s salivary glands reacted so strongly that it stung. He bit harder, latching on with his remaining molars, and twisted his head, yanking, and wrenching the whole muscle free in one piece, strings of torn tendons and ligaments hanging from it like the streamers on a girl’s bicycle handlebars.
Martin may have screamed again, but he couldn’t tell. The world started to grey around the edges, and he ran south, back toward campus. C.C. followed, pulling off muscle fibers in shreds as he gnawed on the lump of Martin’s arm. Martin reached the university gates well ahead of him, but he was starting to feel weak from the blood loss. C.C. was several blocks back, lurching toward him with clear intent.
Martin banged on the gates with his good arm, shouting to be let in, but he was met with silence.
C.C. reached him. “Bad farmhand,” he muttered, seizing Martin by the neck as he quivered against the doors. “Bad.”
Jennifer Zoia was born and raised in northern Illinois. She is now a professor in Washington, D.C. where she lives with her two golden retrievers. Her work has appeared in Weirdyear, Static Movement, and a few other venues. She’s at work on her first novel and has a website at DogsAndJen.org/writing
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Tags: jennifer zoia, revenge, zombies