Zvengali, by Kevin Z. Garvey
The world ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with a shout. It was Mama, up in the kitchen, standing at the basement door, calling down to me.
“I’m right in the middle of something, Ma,” I yelled back.
“You’re in the middle of nothing, Vincent! Get your butt up here!”
I cursed under my breath, clicked off the video I was watching, and pulled my pants up. Yes, it was a porn video, if you must know, and a damned good one at that.
Anyway, I went upstairs to see what all the fuss was about. I reached the top step and saw Mama, standing in the kitchen, cradling a shotgun. My blood froze at the sight, because if there’s one thing you need to know about Mama, it’s that when she picks up a gun, she’s ready to pull the trigger.
“Ma, what’s going on?” I said, barely able to contain my alarm.
She pointed with the barrel of the shotgun to the TV on the kitchen counter. “Look.”
I looked at the TV. There was breaking news: zombies. Rising from the grave.
“What the hell?” I said. “Is this a joke?”
“Watch,” Mama said, gesturing with the shotty.
A video was rolling. It was grainy, shaky, obviously from somebody’s cell phone. It showed what appeared to be a decayed man pushing his way up through the dirt in a graveyard. Just as the headstone toppled over, the video went black. The anchorman reappeared onscreen and told viewers that the video was shot in a Maryland graveyard, where the dead were opening their coffins and digging their way to the surface.
“Bullshit,” I said. “It’s gotta be a prank. Viral marketing for a new movie or something.”
“Prank my ass,” said Mama. “That’s Scott Pelley!”
I flipped the channel. David Muir, his face grave, was reporting the same thing. On all the stations, the news was the same: a zombie outbreak was occurring. People were rising from the dead and attacking the living. Turning them into zombies.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and dashed downstairs to my PC. I pulled up a browser and hit up the gaming message boards. I knew that internet gaming forums were the best place to get accurate, up to date information.
The first thread title I saw was: ZOMBIE OUTBREAK IS REAL!!!! All caps with four exclamation points. This was serious. My heart sank. I read the thread in stunned disbelief, then scanned through a few of the countless other threads on the subject. If this was a prank it was on an epic scale.
“Vincent!” shouted Mama. “Get your ass up here!”
I ran upstairs. Mama was marching around the house, shotgun at the ready, securing the perimeter.
“Well?” she said.
I shrugged. “Seems like it’s really happening.”
“Told you so.”
I shook my head. Somehow it still didn’t seem real.
“What else did they say?” asked Mama.
I told her what I’d learned on the forums. That there was a viral outbreak of some sort, a virus that raises the dead. Apparently, the outbreak originated at Fort Detrick in Maryland, home to several biological research facilities. Now it was spreading like wildfire.
“But I just can’t see how that could have happened,” I said. “It’s too farfetched.”
“I’ll tell you how,” Mama said, brushing the kitchen curtains aside with the shotgun and peering outside. “Somebody done goofed, that’s how.”
“But it’s impossible,” I said. “It can’t be true. This has to be an elaborate troll of some kind.”
“Troll, my ass. You think Scott Pelley is lying?”
“It’s science, Ma.”
“Science, my ass! I’ll tell you what it is. It’s self-fulfilling prophecy.”
I looked at her, perplexed.
“The video games,” she said. “The books, the movies. Everything is about zombies these days. Zombie this, zombie that. I’m sick of it. And so are the dead. They got tired of hearing all that crap.” She spread her arms. “And now they have risen.”
The way she said it sent a chill down my spine. Because she did have a point. You’d think that zombies in popular culture would have reached a saturation point, but they were as big as ever. Maybe Mama’s right, I thought, then shook off the notion. No, I told myself. No way. Science, dammit. Science!
We turned back to the TV. Scott Pelley was near tears. His voice cracked as he told us about the havoc being wreaked upon the world. Zombies were turning the East Coast into a kill zone of unprecedented proportion. Mama and I watched slack-jawed as zombie videos rolled, worse than any movie.
Pelley was sobbing. “There are reports of infestation in New York now,” he sobbed.
Then the screen went black.
I grabbed the remote and flicked through the channels. Nothing.
“I’ll be right back,” I said and bolted downstairs to my computer. I tried to access the Net but got an error message. “Dammit.” I got down on my knees and crawled under the desk to where the modem was, so that I could give it a hard reboot. I was reaching for the plug when the power went out. The computer fan’s ubiquitous whirr dissolved into nothing. Silence filled the room.
Bang! I hit my head on the bottom of desk drawer as I tried to stand. I crawled out from under the desk and stood up, rubbing the growing lump on my head. Then I dug in my pocket for my cell phone, praying that there was a signal.
And that’s when it dawned on me. This was no prank. No troll. No viral advertisement. This was real. It was happening.
The zhit had hit the fan.
“So what are we gonna do?”
“I’m thinking, Ma.”
The sun was still up, but Mama already had candles burning. We were sitting at the kitchen table, the shotgun resting on Mama’s lap.
“I don’t think you need the shotty, Ma.”
“Because we’re way out here in the middle of Nebraska. The outbreak is on the East Coast.”
“And spreading,” she said.
“Don’t worry, there’s a lot of empty space between there and here. The authorities will figure something out way before the zombies reach Nebraska.”
“Authorities, my ass. They’re the ones that got us into this mess. We need to figure something out.”
I scratched my chin.
“How do you kill a zombie, anyway?” Mama asked. “Can you kill a zombie?”
“Yeah, you can kill them,” I said. “By killing their brains. Kill the head and the body will die.”
“Kill the head, huh?” said Mama. “That we can do.” She hoisted the shotgun into the air. “But we’re gonna need more guns if they’re coming out of the ground in waves, like Scott Pelley says.”
Problem was, we only had two. The shotgun and a varmint rifle. But guns didn’t seem like the answer to me.
“If you think about,” I said, “all the guns in the world won’t help, if it’s as bad as they say.”
“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” Mama said. “In fact, you sit here and think about it some more. Meanwhile, I’m going to the gun store.”
She grabbed her keys and, still holding the shotgun, walked out the back door, headed for the driveway.
I sighed, and followed her to the truck. “I’m going with you. Let me drive.”
Mama opened the driver’s side door.
“Come on, ma. Let me drive,” I said. I hated when Mama drove. Thirty years old and your Mama driving you around is not a good look, zombie plague or not.
“I’m driving,” said Mama.
“But you have the shotgun. Shouldn’t you be, you know, riding shotgun?”
Mama thought about that for a second. “Okay, you drive,” she said, walking around to the passenger side and climbing in.
I hit the gas and headed for the highway. The nearest town was thirty miles away, with nothing but cornfields and pavement in between.
“Try the radio, Vincent.”
I tried the radio, running through all the stations. Nothing but static.
“Nothing,” I said, turning it off.
We drove on in silence.
“They look like zombies,” Mama said.
“They sure do.”
But they weren’t zombies. They were throngs of frightened people, aimlessly milling about outside the gun store, which was already sold out and locked up. It was like the crowd didn’t want to believe the store was really closed.
“Maybe you should pull over and ask somebody about what’s going on,” Mama said.
I shook my head. “Look at them. They’re running around like headless chickens.”
Mama nodded. “Waste of gas.”
“So what do we do now?” I said.
Mama glared at me. “What do you think we do?”
I gunned the engine and headed home.
“Without more guns and ammo, we’re as good as dead.”
“There are other ways of killing zombies, Ma, besides shooting them.”
I shrugged. “Bashing them over the head seems to work.”
We were huddled in the kitchen, under the flickering glow of the candles, trying to makes sense of things.
“In that case, we’ll need something good to bash them with.”
Mama snapped her fingers. “I got it. You know that sledgehammer in the barn? Go get it. And bring back a pickax too.”
Sounded like a plan to me.
I picked up the varmint rifle and headed to the barn. Outside, the night air was crisp and clear and I could see billions of stars in the sky. It was September, which is harvest time for corn, and I could smell the ripeness. As I looked out at the fields, I thought about how to survive the winter, if we were lucky enough to live that long. We had lots of corn, and a few other crops, so at least we wouldn’t starve to death. Our wood burning stove would provide heat for as long as this thing lasted. And there was a creek out back which meant we’d always have fresh water.
A rustling in the corn interrupted my thoughts. I raised the rifle and scanned the fields, but saw no movement. It’s the wind, I told myself, and hurried to the barn.
I found the sledgehammer and pickax, and lugged them back to the house. Mama was setting up mattresses in the kitchen, near the wood burning stove.
“What’s going on?” I said
“With the power out, it’ll be getting too cold to sleep in the basement,” she said. “You’ll sleep here. With your Mama.”
My mouth opened and closed involuntary. It had never occurred to me that the zombie outbreak would result in me losing the basement. I’d been living down there for a decade, quite happily. It was a clean, hardwired place that afforded me my privacy and the internet. That’s all I needed. The world was my oyster. But now, with no electricity, my oyster was gone.
“It’ll be cozy,” Mama said, patting the mattress.
“Cozy,” I repeated dully, finding myself more upset at this development than the outbreak itself.
“Yup,” Mama said. “Nice and cozy.”
“Vincent, wake up!”
I sat bolt upright, instantly awake and alert. “What is it, Ma?”
“Listen! You hear that?”
I listened and yes, I did hear it. A scratching at the front door.
It had been three days since we’d first heard about the zombie outbreak. We’d stayed on the farm all that time, boarding up the windows and doing our best to make the place zombie-proof. We’d had no contact with anyone and had no idea how things were progressing out in the world. We were hoping that the power would come back on, which would have signaled that things were getting back to normal, but it was still out.
“It’s probably a raccoon or something,” I said. But deep down I knew it was zombies. I could smell the rot. It was thick in the air.
“Don’t smell like no raccoon to me,” Mama said. “They’re here.”
“What time is it?”
Mama looked at her watch. “Six a.m.”
“Do zombies sleep?”
“Hell if I know.”
The scratching got louder, more urgent. I could hear a groaning sound coming from beyond the door. I looked at Mama, wondering if this was going to be our last minute on Earth. “I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, son.”
The groaning turned into a growl and the front door thumped.
“You think they smell us?” asked Mama.
“I don’t know. But they know we’re here, that’s for sure.”
“We gotta do something, Vincent.” She racked a shell into the shotgun’s chamber. “Grab the twenty-two.”
I picked up my varmint rifle. It felt light in my hands, too light, and I wondered if it had the firepower necessary to cut down zombies. Plus I only had one box of bullets. Who knew how many zombies were outside the door?
“What the hell do they want with us, anyway?” Mama asked.
I slammed home the magazine and racked the slide. “They probably want to turn us into zombies, Ma. Once they bite you the virus gets into your brain. You die, but then you become a zombie.”
“Why are they so hellbent on spreading the virus?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they watched too many zombie movies when they were alive.”
“Or maybe they’re nothing like movie zombies,” said Mama. “Maybe they’re not here to spread the virus. You ever think of that?”
“So they’re paying us a social visit?”
“Don’t get smart with me, boy.”
“Ma, I’m just saying.”
“Maybe they’ll listen to reason,” Mama said. “If their ears still work.”
I stared at her for a minute. “You know something?” I said. “You might be right.”
“About them listening to reason.” I stood up.
“Vincent, what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna go answer the door.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“No. I’m trying to keep it from being infected.”
I took the varmint rifle with me to the door, then thought better of it. I didn’t want to spook the zombies by showing them I was armed. I set it down against the wall.
Putting my ear against the door, I listened hard to what was going on outside, trying to figure out how many zombies prowling around.
“How many are there?” said Mama.
“Not sure. Maybe only one.”
I put one hand on the doorknob, the other on the lock. I gently turned the mechanism, unbolting the door. I took a deep breath…and immediately wished I hadn’t. The stench of decay was so strong it nearly made me gag.
“Vincent,” Mama hissed. “Do not open that door!”
I paused for a moment, hand on the doorknob, eyes on Mama.
“Don’t do it, Vincent.”
Normally, I did pretty much whatever Mama told me to, and it had always worked out so far. But this time was different. The zombie situation had awakened something in me, something more than just blind terror. I felt like I was supposed to be here. That this was my destiny somehow.
I opened the door.
Old Joe Larsen was a well known Nebraskan corn man. He was also our neighbor, having owned the farm adjacent to ours for over sixty years. I’d known Old Joe all my life. So when I opened the door and saw him standing there in his suit and tie, well, you’d think that I would have been relieved to see such a familiar face.
But I wasn’t relieved. In fact I almost shit my pants. Because Old Joe had died last spring. He’d died in his sleep and was buried a few days later. I know this because I was one of his pall bearers. I literally lowered him into the ground.
But he wasn’t in the ground anymore. Nope. He was here, at my front door, all dressed up in his muddy funeral suit, staring me in the face, eyeball to eyeball. Behind him were three more zombies. By appearances their conditions were even worse than his. I scanned the area for any lurkers, but this appeared to be all of them.
Four zombies, in various states of decay, knocking at my door.
As if the sight of them wasn’t bad enough, the smell was even worse. The stench nearly blew me off my feet. I took a couple of involuntary steps backward, into the house. Old Joe followed me in, the others right behind him.
I put up my hands. “Wait a second!” I shouted. “Stop! Hold on!”
The zombies paused in my living room. I looked for Mama and saw her crouched behind the couch, shotgun at the ready. All four zombies were in the house now, and they were moving clumsily about the place. It was clear that these were slow, plodding zombies, the George Romero type, rather than the fast ones like in 28 Days Later. At least we had that in our favor.
I looked Old Joe in the eyes. “Joe, it’s me, Vincent. You remember me, don’t you, Joe?”
Old Joe looked back at me. Although his eyes were glassy and dead looking, it appeared that he’d recognized me.
“It’s me, Joe. Vincent!”
Old Joe groaned, but he didn’t move forward. He was standing in place, swaying slightly side to side. I had a sense that he knew who I was and that he could hear and understand my words. The other zombies were lined up behind him, waiting.
“Are you okay, Joe?” I asked, then immediately felt foolish. The guy was dead, how okay could he be?
Old Joe was moaning in a way that seemed to indicate he was trying to communicate. But his vocal cords were apparently so rotted that he was unable to articulate his thoughts.
“I can’t understand you, Joe, but that’s okay. We’ll figure something out.” I looked at the crowd of zombies and said, “I can help you. All of you. Do you understand?”
Several of the zombies began nodding their heads. One of them, the most rotted one of the bunch, nodded so vigorously that his head fell off. It landed with a plop on the floor. Then his body fell on top of it.
“Not on my nice hardwood floor!” Mama yelled from behind the couch.
“Quiet, Mama,” I said over my shoulder. “I think I’m getting through to them.”
By this time the stench of decay in the house was overwhelming.
“Listen,” I said, facing the zombies. “Why don’t we all go outside. It’s warm in the house, which is going to make you rot faster. The cool air outside will help preserve you.”
The pack of zombies started shuffling out the front door, which was proof that I was communicating with them.
“And take him with you,” I said, pointing to the headless body on the floor.
The zombies dragged the corpse outside. I slammed the door shut and turned around to face Mama.
“Good job, Vincent!” she said from across the room. “You’re a regular zombie whisperer!”
I noticed the undead head on the floor. “Dammit, they forgot the head.”
Mama grabbed a broom. “Open the door,” she said. “I got this.”
I opened the front door. Mama whacked the head with her broom. The head shot past me, rolling out the door and into the group of zombies, knocking two of them down like bowling pins.
The two zombies got back to their feet. Old Joe gestured stiffly for me to come out.
“Better do what he says,” Mama said.
I took a deep breath, then stepped outside, closing the door behind me.
Up close, these guys were in bad shape.
“You guys are all falling apart,” I told them. “We need something to hold you together.” I paused, thinking. “Hold on a second,” I said, and dashed into the house.
“What’s going on?”
“I need some duct tape, Ma. Fast.”
Mama ran off to a back room to get a roll. I looked out the open front door and saw the group of zombies, patiently standing there.
Mama returned with a roll of duct tape and a pair of scissors.
I took the roll and the scissors and went outside, to where Old Joe was standing. “Let’s get you firmed up,” I told him. “I’m going to tape your neck, okay?”
Old Joe moaned and nodded. I applied the tape, while he stood there, like a child getting his tie tied.
I moved down his body, taping up his arms, torso and legs. I made sure to wrap lightly around his joints to ensure flexibility.
Once I’d finished taping, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. Old Joe was now a gray duct tape mummy, wrapped head to foot. And by the looks of things, he was enjoying his tight new clothes. He had a grin on his face that went from ear to ear. Then again, maybe it was just the duct tape, pulling at his cheeks that way. I wasn’t quite sure.
The other two zombies were standing there, watching me work. My impression was that they were waiting patiently for their tape jobs. But that would have to wait. Old Joe had taken most of the roll, and I didn’t have enough tape to do them all.
I stood there, mulling things over, so lost in thought that I let my guard down. I didn’t notice the zombie creeping up behind me. He grabbed me around the waist, his dank breath like death in my ear. Then as if on cue, Old Joe and the other two zombies moved forward as one.
It was a trap. “Mama, run!” I cried, struggling. “I love you, Mama!”
Then I was free. Just like that, the struggle was over. And I realized it wasn’t a trap.
Mama ran up with the shotty. “Stand back, Vincent, I’ll hose ’em down with hot lead!”
I turned and threw my hands up. “Don’t shoot, Ma!”
I pointed to Old Joe and the other two zombies. They were in the process of curb-stomping the zombie that tried to attack me. He was in pieces on the ground.
“They rescued me, Ma. Old Joe’s a hero.”
Mama smiled. She went over to Old Joe. “Good to see you, Joe!”
Old Joe groaned. He reached out his arms and began to stalk towards Mama.
Mama backed up a few steps. “Joe, it’s me,” she said. “Stop, Joe!”
Joe didn’t stop.
He was joined by the others.
“Get back in the house, Mama, quick!” I shouted.
Mama turned and ran into the house. She slammed the door shut, then opened it again, just enough to peep through the crack.
The zombies moved towards the house.
“Stop!” I said. “Now!”
Instantly the group stopped undead in their tracks
“Look at me,” I said to the mob. “You are not to go anywhere near my Mama. Do I make myself clear?”
The zombies groaned and kind of moved their heads from side to side.
“Do I make myself clear?” I said.
This time they nodded and wheezed their assent.
“Good,” I said, and took a deep breath. The stench was still strong but I was getting used to it now. “I know you two want to be taped up like Old Joe here, but I don’t have much tape. I’ll need to get to town for more. So be patient, okay?”
The zombies nodded. They waited for me to say something else, but I didn’t know what to say. I just gawked at them, amazed at how I was in total control. It was like they were in formation, a platoon of soldiers, an undead army.
And I was their general.
“I want the three of you to guard these premises,” I said. “Don’t let any other zombies near the front door.”
Then I turned on my heel and marched into the house.
Mama was crying. I’d never seen Mama cry.
She looked at me. “Why won’t they listen to me?”
“The zombies, you idiot. They listen to you. Why not to me?”
“I don’t know, Ma. There must be something about me.”
“They all listen to you, Vincent. Every one of them. And not a single one will listen to me.”
“Not all of them listen to me,” I said. “There was that one that attacked me.”
“That’s true,” Mama said, brightening. “Why’d he do that?”
I thought about that for a moment. “I think maybe it was because I didn’t look him in the eyes,” I said. “He straggled in from behind me. I guess I need to look them in the eyes in order to, you know, cast my spell.”
Mama stared at me. “What are you, some sort of Svengali?”
I smiled. “Kind of seems that way, doesn’t it?” I paused. “Who was Svengali, anyway?”
“Hell if I know. But he could hypnotize people just by looking at them. Just like you.”
“I can’t hypnotize people, Ma. Only zombies.”
“Zombies are people, too, Vincent.”
“How do you spell Svengali?” I asked. “With an S or a Z?”
“Hell if I know.
“Well, I’m gonna spell it with a Z. Zvengali.”
“If you say so.”
I turned serious. “You were right, Mama. Turns out I am a zombie whisperer.”
Mama nodded solemnly.
“You think I’m the only one? The only zombie whisperer?”
Mama nodded again. “You are the One.”
I stood up. “I am Zvengali,” I said, “the one and only.”
“Damn straight, Vincent.”
“Please,” I said, “call me Zvengali.”
Mama just stared at me.
I reached into my pocket for the truck keys. “I need to go get some duct tape.”
“No, Vincent. It’s too dangerous.”
“I’m Zvengali, remember? The One.” I went to the door. “Stay here, Ma. Don’t answer the door for anyone.”
I opened the door.
“The name’s Zvengali, Ma. Get used to it.” I closed the door behind me.
“Zvengali! Thank God you’re back.”
“Hi, Ma. You don’t have to call me Zvengali anymore.”
“Because Zvengali works better as a last name, not a first name. So I’m still Vincent. Vincent Zvegali.”
“Yes. I had my name legally changed.”
Mama scoffed. “Legally, huh? Where? Down at City Hall?”
I smiled grimly. “You don’t understand, Ma. The world has changed. The government’s not in charge anymore. I am.”
Mama stared at me. “Say what, now?”
“Come outside. I want to show you something.”
We stepped out into the cold air.
“My God, it stinks out here,” said Mama. She looked at the group of zombies. “Good Lord! Where’d they all come from!”
“From all over the fields. I just spent the last two hours rounding them up. There’s thirty two in total.”
“Did they put up a fight?”
I shook my head. “It was easy pickings. I’d just walk right up to them and look them in the eyes. After that, they’d follow me anywhere.”
“My God,” said Mama. She looked at Old Joe. “He looks like the Tin Man!”
“He’s my platoon leader.”
“How come he’s the only one taped up? Did you get more duct tape?”
I shook my head. “Never made it off the farm. I started putting together my army instead.”
“Yeah. These are my first recruits.”
“Vincent, you’re crazy.”
“Survival of the fittest, Ma. There’s a new world order, and we’re at the top of the food chain.”
“But it’s a world of zombies,” said Mama. “What kind of a world is that?”
“The only one we’ve got, Ma. So let’s look on the bright side.”
Mama made a face. “There’s a bright side to zombies ruling the world?”
“Yes, there is. Think of it this way: if zombies rule the world, and I rule the zombies, then who really rules the world?”
Mama thought about that for a minute. I saw her eyes light up when the answer hit her.
“I do,” she said. “Me!”
I smiled. “Told you there was a bright side.”
Kevin Z. Garvey’s fiction has appeared here at InfectiveINk, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey and other publications. In addition to writing, Garvey is an award winning combat sports ring announcer and is a member of the NJ State Martial Arts Hall of Fame. You can visit him on the web at KevinZGarvey.com.
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Tags: family, humor, Kevin Z. Garvey, zombies