by George Potter
(for East End, with love.)
My name is Tyler McCammon and I am fourteen years old. I was born and raised right here in this county made out of mountains and the spaces between them. Polk County, Kentucky -- a small, hidden world of creeks and hollows, forests and the shadows they cast. "A great place to be from," my cousin David told me once "but a shitty place to be."
I have a lot of cousins. These days, most of them are dead, but that makes them no less my cousins. That is the nature of kinship where I am from, the unalterable connection of blood and name, history and the holy writ of hand printed notes in family Bibles. Nothing can separate those ties -- no betrayal or revelation dredged from the past. No hateful word or bloody conflict.
This accidental and chaotic plan of birth is indestructible. It is immune even to death.
I was twelve when people started dying.
Rumors turned into wild guesses turned into theories gleaned from television and radio and the few people around with access to the Internet. Soon enough the talking heads on TV were juggling glib excuses behind the smiles that grew more strained by the day. High handed assurances about viruses and recalled drugs. About accidents in food processing plants, and freak pollutant spills in rivers.
The truth was right there behind their eyes, the eyes that those false smiles could not touch.
And the truth was that nobody knew why people were dying. Nobody in government, nobody in the glass towers of corporate media. Nobody.
And nobody had any answers when the dead started coming back to life, either.
Aunt Cora strode like a man across the IGA parking lot, a determined walk that showed the big .45 Colt on her hip to maximum effect. She moved towards the pickup where I waited, shotgun at the ready, counting breaths in the silence.
In each hand she carried a giant grocery bag crammed to near breaking with whatever goods she could salvage. Food, mostly, with some soap and matches and other sundries tossed in. For months it had been four bags, two for each wiry arm. But that had been before word got out that the Oak Creek IGA was an easy spot to pick. Our weekly raids were not the only raids. Soon we'd have to find another trove to supplement our garden and the ever dwindling herd.
My aunt reached the door and opened it quickly. She slid the bags between us and climbed in, slamming the door and starting the pickup without a wasted motion. We were on the road, out of the city proper, before she favored me with a grin and I felt permission to drop the shotgun into my lap.
We'd made a safe raid yet again. The knots in my stomach began to unravel.
Just like Aunt Cora's smile. Less than a mile from the stone and barbed wire gates that shielded our property from the rest of the world, we had to brake suddenly.
In the center of the road, wandering in a daze that wouldn't last, we came across a pack of newly risen.
As they staggered past, a filthy blond woman bared her broken teeth in a bloody smile. And she laughed.
Aunt Cora cursed the rest of the way home.
The family meeting fairly boiled with tension. A dozen sets of eyes glared at each other across the kitchen table; moods made bad by being pulled from bed or other duties were worsened by the news. Aunt Cora, in charge by the simple fact of her intelligence and iron will, ignored the emotional minefield and charged across to her point.
"We got less than a year left here." she said, laying it on the line with no sparing of feelings. "They aren't confined to town and the garbage dumps anymore." Cold flint eyes met every gaze in the room and refused to back down. "They're spreading like wildfire."
"Like a virus." my dad said, by way of agreement. Cora was his oldest sister, and his only remaining sibling. Uncle Jack and Aunt Susan both died in the Battle Of The Bulldozer, when we raided the junkyard to claim the big Cat that served us in a thousand important ways. Their names were etched in honor on the steel plate above the living room fireplace.
"Less than a year." Aunt Cora repeated, after a quick glance of thanks to Dad for the support. "We've watched how they spread. We know how long it takes them to orient and begin to plan."
Nobody liked it, but nobody had any arguments against the facts. The only thing to do, it was agreed, was to pack up and move out -- looking for a safer, less scavenged place. Rumor had it that over the mountains, up Charleston way, there were several towns deserted by both living and dead.
The kicker came from my cousin Anna Lee, a quiet woman who rarely ventured an opinion. What she said caused every gut to recoil and every heart to ache:
"If they're this close they must have come from Fellow Hills." A quiet sentence, but it shattered the mood like a grenade.
Fellow Hills was the family cemetery.
The next few weeks passed quickly, a flurry of activity and back breaking work. In addition to the packing and sorting required by any move, the family had to repair and inspect its fleet of aging vehicles. At the same time, security was at an all time high. A raid was expected any time, from any direction. A continuous watch was instituted, with lots drawn and much grumbling.
Aunt Cora proved correct. The risen seemed to be orienting quicker than ever -- perhaps helped along by the veterans they ran into in their initial wanderings.
Even worse, Anna Lee was also vindicated. There could be no question in even the most doubting mind: the new risen were from Fellow Hills. They were our own kin.
This was a horror that made all the difference in the eyes of the family. To fight and destroy strangers, acquaintances or even former neighbors was one thing. The idea of sending your own blood to the second death an entirely different concept. Some refused to stand their watches, leading Cora and the other heads of the family no choice but to levy punishments. The internal dissent this fomented was too much to bear -- eventually a system of swaps and exchanges was worked out.
My cousin David -- thanks to his dead eye and essential nocturnal nature, as well as a distaste for lifting and repairing machinery -- stood a great deal of these swapped watches. Thanks to his good memory and eyesight, he also bore the brunt of being the reporter of verified kin among the hordes.
One morning I ran into him and found him pale. After some insistence he finally broke down and told me that he'd spotted his own baby sister -- dead six months -- on the perimeter.
"It was her, Ty. No doubt about it." He looked ready to weep. "She just stood there, staring right at me. Right through me."
Then the tears did begin. I excused myself, muttering about a trailer that needed loading.
The truth was that tears of my own were threatening. I remembered Gina as a jolly, sweet girl. The idea of her as a mindless eater of the living tore me apart.
On the night before we left Dad called me down to his study, and passed me a drink from his liquor. This surprised me. Dad rarely drank and often lectured the younger members of the family on the virtue of sobriety.
The rye burned all the way down, but left a warm feeling and calmed my nerves. Dad's eyes looked haunted and his skin was a shade that reminded me of David.
I found out why when he passed me the set of photographs. My skin crawled and the effect of the liquor dissipated instantly.
In a set of six photos, clear as day, Jack and Susan mixed with the dead, faces emotionless, teeth crooked and rotting. Hair falling from their heads and losing its brilliant red in favor of the drab uniform gray of the risen.
I stared at the pictures longer than I wanted, until the hot tears faded. I refused to cry in front of my father.
When I did look up, he passed me the bottle again and I took the second drink of my life with gratitude. It did seem to help a little.
Dad lit his pipe, sighed, and stared at me. He attempted a smile. "We have to deal with what he have to deal with, Ty." he told me.
After a long pause he added, in a low voice. "But they're still our kin and we owe them the benefit of the doubt." His voice firmed up as he spoke. "We'll send them to the second death if we have to."
He stared at me hard, and I felt the fire of his conviction.
"But only if we have to."
The road was clear, to start with. Our convoy -- twenty trucks, the dozer, and a half dozen fully packed cars -- moved out with no trouble or resistance.
For the first twenty miles, at least.
The living were the first problems we encountered. Two years of scavenging and hard times had created gangs of bandits and outlaws all over. Most of them shied away from our obvious numbers and displayed firepower. But desperation creates a false bravery more powerful than madness, and we began to get hit before long.
It wasn't much trouble, to be honest. David and his snipers, from roosts on constructed crows nests, fended most of them off before they got close. Skirmishers on motorbike and horse cleaned out those that made it through that gauntlet.
It was a hundred plus mob of the dead who gave us our first real problem. They slammed us with their favorite mob tactic -- bum rushing the road en masse and letting their own bodies act as weapons. The lead truck -- thankfully armored -- tipped and fell down the side of an incline, gunfire roared, and the fight was on.
I was doing duty as a skirmisher, and -- by sheer luck -- found a trail that let me take my Kawasaki along a path that doubled around. I stopped quick, almost ditching the bike, climbed a nice sized oak, and started picking off the risen bandits as best I could. The movies were right about one thing: head shots worked best, but massive body damage would suit to send them to the second death as well.
I figured later that I'd been hit by a freaking rock. The wound on my head was from a blunt object, bruised and not too deep. I don't remember falling out of the tree. I remember coming to on the ground, hurting all over, and struggling up with effort.
And I remember the crowd of dead heading for me, slow to be sure, but fast enough. I turned to run and was confronted by a second crowd.
My heart froze as I recognized my aunt and uncle in that crowd. The damned things must have tracked us from the homestead, walking when we camped for the night.
Remembering my Dad's words, I turned and started firing into the crowd that wasn't kin. I could feel them closing in on both sides, and knew my number was up. When I ran out of shells, instinct forced me to the ground and there I waited for the end.
All hell broke lose, above and around me. I think I passed out for a few minutes. When I came to, I wasn't dead. I wasn't even hurt, and everything was strangely quiet.
I opened my eyes and, heart pounding, stood up.
I was surrounded by the dead. They weren't attacking, just staring at me. I stared back.
All of them were kin. My aunt and uncle were in the lead. I just stared, my face as emotionless as theirs.
Perhaps a minute of stunned silence lingered. Then a small figure made its way from the crowd. My little cousin Gina, her face bleached of color but her eyes dancing with an unreadable emotion.
She walked slowly up and held my rifle out, offering it to me with both hands. Her mouth twitched. The corners tried and failed to create a smile.
I took it, and nodded at her, dumbfounded. In the distance I could hear the occasional pop and crack of shots fired. The fight was dying down.
The other group of dead were destroyed. They were mostly torn apart, those not lucky enough to fall by my shots. Their guts and clotted blood decorated my own kin.
I nodded to them, still amazed and confused. They nodded back. When I turned and righted my bike, they did not move.
"Uh, follow me." I finally said.
It took most of my family a long time to accept the facts. Some of them still haven't and never will. Even amongst those who did, the acceptance was grudging and painful. Aunt Cora summed it up, in words my dad had spoken before: "We have to deal with what we have to deal with."
We don't mix, living and the dead. We just don't. They stay in their own little camp, a bit to the side and always downwind. I, who mingle with them most, have assured everyone that they don't stink -- but old habits die hard, I guess.
It was a harsh two weeks, our trip to the north. We lost quite a few family members on the trek. Soon enough they'd show back up, though, drawn by the unbreakable urge to be with their kin.
I'm their commander, for the most part. I'm the only one willing, I think.
No one can deny that they help, though. I privately think we couldn't have done it without them.
And it was no coincidence that my platoon of mixed fighters was the first to stand on the hill and gaze down at the town we decided to claim.
All families need a home, and family is family no matter the conditions. Some bonds are unbreakable.
I thought that, there on the hill. Then I laughed, and gave the signal to move out, arms ready.
Matewan, West Virginia lay like a promise below, quiet and hopeful. With a careful formation and a timed step, our army of the living and the dead moved toward it, our ranks -- and the bonds of our kinship -- unbroken.