As I Lay Rising
This is a post-canon story for the movie Land of the Dead written for Yuletide 2013. I would like to note that this story completely ignores Survival of the Dead, and instead follows Night of the Living Dead in which zombies are briefly shown eating creatures other than humans. I subscribe to the theory that zombies are perfectly willing to chow down on any living or recently-killed animal, but find humans to be the easiest prey to catch.
For those who were not required to slog through classic American literature in school, the title is play on the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, from which I have shamelessly stolen the basic premise, although I will not attempt to replicate the writing style.
Riley Denbo entered through the door of the small, ancient farm house on the outskirts of Rivière-du-Loup that he'd taken as his own. After knocking the snow from his boots, he placed them in front of the fireplace to dry out. The coals from that morning's fire still gave off enough heat to keep the room, if not comfortable, than at least somewhere above bone-chillingly cold. It was the work of a few minutes to get the flames going properly again, and soon Riley was able to shrug out of his heavy overcoat and hang it up.
Wearily, he sank into his armchair, propping his feet up on the hearth and waiting for the feeling to return to his toes. He reached for the bottle of applejack, pulling the cork and pouring a few ounces into a waiting glass. He took a generous swallow, feeling the liquor warm his insides as the fire worked from the outside, and silently toasted the local bootleggers who had hung on to the old technique of freeze distillation. Riley never used to drink, but he had found that a couple of glasses could sooth the aches and ward off the chill without being enough to cloud his mind.
Making booze wasn't the only pre-mass production craft that had been revived along with the dead. Other than his guns and some of the cookware and spices in his kitchen, nothing in Riley's home had originated more than ten miles from where he sat. His clothing was homespun wool and sheepskin leather with bone buttons. His furniture was locally made and cunningly held together with wooden pegs, no nails or screws required. More wool stuffed his mattress and his chair cushion. Even the bottle and glass were hand-blown in a shop in town.
The people were so self-sufficient that Riley had found himself with little that he could contribute. Three or four times a year at most, he took Dead Reckoning into Quebec City or Montreal in search of things like tools and medicines that couldn't be produced locally. His technical skills were even less in demand, he knew less about spinning wheels and horse collars than he did about brain surgery, and there were plenty of shade tree mechanics perfectly capable of keeping the community's few remaining vehicles running. And after the events of his last day in Pittsburgh, he'd lost what little interest he had in killing stenches.
He didn't mind. Not being needed or having anyone relying on him made for a pleasant change. Even Charlie had adapted to the simpler way of life, no longer needing Riley to take care of him, but their friendship was as strong as ever.
Riley still needed to do something to contribute to the community, and the only thing left open was manual labor. The day had been spent helping haul hay out to the pastures, where the snow had buried any grass the sheep might have grazed upon. The sheep were the reason for the town's survival, providing not just food and clothing but also a barrier to the undead. Any walkers that wandered into the region got distracted by all of that meat on the hoof instead of continuing into town and attacking people. Patrols would find them chasing sheep, or busy eating on the rare occasions when they caught one, and pick the stenches off from a safe distance. Herds of sheep were pastured in an arc around the town, with the St. Lawrence River on each end. And because sheep can be taught to stay within their pasture without wandering off, Rivière-du-Loup was truly a "world without fences" and Riley was content to help keep it that way.
A second glass of the potent apple liquor had banished enough of the soreness from Riley's muscles that he was ready to contemplate making dinner. He was in the kitchen, trying to come up with a 127th different way to cook mutton, when Slack burst in through the door.
"Riley! You need to come into town, Charlie is sick."
"How is he?"
"It doesn't look good, the doctor is with him now."
Riley quickly got into his coat and boots and followed Slack outside to the truck she and Charlie used for patrols. They rode in silence into town, passing through the open gate in the wall protecting the central core. The wall was a legacy of earlier times, it hadn't been needed in years. It was still maintained, more as a fallback position in case of a raid by marauders that were still rumored to wander the countryside than to keep out stenches. The gates were never closed, except for the periodic check to make sure they still moved freely.
Riley stepped out of the truck before it had completely stopped in front of the hospital. He hurried inside with Slack rushing to catch up. He started to head for the patient wards, but Slack grabbed his arm and turned him towards the psych wing. That was a bad sign. No longer used for mental patients, the new purpose of the locked rooms was to treat people who were likely to die. Anyone who died and came back were contained until they could be properly disposed of. He moved down the corridor with quick strides to where Dr. O'Doull was waiting for him.
"How bad is he?"
"It's pneumonia. I told him to stay home, keep warm, and rest, but he insisted on going out. He collapsed a few hours ago and was brought here."
"Is there anything you can do?"
"I'm doing everything I can. I've got him on oxygen and antibiotics, but I suspect the fire that burned his face also damaged his lungs. It apparently wasn't enough to incapacitate him but I doubt he did much jogging."
Riley thought back. "I don't think I've ever seen him move faster than a brisk walk."
"Right. With the pneumonia on top of any earlier lung injury, he's not getting enough oxygen. I need to put him on a respirator, so I'm going to start up the generator and intubate him. You can visit with him until I get back, but wear a mask. We don't need an epidemic."
The doctor left, and Riley took a surgical mask from a box by the door and tied it on over his mouth and nose. He entered the room, letting the door swing shut behind him and hearing the lock engage. Charlie lay on the bed, not strapped down although the bed was equipped with restraints.
Charlie looked up as Riley entered. "Riley. You plannin' on robbing a train or something?"
"Just didn't want you to smell the alcohol on my breath and think I was developing bad habits."
Charlie looked around. "Figures I'd end up here. Just look at this face, you can tell I belong in the loony bin."
Riley sat on the edge of the bed and clasped Charlie's hand. "If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know."
"Take me home. This is a great place, and I'm glad you brought me here, but I want to see home one more time."
"It's a promise."
At that point Dr. O'Doull returned wheeling a piece of arcane medical equipment. "Okay, Charlie, I need to sedate you for this."
"Is that really necessary, doc?"
"I was on a respirator once," the doctor said. "Trust me, you don't want to be awake for this."
"If you say so doc." He turned his head to look at Riley. "Guess it's time to say goodnight."
"I'll see you when you wake up."
Riley waited patiently while the doctor went about his work. In less than half an hour, Charlie was asleep and had a tube down his throat helping him to breathe.
"What are his chances?"
The doctor looked uncomfortable, but answered, "Fifty-fifty that he makes it through the night. If he doesn't show improvement by then I doubt he'll last the week."
"Are you sure the antibiotics are still good? Are they the right kind? I could go looking for more."
"I have the right kind, I ran a culture to make sure. And that last batch of cipro you brought in was still effective a month ago. There's nothing left to do but continue the treatment and pray."
Riley left before he said something that might offend the doctor's Roman Catholic beliefs. He mentally cataloged resources and sketched out a construction plan as Slack drove him back to his home. She accompanied him inside and busied herself in the kitchen while he sat staring into the fire. She served him a plate of stew which he ate mechanically, knowing that he should thank her but not being able to bring himself to speak. Luckily she knew him well enough not to take offense. As she cleaned up after the meal, he sat staring at the nearly full bottle in front of him, more tempted to drink until all the pain went away than he had been in years. He was about to give in when Slack abruptly plopped down on his lap and proved she knew a more pleasant and less toxic way to distract him from his troubled thoughts.
The next morning saw Riley hard at work inside Dead Reckoning. The useless fireworks launcher had been removed shortly after they had arrived to make room for more cargo, since Rivière-du-Loup lacked the fleet of vehicles that had normally gone on scavenging runs back in Pittsburgh. Riley was reinstalling the launcher's housing, having traded the working parts for some needed materials and the use of a MIG welder. The haggling had been long and frustrating, made worse by Riley having to rely on dimly-remembered high school French. The doctor, himself a recent immigrant from the US although not so recent as Riley and his crew, was the only one in town who admitted to speaking English. And living alone out in the country had denied Riley the full immersion in the local tongue that the others had gotten. Even Charlie was more fluent in the Quebecois dialect. He was finished by mid-afternoon, and stepped outside to find Pillsbury and Pretty Boy waiting for him.
"What are you up to in there?" Pretty Boy asked.
"I promised Charlie that I'd take him home."
"Even if the doctor releases him, he probably won't live that long."
"I promised," Riley repeated. "If I can't take him back alive, I'll take him dead."
"So that's what you've been doing," Pillsbury said, "Building a cage."
"If you want to call it that."
"Then we're doing with you," Pretty Boy said.
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"Hey, the baby is weaned, I can fit back into my armor again," Pretty Boy patted her stomach, "And Mrs. Galtier will take care of little Cholo until we get back."
Riley looked at Pillsbury. "Are you going to allow that?"
"Nothing I can do to stop her. Never should have married her, but there are no proper Samoan women around. Or even any improper ones."
Pretty Boy punched him in the shoulder, almost hard enough for him to feel it. "Watch it buddy, I could trade you in for three men closer to my size and get change back."
It turned out Slack had been loitering around the corner. "I'm going too. I'd like to see what's happened since we left. I wonder if Cholo made it?"
Riley looked around, wondering if anyone else planned to join the party.
"If you're looking for Anchor, forget it. His little French wife put her foot down, much to his relief I'm sure."
They spent the rest of the afternoon loading supplies and checking systems, making sure everything was ready to go. Riley sat at Charlie's bedside late into the night, carrying on a long, rambling, one-sided conversation before falling asleep in the chair. He stayed for the next two days, not leaving Charlie alone for more than a few minutes at a time. Late in the third night, he was shaken awake by Dr. O'Doull.
"His blood oxygen level is dropping fast. It's time."
He and the doctor had prepared for this, and they put the plan into action. They slid a back board under Charlie's unresisting body and strapped him tightly to it, leaving only the chest restraint loose so as not to impede his breathing. They had barely finished when Charlie died. The doctor set about unhooking him from all of the medical devices, leaving only the breathing tube.
"Please, doctor, remove that too."
"With it in place he won't be able to bite."
"I'll take that chance."
He removed the tube, and Slack, Pillsbury, and Pretty Boy arrived soon after, having been informed by the doctor's assistant. The four of them carried Charlie out to where Dead Reckoning was parked in front of the hospital. He reanimated on the way, but the straps held him securely. They took him inside, where the small enclosure waited. They set the board on end in the doorway to the cell and released the restraints, quickly pulling the back board away and shutting the door before Charlie could turn around.
Riley had cut a hole through the sheet metal facing the front of the truck, and covered it with expanded metal mesh. Charlie stood at the opening, his lifeless eye looking out. Riley stood there returning his gaze as Pretty Boy started the engine and drove south out of town.