I thought I had a good survival plan.

It seemed like such a good idea. Head out of the deathtrap dense urban Philadelphia at the first word of zombies in New York. Head into the mountains around the Shenandoah Valley, but head to the depopulated Centralia area instead of someone’s over-priced AirBnB property.

There were shrines in the area that had basic tourist amenities like bathrooms, so I could fill up with water. There were abandoned buildings for shelter. Yet it had almost no one living there because of the evacuation. Because of the fire hazard, no one else would go there.

There were active coal mines in the area, so I could find probably find coal to burn for warmth. There were gas stations where I could stock up on stuff, too, in towns like Byrnsville. That was in addition to my car loaded up with stuff.

It was an easy trip, because I’d already filled up with gas and gas cans. Stopping near a gas station to grab an extra few pounds of chips, beer and anything else of value was insurance. It was also an excuse to scope out the nearby resources.

Instead of taking Route 61 into the wooded hills, I drove into Centralia itself.  No one stopped me. Police were more concerned with evacuations and locals blocking roads.

The lack of high speed internet meant I didn’t keep up with the news. The realization that there wasn’t really electric service meant I didn’t have an easy way to recharge it. It took a couple of days to bother to try to figure out my portable solar cell backpack thing. It only partially recharged the phone. Not enough to get service. It only added to the sense of isolation, though that gave me a sense of security. I never saw a zombie while alive.

I think it was carbon monoxide or high carbon dioxide levels that killed me. In a place where the asphalt is melted and warped, that’s logical. That the zombie virus is airborne and unaffected by the fumes is also logical.

I don’t remember dying, so I’m sure I died in my sleep. I woke up in the same position I’d gone to sleep. My body jerked and moved. Then I watched it rise and move of its own volition. I thought it was a nightmare except it lasted all day. Then it lasted all night. I don’t sleep, and neither does my dead zombie body.

I hadn’t secured the building very well. My zombie was able to wander downstairs. It bounced around for a while before getting a door open. I learned a lot by observation. Kind of had to, because there is no one to talk to and nothing else to do.

The lack of people was a blessing at first. I watched my zombie try to chase cats and get dive bombed by birds. I watched it blink out of habit, shuffle from broken window reflection to window reflection or react to any loud noise. I yelled at it, but it couldn’t really hear me. It reacted, sometimes, but I couldn’t do more than make it pause for a second or turn briefly toward me. The animal instincts overrode any instructions. It was just me and my body for a few days.

Then we hit the southern end of town. I remembered the map showing three different cemeteries there. This was the first time I saw anyone or anything else near my own condition. Most of the graves were old. There were flickers near some of them, usually sitting by graves or walking the grounds. I only saw the shades of grey and the outline of a person at first. It took days to get my zombie to go into St. Ignatius Cemetery, the biggest one. I had to get it to go there, because I found out I couldn’t go more than a few hundred feet from my body. That ruled out a ghostly visit to my old haunting grounds, but the cemetery might have company. I hated being able to make jokes like this but no one was around to hear them.

Perhaps one in fifty graves had a ghost. Some were grey, faded, body-less zombies. They stood sentry or kneeling in prayer, a few lying still like their skeletons. A few newer graves – I knew from the dates – had more aware ghosts. None of them talked to me. A few stared at my zombie and promptly disappeared. Others stared disapprovingly and said nothing. Could they speak? I yearned for a wave, a smile, a sympathetic nod. I couldn’t tell if they disapproved of the zombie or the outsider.

I eventually prodded my zombie to the road. The shrine that way had been a tourist site. In fact, it had become a pilgrimage site. People. Dead or alive, it would be an improvement over a lonely afterlife.

Dead tourists might have ghosts like me. Living tourists might kill me. I didn’t know if I’d become a disembodied ghost free to travel, fade into nothing real fast or go on an afterlife, but anything seemed preferable.

It was worse than I feared. There were a few dead bodies on the ground. Soulless. I suppose their souls went to heaven, given they were in and around the religious shrine. Some even retained their prayer beads. The zombies, though, were terrifying. The zombies shuffled, wandered, and attacked anything that moved. They hunted birds, squirrels and cats, their predatory instinct not limited to hunting humans. It was an ecological apocalypse. Given my environmentalist values, that was worse than the people being killed.

What did matter was the difference between my zombie and theirs. They didn’t rip my body apart. They didn’t let it join the herd, either, as it moved south on the road. My presence seemed to have deterred them. And there were no ghosts attached to them, conscious or even flickering. What made me unusual?

My zombie wandered the shrine, sniffing and eventually eating some entrails. I wanted to throw up. My zombie reacted and stopped eating. At least I hadn’t killed anyone. Yet.

I briefly wondered if that was the answer, but there had to have been others who hadn’t killed anyone. One of the dead women in the church looked like she had a heart attack. No, it was a bullet hole to the heart, hands clutched to it, bled out onto the floor. I compromised and let it lick the dried blood on the floor. At least it stopped wandering for a few days as I directed it to other sources of food. This was the worst afterlife ever.

I lost track of time. Day and night cycled past. I could see the light passing through stained glass windows in the morning. I kept my zombie in the church as much as possible, because it seemed a shelter from the insanity of the world. One day, I learned that I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought this way.

A young woman with rich brown skin, a bright energy about her and intense sense of purpose. I noticed it immediately. I stared as she snuck through the doors as quietly as possible and then closed them, locking them with a loud snap. My zombie jerked up from its crouched position on the floor. I had been letting it eat bugs on the floor. She jerked, too, eyes wide in terror. She’s alive! It instinctively lumbered toward her. “NO!” I screamed. It turned its attention to me. So did the girl.

She pulled a gun out, her aim alternating between me and my zombie. It took all my will to keep the zombie from attacking her. Go for the ants, go for the ants, that’s the moral choice. She put twenty feet between her and the zombie, stepping over bodies. She came closer to my ghostly self. And then the most beautiful voice in the world asked, “Did he kill you?”

“No.”

“Can’t be suicide. You wouldn’t be a ghost if you had.”

“Say what?”

“If you killed yourself, you’d go to hell. If you killed yourself in a church, double hell. Or did someone shoot you?”

“No.”

She looked at me, looked at the zombie. No damage. Not even bite marks. “How did you die?”

“Carbon monoxide poisoning, I think.” It felt so good to have a conversation, I wanted to smile. My zombie did.

“Where?”
“Centralia,” I offered.

“Air can be toxic there.”

“Would it have killed you to tell me that when I was still alive?” I couldn’t help the pun. The zombie smiled at the joke, teeth showing in a wider than normal grin. Then it started to move. She pointed the gun at the zombie’s head. “Make it stop or I put a bullet in the head. Then you’re gone.”

My fear made it stop. The fact that she knew this was terrifying. How did she know? I asked.

“I’ve always seen spirits. Now I’ve seen way too many of them.”

“I haven’t seen any.”

“Ghosts are always around.”

“I’ve seen a few ghosts, but none with zombies.”

“Yeah. Zombie virus messes it up. Body has to die for the spirit to be free. Or the spirit has to die, setting the body free.”

“If the spirit is free, where does it go?”

“I don’t know. How bad did you f’ up your life?”

“I used to be agnostic. I don’t know what I am right now.”

She laughed at that statement. I hadn’t meant it to be funny, but I was glad she found it funny. She settled into a lecture. “If the body dies normally, the spirit usually goes to the afterlife, whatever that is. A few can’t let go and are ghosts. Some stick to their bodies –“

“I saw them in the cemeteries.” I told her about what I’d seen. I was glad to be of service. Being content myself seemed to calm the zombie, too.

“Fine. Some spirits stick around where they died. That’s why I assumed that’s why you were here.”

“OK. But you said spirits could die and leave a body.”

“Sure. That’s a lot of zombies.”

“But where are their souls?” I asked. “Where did they go? I’ve seen hordes of zombies but no one attached like me.”

She was very quiet. I could sense the fear, the zombie picking up the adrenaline. She didn’t want to answer. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to answer. I decided not knowing was worse. “Please tell me.”

“When my Dad turned, I think it was because he had a heart attack in his sleep. All the stress, you know?” She shrugged. “He hadn’t believed in my abilities, but he knew about it. We knew there was the risk of people coming back as zombies if they died even if not bit by then, so we’d locked him in his bedroom when he said he had chest pains. We put him on his bed and locked the door.”

“How did you know he died?”

“Souls aren’t bound by the laws of physics. He came through the door to me. Apparated, apparition, whatever. He wanted to talk to me, so he did. While his zombie body started crawling around the room and scratching at the door.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Aside from how to keep his dead body from killing me?”

“Sure.”

“How to stay safe. How sorry he was he doubted me. How he gave me his approval.” She hesitated briefly. “I didn’t want to waste ammo, and I didn’t want to create too much noise. So I opened the door, chair in hand. I shot the zombie in the head. Missed the brain the first time but got it the second. The zombie fell, destroyed. And my Dad’s ghost disappeared.”

“Free.”

“On to the afterlife. I’m glad he’s in heaven.”

“You didn’t know him. He’s probably in Hell, but warning me and trying to save me might put him in purgatory.”

It was the first time since dying, I was speechless. She stared at me for an hour, evaluating me, except for the few moments she stole a glance at my zombie. “You’ve never killed.”
“He’s been eating ants and termites for days.”

“When’d you die?”

“Two or three days after getting here.”

“When was that?”

“I fled Philadelphia when the JunkYardDog webzine posted their videos proving the homeless getting shot in New York City were really zombies.”

“That was early on.”

“When was that?”

Brief hesitation. “Two months ago.”

So time really didn’t matter much to the dead. “Where are you from?”

“Nowhere, anymore.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“He does.”

“Why am I still here, when he is?” I pressed.

“You haven’t killed.”

“I’m pretty sure I stepped on ants in my lifetime, and I ate meat in the past –“

“Tell me about your life.”

I told her about my story to date. My zombie seemed to become sedate, as if my reminiscing about my life made it less interested in killing. Maybe that was her goal. And maybe she knew a lot more than I did about things. Then I realized that asking her about news and survival plans might have the opposite effect.

“Look, I’m exhausted.” She glanced around at the dead bodies. “Is there anywhere clean and safe?”

“There are some offices that don’t have any bodies in them. One has a water cooler.”

“Locking doors?”

“I think so.”

She went inside of the one with a water cooler, closed the door and locked it. I tried to pass through the door to watch her or continue the conversation, but I couldn’t. I didn’t understand these rules. But I could sit by the door and listen to her breathing. It was the most magical sound in the world.

In the morning, she had to order my zombie to move away from the door. It had joined me sitting by the door, listening to her.

“You’re merging with it,” she said.

“What does that mean?”

“Do you know about the mind-body-soul connection?” she asked.

“Yeah, but I think it is just body and something else.”

“I don’t know metaphysics,” she snapped. My zombie snapped its jaws as I angered. “Cool it or I shoot you.” I calmed it by sheer force of will. “You have your soul, your ghost. You’ve also got your mind. You’re talking. You know your history. A disembodied soul is just emotional imprints and a reflection of the body. Most of them are like 2 second video clips, replaying that moment in time. Reliving a trauma, repeating a moment that mattered like looking for that special person. You know?” I didn’t but nodded anyway. “The mind is much more complex. Memories are like written pages in a book, and you clearly have some. You can think and reason, proven by planning how you’ll do things.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Kind of.”

“Why isn’t it good?”

“The mind isn’t made to be separate from the body. It will degrade, rotting like a book on a shelf. You don’t remember what you don’t remember. And your mental patterns are affected by the virus.” I could sense she was holding back words she wanted to say like hunger. And when I thought it, I felt it. She heard the zombie keen and quickly shot my zombie in the shoulder. Then the other shoulder. Blew off both arms. “Stop or I go for the head!”  I stopped it.

I said nothing as she fled back to the office and locked the door. I kneeled on the ground beside by blown off arms. My zombie knelt, too. I mourned. Maybe I was in hell. I had really been a jerk to my meat-eating friends. Or purgatory. Could I be in hell if I could be in a church?

In the morning, I came to my senses. It was the first time I’d experienced timelessness. She was sitting by the altar eating communion wafers. I wondered if that was blasphemy or a blessing. “Can I have one?”

“What?” she asked.

“Can I have one?”

“Why?” She grunted. “I’m not putting my fingers in your mouth. You’ll bite me.”

I had meant that I wanted a final blessing, but I wondered if my mind was being polluted by the zombie state. “Can you pour holy water on me?”

“Why?”

“We talked about the afterlife.”

“So? You did what you did.”

“What if the soul is totally corrupted when the zombie kills? Or ruined and lost when they give in to the killer instinct?”

“I can bash your brains in. Or shoot you –“

“That’s not the point. My zombie hasn’t killed anyone or really anything. It has eaten bugs and other little moral compromises –“

“And every compromise gives it more control.” She put the wafers down and put her hands on her hips.

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“What do you want me to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want to be totally dead and off to your afterlife? Do you want to risk being a ghost? Do you want your soul gone and a zombie?” I shouted no at the last question. “So what do you want?”

I thought about the other ghosts that seemed to ignore me. Were they trapped in their own time loops, beyond my reach? Or was my zombie state so alien to the nature of the afterlife that I couldn’t communicate with them? “Totally gone.”

“I can arrange that. But I need some time to prepare.”

“Sure. What can I do to help?”

“Get in the confessional.” The words seemed insane. I had to ask what she meant. I finally entered it, my zombie reluctant to sit down until I convinced it that this would get it closer to her. She closed the door, and I presume she barred it. She asked me to confess, and I did so emotionally. The zombie leaned toward her, hardly kept back by the screen. She’s right. I, me, the thinking me, whatever I am is fading. Soon, it will just be the zombie. This was very different from telling my story. It was barring my soul. I think that was her goal.

“Father, forgive me”, she said. She got out of the confessional and blocked that door, too. My zombie was trapped. I sat there, feeling the zombie body breathe and moan. I had asked her to save me. Yet it felt worse. I gained a sense of emotional space after she left the confessional. The scent of her perfume … no, there is no perfume on her, it is sweat.  The zombie just breathed it in and out, while I was able to separate from it. And, finally, the door was no barrier.

I was standing in the middle of the church. I saw her quickly going through the motions. Searching the bodies, taking guns, ammo, knives and anything else of use. She just added it all to a pile in a large granny scarf she’d found. Then she went into the office. She drank as much of the water as she could stand. She washed up as best she could. She put water in a water bottle she had with her and filled up another one that had the church’s logo on it. She already had a pile of plastic wrapped candies. She added half a bag of communion wafers. She’d been eating them like crackers. She went back into the sanctuary and resumed her search. Candles, a lighter, a pack of gum from a dead worker’s pockets. All added to the pile. She went outside to the cars. I didn’t dare follow her in case my zombie tried to come, too.

She returned with a bounty. I guess a lot of people in the area died but no one else had been around to clean out their cars. It wasn’t survivalist gear. Instead, she had road flares, glow sticks, a 12 pack of soda that had been sitting in someone’s car. She was gathering supplies. I wish I’d known her when I’d been alive. As that feeling warmed me, she finally looked up at me. Startled, almost. “You’re here?”

“Yeah, watching you.”

“Zombie secure?” she asked, a little scared.

“Yeah.”

“I will take care of you, I promise.”

“Thank you.”

She winnowed things down to what I guess is several days of food and drink. She then searched the bodies for keys and started trying cars. I knew the sound of a running vehicle. The zombie heard the vibrations and moaned. She turned it off. Then she came back and loaded up the car.

“You’d be more quiet if you walked. That’s safer.”

“I am safer sleeping in a closed, locked car from any predator.”

Part of me wondered if she’d been raped. I didn’t dare ask. She loaded the food, the drinks, and other supplies such as they were into the car. She added some reasonably clean jackets. I mentioned the break area then. She looked at me, angry-like, then went into that room and took all the shelf-stable chips and such. It wasn’t my fault I hadn’t thought about food in ages …

That was a trigger. The zombie started to jerk and thrash. I felt myself warring with it, torn by it and simultaneously merged with it. She ran with the armfuls of chips and dried fruit to the car –

And she returned. The sense of relief was so palatable that I stopped in all ways. And then she merged with me, stepping into my fading ghost-self.

It was almost beyond comprehension. I could feel her bright light, her life energy. Mine was a faded outline of myself. A ghost. Her presence didn’t re-energize me, but the overlap of my presence and her mind and body did alter the flow. Her colors … were not pretty. I couldn’t read her thoughts or see her memories. But I could see what might have been called an aura. It was dark in a way I couldn’t imagine, angry reds and bitter blacks. Harsh oranges and bright yellow like flames … Yes, I could see what she wanted to do.

She pulled back wordlessly, staring me in the spectral replica of my eyes. She nodded, yes, I will keep my promise. She loaded up the last of the food into grocery bags and took the other supplies with her. I heard her making noise outside.

To my surprise, she walked back into the church. To say goodbye? She took everything she wanted from the altar, throwing it into a gym bag, including the Bible.  She grabbed a couple of random items off the floor as she made her way out. I finally shouted out to her, “Are you going to read it? Save your soul?”

“No. Kindling.” She waved a sort of goodbye and left. Yet I heard her working. I couldn’t smell the smoke, but I saw the initial shifting of the lights as the flames started.

When the body is gone, the soul will be, too. I will die a second time without having killed anyone.

Maybe that’s the best I can hope for in this weird post-apocalyptic world.

All I can do now is hope for an afterlife better than this one.