Or worst. Honestly, I didn’t have a preconceived notion of how to rate them. On one hand, we were still alive. But maybe that was just my pro-human bias speaking; the zombies that burst through the door and grabbed Joanna back at the bar seemed pretty happy with role in life. Er, I mean….
But the whole thing about zombies is this: call me a “life-ist”, but I hate zombies. Not the zombies themselves, but the idea of them. Freaks me out. I can’t watch zombie movies. Shawn of the Dead? “Oh, no, you’ll love it! It’s an endearing British zombie romantic comedy….” Heh. Gave me nightmares for three days. I’m afraid it’s just something primal, wired deep into my basic survival system.
I was trying to explain this to Daniel and Paul as we wove our way between shadows on Cargo Street, trying to make it to the other end of this darkened industrial construction zone. Our goal was a single-lane bridge where we hoped to find one of the four critical supplies that the CDC needed to to create an antidote. I was explaining to Daniel and Paul why at this particular moment I was Not Having Fun. Why it was not what I had in mind when I said yes to the mysterious invitation reading “Sept 18th. Arrive by 7:30 at 1195 Evans. Bring ID, smartphone, bathing suit and a headlamp. Wear clothes you can move in and get sweaty in.” Nothing in the invitation said “Zombie Apocalypse”.
Yes, I was sweating. My letsee – is it the hypothalamus? – was in high gear, tightly wound to flee or fight. My nerves and muscles were poised, and some part of my brain was narrating a constant stream of potential ambush spots and escape trajectories. We talked quietly about the benefits of going it alone (easier to hide) and sticking together (“you don’t have to outrun the bear…”). And we talked about zombie taxonomies – from what we could tell, we were up against “fast/smart”, for which the given wisdom was simply “You’re screwed”.
An enormous unmarked truck drove by with its headlights dimmed and I instinctively ducked into a shadow before remembering it was a game, and the zombies in this game would not be driving enormous unmarked trucks. Games are tricky that way. I remember a walk, sometime long ago when a friend said “You know, the brain is really stupid. In some ways, it can’t tell the difference between a horse, a picture of a horse, and the word ‘horse’ written in purple crayon. This is why pornography works.” Also zombies apocalypses.
We picked up our pace when a shambling man in rags appeared behind us, pushing his belongings in a battered shopping cart. No, not zombie, but one more thing moving in the shadows to keep track of. Ahead and to the left, the high chain link fence gave way to a darkened parking lot ringed with gnarled trees. The stuff tonight’s consensual nightmares were made of. I thought I saw another shadow move, and we paused to review tactics. The problem was that there was an asymmetry to the surprise factor here: it did us no good at all to surprise zombies. We casually moved out into the center of the broad deserted street so as to have a longer lead time if/and when the ambush broke . The tangents in my head turned to tessellations: if they came from Point A while I was at Point B, I was better off turning back; if I got to Point C, I could aim for the rail yard and count on superior speed. And the hope that there weren’t more zombies lurking beyond the tracks.
Yes, that was definitely a movement in the shadows. I alerted Paul and Dan, quietly, and we did our best to stroll at the least approachable…oh crap here they come! There were two, I thought, from separate places along the treeline, just 20 or so yards off, and they were going to try to box us in. Paul doubled back out of my line of sight, and Daniel and I made for the rails. Then there was another one – much too close – and I broke into a flat out tunnel vision sprint. Tangents and inertia – if I could get one step past before he was able to start changing direction… There were footsteps behind me, trying to keep pace, but just one pair, dropping away, slowly. No use looking over my shoulder to see who it was, I just ran.
There were two people standing under the streetlamp, consulting their map as I came to the south end of the bridge, panting and out of breath. We held up our hands at a respectful distance to show the red ribbon tied around our wrists – we were still “human” – then approached each other. They’d made it to the first critical supply pickup, no zombies on the bridge – yet – and were headed back the way I’d come. They were going to try and find the Newhall Street cache. From the map, it looked like a dead end to me. I’d need to get there, somehow, but I wasn’t going to walk into a dead end with zombies so close by. I told them about our ambush, and how I guessed that there were now a couple of extra zombies to contend with. No, they wouldn’t have to outrun the bear, but they would have to outrun the guys who didn’t outrun the bear.
The bridge, like most of Hunters Point at night, was deserted. About halfway along the pedestrian span, there was a manila envelope taped to the handrail. “Critical Supplies – Take One”. Inside were a few dozen party candles. Okay? I took one, shoved it into my pocket and disappeared, as best as I could, back into the shadows.
I decided to play the long game: we had two hours to get all the supplies and make it back to base. While the zombies were fast/smart, I was figuring they were also young and more easily bored than me. Patience is supposed to be one of the virtues of age, isn’t it? I pulled out my map and plotted a circuitous course – not all that far out of the way, but just far enough through back alleys and parking lots to make it unlikely that any fun-loving zombie would be inclined to spend his Wednesday night staking out my route.
In the wide open places – the rail yard along Amador St – I kept to the shadows. I got a bit of an adrenaline jolt from a family of raccoons I surprised just past the second Critical Supplies cache (a bag of festive paper plates). A block down, I saw a line of headlamps, three or four across, coming my way. Zombie? Human? I decided not to stay and find out – my feet were still hurting from the last sprint, and I was painfully aware that, as usual, I was twice as old as everyone else on this little adventure.
I switched tactics when I’d made it south, to the Coleman neighborhood. This was an actual neighborhood, with houses and cars, and occasional people bringing groceries home or walking their dogs. Here, I just needed to fit in – no zombie with a sense of self-preservation was going to risk leaping out and grabbing someone who wasn’t in the game. Especially not here. I strolled purposefully to the park where the third cache (party hats) was hung from a concrete overlook. Two other searchers (red ribbons, already wearing their party hats) were there, plotting their way back to base. They’d gathered all four of their needed ingredients, while I still needed to brave the dead end on Newhall Street. We exchanged best wishes and went our separate ways.
I strode purposefully along the shadows of the sidewalk, trying to look like I wasn’t trying not to be seen. Two kids with knapsacks were standing on an opposite corner. Waiting for a bus? Waiting for human brains? I didn’t make eye contact, but kept my tangent computations going. If I heard footsteps, I’d abandon the dead end and break for the open space of Evans St. I was feeling like I had this down. I was taking this way too seriously.
I rounded the bend – no sounds behind me – and disappeared into the shadow, casual-like, to scope out the last block ahead. There were two people sitting on the inclined lawn at the entrance to the cul-de-sac. They were talking. They were clearly waiting, and I had only 15 minutes to get the last cache and make it back to base. There was no way out behind them – there was high chain link fence all around, protecting the entrance to some or another industrial facility.
Grab and dash wouldn’t work, so I opted for the only thing I had: bravado. Walked purposefully. Black t-shirt and jeans – I didn’t recognize them, and if they didn’t recognize me or see the glint of the streetlights off that red ribbon on my wrist they might take me for just another one of those vaguely intimidating people who seemed to stroll these parts at night. And I was far enough away, across the street and in the shadows, that there was a chance they wouldn’t even notice me.
I saw the cache, out of the line of sight of the watchers, and retrieved the final ingredient: a blue plastic fork. Then there were voices from the corner: “Huuuuuuman? Are you huuuuuman?” I tried to make myself invisible behind a tree, and heard the scuffling of feet. Running, but not in my direction. Then, from further away, laughter. The laughter you might make if you’d just nabbed your best “human” friend trying to run a zombie blockade. I had my chance – back out of the cul-de-sac and into the shadows of the street leading away from the voices.
At this point, time was becoming the critical factor. I had my supplies, and there were any number of ways to get back to base, but all the short ones funneled back to where the voices were. I had 10 minutes. Started back along Cargo Way, around the back. Around where the enormous unmarked trucks ran, and where we were ambushed back at the beginning of the game. We. Heh. How many of us were there left?
I had to admit it: I was having fun. More than fun – I was exhilarated.
I turned the corner where the road ended. It was dark here; too many places to lurk, but only three blocks to safety. A couple of cars were pulled over, engines running. The driver of one was at the window of the other, leaning in confidentially. I steered for the center of the street, giving them space. No, they weren’t in the game, but I really didn’t think they wanted my attention either. There was a blast of compressed air from the forklift across the construction yard. Five minutes, and two blocks to go.
Heavy trees lined both sides of the narrow street as I walked down the middle of the pavement, as purposefully and badass as I could muster. One block to go. A sudden wind whipped up from the bay, and the sound of plastic rattled from a broken fence. That tree. The one just ahead, shadowed by a parked van – I’m sure I saw something move. I caught a glimpse – just a glimpse of the shape of a head as it moved between them and disappeared. And I ran like hell.
[Postscript: After the zombie apocalypse, there was birthday cake and candles. Wonderful, fabulous birthday cake, with fresh cream and blueberries. A surprising number of humans survived - myself included, but talking it over with the zombies during the - do we get to call it a 'post mortem'? - in the hot tub, there was some debate over who had more fun. Paul had gotten away, and had a marvelous adventure. As Matt said, most of us instinctively play to win, but Paul knows how to play to just play. Daniel tripped on the curb while trying to maneuver past our last interloper. Not hurt, though, and once zombified, he was apparently pretty successful in bringing other humans over to "his way of thinking".]