Working together, the group was able to jury-rig crude electrical and plumbing systems for the building. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked, and that was the point. The zombies returned, but the fortifications held strong. It appeared that the zombies would revert from “attack” to “shamble” in six to eight hours, provided that nothing came up to renew their interest.
Fitness and learning programs were quickly instituted to keep the group occupied and in shape. There was a dojo, a track, a weight program, an armory, and a library - sections of the store arbitrarily labeled to give a sense of order. Those who chose to take initiative were able to impart their knowledge and skills to others, and the group’s mood and survivability began improving in tandem.
Morale dropped as it was discovered that antibiotics only had temporary effects upon the parasite. Within days, the experimental groups showed growth as rapid as the controls. All the other over-the-counter medications found in the store were similarly ineffective. Alcohol did nothing, except in concentrations that would also be lethal inside the human body. Aside from the bleach bomb (a water balloon filled with a 10% bleach solution), nothing worked against the zombies that wouldn't also kill humans.
There seemed to be no way to reverse the infection once it had taken root, either. After constructing a cage, several zombies were captured in succession to try to undo whatever it was the parasite did. Every subject showed the same results: if the method of removing the parasite was not itself lethal, the host was left brain-dead, exactly as Cameron had guessed. They wouldn't eat on their own, they wouldn't swallow on their own, they would soil themselves periodically, and they had no response to any stimulus except for intense pain. The subjects who survived the removal of the parasite were kept alive for long-term observation, in the hope that they might show some kind of improvement.
The rooftop garden began to grow black fungus within days. They tried burning it off, which worked, but once the first sprouts came up, there seemed to be no way to get rid of the parasite without also destroying their food. Still, they waited for the plants to grow - with any luck, the parasite was around but not inside the plants, and maybe they could cook it off or neutralize it chemically before eating it. Canning and jarring would be a different matter entirely, though.
In mid-June, the tomatoes were ready. There seemed to be no interference from the fungus - it was everywhere, but it didn't choke out the other plants. Dee had been keeping a close eye on their growth, and the tomatoes were first to come up. She didn't know what to make of it; to all appearances, the tomatoes were ripe and healthy. Dee pulled one from the vine, and cursed as the outer part of the fruit came away, revealing a thick black root ball where the core of the tomato should have been.
“What’s the matter,” Kevin asked, walking over from his post on the rooftop.
“Fucking look!” Kevin observed the tangled, hair-like roots growing where he was fairly certain a tomato ought to be. Seeing the lump of tomato in Dee’s hand, he took it from her and inspected it.
“Well, it looks like this part’s fine.”
“Still probably contaminated, though.”
“Yeah, well, if you fry or boil it, it should be OK.” Dee grumbled and took a couple deep breaths.
“You’re probably right. Still - this shit is everywhere. I mean, even if that works, we’ll only be able to eat tomatoes, peppers, and other things where the core’s separate. Pumpkins, apples and oranges, carrots, potatoes - it’s gonna be all the way through those things.” She stooped down to take a closer look at the black roots. “What the fuck,” she spat more than asked.
“I guess we’ll just have to do what we can. Maybe we can grow some vegetables hydroponically during the winter.”
“Maybe. Maybe. I doubt it, though. If this thing can survive as a lichen, and the spores are in the air, it could stick around.”
“At least the zombies won’t be able to survive the snow.”
“That’s true.” No matter how much discomfort Zed was able to ignore, water in the host cells would crystallize and burst the cell walls, causing frostbite and thus tissue death. Since the parasite needed a host that was alive, if only barely, there was no way the zombies could hold out during the winter without migrating, and they probably couldn’t do that fast enough, anyway.
Dee gathered everyone up on the roof to share the news.
“So what now,” Seamus asked after she was done.
“Well, we ought to do the universal edibility test,” she said.
“You gradually introduce the substance to your body a little bit at a time to see if anything bad happens. If not, then it’s OK to eat. I think it goes, ‘rub some on the forearm, wait eight hours; rub some on the neck, wait eight hours; touch your tongue to it, wait eight hours; eat a nibble, wait twenty-four hours; eat a handful, wait twenty-four hours.’ If you feel fine, aside from the hunger, then it’s probably OK to eat. I might be wrong on the time intervals, though; I haven’t read up lately.”
“Why are we even bothering with that,” Cameron asked. “If we can’t grow food, then we’re doomed anyway. What’s the point in seeing if the only thing we can do is safe, if it’s the only thing we can do?”
“Well,” Kevin said, “I think if we can’t grow food in the open, we should build clean rooms and grow it hydroponically.”
“Oh.” Cameron shrugged. “Pain in the ass, but I guess that would work.”
“Exactly,” Dee said. “So - any volunteers?”
Dee, Jill, Sam, Kevin, and three of the Wal-Mart employees all volunteered. After deciding that they could only spare three people, they drew straws to see who would participate - Jill, Kevin, and Jim got the short straws. They would spend most of the time in their own individual cages, and would only be let out under supervision in order to cook their food or use the bathroom. For the first test, they would boil the tomatoes. Three days later, none of them had turned, so Dee, Sam, and Cameron decided to try them fried; again, it looked safe. Next, the first group cooked them in brandy, and once again, there were no adverse effects. The group began to dine on stews and soups, saving their canned and jarred goods for the winter.
The main problem with surviving a zombie apocalypse, it turned out, is that it takes a long time and is very boring. It's dangerous to go anywhere or do anything, and living strictly for survival loses its rustic charm rather rapidly. The activities that had been set up to keep everyone occupied, as well as all the chores that needed to be done, ensured that cabin fever would not set in; however, the situation took its toll just the same.
The parasite eventually covered the walls. They decided that it was a waste of bleach to keep pouring it down the walls when the lichen would just grow back up anyway, so they restricted themselves to keeping the roof and the store's interior clean. All wounds that broke the skin were doused in alcohol, bandaged with alcohol-soaked dressings, and checked daily for signs of infection. Everyone smoked at least one cigarette a day, and drank at least one shot of hard liquor a night. Plans were not made to raid the surrounding grocery stores for their canned and jarred goods - that could wait until winter, and was an unnecessary risk. However, the hospitals were a different story. Every couple of days, items were added to or subtracted from the "shopping list," and the plan was refined. Coming up with it was no small problem, but they decided to take their time and plan for as many contingencies as they could, and also give themselves time to prepare their bodies and minds for the trip.
For her part, Dee was able to keep her act together - but her thoughts were a different story. Every day, it seemed, she was creating new false memories for herself, inventing subtle details or filling in explanations that she could not possibly know, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to separate what she had actually experienced from her flights of fancy. Her dreams were becoming more specific, more focused, and increasingly disturbing. With effort, though, she was able to hide her problems from everyone else. Tending the garden kept her grounded in reality, distracted her from her delusions, and was relaxing to boot.
One rainy day, Dee was smoking on the roof, watching Zed through binoculars from under an umbrella. Cameron's voice squawked over the walkie-talkie from downstairs.
"Dee, you there?"
"Uh, yeah. What's up?"
"You, umm - you really ought to come take a look at this."
"Why? What happened?"
"One of the zombies we captured is talking."
"I'll be down in a few minutes."
"OK. Umm - hurry."
"What, has he got a train to catch or something? I'm on my way." She stood up and headed down the rope ladder to the shipping area where they kept the zombie pens, still smoking. "So what have we got here?"
"Just listen for a sec," Cameron said. Almost everyone was crowded around the cage, the solitary zombie inside struggling in vain to get at them. His moaning was inarticulate at first, but the more Dee listened to him, the more it sounded like speech. He was repeating the same set of monosyllabic grunts:
"Fuhh - umm - guhh - umm -"
"What are we supposed to be hearing here," Dee asked.
"Just listen a sec," Cameron said.
"Muhh - umm - luhh - muhh."
Dee kept listening. There was definitely a pattern to his grunts.
"Fuhh umm - guhh umm - muhh umm - luhh muhh."
And then again:
"Fuhh umm - guhh umm - muhh umm - luhh muhh."
The zombie kept repeating his mantra, and the more she listened, the more sense she could make of it. She was picking up on subtle accents in the utterings, little hints that made it seem more like language than random ravings.
"Fuhn ehm - geh ehm - meh ehm - luhh meh."
"That's - Christ, is he talking about us?"
"I think so."
"Fuhn em. Geh em. Meh em. Luhh meh."
Dee's jaw hung limp, and her cigarette fell from her mouth.
Find them. Get them. Make them like me.