World Book Night — An Axe to Grind
An Axe to Grind
by Bob Freeman
I don’t reckon there be much sense to it seeing as how there aren’t too many folks left who can read, but there’s always the chance there’s some folk elsewhere who kept it alive, the reading I mean, so I guess I’m writing this for them. If they’re out there. Or maybe I’m just writing it down for myself because what the hell else am I going to do. I’m too old to be of much use. I can’t scrounge around for food. I can’t fight. I can still fuck if the girls don’t mind doing the work, but the kids born from my loins are hit and miss. About half are slow. Doc says you’ll have that once a guy gets to be my age, but if nothing else, the slow ones give us something to eat in the lean winter months. Though last winter it was more than just the slow ones wasn’t it. Things weren’t always like this. No sir, they sure weren’t. Not that most of these kids would know it, but there was a time when we weren’t like them. The Dead. Now we all are, I suppose. Dead, I mean, at least on the inside where it really counts.
So hard to tell anymore. The lines all went and got blurry, I suppose. Life has a way of doing that. I reckon death does too, ‘specially when they get up and walk about and all, hungry for your gray matter. Laughs on them though. Not much left of that either.
I guess I’m rambling a bit too much. I should just cut to the chase and tell my story and be done with it. There needs to be some kind of record and being the only one left that knows his letters, I reckon it’s my story to tell.
My name is William Shirley. My kin all call me Old Bill, which is fine by me. At least they call me something. I used to live in a place called the United States of America, near Hocking Hills, Ohio to be more accurate, but those names don’t mean nothing anymore. That was a long time ago. Now I live in The Camp. No grand titles for anything. No need for them. It’s been a whole lot of Us and Them for more years than I’ve a mind to count. I remember when it all went down, when it all fell apart. I was one pissed off son of a bitch, let me tell you. When I was a younger man, me and my old buddy Delbert Gentry, God rest his soul, would sit and talk about the End Times. Almost wishing for them. We’d talk about how we’d live off the land and form a community with our friends and family and how we’d get by just fine. Trouble was, when the shit did hit the fan, we were old men. Not as old as I am now, but old enough that it sure as fuck wasn’t the romantic bullshit we’d imagined it would be. That’s for God damn sure.
I can’t really say for sure what caused the collapse of the old world. It wasn’t any one thing. Just a whole bunch of stuff that piled so high that the camel’s back finally gave out. Climate change, terrorist bombings, tainted food, race riots, dependence on oil and computers and that all pressing need to not work for a living. We were soft when the End came. Hell we watched it coming for decades and didn’t do a damned thing to stop it. We were too busy talking into our cell phones and eating fast food. Oh sure, when the slow slide started people were quick to blame the politicians, forgetting that we were the ones that put them in the position to fuck us over. Passing the buck was the American pastime, that’s for God damn sure. Yep, we were in one hell of a pickle. Then the Dead started refusin’ to lie down and, you know, stay dead.
Seemed like isolated incidents at first. News played it off like some kind of a minor virus, something akin to hoof and mouth or even mad cow, except it was affecting people, or so they made us believe. Go get your vaccinations and you’ll be fine, they’d said. Course we weren’t. Lookin’ back now, you had to wonder if they were all in cahoots, or just in fucking denial, ‘cause the fact of the matter was that the vaccine seemed to make it worse. A hell of a lot worse. And the dying escalated and their numbers grew and pretty soon, well it seemed like it was every man for himself, ‘specially in the big cities. Them there bastards never had a chance, let me tell you.
When martial law was put into place it was already too late. Soldiers deserted and went home to their families for the most part. The ones that didn’t became roving bands of thugs, rapists, and thieves. It doesn’t take much to revert a man back to an animal. Take away his television and his sporting events and his fear of retribution and well, you get what we got. That first decade was the worst of it. Constant fear. And though things continued to decline, slowly we grew accustomed to it. See, for the young ones, it was all they knew. It was the old ones that suffered the most. We knew what we were missing and we knew that we were the ones who fucked it all up. Maybe the dead were rising up to pay us back.
I reckon that this is the natural order of things, the way God, if there is such a thing, intended. I remember the way it was, too clearly most days. Fretting over gas prices and mortgage payments, steroid scandals and weapons of mass destruction. Funny thing that. Turns out that we were the WMDs all along. Now the only fretting is over whether we were going to scavenge enough food to eat, or be strong enough to fight off the dead that would terrorize us, ‘specially at night.
Now there’s something that conjures up some memories. Was a time when men fought back the night, not with a campfire or two, no sir, but with big obnoxious artificial lights that kept the world lit up twenty-four seven. Now the darkness swallowed you whole soon as the blistering sun dropped low and the temperature plummets to god-awful levels. Yeah, the night’s the worst because that’s when the monsters come out to play, both living and dead.
Fear’s our way of life now. I guess it was then too, but it was a different sort of fear. Back in the old days we feared over what might happen. Now we fear over what did.
No more convenience stores or shopping malls to make life easy or frivolous… and there sure as hell ain’t no one to look after us. No cops or firemen. No more Republicans or Democrats. No more priests or ministers. Hell, there aren’t really any Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. Nope, not anymore. Now, there are just men, women, and children, all with the same motivation… to live through the night and squeeze out one more day of breathing. It sure ain’t easy, but it’s living and that’s a might sore better than dying, I’m guessing, ‘cause there’s no rest there. No, sir. The dead just keep comin’. Won’t be long now before I know for sure though.
Nope, not much longer at all.
Policing the dead is a priority. We’ve got to keep a close eye on the sick. One of us up and dies during the night, well, we can rise up and do some heavy damage before the sun comes up. No, you get sick and close to dyin’ in the Camp, you get a visit from the Axeman. He’ll take your head before you pass over and come back, then feed you to the fire. It’s our way. Our only way. It’s as close to religion as we got left. No room for Jesus or turning the other cheek, not when the dead walk the earth and you’re their favorite snack.
We’ll be breaking camp soon, moving to a new feeding ground. That’s always the scariest time, when we’re mobile. If a pack of the dead happen upon us when we’re between encampments, well, it’s a might harder to fend ‘em off, you know. Try as we might to steer clear of ‘em, they always seem to be there, always sniffing us out. Of course, it’s not as bad now as it was when all this shit first rained down on us. No, back then, you knew the dead comin’ at ya, and you had to put ‘em down anyway. Now, they’re just faceless monsters, trying to survive much like we are. Following the food and getting’ by, one fuckin’ day at a time.
It does make you wonder though, what the hell’s gonna happen when we’re all like them, the walking dead? They sure won’t last long, once the last of us succumbs. Oh, it’ll happen. I’ve watched our numbers dwindle from a few thousand to several hundred. We’re not breeding faster than we’re dying, so it’s just a matter of time, I suppose. The human race is going out all right, but not with a bang or even a whimper. We’re going out hungry. Hungry for brains. And when the living’s gone and there are no more brains to chomp on, what then?
In the early days of the fall of our civilization, when the dead first began to rise, there was lots of talk about divine retribution, you know, for all our sins. That talk got put to rest pretty quick actually. It wasn’t long before all the big mouths blabbering on and on about the Book of Revelations and the Mark of the Beast, the Tribulations and the prophecy of Christ’s return, either shut the hell up and got down to the business of surviving, or were silenced by those who just didn’t want to hear it any more.
Things got pretty wild and wooly there in the beginning. It was dog eat dog and every man for himself, least it was for the city folk. Out in my neck of the woods, we formed tight little units, people deferring to those in the know, who knew about surviving, especially once the infrastructure collapsed. Before long it was all about the Axeman, the guy who had to make all the tough decisions, and who put down the dying before they could rise again. Our old ways of getting things done, the democratic way, was useless in a world gone wild. There was no time for committees. To survive, we had to toe the line and everyone do their part. It was that or die and become one of them.
Truth be told, we’re them already, aren’t we?
I remember how it was and it’s a far cry from this. I remember being in love and taking my sweet Rose as my wife. I remember my kids, growing up too fast. I remember having a home. And I remember taking it all for granted. But most of all, I remember my wife coming at me with her blank stare and her drooling mouth open and moaning, longing to eat my brain. I remember taking a pick to her skull and burning our house to the ground with her inside. I remember walking all the way to Gaston and having to do the same to Johnny and Bill Junior, and their wives and my grandkids.
I remember wanting to die.
I guess that’s never really changed.
I’m ready. It won’t be long now. The Axeman will come for me just as soon as he decides that I’m no longer of any use, before I get too sick, or too injured, and then he’ll take my head and burn me, like so many others before me.
It won’t be long now.
I’m so tired, and we’re just treading water, trying to keep our heads above it… trying not to drown in the sea of the walking dead…
It won’t be long now.
I’m so tired.
So very tired.
Will Rose be there waiting for me? I doubt it, see I think what happened was, there just wasn’t no more room in either Heaven of Hell, so with nowhere to go, we just stayed, left behind, shambling about and led by our noses to the very ones that were once like us, the living and breathing. No room left for any of us. All we have left is the hope for a clean beheading and a date with the fire and utter oblivion. We once had the potential for so much, but we pissed it away, and this is our reward.
It won’t be long now… not long at all… and that’s fine with me.
I’ve made my peace.
My world died a long time ago. This world is a nightmarish reflection of the one that came before it. Like the dead that won’t die, this world won’t either; it’ll just keep feeding on itself until oblivion consumes it.
Has a nice ring to it.
Mine’s coming, I think.
God knows, I’m ready for it.