by Paula R Stiles

The gendarme had wandered out into the middle of the road. His dark-chocolate skin was turning almost as green as his stained army uniform and his already well-fleshed form had swelled to bursting. He looked like he’d been from the Bulu, a tribe down in the South Province near the port of Douala. They were big and solid. He stood out there, waving his arms in a parody of his old contrôle-point routine of stopping bush-taxis and other traffic to check their papers, hunt up the odd bribe.

Our gray Peugeot, stuffed with ten live passengers and driver, cleared the hill and slammed down on all four wheels into a nasty pothole. It hit the gendarme about dead center five meters later to the tune of the leather-skinned Hausa driver’s worn cassette of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. The gendarme zombie flew up over the roof, landing hard – and in pieces – on the paved road behind the car. The driver didn’t so much as ease off the gas. We’d all sooner stop for a cobra than a zombie.

“That was pretty spectacular,” Josie said. She was my reasonably-good-looking blonde housemate, crammed half onto my lap and half up onto the armrest of the right rear door. That might sound like a good thing if you’d never been stuck in a Peugeot with ten other people for three hours of a tropical afternoon.

We were the only nassaras (foreign whites) in the car. Technically, I was Chinese-American, not white, but Cameroonians didn’t make those distinctions with Americans – except when they expected me to do Kung-fu like Bruce Lee. Didn’t help that “Bruce” really is my name, or that I’d clear six feet easily in my bare feet. They got a lot of martial arts flicks over here; used to, anyway. Before the zombie virus hit.
“Yeah, if you like blood and guts splattering all over the road,” I said.

Come to think of it, maybe nailing that guy hadn’t been such a hot idea. His guts dangled through the driver’s window like a sausage brand of fuzzy dice and bumped against his shoulder. They smelled like shit. The driver ignored them. He’d probably smelled worse.

We rolled across the bridge over a river of sand and into Maroua, provincial capital of the Extreme North Province of Cameroon. If you had to get stranded someplace during a zombie epidemic, you could have done worse than Maroua. The place looked like a city out of the Arabian Nights. The local Hausa and Fulani Muslims were friendly, rich and regionally well-organized. They lived in large, walled compounds along tree-lined streets, the walls whitewashed or cement-crépissagé mud-brick, with wells inside and fruit trees. Some of those civic features had helped save most of the city’s population, that and the usually dry climate of mixed savannah and desert. During the initial outbreak, we’d all just shut ourselves up and waited. We’d only gone out, heavily armed, for food and other necessary supplies. Many nights I’d lain in bed listening to the zombies claw and bang on the tolle gates. In the morning, we’d venture out to club and burn any walking dead in sight. Nobody took them on at night, even now.

The taxi bumped past the main taxi park, an open, flat place of beaten red dirt near one of the round hills that just popped up out of the landscape this far north. The taxi park was surrounded by dusty-green trees with low-spreading limbs. We were only a day’s journey south of Lake Chad, not all that far from the Sahara.

As we passed the park, I spotted two men torching a zombie dog. They had it staked down with a spear and were burning it in sections, from the tail up. I could see its dry ribs shining in the afternoon sun all the way from the taxi. The dog snapped at its tormentors as they danced around it. I loved animals, and I pitied what that dog had been, but there was no way I would have saved it now.

The driver dropped us off at our compound in the ‘safe’ part of town. Josie and I peeled ourselves out of the taxi along with the rest of the passengers. After some stretching to get our backs straightened out of question marks, we snagged our equipment from the overstuffed, strapped-down trunk. The passengers stood by, looking over their shoulders as the driver handed out to us the machetes, matches and canned goods we’d looted during our ‘shopping’ trip down south. Even with the curiosity generated by anything we nassaras did, our equipment post-outbreak was too ordinary to mark.

Josie banged on the gate. No one answered, but that wasn’t uncommon. She got the tin gate open while I hauled out our bags. The driver took off as soon as he’d cinched things back up with strips of black rubber inner tube called caoutchouc. Josie and I liked to joke that the entire country was held together with it. Keeping an eye out, we tossed the bags in through the gate quickly and slammed the door behind us.

The zombie virus had raged during the rainy season of the previous year and had gotten into the water supply. The traditional clearing of the savannah brush by fire in December at the beginning of the dry season had helped considerably with suppressing the initial epidemic. Christmas had passed fairly uneventfully. With the end of January and the reheating of the weather, though, some isolated outbreaks were starting up again. Josie and I had come back from Yaoundé, the country capital not far north of Douala, just in time.

The compound’s dogs, Cujo I and II, came bounding up to us for a head-rub as soon as we came in. They reminded me with a twinge of the zombie dog in the taxi park. A tawny cat from our small colony lazed on a chair on the porch. We’d had some feline mortality initially, but they’d learned fast to avoid zombie rats and the like. They mostly stayed inside the compound now.
The day guard, Adamou, woke up in his chair near the cat and came down off the porch, scratching his head and yawning.
“Bonsoir, Adamou,” I said.
He nodded and waved distractedly, then went back to his nap. He wasn’t big on helping out with heavy lifting.

“We’re here!” Josie shouted toward the house. It was a cement ranch-style structure with a tolle roof, barred windows and an open-front porch – nothing that would look out of place in Out of Africa. Buckets and panniers were lined up under all the eaves from the last rainy season. We had a well, and running water still ran in the pipes sporadically, but less and less often since the beginning of the outbreak. We kept the water in big containers and we always boiled it before we drank it or bathed in it. That cut a bit into our supply of propane tanks and the rate of indirect infection from the zombie virus, in strict epidemiological terms, was pretty low, but nobody wanted to end up like that gendarme from brushing their teeth in the morning.

Two of our group came out onto the porch. There were still nine non-missionary foreigners that we knew of in the province – five volunteers from Peace Corps (three of us here in town), two Italian aid workers and a couple of young tourists who’d just been passing through when everything had gone to a hot place in a hand conveyance back home. Cyndi and Roger had decided to stay in their village up near Waza National Park. The rest of us had wanted everybody to stick together. We’d heard rumors that poachers had spread the virus to some of the animals in Waza. Facing off with a zombie elephant? No thanks. But Roger and Cyndi felt differently.

Personally, I thought Roger was just being his usual antisocial asshole self and that Cyndi stuck with him out of loyalty. She was still dating him, after all. But it wasn’t my decision, or anybody else’s but Cyndi’s and Roger’s. With everything we’d lost, we weren’t about to curtail each other’s freedom on top of it.

“How was Zombieville?” Alicia, one of the Italians, asked. She meant Yaoundé, after Brazzaville in the Congo. But it could have applied to any large city, even Maroua, just eight months ago. She was a tall, thin brunette who smoked a lot, more now than before the outbreak.

Josie and I looked at each other. We didn’t much want to talk about our trip, especially considering we’d barely made the last train to Ngaounderé that was liable to leave Yaoundé for a while. But our buddies needed a report.

“Messy, as usual,” I replied. “Whole sections of the city are overrun at this point. Everybody who’s still got a pulse has gone back en brousse, as far as we could tell, though the Muslims are still running a closed marché and the like. The Peace Corps Admin office is picked pretty clean, but we found some meds – Chloroquine and Mefloquine – and some antibiotics that we don’t think are too spoiled.”

“How’s the situation back home?” That was Silas, our third volunteer. He was a big black guy in his forties who looked like he’d been born in the Marines. He’d have gone with us if he hadn’t broken his leg in a motorcycle accident a few months back. At least he’d escaped that particular zombie pack. He’d left family back in the States – hadn’t we all? – but he’d probably been the least homesick of us until the outbreak. Now, he spent a lot of his time working a two-way short-wave radio he’d found in the marché while laid up, burning through old car battery after car battery, hoping to get an answer. Sometimes he did, from the oddest places, like Siberia or Bosnia or Cape Cod, but most of the time he just got static. Nobody told him to give it up. We all hoped along with him. I hadn’t heard from either my mom or my sister in ‘Frisco since before the outbreak. Didn’t expect to, either, but you know, you like to hope.

Josie shook her head to Silas’ question. “It’s total radio silence. The last anybody heard, things were getting pretty ugly, nothing your contact on the Cape hasn’t already told you about zombies hating salt water. That was before the rainy season began… end of February or March, maybe. Who knows what it’s like now?”
’Now’ was January. If we hadn’t heard from anybody else in the U.S. by now, that meant we probably never would, and the country was gone. And Italy. And the rest of Europe and the Americas. And Asia. And Australia. All gone, at least as far as civilization was concerned. Drowned in an apocalyptic flood of mostly-dead carrion beasts with the shelf-life of rotting hamburger.

And here we were in Cameroon, West Africa, cut loose like the rest of the expats, scrambling to make a living, to make a permanent life and put down roots in a country where we’d expected only to have a passing adventure for two or three years. Needless to say, it had been a shock all round that we were stuck here for the duration. Not even a year had helped us get used to it. Cameroon is a radically different culture from any in the West. You think you’ll be fine and then you get here and… well, you’re not always fine. Psychovacs hadn’t been all that uncommon among volunteers before the outbreak. They were no longer an option.

The rest of the world had succumbed so fast. But not Africa. Africa, cradle of humanity and civilization, had simply shrugged and collectively said to this latest pandemic, “You want a piece of Homo sapiens? Get in line.”  And someday – maybe not so soon, but someday – we’d spread out once again and repopulate the world, pushing aside another hominid species, this time Homo mortuus. It was only a matter of time.

But now it was January, and the yellow Harmattan wind was rolling in off the Sahara, pushing the rains south and drying everything out, including the zombies. A good time for a little zombicide.

Then Alicia said, “We have some bad news of our own.”

Josie looked down and started scuffing the red dirt, probably not too keen to face whatever Alicia had to say. I decided to face it straight on; maybe it would hurt less. I looked back and forth between Alicia and Silas. “What?”

Silas took the plunge. “We haven’t heard from Roger and Cyndi since before you guys left.”

“I am sorry, Bruce,” Alicia said. “I know you three have been worrying about them.”

“Uh, that was over two weeks ago,” I said, feeling my stomach clench up into some serious heartburn. I felt a sudden need for a shot of Gordon’s gin. They didn’t answer, just looked grim.

“No bush-taxi notes?” Josie asked, finally looking up. “Nothing?”

“I wanted to go out and pick them up,” Silas said, shaking his head, “but the others argued that we’d better wait for you guys, what with my bum leg. You’re the ones with the connections and experience and we only really started to worry a few days ago.”

“Shit,” I said. Josie didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. We’d had a little business going for a couple of months now, cleaning out centers of zombie infection. It kept the money coming in, so nobody complained. Silas was right. We were the logical ones to go find out what had happened to Roger and Cyndi, just like we’d been the logical ones to go down to Zombieville and reconnoitre.

“Well, we can’t go right now,” Josie said with her usual practicality. “It’s only two hours to sunset and way too hot. We’ll go tomorrow at sunrise.”

Sunrise wasn’t until six a.m., but she was right. You couldn’t get much done in the Cameroon heat after nine in the morning, especially in the north, and evenings weren’t a good time to be outside. The bandits who had infested the roads of the province for many years had been some of the first to get zombified. Like that gendarme on the road, their rotten minds kept them at their old habits. Sure, being half-dead slowed them down, but Cameroonian nights were dark. In a noisy taxi, we’d get no warning of an attack.

Josie and I only got some sleep that night because we were so tired. We tried a little fooling around, but dropped off in the middle of it. Right before dawn, in Le Grand Matin, we set off in a bush-taxi, not long after the call to prayer wailed out to the Muslims from mosques all over town. Bush-taxis looked like milk trucks with holes cut out for windows but they were sturdier than car taxis when it came to zombie attacks. Along the way, we saw a zombie giraffe come out of the trees and stagger along the roadside in a parody of a live giraffe’s stately walk, trying to outpace us, no doubt. Most of its mottled hide had worn off in patches or was hanging in strips around its long legs. Its tendons looked so brittle it was a wonder the zombie could keep its feet. Even so, the pride of very-much-alive lions on the other side of the road just lounged on large tree branches, wistfully observing it from a distance. They knew better than to try that kind of meat. I wondered if the zombie virus might even end up saving the wildlife. They sure were venturing out of Waza with increasing boldness. All the more reason to persuade Roger and Cyndi to come back with us, even if they were fine.

We got hit up for a job as soon as we rolled into Roger and Cyndi’s town around eight. The sousprefet himself met us at the little taxi park. Sousprefets were federal government officials in charge of the arrondissement around a township. A big city like Maroua had a prefet, in addition to at least one local mayor and a chef for each tribe. The sousprefet told us he needed our services even before we mentioned our own mission.

The job would pay our rent for the next couple of months – 40,000 CFA to burn out a house of zombies. You’d think people wouldn’t use paper money or coins, anymore. But you can’t carry that much in supplies everywhere you go and there was no way in hell anybody would take credit the payer probably wouldn’t honor. So, money still got passed around, increasingly tattered and with different countries on it, but still useful. A bit like the bottles people still brought to bars in exchange for beer and soda because some enterprising souls were still making both.

The gendarmes could have done the job themselves, but this was in the compound of a local traditional chef. Nassaras were good for the more delicate zombicide jobs. Being foreigners, we weren’t supposed to have a stake in local politics, so we had a rep for being impartial.

Josie and I discussed it. We wanted to get over to see Roger and Cyndi right away, but we already knew from experience that whatever condition they were in, they’d probably been in it for two weeks already. Besides, we could really use the money and the sousprefet’s goodwill if things had gone sideways with them. We agreed to do it.

We stocked up on kerosene in the marché, buying it in old plastic palm-oil bottles. There was red sediment at the bottom of each one. Any petroleum product was strained through a cloth to get out the dust, but that wasn’t 100% successful. That would matter for a car, but not for our purposes. Zombies would burn just as well with dirty kerosene.

They’d shut up all the infected, living and dead, inside a large hut in a compound. Nobody had been out for seven days. That made the job a simple one of torching and watching it burn, slicing and incinerating the zombies who tried to escape. The only glitch came when a woman burst out of the burning hut, clutching a baby. We nearly hacked her before she screamed and the baby started howling. Zombies don’t talk. They can make a weird sort of grunt, with air coming out through the vocal cords, but they can’t talk. Or scream.

We doused both woman and child with gin (my own way of dealing with the outbreak, so I always had some on me) to disinfect them as best we could. Then we pronounced mother and child ‘clean’. This practice didn’t usually thrill the local Muslims, but they were fine with the logic of cleaning off zombie virus as long as the booze didn’t make the person drunk. Judged living again by the nassara zombie-hunters, both survivors were taken away gently to be fed and given a real bath.
And that was the job. We’d insisted on the 40,000 CFA up front. That would have been not quite a hundred bucks American if the U.S. still existed. Normally, we’d have pocketed it and gone back to Maroua in high spirits.

But we weren’t here on business, or fun. We were here to check up on two of our own.

The sousprefet grabbed two gendarmes and led us down there himself. He seemed to know what we were in for, but our friends being nassaras, he’d probably been hesitant to go in.

“If you find anything, we’ll pay the usual rate,” he said. This seemed awfully generous until he took off down the road with the two gendarmes without paying us first. Figured we wouldn’t get any backup, though I could see the hold-off on payment. Roger and Cyndi might be okay. And if they weren’t, he might want the house after we burned it out. The cement walls wouldn’t be damaged, nor the tolle roof.

The compound was ominously silent as we let ourselves in through the gate with a little machete-prying. We went in machetes-first. Once we established that the coast was apparently clear, we brought in our bottles of kerosene. We laid them out along a line on the dirt path up to the cement porch, dropping small matchboxes as we went. We’d long since learned how to play zombie-hunting like a video game. You wanted to lay down ammunition coming in along the routes where you’d be most likely to come hell-for-leather back out, screaming and scrambling to avoid those clutching hands and snapping teeth. Zombies weren’t too fast and they weren’t too bright. They didn’t last all that long, either – maybe six months. But once they got fixated on you, they’d keep coming and they’d run you down if you didn’t burn them, pin them or find sanctuary.

The house was probably bigger than would be comfortable, or safe, for a single volunteer or even two. Peace Corps Admin had made some weird decisions in the past about security on that score, not that it mattered now. I’d learned fast during training to take care of my own safety as much as possible; in fact, Josie and I had bonded then over our cynicism about some Peace Corps policies. We’d been in Community Development before the outbreak, if you can believe it.

We busted into the house fast, machetes and matches out. We thought we were ready for what we found. We weren’t.

The house had an open plan to allow for the February heat in the middle of the dry season. It had three bedrooms coming off a huge, airy living room that shaded off into a back porch with big clay pots, round and red.

In the middle of the living room, near a wooden couch that had been turned over and smashed, lay a zombie. It had been staked down with a metal spike through the ribs. Impressive. Whoever had done it must have used a sledgehammer. The zombie kept trying to get itself free, but couldn’t do so without ripping itself in half. Even so, it was still trying, scrabbling feebly at the cement floor.

It took me at least a minute to recognize Roger. His face had bloated up and slid sideways in the heat. His guts had burst out onto the floor. He had to have been dead for most of the past two weeks. The soiled t-shirt gave him away. We’d been in training together and he was still wearing the shirt our group had designed, along with the usual Peace Corps uniform of jeans and hiking boots that we were wearing for the job. A lot of volunteers eventually went native in their clothing styles, switching to cooler tailored cotton pyjamas and flip-flops. Not Roger.

“Sweet Mary Mother of God,” Josie said, recognizing him at the same moment. She looked ready to puke. I wasn’t surprised. She and Roger had dated for about a week in training before she found out he was an asshole. Training relationships usually burned fast and furious, then guttered out just as fast.

“That’s one way to put it.”  I could see her having a few issues walking in on a zombified somebody she’d once fooled around with.

As our voices echoed, I realized that the house seemed awfully quiet, as if someone was hiding further in, holding his or her breath. If Cyndi had been zombified, why would she be hiding from us?  Why no attack?  Where the hell was she?
I sidled up to Josie. Sound really carried off gloss-painted walls and polished floors. I leaned close and whispered, “I think Cyndi’s still in here.”

She nodded and whispered back, “You think we should check before we clear the house and start burning?”  Cyndi had never liked Josie, being a tad jealous about the training fling, but Josie was a pro. She wasn’t going to let that stop her from finishing the job.

“Well… yeah.”  At the very least, we’d need to make sure we’d located every zombie in the place or we might not get paid. Somebody had staked Roger to the living room floor, somebody who seriously didn’t want to die or get zombified. It was probably Cyndi, but that didn’t mean she was still human.

We catfooted down the hallway toward the bedrooms, covering each other. Machetes can be pretty effective, especially considering how much practice we’d gotten in with them. But they were close-up weapons, which meant we could get infected by body fluids or a bite if we didn’t watch it. No way in hell did I want to get infected and end up like Roger. Or that gendarme on the road from Ngaounderé.

Josie came behind me, watching my back. One of the fun parts of being a guy was getting to be on point. As I snuck down the hallway, I thought I heard a noise. I stopped dead, Josie ramming into my back.

“What the hell is that?” I whispered. Josie was practically clinging to my shoulders. Then I heard it again. It was a whimper. It came from down the hall.

We edged into the room. The noise was coming from the closet. Somebody was hiding in there.

We eased up to either side, machetes raised high. Then, at a signal from Josie, I yanked open the door.

Good thing we didn’t stand right in front of it. Whoever- it-was came right out of the closet, flailing around with a big spear. We almost hacked her to pieces right there, even as I recognized Cyndi. But then she started screaming at us. Actual words, mostly curses.

“Hey!” I yelled, backing up fast from the spear. “Hey, Cyndi! Calm down! It’s Bruce and Josie! We’re humans, too!”

Cyndi didn’t seem to notice. Josie and I had to dodge and hop around the room until I managed to hack the spear in half with my machete. Josie clomped Cyndi over the head with the butt of hers. That dazed Cyndi long enough that we were able to get her down and tie her up. I guess she finally realized then that we weren’t zombies – they don’t tie you up, just eat you raw. She started to cry, so we stopped trying to tie her up. We chivvied her out of there, checking the backyard to make sure it was clear and burning everything flammable as we went. We managed to save a photo album and some letters, though we weren’t sure if they belonged to Cyndi or Roger. Lastly, we torched Roger before we left. Or I did, that is. Josie sat on Cyndi on the front porch so she couldn’t watch while I went back into the living room.

“Sorry about this, Roger,” I said. Just because he’d been an asshole when he was alive didn’t mean he deserved this. Nobody did. I doused him with kerosene, coughing at the smoke oozing through the house while he grunted and snapped at my hands. Then I lit a match. It took five or six, but he soon went up. The grunting didn’t get any more intense as the flames took him. If anything, it died down. He moved aimlessly around while he barbecued. Finally, something popped or broiled or I-don’t-know-what inside what was left of his brain and he settled down on the floor to smolder, mostly in silence, aside from the odd pop and crackle. And that was the end of Roger. The second end. The final one. I hoped. I backed away with a shudder and went out onto the porch, leaving the doors open to get better circulation for the fire. That sure as hell wasn’t how I wanted to close out my Peace Corps service.

We took Cyndi back to the taxi park after an alcohol bath, got our money from the sousprefet and caught a car taxi back with no other passengers. It cost a little extra to get the whole car, but it was worth it. We were covered with dried sweat already, the heat of late morning wringing out more, and Cyndi was acting pretty claustrophobic. About halfway home, Cyndi started to get semi-coherent and more than thankful. That was actually worse because then she had to tell us all about how Roger had been bitten by a zombie rat out of nowhere and turned a few days later. How she’d survived the past two weeks being chased around the house by her zombie boyfriend, afraid to go out in case she was attacked by more zombies. Damn. That was almost as bad as ending up like Roger.

On the way back, the driver took a detour to pick something up from his house, so we ended up coming in on the same road we’d taken the day before from the train station in Ngaounderé. The remains of the dead gendarme our taxi had hit lay all over the road. The limbs still moved feebly.

Suddenly, I needed a really stiff drink, but we’d used up all my gin for disinfecting purposes. I’d have to go dry until we got back to the house.

“Arrêtez!” I shouted to the driver. “Stop! Stop the car!”

The driver thought I was nuts, but he pulled over. We hadn’t paid him the full fare yet. He wouldn’t leave.

“What’re you doing?” Josie said, getting out with me. Cyndi just huddled in the back seat of the taxi.

“I’m not leaving that poor bastard in the road.” I started getting the kerosene and matches out.

“Ahhh,” she said, following my line of sight to the twitching arms and legs.

We didn’t even bother to gather the body parts together, too much risk of infection. We just went up and down the road in the noon heat, pouring kerosene on the pieces and setting them on fire. I hoped that somehow it gave that gendarme some peace. I hoped I’d never have to do the same thing to Josie. And I hoped that if I got unlucky, too, someone would give me the same mercy.

 

Paula R. Stiles has recently completed a PhD in Scotland on the Kinights Templar and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. She has also worked as a DJ, science researcher, house paniter, custoduan for the US Park Service, stable manager, museum curator, librarian and many other fun and groovy things.
She has also written dozens of short-stories several of which have been published.



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