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Everyone has a monster inside
The Lazarus Effect -for Bram Stoker Consideration
THE LAZARUS EFFECT
By JG Faherty
(Published October 2016 in Cemetery Dance Magazine)
“They’re going to come for us.”
I watched the color drain from Morris's already pale face. Outside, the wind howled and battered the walls as the late February storm raged on.
He opened his mouth to argue, then nodded. “The die’s been cast, brother. The future is in God’s hands now.”
“God’s hands.” The idea made me want to laugh. Or cry. I’d been doing a lot of both lately. We’d settled deep in the Adirondacks to avoid the very danger now threatening us. A new start, a chance to wait out the end of civilization in safety and then begin the long, hard job of starting over. Eighty of us; men, women, and children, all dedicated to preserving the human race.
All dedicated to God.
And now it seemed He’d turned His celestial back to us, shunning those who’d always lived their lives according to His words. What hurt the most was the knowledge that it was our beliefs that had doomed us.
Love thy neighbor as yourself.
And so we had. When they first came to us, good Christians like ourselves, we put aside our fears and offered our help.
And learned too late that God's word had led us down the wrong path. A deadly path.
The die is cast.
But what would the roll be?
We’d arrived in early August, the men on horseback, the women and children riding in supply-filled carts. Morris and I had selected the location. No signs of development for at least fifty miles in any direction. A hard place to find and even harder to reach, but well worth it for the seclusion and safety it offered.
It was hard work, clearing and leveling the land, building our communal shelter and work spaces. We were a carefully chosen group: people with strong minds and strong backs, people who could build a fence, dress a deer, or hoe the fields as easily as they could fix a generator or use a computer. People who could keep us alive today and help rebuild the world tomorrow.
And, of course, people who believed in God the Almighty, but wouldn’t be afraid to put down one of the Lazari if necessary.
At night we’d gather round and listen to the radio. The news from the cities was always the same. More Lazari rising every day. The government refusing to admit defeat. “Stay inside,” the announcers said. “Without food they’ll soon die off.”
But they didn’t.
Each night, Morris would lead us in prayer. We prayed for God to keep us safe, to put an end to the horror sweeping across the world. And we thanked Him for showing us the way.
Who knew our good fortune wouldn’t even last until spring?
“What are we going to do?” I purposely kept my gaze averted from Morris’s as I cleaned my gun and counted my ammunition yet again. I knew exactly how many rounds I had, and the gun was cleaner than the day I bought it, but my hands needed something to do.
Idle hands do the Devil’s work.
Except these days, the Devil didn’t need my hands. He had thousands of his own. And some were right outside.
“We wait,” came Morris’s reply. He sounded as low as I felt. Of course, spending weeks burning the bodies of friends and relatives will do that to you.
“What’s the point?” I asked. “You really think we’ll survive?”
“Nope.” He’d developed a countrified accent, as if a good-ole-boy had lived inside him all his life and escaping the city had released it.
I waited, unsure if he was done or if it was just another one of the long pauses he’d begun affecting.
Sure enough, he continued speaking after a moment.
“But I figure the more we kill, the better the chance that someone, somewhere else, will live.”
“That’s crazy!” I slammed my box of bullets down, feeling a guilty pleasure at making Morris jump. “We should be figuring out a way to hide from them, so we can live.”
Morris shook his head. “That ain’t what God has planned for us, brother. Our lot is to stay and fight.”
“God? I’m sick of hearing about God’s plan! Tell your God to take His plan and shove up it His ass.”
Faster than I’d have believed possible, Morris sprang from his chair and grabbed me by the shirt.
“Don’t never talk that way again! Who are you to judge the Lord? It’s Him who judges you, brother!” He let go and stepped back, his voice softer but his face still red and hard. “I know you ain’t given up your beliefs, that this is just your way of expressin’ your fear and anger. But it don’t mean you can take His name in vain. We ain’t the first of His children to suffer. Ask Lot, or Moses, or His own Son. We just have to believe that what we’re being asked to do has a higher purpose.”
For a brief second, I felt the urge to smash my gun against his face, just give it a swing like the baseball players we used to watch. Then the desire passed, and with it my anger at God, the world, our situation. Resignation took its place, the dull, heavy knowledge that my time had come, there was nothing I could do about it, so I might as well accept it.
Morris returned to his chair by the window, watching for signs of Lazari outside.
“Should’ve never left the city,” I said, more to myself than Morris. “All this was just one big tease.”
I caught a hint of movement and glanced at my brother. I’d thought maybe he’d nodded, or was getting ready to say something.
Instead, I saw he was biting his lip, while tears rolled down his cheeks.
We learned about the others two weeks after we arrived. After we got over our initial fear and consented to talk with them, we learned they’d left the city to escape the Lazari same as us, only a few months earlier. They seemed friendly, if somewhat aloof, and agreeable to our request for privacy. It helped that we had some common ground: we’d all been good church-going Christians before the world changed.
After that first meeting, we rarely saw their people. Sometimes, in the silence of the afternoon, you might hear the distant sound of hammers, or the gunshots of hunters. But never a sign of them coming anywhere near the area we'd claimed as ours. It seemed we’d all come to a mutually unspoken agreement to keep to ourselves, and that was fine with us.
For the rest of the summer, life was as peaceful as we’d hoped it would be.
Then fall arrived, and with the dying of the leaves came the death of our dreams.
The sound of Morris’s chair scraping on the wood brought me awake with a start. I’d drifted off, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the storm and the heat from the fire sputtering in the fireplace.
“What is it?” I asked, seeing his faced pressed against the window.
“Thought I saw something move out there,” he said.
I joined him. The storm seemed worse than before; a nasty mixture of sleet and wind that made it near-impossible to see more than twenty yards. Across the commons area, the snow and ice-covered shops and storage building reminded me of primitive structures, remnants of an ancient mound-building people that had once lived there but was now forgotten.
I strained my eyes as hard as I could, but saw nothing.
“Out by the trees.”
From a hundred feet away, the tall pines were grotesque, malformed giants standing in a row, soldier-straight and waiting to march. How Morris had seen anything, I had no idea. But his eyesight had always been better than mine.
He shrugged. “One. Maybe two.”
We both knew the Lazari never moved around as individuals, except when they first rose. The moment they reanimated, something guided them to each other, a pack or hive mentality. If there was one Lazari in the trees, you could bet your life there were more.
For the next ten minutes or so, we kept watch. The fact that the communal shelter only had windows on one side - my brilliant idea, to conserve heat in the winter - made me nervous. The Lazari weren’t stupid. The possibility they might use decoys in front of us, while a couple hundred crept up on our blind sides, had been lodged in my head ever since the storm hit. However, since we couldn’t do anything about it, we just kept our eyes open and hoped for the best.
My stomach rumbled, and I thought about putting on some soup.
Something moved out by the shops, killing my hunger.
I focused all my attention on the space between two buildings, trying by sheer will to coax another few feet of visibility from the storm.
There! An indistinct shape, ghosting across the gap, visible one moment and gone the next. It could have been a deer, or a coyote, both of which were common enough in the area.
Except no animal would come out in a storm like this.
“Something by the shops,” I whispered. I gripped my rifle tighter, afraid it might slip through suddenly sweaty hands.
“Over by the outhouse, too,” came my brother’s reply.
At least three of them, then. Which meant we were probably surrounded, or about to be.
I patted the pockets of my coat, reassuring myself that I’d filled them with rounds for the rifle and my pistol. Morris carried the shotgun and at least two pistols that I knew of.
“Doors barred?” Morris asked.
They were. I knew that because I’d put the heavy beams in place myself not six hours ago, and neither of us had been out since. Still, I glanced back and double-checked.
“Yeah. Maybe we should barricade them, too.”
He had a point. It would take several dozen Lazari, all hitting the door at once, to even have a chance at breaking the pine bar set across each door. If it came down to that, we were dead meat anyhow. Better to have us both at the window, where at least we could take a few of them out before...
I couldn’t think any further than that.
So instead, I put my face to the ice-cold glass and waited for them to make their move.
They came to us on a Sunday. Maybe if they’d come on any other day, things would’ve turned out differently. Morris might not have been so eager to help. Instead, still filled with the light of the Lord after delivering Mass, my brother invited them in.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said, when I objected to their presence.
“At the sake of killing us all?”
“If we don’t help, we’ll all die. You know that. If we do as God requires, maybe we can root out this evil ‘fore it grows too strong.”
I looked at the people gathered around us. Family members, friends, lovers. The people who’d trusted us to save them from the dangers of the real world, who’d followed us halfway across the state to a place we promised them would be free of contagion.
And now here it was in their midst, in the form of two strangers who’d come into our camp, talking of dead men hiding in the woods.
Had the others brought the disease with them? Or had we? There was no way to know. Scientists had no idea what it was, or how it spread. Or how to cure it. Some had even taken to renouncing their faith in science, saying the Lazarus Effect was the retribution of an angry God.
I looked at all those faces, faces who’d entrusted their lives to us. To me. They were waiting for an answer. And as much as I wanted to disagree with my brother, to do so would create a rift in our community, a rift that might never heal.
“All right. We’ll help.”
With those words, I sealed our fate.
An hour after we first saw the shapes in the storm, we’d counted at least twenty of them darting back and forth between the trees. There’d been a hundred and sixteen people in the others’ camp, according to what they'd told us. We’d done our best to burn our own dead over the past few months, but plenty had escaped. Assuming the same held true for the others, that meant there could be as many as a hundred Lazari in the immediate area.
Of course, our count meant nothing, considering their propensity for gathering in large groups. Who knew how many of their kind had migrated in during the winter?
“What are they waiting for?” I asked, speaking to myself – or maybe God – but expecting no response.
Morris answered me anyhow. He never was much for rhetorical questions.
“My guess is they’re waitin’ for the storm to break,” he said. “Mebbee it’s hard for them to move around on the ice, or see in the snow.”
“We could go out now and pick a few off.” I didn’t want to, but the wait was driving me crazy. The idea of shooting a few rounds, putting a few Lazari back into their graves, doing any-damn-thing, was better than sitting on our asses, waiting to die.
“No. That might be what they want. Out there, we’re helpless as babies. No, we wait, and then we’ll take out as many as we can before we go to God.”
I gritted my teeth and bit back a curse. How could Morris still believe so strongly? I tried to remember what it was like to believe like that, like I had before October. I wanted that feeling again, that beautiful light burning inside my heart. Instead, cold resentment filled me. I resented God for putting us in this position after everything we’d done for Him, sacrificed for him. I resented Morris for holding on to his faith while mine deserted me.
Most of all, I resented myself for not standing up to Morris, for spending all my years doing what the Lord and my older brother demanded, rather than what I wanted.
The sudden sound of glass shattering surprised a scream from me. Morris and I turned as the other set of windows, the ones next to us, exploded inwards. A second later, wind and sleet howled in, sending papers flying and threatening to put out our fire. A fist-sized rock tumbled across the floor.
Morris gripped my arm. “It’s time, brother. Are you ready?”
Ready to die? No! I wanted to shout. But I didn’t. There was no point. We only had one path left to follow.
The first Lazari appeared in the cities. Homeless persons and elderly shut ins; people who, when they died, went undiscovered for the three days it took them to return to life. Even then, they might go undiscovered for what they really were, because the only outward difference between a Lazari and a real person was that the Lazari never spoke. No sounds at all, not when they chased you, not when they gathered in their groups, not even when you shot them or burned them.
As their numbers grew, they wandered about aimlessly, in small groups, paying no attention to the world around them. Sometimes they’d get it into their heads to chase someone, as if they remembered violence but not how to carry it out. In the beginning, this often led to more deaths, with people running into traffic or getting trampled. The scientists called this Stage Two. And if that’s as far as things went, people probably could have gotten used to it. The police could’ve rounded up the Lazari and cremated them. End of problem.
Except once their numbers in an area grew large enough, they’d reach some kind of threshold and go from Stage Two to Stage Three.
People didn’t notice at first, but unexplained deaths followed the Lazari from city to city. It took a long time for the scientists to piece that part of the puzzle together. Turned out that’s how the Lazari reproduce. Scientists talked about viruses and plagues and even mental energies, but they couldn’t come up with concrete answers. People would simply start dying in droves, just keeling over, no rhyme or reason to who or where, and then all those people would rise again three days later. At least the ones who weren’t cremated or embalmed. But families, police, and morgues couldn’t keep up with the hundreds and hundreds of people dying each day, in every city and town across the country.
Across the world.
That’s when groups like ours started to form. People dedicated to surviving at all costs, even if it meant leaving behind the comforts of society. The governments insisted people should stay calm, wait it out. But we, and others like us, saw the truth, that the Lazari would soon outnumber the humans.
In our encampment, as winter crept up on frost-covered feet, the only question in our minds was how many Lazari were needed to reach Stage Three.
And were there enough of them in the woods to do it?
As it turned out, there were.
Six weeks after the two people ran into our camp, three men and a young girl died in their sleep. We burned the bodies, but it was too late. People in the other camp were dying, too.
By December, we had to keep fires burning day and night, ready to burn bodies at a moment’s notice. The greasy stench of roasted human flesh hung in the air, clinging to hair and clothes like a fetid slime.
Even as people died, though, Morris kept us thinking positive. “We’ll be okay as long as we keep on top of it,” he’d say. He repeated it so often most of us came to believe him.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Two women disappeared while outside gathering wood. The next night, my nephew, Peter, never came back from a trip to the outhouse. Less than a week later, two men never returned from a deer hunt.
We figured they’d been attacked by Lazari for food – no one had ever seen a Lazari eat, but there were rumors not all the dead got to rise again - and we mourned our losses.
Until a few days after, when a group of hunters from the other camp told us how three of their dead had disappeared from their camp while a crematory fire was being prepared. One minute they'd been under a tarp, and the next they were gone. Since they'd only been dead for a few hours, they couldn't have walked away on their own.
“They’ve learned something new,” Morris said to me that night. “They waited for those people to die and then stole the bodies.”
“But that would mean they knew when a person was going to die, so they could be there to take them.” I could grant them intelligence, but prescience? That was hard to swallow.
He shrugged, indicating we couldn't dismiss the idea the Lazari could somehow know the future.
Looking back, I think that’s the moment I lost my faith.
They came at us fast and hard, two, maybe three dozen of them. I didn’t bother trying for head shots, just fired and fired, hoping to injure as many of them as I could. Morris moved over to the second set of windows and blasted away with the shotgun. Between the two of us, we kept them from getting close to the building. But I saw right away we were fighting a losing battle. For each one we put down, another emerged from the storm.
Their silence unnerved me. No screaming, no war cries, no howls of pain when our bullets hit them. They charged, they fell. It was like target shooting, except the ones on the ground continued to pull themselves towards us. Every now and then, Morris would shift his aim and blow the heads off the ones who crawled too close. Blood and flesh and brains covered the fresh snow and ice, turning the commons area into a huge work of grotesque modern art.
Each bloody, gory shot reminded me the Lazari weren’t the zombies of lore. Their hearts still pumped blood, their nervous systems still functioned. But they weren’t alive, either. According to the scientists, the brains of Lazari worked differently. Memory showed higher than normal functions, while cognitive thinking areas worked at primitive levels. Almost as if they were operating on instinct instead of reasoning.
What it all meant was that in order to kill - or rekill - a Lazari, you had to destroy the brain or burn the body to ash. A heart shot would put one down, but if you didn’t place a couple of rounds into the head or torch the body, three days later it would be back again, fully healed. So although most of our shots were putting down our attackers, we knew that afterwards, if we survived, we’d have to go out and really kill the dozens of Lazari littering our courtyard.
“More to your left!” Morris yelled.
“Got ‘em,” I said, turning my gun and firing off six quick rounds. On the seventh pull of the trigger, the gun clicked empty.
“Reload!” I shouted. That was to let Morris know he had to cover the whole grounds, not just his half. By that point, I’d reloaded so many times my fingers went through the motion automatically, no shaking, no dropping bullets. Ten seconds later I was back at the window, ready to fire again.
Only I had nothing to fire at.
“What happened?” I asked, keeping my eyes peeled for any signs of movement.
“Don’t know. That last batch seems to’ve been all of ‘em.”
I didn’t believe it. I did a rough count of the bodies and came up with about forty, give or take. Not even the total of our own missing, let alone the others’ camp.
We stood there, wind and sleet battering our faces through the shattered windows, for perhaps a minute before Morris noticed it.
“You smell that?”
“What?” My nose burned with cold and the metallic stink of gunfire.
I almost told him it was nothing, just his gun, and then I remembered the fireplace. Had some sparks or wood blown around in the wind and started a fire in the room? I turned quickly, half-expecting to see flames burning.
I moved away from the window, sniffing the air as I went. I still didn’t smell anything, thanks to my frozen, clogged nose, but I did notice the room had grown warmer. At first I attributed this to being further away from the icy gusts blowing through the windows. Then I realized it was getting a lot warmer.
I put my hand against the wall by the chair I’d occupied earlier.
Warm. Summer day, high noon warm. It takes a lot of heat to get four inches of good wood that warm.
Especially in the middle of a nor’easter.
“Holy crap, Morris. I think they lit the house on fire.”
I breathed in again, deep, and this time I smelled it. Wood smoke.
Morris came over and sniffed the air. “Son of a whore.” It was the worse curse I’d ever heard him say. “I think they did.”
I hurried over to the back door and grabbed the pine bar, started to push it free.
“No!” Morris’s hand came down on my arm. “It’s a trap.”
I pictured a mass of Lazari waiting outside each door; their expressionless faces hiding their evil intent, their outstretched hands ready to clutch and tear soft flesh.
“We don’t have a choice,” I said, shaking him off. “I’d rather take my chances with them then burn to death.”
He stared at me, and a silent communication ran between us, as sometimes happens with twins. For our entire lives, since the moment I’d been born six minutes after Morris, we’d been playing follow the leader, with me always following.
Only now things were different. The consequences of his last big decision still haunted him, the guilt and sorrow etched in deep lines on his weather-beaten face.
Now it was my turn to make a life or death decision.
He stepped back and aimed the gun at the door. “Go ahead. Open it.”
I slid the bar to the floor and pulled the door open, jumping to the side at the same time. Even as I brought my gun up, Morris was already firing. I felt the wind and heat of the buckshot’s passing.
The doorway was empty.
Slowly, carefully, we stepped out onto the back porch. From there we saw the orange glow of fire behind the building, and we rounded the corner, guns at the ready.
Six carefully-laid fires burned on the porch, their flames scorching - but not burning - the back wall. Smoke billowed up, too much smoke, and I took a closer look. Whoever’d build the fires had carefully laid fresh-cut pine branches on them, to produce extra smoke and odor.
“A trap,” I whispered. Only not the trap we’d expected.
I heard someone yell, and I turned to see Morris surrounded by a dozen Lazari, none of whom I recognized. They stood rock-still. Morris raised his gun, took aim at one of them. I waited for the shot.
“Shoot them!” I stepped to the side so I could shoot without hitting him.
More Lazari came around the corner, positioning themselves between my brother and I. “Morris!”
He turned towards me, smiled, raised a hand as if in greeting, and then collapsed.
“No!” I aimed my rifle at the nearest Lazari. My finger froze on the trigger. I tried to force it to move. Instead, my hands opened and the gun dropped to the ground. I commanded my body to run away. Nothing happened.
Then I heard them inside my head. Talking to me. Explaining.
Suddenly, I understood what they wanted, why they were here. Why they needed Morris and I so bad they’d willingly sacrificed some of their own.
For the greater good, they told me. For God.
I opened myself to them, let them take me.
Morris’s voice, one of the multitude inside me, part of me. Somehow speaking to me, even though his body wouldn't rise again for three days.
“Are you ready to begin?”
“We all were, at first. It will pass.”
I believed him. I wanted to cry because it was so beautiful, and because I was so amazed by what we’d become.
The multitude rejoiced. Behind them, somewhere still too far for me to see, I felt something - Him? - smile, sensed an otherworldly warmth reach out to embrace me.
Yes, I was ready. Finally. Ready to really begin doing God’s work.
I closed my eyes and felt my body fall.
The die is cast. The future is in God's hands.
And we are those hands.