PINE BLUFF, ARKANSAS
[I enter the new political center of Arkansas, the midsized city of Pine Bluff. Carter Waldrip greets me at the door and ushers me into his office. The young man lights up the cramped room and gestures towards a nice upholstered seat as he sits down behind his messy wooden desk. His boyish looks are not easily disguised by the worn suit and his easy smile betrays him in the otherwise serious atmosphere. He's the kind of man that is far too easy to like which that is certainly a contributing factor to his recent successful campaign.]
Thank you for taking time to meet with me Congressman.
No problem, no problem. It still shakes me up a little though, having people call me Congressman or sir and stuff… Call me Carter huh?
Sure Carter. So I was wondering if we could talk about your time during the war. In Eureka Springs?
[Weak nod] Oh. Of course. I wasn't expecting you to delve right into it. Guess that's what you do though, reporting and all.
It is. Could you tell me what happened?
Sure [small laugh] I've been going over it so much in speeches, might as well get it all out at once huh?
It was the beginning of August, a week before school was supposed to start. I was student body president, elected the spring before so it was my job to get in and get set up for orientation. Pulled together my brand spankin' new council and we let ourselves into the school. I was so proud of the stupid set of keys they gave me, like they could open the door to the future instead of just the door to the gym storage room.
There were no adult supervisors?
Didn't figure we needed 'em. We were a bunch of kids with the opportunity to run through the halls recklessly if we wanted to but we swore up and down to be responsible. The twenty of us were supposed to be the best and brightest in our classes and we were itchin' to prove it. Looking back I suppose we really some supervision, someone to keep us in order when it all went down.
Didn't you know about the infestation already?
Kind of. I mean we all heard about the weird new rabies but thought it was an African thing like AIDS or somethin'. We didn't know it had moved to port towns in the States and even if it had we wouldn't have taken it seriously. That's was the thing about being young before the war, bad things happened somewhere else and you were invincible.
It was evening by the time we started to pack up. The morning had been spent in the front hall, this long stretch that divided the school in two, hanging giant banners across the tops of the walls; Go Highlanders and all that. The afternoon we were downstairs on the second level, setting up registration for the incoming freshmen.
It was late when we finally decided to call it a day. The sun was setting over downtown and we were laughing about how we were gonna run the school that year. I had my arm around Mili, my girlfriend. I was planning on driving her home then sticking around until her parent's got home when we saw the first one.
She was small, kind of, with this bright red hair that looked like it was usual brushed in a straight line but it was a mess. Same thing with her clothes, all torn and shredded, like a wild animal'd got to her.
Chris was the one who called out to her. He was this tall, lanky junior who always reminded me of one of those walking stick bugs. He yelled out to her, asking if she needed help of something. Her head turned towards him slowly, like they do when they're distracted from a target. Then she started walking towards him, trancelike. We figured maybe she was some tourist, drugged out of her mind or something. She was moaning low, something that made us want to help not run. We didn't know, we had no idea that we should run.
Chris walked towards her, thinkin' she was lost or something but the rest of us fell back. We had no clue what was happening, no context whatsoever to the woman walking towards us. She shuffled at a consistent pace, which was when I noticed she wasn't wearing shoes, just the remains of socks circling her ankles.
They met as Chris passed the first row in the parking lot. He kept calling out to her, calling her ma'am and the stuff, real concerned. Not concerned for himself though. That was the thing, I think, in the beginning. They look so much like us that you can't help wanting to help them. You feel like there's something you can do 'em that'll snap them out of their actions, like hypnotism or something.
I'll always remember what he said then, his last words. As he closed the distance between him and the creature he kept saying "It'll be alright, it's going to be alright."
It wasn't. It never could have been. When he took that final step between him and her he closed the seal on his death without even knowing it. She sort of lunged at him, snapping her teeth like a crazed animal. She tore into his outstretched arm with the kind of vigour I usually reserved for when my mom made ribs. It was gory, all that blood and muscle coming out. [Pause]
We didn't run though, not until he screamed. I'd never a sound more shocking or agonizing than that poor junior getting himself chomped on out in that parking lot. A few of us ran to help him, looking to soothe the salvage creature chowing down on our friend but not me. It was cowardly I'll admit but something inside of me said there was no saving Chris at that point.
So what did you do?
[Presses lips together and stares out the high window for a moment.]
I ran. I took Mili's hand and we took off back inside the school. We only looked back after we'd locked the doors and were staring at them from behind the plated glass in the front hall.
She moved on from him to another rescuer a sophomore girl I didn't know well. The girl went down fighting but still got bit.
Two kids had reached Chris and tried to pull him up to his feet but from their crying I could see that he looked already dead. They got him up about halfway when he turned.
The boy I'd known for ages was gone and replaced by a raging, snapping monster. He got the two holding him easy, they were bent over him in a position that must have screamed ripe for the pickin'.
Other kids turned and ran back to the school like us. I unlocked the door but couldn't stop starin' at the scene outside.
Our first encounter with Zack left us confused and scared, trapped like animals behind the glass doors. When the one of the kids Chris had got finally stood up, I turned everyone away from the window.
That was just the beginning of the War you know? There was so much more we'd have to witness before it was over.