“Venice sits on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. Located in the Venetian Lagoon it stretches between the Po and the Piave Rivers. Known for its beauty of setting, its architecture and artwork, it is listed as a World Heritage Site, along with the lagoon,” I intoned to the group of tourist that followed along behind me, my heels tapping smartly on the pavers as their cameras snapped away.
I was taking them through the Piazza San Marco on the way to the basilica. “If you will come with me I will show you the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco,” I said, pausing to make sure no one from my group had wandered off.
I stood there for a moment allowing them to digitally record whatever they found interesting.A bead of sweat trickled down my neck inching towards my shoulders blades. Across the square I saw Giovanna and waved to her as she led her group of Japanese tourists. She waved, smiled and turned back to her group. The sound of her rapid fire speech drifting on the slight breeze coming off the canals.
I adjusted my uniform and once more lamented silently about how uncomfortable it was in this heat. I grimaced in resignation. I waved to my group. They followed after me, sighing in relief over the blessed coolness as we stepped into the basilica. “The first St Mark's was constructed in 828 A.D and then burned in a rebellion in 976. It was rebuilt in 978 and consecrated in 1094. Within the first half of the 13th century the narthex and the new façade were constructed. That is also when most of the mosaics were completed,” I paused to direct their attention to the mosaics.
Just then the hushed stillness of the basilica was shattered as a scream rent the air stalling the clicking of cameras. “Madre di Dio,” I whispered my hand going instantly to my throat to still my racing heart. My group was starting to move towards the door. I didn’t know what was going on outside, but I needed to keep them safe. “Please, everyone,” I said, waving my hands at the group so that they would gather around me. “Please, stay here. I will go see what is happening. Do not leave the basilica.” They nodded and gave me wide eyes. I walked quickly to the door, trying not to break into a run at the sound of more screaming.
The wail of police sirens, raised voices and shrill whistles added to the mayhem I beheld when I stepped outside. Several of the Piazza Security were gathered around a man. They were trying to force him to the ground as he thrashed and yelled. He groaned, the sound of it sending shivers down my spine. I gasped as he tried to bite one of the officers. The officer panicked and let go of the man who took that opportunity to latch his jaws onto the throat of another officer. Blood spurted into the air, landing like scarlet rain on the ancient pavers of the square.
“Holy shit,” said a man from my group. He and his wife were on their second honeymoon now that the kids were grown. His thick Texas accent made him pronounce the word ‘sheeit’. He was standing just behind me. I should have turned and made them all go back into the church, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the scene before me. There had been rumors all over the internet about a virus that made the dead walk and the living act like monsters. I had dismissed them all as nonsense. Now, as I watched, I struggled to remember what I had read.
The police showed up en force and cleared the tourists from the area. I took a step forward and held a hand up to my eyes to ward off the late day sun.
“Ofelia!” I turned at the sound of my name to see Giovanna walking swiftly towards me with her group in tow. They followed her like frightened children. The clicking of their cameras chorused behind her, echoing her steps.
“Giovanna,” I said, hugging her tight. She was my flat mate and I was glad that she was ok. “Did you see what happened?” I asked, making sure to speak in Italian so that our groups would not understand.
“Si,” she said. I could see that she had grown pale under her summer tan before she turned to her group to speak in Japanese. I presumed she told them to go into the basilica because they filed in obediently. I turned to my group and tried to do the same. But my American group was far less cooperative than her group. They had gathered around the entrance, peering through binoculars at the carnage.
“Zombies,” I heard a whisper bleed through the crowd. The sound of it plucked at my spine like a harp cord. My blood ran cold and my breath left me in a rush. I didn’t believe the rumors but I had to put a stop to this before things got out of control and they panicked.
“Giovanna,” I said catching her arm. She turned towards me once more. I could see the fear in her eyes and knew that she had heard the word too. “We have to get this under control. Help me get everyone inside so that we can close the doors.” She nodded and took my hand.
“Come please,” I said to my group. “We need to stay out of the way until we have been told we can leave. Everyone inside.” I used my best tour guide voice and tried to imbue it with as much authority as I could muster hoping that none of them would notice the slight tremor.
A woman screamed high and shrill startling the pigeons who took to the wing by the hundreds. For a moment the sky looked gray with the flutter of feathers. Frightened whispers came from behind me. “Hurry,” I said to Giovanna as we grabbed the heavy doors. It would take us both to close just one.
People panicked, running through the square, screaming in a myriad of languages. It sounded like a bird aviary had erupted in a harsh cacophony. The guard that had been bitten lay still on the ground. I swallowed and pushed the doors as hard as I could.
Movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention. She had been laying on the stones. The red soles of her designer shoes blended with the pool of blood she lay in. I couldn’t tell where the blood had come from, or if it was all hers. Her black dress was wet and shiny. Her lovely hat lay next to her trampled and ruined, just like she was. As I watched, her hand twitched, then she sat up. Her head bobbed forward, the ruin of her neck unable to support its weight. Giovanna whimpered, biting her lip to keep from screaming. I watched, numb with shock as a woman who should not alive stood up.
“Shut the doors,” I whispered. And then yelled more urgently. “Help me shut the doors!” The Texan and his wife ran over along with a couple of the Japanese men. Together we pushed on the massive doors shutting each one with a resounding thud. Through the crack, just before they closed, I saw the woman turn and look at me. Her lips drew back in a snarl as she grabbed the medic that came to attend her. Yanking his head back by the hair she bit into his throat. The sounds of his pain-filled scream rang in my ears long after the doors shut them out.
Three days later we were still hiding in the basilica as the world outside descended into chaos. Those that had been injured had risen from mortal wounds and infected others, who in turn took that virus home to infect their loved ones. We had been lied to. The news reports, unable to deliver the truth, had told us falsehoods in the effort to forestall panic. All it did was make sure we died just like the sheep they thought us all to be.
Evidentially, the virus had been in Italy for weeks, but no one had said anything. We were all in denial, unable to fathom such atrocity we hid our heads in the sand and pretended that life was just fine, and that this too, would pass.
There was a cafeteria in the back of the cathedral for the clergy so we had some food, but it was meager and running low. An air of desperation and fear hung in space that normally saw only the awestruck voices of the reverent.
I had my cell phone and had tried to call my boyfriend Marco the first night, but there had been no answer. By mid-morning of the following day cell service went down and the power failed.
The emergency lights flickered on, harsh and red casting a morbid glow on all that they touched. As the hours passed a family from Giovanna’s group had decided that they would brave the world outside in an effort to get back to their hotel and then home. I argued, begged and pleaded for them not to go. In the end, I cracked open a side door and whispered a prayer for their safe passage. I watched as the man, his wife and their two young daughters were run down under a horde of the infected. They fell on them like a pack of wolves and ripped them limb from limb.
More and more of our group decided to leave. I let them. Who was I to stop them? They could see as well as I what was happening. If they thought they could get home safely I wished them the best and added their names to the growing litany of my prayers. Not one of them lived, but most of them walked.
I lay on a pew looking up at the beautiful ceiling of the basilica wondering if today I would die. It was my birthday. I was 23.
“Ofelia,” Giovanna said kneeling beside me. “Mr. Watkins said he can get us out of the city. He has a boat docked not far away.” Watkins was the Texan I thought as I lay there blinking at her. He had not flown in, but chose to sail to Italy and then tour the Mediterranean. It seemed like a pretty idea. Pity they had been met with death.
We had been unable to leave due to the police presence, but now as most of them were dead or gone there was nothing to keep us here. They wanted to leave, I wished them well and continued my perusal of the ceiling.
“Ofelia,” she said again shaking me, trying to rouse me from my stupor.
“If’n you are just gonna lay down an die, I ‘spect I can’t stop you, but it seems a terrible shame. And a bit yellow if you ask me,” Mr. Watkins said, his head suddenly appearing over the edge of the pew. His big cream colored cowboy hat was hallowed in red from the lights. I swallowed and tried to rouse the urge to care. I couldn’t seem to find any.
Giovanna reached over and twisted the sensitive skin of my underarm painfully. I screamed and sat up with a stream of Italian curses. Mr. Watkins chuckled and stepped back. “I knew you had it in you girl. Now come on, I don’t plan on dying today,” I glared at Giovanna as I rubbed away the crescent marks her nails had made. She grinned at me like a loon and then leaned in to hug me tight.
“We have to survive this, I don’t think I’d look good as a zombie,” she said solemnly. For some reason that made me laugh. I swallowed a sob at the end as that laughter turned a bit hysterical, but it got me up and moving.
There were seven of us. The Watkins, me and Giovanna and three young Japanese students that had been part of Giovanna’s group. Two boys and one girl with long dark gossamer hair. She blinked at me with solemn eyes. I blinked back. We understood each other perfectly, we were terrified.
Together we packed everything that looked like it might be useful. All the food, medical supplies, anything that might be used as a weapon. I was trying to decide if I wanted to take the sacramental wine when I heard Mr. Watkins yell. I jumped and dropped the bottle. The glass shattered on the stone floor, a sea of burgundy spread as the aroma of fermented grapes filled the air.
The girl gasped and took off in a run. I stepped over the puddle of wine and ran after her. As we drew closer I realized that it didn’t sound like anyone had been hurt, instead they sounded happy. In the back of the church was a small garage. And sitting there was shuttle bus that was used to ferry supplies or tourists. I said a quick prayer and then smiled when the engine rumbled to life. We had been wondering how to get down to the pier and then to the boat without being killed or bitten. The van increased our chances significantly.
There was room for the seven of us and supplies. Now that we had transportation we could take some things we had planned to leave behind. Things like pillows and blankets. Nice things to have, but not worth weighing you down when you needed to be fast.
We decided to leave in the middle of the night. Their dead eyes couldn’t see very well. I imagined that they could detect movement, but not much else.
As night fell the groans of the dead softened. The living screamed in pain and frustration. Helicopters that flew by day, shooting those that walked were quiet now. The city was eerily dark, even the canal lights were out.
The two Japanese boys pulled the garage doors opened and then quickly climbed in the van. Mr. Watkins drove, I would tell him where to go. I was born and raised in Venice. I knew every street, every bridge and every canal and I knew I could get us to the pier even in the dark. We kept the lights off hoping to be as inconspicuous as possible.
It was late August in Venice and hot. I could barely smell the sea over the stench of the dead that filled my nostrils and turned my stomach. I saw a man run towards us. His joint gave out and his leg came off. He fell to the ground with a meaty slap and proceeded to use his hands to claw his way towards us.
Other’s groped for the van leaving behind slimy trails of putrescent skin and hair and other unnamable bits. “Fuck this shit,” Mr. Watkins said. He flicked on the lights and pressed on the gas. The van was new and happy to move. We sped through the city as fast as we dared go, plowing through crowds of infected and over bodies of the dead.
It only took us fifteen minutes to reach the docks, but they were the longest minutes of my life. Our drive through town had stirred up the zombies. They knew we were there and they wanted us. Driven by whatever made them possible they pursued us relentlessly and with a hunger that could not be described.
Skidding to a halt beside a beautiful yacht. Mr. Watkins didn’t even bother to turn the van off. “If y’all all want to live, you’d better hurry before that horde gets here.” We didn’t need to be told twice. There was no one to let the rope ladder down, so we stood on the top of the van and jumped aboard. Unsure if we would be greeted by an undead crew we paused, the sound of our breathing harsh in the night.
I heard a scream and saw a group of living running towards us. They must have heard our engines as well and ran towards the sound of escape. A women ran ahead of her group. The stragglers fell under the herd that soon feasted on their flesh. I watched her hoping she would get to us. In her arms she held a blanket. I could see a tiny fist sticking out.
“Hurry,” I screamed, though I don’t recall if I said it in English or Italian. She ran towards the van and then stopped. There was a ladder on the back of the van, she climbed up, and shoved her child at me chattering away. I glanced at Giovanna who stood next to me. She shrugged, unable to understand the woman either.
"I don’t understand,” I said as she forced the child in to my arms. She stepped back then and yanked the shirt from her shoulder. A hunk of meat and muscle was missing. The blood had tried to clot but was still oozing. With no light, save the stars, it looked like a stream of black ink trailing down her arm.
I groaned in despair and clutched the child too me. Once she was content that I had her child, she jumped down off the van and dove into the water. Breaking into a swimmer’s rhythm she headed out towards the sea. I doubted she intended to find safety. She was infected and knew she was dying. I suspected that she intended to wear herself out and then drown. Morbidly I wondered what would happen when she resurrected. Could zombies swim or would the denizens of the Mediterranean Sea find her first?
I heard a woman crying and then I realized it was me. “C’mon now, girl,” Mr. Watkins said taking my hand and leading me aboard. I followed his wife below decks and laid down in a bunk like she told me to, holding the baby close to me. The rumble of the engines soothed me and I slept.
Dawn trailed liquid gold fingers through the small window above my bed, but that is not what woke me, though I could not say what had. Just a sense of unease. The notion that something was wrong and sleep was no longer a good idea.
I sat up. Giovanna slept across from me, her arm flung out. The gentle rise and fall of her chest assured me she was among the living. I glanced down at the baby. Her skin had a bluish cast, and unlike Giovanna she was very much dead.
I shoved my fist in my mouth to stifle an animal groan of pain and injustice. Her mother had done all she could to keep her safe, and still her baby had died. I sat there for I don’t know how long crying silently into the blanket. A ray of sunshine found me and warmed me, reminding me of what needed to be done.
Quietly, I grabbed a blanket and wrapped the little girl up. Her mouth was closed, full lips and long eyelashes hinted at the beauty she would have become. Life is so cruel I thought as I covered her face.
Slowly, I made my way on deck. One of the Japanese boys was in the control room. I could see Mr. Watkins asleep on the floor behind him. I nodded to the boy. He glanced at the child in my arms and nodded back.
I walked to the railing and sat down, letting my feet hang over the edge. We had come so far that Italy was nothing but a haze on the horizon. We sailed towards America with no idea what we would find there.
I held the baby in my arms and wondered if the virus that was inside her was even now working its magic. She held death inside her tiny body, and for the sake of the rest of us, I could not hesitate.
It seemed wrong to just throw her in like a stone. So, I tied a rope around her and gently lowered her into the water. She bobbed like a cork in the wake of the yacht. As I watched a tiny fist moved, fingers so small they were translucent, unclenched just before they sank beneath the waves.
This story is set in the universe of The Season of the Dead. A Zombie Apocalypse novel due out in Spring 2013 from Spore Press
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