Dream Sketch: To Be Like Those Who Are Truly Dead

Almost everyone died, for a little while. The few who lived thought it was the end of the world. Sometimes now it's easier to believe it was the beginning of hell.

And here I am again, almost out of ammo and the sun coming up. I can feel them gathering, moving on the other side of the wall. They are drawn by the warmth of my flesh, by the beating of my still living heart. I can feel them like the brush of cold scales across my skin in the darkness, like the vague movement of a shadow in the night, like the chill of a winter wind down the back of my neck.

There's a lot we still don't know, and probably will never know. But everyone blames it on the comet. The astronomers had been tracking it for years. It shot through space in such an incomprehensibly galactic orbit that no one could tell for sure if it had ever passed by the Earth before, or if it ever would again. It was enormous. They said there was only a ten billion to one chance it would hit the Earth.

They were right. It missed. And then the planet passed through it's tail.

It all happened in a single 24-hour rotation of the Earth. It was too fast for anyone to prepare for or deal with in any way. By the time the survivors figured out what had happened, it was too late.

Almost everyone died. We still don't know the real numbers. Numbers like that, and the ability to track such numbers, are no longer a reality in this world. There is no infrastructure, no management, nowhere near even having the living bodies to perform such work. But let's just say that 90% of the humans on the planet died in a single day. That's close enough. They went to sleep, and never woke up. Not until later, anyway.

People didn't just drop dead in the street. They only died in their sleep. On the second day, maybe half of those who had survived went to sleep for the last time. Then, we think, the Earth came out of the comet's tail, and people stopped dying.

Then there was me. Whatever was in the dust from the comet's tail, it proved lethal to almost everyone on the planet. Some few it harmed not at all. Some very few were thrown into a deep coma-like state for several days, and awakened still human but changed. Such a one am I.

This night had been much like any other night. I was one member of a three-person scavenging party. We spent most days like this. Searching houses, stores, any place we found for anything we could use. Food has proven to be not a big problem. The comet's tail did not affect animals. Many of the humans who survived, if they didn't know how to hunt and clean game, learned how to do so quickly, and livestock remained plentiful. Others threw themselves into farming and gardening. Our primary objective in our scavenger hunts was ammunition. Any ammo was good, but the more powerful, the better.

The dead are beating against the wall now. It will not be long before they break through. The sunlight slants through the window and casts a bright beam of innocent lethality across the floor.

There was a young girl in our group who began screaming in horror a few days after we came out of the comet's tail. "There's too many!" she shrieked over and over again. It took hours to get her calm enough to speak rationally. She'd had visions, she said. She told us that the dead were coming back. Too many had died at once, and they couldn't pass. It was like a bottleneck into the afterlife. There were too many, and they were coming back.

It didn't make sense. It sounded ridiculous. But she was right.

The dead who came back were not the same. They were no longer human. During daylight, they appeared to be human, but they huddled and hid inside because sunlight would kill them. During the night they roamed free, and with the coming of darkness they transformed into humanoid shapes without features, a head with grotesquely suggestive hollows and bumps where ears, eyes and nose should be. Hairless, utterly featureless but for a mouth, their entire bodies colored a dark, ghastly gray.

They hungered for living humans. If they caught one of us, they ate us alive. If they found someone who was truly dead, they cared nothing for the corpse. They wanted only to devour alive those who were still living--or at least those who were still warm.

They could be killed, so they were truly dead. It took much more trauma to kill them than it should have a normal human, but they could be killed. The most effective way was massive destruction of the head, which was why I spent most nights combing the city for the most powerful guns and ammunition I could find. It was why I had learned to handle a huge revolver that fired the fearsome .454 Casull. It was why my two companions had both carried long guns that were capable of blowing the top of a skull off. But unlike me, they had been truly human, and now were truly dead.

When I had awakened from the coma, I also had changed. But I hungered only for such food as I had before, and such food as any human would eat and find agreeable. I had also learned very soon that sunlight was extremely painful to me. It had taken only a few seconds exposure to tell me this. I did not know if it would ultimately be as lethal to me as to the dead. I had also apparently developed a new sense that allowed me to feel the nearby presence of the dead. My newfound perception often gave us a precious few minutes warning to escape. This was why I accompanied so many scavenging parties, and why when I was with them we went out only at night. But on this night, there had been too many of the dead, from too many different directions. We had been trapped here, and my companions became truly dead before I was able to block the door into this room.

The sun has slipped up above the eaves, casting the room full in shadow. I sit in the windowsill. There is another house, the window broken and gaping open, perhaps only 20 yards away. The dead will not be able to cross such a gulf during the day; the sunlight will kill them. If I can make it, I will be safe until nightfall. I know the sunlight will be excruciating. I fully expect someday to die, to be like those who are truly dead, but not--I hope--today.

The door splinters open and the dead lurch through. I fire one shot. One of the dead drops lifeless as parts of its head spatters across those behind. They seem not to notice. I decide to save my last few rounds and leap into the sunlight...

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