Patient Zero

The first short story in my collection Normbies!, available October 2022.

The toilet seat screamed when Billy lifted it, echoing along the halls and coming back like a misheard rumor, off-key and quiet. He listened to see if anything would notice, but didn’t expect much; he had already checked the bottom floor thoroughly and found it empty.

Billy unzipped his pants and almost opened fire, then noticed the tail of toilet paper hanging from the roll set in the wall, disturbingly close to the toilet. He stepped to the side a little to block any splashback from hitting the exposed toilet paper, then chuckled to himself and let loose. Old habits die hard, even in the zombie apocalypse.

He knew it wouldn’t flush so he didn’t bother trying. Billy looked at himself, ripply in the old mirror, and said, “Dear Diary: Today I pissed in a toilet like the old days. It was wonderful.”

He ran a cursory check for any food in the kitchen and found nothing. A glance through the kitchen window told him it would rain soon, so Billy decided this was as good a place as any to hunker down for the night. He unlocked the sliding glass back door, walked out from under the awning, then set up his raincatcher: A jug that would catch rainwater through a homemade filter, weighted down so it wouldn’t tip over no matter what the wind threw at it. After that, Billy went back inside and locked the door behind him.

The house creaked and groaned with every step. He was wary of going up the stairs, but after the first few didn’t give, he judged them structurally sound and ascended the stairs while whistling a tune. When he realized it was “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie, he stopped humming, stopped walking, stopped everything. The wind rustled outside, it whistled through a few loose boards somewhere in the attic, then Billy dried his eyes and headed down the upstairs hall.

The upstairs bedrooms looked the same as the first floor: Dusty furniture, toys strewn across a child’s room, clothes hanging in closets, electronics so old they wouldn’t turn on anymore. No survivors and no zombies, but whether there were ghosts was up for debate. The darkening sky let in little light, and Billy got the creeps and headed back downstairs.

It was sprinkling when he went through the back yard. The raincatcher was doing its job, but that wasn’t why he was here. In a patch of grass far from the house, near the fence separating the yard from the neighbor’s, he found tiny red strawberries growing under clovers. Billy picked as many as he could and put them in a baggie, ate a few of them (they had no flavor, but he was hungry) and then headed inside as the raindrops grew larger.

What little sun broke through the clouds disappeared as night fell. It was pitch black in the house, disturbed only by the lightning and the glow of the fireplace. Billy staved off his hunger as long as he could, and finally he cooked a can of beans in a pot he pulled from the kitchen (he preferred to use his own as seldom as possible, to avoid wear and tear).

He was lucky to have found a suburb mostly empty of zombies before the storm rolled in; weathering storms was difficult, and the rain didn’t slow the zombies much, so sleep was a bad idea when it was even possible. Houses were always risky, but when it came to storms it was a risk worth taking, and this particular storm was a doozy.

After dinner Billy stripped naked and went outside, pressing through the wind and rain to get the raincatcher, which had filled up. He brought it inside and filled all of his skins and bottles, then braved the storm again to set the device back in the yard. After that he huddled as close to the fire as he could until he was dry, then dressed himself and made a bed out of blankets from the bedrooms. He couldn’t use any from the child’s room; the blood splatters, though they had long since dried, bothered him too much. It wasn’t that cold, in any case.

In the morning the rain was still coming down, but it was much lighter. The sky was white and gave no signs of clearing up, so Billy stayed another day in the old house.

In the afternoon he counted his food: One more can of beans, two cans of peaches, and a few granola bars. He opened one of these and found it infested with some kind of larva, but he couldn’t afford to discard it. Billy ate the granola bar with his eyes closed and his breath held.

That night he ate most of the berries, as they would spoil faster than the granola bars and the food in his cans. He slept in the house again, and in the morning he went out to collect his raincatcher. The ground around it was trampled in, almost like footprints. It must’ve rained hard. He gathered it up and headed out the front door of the house.

“You never get used to the weight,” he said, shifting his backpack higher onto his shoulder. Anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary had to be left behind, but you would be surprised how many things were absolutely necessary, and how much they weighed.

Everything had to be packed in as tightly as possible to avoid it clanking around and making noise, which meant extra effort whenever he had to take something out. Things like his main canteen and the granola bars were kept in easy-to-reach spots, things like the cans of food and ammo were a journey away.

Ahead he saw a figure and knelt behind a car. He took his backpack off and set it down while he pulled a crowbar from his belt loop. Thunder rolled in the distance, and Billy hoped it was an echo of the storm that had already passed and not another one coming to put him off gathering for another night or two.

The thing ahead shuffled back and forth in the road. Billy moved out from behind the car and knelt behind one a little closer, giving him a better view of the zombie.

It was missing an arm, and its jaw hung open, swinging up and down slightly but crooked when top met bottom; someone had run into this zombie and broken its jaw, but failed to give it the final blow. Without a sound Billy slipped the goggles around his neck over his eyes, rushed out from behind the car, and finished the job for them, plunging the crowbar deep into the creature’s eye. Blood splattered across his goggles, but not enough to obstruct his view. With the crowbar he guided the zombie backward onto the street, then yanked the metal shaft out of its head. The zombie’s eyeball stuck to the end of it, and Billy thrust it into the zombie’s head another two times for good measure.

Billy wiped off the crowbar with the zombie’s shirt (it was grungy but did the trick). He took his goggles from his face and let them rest against his chest, checked the dearly departed for anything useful, found nothing , and headed back toward his backpack.

He was tired from giving the zombie a brain-mashing, and when he picked up his pack, the weight of it nearly pulled him down. He hoisted the thing onto his back, using the car to hold himself up, and started along the road again. What felt like ten minutes later, he passed the zombie he had killed.

“Might be time to re-define ‘absolutely necessary’,” Billy muttered.

He walked for a few hours before rain began to fall, and the last thing he wanted was to be made even heavier by wet clothes. He recalled a summer or two before when it barely rained at all, and he once spent days lying on the ground near his raincatcher, slowly dying of thirst. Now he had more water than he could carry; if only he could travel through time and give Past Billy a glass of water.

If I could go back in time maybe I could prevent all this from even happening.

That seemed less likely; as far as he could tell, nobody understood what happened, or even when. He remembered things on the news, stories of people biting each other, some unknown contagion, but that was all so long ago, and didn’t matter. A year into the apocalypse he had found a shed owned by a doomsday prepper, and all of the doomsday prepping in the world hadn’t saved the old man from the mudslide that toppled his house, his shed, and crushed him below rocks and shrubs. Billy had found the guy only three feet from his stash of water, reaching for it but unable to get at any, unable to find enough leverage to free himself, and the whole thing was what convinced Billy to always be on the move.

He crossed the front yard of a house, cupped his ear against the door, and listened. The rain made it difficult to hear anything. He went to the nearest window and tried to open it, but found it locked. He checked the perimeter and found no unlocked windows or doors, which was both good and bad. There was probably food inside. There were probably zombies inside as well.

Billy let his backpack slump to the porch, grateful to be free of the weight. He climbed a nearby tree, crossed from its branches onto a small awning, and held onto the gutter while he leaned to the side and smashed in a second-floor window with his crowbar. He waited and listened, heard nothing but rain, and hoisted himself into the house, careful to avoid the glass.

He was in an empty bedroom. Clothes lay carelessly discarded, the drawers open and the closet door ajar. The bedroom door was open as well, and Billy crept to it, then glanced down the hall. The rest of the doors were shut. He went downstairs quietly, always listening for movement, always finding silence, and unlocked the front door. He dragged his backpack into the house (far too tired now to bother carrying it) and closed and locked the door behind him.

Billy found a small dresser near the door, upended the drawers, then smashed them into pieces. He looked at his little pile of wood and smashed the rest of the dresser too, for good measure. He set the wood down near the fireplace and set to work building a fire. Rain dripped down the chimney, but not enough to disturb the flames.

With some warmth coming in, Billy headed for the kitchen to look for food. The cupboards were also ajar, and most of them were empty, with dishes scattered across the floor and counters. A pot in the sink had been used to make spaghetti, and the homeowner had apparently not washed it before abandoning the house to the apocalypse, because maggots crawled in and out of the remains of the food. Billy sighed and collected them all in a tiny jar; he could eat them, but not while they were alive. He’d done it four times and found eating them dead was the only way to keep them down.

The food in the fridge was long-rotten, but he found a half-empty jar of peanut butter in a cupboard. Oil had collected on top, but he mixed it around with a knife, licked the knife clean, then tossed it into the sink. The cupboard also held a small box of ramen noodles; the world Billy came from held things like gold, oil, and six-inch strips of green paper in the highest esteem, but the world he found himself in now saved that pedestal only for ramen noodles. The fuckers never spoiled, weighed nothing, could be cooked anywhere, and tasted like angel hair. He would finish his berries tonight, but there were a dozen packets of noodles in the box, so he decided he would have one of those as well.

Since he would be using water for his noodles, Billy set his raincatcher up in the back yard, then came back inside to find something to cook them in. Pots were handy but not absolutely necessary, and he didn’t carry one with him. The only one in the house was the spaghetti pot, so he did his best to scrape the years-old pasta out before he put much finer years-old pasta inside.

Billy set the noodles up to cook, then went exploring. There was a basement, but the shelves held only tools and car parts. There was a small pile of firewood in the corner, and Billy held a momentary vigil for the dresser he hadn’t needed to smash to bits, then headed back upstairs.

The ground floor yielded little else of use. He managed to shave in the bathroom, rinsed himself off by sticking his head out the window, and sharpened his knife on a sharpener he found in the kitchen. He went upstairs to check the rest of the bedrooms for clothes; two of his three pairs of socks were wearing thin, and he could afford to swap out his shoes.

He started in the bedroom he’d come in through. Rain splashed in through the window, and when he searched it for clothes his size but found none, he closed the bedroom door to keep the cold in there. He tried the next door and found a teenage girl’s room. Billy was never a big man, and the girl’s custom My Little Pony Chuck Taylors fit like a glove. Or like shoes. Billy wasn’t picky before the world ended and he certainly wasn’t picky now.

Next up was a closet between bedrooms. Billy turned the knob, but never had a chance to pull on the door. It shoved toward him hard enough to knock him backward, make him drop his new shoes, and a zombie shouted “Yeeee-alch!” as it came tumbling out on top of him. As he landed on his back he noticed the blood stains on the carpet, the small red droplets here and there, and the dents in the door frame. He had been careless, but he didn’t have time to learn his lesson; the zombie landed on top of him and bit into his shoulder.

“Fuck!” Billy screamed. He reached for his crowbar, but it was tangled in his belt loop below him. He punched the zombie in the side of its head, which did nothing at all to deter it from its meal. The zombie sank its teeth deeper into him, the pressure was unbearable. He beat at its head over and over again, but zombies feel no pain. The creature writhed as it clamped down, pushing its hands against his chest and head, then pushed against Billy’s face, one scrawny pointer finger in his mouth, pulling against his cheek. Trying not to choke, Billy bit down as hard as he could. The zombie still felt nothing, but his teeth severed its finger, and the zombie’s hand slid free of his face.

Billy spat the finger out, put a hand on either side of the zombie’s head, and squeezed, hoping to crush its skull, but that was much harder than it sounded in his mind.  He was able to yank it free of his shoulder, but not without a chunk of skin clinging to the creature’s teeth. He realized he was screaming, and pain shot up his arm while blood squirted down it and onto the carpet.

With both feet Billy shoved the zombie back toward the closet. It slammed into the shelves inside, knocking one loose, which clattered onto his legs. Billy was already sitting up, clutching his shoulder, scrambling backward only to find the wall of the hallway. He dragged his legs out from under the shelf and shoved it forward, putting the shelf between him and the zombie, and with his back against the wall, he was able to prop them both in place. The zombie reached and reached, but while it clawed at his jeans, it had worn its nails down on the inside of the door who knew how long before. It leaned forward hoping to get a bite, and if the zombie’s former self had been a practitioner of yoga, it might have been able to. Emaciated as it was, it couldn’t lean forward enough to bite him.

The crowbar was pinned under Billy’s ass. He tried to shift to get at it, but the shelf moved and the zombie nearly pushed free. Billy leaned back into the shelf, pinning the monster down again.

Outside, the rain beat against the house, and soon only the lightning was enough to illuminate the hallway. With each flash Billy saw those lifeless eyes, the effortless grasping at his legs, the teeth clacking together. He felt tired, like he was falling asleep. To add insult to injury, the smell of ramen noodles permeated the house. Billy found himself slipping several times, nearly letting the zombie free. He was fading away, he was almost over. Lightning struck nearby, jarring him a little more conscious, and he realized the zombie was no longer moving, like it had nodded off.

“Fuck you,” Billy said.

“What?” the zombie replied, and lifted its head. It looked at Billy, squinting through the darkness, its eyes wide and darting around, full of fear.

Billy laughed and laughed. The zombie pushed the board away easily, and he was far too tired to hold it back anymore. It stood up before him in the hall.

“Oh my God,” it said. He couldn’t tell before, but it was a young woman. “I bit you, didn’t I? I remember it. I remember everything.”

“It’s okay,” Billy said. “I bit you back.” Then he lost consciousness.

It was morning when Billy woke up. He was wrapped in blankets on the couch, and the fire in the fireplace was down to cinders. He heard something moving around, and sat up as quickly as he could. His shoulder hurt, and he realized it had been bandaged.

Billy scrambled to his feet and reached for his crowbar when the zombie from the night before entered the room. She was cleaner now, wearing different clothes, her missing finger gauzed off, and while she was still dangerously skinny, she had color in her, she was alive. She was also offering him a bowl of ramen noodles.

“It’s okay,” she said. Billy was still scrambling for the crowbar, but it wasn’t there. “Your stuff is by your bag, it’s over there. Eat these, I made them for you. I ate your berries, though.”

“You’re alive,” Billy said. “You were one of them, you were a zombie.”

“I remember being in that closet,” the woman replied. “That’s all. So long, just scratching at the door, trying the knob, I couldn’t even turn around because of the shelves. And I remember trying to…” she looked at the floor. “Trying to eat you. I wanted to eat you so badly.”

“You almost did.” Billy took the bowl from her, sat down, and started eating. “You look hungrier than me.”

“I’m starving. But I don’t want to eat too fast. I heard it can rupture your stomach if you eat too fast after starving. Besides, judging by your stuff, I’d say there’s not a lot of food left in the world.”

“You can say that again,” Billy replied. He finished his ramen noodles and regretted it; he hadn’t savored them at all, he had barely tasted them. “Sorry about your finger.”

“So you did do that? You bit off my finger?”

“Yeah. You were choking me. I was panicking.”

“I can’t exactly blame you. I was a—a zombie. Do you… know how long?”

“Years,” Billy said. “I stopped counting them. Jesus, I didn’t know people could turn back. Makes me feel sick to my stomach thinking about things I’ve done to them.”

“I feel sick, too. Physically, I mean. Hey, was there anyone else here? My mother, I can’t find her, and her stuff’s gone. I remember… I remember biting her.”

Billy set his bowl down, staring at the ground, and scratched his face. “If you get bitten, you turn. I’m sorry. There was no one here when I got here, except for you.”

“Oh.” The woman wiped at her eyes. “Well, thank you, I guess. For biting me. And turning me back.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Billy said. “If a zombie bites you, you turn into one of them.”

“Yeah, but I was one of them. And you weren’t, and you bit me, and I turned back.”

Billy sat there, his mouth open, his thoughts racing. “Holy shit. I never even thought of that. Nobody ever even thought of that.”

“How many people are left, anyway?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I haven’t seen anyone in a few weeks. I try to avoid them. Some aren’t friendly, the rest aren’t worth the risk.”

“What’s your name?”


“I’m Lisa.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Lisa.” Tears formed in Billy’s eyes. “You wouldn’t believe how nice it is to meet you.”

“I’m glad I’m not alone, too.”

“Lisa, I think I’m going to turn. You bit me, remember?”

“You did turn,” Lisa replied. “And I bit you again. Right before you turned, it’s what you said to me. ‘I bit you back.’ I figured it was worth a try. And you attacked me, and I fought you off for a few minutes, and then you just passed out.”

A mockingbird cried out somewhere outside. “This changes everything,” Billy said. A laugh jumped out of his throat. “This changes absolutely everything, Lisa.”

Lisa smiled. “But… What happens now? Where do I go, how do we find everyone and tell them?”

“One person at a time, Billy said. He started to gather his things, and reached for the shoes, but stopped. He realized they were probably Lisa’s.

“It’s okay,” Lisa said. “I have more shoes.” Lisa helped Billy pack up, and between the two of them, the load was much lighter.