I have to make cupcakes for Jason’s class. Today. Right now. Vanilla, nut-free, white frosting, rainbow sprinkles. Vanilla, nut-free, white frosting, rainbow sprinkles. Vanilla, nut-free, white frosting, rainbow sprinkles.
A whooshing sound penetrated my sugar and flour dreams.
The fridge? The a/c? Oh God, I hope it’s not the a/c. I hope it’s not broken. I hope….
The fog cocooning me between waking and sleep dissolved, leaving me shivering. I was lying on my back. Gusts of wind swept over me and I opened my eyes to see only a greyish-yellowish haze above.
I snapped to my feet, swaying for a moment, and looked all around. No houses, no trees, no cars, no people, no remains, no debris, no grass, no streets, no hills. Just dirt. Flat. And that strange murky sky.
“Jason!” I didn’t know where I was or what had happened, but only one thought ripped through me – my son.
“Jason!” I screamed again. The wind sucked my voice away and I lunged in some direction, but my weakened legs stumbled. I struggled to breathe, panic crushing my lungs, and yet still, I tried to run. I stepped on my untied shoelace and fell again. None of it mattered because the earth was flat and barren all around me. I could see for miles and there was nothing. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no sign of Jason.
Kneeling, I tied my shoelace, relieved to the point of tears for this one familiar action. My faded old navy sneakers. Oh, how I loved them right then. I ran my hands over my favorite jeans, reveling in every dear stain, every comfortable tear, and stretched the hem of my worn yellow t-shirt in front of me. It was grimy with dirt and splotches of….was that blood? Whose blood?
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the last thing I remembered. In my RAV4, driving to the grocery store. Some asshole tailgating me. Cupcakes. I was going to the store to get ingredients for Jason’s cupcakes. Jason was at school. Jason was at school! Maybe the school was unscathed. The baking aisle. Boxes of Duncan Hines, Sara Lee. An alarm, many alarms. Everyone’s phones blaring that alarm notification. A flash. A BIG flash. White? Red? Yellow? I couldn’t remember. But blinding.
That was all.
I opened my eyes, searching, desperate to see some remnant of the supermarket. An outline. The hill behind it. An indentation.
Was I still at the supermarket? Was this even the same day? WAS this day? Night? The haze was tinged yellow, but it didn’t look like sun.
I started walking in what I thought could have been the direction of my house, hoping that just a few steps in the right direction would reveal people, cars and stores.
But the scenery went on unchanged. The wind continued to rush and the sky’s weird gloomy glow remained steady. I walked and I walked. I felt as though I’d gone on for miles, hours, but I had no way to mark time or distance.
And then, a far-off speck on the horizon.
I didn’t know who or what it was, but I ran toward it. Faster than I’d ever imagined, stumbling over my own feet, calling for help. I ran until my lungs burned and stomach heaved. At last the dot took shape and I slowed, confused, squinting at it.
It was….a lion. A lion? The statue of a lion, about three feet tall. I approached it cautiously, mystified. The lion sat on his haunches, muscled forelegs and enormous paws set primly together. A magnificent mane spilled over his shoulders and chest, each thick lock chiseled to create a cascading effect. His eyes, wide-set and serene, gazed into the distance, as thought he were sitting on a hill overlooking the savanna, watching the sun set on his African night.
He was dark, tarnished with age. I could see pitting and cracks along his face and legs. A bit of his ear had fallen away. Something about him felt familiar. I squatted so that my nose was only inches from his.
“Do you know what happened?” I whispered. “Where is everybody? Everything?” I looked around at the desolation and back to his quiet eyes. “Why are WE here?”
Then something clicked and I remembered where I had seen the lion. About five miles from my house, an antique store had once stood along a busy commuter road, sandwiched between a Taco Bell and a Chick-fil-A. A ramshackle two-story building, bits and pieces from eras past spilled out of every window and doorway. This lion had sat near the entrance, lost among dozens of other statues, paintings and weather-beaten vintage chairs.
One Christmas night, about three years ago, faulty wiring had burned the building to the ground. The debris was eventually cleared and the lot abandoned, leaving weeds and vines to push their way through the cracks in the concrete. But the lion had remained, neither fire nor bulldozers budging him from his spot. He sat there through snowstorms, hurricanes and heatwaves, patiently watching the Route 1 traffic rumble back and forth through the years.
I looked around. Had I arrived at the site of the antique store? Nothing but the lion indicated the existence of a major road, storefronts or aggravated drivers. I patted the lion’s head and then jerked my hand back abruptly with a gasp. The statue was WARM, warm as though life flowed through it.
Gingerly, I placed my hand on his back and watched him closely, looking for any flicker of movement, dimly aware of the absurdity of my actions. I looked deeply into his eyes, but they remained as calm and distant as before.
My addled brain could take no more. The panic, the fear I’d managed to stave off since I’d awoken, overwhelmed me. The world wavered around me and my legs collapsed. I had no food, no water, no shelter. My son was gone. All I had was the lion. I dragged myself closer and curled against him, seeking his warmth, no longer caring what that heat meant. I would die here. I closed my eyes and hoped the end would come quickly.
But sleep did not come. I tried to push away thoughts of Jason, but the harder I tried, the more they engulfed me. I’d open my eyes after what felt like hours, hoping to see some change in the sky, some indication of time moving, but everything remained the same.
Hours must have passed, maybe even days, as I lay against the lion, willing myself to die. Until one moment, when I heard a faint sound, different from the wind. My mind had slowed and I suspected I was descending into madness. Hallucinations, visions…and then death. But the sound, a groan, was rolling into my consciousness every few seconds and becoming more distinct.
My arms quivered as I pushed myself to a sitting position, shading my eyes, hardly believing what I saw. In the distance, six enormous figures were moving toward me. They were humanesque - walking on two legs, arms swinging - but they could not have been human. Their heads were grotesquely large, balanced on skinny necks and gaunt ashen bodies that must have been 10 or 12 feet tall. They moved stiffly, with choppy gaits, but quickly. As they drew closer, I heard clinking and grinding with each step.
Stone! They were made of stone. I forgot my exhaustion and focused on these strange, stone beings.
One held up a rocky hand and all six stopped, turning their large oval heads toward me. Their faces looked carved, as intricately as the lion’s, with high defined cheekbones and mouths set in straight lines. But their eyes were blank and unreadable, unnerving stone orbs.
They began moving toward me again, more slowly this time, and stopped just feet away, looming over me.
“We’ve been looking for you,” one said, voice booming but gravelly.
“Are you hurt?” asked another.
“Can you stand?” said a third.
“Give her a moment,” admonished another, a lighter voice that sounded like a woman’s.
Their stone mouths didn’t move as they spoke and I looked past them, half-expecting to see someone else speaking for them. Like a ventriloquist with a puppet. But there was no one.
“Who are you?” I tried to say, but my lips were swollen, mouth too dry to speak.
“Water,” said one of the figures.
Their fingers were long and tapered carved stone. One pinched a tiny stone goblet between two fingers and bent down to hand it to me. In my puny hands, it looked enormous and weighed almost more than I could hold. I struggled to lift it, but when I did, cool, clear water flowed through me, moistening my parched throat. I gulped and they re-filled the goblet.
I tried again.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“We are the dead of the last apocalypse,” said one.
I stared at them, uncomprehending, wondering again if I was hallucinating.
“She doesn’t know what you mean,” said another.
The first cocked his head, turning those stony spheres on me.
“Millions – “
“No, billions,” interrupted one, slightly shorter than the others.
“Billions of years ago, the Earth was destroyed in another apocalypse.”
“Another?” I asked, a sick feeling forming in my stomach.
“Why, yes,” said the first stone figure. “Do you not know? All of this – ” his arm chinked as he waved it into the air. “It’s the second apocalypse.”
Darkness closed in around me as I wobbled and leaned against my lion.
“Billions of years ago,” the figure continued, “The Earth and all its beings were destroyed. Including ourselves. But we woke. This same lion, this one you cling to, found us. This lion has sat in this very place for more time than you could ever comprehend - before lions were created, before the first Earth existed. Even before the dawn of time. You feel heat within that stone. That is the heat of millions of suns and trillions of stars, the heat of life itself. From this lion, we rose. We built a new Earth, the Earth of your people. And now, we will do it again, and you will join us.”
He spoke slowly and simply but my mind could not grasp his words.
“There was another Earth? Before the dinosaurs? Why doesn’t anyone know about it?” I asked.
“It is not common knowledge,” he said.
“Are you –” I hesitated not knowing how to say it. “Are you….zombies?”
“Something like that. But not like the zombies of your Walking Dead. Undead, we are. But human, we are not. A different species from a different time.”
“How do you know about The Walking Dead? And why do you speak like we do? And, if this is the apocalypse, what caused it? And your story about the lion doesn’t make any sense. And – ” here I swallowed, trying to hold back tears. “What about my son Jason?”
The figure laid a fingertip, meant to be comforting I suppose, on my head.
“Many questions, human. We will answer them all, but first, we must move from here.”
“Just answer this, please,” I begged. “Why did I survive? And are there others?”
The one figure ground his massive head around to the others. Even with their blank eyes and unmoving mouths, I could sense an awkward moment.
The head turned back to me.
“But, human, you didn’t survive. You, like us, were destroyed and then resurrected. The lion,” he said simply, clinking as he gestured to the small statue - as though that explained everything. “Are there others? Well, that’s what we have to find out.”
I gazed up at him dumbly.
“I’m a zombie?”
He sighed. A gravelly, rumbly kind of sigh.
“Again, that’s not the word we want to use, but if you insist, then yes. Now come along, we must move quickly.”
He ran his stony fingers through the dirt, cradling a mound in his grey hand.
“Do you see this?” he asked.
I nodded, numb.
“Now we begin to build another,” he said.