It. That's the only fitting label for what this has become. It's alive, yet isn't. Walks, breathes, hunts, and eats. Walks more like a machine than a man. Breathes more like a beast. Hunts more like a cannibal. Exists more like a deity. And it's the only living being walking on two legs left on this earth besides the one intact human it pursues.
It's gaining on him. His chest burns like his heart has burst into flames, pounding rapid drum beats. His lungs can't keep up with the hopeless demands this game of survival keeps belting out. His knees throb with restless minds of their own, more concerned with keeping a fume-fueled body in motion to the bitter end than on the intrusive stings of thorns as he half-runs/half-tumbles down the former river bank.
Its heavy, charred-flesh breath tortures his ears. Long, darkened fingernails obstruct his vision. He knew this moment would come. It was a matter of when, not if. Last intact human on earth. Was.
Its chilly, bone-exposed fingers press forcefully against his temples, jerking at his head as if picking an apple from a tree. He quivers in a mumble.
"Please don't do it!" he implores.
He fully realizes such a plea amounts to talking to himself. Just needs to hear the words, the same way someone on death row would need to speak their last words before execution.
The ghostly, gray mouth props wide open, oblivious to its own intentions, prepared without conscience to satisfy primal, instinctive cravings. Jagged, yellow teeth shoot pre-emptive pains through his feverish skin as it grumbles the undead equivalent of a prayer of thanks before a meal. He shudders in anticipation of the two of them being the last to go. Both zombies. Both living on borrowed time until the lack of fresh beings to feed upon turns the final light off for all eternity. The end of their lives. End of the species. Official end of the world.
The odd moss he's covered in from the tumble dampens his odor-infused, torn shirt. He's seen it before, but only in tiny, sparse patches scattered here and there throughout this land. Seems to be the sole surviving flora able to thrive in these parched surroundings. Down here by the former river, however, its abundance is overwhelming to the eye. In his mind, he curses this slippery cosmic insult of "life" for sending him into this fate-sealing fall.
The zombie thrusts its jaws into his right upper arm, taking with them a blood-covered chunk of skin, fat, muscle, and moss. He screams a futile bellow of excruciation into the stagnant, orange-tinted air across the skeleton-dotted valley. The transformation has begun.
Several weeks have passed since it feasted upon that final meal of human meat. Normally, a living dead thing in this realm would be in the convulsions of deprivation by now. Normally, its final, permanent death would be imminent. But something has been happening. Its gray, sickly skin is taking on a faint apricot color. Its fingers are fully covered and turning soft. The walk has become less mechanical and more fluid. The long, white hair is turning a yellowish blonde. And, though malnourished, it no longer feels any compulsion whatsoever to feed off the life force of an intact human. It, has evolved back into a he.
He's been living off of what little nutrition can be scavenged out of earth minerals and edible dead plants, but something keeps urging him to revisit that river bank. He's confused. Barely able to form thoughts into coherent ideas. Remembering the taste of the man, he recalls the animalistic satisfaction of the replenishment, but now that image is making him feel sick.
And thus he returns, with an emotional ache of guilt, though knowing he'd been under the control of a force beyond his power. He sits down in a glob of the fluorescent-green fungus. It almost seems to breathe. The sensation of moisture seeping through clothing and chilling his skin triggers thoughts of something he can't quite fathom. Memories? The moss emits a sweet smell, like a thing he should know all about.
"Flowers!" he yells, shocked at first by the sound of his own voice.
He realizes he just spoke something besides a grumble for the first time in ages. He repeats the word again and again, welling up inside with a feeling that radiates outward into pleasant, tingling goosebumps all over his body.
Now he recollects the taste of the moss. It was repulsive to his warped, miniscule psyche then. He'd wanted to spit it out, but feared losing some of the flesh along with it. It tasted like...this thing called Brussels sprouts.
It still does. But when he was little, he was the only kid on this planet who loved Brussels sprouts, as far as he knows.
"As far as I know," he verbalizes while gathering another fistful of the moss to shove in his mouth.
Jolsen Achilles Archer. That's the full name he knows to be his own now. Several more full weeks have passed, and he remembers his parents explaining how they thought the middle name was cute. Achilles: the mythological character who gets shot in the heel by an arrow; the archer: proficient with a bow.
He's been living on a steady diet of this moss for days. His skin has taken on a pronounced tan tone, and a set of periwinkle eyes are live and sparkly. Hints of muscle tone are all over a once semi-exposed cage of rib bones. He feels a steady, warm rush of gratefulness for the gift of re-animation bestowed upon him by this miracle fungus.
Yet, he knows it's just a matter of time. The grumbling moves about in the distance, sometimes getting closer, sometimes fading, but always there. He wishes he could recall the part of his education in college where they'd taught how to isolate and extract the active ingredients of plants to make medicine. Among all the other garbage strewn everywhere on the vacant planet, used syringes are fairly easy to find and sterilize. But there's no time. It may be weeks before he fully recovers his memory; so for now, the only option is to face the monster this monster created and try to trick it somehow into eating the moss.
Even despite everything, the sun still rises here. Perverted into a murky, reddened and prematurely-aged version of its former glory, but it still rises. Jolsen knows he doesn't have to worry about not having a new day tomorrow...only how many tomorrows he and his survival partner will have left once he has been restored to a man.
He fills the one pocket on his tattered, scorched, soaked, filthy jeans that doesn't have holes in it with the moss. He draws in a sustained whiff of the polluted air in an attempt to meditate as the graveyard-quiet of this global desert absorbs into his soul. Then remembers...
"When God closes a door, he opens a window." He remembers how lame and cringeworthy that saying was back when there were billions of people around to say it. But as he nurtures the one single, emerald spark of hope that drips from the tips of his now-glowing, youthful fingers, he wonders with the same pre-apocalyptic, uncluttered imagination that he had as a child. Maybe he really does.