Catch up on the story here
My heart thumps in my chest and I can’t breathe. I’m out of options.
It takes a second for this to process. It sounds like the audio track of a cheesy horror film. I’m so confused and shocked that I blurt out, “What??”
His booming laughter fills the empty stone house. “I’m just messing with you, come out of there.”
I squeeze my way out of the hollowed out stump. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” My fists are balled at my side and my blood is pumping so hard I can hear it in my ears. But there he stands in front of me, this undead stranger with a smile from ear to ear.
“I’m sorry,” he’s still laughing as he says it. “I really am. I couldn’t resist fucking with you.” He smile dims a little when he sees how angry I really am. His hand extends out, filling the space between us. “It’s Maggie, right? You’ve waited on me a few times at Lakeside Grill. I’m Tripp.”
Ignoring his handshake, I bend down and brush some dried leaves from my leg. When I finally straighten back up, his smile is gone and a concerned look is etched on his face, both hands now tucked into his front pockets.
“Hey, look, I’m really sorry. I thought for sure you would’ve recognized me. If not from the restaurant then from my website.”
The worry on his face eases my anger a bit and I extend my hand out. “Maggie.” His face softens and we shake hands finally. “What made you think that would be funny? You scared the shit out of me.”
“I dunno, I guess being scary is one of the perks of being undead and you always had a sense of humor when you waited on me so I guess I just figured… I dunno.” He pulls a worn, faded baseball cap from the back pocket of his jeans and fixes it on top of his muddy brown hair, perfectly covering the bullet hole that gaped on his forehead near the hairline. Aside from his gray eyes, he looks like a normal, slightly pale, living person.
My eyes fall to the ground and I focus on my feet. “I guess I’m not in a laughing mood, I was just at that house where the family was murdered last night.”
There was a few seconds pause before he quietly says “I hadn’t heard about that. Sorry.” He clears his throat and points at my camera bag. “Hey, are you a photographer?”
“Um, sorta. I mean, I guess I am.” I pull the black camera body out of my bag which he promptly snags from my hands.
He flips through the photos on the tiny screen, nodding slightly as he does so. “Well, Maggie, it’s fate that we ran into each other again.” The camera gets shoved back into my hands. “I’m in desperate need of a photographer. My website The Undead Reporter has millions of followers and yet no decent photos. I take a few with my phone but they’re crap compared to your stuff.”
“The… Undead Reporter? Never heard of it.”
“Yeah, well all of the national news tried covering life inside the wall and they all portrayed it as terrifying and horrific and the worst conditions imaginable. They focused on all the wrong things. I was a journalist before I died because I was looking into the wrong story-“ he points to his baseball cap and I realize he’s talking about the gunshot wound. “So I figured it was my duty to tell people the truth about life as one of the undead. And that truth is that it’s pretty ordinary.” He digs the toe of his sneakers into the soft soil that is now the floor of the house. “Then when it became obvious that the CDC had no idea what made this all happen, I decided to investigate and report on every possible theory people had.”
“So what are you investigating right now that brings you out into the middle of the woods?”
He chuckles. “Meteorites.”
The word hangs in the air between us.
“Yep. One of my followers said that there may have been a meteor shower that NASA wasn’t telling us about and maybe they brought along some bacteria or something from outer space. So I bought a metal detector and I’ve been scouring the forest the last week or so. Then I saw you so I dropped the detector and came over here and… well you know the rest.”
“No offense but your fans sound kind of crazy.”
“I agree this theory may be a little… out there, but it’s my job: investigate every possibility.” Another pause. “So?”
“So what?” I say as I sling the camera bag back up onto my shoulder.
“So will you be my photographer?”
I scoff and walk past him and out of the house back into the forest. “Now you sound kind of crazy. Why would I want to work for you?”
He follows a few steps behind me. “I can pay.”
I stop short and he almost walks into me. I turn around and his face is inches away from mine as he tries to regain his balance from having stopped so suddenly. I instinctively take a step back. “How much are we talking here? ‘Quit the restaurant’ kind of pay?”
He flashes a charming smile which was probably used to coax stories out of unwilling sources in his former life. “If your photos are good enough, maybe.” He pulls a card out of his wallet and hands it over. “I’m gonna get back to meteorite hunting, my info is on there. Call me if you decide you want your pictures to be seen by millions of people all over the world.”
He trots away around the back of the stone house and out of sight. Retracing my steps, I make my way back to the path and my car, absentmindedly flipping his card over between my fingers the entire walk.
Later that night I’m in my room sitting at my desk. My email is open and I’m mass-deleting junk mail but my eyes keep darting back and forth between the screen and his card propped up against my desk lamp. The promise of more money keeps tugging at my brain so I cave and snatch up the card, one handedly typing in the blog address.
The site is plain, with a white background with black text; at the top of the page a landscape shot of the lake with the wall off in the distance has the words “the Undead Reporter” photoshopped overtop of it. A side bar to the right has a photo of an undead Tripp trying to look studious in a leather armchair and a brief biography underneath that. The main portion of the page is a scrolling list of the recent titles to his blog posts with two to three sentence previews. I scroll a bit looking for a post title that grabs me.
The words “Meet the First” catch my attention so I click the ‘read more’ button. An unflattering image of Alex Ingleson appears, taking up much of the screen. Underneath that is an interview with Alex. It begins simply, a back and forth about this life before he died, his football scholarship and subsequent injury, moving back home to work at the paper mill, his alcohol addiction and his early demise thanks to a car wreck. His fault.
After the basics are out of the way, Tripp gets into the tough questions.
Tripp: How did your family react when you showed up at their door that first day?
Alex: Not well. My dad grabbed the rifle he uses for deer hunting. Then they locked me in the garage until they could figure out what to do with me. They called the sheriff, who peeked in and then interviewed me through the locked door. He asked me all kinds of questions from my childhood and stuff. A few hours later he got more calls about undead and my family finally let me back into the house.
Tripp: At what point did the CDC take you in?
Alex: I’m not sure exactly, it was a few days later.
Tripp: And what did they do to you?
Alex: They asked me a bunch of questions, tried to take blood but that didn’t work too well, [they] had a bunch of wires connected to my whole body. Put me inside these big machines they said would help see inside me. They tried to explain things to me but I didn’t really understand most of what they were saying. All this went on for about two weeks before they let me go home, but they picked me back up every few days for another test or two.
Tripp: How did that make you feel?
I get back to the main page and scroll for another article to read. Far down the list is an article called “Body Brigade.” After clicking it, a fuzzy picture shows the base of the wall and a sheet covering a human figure.
It was day 3 of the CDC’s temporary barriers when the Body Brigade was formed. All along the temporary barriers, thousands of corpses were stacked, tossed across the gates by loved ones in the hopes that they would reanimate. None did, but that didn’t stop people from trying. The local sheriff’s department recruited anyone with a truck to patrol the fencing and load up the bodies to deliver to the CDC tents popping up at the entry points into the towns.
“Those first few weeks were awful. We had round-the-clock patrols picking up body after body and dumping them in the CDC’s lap. Those poor bastards had the unlucky task of identifying and returning all of them,” Sheriff Haskins explains. “It’s slowed down as word got out that they stay dead when brought here but for some reason people still drop them off hoping it will work.”
The Brigade still does daily checks, once in the morning and once in the evening.
The rest of the article continues with an interview of a woman who Tripp caught trying to toss over the body of her late father who she dearly misses. Having been fortunate enough to get my father back, the interview hits too close to home so I find another post of his to read. The bold all-caps headline “NEW MOON- VIDEO” catches my eye.
I convinced the CDC to allow me to keep my action camera on and recording all night. The following video is footage from inside the CDC containment center. It has been edited for viewing purposes. If you wish to see the full unedited 10 hour video, it’s at the bottom of the page.
I hit the red play button in the center of the video frame. Instantly Tripp’s face fills the screen, the small rectangular camera strapped to his head with a black elastic band. He’s looking into a mirror in what I’m assuming is his bathroom.
“Hey everyone out there, it’s Tripp your undead reporter. I managed to convince the CDC to let me wear my camera all night at their containment center. Their only stipulation was that they review the footage first so hopefully they give it back to me and you can all see this.”
A knock sounds in the distance on the video and the camera pans to the closed bathroom door before turning back to the mirror.
“It’s showtime! My goal here is to try to vocalize everything I’m feeling throughout the night so you the viewers can get a first-hand look at what it is to be undead during the new moon.” A knock sounds again, louder this time. “I’m coming!” With one last thumbs up to the mirror, the video cuts to the inside of a bus. The camera jostles as the bus hits uneven road. Tripp rotates his head so we can see everyone on the bus with him, some sit silently staring ahead while others chat amongst themselves.
Another cut and we are inside a large sterile white room. Two dozen cots with thin mattresses line the walls, with people perched or lounging on them. Tripp’s voice provides a soundtrack over the low din of people shuffling around and talking.
“Since the undead don’t sleep or eat much, the containment center is pretty spartan, with about one cot for every three people here. There’s a few other holding rooms with more cots and more undead within the center. It’s-“ His wrist enters the frame. “a half hour left until sunset so until then we just kinda hang out.”
Without warning, the video cuts again and a sudden noise blares from my computer speakers, threatening to blow them out. Startled, I turn the volume down and it isn’t until it’s quieter that I realize what the noise is. Snarling, screeching, and growls. The undead who were so casually relaxing a second ago are now all standing, inhuman noises escaping their throats, hands desperately feeling along the walls of their holding cell, trying to find a way out. A few have already realized there is no way out and stand in the center of the room, their heads tilted back as they release loud un-ending screams of frustration.
The camera’s image moves as Tripp moves, slowly around the room, his noises louder than the rest. This continues for several minutes before I close the web browser. As hard as that was to see, bringing up thoughts of my dad being like that, it has got to be even harder to live through it. Not once was Tripp able to tell us anything about what’s going on in his head. I realize that even though I’m mad as hell at him for scaring me the way he did, he truly does present the truth, no matter how it portrays him. I grab my phone and shoot a text out to the number on the card.
Within seconds the reply. “Great. I’ll text you an address tomorrow, meet me there for your first assignment.”