“The Living Dead” by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus is an all-new epic story from the horror master, continuing his roots going back to “Night of the Living Dead,” but taking it in all new directions. Romero did not complete the story before his death, so his widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, asked frequent Guillermo del Toro collaborator and lifelong Romero fan Kraus to help finish complete the book.
In this passage below, we meet a survivor named Greer Morgan 15 years after the rise of zombies that almost wiped out all of humanity. We also get a taste of what the world has now become and what Greer does daily to protect herself and keep on going.
Readers interested in “The Living Dead” can learn more about the book by watching Kraus and Desrocher-Romero discuss the project and Romero’s legacy during their Comic-Con@Home Panel. Their panel will launch on YouTube at 8 p.m. ET on July 24. “The Living Dead” will be available to purchase on August 4.
Chapter: More Shit to Do
Earth was scored with new music. Greer Morgan, having spent exactly half her life in the old world and half in the new, still got disoriented. She shook her head at loud, shouting children who showed no reverence for the change. Forget the burbling creek of electronic notifications and the hullabaloo of music, TV, streaming video. When Greer woke from dreams of Bulk, Missouri, it was Old Muddy’s absence of white noise that gave her vertigo. Air vents, computer fans, cars thumping over distant highways: it had been persistent bad gossip, and all of it was gone.
The soundscape kids took for granted today left Greer awestruck. Not even when hunting with Daddy and Conan had Greer heard nature so vibrantly. Blankets of birdsong were stitched of distinctive threads, and symphonies of insect sibilance were played by a billion tiny legs and feelers. And the trees! Trees were like a great, looming race, their branches creaking in coos of childlike curiosity, rustling leaves in satisfied exhales, the tsks of their twigs the gentle chiding humans deserved.
Fifteen years after 10/23, new sounds existed too, though only a few justified terminology. Greer remembered a teacher rhapsodizing how Inuits had fifty different words for snow. Well, the survivors at Old Muddy—a.k.a. Fort York—had a half dozen words for the sounds of collapsing buildings. A woody was the cracked-knuckles splintering of a wooden structure: houses, barns, pavilions. A duster was the caving of a brick structure; there was a softness to it, even when multiples floors succumbed. Screechers were unpleasant: metal structures yielding to rust with banshee shrieks. Screechers could stop you in the middle of a laugh and make you fold up in fear. Greer once heard the collapse of an Ohio theme-park roller coaster and was still haunted by the ride’s ghost riders.
Other sounds included kaboomies (methane explosions in underground tunnels) and marimbas (the xylophoning of rain plunking through multiple floors of gutted high-rises). It made perfect sense to Greer they’d been slapped with such childish labels. You had to reframe the sounds of a dead world if you planned on getting out of bed every day.
Unlike the noise of collapse, that was a sound you could hear anytime you wished. You only had to venture seven blocks north of the Fort York perimeter. Along a roughly fifteen-block stretch of what used to be Queen Street in what used to be Toronto, Ontario, Canada, you could hear it from inside former businesses and apartments, down shadowy alleys, out of forested former parks. Crick-crack. Crick-crack. Crick-crack.
Shortly after arriving at Old Muddy in Year Twelve, Greer sprained an ankle. While a doctor—a former veterinarian, really—at the fort’s hospital treated her, he tried to explain the sound’s origin. Evidence suggested a zombie in a temperate clime could last ten to twelve years, at which point the brain itself rotted and the zombie, for the second and final time, died. Before that, lots of other things rotted too, including the plait of ligaments and tendons at the junction of leg and foot bones; Greer recalled words like plantar, dorsal, and metatarsal. Over the years, these tissues dried to a gravelly gum, creating a dry-twig crick with every flex. The foot’s twenty-six bones, meanwhile, knuckled one another, creating a stone-on-stone crack. Put it together and you had the signature sound of an antique zombie inching your way: crick-crack.
Greer believed she was the first to hear it today. At thirty-two years old, she was the youngest member of this recovery team and fancied her senses to be the sharpest. She was also walking point, thirty feet in front, an old habit. There: a second crick-crack. There: a third. One thing humans never figured about was how zombies so reliably sensed the living, even the near-fossilized ones—and Queen Street was rife with the fossilized. So much so that no one called it Queen Street anymore. Out of habit, Greer glanced at a cankered road sign that had once pointed the way to the closest highway, but over which someone had painted:
WELCOME TO SLOWTOWN
Toronto, like everywhere else in Year Fifteen, was largely devoid of zombies. Anytime they were spotted, they were crick-cracking their way to Slowtown. It was another zombie mystery, and newcomers to Old Muddy reported the phenomena from across the continent: the isolated undead dragging their old bodies hundreds of miles to join larger concentrations of their kind.
Queen Street, a twenty-minute walk from Fort York, had been an artist’s enclave, packed with galleries, shops, eateries, and boutique hotels, the kind of area where every bare stretch of wall was covered with a mural and every tree base enclosed in a box of bohemian colors. In other words, it was the kind of place Greer had never seen before she and Muse started venturing into cities. Now it was spoil and shambles, as bad as any pre-10/23 slum. Sidewalks were ankle-deep in browned, broken glass. Building fronts displayed faded, painted messages: danger zombies and paul we went east. Chain-link fences had wilted, soft as grass. Green moss had chosen random structures to swallow. Clumps of electrical wiring blew like tumbleweed. Cars, still neatly in parking spaces, had sunk into themselves, stomped by giant ghosts.
Unappealing to the human eye, but Slowtown wasn’t for humans. The living who ventured there were visitors, and behaved with respect, careful to avoid agitating the dead. Normally, not a problem, but this afternoon, it would be a struggle, for Greer herself was agitated. This wasn’t just another Slowtown patrol. She was on a private mission, and the rest of the recovery team had no idea.
Greer held up a fist to stop the four people behind her.
Amid the cricks and cracks came a new sound: a clop. Greer’s gut, hot and acidic all day, cooled. Even the eddy of her breath in the cold November turned a slower waltz. Plenty of other Fort Yorkers had recently witnessed the source of this heavy plodding, but Greer had never been so lucky. At the nearest of Slowtown’s cross streets, the upper limbs of the tallest tree shivered. Instinctively, Greer knelt to make herself less threatening and heard the clunk of buckets as the team behind her followed suit.
A doe-eyed head emerged way up high, beside a dead streetlight.
It was a giraffe. It ambled forward, its bright, spotty body shifting into full view. A godlike thing, eighteen feet tall, moving with a gentleness seldom seen in this world, spindly legs tapering to narrow hooves, a ballerina on pointe. It gnashed soft lips at a branch, ducked its impossible neck beneath electrical cables, and took gingerly steps into the middle of the intersection, as if believing in that rarest of things: that the world should be treated delicately. With the grace of an arcing kite, it banked its head toward the people.
This is why we haven’t lost hope, Greer thought.
The giraffe’s breath formed swirling planets. Greer was pretty sure zoo-born giraffes shouldn’t fare so well in winter, but animals, like people and zombies, had adapted fast over a decade and a half. The magnificent giraffe, a reminder of bigger things, blinked its black-orb eyes and carried on in lovely silence, ducking beneath the sagging network of streetcar cables and disappearing so rapidly it had to have been a fevered vision.
The only sound was five people’s soft, astonished breaths.
Then: crick-crack. Time to get back to work.
As previously decided, the group split like a zipper, the two men taking the right side of the road, the three women fanning to the left. Weapons were purposefully hard to come by at Old Muddy, bricked up in the Armory, but recovery teams were allotted a single emergency firearm, so far used only in rare cases of animal attack. Many creatures had adopted metropolitan habitats, and not all were as docile as giraffes. Zoos had unleashed tigers, bears, leopards, crocodiles, and true to their original instincts, they hunted what they needed.
One of the men had today’s gun, but the women were not bereft, thanks to Greer. She armed her bow but kept it pointed at pavement. Zombies usually recognized weapons, and frightening them off wouldn’t help her search. She didn’t really need the bow—it had been two years since anyone on a recovery job fired a weapon—but she’d take carrying it any day over the stinky buckets.
Zombies tended to stay indoors anyway. Largely, they loitered in windows, in doorways, on front steps. They eyed the living with what Greer categorized as distrust, an annoying reaction she’d come to terms with. The living hadn’t hurt a Slowtown denizen in ages, but they sure had in the past. It was like the zombies shared a collective memory, and that memory didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
From her position creeping west along the curb, Greer spied five zombies. Four huddled against a storefront while a fifth, crick-crack, appeared at a second-story window, eyes like silver dollars in the graying sun. Not abnormal. Zombies often expended great effort to haul their fragile bodies up staircases. Greer blamed it on habit: living or dead, you hewed to precedent, no matter if it was pointless. Also not abnormal was discovering fallen zombies at the foot of stairwells, brittle bodies shattered while their jaws still gnashed and their white eyes still rolled.
Greer heard a scrape and whirled quickly enough to embarrass herself. The man in the rear position had set down his bucket to dart into a former eyeglasses store to snatch what looked to be a package of batteries. A score, but where had it come from? Probably the zombie standing six feet deeper into the store; Slowtown dwellers were known to pick up odd objects and drop them where the living would find them. Were the batteries a gift? An offering? The zombie didn’t advance, but lifted her arms in a token territorial display. Dry, brittle flesh slid from her bones like bark from a dying tree.