The sun hadn’t quite risen over the horizon when Joel Walker heard the noise.
It was a rattling sound, not uncommon in the old house, but not uncommon outside near his trash cans. Joel knew what it was exactly, or rather who it was exactly. Joel was a college student, enrolled at good old Fairesmith State University, where his father had gone and his grandfather before that. Joel had never thought of himself as a believer in the supernatural stuff, like his mother, but he definitely had become one after he met the garbage man that frequented the campus.
The garbage man was not truly a garbage man, as in a sanitation worker for the city, but rather a homeless man who lived on campus. He was never a threat to anyone, he just shuffled around, sometimes begging, sometimes just a friendly face who would always tip his fading FSU hat to you as you walked by. He had lived on the campus since the late seventies. If you talked to him, he would tell you interesting stories about the different styles and types of people he had seen grace the campus.
Joel’s father had seen the garbage man multiple times during his tenure at FSU, so had his mother. His grandfather didn’t quite remember him, but then again, Joel’s grandfather didn’t remember what he had for breakfast by mid-afternoon of the same day. Whether or not he liked it the university president, Lonnie Gordon, knew that the garbage man had become just as much of an element of his university as the Fairesmith Bulldogs football team or Caesar the Bulldog, their mascot.
Joel met the garbage man on his first day on the campus. He was lost, and the assigned student who was supposed to show him to his dorm was no help. With no other options, he asked the homeless man who was digging through some garbage if he knew where Dalton Hall was, which was near his dorm. The helpful man not only pointed him in the right direction, but did it happily. Joel gave him the other hamburger he had for lunch (he purchased two, ate one) and was on his way. As Joel got to notice him around the campus more and more, he asked his roommate at the time, a foreign man named Sharif, what the homeless man was all about.
"He's a stray, Walker." Sharif had said in his heavy accent. "Just like a cat, or a dog. He just wanders around, looking for food and warmth." Then he smiled. "I guess Fairesmith gave him some food or something, no? Why else would he be around?"
Since, Joel allowed the garbage man to dig through his garbage; given him clothes that grew too small and occasionally prepared food for him. Joel had never asked the garbage man his name, and the garbage man had never asked for Joel’s. Joel was a senior now, and had known the garbage man the whole time. So, Joel couldn’t pull himself together when he found the garbage man, drool around his mouth and blood all over.
“Hey, man. You okay?” Joel asked him.
Joel was standing in pajama pants and a t-shirt with a faded photo of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album cover on the front. The garbage man was wearing what he always was: a faded FSU hat, an old army jacket, ragged jeans.
The garbage man said nothing, his face blank and staring at a stray cat that was crossing the alleyway. The drool was dried and caked around his mouth; the blood stained his U.S. Army sweater and the arms of his army jacket. Multiple times when they talked, the garbage man had talked about the lack of pension he received for his military time in Vietnam. The sweater looked like he had just seen combat recently. What could the blood be from?
Joel tried a different approach. He didn’t exactly care about the garbage man, but he had become a part of Joel’s everyday life, and nonetheless a friend.
“Hey, you’re bleeding.”
Again, just a blank face. No expression.
“Come inside, we’ll clean you up. Are you hurt?”
Joel decided that maybe he was hurt, and he needed help. Maybe he had food poisoning from eating something from the garbage. Joel took him by his arm and led him up to his porch. Joel let go of his arm for a second to unlock the door, which he had locked before he came outside. But the garbage man suddenly rushed away, galloping. Joel had never seen a human do such a thing before. But here it was, the homeless man running after the cat which he had just seen in the alley like a lion chasing a gazelle.
“Hey! Hey, man! You need help, wait!” Joel yelled after him, running down his porch steps and a little into the street. But the garbage man just ran after the cat and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Later, Joel was walking from his Psychology class to lunch when his thoughts strayed away from his finals to the garbage man.
“Are you cool, Joel?” Cate asked him. Cate had been his girlfriend for about a year now. She was witty, intelligent, captivating and had lost her virginity to him. She was his best friend and they could talk to each other about anything. But Joel was troubled: if he told her about what he had seen, would she believe him? Or would she pass it off as him using again?
“No, no I’m not.”
Cate grabbed his face and they stopped walking. She smiled her perfect teeth, pushed her brunette hair behind her ear, revealing her piercings. The sun was shining bright that day, and it made her look like an angel. God, she was beautiful.
“Joel, you can tell me anything. You know that.” she said.
Joel hesitated for a moment, but eventually, it came out. He told her about the garbage man, about the blood, about the galloping. Once he was finished, he expected an immediate reaction out of her. It didn’t matter if it was good or bad, he expected something. Instead, her face was as expressionless as the garbage man. Just like him, there was no way to tell what she was thinking.
“Joel…” she finally said. She paused, bit her lip, and continued. “You promised me you would stop using. You promised.”
Joel was astounded. He knew she would react like this.
“Baby, I did stop using. I’ve been clean for five months now, you know that. But holy shit…what I saw last night scared me.” He stopped, looked at her. She was still expressionless, but he could see she was listening. “What could make him act like that?”
“Drugs. Whether it was him or you, I’m not sure.”
“Cate, I’m serious. He just stumbled around, saying nothing. His face was so pale, like, uncharacteristically pale. He said nothing, and he is a really talkative dude. He chased that cat like it was a steak dinner. He was bleeding profusely. I don’t know if it was his blood or something else’s. Or someone else’s.”
Cate stood there and took it all in. Finally, her face changed. But Joel was confused. It was one of terror. She got white, and then sat down on the bench they were standing in front of. Joel followed, and put his arm around her. She turned and looked at him.
“Joel. You’re describing a zombie.” she said. The way she said it, Joel could tell that she didn’t even believe what she was saying. Joel chuckled a little, thinking she would join in, but Cate remained deathly serious.
“Hon, you can’t be serious.” he said. “That’s like George Romero-type-shit. Zombies? C’mon, now Cate. It was like food poisoning or something.” He looked at her, and she was still just sitting there, looking blank. He kissed her on the cheek, and she looked at him. He smiled, and slowly, so did she.
“I’m worried, Joel.”
“Now who’s overacting? Cate, it’s fine. I was just dying to tell someone. It was just some really strange shit. I’m sorry, maybe I made it a little too strange. I didn’t mean to frighten you or anything. Now c’mon, babe, we’re gonna be late to Psych, and Mr. Vance already has it in for me. Let’s not give him any other reasons to get me expelled.”
That night, at her place, after Cate had fallen asleep, Joel got out of bed and got his laptop out of his bag. He didn’t want to bother Cate anymore with the garbage man or anything else. He saw how much it had frightened her, and he didn’t want to do it again. He got online and went to Bing. After a minute of waiting, he typed “zombie” into the box, and clicked. Joel got thousands of results, but the only one that interested him was a blog.
It was called “The Life and Times of Mary”. The author, who called herself simply Mary, described as she went through what she called a “process”: she was pale, she bled profusely. She described in many posts about a hunger that she could never quench. Joel read, and the posts got shorter and shorter and less coherent. Words began to become misspelled, grammar began to decline. She called herself a zombie. Joel began to believe what Cate had said. Zombies? Could it really be zombies? Joel kept reading, and he was still reading when heard the scratching.
The first thought that crossed Joel’s mind was Cate. Was she safe? Next, he thought of the garbage man. Was it him? Had he followed Joel? Joel stood, set the laptop on the bed, and walked to the window slowly, step by step. When he reached the window, he grabbed the curtain and looked back at Cate. She was so beautiful. He turned back to the window, mustered up the courage, and yanked it open.
It was the stray cat he had seen earlier that morning, when it was being chased by the garbage man. It was pawing at the window, meowing. But it didn’t really sound like a normal cat’s meow. It was more guttural. Its fur was mangy, like something had been chewing on it. When it turned its head to look in the direction of a car horn, Joel saw the open wound on its neck, the brown fur matted down with blood and matter. When the cat opened its mouth, its tiny teeth were stained pink, and the cat began hacking, which Joel took to be a hairball or something. When it did, Joel gagged when a small fragment of a human finger fell out.
As Joel stared at the cat as it batted the window, he heard rustling behind him. Cate was awake, and she slipped on a baggy t-shirt (one of his) to cover herself, and walked up behind him. She gasped.
“Joel? What the hell is happening?” she whispered in his ear, tears in her voice. Joel could tell she was afraid, and gently pulled her close to him. She buried her face into his bare chest.
Joel was quiet for a moment before he accepted what was happening. “I don’t know, Cate. I don’t know.” he had said, with a loss for words. But in his mind, he knew exactly what to say. He thought of Sharif, who had smelt of asparagus and who never quite could grasp the sport baseball, talking about the stray homeless man. Sharif had said he was a stray, he stuck around because they had given him something he liked, he needed.
Joel couldn't help but wonder: now that he had something he liked, he needed...would he be back for more?