It is dark until I strike a match on the side of the wall, illuminating two beautiful innocent eye's watching me light her candles. I reach over and flip on an old tape recorder that plays her favorite song. The sweet sounds of violins playing softly brings the whole moment together for her. It's been four years ago to the day when she took her first breath and now she is using that breath to blow out her birthday candles. "Happy Birthday sweet heart," I tell her. She looks up at me from the small cake with a huge smile of satisfaction across her face. Her eyes are so full of life, they make me feel sad inside to know that she is growing up so fast. I wish I could keep this moment forever, but reality tells me that she is going to grow up and this perfect moment will fade for her. All I can do is cherish this time of her blowing the candles out, locked away in my head forever. "Can I have my present now, Peepaw?" she asks. "Sure sweetie." I reach into my side jacket pocket and pull out a small object wrapped in newspaper. "This is something very special," I explain as her tiny pale fingers reach out and softly take the object from my hand. "Thanks Peepaw." She slowly unwraps her gift and as she does, a look of confusion sets in. In her hands, she holds a gold ring with a small chain attached to it. She holds it up to the light of the other candle I had lit and stares at it for some time. I watch her study the ring and then explain, "This was your grandma's wedding ring, which I bought for her a long time ago. She told me that when you were old enough, she wanted you to have it… so you would always remember her and how much she loved you. So, with this being your fourth birthday, I thought you were old enough to understand and take care of it. She held the chain tightly in her hand and her eyes started to well up. Tears started to roll down her pale, candle lit cheeks. I bent down on my knees and held my arms open. "Oh Sweetie, I didn't mean to make you sad on your birthday. Come here. I know… I miss her too and I’m sure she misses us as well." She runs over to me and wraps her arms around my neck tightly. I hold her and she doesn't make a sound, but I can feel warm little tears run down my neck.
I patted her little back then put my hands on her sides and pull her away from me a bit. I look at her and said, " Hey, how about I give you, you're fun present now, then we can have some of your cake?" "Yea," she replied softly, through her watery eyes and stuffy nose. I wiped the tears off her cheeks and use the end of my jacket to clean her nose up. I reached down into my other pocket and pull out a half used box of crayons and a few pieces of colored chalk. "Yeah!" She screamed and snatched them from my hand. Thanks Peepaw, you're the best." "Sure thing, sweetie. Nothing but the best for my girl.” She paused for a moment and I could tell she was wondering where and how she could use her new present. With this look of excitement in her eyes, I tell her, "Hey why don't you go over to the bedding area and draw me a pretty picture on the wall. You can take some of the candles for light. Lord knows we have needed some color in this place for some time." She starts to head that way, then turns back to me and gives me another hug. But this one is a happy hug, I like those the best." I love you, Peepaw," she says. "I love you, too. Now go on and draw us some pictures." She takes a few crayons from the box, carefully takes a lit candle and makes her way over to the bed area. Softly, she sets the candle down, just to give her enough light on the concrete wall to create her little master piece.
As she starts her drawing, I place the single cupcake and a can of soda on our little table that I found up top. I pulled out my pocket knife and cut the small cup cake into four pieces. They are all for her, but cutting it up into fourths makes her feel like she gets four big slices of cake. I'm not going to eat tonight, so I can feed her the can goods I found in the morning. After I finished cutting the cake, I stood up and went to go check the locks on the hatch door. They were all locked up tight, but it always makes me feel better to check two or three times a night anyway. With her, I can never be too careful. I looked out the peephole to see if everything was calm. There was a little movement out there, but nothing to really worry about. Then I walked over and sat down next to her and watched her draw, using a red crayon. Watching her tinker always makes me feel good and gives me hope for a better tomorrow.
As she was drawing, the tape of violin music reached the end and shut off. That's when I heard it. A slow shuffling on the other side of the hatch door. THUMP! Something banged hard on the door startling her, making her mess up on her little drawing. She looked over at me and quietly asked, “What was that, Peepaw?" We stayed still for the longest time. Then it hit again, THUMP!! This one was followed with low pitch moaning. I turned to her and said, "It's nothing." She bent down and picked up the broken red crayon she dropped when the noise startled her. Then, as if it were nothing, she went back to coloring on the wall. I faintly heard her say under her breath, "Stupid zombies, made me mess up." "Sweetheart, it looks wonderful. In a minute I'm going to set off some big bang charges to get rid of them, so we can sleep in peace tonight."
I put my head back against the wall and closed my eyes for a few seconds, listening to the low moaning and the thumping on the door. No matter how many times I have heard them come banging and moaning at that damn door, it always unlocks my memory. It brings me back four years ago, to when my sweetheart was born and I looked at her for the first time, laying in that hospital isolate. They had her wrapped in a pink blanket. This always makes me smile, but my smile slowly fades as I also remember that about the same time four years ago, when people were starting to get sick from that goddamn virus. The ‘virus’ that turned the whole world upside down and made the dead walk. Four years ago, we lost my son and sweethearts’ mother, to a few of those fucking things. ‘Things’… like the ones beating on the door now. Four years ago we moved into this underground shelter I built for tornados. I was worried about being swept away by a huge wind, and never thought I would be using it to keep us safe and away from the infected.
I start to drift away between conscience and a dream of those days long gone. We had lived underground for four years and had managed to keep our sweetheart infection free. When Grandma, my wife, left our shelter to find when our little girl became sick with a common cold, we knew that it was nothing but a seasonal cold since sweetheart had never been exposed to any of the infected. Common cold yes, but it still scared us just the same. I told Grandma that I would go look for some medicine, that I didn't want her to go, but Grandma wouldn’t listen. She was a nurse. She knew what to look for medicine wise, instead of me picking and guessing of what she needed. I didn't like it but she was right. I didn't know what to look for, and sweetheart needed someone to stay here with her. Reluctantly, I agreed. Grandma did well. She found the medicine we needed at our local pharmacy, which had been closed and ransacked by vandals looking for their own medicines or drugs. She brought the medicine back, but she refused to come inside. I realized why, after seeing the blood dripping down her arm. She had been bitten. Without saying a word, she handed me the medicine then quickly pulled the hatch door from my hand and shut it tight. I opened the sliding peephole where we stood face to face. The cold metal barrier separated us. I looked into her eyes with a million questions and a million things to say, but all I could get out of my mouth was a soft "no." She looked down and made a slight movement. When she brought her hand up to the peephole, I saw she was holding her wedding ring. "Hurry… there is not much time," she explained. "There’s a lot of them Paw and their coming." Her voice was forceful as if she was giving me a command. After she said that, I could hear them. Their moaning and shuffling coming from behind her. We locked eyes with each other and she caressed my hand and slipped the ring to me. As I focused on her, out of my peripheral vision I could see a group of them approaching her. She squeezed my hand tightly, pressing her ring into my hand. "Give this to our sweetheart so she will remember me. Tell her how much I love her. Protect her and know I love you". Tears rolled from my eyes and fear grew in hers. The last thing she said to me was, "Close this peephole, step away from the door and cover your ears. Don't listen to me die Paw, please." I looked at her one last time. "I love you," I told her and reluctantly, I did as she asked. I shut the peephole. I kept my hand pressed hard on the door and could feel the cold of the steel on my skin. I could hear her breathing on the other side. I wanted to open that door so badly. I wanted to reach out and touch her one last time. Just as the thought past threw my head, the door thumped hard…then again. My fingers clawed at the metal. Through it all, she never made a sound. She knew I wouldn't step away, that I would be listening. She was the strongest woman I had ever known. Thump! Thump, even harder this time. I felt every thump of them tearing at her, throwing her up against the door. Thump! Thump… louder and louder.
My head dipped forward pulling me away from my dream, my memory. For a minute, I thought I was still dreaming because I could still hear the thumping on the steel door. Then my head cleared as I felt a small hand softly holding mine. I turned my head and felt the horrible memories fade as I looked at sweetheart staring at me. My smile came back as I noticed someone had chocolate crumbs on her face. "I see you found your cake." She smiled revealing more cake crammed in her mouth. I laugh. I brought my knees under me and stood up as an old man should. I walked over to the steel door, still continuously thumping away. I placed my hand on it. It was that same cold feeling as before. With my left hand on the door, my head hung low in thought, my right hand reaches to the side of the door jam searching for the button to set off the charges. This was the only way to eradicate these things for the night. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my jacket. I turn to see sweetheart standing next to me. She wraps her arms around my leg and we both listen to the moaning happening out side. I turn and knelt down to face her. "You okay sweetie?" I ask.
She looked at me with those bright innocent eyes and asked in the sweetest voice, "I do it tonight, Peepaw. Can I press the red button tonight…please?" I looked her in those beautiful eyes and said, "Sure baby, you can press the button tonight." She smiled like it was another birthday present. I picked her up and as she pressed the button. The walls shook from the detonation of the charges. I gave her a kiss on the check and said to her, "Nothing but the best for my girl."
Steven L. Dyer