Holding On
@SherylNantus, 2014




I thought being a ghost was the worst thing that could happen to me. To anyone.

Then the plague happened.

I sat on the front porch of my house and watched the panic spread from television bulletins and whispered worries from the neighbors to the next level with the
Hernandez family disappearing in the middle of the night with as much as they could pack into their car to the final burst of insane hyperaction with everyone
running in all directions as the undead pack came around the corner with only one goal on their collective minds and it wasn't to help out with the
belated block party.

Thankfully none of them turned into ghosts. I say thankfully because it was hard enough for me to deal with my own new undead status—there was no way I felt
like tutoring a dozen or more of my recently deceased neighbors through the trials and tribulations of dealing with being a phantom.

Instead they got back up after being half-devoured by their kin and staggered off, following the pack as they searched for more untouched victims to infect and
devour. The block became a quiet empty cemetery with those too damaged to
transform decomposing in the street and in the doorways of their homes, rotting away in their front lawns next to their immaculately kept rose gardens and
hummingbird feeders.

The silence was sort of nice. No more screaming kids, no more domestic fights threatening to add to my number, no tiny yapping dogs running onto my lawn to pee
and then scurry off in fear because they spotted me.

For a few weeks it was nice.

Then it got lonely.

Not that I hadn't been lonely before, being a ghost and all.

No one had moved into my house since I'd died, the pair who owned the house being in the midst of a nasty divorce when I fell to my death. Then the plague broke
out and there was less interest in whose house it was and more on getting out of the city to some place less lethal. So I'd remained in a quiet, empty house while the
world went to hell around me.

Until that strange Sunday when a German Shepherd scampered around the corner and headed for my front porch, closely followed by a young woman and a little
girl.

I stumbled out of my rocking chair and headed for the short picket fence surrounding my house. They couldn't see me but I had to see them, see something other than
the decaying bodies stinking up the area.

The dog leaped over the fence with ease, giving me a sharp bark before trotting up the steps and turning back towards the survivors.

The woman staggered once and almost fell, taking the little one with her. At the last minute she recovered and followed the dog's path. The backpack hanging off
her shoulders was dangerously overpacked and straining at the seams.

She held a shotgun in one hand, the little girl's right hand in the other. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, same as her daughter's and they both
wore bloodstained tshirts and jeans.

The girl had a blank stare about her—not surprising given the situation. I winced inside thinking of what she'd seen in the recent past and wondered at her inner
strength. She also had a backpack on, the pink cartoon kitty face stained crimson. Her lips were pressed into a thin line and she couldn't have been more than eight
or nine.

The dog barked at me.

The pair scurried between the wrecked cars and through the open gate, up past the guard dog and through the open door into the house.

My house.

She made a clucking noise with her tongue and the dog ran inside, bushy tail barely escaping the door closing.

I stared from where I stood in the front yard. The first survivors I'd seen in weeks and they'd chosen my home to make their sanctuary.

An angry growl rose from around the corner, past the Hernandez house. A small group came around the corner, obviously on the trail of the dog and his two
owners. The leader, a young man wearing a business suit, made a chomping sound with his half-decayed mouth, showing only a handful of yellowed teeth left.

It'd been determined early in the epidemic that you had to be bit to be infected—just being splashed with blood wasn't a death sentence. It'd been a minor source of
relief for those dealing with the growing numbers of undead and the gore involved.

It didn't mean that you couldn't be torn apart. The last news program I'd seen before the television stations went off the air counted casualties in the millions. The
infected had only one thought on their collective minds—eat. If you survived the attack to become one of them, great. If not you rotted away
like so many of my neighbors.

The businessman's entourage consisted of two pimply teenagers whose faces had only gotten better with their partial decomposition, both wearing jean jackets
with faded rock slogans on the back. They staggered along behind the leader
with gestures to each other every few minutes as if having some private conversation behind the boss's back.

The trio continued down the street, glancing at each body as they stumbled towards my house. I wasn't sure if they were checking for signs of life or were looking
for possible allies to rise up and join them. Either way no one was added to their merry little group and it wasn't too long before they were
headed for the fence.

I moved to the gate and pulled the wooden door shut until the small latch caught. One of the first tricks I'd learned as a ghost was how to move items—small little
things like pencils and maybe a glass or two if I really concentrated and worked at it. If I was lucky they'd pass on by and keep moving in the
same strange migratory pattern I'd seen other groups do.

If it had been Tuesday they might have run into the nursing home residents group. That would have been a scene, the seniors still clutching onto their walkers and
wheelchairs snarling and shaking their fists at the teenagers in a zombie generation gap. Get off my fresh corpse, indeed.

The trio came up to the gate and stopped, staring at the barrier.

I glared, mentally pushing them away.

The businessman reached out and tugged at the wooden slat.

The latch held.

The teenagers bumped up against the fence, knocking their knees against the white paint.

The fence held.

I'd have held my breath if it wasn't for the fact that I didn't breathe anymore.

A minute later the businessman let out a loud grunt and turned ninety degrees, away from the house. He led his disciples away down the sidewalk, sidestepping the
remains of the Hanson family next door.

I walked up the steps as they turned the corner and vanished from sight. They'd be back at some point, circling around in some strange rhythm that only their kind
followed.

Now I had to deal with the living.

I passed through the door with ease, closing my eyes for a brief second. I'd never gotten used to seeing the inside of walls or doors, the wooden fibers woven
together so tightly that it turned my vision dark. The dog sat in front of me, tail wagging. I wasn't surprised— animals were sensitive enough to pick up on my
presence. Usually their reactions fluctuated between attempting to bite me to the friendly status I was enjoying at present.

I didn't expect it to last.

I walked through to the kitchen where the young woman was busy ransacking the cupboards. Some canned goods were still there, untouched by the recent
scavengers. I hadn't stopped them from coming into the house but they'd been
more focused on catching a few hours of safe sleep and moving through before the migration herd returned than picking up supplies.

She pulled down a can of beans and handed it to the little one. “Here, Annie. Open this up, please.”

The girl scrunched up her face, studying the label. “I hate beans.”

“You do not.” The woman chuckled as she shoveled cans of soup into her backpack. “You love beans. If you don't want to eat fine. We'll give them to Grover.”

Grover must be the dog still standing guard in the hallway.

Annie shrugged off her backpack and dug inside one pocket, coming up with an ancient can opener. She wrestled it onto the can and sucked in her breath as she
pressed down on the handles, trying to break the steel surface.

I leaned in and put my hand atop hers to add a little push. I wasn't sure what to do about them but I sure wasn't going to let them starve.

It'd be bad manners, for one.

The dull metal punched through the can. I pulled back and let her wrestle with the rest of the task.

Grover appeared in the doorway, tail wagging frantically. He tilted his head to one side and stared at me.

“Good boy.” The woman said to the dog while still picking through the cans. “Keep watch for us.”

I looked at the wall clock, powered by super batteries that showed no sign of slowing down. They'd run smack into the evening commute if they didn't leave right
now and they showed no signs of doing so.

I couldn't let them walk out into rush hour.

While Annie worked on finishing her task I went to the front door and flicked the deadbolt. It wasn't much but it'd slow them down.

It'd also slow anyone trying to get in. Unless one of the workmen assigned to finish the job after I died came by or either of the warring spouses, no one had a key.

“Here mom.” Annie held out the open can, huffing with the effort. “I got it.”

“Thanks sweetie.” The blonde woman wrestled with the last bit of the lid and finally pulled it free. “Always be careful about the sharp edges.” She rapped the
edge of the lid on the countertop before placing it out of reach. “Now get your
spoon out and eat. I'm going to go check out the rest of the house—you stay here with Grover.”

The dog padded over and sat in front of Annie, eying the beans.

“And you eat some. Don't give them all to him.” She admonished her daughter before heading for the doorway. “Stay here.”

I watched Mom go up the stairs. If she was hoping to find a secret food stash she'd be disappointed. The only thing on the second floor remaining from the
renovations was my old toolbelt, removed by the paramedics and never retrieved by anyone. No one cares about a dead handyman when the dead
walked the earth.

Grover sucked up a spoonful of beans Annie dumped on the floor. She continued to eat with a two to one ratio for the dog. The way she packed them in told me
they didn't get lucky too often in their scavenging.

I could hear her mother walking upstairs, the creaking boards giving away her location. It wasn't enough to alert the incoming mob to their existence but she needed
to come back and hunker down for the night. They couldn't risk making it through the maze of abandoned and smashed cars in the dark and a flashlight would attract
unwanted attention.

I looked through the kitchen window. The sun began to dip below the horizon; a lovely sunset if you were alive to appreciate it. All it signaled to the undead was
another migration, another herd movement back and forth on their never-ending search for fresh bodies. I couldn't figure out why they kept moving or why they
didn't disintegrate over time but then I wasn't a scientist.

I did know if these two left they'd be attacked and join the evening commute, Annie dragging that pack around as her mother drooled and screamed for flesh. I
wasn't sure about Grover. I hadn't seen any zombie dogs but I sure as hell didn't want to find out. Mom came back downstairs wearing my tool belt.

“Found this up there.” She held out the hammer. “Good to have.” She nodded toward the shotgun lying in the floor by Annie. “Only got a few shells left and it's so
noisy.” She swung the hammer. “Smash crash and all so quiet.”

I flinched even though they couldn't see me. That hammer had seen me through a good many years of hard work and I didn't want to think about it slamming into
skulls and breaking bones. But if it helped keep Annie alive—

“What is it Grover?” Annie asked. The dog's ears were back and he was growling.

Damnit.

The evening rush hour was in full force.

I walked through the living room and out the bay window to see the herd shuffling by, some with their heads down focused on their path and some looking around,
sniffing the air and seeking fresh prey.

Like my recent visitors.

A policeman smacked into the fence, bumping along the edges as he traveled in front of the house. The gate I'd just locked swayed back and forth with the wood
bending and swaying with the monster's impact.

They were never meant to keep people out. Strictly ornamental.

And definitely not zombie-proof.

It held as the ex-cop slid along but he suspected something, his nose held high and drawing in deep breaths through what remains of his face. I figured they used
very basic animal hunting techniques including being able to smell fresh, not rotting humans. He shuffled along and bounced back into the street, merging with the
group again.

I studied the fence. It wasn't going to withstand another good shove. The gate I'd worked hard to shut wasn't going to mean anything if the fence around it gave way.
Once they got to the house they'd smell the girl and her mother and come
right in the windows. The drawn curtains wouldn't keep them out, not for long.

Zombies didn't care about cutting themselves on glass if they spotted prey.

A few steps and I was back through the window and inside the house again. Mom was crouched in the kitchen with Annie, Grover lying down beside them. He
wasn't a dumb dog, he knew barking would draw the monsters. Annie's eyes were wide with fright. Mom's were dull with exhaustion.

They sat there in the corner for the long hour it took for the herd to move through. The noise signaled when the majority of them had gone; the lack of grunting and
shuffling on concrete, the whistle of the wind through the various holes in their bodies and the horrible moaning many of them did in an effort to communicate with
each other.

Mom released Annie from her grip. “We'll leave tomorrow,” she whispered. “Remember what the radio said. There's a camp not far from here and we have to get
there.”

If I'd have had a heart it would have leaped at the news. Survivors, a group of them. Organized enough to have put out a radio call. Sanctuary. If not for me then at
least for them. If they survived.

I squatted down by Annie. Grover looked at me and cocked his head to one side. He wasn't sure what to make of me but I wasn't half as bad as the monsters he was
trying to help his new masters avoid.

Annie looked at me.

Looked at me.

She smiled and gave me a shy wave.

I fell backwards on my ghostly butt. You'd think something as simple as being noticed wouldn't be such a big thing but it was for me.

“Annie, what's wrong?” Mom glanced around the kitchen as if it'd burst into flames. “What?”

“Nothing.” She dug in her backpack. “I'm gonna read, okay?”

“Sure.” Mom got to her feet and dusted off her jeans. “We'll leave in the morning. I'm going to make one more pass and see if we've missed anything. You get some
sleep—I think we can reach the camp tomorrow.” Her fingers brushed the thick steel hammer head. “We're going to be okay.”

“We are,” Jenny repeated with a child's enthusiasm. “We're gonna be just fine.”

Mom walked off after patting Grover's head, keeping one hand on my old tool belt. I heard her go down into the basement. She'd find the handful of bottled
preserves, peaches and pears from whoever had owned the house before. At least it was fresh fruit of a sort.

I looked at Annie again. She'd pulled out an old toy, a grey panel with a sheet of plastic on top. The hard black stylus hung from the side by a cord. I hadn't seen
one of these for years. She tapped the stylus on the grey surface. “Can you write?” she whispered.

The pad slid towards me.

I took a deep breath and picked up the faux pen. It took a concentrated effort but I managed to scratch “Hi” on the tablet. It wasn't Shakespeare but it'd have to do.

“Cool.” Annie nodded. “You gotta be a ghost, right?” She pressed her lips together. “I read about them. You died here and you're stuck.”

I wasn't sure about the stuck. I hadn't left because there was nothing to go to, nothing to draw me away from the house. My home was gone, lost in a divorce years
ago and the crappy little rooming house I'd been staying in had nothing to
recommend it to a ghost.

“You know about them.” Annie jerked a thumb at the walls. It was plain who she was talking about. “You know how they move. Can you help us get out
tomorrow? We got to get to the camp.”

YES

If I could have sweated, I'd be soaked by now. The stylus felt like a tree trunk in my fingers and all the recent activity had worn me right out.

“Okay.” She wagged her finger at me. “You stay here with us and I'll watch you. You wave your hand when something bad's coming at us.” Annie pulled the
transparent sheet up with a tearing noise, wiping out my words. Grover watched me with a dog's patience, probably hoping I was going to pull some treats out
of thin air.

Mom came back into sight, cradling the mason jars in her arms. “Got something good here, sweetie.”

Annie started to let out a squeal of glee, stifling herself by clapping her hands over her mouth at the sight of the fruit. Mom grinned and placed them on the floor
beside her and the dog. I didn't know dogs liked peaches and pears. Although given the alternatives it was as good as Grover was going to get at
least for the time being.

The two sat there drinking the juice after emptying two jars. The remaining three went into Mom's backpack. The vacated jars went into Annie's pack after they'd
licked every single syrupy drop out, illuminated by a small votive candle Mom
pulled out of her pack along with a matchbox. God knows where she'd found that—last time I checked either no one smoked anymore or they didn't carry matches.

I remembered the Zippo in my tool belt, tucked into the rear pocket. I'd given up smoking years ago when I got a nasty cancer scare but hadn't been able to toss it
away.

The question was how to get Mom to find it.

I steeled myself and moved behind her, merging with the cupboard. It felt odd to be half-plumbing, half-wood and a wee bit ghost but it'd have to be enough.

She jumped as I poked her in the butt and jabbed the leather pouch. The scream bubbled up but got choked back as she reached around and found the familiar steel
rectangle.

“Look at that. A lighter.” She sounded almost reverent. “That'll come in handy.”

Annie didn't say anything other than to grin like a Cheshire cat.

Mom slipped it back into the leather pouch and glanced around the room. Her eyes narrowed as if she thought she was the victim of some sort of practical joke.

“You see anything Annie?”

The blonde girl shook her head but I caught a whisper of a mischievous grin.

“Okay.” Mom decided to drop it. “Let's get some rest. If we leave early we can make it to the camp by nightfall and be safe.” She reached out and stroked her
daughter's cheek. “That'd be nice, right?”

Annie nodded and laid her head down on the small backpack. Grover circled the kitchen twice, watching me, before lying down beside her. Mom did the same
with a cursive glance around the room. The woman was tough, I'd give her that. Although given the horrors she'd seen before coming here worrying about a ghost
was probably low on her list of surprises.

I left them and walked out into the front yard. They'd be moving on tomorrow for good or bad, searching for this group of survivors that could, hopefully, offer
them a better life.

What was keeping me around here? I'd wandered through the neighborhood, documenting the dead as they continued their migratory patterns. There just hadn't been
any reason to leave.

I stepped into the street and watched the evening group meander between the parked cars. Mostly teenagers from the local high school with enough letter jackets
between them to make a good Scrabble game. The cheerleaders still hung with the jocks, their pompoms flopping from desiccated hands as they staggered beside
torn and tattered football uniforms hanging off near-skeletons.

Kind of made me glad I spent my time in shop.

The problem was that they'd soon move back towards the school and be replaced by the morning rush-hour. Larger, angrier men and women. Businessmen, firemen
and construction workers who wouldn't be put off or destroyed by a zealous dog and a few blasts from a shotgun. They'd fall on Annie and Mom and shred them
within minutes.

I was not going to let that happen. Not on my watch.

Not needing sleep, I sat in my rocking chair on the porch and watched the moon rise and fall in the sky. I'd never thought much about what to do in my afterlife.

Maybe I'd found something useful.

I heard Grover first, scratching at the front door. I wasn't about to let the dog suffer so I undid the deadbolt and let him out. It was an effort, one he appreciated as
he squatted in the front yard and did his business.

I went into the kitchen and checked the clock. There was about an hour left before the morning commuters came by the house and I wasn't sure that fence would
survive another brush-by. Once they got into the yard I doubted they'd miss the scent and sound of two fresh, alive humans.

It took a second for Annie to respond to my tap on her shoulder. She didn't wake up screaming—instead she looked around.

“Good time for us to go,” she whispered, making it a question.

I nodded as enthusiastically as I could until my head felt like it was about to roll off.

She grabbed Mom's shoulder and gave a good shake.

Mom woke with a start, fingers scrabbling along the linoleum floor. Her hand closed around the shotgun stock before she woke fully.

Annie put her fingers to her lips. “It's time to go,” she said in a mature voice. “He says so.”

“Who?” she said groggily.

“Him. He's gonna help us avoid the bad guys.” Annie nodded at me. “He's a good ghost.”

Mom's eyes widened but she didn't say anything more. She looked around and through me before scrambling to get the backpack on her shoulders.

She had a lot of faith in her daughter. Her daughter had a lot of faith in me.

I hoped it was enough.

Grover was waiting for us in the yard when we exited the house, sitting there like a trained pooch with his tail wagging and tongue lolling out. He nodded at me,
spooking Mom a bit more.

“He's gonna help us get outta town.” Annie rubbed her eyes with a free hand. The blonde hair had started breaking free of the elastic, striking out on all sides.
“He's gonna come with us all the way to the new place.”

I stopped at the gate, or rather in the gate to fiddle with the latch. I hadn't promised any such thing but if it helped Annie get the energy to keep going I wasn't going
to dissuade her. Grover growled as the gate swung opened. I pointed to my right, towards the park.

“We go this way.” Annie took her mother's hand and strode through the gate, turning right.

Mom, thank goodness, said nothing but picked up her pace. Her gaze darted back and forth seeing the carnage clearly now that it was daylight and she was on the
move. It wasn't anything she hadn't seen before and wouldn't have wanted Annie to see but it was a whole different world out there. One where ghosts helped
people escape zombies. Or so I hoped.

Annie watched me zig around the smashed postal wagon, the bright white paint stained with the remains of the last eager mailman. She led Mom along at a trot
with Grover galloping to keep up with me.

We had only a few minutes to make it to the intersection and through it to the park. The wandering groups didn't like going there for some reason—maybe the
trouble of negotiating the jungle gym and the changing landscape confused their simple minds. I didn't know and I didn't care. All I knew was that we had a tight
escape window and it was diminishing quick.

The four-way stop was littered with abandoned cars, creating a maze. Mom and Annie dodged the minivans and decomposing bodies as I ran through the vehicles
and popped out on the other side.

A moaning reached my ears. They were coming, right on schedule.

I pointed to the right again. Annie picked up on it along with Grover. They turned towards the park and dragged Mom along.

I couldn't help smiling. They were going to make it. They were—

A growling interrupted my congratulatory grin.

Stragglers. A pair of angry men, construction workers from the look of them. Peeled off from the main herd and following their own path. Which now included
moving in on Annie and Mom as they headed for the park.

It wouldn't be hard to outrun them and I had no doubt the woman and her child could do that. The trick was keeping the zombies here and away from them as they
made their escape. These monsters moved on sound and the noise of
incapacitating these two would draw others attention and that was a vicious circle that they couldn't win.

Grover crouched beside me as the survivors sprinted for the other side of the park. He knew the risks.

I focused all my strength into kicking the first man's kneecap. It wouldn't take him out but it'd slow him down. The rewarding crunch as I lashed out told me I'd
chosen wisely. He dropped down to one knee and crawled along at a snail's pace.

Grover launched himself at the second construction worker, his teeth tangling in the faded plaid work shirt. He pulled the zombie off balance and to the ground
before biting down on the monster's head, fangs piercing the eyes to get a good grip on the skull.

Dog learned fast. I didn't know how many kills he had before but he'd gotten a good one here. A fast yank and the creature's head popped off like a candy
dispenser, flying free.

Grover gave one last growl and tossed the skull away.

We'd bought Annie and Mom some time. I saw the herd coming towards the intersection. They'd wander over to see what the fuss was about with the man dragging
himself along the ground but it'd be enough.

It had to be enough.

I kept up with Grover as we sprinted for where the woman and girl would be. They'd kept up a good pace and were beyond the range of the wandering mob. They
still held hands, Annie's tiny fingers clasping Mom's in a death grip.

“We'll be okay now,” Annie announced with a child's confidence. She winked at me as we caught up. “We'll make it.”

Grover fell into step beside them as I slowed to a walk.

Mom pulled a well-worn map out of her pocket. “Over that hill. We'll find them over that hill.” She looked around. “Thank you, whoever you are. Or who you
were,” she whispered with a sheepish smile. “We won't forget you.” Mom patted the hammer where it swung at her hip. “Thanks for everything.”

My feet turned to concrete blocks, slowing me to the point that I just stopped still and watched them go on. Go on, hopefully, to a better future.

A bright light appeared in front of me, the rectangular portal glowing with a burning white intensity.

“Guess that's my cue.” I drew a deep breath, my last on this earth and strode towards the door with newfound strength.

I paused and looked back before stepping through. Maybe it was fate, maybe I'd been left behind for one last assignment.

Mom and Annie disappeared over the horizon, Grover loping along beside them.

Maybe being a ghost wasn't the worst thing.

Maybe surviving was.

I walked into the portal with more questions than answers.


Back to Short Stories
Back to Main Page