- Foreword: Writing Rochester's Futures
- "Interesting Times"
- "Culinary Capital, 2034"
- "Night Bells"
- "Hollow Lives"
- "The Naked Girl"
- "Time Enough for Love"
- "Day of the Bicentennial"
- "One City at a Time"
- "Want Not"
- "The Costs of Survival"
- "Getting Wet"
- "Top 10 Headlines, Rochester, NY, 2034"
- "North Star Pipeline"
- "The 2034 Lilac Festival"
- "Scotch and Sizzlenuts on the Resolute Bay"
- "Fads (or Why Jerry Loathes the Aliens)" [FULL TEXT, AVAILABLE ONLINE ONLY]
"Day of the Bicentennial"
So, I decided it was finally time to write something about what happened.
I mean, I know everyone from here to Beijing has been writing about the Bicentennial, and the Democrat & Chronicle has been after me for months for a piece, but, well, I’ve been putting it off. It has given me time to talk with some of the other survivors. Y’know, to get their perspectives and stuff, but the truth is, I’m really not much of a writer. I was there to take pictures after all. I never thought I’d have to come up with any words.
At least I can say I was there, which is more than I can say from some of the other hacks that have practically been publishing encyclopedias about that day. The Times just ran an entire special section about it, and I don’t think any of the writers that they used has ever been any further upstate than Poughkeepsie.
Not to mention, they also turned down all of my photos.
So anyways, there I was, a few minutes shy of noon, crouched on top of a Mt. Hope mausoleum like the world’s most ridiculous gargoyle, snapping shots of whatever my new nano-macro camera lens would pick up. The Bicentennial Committee had erected the stage in front of the old crematorium, and it rose from the sea of people like an island in the distance. If I hadn’t been above the crowd, I would have been lucky to get anything other than shots of the back of peoples’ heads.
It was a good idea, at least at the time, to hold the opening ceremonies for Rochester’s Bicentennial in the city’s oldest cemetery. It’s a major landmark, after all, and it draws all the local history buffs. And with Highland Park across the street, it was the perfect venue for one of the most crowded events in the city’s history.
But as crowded as it was, everyone seemed to be in good cheer, standing on gravestones to get better views and shaking the digital toy noisemakers that the vendors hawked on the street. The smell of red hots drifting in from a stand the other side of the wrought iron fence. The Planning Committee had come up with a batch of the real meat ones for the occasion, and the line for them stretched across the avenue into the park.
Anyways, like I said, I was crouched on top of a mausoleum, doing my best to keep my balance on the old slate roof. A few others had the same idea, young guys like me, tall and limber enough to climb the stone buildings. I suppose more folks would have tried for our prime views, but the marble and granite sides were slick and hard to scale. We weren’t supposed to be up there, of course, but what pudgy cop was gonna come up and pull us down, even if they could get through the crowd? One guy a few mausoleums over flashed me a thumbs up at our prime views. He wore a bright yellow vintage Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt—my dad had had the same one. I wonder whether that guy made it out or not—hell, that crypt is the only reason I’m still around.
“Welcome, everyone, to the City of Rochester’s Bicentennial Anniversary!” That’s as far as the Mayor got before she was drowned out by the cheering crowd. It was several minutes before it was quiet enough for her to proceed. Somewhere, a church’s bells rang the noon hour before she spoke again. “Rochester has come a long way since becoming America’s first ‘boomtown’. From the Flour City, to the birthplace to such corporate giants as Eastman Kodak, to the social and economically thriving city it is today, Rochester is one of America’s truly great, and enduring, cities. All of this is, in part, thanks to all of you.”
The crowd roared again.
The thickness of the horde was the reason nobody noticed what was going on at first. Or maybe they thought the folks in the old fashioned clothing were part of the celebratory performance. Y’know, like they do at the holidays, when every one dresses up Dickensian. In any case, it wasn’t until Susan B. Anthony sidled her way up on stage and the Mayor went pale as milk that it started to dawn on folks that something wasn’t quite right.
(Of course, I didn’t know that the shriveled, desiccated thing in the dress was Susan B. Anthony until later. I’ve never been very good at history). At first, people were in shock. On the stage, the Mayor looked like she was about to wet herself. Through my lens I saw a couple of security guards start forward, then stop—I can’t decide if they looked more baffled or horrified. There were a few shrieks from the crowd, but mostly a lot of confused murmuring.
But everyone, and I mean everyone, went silent when Susan B. leaned over into the microphone.
“Rochester is…” the sounds that came out of it were wheezy and dusty, whatever was left of her vocal cords cracking with over a century of disuse, “…is a great city.”
It was then that Frederick Douglass hoisted himself over the edge of the stage and dragged his way to the other side of the podium. I’m pretty sure the Mayor did wet herself at that point.
He flopped one rickety arm over the side of the podium and hacked out a few words. “Rochester…full…is full of…great history.”
Susan leaned in again. “Celebrate . . . history . . . Bicentennial.”
And then, she grabbed the Mayor and bit off the top of her skull.
The crowd burst into a cacophony of shrieks. It was more than just Susan’s snack attack (to which Freddy joined in pretty quickly). It was also the thousands of hands that suddenly reached out of the ground from beneath their feet.
Imagine every graveyard horror movie you’ve ever seen times a thou- sand. I know because I’ve seen a lot of them, even the old ones by that Romero guy. Ghouls burst out of the ground all over the place, struggling to free themselves from the dirt even as the crowd screamed and pushed and trampled to get away. The mass of people could only hopelessly push towards the open gates as the native cemetery residents grabbed hungrily at them, dragging the unlucky folks down into the sea of bodies.
On the stage Susan and Freddy finished with the Mayor and moved on to the other panicking officials. A cameraman for a local station dove off one side of the stage just as Freddy took a chunk out of the shoulder of his reporter. For her part, Susan bypassed a well-known female CEO from a local corpora- tion in favor of her nearby male counterparts.
Below me, a sudden banging reverberated through the granite. I peeked over the edge of the crypt just in time to see its metal door fly open. A pair of corpses crept out tentatively, shading their shriveled eyes to the noon sun. I figured they might take offense at me squatting on their final resting place, so I moved back out of sight.
I was lucky: My perch on top of the mausoleum put me well out of reach of both the living and undead. One rather tall corpse in a regrettably intact purple velvet suit did take a few swipes at me with its spindly, desiccated arms, but I clambered as high as I could onto my granite lifeboat, well out of its grasp. With a dusty groan of frustration, it gave up. Apparently, the undead are no more suited for climbing than pudgy street cops.
A couple folks tried to climb up the mausoleums. A heavy-set woman (who looked like she could barely make it up a flight of stairs) made an impres- sive leap and managed a handhold on the roof of my crypt. I reached out to help her, grabbing at one of her wrists, but there was no way I could haul her up without tumbling off my precarious position. Below, a ghoul grabbed at her leg—she shrieked and reflexively kicked out, planting an impressive four inch patent leather heel into her attacker’s head. That took care of it pretty well. It slumped to the ground, while at the same time the woman released her hold on the roof. I guess she decided to take her chances on the ground.
After that, I could only take in the scene before me—corpses drag- ging down person after person, clustering around their prey like a pack of vultures. Some folks managed to get away after only a bite or two. Apparently, after decades of rotting muscles, some corpses aren’t really that hard to fight off. While the meatier ones seemed to pose the most threat, I saw one lady take a bite to her arm, and then push her undead attacker away with little effort. It fell onto its back, sprawling like an overturned turtle while the lady got away.
“Felt like my kid bit me,” a local construction worker told me after- wards, brandishing the healing teeth marks on his arm like a badge of honor. “I was worried at first, y’know, about endin’ up undead. I was like, was I gonna have to blow my own head off all heroically before I turned or something?”
Hollywood was off base, I guess, when it decided a bite would spread zombieism. I was interviewing folks at one of the makeshift quarantine camps a few days after, snapping pictures of the aftermath. Not one person reportedly turned into the living dead after getting bit, although a lot of people got nasty infections. The health authorities brought in antibiotics by the truck-full. I guess there’s not much as filthy as a bite from a dead body.
“Disgusting!” a very harried nurse quipped at me as she rushed by with an armful of gauze and antiseptic. “Worse than a cat bite!” The camp was set up in Highland Park, just across from the graveyard. It was there that had borne the brunt of the incident. I couldn’t see much of the park from where I had been trapped, not even with my lens, though I heard a whole lot of yelling. Then again, there was a lot of yelling before the dead rose, too, from the festival that had just kicked off what should have been a weeklong cele- bration. It was the gunshots ringing out that gave these yells a different context. They died off quickly though—I mean, everyone knows you can’t stop zombies with a few silly bullets.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said one of the vendors visiting from Buffalo, up for the celebration to sell her crafts. “People came running like, I don’t know, a terrorist attack or something. But when’s the last time we had one of those, right? I have to admit, zombies weren’t what I was expecting. No, I didn’t get bit. A couple of them, old ladies all dressed up in nice frocks and gloves and such, came into my tent. One of them had a wig on still, and I didn’t even realize she was dead until she turned around and I could see her skin sagging right off her skull. They came at me at first, but got distracted by some porcelain cats I had on my table, and I was able to slip away.”
One guy told me he saw a group of the undead storm one of the food tents and proceed to eat both the living and their lunches. “They were scooping the brains right out of their heads,” he swore, “and plopping them down on the garbage plates and red hots—even onto the salt potatoes!”
I’m not sure I believe him, though I bet if I came back to life after a few decades underground, a garbage plate probably would sound pretty good.
Best I can figure, the graveyard had nearly cleared out by that time. Most of my fellow crypt squatters had freaked and made a run for it. I mean, there were a few stragglers here and there, both the injured and those undead who just couldn’t keep up on account of a missing limb or two. A guy (or maybe it was a woman, I don’t know) who was mostly just bones dragged himself past my mausoleum with one skeletal arm. I don’t know how he saw me, on account of his eyes having long rotted away, but as he passed he turned his head up to me, jaw clicking up and down soundlessly. Then he just kept on going. Looking back, I have to admire that determination. Having barely just risen from the dead, and held together by not much more than a few strands of cartilage, he still kept on going. I snapped a picture of him, and it made an inset of a maga- zine story on the Bicentennial.
Ok, it was just a local magazine, but that’s something, right?
So I stayed put. By then, I had no idea how far the things had gone. Had the undead overrun the city? Were other graveyards coming back to life? Was it the whole country? The whole world?
Eventually, I’d find out the incident only spread as far as a corpse could hobble, which wasn’t that far. I heard a few made it as far as Twelve Cor- ners, but that was about it. Which, of course, helped raised the question as to why only the Mt. Hope dead came back to life.
“The ground is cursed!” an old woman with bluish hair told me point- edly. “The cemetery is on an Indian burial ground and there’s a curse on it!”
I don’t remember seeing any Native American corpses wandering around, so I don’t know about that.
One guy I talked to blamed the nearby University of Rochester. “They do all sorts of experiments there—science experiments! Something they did must’a gone horribly wrong and got out!”
Admittedly, the U of R does some excellent medical research that lends itself to longevity, so I thought this was at least plausible.
There have been a lot of government teams in town over the past few months—lots of white coats and badges and guards. They’ve been closing off parts of the cemetery doing, I don’t know, soil tests or something. So far, I don’t think anyone’s figured anything out yet, but it sure would be great if they did.
As dusk came and the darkness started to fall, all I could see were things moving around in the ambient street light. No cars passing, no living folks in sight. Sitting on a crypt all day is very uncomfortable, and cold, by the way. No matter how I shifted around, my butt kept falling asleep. Every so often I heard the sound of a helicopter pass overhead, but the canopy was so thick I knew that now rescuers (if there were any) would see me. I had resigned myself to an entire night in the cemetery—there was no way I was going to make a run for it when I could see who or what was around me—when the bells from the church nearby began to ring midnight.
That’s when they started coming back.
I’m pretty sure the only reason they asked me to write this piece is because I was probably the only person to see both the beginning and end of the Bicentennial. Not that there’s much more to say about it. At midnight, the un- dead came back, trickling in from wherever they had roamed over the preced- ing twelve hours. Little by little, they returned to their graves, or crypts, neatly pulling dirt back over them and closing doors as best they were able. Some let out dry groans as they returned—I swear I even heard a few croaks that sounded like “goodnight.” Below me, the door to my graveyard roost slammed shut. After a few minutes of rustling around, the residents within settled back to where they had begun.
And that’s pretty much it.
A little before dawn, hours after I had last heard or seen anything moving around, I finally jumped down from the mausoleum. Besides the dis- turbed graves and some mostly consumed remains, the cemetery looked like the aftermath of any festival—covered with wrappers and refuse and stuff. On the street, just in front of the big metal gates, I met the National Guard, who became my official rescuers once I managed to convince them I wasn’t dead.
It’s pretty interesting now, to visit the cemetery. It’s not just full of local history buffs anymore. People have been coming from all over the world for a visit, to see where the Bicentennial took place. Whole buses of tourists get dropped in front of the gates, swarming out in droves to snap pictures and pose next to gravestones. They just filmed a music video there for some electro- death-metal rock band, and I heard the movie rights are in negotiations right now. It’s been a little weird, what with the armed guards they’ve put in, but so far there hasn’t been a peep from any of the permanent residents.
In fact, Rochester’s enjoyed a major boost in popularity since the Bicentennial. Of course popularity means money, and despite the unusual and tragic occurrences of that day, I’ve heard a lot of positive talk about the city’s fu- ture prospects. Vacation tour packages, conferences, maybe even a theme park.
I did think it was a bit much when they changed the city’s slogan to “Rochester—So Great Even the Dead Come Back,” but I’ll admit, it’s catchy.
One thing that has been bothering me, though, is the talk I’ve been hearing about a new ingredient for a garbage plate. I just can’t imagine cow brains would taste very good, but it’s becoming quite popular, I guess. I sup- posed one of these days I’ll have to take a trip down to Tahou’s, order up one of these “Zombie Plates,” and see for myself.
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