A terrifying tale of blood, brains, and nerdy development jokes!
Mark sighed and rubbed his eyes. He had been working on this proposal since 7am and it was now 9 at night. The damn thing just didn’t want to be written. What did they mean by ‘hidden indicators’, anyway? Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?
He got up and stretched. The rest can wait till tomorrow, he thought. He picked up his keys and stepped out the office door. The night was quiet, the dust of the day settled. A single motorcycle taxi flew by, carrying a young woman with long blond hair. She wore puffy pants made of local fabric and a loose, almost see-through top.
Damn volunteers, Mark thought and rolled his eyes. He shivered, even though the air was close and sultry. Hope I’m not coming down with malaria, he thought as he unlocked his 4×4 and stepped in. Or food poisoning – that fish last night did seem a bit sketchy. Where did his gardener say it had come from? Some river he’d never heard of. Put the key in the ignition. His mouth was dry. Maybe just one beer, he thought. He put the car in gear. Nah, I don’t feel like a beer. I’m pretty hungry; I did skip dinner. Chips? Nah. Pizza? Nah. Mark put the car back into park. Nothing was appealing to him. He sighed and put the car back in gear and backed out, heading down the road in the same direction as the motorcycle. After only a few seconds, he came upon the motorcycle, the girl and the driver standing beside it. Breakdown. He slowed to a stop and rolled his window down.
“Mambo, bwana,” he called to the driver. “Need help?”
“Poa, poa. Problem of tire,” the driver responded. “Maybe give this mzungu lift?”
Mark looked at the girl. Yup, typical volunteer, he thought. She looks excited to be having such an adventure. Alone with this man in the middle of the night in Arusha – some adventure, Mark thought. He looked at her more closely, swallowing against his dry mouth. Man, did he despise them sometimes, their naivete and earnestness. And boy was he hungry…
He opened the door of the car, stepped out, and walked towards the girl. Hungry, so hungry…
Nearby, an old woman was throwing her dinner scraps to the chickens when she heard a blood-curdling scream, followed by a man’s terrified yell. She stood, alert. A man in a motorcycle helmet came crashing through the banana trees and ran past her, his eyes rolling in fear. She watched him go past, then went inside and firmly locked the door.
The package of crisps shone in the afternoon sun. Sparkled. Its promise of salty goodness twinkled like a beacon. I crouched behind the counter of the hollowed-out coffee shop, weighing the odds. Was it worth it? They might be bacon-flavored…
“Get down, you idiot!” Jacob hissed.
My stomach growled. It had been weeks since the coffee shop had been ransacked by hungry victims. We still didn’t know if the Occurrence had happened anywhere beyond Arusha, but there was no way to find out. The EPs were too hungry and too many for us to venture out safely.
“I heard there were people gathering at the clinic. Trying to organize some sort of resistance,” I told Jacob.
“No, I bet it’s true. Some of the guys from that hostel are leading it.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Melissa told me,” I looked at my sandals, trying not to think about Melissa.
“Melissa. So what, you want to try to get to the clinic? In broad daylight?”
“Beats hiding behind a coffee counter!”
Jacob was quiet. He never made decisions quickly.
“Fine. But we have to be extra careful!”
We peeked up from behind the counter. There was no one in sight. The locals had long since fled the city, shocked at the gritty carnage the EPs had wrought. Quietly, we crept out from behind the counter. Nothing moved outside. We both carried hefty laptops as weapons, hoisted high, ready to strike. Jacob opened the door and we stepped outside. An old newspaper blew down the street. I picked the bag of crisps out of the gutter and carefully deposited it in my kanga bag to eat later, when we were somewhere safer.
We moved down the street slowly, not saying a word, trying not to attract any attention. You never knew where they might be – the supermarket, the petrol station, a bar. They never went into the really local places, of course, a reminder of the people they used to be, but the local places still weren’t safe. Sometimes their hunger overrode their inhibitions.
The clinic was less than a kilometer, but I’ve never sweated so much in my life. It was so quiet. When we arrived at the clinic, the door was unlocked. We walked in but heard nothing. Melissa had told me people were coming here moments before they got her. The sound of her screams had stayed with me for what seemed like miles as I ran away from the EPs gorging…
“Hello?” Jacob whispered. I would have sworn that if anyone was here they would know about us just from the thudding of my heart.
“Hello?” I joined in, a little louder.
But then, a shuffle, like someone walking in slippers. Just for a moment, and then it stopped. We looked at each other, laptops raised. From around a corner peered a terror-distorted face. Seeing us, the face came around the corner and become a whole person, dressed in a hospital gown, thin and pale.
“Who are you? Where is everybody?” The girl was young, like us, with ratty dreds and a pierced nose.
“What the hell? What do you mean?” Jacob asked.
“I’ve been locked in the kitchen for three weeks,” the be-dredded girl said. “A nurse, she was really nice, came and got me and brought me to the kitchen and locked me in. I don’t know where she went. There was so much screaming outside. And now I’m so hungry I had to see who you were, even though I was scared.”
How could we explain? We weren’t even sure what had happened ourselves.
Suddenly, Dred Girl’s eyes got wide and she pointed behind us. Wheeling around, we saw three EPs come through the front door of the clinic, hunger in their eyes, maniacal smiles on their faces.
“Run!” Jacob shouted.
“The kitchen!” Dred Girl shouted. We ran, our legs pumping, the EPs right behind us. “Unngghh” they moaned. “Unghhh…”
We slammed the kitchen closed behind us just as the largest EP reached out towards me. Dred Girl bolted the door and threw herself across the room, away from the frenzied banging at the door.
“Seriously, guys, what is going on?!” she cried.
Jacob and I looked at each other.
“You really missed it all?”
“Yes. I had really bad malaria. Please tell me what’s happening.”
“Ok. Here’s what we know.”
“It started a few weeks ago” said Jacob. “I had just gotten home from the orphanage when Finn texted me and asked if I had heard from Julie. She was supposed to meet him for a drink, but hadn’t shown up. I told him that the last I had heard of her she was going to an interview at IceSkates4Africa, you know, that NGO that brings used ice skates over here to create self-reliant innovation amongst vulnerable youth? He said she had called him before going, but hadn’t been heard of since. I was like, whatever, she’s probably with Robert, that Tanzanian guy from Via Via she likes. Anyway, that was a Tuesday. By Thursday, two more of our friends had disappeared. Plus, I was walking home on Thursday and saw this guy get out of a vehicle with blue plates, you know, UN, and he was moaning weirdly and walking all, like, crazy. And he saw this girl with those turquoise Zanzibar trousers walking along and he sort of lurched towards her going, ‘uuurrgghhh’. But she got into a taxi. The UN dude got all worked up then, moaning even louder and running around, and I sort of ducked into a shop till he went away. It was super weird. Did you see any of that shit then?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “No, but my roommate Becky said she saw a couple that she knows works…worked…for that NGO, I think it’s called Tambourines4Tots, and they were acting all crazy, moaning and walking funny like you’re saying, and she swore she heard them say, ‘Brains. Brains!’”
Dred Girl’s eyes were wide and her hand was over her mouth, either in disbelief or to smother a scream. “So what was it?”
Jacob put his hand up. “Wait. So I guess it had started then. But it all blew up that Friday, at happy hour. You know, out at The Growling Tortoise, that mzungu place?”
Dred Girl rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that place is, like, so colonial.”
Jacob nodded. “Anyway, whatever was going on, it spread like wildfire. All those EPs in one place? It was crazy.”
“EPs?” Dred Girl asked.
“Ex-pats. We just call them ‘EPs’ now. Those…things.”
“We’re ex-pats. We live here. I’ve been here two months!”
“No, see, we’re just volunteers. That’s the thing.” Jacob glanced at me. “We didn’t turn into those… things.”
“I don’t get it.”
“We didn’t become all crazy.” Jacob suddenly focused a stare on Dred Girl. “You see…we’re what they want to eat!”
Dred Girl just stared back.
“Ok, so just listen,” Jacob went on, leaning back against the fridge. “That Friday, all those EPs at happy hour turned into those crazy things. Like, it was contagious, I guess. They banded together, went on a rampage, moving east through the city. At first they didn’t find many volunteers, but then they arrived at Mango Tree. So that’s where things got really bad. There were all these volunteers there. The EPs came right in, ate all of their brains. They didn’t distinguish between anyone, like, volunteers who were doing sustainable work, volunteers who were innovating, volunteers who knew the local customs and rode daladalas.”
“Oh my god!” gasped Dred Girl.
“I know, right?! They just ate all the brains, regardless. I heard the first ones to go were people with kanga bags. The EPs went crazy when they saw them.”
I looked down at my bag, made of red and blue fabric. My mouth watered at the thought of those bacon crisps.
“But, so, what is this? How come they turned into those things?” Dred Girl leaned forward.
“Hope knows,” Jacob said.
I swallowed. “I don’t know for sure. But I heard rumors that it all started at the UN Fund for Building Local Capacity-Building Locally (UNFBLCBL). They were creating some sort of innovative programming serum and it backfired. Let loose their pent-up scorn for volunteers, somehow. They were trying to do something good, you know? But now…now, they’re these things…”
“You mean,” Dred Girl gasped, “HUMANITARIAN ZOMBIES?!”
We sat, silent.
The humanitarian zombies at the door continued their moaning. “Brains…brains…”
The late afternoon sunshine came through the windows. The zombies outside the door kept up their moaning for our brains. Their stamina was remarkable considering it was clear they couldn’t reach us inside. “Must be NGO zombies,” Jacob said. “So much work for so little payoff…”
I sat on the floor with my head cradled in my arms. What hope was there for a world like this? Couldn’t we all just get along?
“What was that?” Dred Girl asked.
“Is that a text?!” Jacob demanded.
I pulled my phone out of my bag. I had almost forgotten I had it; it had been so long since there was anyone to call. It was a text:
any1 there? ppl R gathering @ Mango Tree. Time 2 fight back!
Jacob leaned over my shoulder to read the text. “O…M…G” he said, eyes wide.
“Fight back?” I asked. “With what?”
Jacob stood up. “You know, maybe we can. Maybe we can end this scourge forever!”
Dred Girl stood up too. “How?”
Jacob gazed out the window. “We need…”
Dred Girl and I leaned forward eagerly.
Finally, we had hope.
“No, no, that’s the not the way to do this!”
We had reached Mango Tree. Getting past the zombies at the hospital kitchen door had been surprisingly easy. Because they were NGO zombies, we had been able to distract them by writing the word ‘innovative’ on a napkin and throwing it out the door. While the EPs were grasping at the napkin, we snuck past and out of the clinic. Now, at Mango Tree, a heated debate was raging over Jacob’s logframe.
“Look,” said one skinny German girl, “These things are stuck in a ‘Zombie Trap’. The only way for them to escape this trap is for us to allocate them more brains.”
“More brains? Are you crazy?” shouted a guy whose accent placed him as a Texan. “Where are we going to get brains to give them?”
The German girl said, “Look, we each have lots of brains. Don’t be stingy. We should all agree to donate a certain percent of our brains to the EPs so they can pull themselves out of the Zombie Trap.”
“I don’t like this. Won’t this nurture a dependency culture among the EPs? I think we should consult the EPs themselves to find out what they need to stop being zombies. What we need is a targeted, participatory alternative to brains.”
“Yeah! It makes no sense to devise a strategy without consulting the primary stakeholders.”
“Geez, Lacey, don’t be so elitist.”
There were about a dozen of them, volunteers banding together to take a final stand against the zombie scourge of Arusha. Whatever strategy we decided on, it would be our last – one way or another.
At last, a vote was taken. It was decided that an alternative to brains must be found. It was the only sustainable way. After all, if we gave them a percentage of our brains, wouldn’t they just want more when they were done? What are we, walking brain restaurants?
“Ok, so what, then?” asked Jacob. “We have to get away from here, past all them. How do we do it?”
“Why can’t we just drive away? All these cars just lying around?” Dred Girl looks nervously out the window at the abandoned cars littering the streets.
“None of them have petrol. They were all siphoned off when everything was going to shit,” an Australian boy informed her.
“I know,” I said. “I know how we can get out of here.”
Everyone stared at me. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. It’s so easy. All we have to do is…”
The back door burst open and dozens of hungry EPs poured in.
The volunteers screamed and ran to the front door, pushing and crowding their way through. I felt someone try to pull me out of the way, but I fought back and made it through. On the front lawn, more EPs were lurching their way towards us. They were coming from every side. We stood there, looking around frantically as they closed in on us. So it would end like this after all. All those weeks on the run for nothing. The zombies drew closer. One reached out his hand towards Jacob, ready to grab him and begin the final feast. I opened my mouth to scream, when suddenly they all stopped. Just stopped in their tracks. The zombie by Jacob put his arm down. A pregnant silence fell over the lawn. As though the world had stopped.
I think I was the first to see him. He just walked onto the lawn from the street, strolling as if nothing strange and cannibalistic were happening. The EPs just stood where they were, and as the man got closer, they turned to stare. The other volunteers had followed my gaze and were now also looking on, mouths hanging open. In fact, I suspect that a fly on the wall would have thought we were all zombies, they way we stared.
Underneath a bright blue sky, the man walked up to us and extended his hand. “Come with me. You’re safe now.” He turned and started back towards the road, where we could now see a large bus. We must not have heard it over the sounds of our screams.
We followed him and the EPs didn’t move an inch. They stood there, swaying a little. One started towards us half-heartedly, but a growl from the man leading us checked his advance.
We boarded the bus. The man got into the driver’s seat and drove us away, through the ravaged city and into the countryside.
Somewhere near Nairobi, Dred Girl was finally the first one to speak. She stood up and walked to the front of the bus.
“Thanks, Bono. Thanks for saving us from the humanitarian zombies.”
“No problem, love,” Bono smiled. “No problem…”