Excerpt: The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus

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George A. Romero invented the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead, creating a monster that has become a key part of pop culture. Romero often felt hemmed in by the constraints of film-making. To tell the story of the rise of the zombies and the fall of humanity the way it should be told, Romero turned to fiction. Unfortunately, when he died, the story was incomplete.

Enter Daniel Kraus, co-author, with Guillermo del Toro, of the New York Times bestseller The Shape of Water (based on the Academy Award-winning movie) and Trollhunters (which became an Emmy Award-winning series), and author of The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch (an Entertainment Weekly Top 10 Book of the Year). A lifelong Romero fan, Kraus was honored to be asked, by Romero’s widow, to complete The Living Dead.

Set in the present day, The Living Dead is an entirely new tale, the story of the zombie plague as George A. Romero wanted to tell it.

It begins with one body.

A pair of medical examiners find themselves battling a dead man who won’t stay dead.

It spreads quickly.

In a Midwestern trailer park, a Black teenage girl and a Muslim immigrant battle newly-risen friends and family. On a US aircraft carrier, living sailors hide from dead ones while a fanatic makes a new religion out of death. At a cable news station, a surviving anchor keeps broadcasting while his undead colleagues try to devour him. In DC, an autistic federal employee charts the outbreak, preserving data for a future that may never come.

Everywhere, people are targeted by both the living and the dead.

We think we know how this story ends.

We. Are. Wrong.

Please enjoy this excerpt of The Living Dead, available 08/04/20.

No Teeth

The playground area felt recently deserted, the hanging mist smudged, the stomped leaves expanding. Muddy shoe prints spotted across sidewalks before getting lost in asphalt. Greer tracked one set of prints up the steps of Señorita Magdalena’s single-wide, from which gurgled Spanish—urgent from Magdalena, guttural from José Frito, ornamented by the cries of the children. Greer tuned it out and turned around.

The bloody handprint on her trailer-door window was accompanied by a second near the dryer vent, the size of a man’s hand. Drasko Zorić, maybe? Had the Serbian injured himself? A garish red stripe was smeared along the vinyl siding all the way to the trailer’s end. The mist was reducing the blood to a rose-colored wash. Greer exhaled and kept her phone at the ready. You didn’t risk being marked as a narc by calling police to the Last Resort for minor injuries. Drasko Zorić, or whoever the injured person was, wasn’t in sight. Greer couldn’t act yet.

She studied the playground through the rain, feeling the ghosts of happiness past. The swing set was a gallows of dangling chains. Only the merry-go-round’s base had survived metal collectors: a sharp steel disc littered with doll disembowelments. Two spring riders, a pelican and cockatoo, flopped listlessly, their aluminum bodies dented by children enraged by their impotence. Only the rusty climbing dome remained intact. It looked like a whale skeleton stripped of hide and blubber.

A woman lay in the leaves beneath it.

Greer called automatically: “Daddy?”

A response came, but not from Freddy Morgan: “Girl! Girl!”

It sounded so much like bullets Greer ducked. The call came from an old but freshly waxed sedan ripping down the road in excess of the posted 5 mph, wet asphalt hissing beneath its tires. Its grille bashed a plastic trash bin, sending garbage all over the road and peppering Greer with coffee grounds. The car skidded to a halt.

Mr. Villard leaned over the passenger seat toward a window rolled down an inch. Mr. Villard was fastidious in every respect, but today his hairpiece hung like a patch over an eye. His right hand spread mud over the passenger seat.

“Get out,” he said. “Everyone’s gone mad.”

“Have you seen my dad?”

“Get clear of the whole park. If you can’t, get inside your unit and lock the door.”

“Is it . . .” Greer searched for sense. “Gangs?”

“There’s no time! Do what I say!”

“Freddy Morgan,” she pressed. “He’s part of your club—”

“There is no fucking club anymore! Don’t bother me with this shit! I have to go!”

It was the spit on Mr. Villard’s chin that froze the liquid terror of Greer’s veins. She felt exposed, like the gray rain had fingers longer than Mr. Villard’s. No smart girl got into a car with a man she hardly knew, but her growing sense was normal rules no longer applied. She pulled on the passenger door handle. It rebounded with a clunk: locked. Greer looked disbelievingly at Mr. Villard.

“Let me in,” she said.

He drew back as if she were festering with disease.

It was the most chilling moment of her life.

“The Syrians.” Mr. Villard’s voice broke. “These Syrians show up and now this? You think that’s a coincidence?” He bared teeth that looked ready to bite. “This used to be a nice place.”

There came a crash. Greer and Mr. Villard turned in unison to see Señorita Magdalena’s trailer swaying upon its cinder block joists as if it contained brawling bears. Also from inside: screaming, fleshy thumps, shattering glass.

Greer risked Mr. Villard’s incisors and pushed her fingers through the car window’s gap. “Don’t leave me here.”

“Let go of my car!” he screeched. “Black bitch, I’ll tear your fingers off!”

Greer retracted fast enough to bloody her knuckles, but felt nothing. This was Mr. Villard. President of the Sunnybrook Club. Who’d proclaimed it a travesty when someone destroyed all the black lives matter signs. His tires spun, and the car sprang forward, walloping a second trash bin. Greer retreated into the playground, watching the car take out a plinth of mailboxes. Behind her, the cries from Señorita Magdalena’s trailer rose to tortured moans.

Greer repeated Mr. Villard’s only sensible words: “Get out.”

A miserable lowing made her turn to the climbing dome. The woman under it was struggling. Bare brown arms extended from a cotton nightdress insufficient for the autumn chill. Greer couldn’t leave the woman there in the rain. She confirmed 911 was still a thumb-tap away and jogged closer, carefully avoiding the fulcrum of a missing seesaw. Extending twenty inches from the ground, the post had tripped hundreds of kids.

It was Mama Shaw. Seventysomething years old, she was a Sunnybrook Club regular and the least valuable of the lot. Her mellifluous Jamaican accent demanded attention, which was unfortunate, considering the non sequiturs of her input. If Mr. Villard’s topic was beautification, she’d bewail the devil music coming from adjacent homes. If the club was discussing clamping down on prostitution, she’d lament all the dog poop. These interjections always came from Mama Shaw’s bedroom, so close to the playground she needed only lean out the window, cigarette in hand, to participate. Until this moment, Greer had forgotten the reason Mama Shaw stayed inside.

Her legs had been amputated two years ago.

Diabetic infection, Greer had heard. She’d seen hospital orderlies loading the legless woman into a medical van via stretcher. Once, Greer had been fetching mail when they’d arrived, and though she’d averted her eyes from the sight of Mama Shaw plated like a steak, she’d heard the orderlies crack jokes as if the woman they carried were already dead and couldn’t hear. There’d been a certain archness to how they’d said Their and They.

“If I were these people,” one said, “I’d stay at the hospital as long as I could.”

“Hey, we’re Their personal valets,” said the other. “Maybe They’re smarter than They seem.”

Now Mama Shaw was outside, facedown, her nightdress revealing her thigh stumps. The grass beneath the dome long ago had been scuffed away; mud oozed between Mama Shaw’s squeezing fists. Greer looked around and absorbed the evidence: rain-diluted splashes of blood along Mama Shaw’s trailer steps and a luge-like furrow carved through wet leaves. Mama Shaw hadn’t been tossed here. She’d crawled out here by herself.

Why the fuck hadn’t anyone helped her?

Greer kneeled down. Her sweatpants soaked. She set her phone on the damp ground, the screen brilliant with three encouraging digits. It would be the last time she ever touched it.

“Mama Shaw,” she said. “It’s Greer Morgan. I’m going to pull you out, okay?”

With a sucking sound, Mama Shaw pulled her face from the muck. Her gauzy gray hair was matted to her skin. Her eyes, already cataracted, had gone full white; black pupils skittered beneath mucus before locking on Greer. The cords in Mama Shaw’s neck pulled taut as she opened her mouth so wide Greer thought her lower jaw might unhinge. The woman’s upper and lower dentures popped out and landed in the mud. From the toothless hollow rose an urgent chuffing.

Señorita Magdalena’s trailer rocked again. Stabilizer cables pinged under the strain.

Greer tamped down the urge to flee. Mama Shaw must be having a seizure, and Greer was the only one who could do anything about it. She took firm hold of Mama Shaw’s wrists. The skin was as clammy as lunch meat. When she adjusted her grip, the dents made by her fingers remained visible. Was that because of diabetes? Did the disease gelatinize blood, make skin thick and sluggish?

Mama Shaw was a hefty woman, but when Greer pulled, her body slid easily through the leaves, like she was half the weight. Of course she was, Greer thought abruptly—she was missing both legs. Greer kept pulling until the woman’s upper body escaped the perimeter of the dome. Mud and leaves piled into Mama Shaw’s mouth and covered her nose. She’ll suffocate, Greer thought, remembering how, mere minutes ago, she’d pretended to smother herself with a pillow. How quickly her morning melodrama had come to look childish.

Greer bent to clear mud from Mama Shaw’s face.

“Get back!”

How many shocks could she take? Greer bit back a scream as Sam Hell charged down the asphalt, his Kangol hat keeping the rain from his glaring eyes. He held a gun. Not a hunting rifle like one of Daddy’s but an automatic sidearm, the kind hoodlums liked to flex in front of friends. He held the gun sidewise too, that douche move Greer only saw in action flicks. None of that meant the pointed gun wasn’t scary; Greer froze, afraid to move even the hand she had on Mama Shaw’s face.

“She’s choking!” Greer pleaded.

“Shut up and move your ass!”

Mama Shaw’s fingers cinched around Greer’s wrist. That was good news—it meant the woman was alert enough to be frightened. But Mama Shaw’s grip tightened until Greer’s wrist bones smarted. Despite the gun bearing down on her, Greer moved her head to look at Mama Shaw.

And Mama Shaw bit her.

The old woman flung her head at Greer’s hand, her toothless, mud-filled mouth enveloping the teenager’s first two fingers. Mama Shaw’s jaws snapped together, putting pressure on Greer’s knuckles. She had only a second to consider the freakish sight before she was thrown aside by a massive jolt to the shoulder that tossed her aside and jolted Mama Shaw’s body. Propelled by the impact, Greer’s phone shot out of sight beneath damp leaves.

The back of Greer’s head whacked against wet ground. Had Sam Hell shot her? A loud thwack made her blink away the rain pooled in her eye sockets and sit up. Sam Hell was kicking Mama Shaw in the face. For the second time, from the looks of it—the woman’s nose was broken open to the pearl-colored cartilage. That’s what had hit Greer: not a bullet but Sam Hell’s foot. She felt a belated burst of pain in her shoulder at the exact second his boot connected with Mama Shaw’s chin.

“Stop!” Greer cried. Again, she tried to summon her protector: “Daddy!”

Mama Shaw’s neck jerked back with a moist crack. The top of her skull rang against a bar of the dome. It was beyond grotesque, this legless old lady under assault. A wail burst from Greer’s chest. Sam Hell didn’t pause. He reached Greer in a single step and put a boot to her chest, pressing her into the mud. Greer felt all oxygen blast from her body. She thought strangely of Qasim, his weight against her, her breath sucked into his mouth. Sam Hell’s gun, not sideways this time, came straight at her.

“You’re bit!” he shouted.

She wheezed for air. “What?”

“That old bitch fucking bit you, and you’re fucking fucked!”

Was Mama Shaw rabid? That made sense. The Last Resort brimmed with rats. One of them had gone rabid, bitten Mama Shaw, and she’d crawled out here and scared the living shit out of the Sunnybrook Club. Greer raised her right hand and looked it over. Mud, two blades of leaf. No blood, not even a scratch. She showed it to Sam Hell.

“Gums,” she croaked.

The gun jumped closer. A raindrop bridged the barrel to her nose.

“Bitch, what?”

The boot on her chest pressed harder. She could feel her body sinking. She was going to end up buried right here at Sunnybrook Mobile Home Resort, the place on Earth she most wanted to leave.

“No teeth,” she grunted. “No teeth.”

Sam Hell’s eyes bulged as he stared at her hand, but Greer had no confidence he was seeing straight. When not inebriated, the man was manic, hulking around Miss Jemisha’s trailer, kicking down railings and punching in windows. If she didn’t let him in, he’d go raging down the road, spewing bile—bitch whore cunt pig skank ho tramp. This was his current state, the most heightened Greer had seen it.

She’d also never seen him up this early. Miss Jemisha must have rushed home from the disrupted club meeting and woken him up. None of that explained his reaction. If Mama Shaw was sick, he could call for help or just stay the fuck away. He didn’t need to kick the woman in her face and aim his piece at a neighbor.

“How I know you ain’t bit elsewhere?” he demanded.

Greer’s mind went straight to sexual violation. Of course it did. High on something, he’d make her take her clothes off under the pretense of checking for bite marks. Then he’d rape her, his gun pressed under her chin, and if a single fucking member of the do-gooder Sunnybrook Club saw, they’d pull a Mr. Villard and get out. They wouldn’t even call 911, the same way Greer hadn’t and for the same reason: that ruinous, perpetuating cycle of so-called self-protection.

Sam Hell loomed, rain shivering from his hat, chin, arm, and gun, while his frantic gaze searched her rain-soaked body. The only sounds were their panting breaths, the patter of rain, and the slurps of Mama Shaw.

New sounds broke the tension. They came from Señorita Magdalena’s trailer. The feline whine of a screen door opening only to prematurely crash shut, like someone unsure how to operate it, followed by the hard, uneven shuffles of feet tumbling down steps, lots of them. The gun barrel swung away from Greer’s face as Sam Hell responded to the sounds. Greer pushed herself to her elbows and leaned to see for herself.

No longer would she have to wonder how many children Señorita Magdalena had. There were five, ranging from ages five to thirteen. Obviously, none had been marshaled today for school. The quintet was a swiftly untangling pyre of tangled limbs at the foot of the steps. They were oblivious to the rain on Their faces, the mud splashed over Their pajamas, the Rorschachs of blood all over Them. They stood up and looked about, daft as ducks, until one of Them, a girl of maybe seven, spotted Sam Hell and Greer Morgan, and, without a word, began walking their way.

Copyright © George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus 2020

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