The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, We Are The Living–‘raw footage’, if you will. The novel is in the beta stage, to be released this summer. In this scene, Liam arrives in post-apocalyptic Siena, Italy.
“In the early days,” Gennarosa shouted over the wind blowing past us, “The army was here in Siena. They fought mobs of infected in the first few days—tiny streets like this, there was no way to get away from them really.”
Max, his respirator clamped over his face, added something but it was so garbled and the truck rattled so much that I could not understand him.
The truck chugged up through a Roman-era gate onto a narrow street, hemmed by sentinel trees. I gazed at their green leaves. After weeks inside Emilio, the trees looked so live and so wild to me, even amongst the flat-faced brick and stone buildings.
“Will we see any infected?” I asked.
Gennarosa shook her head. Her pony-tail caught the wind and blew out beside her into Max’s face. “Probably not. There aren’t many left. The disease kills them eventually.”
At that moment, we crested a hill and the wind blew straight into my face—with it, a stench I’d never forget: decomposing flesh. I choked and shoved my nose into the collar of my t-shirt, but Gennarosa smirked at me.
“Just wait. It gets worse.”
I gritted my teeth and imagined the narrow, winding street like I’d seen Siena in the guidebooks: teeming with people, with the odd car, with voices and music and with sunlight. We had the sunlight, but the only sound was the groaning engine of the truck. We were the only people.
As we swung around a tight corner onto an even narrower street, I caught the first glimpse of the carnage that had gone on in this place: pockmarks on the yellow stone wall of a building, and a brown splatter. I gripped the hot metal side of the truck and stared as we rumbled past more and more bullet holes. The street was clear, but no rain had come to wash away the blood of whom? Infected? Soldiers like me?
“This is the creepiest place ever,” Gennarosa yelled. “Infected or no infected.”
In a couple minutes I caught a glimpse, in the gap between two buildings, of a slender tower rising above the flat roofs. It was the Torre del Mangia, on the edge of the Piazza Del Campo, and home base was right beside it.
As we imerged onto road that ran around the Piazza del Campo, the sun went behind a cloud and shrouded the Piazza in grey. I had the images from the guidebooks in my head, and I wasn’t prepared for the emptiness, and the ravens perched on the fountain at the far side, and the ravaged buildings. The storefronts gaped empty: windows shattered, stone facades speckled with bullet holes, awnings vibrating in ribbons. The red pavement of the piazza was blotched here and there. It was blood, or body fluids.
Welcome to the warzone, Macpherson you old fool.
The truck jerked to a halt and snapped me from my observations. The square, ochre building still said ‘Pizzeria’ on the outside, but every window was sealed from the inside and the door was reinforced by heavy steel. Gennarosa jumped over the side of the truck and led me in.
There were remnants of the pizzeria: the front counter where I imagined the till had been—the doorway into the kitchen where I could see a glimpse of the stone oven, but the rest of the ground floor was gutted. The walls were torn up, with distinct bullet holes here and there.
“They’ve fought here?” I asked.
“Not while I was here,” said Gennarosa. “Hey!” she yelled. “Let us up!”
I heard a rattle, and then with a deep creak, the ceiling opened up: two heavy, steel-enforced trapdoors rose and a stairway dropped down. The hole was dark, as if they had no lights upstairs.
“The original stairways have been blocked.” Gennarosa sprang up the stairs and I followed on her heels.
Someone grabbed my arm and hauled me up onto the landing. “Thanks,” I said. I looked into grim, dark eyes—a man taller than me, whip-cord lean, a silver cross around his neck.
“Father Domenico,” Gennarosa muttered to me. She turned and addressed him in Italian. He gripped my hand and gazed into my eyes and Gennarosa translated his words:
“Welcome, Liam. Gennarosa has told me of you. You are most welcome here.”
I felt as if my spine had stiffened in his presence. I felt alive, ready for battle in the presence of this priest, my commanding officer.
“I will show you around and give you the rundown,” Gennarosa said quietly. She nodded to Father Domenico, and he released me. As we stepped inside, the trapdoors shut with a metallic ‘chung’.
It was baking hot inside, with only slight whiffs of breeze coming through, almost so hot it felt cold. My body was in an instant sweat. As my eyes adjusted I saw why. Every window but two, on polar ends of the room, were shuttered and barred. I noted, with a thrill in my gut, that each shutter had cross-shaped holes: gun ports. The interior was gutted—every stick of furniture gone, but for cots and pallets along the back wall, only a few interior walls standing. But it was clean, swept up, and there was a wooden crucifix displayed prominently on the wall opposite the trapdoor.
“Welcome to the fortress,” said Gennarosa. “Weapons this way. Not much else to see.”
She led me behind one of the standing walls, into a makeshift supply room: two shelves, two cabinets, and a table, and another set of stairs.
“That leads to the third floor,” she said. “We’re not using it.” She opened up a cabinet and pulled out a submachine gun like the one she carried, handed it to me, and then gave me two magazines of ammunition, and a half-mask.
“To be clear,” she said with a sardonic hint in her eyes, “The gun is for emergencies. We see a infected, we tranq it.”
“You’ve never shot one?” I thought of the skittering, slavering creatures overrunning the barricade at Paris. Tranquilize those?
“Nope.” She filled up her cheeks and blew them out with a pop. “Others of us have—it does happen, but prepare for the wrath of Domenico if you do. To Domenico, they’re still people.”
“Can’t argue with that.” I’d been infected, after all. I flipped the submachine gun over and popped open the action. It felt a bit stiff. “Where’d you get these?”
“The army supplied us with them.”
“Hmm.” Father Lucien had mentioned some sort of connection to the army, after all. “So what, the army just left the weapons and Domenico took over?”
She nodded. “Pretty much. Lucien and Domenico persuaded the army to stop killing infected so that they could start curing them.” Her eyes glinted. “Some of the guys who were here first said that Domenico waded in while they were still fighting, cured some of their guys, and persuaded to stop.”
“Holy shit,” I muttered.
“Now, the riot act.” Gennarosa faced me square on and thrust her thumbs into the belt loops of her jeans. She pointed her chin at the MP5. “Like I said, that is last resort only—as in life and death. If you see a zombie, we neutralize it with this.” She picked up another gun from the table, beside the cabinet. “Tranquilizer—strong.” She looked around the room. “We work seven to one, three to eight. The truck goes to Emilio twice a week, and we pull straws on who gets to go. Water must be boiled before drinking. Birdbaths only—you can shower if you go to Emilio. Uh… don’t eat any of the food unless its mealtime.” She pressed her lips together and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Did I miss anything? Yeah, so I’m one of two girls here. You can’t sleep with either of us.”
I laughed. No problems there.
“Serious. Padre’s rules. Okay?”
I nodded. “Yeah, no problem. No offense, but I’m not interested.”
She smirked. “Don’t sleep with any of the men either. But if you do—,” she tipped her head toward the stairs. “Third floor.”
Max called from the other room, easily identified by the garbled voice. “Gen, time to go. Grab a radio.”
“Off to work.” Gennarosa turned and led me out. All eleven of them, including the priest, clambered down the stairs, guns swinging over their shoulders. I noted three tranquilizer guns among them, three hand-held radios, and two bags of unidentified supplies.
“We started piling bodies today,” Gennarosa said. “We’re cleaning out the area closest to our place, and hauling them out of the city.”
“And then you’ll do what?”
My stomach dropped to my boots. “Isn’t cremating against, uh… against Catholicism?”
She shrugged. “I’m guessing that they never brought up zombies at any of the church councils.”