Year of the Dead-Chapter 6
Chapter 6: Art Bingham, March 13th to September 11th, Year 0
My name is Art Bingham. I am the first counselor at Forest Dale First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Sugar House, Utah. Until I became the leader of a community that was surrounded by zombies, I had never truly been afraid. Since then, fear in varying shades of intensity is the only emotion I have been able to feel. I am a husband and a father. I have become the person that a hundred-and-four families look to for guidance. I have responsibilities. I don’t know how much longer I can fulfill any of them.
My new life of fear had its genesis six months ago when I first heard about the zombie outbreaks in Africa. I work in an outpatient clinic in Sugar House as a Family Practice physician for the University of Utah hospital system. All the medical journals were filled with discussions and hypotheses about how and why a trial of an AIDS Vaccine would lead to the reanimation of the dead.
A few weeks after that first video-feed by a CNN reporter and his entire crew being eaten by zombies in mid March, the New England Journal of Medicine published photos and a transcript of a medical autopsy of a zombie. This was done in Kenya under the control of the Kenyan government and there weren’t any niceties or ethical dilemmas that would have been a problem in the US. The term autopsy was inaccurate; it was a vivisection of a moving animated zombie strapped to a surgical table. No anesthesia was used. The pathologist started at the feet and moved up the body, dissecting until only the head was left. There were photos and a description of a decapitated head that was still animated. It was only after the brain cavity was exposed and the brain cut into that the zombie stopped moving.
The vivisection revealed that a zombie’s heart only beats two or three times a minute. The virus that causes the zombie to reanimate converts the metabolism of a human body to an anaerobic process. This means that zombies don’t need to breathe. It also explains why zombies can’t run quickly. An anaerobic metabolism would allow a zombie to be much more efficient in its use of calories but would also give it much less peak power. If a zombie’s artery is cut, there isn’t enough pressure to allow a significant loss of blood, and since the blood isn’t oxygenated, it isn’t red. A zombie’s blood is thick and viscous and, upon exposure to air, coagulates almost immediately. It is impossible for a zombie to bleed out. The New England Journal of Medicine article documented that removing or destroying a zombie’s heart has no effect because any muscular contraction anywhere in the zombie’s body provides enough pumping action to keep the zombie animated.
Additional studies were published in the medical journals over the next few weeks indicated that the zombie virus can only be transferred through a zombie’s saliva. Zombies were found to be purely carnivorous. They couldn’t digest vegetable matter. Zombie saliva on nonliving meat acted as an extremely strong protease, breaking it down quickly to a mass of proteins. Zombies use their stomachs and GI tract purely as storage; only their saliva is necessary for digestion and there is complete digestion. Zombies do not produce feces or urine. It is almost impossible to starve a zombie to death. If it doesn’t get anything to eat, it can cannibalize its own body tissues. A zombie would first digest its internal organs that it no longer needed, such as its liver, lungs, kidneys, etc., before digesting essential tissues such as muscle and bone. Zombies hadn’t been around enough to know by empirical evidence how long they could survive without food but researchers were estimating that they could survive for years. Anabolic metabolisms are extremely efficient.
If zombie saliva were to be injected into a chimpanzee, depending on the amount of saliva injected, within a few hours or a few days the chimpanzee would reanimate as a zombie. Chimpanzees share 98% of the same genes as humans and they are the only animals that could become zombies. Injections of zombie saliva into gorillas and orangutans kill these primates but they do not reanimate. Injected zombie saliva was eventually 100% deadly to all animals.
Zombies have a grayish hue. They do not rot or have a significant body odor. For a few hours at night, a zombie will become quiescent. During this period, if it has fed recently it will actually heal. It can rebuild torn and cut muscles and tendons. Destroying a zombie’s brain doesn’t kill the virus. It eliminates the virus’s ability to control the body it was infecting. If a zombie’s brain were to be destroyed, the body collapses and doesn’t move but it doesn’t rot. The zombie’s body then starts reabsorbing its unnecessary organs and fat, and slowly starts healing. Given enough time and enough food, a zombie potentially could regrow a severed limb. Though enough testing was not done, it is possible that a zombie who was shot in the head could eventually heal the wound. A zombie with an intact brain never attacks another moving active zombie, but if a zombie’s brain is damaged, other zombies rapidly tear it apart and eat it. Researchers tried to feed zombie flesh to animals. No animals, including scavengers such as vultures or rats, were willing to eat zombie flesh. It was almost as if the zombies had been designed to clean up after themselves and were designed not to increase the number of scavengers, like rats.
The zombie outbreak in Africa was a huge story but widespread panic did not occur in the US until the infection spread to Europe in early April. By late August almost all the countries bordering the Mediterranean had major outbreaks. This became a huge concern because the outbreaks made no sense. Zombies are slow and predictable. Bullets kill them. Functioning governments with modern weapons should have had no difficulties controlling the spread this disease. For no reason that could be determined, the zombie virus was resisting all attempts to quarantine it; as soon as there was an outbreak, all communications ceased from the area.
The LDS General Authorities recommended disaster preparation. Ever since the formation of the Church by Joseph Smith in the 1830s, the church has been a victim of prejudice. Since 1890, when the church stopped the practice of polygamy, Mormons had not been jailed or actually persecuted for practicing our religion, but the memory of having to flee three times due to persecution has been an integral part of our culture. Practicing Mormons are encouraged to have a year’s supply of food in their homes and it is routine for wards to have disaster relief rehearsals for earthquakes, floods, fires, etc. Once it became clear that zombie outbreaks were possible, the church recommended that all Mormons gather their stored food in a fortified area. It was clear to the General Authorities that individual homes would probably not be safe.
It’s been estimated by the media that only the Roman Catholic Church has more wealth than the LDS Church. I wouldn’t know. I do know that the church started spending its wealth as soon as the threat of zombies became clear. The church paid to have reinforced 10-foot-tall chain link fences strong enough to withstand the force of hundreds of people pushing against them put around every ward house. These fences were topped by six feet of razor wire, slanted 45-degrees outward from the fence. The thought was that if any zombie tried to climb the fence, its body weight would cause the razor wire to slice off its fingers, making it difficult for the zombie to keep climbing.
Church members were encouraged to store emergency belongings in the ward house. Large diesel electricity generators were placed in every ward with enough fuel to provide electricity for three months. Barrels of water large enough to supply 800 people with drinking water for three months were provided, along with weapons, ammunition, clothing and medical supplies. Within weeks, generators and other supplies were almost impossible to find. The church called for and received unpaid volunteers that helped manufacture all these supplies out of raw materials. The costs of these supplies became exorbitant but the church paid for them.
During this time I was filled with a sense of unreality. I knew that the danger was real but it never seemed to hit home. I was too busy to be truly concerned. I worked full-time as a family physician. After leaving work, I had another full-time job as the First Councilor to Bishop Johnson, coordinating the storage of each family’s personal supplies and making sure that such supplies did not include inappropriate objects such as furniture or television sets. One idiot wanted to store his golf clubs and got angry when I told him that it was inappropriate.
“Bishop” is what Mormons call the person that would normally be called a priest or minister in most other Christian denominations. Bishop Johnson wanted to help with the disaster preparation but he was inundated by members of the faith who had not been to services for years who now wanted to join our ward and by people who were interested in converting.
Almost every LDS Church ward house has two wards made up of about 100 families, or 400 individuals, who share the physical building. One ward has services on Sunday mornings and the other in the afternoons. My ward served families that lived locally. The other ward was for Japanese speakers from all around Salt Lake City; their services were held in Japanese. A few of the Japanese members lived nearby but most lived in outside areas; the Japanese members that lived in outside areas were asked to shelter in the wards closest to their homes. Because of the nature of the two wards in our ward house, we had more room available for nonmembers. The church gave the responsibility of accepting or rejecting new applicants to each ward house to the Bishops of the two wards. The Japanese Bishop didn’t live locally, so the entire job was left to Bishop Johnson.
I thanked God that I had not been given this burden. We had enough room for 80 additional families, but had over 300 families applying for shelter at our ward house. Bishop Johnson had to interview each family and make a personal decision on whom to accept or deny. He tried to look for people and families with essential skills who seemed to have personalities that would mesh well with the other ward members. He and the families that were turned down knew that his denial could possibly be a death sentence. Most Bishops had another Bishop to share the responsibility. He didn’t. Every day he aged visibly.
You could hope that the LDS Church’s organizational efforts would be held up as something to emulate. The church is often perceived by the uninformed to be a cult and this perception seemed to get stronger as the media recognized that the church was actually preparing to defend and protect its members. The testimonials of the families who had applied for and been denied spaces in the ward houses were aired nightly on national television. By late August, there was a palpable tension present at the clinic where I worked between the Mormons and the non-Mormons.
Federal, state, and local governments were tasked with making emergency plans. These plans were usually limited to designating the local high school as the emergency meeting place and to talking about placing supplies in the high school without actually doing it. On rare occasions, competent government officials stocked these shelters with food, bedding, and medical supplies, but these designated shelters were never fortified and weapons were never stocked.
While I was preparing our ward for a possible emergency, my wife was worrying about our adult children. I have three daughters and one son. Two of my daughters are married and live out-of-town. The eldest lives in Washington, DC with her husband and 6-month-old son. My youngest daughter lives in an apartment in Provo, a city 45 minutes away by highway. My middle daughter is single and still going to school at BYU. My son is 17 and lives with us. My two married children went to their own wards and arranged for separate emergency shelters.
My wife demanded that I make space for my two married daughters’ families. The fact that neither daughter’s husband wanted this to happen, or the fact that it was completely inappropriate for me as a First Counselor to abuse my position to make space for my family, seemed not to matter to her. Almost every dinner I had with her in August led to the same fight. Nearly every day, my unmarried daughter vacillated between staying at our ward and staying at her college ward in Provo. When my wife wasn’t fighting with me or on the telephone with our daughter in Washington, DC, she was fighting with my unmarried daughter. My son stayed away from home as much as possible. If the tension at the clinic or at the ward hadn’t been so bad, I would have been tempted to avoid home, but it wasn’t any better at the clinic or at the ward.
By the first week of September, all the preparations were done. My ward had already had two evacuation rehearsals. Men between the ages of 17 and 35 were asked to take part in militia training with guns. My son Peter thought taking part in these exercises was the best adventure ever. Although disasters in Europe were being reported nightly in the news, there were no reported outbreaks in North or South America.
On September 11th I woke to the sound of an emergency broadcast on the radio. Oh Heavenly Father: September 11th! I immediately tuned to the radio station that we had been told to check in case of emergencies and I heard a recorded message that told me to seek shelter immediately. Within a few minutes, my car was packed. My wife, my unmarried daughter Cheryl, my son Peter, and I were the first ones at our ward house. I told my son to grab his weapon and meet me at the gate. I asked my wife and daughter to get to the parking lot to help guide all the cars that were expected to arrive. I told them to avoid leaving spaces in-between the vehicles. As new arrivals came into our enclosure, they described friends and family members that were delayed and were planning on coming in later because either they or someone close to them had woken up sick. Many of these individuals were staying near their toilets because they were vomiting and the ones that had stopped vomiting were having difficulty walking on their own.
Shortly, most of the militia was present, armed and positioned in a perimeter around the ward house inside the fence. Some cars coming in through our gate were not owned by members of our ward. I made the decision to let them in. This was an emergency. I needed to get as many people in to the enclosed area as fast as possible.
When the parking lot was almost full, Bishop Johnson and his family arrived. He and his wife had been with their next-door neighbors who were ill. He and his wife had been dragged here by their sons. Behind them, visible in the distance, were zombies. Cars kept streaming toward us and it became obvious that there was no way we could allow everyone who was headed our way into our enclosure. We all looked at the Bishop. He froze. We all stared. I could see something break inside him. Quietly, in a voice so low that it could barely be heard, he said “Close the gates”.
I motioned the militia to move quickly and we closed the gates. The cars kept on coming. The General Authorities hoped that our fortified enclosures would only require protection from zombies, but they understood that there was a possibility that we would also need protection from our neighbors.
Ten-feet out from our fence was a concrete moat, four feet wide and three feet deep, that would be impossible for any car or truck to drive over. Our fence had been built to be strong enough to withstand zombies, but a car or a truck driven at high speed into the fence could severely damage it. Hollow steel tubes filled with concrete were spaced every few feet on the wall of the moat closest to the fence so a vehicle could not be driven into the fence. As we closed the gates, the drawbridge that led to the gate went upright, becoming a reinforced metal wall. The six cars, closest to the gate, tried to jump the moat. The drivers weren’t trying to destroy our fence; they were panicked and trying to enter our enclosure. The moat stopped the vehicles from damaging our fence.
The entire street in front of our meeting house was so full of cars that none of them could turn around and escape. We didn’t have time to reopen the gates for them. I saw a few people get out of their vehicles and run away down the street. Some ran to our fence and screamed to be let in. We couldn’t let them in. One of our ward members, Hank Miller, yelled that his brother was outside. We had to restrain him to stop him from opening the gate.
At first there were just a few zombies here and there. Then there were more. I saw a mass of shambling bodies. Soon the zombies were so densely packed I couldn’t see any space between them. Like a tsunami, they swept over the people trapped outside.
In front of our horrified eyes, friends and neighbors were consumed. It was better for those who panicked; they forgot to lock their car doors. They were pulled out of their vehicles and killed quickly. It was worse for those who didn’t panic; they locked their doors. They had to watch in terror as the zombies pounded on their windows. Modern car windows are made of safety glass designed to shatter but not break. These windows were not designed to withstand being struck repeatedly by zombies that didn’t experience pain or fatigue.
I don’t know who started shooting first, but soon every man and woman who had a gun in our enclosure was firing as rapidly as we could. We all knew that the only way to kill a zombie was to shoot it in the head and destroy its brain. The noise of our guns brought a wall of zombies ten-to-twenty-feet thick around our enclosure. The wire mesh of our fence did not allow the zombies to poke their hands through, so we were able to get close enough to the zombies next to the fence to almost always shoot them in the head. The wire mesh had been designed to be shot through, being flexible enough to be pushed out of the way rather than being cut if it was hit by a bullet. As soon as a zombie died, it was devoured by its neighbors. There were too many to shoot them all. Soon zombies were climbing over each other and onto the fence. The razor wire projecting over the zombies worked as it was designed. There was a cascade of zombies falling from the razor wire as they lost their fingers.
At first I was worried that the falling zombies would create a wall of bodies high enough to overtop our wall. Their invulnerability to being crushed saved us. If a human had fallen in such a dense crowd, the human would have been trampled, been suffocated, and died. The dead body would have become an inert mass. Eventually the mass of dead bodies would have piled up high enough to reach the top of the fence. Zombies cannot suffocate and they cannot be crushed to death. Every zombie that fell to the ground was able to stand up and a high-enough pile of bodies did not form.
I don’t know when I realized that my gun was empty. I must have been pulling on the trigger with nothing happening for a while. I had run out of bullets. I realized that I wasn’t hearing any more shots; all of us had run out of bullets. We could no longer see past our fence because there were so many zombies. I don’t remember hearing any sounds even while I was firing. The first sound I remember hearing after I started shooting was sobbing. The sobbing was loud. It had a wet sound like you would expect from someone who had a face full of tears and mucous. It was coming from me.
We were alive but we had, purposefully and willingly through our actions, caused the deaths of neighbors and friends—good people who had not deserved to be torn apart. I knew that behind that wall of zombies, I had neighbors who were still alive, trapped in their vehicles with their families.
I believe in a God who stands in judgment, and because of this, I was afraid. I fell to my knees. “Heavenly Father, have mercy on me, for I have sinned against my fellow man. Please grant me mercy for I am weak and I fear your justice.”