MY FRIEND AND I haven’t even taken that detour shortcut through the woods. We walk back to her dorm on a well-lit path, but still, he finds us. He could be one of Romero’s roaming dead, bloody and razed, shuffling after us with an outstretched arm. Under the spatter and burgeoning bruises, he looks to be about our age; he moans that he’s been thrown from a car, begs us for help in a slur that could be drink or drugs or a mild concussion. My friend, who is smaller than I am and green to city living (especially a city as barbed as Baltimore), instinctively stands behind me. I’m big and loud; my father has taught me to throw (and take) a punch. So I’m the one who tells him to sit on the curb, to keep his hands where we can see them. My hand slips into my purse, roots for the mace on my keychain.
I feel my friend shivering behind me; her voice is hot and damp as she asks if we should call an ambulance. The man yammers something—no cops please; he just needs a shower; he just needs to lie down—and a shock of rage seizes me: We didn’t ask to be his keeper. There is nobody around: no other students, no night joggers, and certainly no security. Only us. I take my friend’s hand and drag her toward the student center (there’s no way we’re going straight to her dorm). The man staggers behind us. I tell him to back the fuck off, that if he so much as takes another step, I’ll mace him blind. He doesn’t follow us. He gets smaller and smaller in the distance, until finally he’s gone.
We recover over coffee. In a tiny voice strained between gratitude and regret, my friend asks me if we shouldn’t have tried to help him. I tell her that he must be as crazed as he looks. Why else wouldn’t he want to go to the hospital? He might’ve attacked us if we called 9-1-1. And who knows if the people who threw him from this car (if that’s even what happened) are doubling back to find him?
She works her thumbnail along the Styrofoam cup. That was insane, she says; that felt like the end of the world.
More than ten years have passed since that night. Since then, I’ve found myself drawn to all things end of days. I armchair coach the characters on The Walking Dead through tactical errors (to be fair, I can count a former Army Ranger among my exes). I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, seeing myself in the women who go on in the aftermath of a bio-engineered virus that bore down on a fully corporatized Gomorrah. I cry at the end of McCarthy’s The Road—where a father shepherds his young son across a blighted countryside where cannibals are ever on the hunt.
These pop-cultural fantasies of the apocalypse take the skin off of something elemental, something intimate. There is always that moment when the protagonist must decide whether to rescue that injured stranger, whether to use that bullet to spare the suffering of a friend who’ll soon be dead anyway. They must decide what surviving really means: if it means casting their lot with the killers and the thieves and bruising their way to another day, or if it’s about retaining the tenderness that can give life a different kind of security.
This tension between showing mercy and saving your skin is evident in the film that begat the zombie movie industrial complex. The hero and heart of the original, incomparable Night of the Living Dead (1968) is Ben, the lone Black man who, in the year of Dr. King’s assassination, assumes a de facto guardianship of a house of White survivors: a teenage couple too groovy and clueless to fend for themselves and a farm family who’d rather cower in the basement (and who have, likely, shaken their heads at news of marches and boycotts and wondered what the world was coming to).
Canny, adroit Ben—who beats back the ghouls with fire before boarding up the house, and then devises an escape route—looks at Barbra, a teenage girl gone catatonic with grief, someone whose only value (in a strictly utilitarian sense) is as ghoul bait, and says that he’ll carry her. She’s not the only dead weight he bears: Staying behind for his feckless charges costs him; he watches them fall, one by one, to the gnashing machinery of zombie jaws. Though he lives to see sunrise, a sheriff’s posse that conveniently “mistakes” a Black man for a monster shoots him down.
Had he been more mercenary, more devil-may-care and every-man-for-himself, had he lit out on his own, he’d be alive. For all practical purposes, his sacrifice is fruitless—unless, of course, pure principle counts. If it doesn’t, and the measure of triumph is merely breathing, then he is damned by humanity, by his ability to see something of his neighbors, his friends, or even family, in these strangers. Not a burden. Not a threat.
The people who were the most marginalized in the days before the end of days—the folks “decent people” would cross the street to avoid—aren’t just adaptable; they’re often capable of the most profound empathy. Daryl Dixon, the crossbow wielding, Harley-ridin’, poncho-wearing breakout character on The Walking Dead, starts off fulfilling every stereotype of the not-so-good ol’ boy: He first joins the survivor camp only because he and his dirtbag brother plot to rob it. However, when a young girl is separated from the group, chased into the deepest woods by a zombie throng, a latent protectiveness is stirred. He nearly dies trying to bring her back; falls to the ground crying when he finds her turned.
Who was she to him? Not his kin. Barely an acquaintance. Objectively speaking, his search for her is a waste of arrows. But his reasons don’t reside in the arctic terrain of the left brain. His reasons live in the scars on his back, a latticework of belt marks. His bones hold memories of being small and scared. His world has ended so many times before, under fist and leather and that look in his father’s eyes that said run.
Toby, the hardscrabble heroine of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, is more reluctant to assume the mantle of protector. She’d been orphaned, pimped out, and rescued by a cult even before the virus struck. In some ways, the post-apocalypse has been kinder to her: She tends to the gardens at the cult compound, lives in a merciful (if lonely) silence. This silence is ruptured when she comes across Ren, a young woman who’d been battered and raped by a roaming gang. Toby is Vulcan in her initial assessment: “Toby considers the powdered Death Angels. It wouldn’t take much. Just a little, in Ren’s weakened condition. Put her out of her misery.” Still, she chooses mercy: “I am an unworthy person, Toby thinks. Merely to have such an idea … she’s come to you for help.” To kill Ren (however painlessly), when she could be saved, is tantamount to finishing that gang’s savage work.
Deciding between survival and sympathy is sharper than double-edged; one side cleaves off your humanity and the other slices off the callus that shields your heart, keeps you alert and alive. And sometimes, that blade comes down in one swoop: You must be violent, even cruel, to protect the last bit of goodness in your world.
The most wrenching passage in The Road—which occurs after some undisclosed holocaust has razed the whole of humanity and left only the cunning and the cruel to inherit the earth—isn’t the cannibal victims sardined in a dirty basement, waiting for their captors to come harvest another limb for the grill; or even the newborn roasted on a spit. It’s the argument between the main character and his wife, who insists that killing themselves and their young son is their only sane, humane action.
“They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won’t face it,” she says. “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so don’t ask for sorrow now … you won’t survive for yourself … A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost … shield it from harm with your body.”
The man is animated by an inchoate force he calls “the fire.” It pushes him through sickness and starvation, through clusters of killers and devastating cold—just so he can keep onward, forward to find respite for his darling boy, who is still tender-hearted enough to beg his Papa to stop and help every sad straggler they come across, even (especially) the starving man who steals their supplies. But this devotion is not innately civilizing.
The man isn’t content to just take their clothes and food back from the thief; he forces him to strip naked and leaves him, shivering and pleading, already grieving himself as an easy kill, on the road. The man tells the thief: “I’m going to leave you the way you left us.” He tells the boy: “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.” He tells the boy: “I’m scared.” Fear without recourse, without a hope of ever being quelled, blazes into rage all too easily. It’s a spark in search of kindling.
I can’t fault him. I think of my goddaughter, my little dearheart who mails me Valentines; who asks me to put my dog on the phone and asks her to “be nice to the bunnies;” who has fallen asleep on my lap mid-storybook, her tiny body emitting a soft, sugary warmth. I would kill anyone who stood in the way, however inadvertently, of her safety. I’d spend an eternity listening to their screams as the monsters jaw them apart. But I would also die a thousand times—more—if that were the way to save her.
And yet, if I were back on that path near campus today, approached by the same road-burned unfortunate, I’d still abandon him. Who is he to me? Not kin. Not even an acquaintance. But he’s somebody’s son, somebody’s buddy, somebody’s unrequited love, and in the story of that somebody’s life, he’d be worth killing for, dying for. My friend did offer to call 9-1-1, and I’d certainly like to believe that I’d least do that. But there is no dispatch in the apocalypse.
Most of us would like to believe that, if the social order fell, we’d carry weak little girls on our backs; we’d spare a can of beans to keep a stranger from starving; we’d only kill another human if they’d been bitten. Daydreaming is easy in a world with laws and borders.
Whenever I remember that night ten years ago, my vision fills with that man’s face: split lips and bloodied eyes. I’m pricked with regret when I realize that I’ve never really wondered what came of him. His face evaporates, becomes a slow thrumming along the back of my neck: my friend’s breathing. Ragged. Thick. I know that I can only tend to one of them. And she’s the one who holds my hair when I’ve drank too much; the one who consoles me (as many times as she has to) when another love-of-my-life turns out to be a coward; the one who sweetly, patiently persuades me that I look good (“damn good”) in a form-fitting shirt. In a moment that feels like the end of the world, I can give her my flint, my grit. I can give her the thunder in my voice, and the lightning strike it promises. And maybe, on Doomsday, this is compassion.