[Before the War, Carthage, Missouri was a town of approximately 12,500 people. Its population is now less than half that, but growing steadily. While currently the subject of a popular holiday song and recent blockbuster movie, the events of what is now the seventh major historical conflict to be called "The Battle of Carthage" did not become widely known until several years after VA Day was first celebrated in America.
Town Councilwoman Marlena Ellis meets me outside of the old Carnegie building that once housed the town's public library, and is now the new seat of the Carthage government.]
There are all sorts of things that song gets wrong. For one thing, we weren't the only little no consequence town to get hit before the Great Panic started for real. The only reason people remember Carthage now is because of the timing. We were the only ones lucky enough to have our particular violent [She makes her fingers into air quotes here] "rabies" outbreak on Christmas Eve.
The other thing that's complete crap is the idea that we were somehow more prepared than anyone else. I don't know. I mean, we were all taking our Phalanx like good little boys and girls, same as everyone everywhere, and we were all buying our bottled water and stocking up on canned goods. People like Iris Johansson's family next door were stockpiling guns. Then again, those people and everyone else in that church they went to were always preparing for the end of the world in one form or another: Y2K, SARS, swine flu, the Rapture, the living dead.
I won't say that Barry--that was my husband--and I didn't get out and start practicing again with our old hunting rifles ourselves. But the fact is most of us were distracted. We had jobs, families, school, shopping, and getting ready for Christmas. Lucas was eight and Allison was six that year, and they both had class parties to go to and roles in the church Christmas pageant.
In my house, with one thing and another, it was already shaping up to be the worst Christmas ever. And that was before the zombies came.
How do you mean?
Well, you're going to think this all sounds so petty now, but Barry's mother calls not three weeks before Christmas and informs us that his family entire family has decided to spend the holidays at our house this year. That's right, doesn't even ask. Not so much as a "Provided you don't have other plans" or an "If it's not too much trouble."
Which means suddenly I'm scrambling to get the house ready for, let's see, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, Barry's brother, his wife, and their three kids...oh, and did I mention that whole family spent their entire vacation not speaking to each other?
That was real comfortable, I can tell you. See, Barry's brother's oldest had picked the week before Christmas to tell his parents that he was, you know, [She lowers her voice here so that I can barely make out the next word] gay.
[Raising her voice again.]
Now, my nephew Ryan's a good man. Saved a lot of people's lives during the War. But back then, the kid didn't have no common sense. I mean, I guess I was brought up differently, when you didn't think you needed to announce these things to everybody. But even if you do, why bring it up to your family for the first time in a moving vehicle?! Deciding you like boys instead of girls is your own business, but causing your father to total his vintage midlife crisis Mustang in the process of telling him is one way to ruin Christmas.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Then there was Barry's sister Anne Marie, her husband, and the Biter. Ten houseguests, plus the four of us, and no time to prepare, and of course, my darling husband wouldn't dream of any of them staying at a hotel.
Anne Marie's four-year-old son Michael had some issues. Couldn't blame him, really, considering who he had for a mother. And she wasn't going to let a little thing like a public health scare make her enforce any discipline, either. No, it was, "Now Mikey, sweetie, Mommy doesn't like it when you bite. One more time, and you're going to have to sit in time out for a full minute! Mikey, you make Mommy sad when you don't listen. One more time, and you're in time out! This time Mommy really means it!"
I can't prove it, of course, but I've always wondered if the outbreak would have been half as bad as it was here if that family had just decided to stay in Minneapolis.
So there I was, cleaning up after thirteen people, trying to decorate, buying and wrapping gifts, finishing the sewing on Allie's pageant costume, and I forget what else. And Barry was being no help. Nope, he was spending his vacation watching TV with his dad and taking the entire family on a field trip to the Precious Moments Chapel.
I didn't to go. I had to put the tree up.
Yeah, the Precious Moments Chapel was probably ground zero for the local outbreak. We know that now. Likely one or more of the tourists brought in it and helped it spread. Possibly with the assistance of my very own extended family.
Anyway, little Mikey the Biter came back running a fever. By the next day, Christmas Eve, most of the house had come down with it. [She laughs.] Yeah, we were extra prepared, all right. I didn't even realize what was going on in my own household. I guess back then you could hear about all these terrible diseases and even tell yourselves you were ready for them, but you didn't ever really expect it to happen to you. No, I thought it was just my luck that everybody was going to be spending Christmas with the flu.
It was afternoon when I opened the fridge discovered the ham. Or rather, the lack of ham. I'd given my husband three jobs: get the ham for Christmas dinner, get some little toys for the kids' stockings, and get Lucas that soccer ball he'd asked for. Can you guess how many of those things got done? [She answers her own question before I can reply.] That's right. None of them!
Luckily, the Wal-Mart was open until six. Our kids were still feeling fine, but I knew Barry was in no shape to take care of them, so I bundled Lucas and Allie up and took them with me. I also took Ryan, my husband's brother's kid, the one that was, well, you know. I was feeling sorry for him, and thought maybe he needed to get away from the rest of his family for a while. Plus, I thought maybe he could watch the kids while I did what I needed to do in the toy department.
Did you notice anything unusual outside when you left the house?
[There is a brief pause while she considers this.]
Not really. I mean, it was quiet on the streets, but that was only what you'd expect on a day when sane people are supposed to be at home with their families. To be honest, I was so mad and so exhausted that I'm not sure if I would have noticed a chorus line of zombies dancing naked on the front lawn, provided they didn't get between me and the store. I just got the kids in the Tahoe, cranked up [name omitted for legal reasons]'s country Christmas CD, and drove.
The Wal-Mart itself looked pretty normal, if a little more quiet than this time last year. There were about thirty or forty cars in the parking lot, maybe, and a Salvation Army Santa outside ringing his bell. I remember I gave him some change.
Inside, there were a few tired-looking kids at the registers, including a girl with pink hair and a boy with way too many earrings, and an overly cheerful woman in a Santa hat passing out shopping carts.
There was an old guy with a bandage on his hand standing off to the side near the poinsettias looking sick. I remember that now. I don't suppose I made too much note of it at the time.
I left Ryan and the kids in electronics looking at the video games, and went off to do the shopping I needed to do. I was standing in the sporting goods aisle trying to figure out the difference between the Spalding soccer ball, the Adidas soccer ball, and the Brine soccer ball, when the screaming started.
First I heard the screaming, then I heard the moans.
I don't remember throwing down the soccer ball and grabbing the baseball bat, but I guess I must have. My first thought was to get back to the kids. I turned the corner, and damn near came face-to-face with four of them near the exercise bikes. They were the first zombies I ever saw. Their skin was grey, and their creepy eyes were staring straight ahead, not blinking at all. One of them, a woman in what was left of a tracksuit, had a piece missing out of her skull. One of the guys wasn't wearing a shirt, and there was a big hole in his stomach where parts of his insides were hanging out. There was another guy in a Jeff Gordon hat with only half of one arm left. They were making the most god-awful noises.
I didn't think. I ran.
And it was lucky I did, because when I got to my kids, some of the things were already there, and one was about to grab my son by the shirt.
I remember bringing the baseball bat down that thing's head. I remember doing it again and again. I remember screaming at Ryan to take the other two kids and run. I don't remember stopping, but it was long after the thing quit moving and I'd beaten its head into a bloody pulp.
Meanwhile, the other shoppers were arming themselves. You might think that everyone ran straight for the hunting equipment, and in most cases you'd have been right, but guns and ammo were a pretty popular item on everyone's Christmas wish lists that year, and there was only enough left in stock to arm about five people. Same with hunting knives, though some of the shoppers had a better time finding sharp things in kitchenware. A couple of women who were bowhunters got the display models.
I heard the sound of a power tool starting up, and looked up to see the pink-haired girl from the registers come running out of the home improvement section wielding a chainsaw, followed by a couple of the other cashiers. She was screaming, "The doors! Get to the doors and lock 'em!"
Those kids moved like they had a plan. I found out later they did. Rumors of the dead walking were already all over the Internet, and while I don't know how seriously they were taking it at the time, apparently it wasn't a weird thing for a bunch of bored high-schoolers on Christmas break to get together and start making detailed contingency plans just in case zombies ever attacked any and every place they hung out. Hell, even then it was a small town, without much for teenagers to do except drink, have sex, and let their imaginations run wild.
Not that I'm against that last part, mind you. They were ready when it happened.
Anyway, everybody else started grabbing anything and everything they could to defend themselves. Someone had a nail gun, someone else had an axe. The cheerful lady in the Santa hat was going to town with a long-handled shovel from lawn and garden.
I saw an old woman in a housedress take a couple of them out with the clothing rack, while her husband beat three or four more of them away with an artificial Christmas tree.
Me, I just kept whaling away with my bat until eventually it broke. Then somebody handed me a crowbar.
By the time the doors were all shut and barricaded, the ones inside the store outnumbered us two to one, but by then we'd learned how to fight. Go for the heads. Don't stop until you've destroyed the brain. The wounded ones will just keep moving.
I've got to stop here to give my nephew Ryan some more credit for sense than I have. While the rest of us were fighting, he was the one who ultimately rounded up everyone younger than he was and got them all barricaded in the employee break room until it was over. Like I said, he saved a lot of lives during the War.
The worst part was when there were no more zombies left to fight. Then there was nothing to do but listen to the screams and moans and gunshots from outside. That, and the pounding on the doors from all the people trying to get in the store with us.
We couldn't let them in, of course. At that point, we didn't know who had been infected and who hadn't. Still, those were our friends and neighbors out there. I don't know how those kids guarding the doors stood it. Sure, they made jokes about being retail veterans of Black Friday, so this was nothing, but I know it took its toll. I found out one of them killed himself not too long after it was all over. I went to his funeral. Let his mother know how brave her kid had been.
I made the mistake of looking out the windows once. Just once.
I saw five of living dead taking down the Salvation Army Santa. I don't know why he didn't try to make it inside before it was too late, but he just fought them off with his kettle stand until eventually, I guess, he was too weak to fight anymore and they got him.
[She shakes her head.]
Now that's a Christmas Eve memory for you. Watching Santa get eaten alive by zombies. I'm glad my kids didn't see any part of that. Because that wasn't the worst thing.
[There is a long pause.]
No, the worst thing was that two of them--they had their backs to me the whole time, thank God, so I could never be completely sure--but two of them were the right height and build and dressed in the exact same pajamas Barry and his dad were wearing when I left the house.
[There is another pause, then a deep sigh.]
Eventually, one of the employees got the idea to turn the music on and up. So we got to listen to [name omitted for legal reasons] singing about the joys of the season for the rest of the night rather than whatever was going on outside. It helped. What really helped was when somebody put a mug of hot coffee in my hands and made me take five before we got the kids fed and put to bed and started cleaning up.
And then, well, you have to understand, we thought it was the end of the world out there, and anybody stuck working on Christmas Eve wasn't high enough on the food chain to worry very much about Wal-Mart's profit margins, especially under those circumstances, so nobody cared when us parents started taking things off the shelves, wrapping them up for our kids, and leaving them under the Christmas tree display.
When they woke up, Santa had braved the zombie horde to come to the Wal-Mart just for them.
I don't know. Maybe it was crass and materialistic, and maybe it was even beside the point considering we eventually let them have free reign of the entire toy department, but it gave my kids one more magical Christmas morning, and I dare you to tell me there's anything wrong with that.
Anyway, that's how we began the second day of the war: unwrapping presents and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on a whole wall of big screen TVs.
Of course, it didn't last. Turns out the lady in the Santa hat had been bitten the night before and hadn't bothered to tell anybody, and we had to deal with that. By Christmas afternoon, our numbers had been reduced by another six.
But it turns out about thirty people can hold out pretty well for days in a Wal-Mart Super Center, even after the power goes out. They had everything you needed to survive and more: food, water, warm bedding, and even those sorts of things you don't realize are so important until you don't have them, like toothpaste, shampoo, and a clean change of underwear that's more or less in your size.
I do hope you get a chance to talk to some more of the veterans of Carthage, because honestly, we had it easy. I probably make the whole thing sound like some sort of extended winter camping trip. The ones on the outside, now they were the real survivors.
We could have held out a lot longer than we did, but by New Year's Eve, the town was clear.
That was when I found out there were worse things to come home to than a house full of persnickety in-laws.
But the entire town was free of zombies?
That's right. We were celebrating in the streets New Year's Day!
That's the hell of it. We'd thought we'd won. The local zombie infestation was gone. We'd fought back, done our part, defeated our enemy in battle, and we figured the rest of the world would do the same. But our own damn government wouldn't even listen to us. Not then, when it could have saved so many lives, and not for the years afterward they spent covering up what they'd known the whole time.
By the next Christmas, we were ass-deep in the Great Panic, and there were no presents or trees or carols that year, I can tell you.
But we did what we needed to do. And, hey, at least we got a song out of it. And a movie now, from what I hear.
For what it's worth, you can thank the people of Carthage, of Joplin, of Webb City, of so many other towns you've never even heard about, for making sure it didn't get any worse any earlier than it did.
Of course, now everyone wants to remember Carthage at this time of year. People show up here from all over the world. See the ruins of Branson, and spend Christmas in Carthage! I don't know that I understand it. It's not like there's much to see here anymore, except a whole lot of old ruins and new motels. I don't know that I care for sudden upswing in tourism, either. They say tourists were what got us in trouble in the first place, after all.
Still, we can't shut the rest of the world out forever. Not if want to remain part of the United States, the government says we can't, and I don't think anyone's willing to go there anymore. Not unless we have to.
Plus, Mayor Jones supports it, and I trust that she knows what she's doing. If she says she has a plan for the worst-case scenario, I believe her. I mean, I've known Elissa Jones since she was a seventeen-year-old with pink hair, and she's never, in all that time, been without a contingency plan or three.
[She looks out into the distance one last time before taking her leave.]
I know people talk about it like it's a symbol of the bad old days, but of all the things I miss from before the War, sometimes I miss Wal-Mart the most.
They just don't make stores like that anymore.
Anyway, you have a Merry Christmas.