The world is going insane right now. Yes, more than usual. We’ve got sickness and death and doubt and towering ineptitude glistening like dog shit in the morning dew all the way from top to bottom. We’ve got the biggest pandemic the world’s seen since there’s been televisions to watch it on, and our world leaders are handling it like a goddamn I Love Lucy skit. For every fact that exists now, someone’s out there trying to tell us the opposite, probably just because they don’t like the guy who told us the first thing. On top of all of this, and in addition to the damn-near worldwide quarantine (that maybe a third of us are heeding), I’ve been sick for a few weeks now. Like, the kind of sick that makes a neurotic fella worry. It’s kinda hard, after catching up on The Walking Dead the past few months, not to feel like I’m suddenly an extra in the zombie apocalypse.

I’ve had a lotta extra time the past few months. My stepdaughter of the last fifteen years moved away to college, then her mother moved out to get the hell away from me. It’s probably more complicated than that, and we’re still in each other’s lives, but now I’ve got a three-bedroom house to haunt all by myself. There were a great many nights of drunken organizational frenzy in December and January, right after the family I’d known disappeared from my daily life. I was trying to reclaim the place while forgetting my pain at the same time. Luckily, it’s not the first time I’ve been here, so I had some idea what might help. Wine and masturbation were way at the top of the list, of course. Writing and music became my therapy, as they’ve always been.

Then there was The Walking Dead.

Yeah, of course, I’d seen the show. It’s kinda hard being a horror fan, or even connoisseur of American culture, without having tuned in at some point. It was only the biggest show in the country for a while. Maybe it still is, I dunno. Most patriotic folks here have cable TV and believe in waving their guns around as much as they wave the flag, and this particular post-apocalyptic world is the ideal celebration of that. Hell, despite my liberal tendencies, I’m not entirely opposed to folks having guns either. Well, some folks anyway. Mostly because you never know when the kinda shit that happens in the show might happen in real life, and who the hell wants to rely on their government to protect them?

You know, like now.

We all used to watch the show together, me and my now disassembled family. That was in that brief shining period when we could afford to have cable. There’s not been many times like that, to be honest. We were more like the food stamp and food pantry kinda family, even though we were both working. Sometimes it’s like that in America too. Sometimes it’s even worse. Anybody who’s been there knows how hard it is to keep a relationship rolling when the financial wheels keep falling off the bus, but sometimes it’s good to see how much worse it could be. Like if your trips to the store didn’t just require money, but weapons, stealth, and the ability to take out flesh-hungry undead douchebags. Believe me, if you can put yourself in that headspace, the way your life sucks will seem a lot better than all the other ways it could suck. That’s probably one of the little ways The Walking Dead kept us together for a while.

Those earliest seasons of the show were my favorite. Not just for the novelty of having a for-real weekly show about zombies, but because the beginning of everything is usually the best. That goes for ever-expanding epics as much as relationships. Those were the seasons that followed officer Rick Grimes waking up in an abandoned hospital after being shot in the line of duty. He quickly figured out that, however and wherever it started, the whole world seemed to have been hit by a kind of plague. Basically, anyone who died turned into a gut-munching ghoul that only wanted to feed on living human flesh. Civilization had totally collapsed. Those who had survived scattered here and there, banding together, sometimes shakily, into new makeshift families for their own protection. Not just from the monsters either, since the greatest enemy on the planet was still other stinking human beings.

Rick thought he had lost his family, his partner, and the world he’d known. Everyone had, of course, but we were seeing the new world through his eyes. As he scrambled about, trying to make sense of everything, he was taken in by a man named Morgan and his son. They helped nurse him back to health and became his first friends in the apocalypse. Then he met Glenn, the pizza delivery guy who had learned how to make his way around the rising undead peril, and the people Glenn had befriended. There was Andrea and Dale and Shane and a bunch of other people, almost all of whom have since died on the show. In this fictional world, like the real one, nothing at all was guaranteed and anyone could be gone at any time.

There was the first season, where we were thrown into zombie-and-human hell, meeting all of our players in the game of survival. Then we moved onto a farm, like Romero did back in Night of the Living Dead. After that, we sought shelter behind the bars of a prison, and finally behind the triple-lined walls of a gated community. No matter where we went, or how safe we thought we might be, there was always a new threat waiting to take us. Also like the real world, as many of those threats came from within as they did from without.

All things must end, though. I’m not even referring to my relationship here, at least not directly. No, we couldn’t afford cable TV anymore. Not when it was tough just keeping the goddamn power on. Sometimes we caught a couple episodes at her parents’ house, or with friends, but we were pretty much done watching by the sixth season. So it was back to whatever ten or twelve stations would come in with our unwieldy antenna, which we often had to move around the living room to catch a clear picture. After tasting the sweet life of privilege so briefly, it was like being flung back into my childhood, with nothing but channels 3, 8, and 41. At least I grew up with government cheese and Salvation Army Store school clothes, so it wasn’t like a fucking shock to my system.

The last episode I saw was the most disturbing one. It was the premier of season seven, when Glenn got his skull bashed in by Negan’s barded wire-covered baseball bat. A lotta fans had trouble with that episode, and viewership dropped off for a while. Honestly, it’s hard to say why that episode got to me so much, though. I’ve seen far more terrible shit in other movies and shows. Hell, there’s always worse shit in the news. As far as The Walking Dead goes, there had already been Dale’s sad death, pregnant Lori dying so her child could be born, and kindly old Hershel getting his head lopped off. But Glenn . . .

I dunno.

Yeah, Abraham got his skull caved in too, moments before Glenn did. That was bad too, but not even half as bad as it was with Glenn. Maybe it was the way he sat up after that first blow . . . his head all misshapen, eyeball bulging from his shattered skull. He could barely form words, but he was trying to talk. Trying, with his last moment of life, to tell his wife that he loved her . . .

Okay, I guess I understand why it got to me.

But, as a horror fan, and an admirer of practical gore effects, that was some killer shit. Greg Nicotero truly outdid himself there, and maybe even his mentor, Tom Savini. There was an emotional element to it that was just devastating. Not to mention, the episode that led up to this moment was one of the tensest ones ever for me, this growing feeling of doom as we realize Rick and his friends are being herded into a trap. Then, with everyone forced onto their knees, eyes wide with fear, Negan finally makes his first appearance. Holy shit. I’m not a bad dude, but I do love a good bad guy, and this son-of-a-bitch had one of the best opening scenes ever.

Eeny-meeny-miney-mo . . . 

Fuckin’ hell.

But Glenn and his eyeball hung over whatever visceral thrills I managed to get from the episode. That, and seeing those who were left behind was to see a bunch of broken, destroyed people. No matter what dire shit these folks had faced in six seasons, they had never seem defeated. Outgunned or outnumbered, for sure. Screwed even. But not completely crushed and hopeless, which is how this episode left them. So afterward, whenever I heard this or that about the show, or thought about checking it out again, that’s what I saw. Glenn and his eyeball.

But then a bunch of shit happened.

Then I had my fiftieth birthday, my father got pancreatic cancer, and my girlfriend left me. My entire life was suddenly like a country song. So what the fuck was a little more defeat gonna do to me now?? I’ve always been a stare-into-the-abyss kinda dude to begin with. Might as well make that motherfucker as dark as it can be.

I started watching again sometime around Christmas. Just an episode, here and there, when I laid down for bed in the morning. Falling asleep to movies and TV has been a thing for almost twenty years now, kinda like when I fell asleep in front of an electric fan when I was a child. It’s the white noise. It’s the soothing rush. Sometimes whatever it is slips into my dreams, and maybe that purges them of even worse real-world things. Maybe, in this case, the undead started eating my heartbreak.

I dunno, but I’m kinda alright, as far as that goes now. Fictional things can be magical like that. There’s all kinds of studies, by people with initials after their names, about how we can name our pain in our stories, even trapping it there. Sometimes it’s the only power we have left. It works in fairy tales and it works in horror.

Here’s where the real and unreal started to converge as I was rewatching.

It was toward the beginning of season four. Rick and his people had defeated an outside threat from the Governor, settling into life behind the prison walls. He’d hung up his guns and was playing at being a farmer. At first he just saw one walker at the fence, eyes strangely bloody. But then there was another, and another, and soon it was spreading to the living inhabitants hiding behind the prison walls. By the time anyone figured out what was happening, there was a full-on epidemic sweeping through the prison, infecting everyone.

That’s exactly when the real-world virus started making the news here. It was some terrible thing happening across the sea at first. Something in China . . . 

Honestly, it took me a while to know anything, because I can’t bear to hear the news anymore. We’ve got a bunch of divisive world leaders working at an already splintered world for the sake of their own power. They can say they’re trying to represent this group or that, but it’s all bullshit. There are ways to stand for something without standing on other people, and that’s not what these folks are interested in. The world had already become a sad, scary place before the coronavirus ever reared it’s bacterial head.

So a few words about what we’re facing.

Coronaviruses were first discovered in the sixties. Named for the crown-like spikes on their surface, they’re a group of viruses that usually start in animals, causing diarrhea and respiratory disease. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they can mutate and leap into human beings. This particular one was first detected in a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan toward the end of 2019. By March of 2020, it had been found in almost every country worldwide, and was now considered a pandemic.

The virus causes a disease they’re calling COVID-19. Most folks will probably be fine, even if they get it. Common symptoms include fever, exhaustion, and a dry cough, and recovery will occur in a couple weeks without any special treatment. It’s kinda unpredictable, though, and it can be deadly to the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. It gets inside and goes from mild to moderate to severe very quickly, filling the throat up with phlegm, the lungs up with fluid, and eventually choking out the breath.

And the shit is as contagious as a goddamn zombie virus.

It was China at first, then Italy, Iran, South Korea, Australia, the United States. As of an hour ago, there are over 600,000 known cases worldwide and almost 30,000 dead. Hospitals have been filling up everywhere, with most beyond capacity. Italy has gone far beyond a crisis, and there’s fears that the United States could follow. There aren’t enough supplies for health care workers’ protection, or sometimes to treat everyone, even in places where there should be. Like here. Many states are in lockdown, with only necessary services remaining open. People are buying up masses of anything they might need. Toilet paper. Hand sanitizer. Water. Canned goods. Often, the very masks needed by the medical folks who are caring for the sick.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the ever-present naysayers, the blind and the braindead who insist it’s all a hoax to derail Donald Trump’s reelection. The president has been just as braindead himself, offering answers based more on the hopes of the wealthy than the realities of science. He wants to open the country back up and fill the churches for Easter, despite what all medical and disease experts are saying. It’s hard to tell how long it all might go on now, especially when the warnings aren’t being followed. It’s even harder to tell how much worse it might get.   

Folks are losing their goddamn minds.

I’m kinda surprised I haven’t lost mine.

A few weeks ago, I was having short bursts of fever while at work. As of today, I’ve been home for ten days. There has been coughing, exhaustion, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion. A few nights now, it’s been difficult to breathe. Sometimes I feel just fine, but then sometimes it feels like my chest could be filling up. It could be anything, of course, and not all of these symptoms match up . . .

And sometimes I’m a bit neurotic . . .

So I’m being cautious, taking and doing everything the medical folks recommend. Because actual tests are hard to acquire, unless you’ve got a lotta money. There’s not much they can do for you anyway, unless you stop breathing. That’s if you can even get in the hospital.

But it’s not really me, it’s all the people I know. It’s my father with a compromised immune system. It’s my ex-girlfriend with respiratory issues. It’s numerous friends and loved ones with deflated lungs and weakened hearts and blood immunities and heart disease and diabetes and the ever-growing lists of things that make us all vulnerable . . .

The things that could make us all die . . .

We’re a skeptical people, sometimes even when there’s proof. We’re also pretty self-centered people. It’s hard not to see the squabbling among our politicians, who should all be united in taking care of us. It’s hard not to see the folks piling into the stores with seemingly no concern for anyone else, bitching and whining because their lives have been temporarily inconvenienced. It’s hard not to see billion-dollar corporations trying to say they can’t survive a few weeks of slow-down, yet the ocean of poor in this country are expected to just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, maybe even die so the goddamn economy doesn’t suffer.

So I’m trying to see the other things too.

Like the overwhelmed medical workers and underpaid but “essential” retail workers, the delivery drivers, drive-through window workers, and gas station attendants. Like the stores that have dedicated hours of allowing only the old and the vulnerable to shop. Like restaurants and regular people setting up stands on the side of the road for weary truckers. Like the teachers losing sleep to reach their students online, and the parents learning just how much those teachers really do. Like the friends and coworkers who have reached out to me while I’ve been stuck at home, just to make sure I’m doing okay out here alone. Like my ex-girlfriend, stopping by to bring me food and orange juice and leftover Chinese takeout, even though she’s got a compromised immune system.

Sometimes we don’t take the last goddamn roll of toilet paper on the shelf. Sometimes we stay home so we don’t infect someone else. Sometimes we have love and concern and even compassion for our fellow human beings.   

Sometimes.

As I crept closer to that dreaded episode this week, I considered watching something else to pass the time. But, like a lotta other twisted bastards, I’d already seen The Stand, 12 Monkeys, and a couple of those Purge movies. If none of that shit was giving me nightmares, then maybe I’d be alright. So I finished season six, went through all of those recaps for every episode in that season, then watched the previous episode yet one more time. The tension was high . . .

Then I started the episode.

Fuuuuuck.

Devastated, again.

The credits rolled and I hit pause.

I sat there for half an hour. The house was quiet, except for a light rain that had begun to fall. From the kitchen, the clock tick, tick, ticked. Like a heartbeat that kept going, and I felt my own thudding along with it. I coughed a while and felt like shit. The house was as empty as it had been since December. Finally, I got up to go take a shower, still thinking about what I’d just seen.

I’m still thinking about it now.

I’ve watched a few episodes since that episode. Now there’s some dude with a fucking tiger, and Daryl’s getting tortured by some really annoying song. Rick and his people are bowing down to Negan, watching his people take everything they’ve worked for. I know it won’t be like this forever. It’s still pretty glum, though, the desolation of that episode hanging over everything like a viral cloud.

But here’s the thing.

Glenn and his eyeball are still hanging there in my head. That terrible stuttering as he tried talking to Maggie one last time, then all of them sobbing and broken, everyone defeated by this horrific moment. Negan and his army pulled out, and everyone sat there for a while.

Finally, Maggie got up . . . and asked everyone to go. She had to be alone, she said. She would take care of Glenn.

But no one left.

She asked them to, but no one did.

Because they were all family . . .

This terrible thing that had happened, brought on by both nature and the greed of other human beings . . . yeah, it was crushing . . . devastating . . . but it had not completely destroyed them. As they each felt their own losses . . . each, lost in their own personal version of hell . . . they were still there for each other. Silent, broken, but still reaching out a hand . . . lifting the weight of these bodies together . . .

Because that’s what human beings do, sometimes. When we are at our best.  

And sure, it’s just a television show, and these are just actors working from a script . . . and not everyone is gonna be like this, whether it’s fiction or reality . . . but these things, like all of our stories, come from the hearts and minds of real human beings . . . naming their pain and trapping it . . . then letting it go so we can heal . . . because that’s what human beings do too . . .

Name our pain and trap it. 

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