Bug Out or Hunker Down?
This is an experiment. Part fiction, part speculative essay, this piece started with one simple question: If the zombie apocalypse came today, how would I handle it? Would I stay put or would I make a break for it? And what of my family? I’m a husband, and a father, and a cop who took an oath to protect the community who has paid me so well over the last two decades. What do I do with all that obligation, all that responsibility? What would I really do, given conditions exactly as they are now? Would I bug out, or hunker down?
My goal is to answer this scenario as truthfully as I can, allowing myself only those options I really possess, and given only the resources currently at my disposal. No wishful thinking, no cheating. I can’t tell you that I would turn my Nissan Altima into an armored zombie killdozer because, well, I don’t have anything to armor plate my Nissan with, and, truthfully, wouldn’t know how to go about installing that armor even if I did. As I said, no cheating. This is basically a reality check. What could I do – what would I do – if Z-Day came today? Let’s find out.
But first, a few ground rules.
What Kind of Outbreak Are We Dealing With?
Everybody’s idea of what the zombie apocalypse will look like is different. For this scenario, here’s what’s happening:
1. The outbreak is viral in nature, and the virus is transmitted by a bite or some contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
2. Only the living and the very recently dead are affected by this virus. The buried dead play no part in this scenario.
3. The virus has a 100% mortality rate, meaning all persons infected with the virus die from it, and in turn become zombies.
4. The virus begins in some part of the U.S. other than my home city of San Antonio. However, due to the fluid nature of our society, the outbreak spreads rapidly. Cities with major airports can expect to see incidents of infection within 36 hours. Cities that serve as major air travel hubs and international ports of call will be in complete confusion for a period of perhaps four days, after which the outbreak will spread to the rest of the country, and then the rest of the world, at an exponential rate.
5. Martial law will be instituted within the first week of the outbreak, but will break down almost completely within the first three weeks of the outbreak.
6. Within a month of the first reported zombie incident, it will be every man for himself.
Given those conditions just listed, I think this is how the outbreak would go for me and my family.
The First Day of the Outbreak
It started on a Monday, just after lunch. I’d taken the week off work because I had some writing deadlines to meet before I left for the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City that coming weekend.
My wife was home too. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t be. She was a college professor at a local university, and though she was feeling a bit under the weather that day and had to cancel her classes, she was diligently grading papers on our home computer.
Our two kids, nine and six year old girls, were at school a few miles away, near the entrance to our subdivision.
I usually wrote my rough drafts out long hand, which meant I was bent over my desk, scribbling on a yellow legal pad. My iPad was next to me, though, and I used that to check my email periodically throughout the day. The first indication I had that something was wrong was a rapid fire series of notification chimes on my iPad. Curious, I opened it, and saw Facebook updates from several of the groups I belong to. Some included links to news stories out of Boston and Philadelphia.
The stories were confusing and contradictory. They mentioned rioting, and people tearing each other apart. The local police departments were scrambling to deal with the situation, but so far, they weren’t having much luck.
Homemade videos started popping up on Facebook, including footage from iPhones and video cameras. I watched a few of those, my mouth hanging open, and then I went to my wife’s study, where I found her watching videos from a mutual friend of ours in Boston. A man covered in blood, part of his face missing, was pawing drunkenly at her front door. He spotted her filming him from the upstairs window and began groping the air, moaning frantically. I could hear our friend breathing in the background, panic-stricken. The choppy, bouncing video and off-camera panting reminded me of something out of The Blair Witch Project, but the growing dread in my gut was very real.
“What do you think is happening?” my wife asked. “Is this real?”
But we both knew the answer to that. It was very real.
Still, we’d never talked about what came next. I wrote this stuff, but it’d never been more than fun for me. My wife hated reading about zombies. What that amounted to was that we didn’t have a plan for zombies. Natural disasters, which in San Antonio meant flash floods or possibly forest fires, sure, those we had covered. But not zombies.
“What about the kids?” my wife said.
It was the only point that really mattered, and it stopped me. I was a cop. I was in decent shape…except for my high blood pressure, which I controlled with medication. I knew tactics. I knew how to handle guns, how to fight if I had to. But doing the zombie apocalypse with kids. Well, that was a different matter.
“It’s just now 2 o’clock,” I said. “They get out at 2:45. Let’s you and I figure out a plan right now. We’ll go get them as soon as school lets out, bring them back here, and we’ll make ready on whatever you and I decide to do.”
That sounded reasonable to me. The part of my brain that had been trained to deal with critical situations liked that idea.
But my wife was looking at me like I’d just grown an extra head.
“Make ready?” she said. “Are you serious? Joe, we’re dealing with zombies here. Zombies! What in the hell are we going to do?”
We hadn’t said a word to the kids, and we’d kept them away from the TV. We didn’t want to scare them, but they wouldn’t be going to school in the morning. Things were looking bad on the news, with outbreaks reported all over North America and already a few in Japan and China and Europe. So far, the individual outbreaks had been contained, but if my own stories had shown anything, it’s that a zombie scenario is always a war of attrition, and no matter how dedicated the military and the local responders may be, collapse was inevitable. It wouldn’t be long now, I realized, before the first cases hit San Antonio, and I would have to meet this inevitability head on.
“Okay,” my wife said as she stepped down off the stairs, “the kids are in bed. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do.”
“I’m guessing my parents’ place, right?”
My parents lived on 53 acres out in the Texas Hill Country, about forty miles northeast of San Antonio. Their property was remote enough that the only way to get there is to want to get there, if you know what I mean, but it was close enough to civilization that getting supplies and possible medical aide wasn’t impossible. Also, they had their own well, lots and lots of deer, a few chickens, and even a creek running through the lower 20 acres. My Mom was also a pretty fair gardener, so we’d have a decent amount of food.
“Tomorrow morning we’re gonna head out there. I want you and the kids to stay there.”
“And my parents?”
“Your parents, my brother and his wife, your sister, and your brother, his wife and their kids…all of them can go out to my parents’ house. There’s room. Plus, for the kids, it’ll feel like a big adventure.”
“Your parents don’t mind?”
“You know them,” I told her. “Family is first.”
My wife nodded at that. She knew it was true. My parents are saints.
“You have the lists for everybody, right?”
“Yeah, I’m going to email them right now.”
I had given her several long lists to email to the various members of our two families. The idea was for everybody to buy the gear they would need and bring it with them out to my parents’ place. That way, we’d have far more than we needed.
At least at first.
“Okay,” I said. “You email the lists. I’m going to pack up the cars.”
Earlier that day, while my wife was picking the kids up from school, I went through our family disaster kits. About ten years ago I worked as a disaster mitigation specialist for the SAPD, and I learned back then the importance of having a good disaster preparedness kit. I’ve made kits for the family, smaller ones for each member of the family, and one each for my car and my wife’s. The family kit is of the homemade, 72 hour emergency shelter-in-place variety. It includes:
1. Flashlights (one for each member of the family and two large extra ones)
2. Extra batteries (for the flashlights, radio, and camera)
3. Canned food and MREs (the MREs take up a lot of space, but the idea of having a “kit” from which to make your own meal has a “Wow, this is neat!” factor that keeps the kids busy, which is critical for good morale)
4. Three 5 gallon water jugs
5. Water purifying tablets
6. A hand-crank powered emergency radio (ours is a Kaito KA500 Voyager 5-Way Powered, but there are several other reliable brands just as good)
7. Manual can opener
8. Paper plates, plastic serving ware, cooking supplies, and a small, one-burner Coleman camp stove
9. A large first aid kit and a quick guide to first aid procedures
10. A pocket folder containing copies of our birth certificates, home owner’s insurance and policy number, car insurance and titles, social security cards, passports, IDs, a lengthy phone number roster of family, friends and other important numbers and addresses, photographs of the family, a list of medications and my older daughter’s allergies
11. Rain gear for each member of the family
12. Heavy work gloves
13. Three disposable cameras and one waterproof digital camera
14. Unscented liquid bleach, eye dropper, and measuring spoons
15. Hand sanitizer and soap
16. Two large plastic sheets, duct tape, and a utility knife
17. A package of dust masks
18. A crowbar
19. Hammer and nails
20. Adjustable wrench
21. Bungee cords of several lengths
22. Two safety ropes, one 25 feet in length, the other 50 feet
23. Four heavy wool blankets
24. Four sleeping bags
25. A 5 gallon bucket to use as a toilet, plus a box of heavy duty black trash bags to line the waste bucket
26. A large box of matches
Then there are four backpacks, one for each member of the family. The individual backpacks contain:
1. Two flashlights (one small and one large)
2. Batteries for the flashlights, camera and radio
3. A small AM/FM radio
4. A whistle
5. Dust masks
6. A Swiss Army knife
7. Roll of toilet paper
8. Envelopes containing cash
9. A local map and a state map
10. Three MREs and three 1 gallon water bottles
11. A Sharpie marker, notepads, pens and duct tape
12. A pocket folder containing all important documents, phone numbers, maps with escape routes and meet-up locations and family photos (my oldest daughter has a dog tag on her backpack with her allergy information on it)
13. Extra eyeglasses for my oldest daughter and my wife
14. Toothbrush and toothpaste
15. Extra keys to the house, and to both grandparents’ houses
16. A small waterproof box of matches
17. A small box of candles
18. Extra battery-powered chargers for our cell phones
19. A heavy wool blanket
20. A bedroll
21. A coil of safety rope, 25 feet long
22. A signaling mirror
My wife drives a Toyota 4Runner with 130,000 miles on it. It’s in great shape, though, and still runs like a top. My Nissan Altima has 101,000 miles on it, but isn’t in as great a shape. Still, we have a store-bought emergency kit for each car. Ours are from Bridgestone and include:
1. A flashlight
2. Hood-mounted spotlight
3. Safety triangles
4. A heavy wool blanket
5. Jumper cables
6. A small air compressor and pump
7. Duct tape
8. Heavy duty safety gloves
9. Latex gloves
10. Small Ziploc baggies
11. Black electrical tape
13. A small first aide kit
14. A poncho
15. A tire gauge
16. Two screwdrivers, one of each kind
17. Heavy duty scissors
18. Zip ties
To this kit, I’ve added:
1. Fix-a-flat in a can
2. A 5 gallon bucket
3. Two 5 gallon water jugs
4. A signaling mirror
5. A box of heavy duty trash bags
6. Another copy of our family’s important documents and photos
7. A disposable camera
Earlier that afternoon I went through these kits and found a number of problems, such as:
1. The family kit and the individual kits were supposed to contain envelopes with a little cash in each. At some point during the last few years we’d used a good deal of that cash. I had to go to the bank to draw out our savings, which included the $8,400 dollars in our savings and the $3,200 in our checking account. I took out all but $50 of this in cash and refilled our emergency kit envelopes.
2. The feminine products in the family kit and my wife’s personal kit were several years old. I had to buy new ones. Luckily, I knew which ones to buy. Incidentally, I used our credit card for this and all other purchases.
3. I gassed up my Nissan, my wife’s Toyota, and the GMC Yukon we are currently borrowing from my parents. This behemoth has 220,000 miles on it, and has some problems, but still runs okay.
4. The pictures in our family’s important documents binders were not current. I had to get up-to-date photos of our kids and put these into each kit. (These are invaluable in case members of the family get separated. Imagine a six year old, for example, trying to provide a physical description of a lost family member.)
5. The phone chargers I had in the kits were for the Android phones we used to own. We have iPhones now. I had to buy all new chargers, plus one for my iPad.
6. The water jugs had to be cleaned and filled. I did this, and bought fourteen more 5 gallon jugs from the local Bass Pro Shops. I filled these as well.
7. I went to the local Army Surplus store and bought as many of the MREs as I could find
8. I didn’t trust the batteries in any of the kits, so I bought new ones.
9. The heavy work gloves I had for my kids were too small, so I bought new ones.
10. I hadn’t packed clothes in the original kit because the kids grow out of these too fast and they can mildew if left in the kits too long. I packed extra clothes and warm gear and sturdy shoes for each of us.
11. I take blood pressure medication. I had about twenty pills left in my current prescription, so I went to the pharmacist and asked for my next refill, which comes in 90 day packs. They told me the insurance wouldn’t authorize a refill because I wasn’t due to need it yet, so I had to purchase the next 90 days at the non-insurance price of $320.
12. I bought as much ammunition as I could find for my two Glock .40 caliber pistols, my 12 gauge shotgun, and my AR-15. There was surprisingly little .223 ammo to be found, though. I found, and bought, all four of the boxes I found for sale.
13. I bought extra over-the-counter medications for the whole family.
14. I bought more canned food, juice boxes, and cereal bars.
15. We have two cats, so I also bought four bags of pet food.
While my wife was emailing our family members and getting everybody’s plan straight, I loaded up her 4Runner and my parents’ Yukon. The Yukon had a lot of miles on it, but it was huge, and could carry everything we thought we might need. Plus, it still worked okay. In fact, we’d had fewer problems with the Yukon than with my Nissan, so that was a good sign.
We watched the news some more, the outbreak spreading faster than I had expected, and then my wife asked the question both of us had been too scared to bring up.
“What are you going to do?”
She meant about my job. Technically, I was on scheduled leave. The Department had emergency mobilization procedures for bringing all its officers back on duty, but so far, that hadn’t been done. I figured it would only be a matter of time.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well you better figure it out!” she shot back. I blinked at her in surprise. “You have a family, Joe. You have a wife and kids. Your place is here with us.”
She was right, of course. But even still, I did take an oath, and I wouldn’t be the man I know myself to be if I didn’t make good on that oath.
We fought about that the rest of the night.
The Next Morning
We drove out to my parents’ place and unpacked. The mood was light. As we’d hoped, our kids were treating it like a big adventure, a day away from school to spend with Nana and Grandpa. By tacit agreement none of us spoke of the crisis in front of the children. The longer they could live in ignorance, we figured, the better.
One by one the rest of the family showed up, and soon we had all fallen into a casual bustle reminiscent of Thanksgiving Day. The mood friendly and everybody was cooperative; it was nice.
But then my cell phone started ringing. Because I hold the rank of an administrator, I get regular emails and text messages any time a news-worthy event occurs. I had received a few that morning, but all were of the common variety – a shooting here and there, an overturned 18 wheeler, a gas main ruptured by construction workers.
And then the airport reported its first case. Despite heightened security throughout the airport, a woman had collapsed near the baggage claim carousel and had gone unnoticed for almost thirty minutes. Then she stood up, waded into a crowd of people near the baggage carousel, and bit and clawed a total of sixteen people before she was subdued. Airport police were eventually forced to shoot her in the head, but not before a general panic ensued. According to the reports I was getting on my phone, the airport still wasn’t secure.
Then I checked my messages.
“What is it?” my wife asked. “Are they asking you to come in?”
“Don’t go,” she said flatly.
“Tina, we talked about this.”
“Yeah, we did. And I told you not to go.”
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t. What you have to do is stay here with us. With your family, Joe.”
It was quite a dilemma, my sworn oath or my family. I couldn’t believe how torn I was. And the funny thing about it is that I’ve made that dilemma the thematic focus of much of my zombie fiction, yet when it came time to decide for myself, for real, I found that it was so much harder than I’d ever portrayed it in my books.
Tina and I went off to the barn where we could talk without the kids hearing. Good thing, too, because we both started yelling. We both yelled a lot.
Actually, I think the yelling made it easier for me to make up my mind to go into work, because when I left I was angry with her for not understanding. I don’t know exactly what I wanted her to say, or do, or not do…I just know that yelling at me was like driving a wedge between us. I got out there, and I couldn’t get gone fast enough.
The Next Few Days
I run the 911 Call Center for the City of San Antonio. I tell people this, and sometimes it confuses them. “So, you’re like a dispatcher?”
“No,” I tell them. “I run the place. That means I’m in charge of all 170 civilian and sworn dispatchers, call takers and radio technicians – all of them report to me. I decide how those resources are deployed, and when the system gets overloaded, I’m the one in charge of making the tough decisions.
And when I came into work I found things pretty much as bad as they could get. We were unable to get in touch with about sixty percent of our personnel. Most had probably already left town or were simply afraid to come into work because they would be away from their families. We were down to a skeleton crew, and most of those were already 18 hours into shifts that should have only lasted 8 hours.
Then the reports started coming in.
The incident at the airport had gotten completely out of hand. Hundreds if not thousands were thought to be infected.
San Antonio has almost a hundred hospitals of one size or another, and already a few of them were claiming cases of zombie infection. Soon one hospital after another closed its doors, refusing any new patients.
Our officers out in the field were reporting cases of zombie infection, too. In the first four hours I was at the center I heard eighteen officer-involved shootings come over the radio.
But for all that, that first night was not so bad. It wasn’t anything like I portrayed in my book DEAD CITY. Cell phones kept working. The radios kept working. Traffic flowed heavy, but in an orderly fashion. Slowly, but steadily, the city started to empty as people headed for the rural areas outside of town.
And, perhaps most importantly, order was maintained. Our officers made their calls, handled the long hours and the uncertainty and their own fear in the face of mounting complications. The Fire Department too did their part. I was up until three that morning, monitoring incoming calls and feeding status updates to the Command Staff, and when I finally slipped off to my office to sleep on my couch, I thought we pretty much had things in hand.
But I was wrong.
One of the civilian supervisors woke me just before daylight. Things, she said, had gotten much worse.
I got a bottle of water from the mini fridge beneath my desk and listened as she ran it down for me:
1. San Antonio is a military town, with several large military bases, and we were being told that they were taking over. San Antonio, as of 0630 hours, was under martial law;
2. During the night, at least four officers had been killed by zombies. 57 more had been dispatched to incidents but were now unaccounted for;
3. A roll call of all sworn personnel in the Department had been taken so that accurate numbers could be given to the military authorities. Our total strength was 2,290 officers of all ranks, but our roll call was only able to account for 643 of those officers. The others were either dead or AWOL;
4. Stage III of the Department’s Emergency Action Protocol had been declared, which basically meant that the situation had exceeded the ability of the combined resources of the San Antonio Police Department and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office to respond to the situation;
5. I had been a police officer for nearly twenty years at that point, and I had never heard of us declaring a Stage III situation. We were entering into unknown territory.
But declaring a Stage III situation gave me the authority to essentially lock the doors to the Communications Center. At this point, no one was getting…or out. The personnel still inside the center were stuck here and were basically chained to their jobs, like it or not. And suddenly the gun on my hip took on an ominous new implication. I could see my dispatchers looking at it out of the corner of their eye, wondering if I would really use it on them or not. I thought of Tina out at my parent’s place, and of my own two little girls, who I missed desperately, and I prayed that none of those dispatchers would call my bluff and dare me to shoot them for abandoning their post.
Thankfully, none did.
Six Days Later
A week passed, during which time those of us in the 911 Center saw the City, and in fact the rest of the world, fall apart.
I snuck away on a regular basis to call Tina. She told me that things were quiet at my parent’s place. All the power was still on, they had lots and lots of food and fresh water, and the kids were bored but doing okay.
Morale was still high, she said.
But for the rest of the world, the news was not good at all. Most of the news channels had gone to loops, playing the same news over and over, trying to cover up the fact that they had no new news to report. In a way, it reminded me of the morning of 9-11, with the TV newscasters grasping at every new bit of rumor or official statement and deconstructing it until nothing made sense.
And for the officers on the street, the zombie apocalypse had turned into a rolling gunfight that raged from one street to the next. Martial law had never really taken on, and officers who thought that they’d be doing patrol alongside soldiers soon found themselves standing alone against hordes of the living dead, like rocks in the middle of a fast moving river, slowly being worn down and consumed.
San Antonio, like the rest of the world, was dying.
I made a choice.
I called all my dispatchers, all my call takers, into a huddle in the middle of the communications floor. As a student of Texas history, and especially of San Antonio history, I knew the story of Colonel William Travis, commander of the Alamo during the famous battle with Mexican General Santa Anna. Travis, facing certain defeat during the final hours of the battle, received a note from Santa Anna demanding surrender. Travis, of course, knew where his own mind lay on this issue. He would die rather than give up his command. And being the good commander that he was, he knew the value of having his men reaffirm their commitment to the cause. So he called the Alamo defenders together, drew his sword, and drew a line in the sand. He then asked the defenders to step across the line and join him in the final, and almost certainly fatal, hours of the battle. All but one, a man named Moses Rose, joined him. Travis then released Moses Rose and gave Santa Anna his formal answer in the form of canon fire. The rest, as they say, is history.
I was hoping for an equally strong show of support among my staff. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it. I drew my line in the sand, and then told the assembled crowd that anyone who crossed it was welcome to leave the building. They could go wherever fate might take them, and God bless them on their way.
At first, no one crossed. Then one did. Another followed. Then three more. Nine more. I stood there in disbelief as one by one they filed past me. In the end, I was left with four dispatchers and one call taker. The other 22 hung their heads and hurried out the back door, bound for God knows where. I never saw them again.
But once they were gone, I turned to my hangers on and said, “Thank you, all of you. Bless you.” I think I was crying. I’m not sure. I only know that one by one the remaining few huddled around me and put their hands on me and kept telling me, over and over, that they were behind me 100 percent.
I nodded, and together they went back to their stations.
28 Days Later
Even the faithful can eventually realize that all is lost.
Though the power remained on, and the cell phones still worked, and we did okay surviving on food from the break room and the vending machines, all radio traffic had ceased. If there were officers still alive out there, they weren’t paying attention to their radios. It had been four days since we’d heard anything from anyone, and the time had come to make a decision.
During the worst days of the Black Death, back in the Middle Ages, the English developed a law called the 28 Days of Confinement Law. The basic import was this: If a member of your family came down with symptoms of the plague, your entire family was quarantined in your home for 28 days, which of course is the length of one lunar cycle. At the end of the 28 days, your front door was opened. If any persons were still alive, and symptom free, they were allowed to rejoin society. I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect this was in the mind of the makers of the popular film franchise which takes its name from the 28 Days of Confinement Law.
Anyway, we had reached the 28 days mark. There seemed no point in maintaining our post. There were no officers to dispatch, no news to relay to the Command Staff. Everyone was dead.
But still walking around.
I told my personnel that we had gone down with the ship. We had fought the good fight all the way to the end. There was no point in going on because there was no more point left to make. We had done our duty.
The only thing left to do was to survive.
“I release you,” I said. “By the authority vested in me by the City of San Antonio I declare your duty faithfully fulfilled. God bless you as you go forth. You are dismissed, and honorably so.”
Thankfully, no one made any stupid speeches. They simply nodded, and we filtered out into the white hot brilliance of a San Antonio afternoon in late March.
I went to my vehicle and started it up, thankful now that I had taken the time to fill it up, and that I had made periodic trips out here over the last month to start it and keep the battery charged.
I looked at my cell phone, fully charged, and wanted to cry. It had been days since I’d been able to reach Tina on the phone. The closest I’d come was a voice mail, telling me that they’d decided to go to Montana, but the message had been punctuated by a scream and cut short.
There had been nothing else.
Desperate, I called Tina’s number and outlined my plan. I was going to go by my parent’s place first. If they were there, wonderful; if not, I’d gather what information I could and track them down.
But I thought I knew where they might be, where they would go if they could. The Paradise Valley in Montana, the place where my Dad and brother and I had gone on the vacation of our lives. It was a secluded paradise, a bulwark against the undead.
I had a wonderful memory of that place, looking down on an abandoned apple orchard from the sun deck of some friend of my Dad’s. The bears would come down and eat the apples off the ground, most of which had fermented, and by the time dusk rolled around they were drunk on rotten fruit. More than once I had watched as the wasted animals staggered off into the dark of Yosemite’s forests.
And as I put my Nissan in gear and drove out, I had visions of watching those same bears with my daughters, laughing as they teetered off drunkenly into the darkness.
Please God, that’s my only wish, my only prayer. Let them, and me, live to see that day.