Professor Craig Thompson
Home Front USA – San Diego, California
[Chandra Poole is a white woman in her mid-30s. She is wearing crisp scrubs, and we are sitting on a bench in San Diego, California.]
I had just finished seeing a client, I was a massage therapist back in those days, before the great panic set in. I worked on the coast in Bird Rock, which is part of San Diego between La Jolla and Pacific Beach, on the coast. It’s a sleepy little town, most of the time, although it does get overrun with tourists regularly, hoping to climb down the cliffs to surf, or sipping coffee at the Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. We were just across the street from them, at the Bird Rock Massage Studio. Our place was tiny, just three treatment rooms, and very serene. I was off early in the day, as usual. What was unusual is that it was a Tuesday, and normally there are three of us on, but that day I was the only one that showed up to work.
This had me slightly concerned, but I figured something was going around or it was just the way things had fallen that day, maybe a sick child or bad traffic had gotten to my coworkers. I certainly wasn’t scared. So, I wandered across the street to the La Shore Deli and got my usual Crazy Chicken sandwich. It was always a beautiful sandwich, with avocado and bacon and sliced chicken. My favorite. The things we used to take for granted, right?
[I nod. She continues.]
Now, you’ve got to understand that San Diego was a heavily militarized city. We all felt safe. We had the Marines at Camp Pendleton. We had Miramar, 32nd Street, fucking Navy Seals in Coronado! Who would ever take out San Diego? Nobody. We always figured if we were ever a strategic target, we would be okay. There was heavy surveillance everywhere. There was desalinization, disaster preparedness of the general population was pretty high due to the regular fires and earthquakes. Complacency is what took out San Diego. We were so goddamn smug. There was an answer for everything. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack.
The funny thing is, the deli was still open that day. As I was saying, we felt safe. San Diego always had some under-the-radar military tests going on. We would hear strange booms in the night, or see lights in the sky. It was so common that people didn’t really question anything anymore. We also had a thriving homeless population, despite the lack of organized services to properly care for, process, rehouse and retrain them. Mental health services were scarce, and that was the year of the Hepatitis A outbreak. They were literally washing shit off the streets in an attempt to clean up America’s Finest City. That was our slogan, what a joke, right?
We had already heard some weird stories coming out of the Naval Hospital, stories of people flatlining then coming back to life, aggressive. Who would believe that crap? Not me, not any of us. It was outlandish and inconceivable. So, we kept going to work. People kept getting massages. Life was still rolling along. But the day I got my last Crazy Chicken sandwich, everything changed. I sat in my car, munching on my sandwich, sipping on an iced white mocha with soy. Another ridiculous luxury that I couldn’t afford even then, but I had them anyway. I turned on the radio, and was surprised that most of the stations I listened to were not playing music. 91x was only static. 94.9 and 105.3 still had people in the booth, and they sounded terrified. “Arm yourselves! Hunker down! You have to destroy the brain!” one was saying. Another was still trying to stay calm, telling people to get inside. I turned to NPR, who was already hosting calls from people encountering strange, undead creatures. What the FUCK?!
Where was your son?
He was with his dad. They were all together, my son, his father, his girlfriend, and her two-year-old daughter. They were in Normal Heights, and I was in La Jolla. All of my stuff was up at my place in Escondido, in a room I rented from a friend of mine. Everything was far. I tried to call, to text, but the cell lines were jammed from everyone simultaneously trying to do the same thing. I couldn’t get ahold of them.
[She looks off into the distance.]
I was really lucky. I had just gotten paid a few days before and had a full tank of gas. The panic was setting in, and the lines at all the gas stations were very long. It wasn’t long before the government took over all the radio stations, except NPR. I decided to try and get to my daughter first, before figuring out where to go. My GPS was still working, and the freeways were a nightmare. San Diego always had bad traffic, and now everyone was confused, and scared. I was trying to get away from the beach, while it seemed like everyone with any viable watercraft was trying to get to the shore. At first it wasn’t so bad, I took a circuitous route through Pacific Beach and although it was crowded, people were still being generally decent. When I got to the 8 outside of Ocean Beach, I decided to risk taking it. I was so close to Normal Heights at that point, just a few short miles East and up the hill out of Mission Valley, and I would be there.
Getting on the freeway was a mistake. Although it was still early in the outbreak, I heard reports of the hospitals being overrun. It was strange, losing the hospitals first. We couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t until much later, of course, that we learned that people receiving organs from China and Mexico on the black market were becoming infected. Tijuana fell almost immediately into chaos, and our border was soon overrun with the living dead. Normal Heights was less than 20 minutes from the border, and I needed to get to my child and get out of there quickly. But the freeway wasn’t moving. Everyone was scrambling to get gas, to get home, to get supplies. It was a nightmare. I decided to exit and loop up to Presidio Park to see if I could see a clear path to get through. I thought perhaps the mission building would be both a great place to scout from, and easily defensible. Ha! As if I had a weapon. I didn’t even carry a taser or mace for self-defense in my car. It took me about an hour to go the meager distance on the freeway to get to the park. I tried not to look at other people in their cars. Whole families, tents, pets were crying, yelling at each other, driving like assholes. It was lucky that I was going East, because the traffic going West, to the ocean, was intense and snarled. People were getting out of their cars and starting to hike, or just sitting in their boats trying to wait it out. They were sitting ducks. People poured in from Arizona, Nevada, Central California, coming to our famous port to try and get on cruise ships, anything that would float.
Presidio Park sits on 40 acres and is on a high hill. The mission itself was built in 1769 to serve as protection from attacking Indians and was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the USA. It had been restored, and was therefore defensible. I had taken my son there for pictures and picnics when he was smaller, before he started school. It was a good memory, but as I crested the hill and really began to look around, I pushed it from my mind. There were other people in the park, that had had the same idea I did. It wasn’t surprising, given that the mission overlooked the 8 freeway and was very visible to all those below, stuck in traffic. Many had hiked up with their gear, hoping to camp in the park, with the fort as a back-up retreat position. Some of them had ham radios, and I listened in, desperate for any details coming out of San Diego.
From atop the hill, I could see great military ships pulling away. I could see our famous Coronado Bridge off in the distance, and wondered if the “suicide bridge” wasn’t perhaps a better option. I shook the suicidal thoughts and focused on getting to my son. I looked more closely and listened to the panicked voices on the radios. A small aircraft had crashed on the 163, snarling traffic in both directions. Always a pervasive threat, fires had broken out in both North and East County, while the dry Santa Ana winds teased and spread the flames. Fire season was always bad in San Diego, and this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. North of us, towards Del Mar, I saw a whole fleet of hot air balloons. They were flying low, heavy, and I was thankful I couldn’t see too closely the horrors of what was happening in that direction, that people were taking off in hot air balloons to escape.
I had just decided that the best way to get to where I needed to go was on foot, following the trails that the homeless had made up the steep incline of Mission Valley to the South, up into University Heights and from there, to Normal Heights, when I heard the explosions. We all looked, stunned, as a series of detonations blew the supports from beneath the Coronado Bridge. It swayed, cracked, and imploded, dumping hundreds of cars into the water below as it came down. “THEY BLEW THE CORONADO BRIDGE! WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT!” sobbed one hysterical man. “There were still people on it…” gasped another. And then echoing silence, before all the radios started squawking at once. None of us in my immediate area had even seen a zombie, but we had all seen them blow the bridge. Now reports were coming in that the Navy had quarantined Coronado. Did that mean that they were staying there? Were they helping us? What was going on? Nobody seemed to have a real answer. More news came in, and it wasn’t good. The North County fires had spread all the way from Bonsall to Oceanside, and begun to move both North AND South along the coast. The botanical gardens in Encinitas were ablaze, as was Legoland. All hospitals had issued orders to stay away, shuttering themselves with the horrors they had within. But of course, the undead were getting out, and some already WERE out, you know? But now we had fires burning uncontained, while a few brave firefighters stayed to try and stave off the worst of the spread. Inmates fought alongside them, battling both the blazes and the undead that were beginning to pop up.
I realized quickly that despite being in a good position, I had nothing. I had no supplies, no food, no idea what was going on with my son and my ex-husband and his family. People told me not to leave. We will share, they said. But I couldn’t stay, I needed to get out of there, for my own peace of mind.
So, you left? You were in arguably one of the best positions in San Diego at the time.
Yeah, since I was one of the few that managed to get my car to the park itself with a lot of gas in it, I decided to straight up trade it. It was a good trade, for me, I think. I got a backpack with some food, water, sunscreen, a hat, a handheld radio, and most importantly – I finally obtained a weapon of my own. It was one of those old school sturdy wooden shovels with a wicked end, you know, it wasn’t far off from being a rudimentary Lobo like those Marines created. It worked, anyway. I left the park on foot and made my way East and up the little jagged trails. I had to double back a lot since some of them ended in little encampments and the like. It was in one of these that I encountered my first zombie. It was getting close to dark, and although I was following the instructions others had given me (take a few steps, stop, listen, look, continue) I was still surprised. I stumbled into a little clearing and it lunged for me before I could even bring my shovel up. I had been using it as a walking stick. The zombie had obviously been one of our many homeless, wearing tattered clothing and it reeked of alcohol and piss more than decay. He had a long beard and was generally unkempt, and I could see the wound on his wrist – hell, his whole hand was hanging by a few ligaments and waggled at me as he lunged forward. He was bigger than me, and my stumble was lucky because I was off-balance, and I fell to the side. If I hadn’t stumbled, I’m sure he would’ve gotten me. While he was turning around, I brought the shovel up and jabbed it forward with everything I had towards his occiput, sending his head flying down the hill as his body crumpled next to me. I was panting, out of shape, scared, but victorious. That’s the closest a zombie’s ever come to taking me out.
I finally crested the hill into Old Trolley Barn Park in University Heights in full darkness. Many homeless lived in the canyons, but I had encountered few living things in the early evening. I took out two more zombies with my shovel as I entered the park, as quietly and quickly as possible. Everyone was saying it was safer to traverse the streets, especially if you were alone, despite the Armageddon that was unfolding all around me. I decided to avoid Adams Avenue, and took the alleys and side streets East until I reached Normal Heights. I could hear regular gunfire, and smell smoke. The radio told me that the trainers at Sea World had released all the creatures back into the wild, as had Scripps’ Birch Aquarium. I wondered what it was like to be in one of our sprawling amusement parks, or the mall, and shuddered. Balboa Park was a death zone, with the infected trapping people inside museums and the zoo, and I could hear their desperate pleas as I switched between different frequencies on the radio.
I could see our old apartment building up ahead, with its locked gate, and I thought of our tweaker neighbor with all of his weapons, and hoped. I had so much hope. It was stupid. They were dead, they had to be, but tears started streaming down my face and I ran the last few blocks, recklessly, loudly, with no thought to what I was doing. I had a train of zombies behind me when I finally stopped short outside the apartment. The windows on the ground floor were broken and had been boarded up, and there was a deep quiet coming from inside. I stopped and turned and started fighting them off. Ten, a dozen, I lost track. I recognized some of the zombies from runs to the corner store and Mariposa Ice Cream. I whirled and sliced, and felt nimble as they were so slow and clumsy. But hungry. Being overconfident was dangerous. I couldn’t make this kind of rookie mistake again. It was finally clear, and I used my key to get into the courtyard. All the apartments on the ground floor, including my exhusband’s, were abandoned. It was dark, and quiet, although in the distance I could hear screams. More gunfire.
The tweaker neighbor, Dennis, suddenly poked his head out of a window from one of the upstairs units. “Chandra, get up here!” he hissed. I bolted up the stairs and there were my old neighbors, huddled in a circle with a pile of weapons and some candles burning. They were mostly elderly and disabled. “Where are they?” I asked. “They waited for you, Chandra, as long as they could, but we heard the military is evacuating people out of Qualcomm Stadium. I haven’t heard anything official, but they waited for hours then hoped you would get the word, so they left. They took your son, all of them together in the Camry. They’re gone.”
Despair washed over me like a wave, threatening to tow me under, to take me back to the suicidal place. I sank to my knees and started sobbing. Why had I left the mission? This was a hopeless scenario, and now these people had nobody to protect them. Where was my son?
Did you ever see them? Did you find your family?
[Chandra ignores the question and continues.]
I felt so defeated right then. I had come all this way only to be denied my son, and now resented these people that suddenly needed protecting. What had they ever done for me? But that, too, was useless thinking. I was exhausted, and I slept then. I slept with my hands gripped around the handle of that shovel, and I let Dennis watch over the others for four hours. I woke up feeling much better, though somewhat unrested. Dennis filled me in on what I missed during my nap, which was the fall of Balboa Park and downtown. Everyone that had evacuated to Petco Park was gone, fallen to the homeless and hoard of zombies pressing northward and westward from Mexico and Arizona. Everyone was to stay clear of downtown, the freeways were now certain death, and the coast was choked with people trying to evacuate via boat. I briefly considered traveling back to Presidio Park, but just as quickly rejected that idea as going backwards. I don’t go backwards, I go forwards, always. I decided to press on to Qualcomm Stadium. I figured since the trolleys were no longer running, I could cut down Texas Street BACK into Mission Valley, and grab the trolley tracks near the Rio Vista station and walk along them to get to the stadium. Rumors were flying on the radio that they had everything there that we could need, food, supplies, helicopters and other people-moving aircraft sent down from Miramar. I would get to my son, or I would die trying. My neighbors begged me to stay, and I thought of how we could all go together, but I knew they would slow me down. I promised to return for them, and left Dennis in charge. We waited through most of the day without much incident, though we saw occasional packs of undead shamble through the streets. I failed at sleeping some more, and as the sun set, I left. I never saw them again.
What happened to them, did you ever find out?
No. All of North Park and Normal Heights was suffering. It looked like a war had already occurred. I got out of there. It took me a full night to reach the Rio Vista station, and when I got there, a trolley was sitting at the station, on fire, and full of zombies. They groaned and shuffled and stank as they burned. None of them pushed the buttons to open the doors, thankfully. I set out and walked through the dawn towards the stadium, on the tracks. Have I mentioned that I’m scared of heights? Do you know how high the tracks run to drop you off at the stadium? Well, it’s fucking high. It was hot, windy, and I was terrified. I was more scared of walking that distance on the tracks up above the city than I was of the zombies, at least in that moment I was. But arrive I did, and Qualcomm was a mess. I saw no helicopters. No people-movers. Only chaos. There were thousands of people there, and some infected, but there were a lot of guns. They kept going off, and bullets would rip through the soft flesh of the infected and tear through other people. There were doctors, nurses, medics from the military. One whole section was devoted to caring for those who had bullet wounds and other injuries from the quick downfall of society. I looked everywhere for my son, for his father. I checked the field, the bathrooms, walked every surface. When I didn’t find them I broke down, sobbing. People were arguing all around me some hopeful of imminent rescue while others sought to fortify, or venture out. It was overwhelming, and loud, and smelly. I hated it there.
Eventually, I pulled myself together and went over to the medical area to offer my services as a massage therapist. With my knowledge of anatomy, I was quickly assigned the task of helping to bandage the wounded, doing everything the stressed-out nurses and doctors could instruct me to do, often with their hands deep inside someone else, looking back over their shoulders with approval or corrections as I fumbled with the unfamiliar tasks. I was so slow, and so clumsy, but it was good to have something constructive to do and keep me occupied. Days passed in this manner, with us taking turns minding the wounded, taking out the occasional flatliner that turned, and sleeping in shifts. The rest of the stadium melted away for me, the rest of the world. I was completely absorbed in my tasks.
Is this how you became a doctor?
Yes, in a way that was the start of my apprenticeship. When we lost most of the doctors in the initial outbreaks within the hospitals, people were desperate. Even before they started the retraining and resettlement programs, there were these unofficial apprenticeships taking place. People banded together, became close, and naturally started sharing information. I basically started my medical training on day three of the great panic in San Diego. Things went to hell so quickly. The military was called off mostly to other locations, and those that refused to leave, those that didn’t defect for home, or Canada, stayed to help and protect us. There were bunkers, and the often-rumored FEMA camps, not to mention border patrol detention facilities and jails and prisons. But it seemed anywhere people were gathered together, someone would either smuggle in the infected, or a few people would get bit and start turning. These cases were easy enough to take out, at first, but later on, when we had writhing masses of zombies pouring in like ravenous snakes, it was not.
That was after we had established fire-watchers on Mt. Laguna and Palomar Mountain. It was dangerous up in the hills, but with the fires racing back and forth at the mercy of the wind, the best we could do was keep track of where they were and try to warn people. So many died in the fires, with the freeways blocked and the coast a mass of zombies and those fleeing them, or fighting, or the quislings that we didn’t have a name for at first, you know, the people that imitated zombies? They seemed to be a global phenomenon. We would see zombies suddenly set upon one of their own, then hear screams. It was terrible.
How long were you at Qualcomm Stadium?
A few weeks. Can you believe we managed to hold the stadium? Some evacuees and East County-born militia men with their seemingly endless supply of ammo. I mentioned though, that guns were not my favorite weapon due to the number of regular humans that were shot. I still use my shovel. It saved my life many times.
[It lay next to her, a gardening implement with a sharpened shovel-end, smooth of splinters and cracks, decorated with random bits of paint and marker.]
But what about your son?
I never found out what happened to them after they left in the Camry. I looked forever. I will never stop looking for my son. Some nights I lay awake and try to picture him out there. Has he become a feral child? Are the four of them still alive, hunkered down, waiting out the inevitable? Or did they die. I hope they died. I hope it was quick and painless and free from fear. I hope we can continue, all of us, but I don’t see it. Even now, with the farming and resettlement in progress in the western states, it feels hopeless. Everything does.
[Chandra grasps her shovel and stands up. The interview is over.]