Howard knew what started it all, but he wasn't tellin nobody shit. Who knew what the government would do to him. He was already paranoid enough from all the acid he did in college. He consoled himself every night with the knowledge that he didn't mean to do any harm and there was nothing he could do about it now anyways. Even if he did come clean.
He did what anyone in his position would have done. Hard working middle management guy, just married, starting a family and totally panicking at the thought of the rest of his life spent trapped in this box of a job he hated, a suffocating house and expensive kids. His wife was over the moon envisioning their future. He couldn't bear to break her heart in person. He was going to be one of those guys. The dead beat who goes out for milk and never comes back. He was at the airport, about to pick the first flight he saw, when something caught his eye. Or someone.
Maybe it was the sunlight flashing off the briefcase or the way the guy wore his hat, like it didn't quite belong on him. He was the kind of guy that usually blends into a crowd. He wore bland clothing and a bland, expressionless face. The only thing that made Howard look twice was his speed. He weaved expertly between stressed out parents and experienced travelers and bored teenagers with a speed that had a purpose. This guy knew where he was going.
The decision to follow this guy came from some instinct that Howard would later use to justify the outcome. This was his destiny. He was meant to be that guy. The one that started it all. Besides, who knew what would have happened if he didn't. Whose hands the jewels would have fallen into. It could have been worse.
When the guy tossed the briefcase carelessly beside a trash can, Howard didn't think twice. He made sure the guy was out of range, then he picked up the bag, went back out to long term parking where he'd left his car and drove home. He didn't even look in the briefcase until the next day. He was too nervous. He was too busy looking over his shoulder expecting men in black to swoop from the ceiling and arrest him at any moment.
When the nervous sweats dissipated and he could breathe easy again, Howard took the briefcase from under the bed and opened it.
The rubies were red. Bright and shining and in all different sizes. The briefcase was practically overflowing with them. The sweats came back and his breathing increased. What had he done? Were they real? Had he taken them from a mobster who was going to be seriously pissed now? He'd checked to make sure he wasn't being followed on his way home, but he wasn't an expert. Were there men in suits with big guns waiting for the right time to take him out?
Were the rubies fake and the feds were using them as bait to lure in a kidnapper and now some little girl was going to die because the bad guys never got their money? No. If that was true, he never would have made it out of the parking lot.
Now what? He could take it to the cops, admit what he'd done and if there was any legal purpose for the jewels, they'd find their home and all would be right. He might even get a medal for it. But if the cops didn't have anything to do with the rubies, perfectly good gems would be sitting in evidence gathering dust until some crooked cop swiped them. And all he'd have was a medal.
Howard was starting a family. He could use the extra security. His job afforded him a nice living, but you never knew about the future. It would be nice to have some kind of nest egg, some security. What if they had ten kids and they all needed braces and wanted to go to college? And didn't he promise his wife he would take her to Paris one day? The possibilities outweighed the consequences.
First, he had to find out if the gems were real, but how? Would it look suspicious if he walked into a store and asked about rubies or did it only feel that way to him because his rubies really were suspicious? He decided to wait and think about it and, finally, a solution came to him. From work, of all places.
They were sending him to Atlanta for a weekend training course. He brought a small ruby with him and skipped the last day of training to drive hours away to some small shop in a small town while wearing fake hair and colored contact lenses, just in case.
He hit the jackpot. They were worth more than he'd ever imagined. No, he didn't want to sell. He was just wondering about an inheritance, that's all. Thanks for your time, as he skipped back to his car and practically floated home.
He didn't trust banks or safe deposit boxes. Anything official was too risky considering the origin of his rubies. So he did the next logical thing. He went out back in the middle of the night and buried them under the azalea bush. He did think it was odd that the small, spindly azaleas grew almost over night into a prize winning, garden stealing show. His wife was ecstatic. Everyone asked her what fertilizer she used. She always winked and responded with 'a mixture of love, pig manure and faith.' Which was the truth. To her. And Howard never corrected her. Mainly because he couldn't be sure. He made the logical assumption that since the bush was not great before he planted the rubies under them and miraculously amazing after he planted the rubies, that they must have something to do with it. But how would a gem have anything to do with plant growth? It just didn't make sense.
He did finally sell that one, small ruby when their first daughter was born and he put the money aside for her in her own little savings account. And with each of the next two daughters, he did the same thing. He snuck out in the middle of the night, dug one up and went back to Atlanta and sold it to that small shop in the small town. He told his wife they were bonuses from work and all was well with the world.
When strange things started happening in the town and then in neighboring towns, and then around the country, Howard was just as shocked as everyone else. He blamed the government, the scientists, the economy. Just like everyone else. Until one night he couldn't sleep. Things were getting bad. Cemeteries were locked and guarded. The dead were beheaded or cremated immediately. Everyone had a gun and there were free classes on how to best defend your home and your loved ones.
Howard was drinking a glass of milk at the kitchen table with his rifle resting on his leg when he happened to look outside. The azalea bush was glowing. His daughters were grown now, the youngest about to finish high school and Howard was getting ready to dig up the poor bush one more time to fund the college of her choice. He'd need more than one this time. Costs were going up and jewels didn't fetch the same prices anymore. But that didn't worry him. There were still plenty left. What worried him were the glowing flowers. They didn't usually do that.
Howard took his rifle and cautiously entered the backyard. He watched the shadows and moved slowly, just like the classes taught him. Nothing jumped out at him and the shadows stayed still like they were supposed to. It wasn't the bush directly that glowed, but the ground right underneath it. In a rectangle, like where a briefcase might rest. The next day a neighbor commented on the pretty light show during the night. Howard just smiled and nodded and laughed with his wife about the crazy neighbors.
But he couldn't ignore the abnormality. There was something wrong with those rubies and that's why that man was getting rid of them that day at the airport and that's why there wasn't a giant search for them once they were gone. But why did it take so long for things to get bad? Was it some mixture of the soil and the pig manure and plant feed that mutated and spread through the land and eventually reached the dead, bringing them back to life? Howard would never know.
Again, he had choices. He could do what he should have done in the first place and turn them in to the proper authorities. But what would that get him? After all the wrongs he committed, would that be all they'd see? He'd be blamed. He'd be that guy. The one who started it all. He worked very hard all his life not to be that guy. So he did what any sensible man would have done to protect his family. He sold the jewels before the prices plummeted and he moved his family somewhere safe.
As the rubies spread from hand to hand across the globe, so did the problem. There was no escaping it, as it turned out. But with his wealth, Howard built a zombie-free community and protected all that he could inside its doors. He did his part and, in the end, when humanity prevailed and the dead really were dead once and for all, he was hailed as a hero. He died of old age in his bed and was cremated.
His ashes were spread over a flourishing azalea bush.