If you didn't know the town, you wouldn't know there was anything to worry about, not at first.
But I know it, and I'm not even to the city limits when I realize things aren't right. Familiar quiet has been replaced by unsettling silence. Turn around, everything inside me tells me to do it. Turn around and flee, forever. Race the world to nowhere, run and keep running, forget about everything before, forget about everyone, run until I can't run anymore. Never in my life have I felt so alone and afraid and doomed.
I continue into town.
Stubborn. Giving in to fear is failure. Generations of tough blood forbid it. I go over my plan again: feed store, Dale's cafe, City Hall, if needed.
The feed store is the main source of gossip and news trade, and if change is in the wind, it'll be picked up there first. Anyone who doesn't hear about it there will catch it at Dale's. City Hall isn't much for the exchange of information, but it's got a bomb shelter, and is supposed to be where most of the town gathers in times of emergency.
Most emergencies are tornadoes, in this part of the world, and most folks got their own shelters for that. You build a house out here, one of the first things you do is make sure you got someplace to buckle down each spring when the weather turns nasty.
Daddy used to tell me about how they'd have drills back when he was a kid, back when they were worried about nuclear attack. The town sirens would blow, and everyone'd load up their kin and head to City Hall, dressed in blankets, in nightshirts and mis-buttoned coveralls, in fear. Wide-eyed children and stern-faced men, worried about if this was just practice or if the Russians had finally decided to launch death this way.
I never could understand when he told me. I tried to, because it seemed important. What it must have been like, to fear that the world might actually end at any moment, by something as so simple as the press of a button.
That's why City Hall is on my list.
I never thought I would have to worry about the end of the world. My daddy talked about children hiding under desks, men climbing from their farm equipment and crawling under it. The terror the sound of the town sirens brought. I tried to understand, it felt like it was important that I understood. But it was another time, another world. It was just another story, told about a person I didn't know.
The child under the desk, praying up through the bottom of it, through metal and wood and penciled graffiti and chewed gum to a god that seemed to never care, I couldn't make that be my daddy, strong-willed and sure and unafraid.
I want to cry for him, as I steer the truck towards the feed store. I want to cry for the child I never knew, but mostly I want to cry for the man that child became, and I want to cry because I need him right now. I'm not strong enough or stubborn enough. I want to cry because he left before I could become what he was.
Instead, I turn the knob on the radio, marked on/off instead of power, because that's how old this truck is. No CD player, no tape player, just radio, and when you push the preset buttons, the orange bar jumps across the numbered spectrum and then you have to turn the knob one way or another, to get the frequency right.
I mess with the radio, hoping to hear something worthwhile, but there's only the emergency broadcast message, a long beep followed by a message to check in with local authorities. That's all I get on any station.
Too soon, I'm at the feed store.
And I pray, up through the metal roof of my truck, up through the clouds that are nothing more than scratches against the pale blue of the sky, up through the heavens that I know are still there, even though I can't see them.
"Please help me."
I pray to my daddy, because he's always been so much more reliable than God.
"Please," I pray to God, because even though He doesn't come through for us very often, my people have trained me to ask Him.
I leave the truck running. I open the door and start towards the store.
I've been coming here all my life. Two, three times a month, sometimes more, never less. In all that time, it's never been locked. Place is only closed on Sundays, half-days Saturdays. When it's supposed to be open, it's open.
Jared Wilson is about as old as Methuselah, and he's run the Co-Op since forever, I guess. On the rare days that he has to miss work, he'll send in his nephew to open 'er up, and if his nephew can't do it, he'll send whatever hired help he's got at the time. I barely take two steps before I realize something's wrong.
A nice spring morning like this, the door ought to be propped open to let in the breeze. And the lights shouldn't be off. I stop walking, and try to figure out what to do next. Every strand of hair on my body is standing straight up, and my heart's beating hard and fast.
There's a note taped up on the door.
I gotta get pretty close to read it, but I still keep as much distance between me and the door as possible. Scrawled across the note are the words DO NOT ENTER!!!!!
Somethin happened to Mr. Wilson. Call it what you want. Zombies. Illness. Government plan. Don't matter. He's sick and crazy and dangerous! Had to lock him in this mornin. Gone to find help.
I don't need to see the signature to know it was written by Mark--he'd written me enough invoices over the last couple years that I'd recognize his handwriting anywhere.
I wonder what happened. It's a school day, so he shouldn't have been at the Co-Op so early. Probably had something happen out on his place, so he came in to warn folks, just like me. I wonder why he chose to lock up Jared, instead of aiming for the head, like he'd warned me to do.
The thing lurks up out of the dark of the store and hits the glass door hard enough to make it shake in the frame. Not hard enough to break it. I jump back, crying out, stumbling, falling ass over teakettle. I curse my survival skills and jump to my feet. The thing smashes into the door again, leaving a smear of something white and slimy on the glass.
Few years ago, we'd had a series of storms, and the front door of the Co-Op had been shattered by a flying branch. Soon as Jared replaced it, it got smashed in by hail. About a week after he fixed it that second time, it got busted out by vandals.
Jared made a special trip to Amarillo and picked up a sheet of custom-cut, bullet-proof glass. He bragged to us all that the manufacturer guaranteed it for life, so if the lord saw fit to bust his door again, he sure as hell wasn't payin to get it fixed.
He slams against the door a third time, and I've never been so thankful for a piece of glass in all my life.
It looks like him, still, but not really. He's not all rotted up like Laura, but his eyes have that milky film in them, seeping down his face, dripping on his arms and hands as he tries to press himself through the door to get at me.
I turn and run back to my truck.
Seeing old Jared like that, that was terrifying enough, but what had been even worse was what I saw in the light of the old Coke machine in the corner. The silhouettes of two more figures lurking around in there with him.
Dale Morgan bought an old tin warehouse a few decades ago, added some brick and some windows, and tossed in a couple of industrial grills. Dropped in some carpet and tables, and opened for business. He called it a restaurant, even put that on the sign, SAND SKILLET RESTAURANT. But the rest of the town called it a cafe, and eventually, he gave in and changed the sign to read DALES CAFE.
If there was any place that was open more than the Co-Op, it was Dale's. He lived in a little trailer house out back, and crossed his front yard to the cafe every morning at four. He'd start up the gas stoves and the grills, preparing giant vats of cream gravy and grits, and doing prep work for the daily special: cut up lettuce and tomatoes for burgers, get the burger patties weighed out, all that.
I'd worked for him three summers in a row, back when I was in high school, saving up for a truck. He was just a helluva nice guy, but unless you knew him a little, you wouldn't see it. He was real shy, you see. Loved talking to people, loved being around them, but if he didn't know 'em, he'd clam right up.
Lotsa folks thought he was rude and standoffish, but that's because they didn't know him. The regulars at his cafe knew he was the kind of guy who'd bend over backwards for you.
Daddy went to school with him. Sometimes, when it was slow, and there weren't any dishes to be washed or tables to be cleared or coffee cups to be refilled, Dale would pour us a couple Cokes and he'd sit down at a table and smoke cigarettes and tell me all about the hell him and my daddy used to get up to.
"Mind you, he don't need to know I been tellin you this, understand?" That's how he finished every one of these sessions, and I'd laugh and swear that I'd never rat him out. I learned a lot about my daddy through Dale, and I was more grateful than you can probably imagine.
Dale had a special relationship with pretty much all of his regulars. They were his friends, not just customers. That's why he opened up every day no matter what. To him, it wasn't a job, it was a chance to spend some time with his buddies. He didn't have no family--the grandmother who had raised him had died years and years ago--so friends was all he had.
The lights are on at Dale's, bright enough so that I can see the bloody handprints all over the windows. The blinds on the corner window are all messed up, like they been pulled too hard. The glass right there is cracked.
I turn the corner and glance at the back of the cafe. The back door's swinging open, and I can see a fire burning in the kitchen. I fight the urge to go in and try to help out. The blood all over the back door, that helps me win that fight.
I decide to skip the City Hall and head straight back home to Mama. I ain't proud of the tears that fall from my eyes as I drive home, but I'm not too ashamed of them, either. I considered Jared and Dale friends--good friends. They were good men, as well. They deserved better than to die in a chaotic world that don't have time to acknowledge their deaths.
The corpses are in the exact wrong spot. There's this curve, right in the bottom of a gully. Since I was little, I've been told about this curve. At night, it's where the deer congregate. In winter, it's where the ice forms. In the autumn, it's where the stray branches, leaves, and other debris end up. In the spring, it's where the rain washes out the road.
It hadn't been raining, snowing, or windy. It wasn't night. I thought I was safe. But I guess that gully also collects the dead, because as I round the curve, there're two of them, right in the middle of the road.
Instinct takes over, and I jerk the wheel. As I barrel over the edge of the road, as my tires leave the ground, as I rocket out over the drop, as my truck turns sideways just enough, and tilts just enough, I realize: they were already dead.
Then I'm landing, and my truck is rolling. My seatbelt pulls tight against me, and it feels like it's trying to squeeze my insides out of my mouth. The roof crushes in and I feel metal poke against the top of my head.
I scream, I know that. The rest all happens too fast. The world is all confusing, upside-down and noise and I'm getting hit in the face with pennies and papers from the glove box, and then it's all black.
I couldn't have been unconscious for too long, because they haven't reached me yet. They're making their way through the brush. It takes them a while. His legs look all broken and twisted, like they got busted up by something. Hers are both pretty mangled. Torn up. Chewed.
Dennis Clements. So far from his running tractor. He'd be so upset if he could realize how much fuel he's wasting right now. His wife, she would've been horrified if she would have known she was going to spend her death roaming around in her underwear.
She was only a little bit older than me--I think she graduated high school the year before I entered it--but I remember her always acting like an adult. Grown up, a little prudish, serious. When she started seeing Dennis, they were the talk of the Co-Op. Almost seventeen years difference in age, how could a guy that old even hope to satisfy a pretty young thing like her?
Apparently he did, though, because they had a few kids. The oldest is what, twelve? Something like that. The youngest, I don't even know--pretty much brand new. That's the other thing, is Brandy doesn't have a shirt. Her nipples are leaking. The milk is yellow, rotten.
I'm upside-down, strapped into my truck, and each drop looks like a piece of poison rain trying to reach the sky. But the ground's in the way. Her legs, they're a mess. Was she still asleep? Was she about to get into the bath? Alls she has on is panties.
Plain white, a little lace at the waist, not dirty, but old. Business underwear. The kind you wear when you go about your day-to-day life, confident that nobody's gonna see your undergarments.
Close, they're too close. Both of 'em, they're practically right on top of me, and I'm just sitting here looking at her underpants. Panic tries to move in, but I fight it. I wrestle the seatbelt lose, and land in a heap on the ceiling of my truck.
The tire iron's there beside me. I'm pretty sure it caught me a good one in the face while the truck was tumbling around--something broke one of my teeth, and nothing else looks close. I grab it as I struggle out the window.
My neighbors. For years, they've been the people I could count on. To feed my animals if I went out of town. To make sure I was all right when there was storms. They've helped me with my crops and I've helped them with theirs. We've fought hard times together. In the winter, I sit on my back porch and I look at their Christmas lights, and I smile, because their decorations are so beautiful. Brandy is so meticulous about holidays; she's always talking about being a perfectionist, and there's a tone of shame in her voice when she does, like it's a fault, but also a little bit of pride.
I don't want to crush her skull in with a tire iron, you don't know how much I don't want to do that. But she's broken now, she's ruined. She isn't the cute cheerleader from school, not anymore. She's a monster now, and if I don't do something, she's going to turn me into a monster. I got to get home, I got to make sure Mama's okay.
I miss her head the first time, and it surprises me, causes my whole balance to be off, and I almost fall on my ass again. I'm still dizzy from the wreck, that's what I tell myself. It had nothing to do with not wanting to kill my neighbor. Because if life has taught me anything, it's that you do what you got to do. You survive, no matter how much you might hate doing what it takes.
The second swing catches her solid, but it doesn't crush in her head like I thought. Dents it pretty good, but she's still stumbling around. I take another swing, bring it straight down on the top, with everything I got. The tire iron sinks into her head, and she drops to the ground immediately, jerking the tire tool right out of my hand as she does.
The Dennis monster is pretty close, but not so close that I can't get around him. He turns and follows me, slow. It takes everything I got to not bolt. I want to run away, run home, where I can pretend it's safe. But that's not the plan. I know what I have to do.
It takes a while to lead him far enough away from the truck, what with his gimped up legs, and the whole time, all I can think about is how Mama is all on her own, and I never should'a left. I watch him as he walks, and I realize he must have been hit by some vehicle. Someone who had more sense than me, someone who didn't swerve--just ran straight at him, knocked him clean out of the way, breaking his legs in the process. His hip looks like it's been turn around almost all the way around.
I make my way back to the truck, and this time I have the time and the sense to do what I should have done in the first place. I unlock the rifle out of the gun rack, make sure it's loaded, and blow a hole in the Dennis monster's head.
No way I can roll the truck back right, and I'm not sure it'd even run if I could get it over. Instead, I load up all the shells I can carry and pry the tire tool out of the dead woman's head. I wipe it off in the grass and tuck it into my belt.
Then I head for home.
It's still about seven miles, but I used to be in track, and I've stayed in pretty good shape over the years. Shouldn't take me too long to get there.
I make it about a half-mile down the road when I find the corpse of the baby. What's left of it, anyway. It ain't like the others, trying to walk around. This one got ate up pretty complete. One of its little arms is still there, the skin all ripped and shredded. Its face is gone, and its little skull has been broke open and cleaned out.
I throw up in the grass on the side of the road, so hard and violent that I get a cramp in my stomach. I'm puking and crying, and out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement.
Too much. It's just too much. The kids are making their way toward me. Their walking isn't nearly as bad as their folks' was, but it still isn't normal. Kind of stumbly. Like if their kneecaps were taped up or something.
Just little kids, but all bit up. Their clothes are ripped and dirty, and I wonder how one of these slow monsters caught 'em. I try not to think about that too much, though, because it's just too hard on the heart.
They're about twenty yards away when I finally get up the resolve to pick the rifle up out of the dirt. I check it over to make sure I didn't mess it up when I dropped it onto the ground. Make sure there's nothing pluggin up the barrel.
I take aim, and can barely do it because of all the tears in my eyes. I drop the little girl first, I don't know why. The little boy, he don't even flinch, don't even care that his sister just got her head mostly taken off. He's just now getting to that age where you start thinking about kissing the girls, about playing football, about driving. He's never going to get to do any of that.
I fire again, but pull the trigger too hard. I catch him in the top of the head, just barely. A chunk of hair and skin and maybe a little bone flips up, splatters out onto the dusty road. He keeps coming. I take a deep breath, I tell myself for about the millionth time that he's already dead, and I take another shot. That one drops him.
I still need to get home, I still am in just as much of a rush to get there, but I don't have it in me to run anymore, I just don't. I'm thirsty, and I'm tired, and I'm beat.
You win this one, God, okay?
I shouldn't have dared you to fight when you killed my wife, when you killed my baby. I wonder, all the sudden, if they're back from the dead, too. If my wife's trapped down in some coffin, scratching her way to get out. If my baby's in some lab somewhere, trying to break out of a little glass jar or something.
I know that's probably dumb. I never asked what they did with the baby, but I'm guessing they burned it or something. No reason to keep it around, why would there be?
My wife, that one might be right. Buried out on the family plot, ripping through wood, clawing through dirt, pulling herself up out of the ground.
And my Daddy, he'd be doin the same thing. I shudder. He was always so determined, always so strong. If he decided to come up out of the grave, he'd probably already be up walking. Might be making his way back to the house right now. Hell, for all I know, he might be on this very same road, just a ways back. Maybe even a ways in front of me.
I turn off my brain, then. My thoughts are too painful, and they ain't helping anything. I walk as fast as my body will allow, but the pain from the accident is starting to settle into muscle and bone, and I know I'm not making very good time. I'll be lucky if I make it back before nightfall.
The idea of walking around out here at night with the dead is enough to scare a little more speed out of my legs, but it's still slow going.
She was still a good shot, even after she lost whatever part it is that made her remember where she put the milk, where she should go or not go. Even after she lost the part that made her remember who she was, she still could shoot.
She didn't get me in the head, but it was a close deal. Pretty much dead center of my chest, about six inches from being right between my eyes. Considering the distance, I'm surprised she was able to hit me at all. I scream in pain as I'm knocked from my feet.
I guess it's my scream that drew her out--the dead ones don't make noise, even when you kill them. She has concern in her eyes as she approaches me, and fear. She doesn't have recognition, though.
"Oh dear Lord, I'm so sorry," she whispers as she comes up on me. "I...I thought you were one of them. The way you was walking, you looked just like one."
I'm scared. So scared. I try to talk, try to beg her to fix me up, but nothing comes out. My head rolls to the side, too heavy to hold it up. I was just topping a hill, that's why she saw me from so far away, I must'a stood out like a flashing sign. Looking down the hill, I can see the bodies in the grass. Just on the side I can see, I count eight.
She's been under siege all day. No wonder she shot before considering I might be alive.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asks. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," I tell her. I feel my life draining, but I got to tell her. "I was bit anyway. Only...only a matter a time."
It's the last lie I can tell her, and I have to hope that I'm still good enough to pull it off. She tries not to show relief, but it's there. I smile, and feel warm liquid squeeze out from between my lips.
I want to tell her to be careful. I want to tell her I love her. I want to tell her that I'm her son, and I've always looked up to her and...
Well, I want to tell her about a million things.
"You got to shoot the head."
She isn't sobbing, she's too tough to cry for a stranger. But she's sad. She nods her head. "I know, dear. You go rest now."
I close my eyes.
Posted under Short Stories on 10/25/10