Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day they will be terrified, stricken by the LORD with great panic. They will fight their neighbors hand to hand.
But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.
THE ZOMBIES were closing in fast; not the ones outside, but the ones in my head.
I could feel them crowding the edges of my thoughts, reaching with rotten, dead fingers into my psyche, whispering with the voices of the damned. I dropped to the cold linoleum floor and curled into a ball, hands pressed against my temples like vice grips, and with a quaking voice I yelled, “Leave me alone!”
Fuck me, though: That shout attracted the attention of the shambling flesh-eaters outside. They knew I was in here, knew something was in here, even if they couldn’t remember exactly what. They were still milling around the overgrown front lawn like the residents of a retirement home who couldn’t remember when their loved ones were coming to visit.
The first shuffling sounds from the edge of the broken window forced me out of my fetal crouch. I side-skittered on hands and knees to the wall directly under the window. If I craned my neck, I could see a few inches past the sill.
They were converging on the source of a shout, sniffing it out like bloodhounds. I watched a stiff head jerk past the window in profile. Its cheek had decayed to the consistency of cottage cheese and, with the noon sun shining directly down like a spotlight, I could see a ball of maggots squirming in the flesh. The creature stumbled on something below the window and the mass of stumpy white grubworms dislodged, shaking free like raindrops. Some of them landed on the windowsill; one bounced farther and fell onto the floor beside me. I watched it writhe, fat, blind, and bulbous, on the faded yellow flower patterns of the chipped vinyl linoleum.
The stag passed the window without looking in, once again forgetful of its reasons for shambling so close to the dilapidated bungalow. As long as I kept quiet, I might be safe from them for awhile longer.
The zombies in my head, though, that was a different matter. They could find me anywhere.
A low gurgle drifted through the window and I knew there was another one approaching. This one was even farther gone than the last one, which meant now was my time to make a move. See, zombies don’t last forever. Once they’re dead long enough, once the rot has time to really take hold, they get more and more useless. Eventually, their hearing goes, too. That’s what had happened with this one. I could lead a high school marching band right beside him and he’d never so much as glance in my direction.
Staying low, I slid across the floor to the porcelain bathroom sink. It was an older job, one of those sinks with a lone basin over bare pipes that snaked through pre-cut holes in the floor. I pressed my back against the U-curve of the stainless steel drain trap and risked another glance at the window. It was getting harder to see. The bathroom around me dimmed in slow, pulsing throbs, and a streak of lightning shot across my brain.
They were getting in. The whispers, unheard by everyone but me, were getting louder, taking form and weight. I caught a glimpse of my own hand and for a second I was mesmerized by the ripe, living flesh, warm blood flowing so close to my powerful teeth. A gnawing hunger unfurled inside my belly like a living thing. Despite the fact that I’d eaten less than an hour ago, I was ravenous.
And in my head, the voices gnawed into my sanity with the same voracious appetite.
You are one.
You are a part of Vitala.
I shut my eyes and grit my teeth. In the darkness behind my eyelids, their presence was even more powerful. Horrible shapes formed out of the undulating retinal patterns. Scenes of decay and death and murder floated past like dandelion seeds on the wind. Looking for a place to root.
The shout must have wrenched itself past my lips without my knowledge. Glass tinkled from the window like a gunshot and I opened my eyes to see their faces crowding against the broken window. Their pink eyes gleamed in the hot lights, teeth stained black with blood gnashed through the opening, reaching, grasping. Dead hands missing two, three fingers, congealed stumps with no hands at all. They clamored against each other to climb through the window.
Their sight was like a bucket of cold water over the voices picking through my brain. My vision cleared slightly and I remembered why I was there in that cramped bathroom in the forlorn house, once a home to a family long since departed.
I stood and tore open the mirrored medicine cabinet set into the wall over the porcelain sink. As I did so, my reflection flashed back at me through a layer of streaked grime. My own wild, haunted eyes taunted me as with a dark intelligence, one that lived within me and resented its own prison with hateful malice.
Then the image of myself gave way to a row of little orange bottles. A soggy thump from the direction of the window told me that the first stag had climbed through. Without reading the labels, I scooped out every pill bottle I could carry, shoving the first handfuls into my pockets and then racing out of the bathroom with the rest clenched between my shaking fingers.
I tried to read them as I ran, my careening path taking me through a maze of dark hallways in the direction of what I hoped was the kitchen through which I’d entered the house. In the dim light, the labels were impossible to read.
CONSUME THE FLESH. LIVE IN VITALA.
I pitched forward as if I’d been shoved. Orange tubes skittered across the hardwood floor, tiny white and yellow and red tablets ricocheting inside them. The voice was no longer a separate entity; it was a command from my own mind. I was running out of time. Down the hallway at my back, the bathroom door which I’d slammed shut as I passed collapsed in a splintery roar under the weight of dozens of bodies. This close to their prey, the deadwalkers lapsed into a blood frenzy as some dark instinct kicked in and overwhelmed the lethargy of their decomposed flesh.
Fighting the urge to transcend to the dark side, I scooped the two closest prescription bottles off the floor and lunged to the right, up a flight of carpeted stairs that opened straight into the wall of the hallway. I took the steps like an animal, hands and knees and feet, anything I could touch to the ground to propel me up the flight faster. The rough carpet fibers tore and burned against my knees and palms.
The stairway switched back on itself after a small landing and culminated in a second-story hallway built directly over the first. Gutteral shrieks sounded from the doorway to the flight of stairs. The first searching heads appeared below the bannister, pink eyes burning like fireflies in the shadows of the unlit stairway. I hit the top and my head swiveled wildly, looking both ways down the hallway.
To my left, at the end of the upper hallway, a door stood ajar. Something grazed my ankle and I took off running toward the open room. Framed faces smiled at me from the walls, blurred by the speed of my flight. They were a family once, as most of us were. Where were they now? What were the chances that a member of this family was even now pursuing me through the halls in which they’d lived and loved in a past life?
I reached the room, threw the door shut, and dropped to the carpet in front of it, pressing against the wood with my back. It was a bedroom, a little girl’s by the looks of the pink bedspread and mountains of stuffed toys spilling out of an open closet. Sunlight beamed through a window and smacked every surface with a golden glow. The light beams had an edge to them, though. They were sharp and deadly. Innocence took on a shade of menace in the grip of Vitala. All good things died and were replaced with abominations of thought and sound and smell. Deep in its clutches as I was, I felt a thrill of terror even here in this pleasant relic of a child’s happiness. Every shadow held a mouth, every dim corner and closet held a searching pink eye. Even beauty could bite.
The first thump against the door at my back brought me clawing back up the slippery slope of my own mind. Back to reality, where tangible forms and impressions solidified from my nightmares.
Quickly, I scanned the two bottles in my hands. Nizatidine, 150 milligrams. A histamine H2-receptor agonist used to treat heartburn. I pitched the bottle across the room. It came to rest against the fuzzy brown arm of a toppled teddy bear.
I looked at the next label. Lubriprostone, 24 micrograms. Use for chronic constipation. Who were these people? Another body slammed into the closed bedroom door, knocking my head forward and making me bite painfully down on my tongue. The taste of copper flooded my mouth as I dropped the second bottle and dug through my torn jeans for one of the bottles I’d shoved in my pockets. I scraped them out like a shovel and three more translucent orange tubes tumbled to the carpet beside my butt. My eyes scanned them like a man searching a riverbank for his drowned lover.
Fluconazole, an oral antifungal. Useless.
Wham. The door jerked under my back.
Cimetidine, another heartburn chem. No good.
Wham. A shower of splinters and chipped paint and dust fell into my hair.
Darvocet, an opioid analgesic for the relief of minor pain. It’d have to do.
My fingers were jittering like water in a frying pan and it took two tries to pry the child-safety lid off the Darvocet bottle. After what seemed like the heat-death of the universe it came free with a smug little pop and I upended the bottle straight into my mouth. The door shuddered behind me again and one of the hinges shrieked free of the jamb. The incessant, phlegmy chatter of the zombies came through the opening with heightened frenzy. Fingers wormed their way under the opening. I tried to imagine what they looked like on the other side, heaped over each other like a mound of debris, squirming with their insatiable hunger, the ones against the door being slowly crushed as more and more of their brethren came barreling down the hallway in response to some unheard signal. The signal of prey, of flesh.
I chewed up the Darvocet as well as I could before swallowing, helping it into my system by way of the mucus membranes in my mouth. The tablets crumbled into a dry, bitter chalk, and I gagged as I tried to dry-swallow. Tiny chunks mixed with bloody spittle flew from my mouth before I clamped my teeth shut and forced myself to swallow again.
Darvocet is the name brand of propoxyphene napsylate mixed with acetaminophen. The latter is your basic Tylenol, good for a sprained ankle but more useless than a dead cat for beating back Vitala. In this case, the propoxyphene was the kicker, the breath of life for my tortured brain. It’s a weak narcotic that binds with the mu-opioid receptor agonist in your brain. Sort of a poor-man’s Vicodin.
Duration: Three hours, give or take.
Onset: Twenty minutes. Give or take.
I was a walking medical dictionary; it’s what had kept me alive so long. But all the knowledge in the world wouldn’t make it any easier to get through this next twenty minutes.
IT CAME at you first like an unexpected chill breeze on a warm day, the kind that makes you wrap your arms around yourself and shiver involuntarily. Most people never had a chance to figure out what was happening before it was too late. Only the lucky ones, the ones already ruined, like me, were able to defend ourselves.
I wasn’t always alone like this, not in the beginning. In the beginning, there was a team. An unusual team, sure, but in our own way we were just as strong as any handpicked cast of characters you’d find in a movie about the apocalypse.
They’ll never make a movie about us, but fuck that. This was real life. We didn’t have a politically correct grouping of racially appropriate stereotypes. We didn’t have the funny black guy, the smart Asian, the strong white leaders (a blonde male and brunette female, respectively, fuckers). There was no marketing team handy when the three of us clumsily managed to bash in the gnashing teeth of our first halfy, some of us crying, one of us laughing, all of us worried about going to jail for murder because it was still talking to us and we didn’t know that the world had already stopped caring.
Us? We were all white, and we were all assholes.
Rivet was a junkie from Fortuna, a leering stickman with sallow skin that took on a weird gleam under the yellow streetlights, like a cast-off rubber. He’d cleaned up for awhile and started pulling night shift for the municipality, sorting through plastic bottles and tin cans at the recycling plant just outside of town.
He told me once that everybody was wasting their time sorting out their recyclables from their trash because two thirds of it ended up in a landfill anyway. Then he told me the same thing the next week, and the week after that, each time acting surprised when I already knew, and that’s how I knew he was back on the grind. Made me glad in a way, because it was just like the old days and that meant things could go back to normal. Not that I wanted him back on the junk—what kind of friend would that make me?—but the days had been getting lonely when he was trying to straighten himself up. It was good to have a friend around that I could trust.
Not that you ever wanted to trust Rivet. He was a bastard like the rest of us, but in the Heartland, bastards were good to other bastards, and I knew Rivet would never pull anything on me.
The day the world took a nosedive into hell, Rivet stopped by around noon looking for a friend and a baggie. Now, you have to understand something about Rivet. Most people, normal people, they might moan and groan about waking up at seven or eight in the morning. Rivet, he usually didn’t crack his eyelids until about two o’clock on the westbound side of noon. We were night creatures; our habit sort of dictated that, so it’s not like you can blame us.
I was still in bed Monday morning when I heard Rivet’s voice calling out downstairs, and it took me a moment to place it. His wasn’t a voice I often heard at noon, and I figured at the time that was why it sounded a little off-kilter. It was higher than normal, almost panicked.
I rolled over and pulled a dirty sheet up over my head, trying to drown out his voice, but then something about his words changed, like he’d started having a conversation instead of the one-sided braying he’d been doing, and I remembered Jennie downstairs. How could I have forgotten? Suddenly I was out of bed and blinking bits of crust away and scanning the bedroom for a pair of pants. This was a daily challenge—my bedroom was an earthquake disaster zone on a good day—but I spotted a torn denim hem peeking out from under a pile of even dirtier sheets than the ones on my bed and I was hammering down the stairs three seconds later, still fumbling with the buckle of my belt as I trotted.
I took in Rivet as I cleared the landing. He looked worse than usual, like he hadn’t slept. His short black hair was curling around the fringes, which meant he’d forgotten to gel it this morning. A couple curly-Q’s bounced around his ears like thick fishhooks, and his eyes were murder.
“What’s she doing here?” he yelled at me as I cleared the last few steps in a bound.
“Easy, man. She just needed a place to crash. It wasn’t anything like that,” I said soothingly, hands up and stepping forward slowly now, as if I were approaching a temperamental zoo animal. I was telling the truth, too. Jennie had stopped by around eleven last night looking for a couch. I knew she and Rivet were…not quite a thing anymore, but moseying back toward that point. I’d screw a person in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t the kind of guy who’d take my best friend’s girl. Jennie was still cozied up on the couch under my grandma’s patchwork quilt, and judging by the bleary look in her eyes, she was still a little cozied up under last night’s skag, too. Her eyes flitted between the two of us—Rivet, feet spread unconsciously the way a man does when he’s ready to fight but doesn’t know it yet, and me, skinny and bare-chested in a pair of dirty jeans, hands out like a cornered felon waiting for the cuffs.
“Got a hit?” The anger in Rivet’s eyes seemed to fall away like an insect shedding a skin. It was replaced by a haunted look. Apparently, he had more important things on his mind than stray affections.
“Should be something lying around,” I said, happy to take the out. It wasn’t that I was scared of Rivet; more like, in some backhanded way, I valued his opinion of me, and it set my mind at ease to know he believed me. “How about some breakfast first, though? Bowl of cereal?”
Rivet ignored my reply and began pacing, tearing at his hair with both hands.
“They’re in me, man. In my head. I can’t…all night, they’ve been talking…whispering…telling me things.”
“These, I don’t even know, man, these voices. And like, I’m seeing this darkness. It’s so deep. I haven’t touched a needle in two days, but please, Ray, please. You gotta help me out.” He stopped pacing and turned to me, eyes pleading. He’d burst a blood vessel in his left eye and a tributary of red ran across the white from the pupil. He looked sick. I noticed his hands, now held out to me like a beggar’s, were shaking slightly.
This wasn’t the Rivet I knew.
“Give him some, Ray,” Jennie’s light voice floated up from the couch. I’d almost forgotten about her, watching Rivet carry on like this. It was frightening, in a way. “Can’t you see he needs it?”
“I, uh…yeah, yeah sure, man. Just let me…” I turned to look around the living room, searching among the overflowing ashtrays and crusted dishes for that little brown baggie filled with powder. Something pressed at the inside of my skull, like that feeling right before a killer headache. It was hard to think. I needed coffee, a cigarette, hell, a hit of my own wouldn’t go down too rough. “I uh…Jen, what’d we do with it last night?”
“Kitchen?” She sat up on the edge of the couch and let the quilt fall to her waist. She wasn’t wearing a shirt or a bra. “Oopsie,” she giggled lightly and bunched the quilt edge up to her shoulders. Rivet had stopped pacing and was staring at her like a row of corn had sprouted from her forehead.
“It wasn’t like that…” I started, hoping to head off another jealous outburst from Rivet, but he wasn’t paying attention. He just kept staring at Jennie’s forehead with that blank, lopsided expression, his eyes wide, unblinking.
“…Rivet?” Jennie said cautiously. “You okay, hun?”
Rivet licked his lips. Then he calmly leaned down and bit Jennie’s ear off.
Jennie screamed so loud it was almost like I didn’t even hear it. It was too shrill, too piercing, and my senses just let it pass over them like a surfer ducking under a wave he can’t take. All I could do was stand there while blood streamed down Jennie’s cheek and ran past the corner of her mouth. I could only watch while Rivet stood straight and bit down again on something that crunched like chicken gristle while he stared blankly at the wall in front of him and Jennie’s blood trickled down his chin and he chewed something that was exactly what I knew it was but couldn’t seem to make myself believe it. I could smell the blood, but I didn’t believe it.
Then the world took over again and Jennie’s shriek was hammering at my ears and I lunged forward and pulled Rivet away from her, shouting something at him that I can’t remember now. He just gave me a dumb look while his jaw kept working up and down and the wet pop of gristle slithered out of his mouth every time his teeth came together, and then he swallowed, used his tongue to clean a scrap of Jennie’s ear off his molar, and said, “What’s wrong, Ray?”
I punched him so hard his nose shattered and sprayed little red droplets over the gray wall three feet away. I know now that he wasn’t completely gone, because something about that punch knocked him back into his own head. He writhed on the carpet, screaming again about voices in his head while I backed slowly away. I had no idea what to do. I looked at Jennie, hoping she could tell me something, but her eyes were wide and teary and just as confused as my own. She’d pressed a hand to her ear, and when she pulled it away now it made a sick shhlurrp sound and little slimy strings of blood trailed back to her head like spiderwebs.
Rivet had gone quiet and was lying facedown on the floor. Every few seconds, he inhaled with a shuddery rasp that shook his whole body, but besides that he didn’t move.
That headache thing, it was getting worse. I was trying to wrap my head around Rivet, around the whole goddamned morning, but there was something in my skull fighting back, trying to keep me from connecting the dots. There was something important about all of this—even then I felt the pattern—but there were claws in my brain pulling me away from figuring it out.
Rivet gave a shuddering breath. Jennie had quieted to a whimper. Nobody had said anything. It had been over a minute. It was like we were all paralyzed.
I shook my head and bashed a palm into my forehead, trying to clear out the cobwebs. Coffee, a cigarette, a hit. Something to get back to normal. But then there was the matter of my best friend turned cannibal on my living room floor, and it didn’t feel like “normal” existed in the same universe as me anymore. Still, something had to be done. Jennie was still bleeding; she needed attention. I figured that was the logical first step; then I might have a shadow of an idea about what to do with Rivet.
It might be a testament to our lifestyle back then that I didn’t even consider calling the cops. When you become a junkie, you learn to deal with your own problems.
Heroin gives you a perverted species of strength.
RIVET AND I had been friends since the third grade. He’d been sitting in the back of Mrs. Johnson’s class, already something of an outcast in his shabby hand-me-downs, when I walked in two weeks after the school season started. I’d spent my whole life up to that point in Hong Kong before heading back to the states, and I guess I was as backward as could be in that sleepy Missouri suburb community just outside of Jericho.
Grade school is tougher than most adults remember. I was only a few weeks late for the ride, but friendships that would last the whole year had already been sealed in cement, so it was just social chance that Rivet and I had gravitated toward one another, both outcasts in our own right.
Back then, Rivet was known as Ritchie Whales, which was either a cruel joke or his God-given name. At about thirteen, we started calling him Rivet because he’d gone and gotten his ear pierced – not ears in the plural, just the one ear, the left one – and only a week later he lost the little stud earing he’d bought at the parlor and took to sticking an aluminum welding rivet in the hole so it wouldn’t seal up on him. It was sort of a joke at first, a temporary gag by a teenager who barely even knew what being a teenager was yet. But over time, in that gradual, molasses-slow way things have of gelling into place, it became his thing, a piece of Rivet that was always there, just like his eyes and ears and nose.
Now, ten years older and a hell of a lot less than that wiser, Rivet’s rivet glinted a ricocheted ray from the bright light beyond my living room window as he heaved another painful breath into his lungs.
I stepped over an old pizza box on the floor and came up beside the couch. Jennie looked up at me mutely, a lost animal in pain. She’d apparently been shocked into silence, which was a rare thing, but I doubted anything like this had ever happened before. The blood had already congealed a bit on her cheek, although it was still streaming bright red from the fleshy lump that had once been an ear. Her auburn hair lay matted against it, glued to her temples and dark with the wetness.
“Come on, Jen,” I said. “Can you stand?”
A sound gurgled out of her throat, and I was again reminded of a wounded animal. There was pain in her eyes, which I expected, but also a hurt expression of betrayal, which I hadn’t expected. Did she care that much for Rivet?
“It’s okay, don’t try to talk. Just try and stand up. Let’s get to the bathroom.”
I didn’t hear Rivet get off the ground, but I saw a shadow flash across Jennie’s eyes just before they went wide with terror. I spun, throwing an arm up to guard my face out of reflex, and Rivet’s teeth tore into the meaty flesh of my forearm. Pain lanced up my shoulder, all the way into my gut, and I cried out and got a mouthful of Rivet’s fingers. His hands clawed and slashed at my face, ripping for my eyes. I shut them tightly and we went down in a heap over the glass coffee table, shattering it into a thousand winking suns. Ribbons of glass flew around us, slipping across my hands and arms and chest with teeth.
The force of the fall wrenched Rivet’s teeth loose from my arm and I planted my hand on his face, flattening his nostrils with my palm and digging my nails into his forehead just under the hairline. I locked my elbow. Even at arm’s length, his nails still scraped across my own face, tearing stripes into my cheeks. His teeth gnashed below my palm, bloody and putrid. My cheek was pressing into something sharp in the carpet—glass, I suppose—but I couldn’t break free, so we struggled like that, side-by-side on the floor.
His legs came up and wrapped around my torso. It was getting harder to keep my arm straight. I tried to grab at him with my other hand, but he squirmed out of my grasp like an eel.
“Rivet!” I shouted. “It’s me!”
No use. He wrenched sideways and my hand slipped off his face. He lunged into the gap and brought his teeth within inches of my neck before I could clamp both hands around his head. I felt his hot breath under my chin, smelled the reek of fresh blood, felt wet spittle spray across my Adam’s apple.
He jerked closer with raw, dumb, animal strength. More strength than I had. His chattering teeth were practically scraping the nape of my neck.
I’d have to break his neck to survive. Just a twist; my hands were already in position. Amazing how survival instinct makes it so easy to kill your best friend.
I tensed my biceps and dug a fistful of hair into each hand, ready to twist his head and snap his spine, when all of a sudden he went limp. Just like that, the fire left Rivet’s body and he slumped in my arms.
I shoved him off me and clambered to my feet. The thin clear body of a hypodermic syringe stood erect on the back of his shirt, right at the base of his neck above the shoulder blades. The plunger was pressed in all the way. Behind him, Jennie, shivering and hugging her shoulders. She was dressed only in a pair of blue panties and covered in blood all down her left shoulder. In the struggle, I hadn’t seen her leave the couch and sprint to the kitchen.
I bent over with my hands on my knees to catch my breath and looked up at her.
“How much was that?”
“I don’t know.” She was shaking. “Maybe like, half the bag? I just sort of dumped it out. Barely cooked it.”
“Jesus…” I muttered, looking down at Rivet’s inert form. He was sprawled across the carpet like a murder victim. Which he very well might be now, I reckoned. The bag in question had been a fresh gram baggie, minus the pinch we’d used last night, so dear old flesh-eating Rivet now had something close to 500 milligrams of Mexican black-tar heroin coursing through his veins. Unless it hadn’t cooked. Was he breathing? I couldn’t tell.
I sat heavily on the couch, unable to tear my eyes from Rivet’s body, then remembered myself and stood back up.
“Come on, Jen. Before we do anything else about…” I nodded in Rivet’s direction. I couldn’t form the words. “…let’s get a bandage on your head.”
I put an arm around her shoulder and together we shambled into the half bathroom just down the hallway from the living room. I flicked the overhead on and took one look at her in the harsh white light and vomited in the toilet. I’d never seen so much blood outside a movie. When I tried to pull Jennie’s hair away from the pulped gash on the side of her head, it stuck fast. I told her we’d have to cut it off, and she shook her head violently, still shaking, still rubbing her hands against her bare shoulders.
“Stay here,” I said, and ran back to the living room for a blanket before she could reply. Rivet’s body was motionless and a thin trail of foam had begun trickling from the corner of his slack lips, a grotesque reminder of the frailty of our lifestyle. I fought the urge to blow chunks again.
When I walked back into the bathroom, quilt in hand, Jennie was at the mirror with a pair of scissors in her left hand. Two rough snicks later and a matted clump of brown hair—usually so neatly brushed and straightened—was clinging to the side of her head like a tenacious rodent. She looked up at me in the mirror as I entered. I tried to offer an encouraging smile, but it came out closer to a grimace.
“It has to be done,” she said briefly, splashing water onto a washrag before dabbing it onto the clotted mess of hair. I draped the quilt over her shoulders. She shrugged into it like a lover.
“Let me,” I said, gently tugging the washrag from her quivering hand and going to work on her ear. The water loosened the matted blood and released ratty clumps of hair onto the white rag, turning it rosy, then crimson. I rinsed it periodically in the sink and kept going until the wound gleamed naked and pink.
Rivet hadn’t taken the whole ear – just the top half and a few pieces of the lobe. It had ripped away in a lagged crescent around the hole of her ear canal. She’d never regain her full hearing on that side, but at least she wouldn’t be completely deaf. I moistened the tip of a clean rag and dug a slug of blood from inside the canal. I looked up to see Jennie watching me in the mirror.
“What was that?” she asked, voice barely a whisper. “Ray, what happened back there? Rivet…I mean…”
I shook my head. “Don’t. Not yet. One thing at a time.” I wasn’t ready to think about it, much less talk about it. Even less, talk about it with the girlfriend of the guy who’d gone psycho. There are only so many things a body can process at one time.
There was a roll of surgical gauze in an ancient first-aid kit at the back of the hallway closet. It took some digging, but finally I spied the dull red box behind a pile of moth-eaten beach towels. As gently as I could, I daubed a thick layer of antibacterial cream over Jennie’s shredded ear, then pressed a cotton pad over it and gave her a lopsided headband with the gauze.
Dusting off my hands theatrically, I stepped back to look at my handiwork. Despite myself, I laughed. It came out dry, cheerless. Jennie wrinkled her nose.
“What?” she said.
“It looks fake,” I said. “Like a costume in a play, an old war thing or something.”
Jennie looked at me funny for a second, then laughed too.
“It does, doesn’t it,” she said, angling her head in the mirror like a model showing off the season’s hottest fashion trends. “Trench chic.”
For a moment I’d forgotten my dead best friend, but just a moment. When it came back, it was sobering.
“We should get…” I started to say, but never got the chance to finish. Suddenly, lightning agony raced through my brain with a physical force. I grabbed my forehead and bent over the sink, retching from the pain of it. It felt like a whole colony of ants had taken up residence inside my skull and started carving out little pieces, shredding the gray matter and nerve endings. I think Jennie was saying something – I felt her hands on my shoulders – but her words were muted and dull. Some sense of reality shifted, faded the world on a dimmer switch. The bathroom got hazy, dreamlike, as if that was just a fragment of imagination while the real world grew inside my skull.
I scrunched my eyes shut against the vertigo of the feeling and the darkness behind my eyelids opened up like an endless vista. Shapeless forms danced and crawled through the blackness, faces appeared for an instant only to shrink back into the shadows. Whispers came at me from every direction. I was in a cloud of them, a swarm, hissing voices that buzzed behind and above me. Saying…saying…
I must have stumbled because when I opened my eyes I was hanging from the bathroom sink. My legs felt like jelly; my fingers were locked into white-knuckled claws against the smooth inner bowl. Shreds of Jennie’s lopped-off hair clung to my wrists and forearms. Jennie was shaking me, and when I looked up there was terror in her eyes.
For a gutwrenching moment, the bathroom and the bottomless chasm in my head grappled with each other, trying to claim me, and then the bathroom won and my senses flooded back over me. The stringent scent of antiseptic spray. The cold, smooth porcelain sink. The hard tile under my knees. Jennie’s hands, still gripping my shoulders, but hesitantly, as if she were afraid I might roll my eyes back in my head and take a bite out of her like Rivet had.
“Ray, please don’t do this. Please…”
She was pleading with me. She didn’t want to be left alone. I groaned and struggled to my feet.
“You’re sick,” she said. “Your arm. Where Rivet…”
I looked down at the gash in my forearm where Rivet had locked his jaws onto me. It had been getting steadily more painful, but I’d all but forgotten it trying to get Jennie fixed up. It had stopped bleeding, but there was a perfectly clean chunk torn away from the meat just below my elbow. Tooth grooves sloped down from the surface like a dental record.
Jennie had already taken a washcloth and was wiping the blood away, just as I’d done to her.
“What was that?” she asked. “What happened to you?”
“Just a little queasy, I guess,” I replied, avoiding her eye. Before Rivet had gone crazy, he’d been raving about darkness and voices. I knew now what he meant. But what good would it do to scare Jennie any more than she already was? We had no idea what was happening, and panic would only stop us from figuring it out. Movie scenes flashed through my head, and I agreed with them. There was something painfully familiar about all of this, but to give voice to the thoughts would just grant them strength. There was no way it was actually happening. It didn’t; not in real life. When there’s no more room in hell, I thought, then grit my teeth against the sting as Jennie splashed iodine over my arm.
“You guys need some of this. Now.”
Jennie shrieked and clamped a viselike hand directly over the bite on my arm. I didn’t even notice the pain. All I saw was Rivet leaning heavily against the bathroom doorway, a syringe in his hand.
HEROIN IS like jumping into a hot tub. No, that’s not quite right – heroin is like going swimming in an Arctic river and then jumping into a hot tub. It’s a warmth that sweeps over your body and thaws out sections you didn’t even know were frozen until suddenly they’re melting like a slab of butter and all you can do is lean back wherever you happen to be sitting and shut your eyes and let that soothing water steal across your skin and soul.
At least, that’s how it feels at first.
Then comes the nausea, the kind that hides in waiting until you do something as innocent as reach for a cigarette or try to scratch that fuzzy itch on the bridge of your nose. That’s when it leaps out and wrings your stomach like a soaking dish towel and you spend a good five minutes taking shallow breaths while you try to will your roiling stomach to calm down. Sometimes you win the fight, sometimes you don’t.
When Rivet stepped into the bathroom, I took a running lunge at him, because right then my mind wasn’t working exactly right. See, zombies don’t talk, and as far as I’ve seen, they never offer you drugs. But my brain sort of skipped over those two little details and fixated on the fact that a man who’d clearly been dead was now standing in front of me. The blood caked all over his face didn’t do anything to dissuade me from my instant assumption that Rivet was now a living, breathing, motherfucking zombie.
I hit him shoulder-to-chest in a linebacker’s charge, and even though he was clearly high as a kite, he had the wherewithall to aim the pointy end of the syringe at my charging shoulder. I went down in a heap of blankets and decided to just lie there for awhile while that deliciously warm hot-tub water wrapped around my body. Rivet made the appropriate oomph sounds when I rammed his solar plexus, but he managed to spin out of the path of my falling body and keep his feet.
I was just able to watch him through a golden haze as he advanced into the bathroom, syringe held in front of him, while Jennie screamed and shrank down into the far corner.
And just like that, the shadows around my brain shrank away.
Five minutes later we had gathered in my living room, all of us in various stages of debilitation. Rivet and Jennie were on the couch, Rivet’s arm around her shoulders. Jennie had slipped on her clothes from last night. I was spread out over the stuffed armchair, still shirtless, cut and scraped from the glass, listening to Rivet run through his story for the second time.
“I was just a passenger, it felt like,” he said slowly, staring at the shattered coffee table between us. “There were these flashes where I could actually see what was happening, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. I’m so sorry, Jennie. God, I’m so sorry.” He tightened his embrace with almost frenetic urgency, as if she was an anchor that could hold him in reality. I had an idea of how he felt.
“What you were talking about,” Jennie said. “The darkness and all that. I think I saw something, too. It wasn’t much, but what I did see felt…weird. Like something choking my thoughts.” She stopped and wrinkled her nose, thinking. The expression bunched her freckles into little knots on her cheeks.
“That’s exactly it,” Rivet said. “It was choking my thoughts, only then it started stealing them away. I couldn’t think of anything, there was just this hunger, like going cold turkey and all you can think about is scoring a hit. I wanted more. More of…something. I don’t know what.”
I watched both of them. There was no need to add anything to the conversation; we’d all felt the same thing, apparently. But there was one question beneath everything.
“What?” I said. “What is it?”
Rivet looked at me. His earring gleamed dully. He’d cleaned up his face, but there was still a black crust clinging to his patchy sideburns that he’d missed. The puffy parts around his nose were quickly darkening to an ugly shade of midnight blue.
“The only thing I know,” he said, “is that this–” He pointed to the empty syringe on the sofa arm. “–pushed whatever it is back. It let me think again. I think it was just in time, too. I was still there, just a little, but even that part was going fast.”
“I thought we’d OD’d you,” Jennie said. “I was so scared.”
“Maybe you did, hun, but you did the right thing. Maybe you didn’t know it, maybe you were trying to kill me, to stop me from killing Ray, but you thought fast.” He kissed the side of Jennie’s head, and she flinched visibly when his mouth came close. He looked at her with a strange expression. Anger?
“Another question,” I said. “What happens when we come down?”
“That I don’t know, bro,” Rivet said.
“Another question,” I said. “Is it just us, or is it happening to other people?”
“I don’t know, bro,” Rivet replied. He was starting to sound angry. “I don’t fucking know.”
“It’s a rhetorical question,” I said.
“Then keep it to yourself. How’s that helping?”
“It’s something we need to think about,” I snapped back. What was wrong with him?
“All we need to think about is keeping ourselves good,” Rivet glared at me. “Who cares about those people? This is us, man.”
“Come on, guys,” Jennie tried to mediate. “Let’s calm down. Ray has a point,” she added gently, stroking Rivet’s arm.
“You’re on his side?” Rivet jerked his arm off her shoulders. “Figures. That’s what it is, isn’t it? Sparking the ol’ flame.”
“What? No. Rivet, listen,” I jumped in. This was ridiculous. “The only way we’ll figure out what’s happening to us is if we know if the same thing is going on out there.” I gestured out the window.
“You know, I haven’t heard any traffic in awhile,” Jennie said.
“There, see? That’s thinking,” I said. “I haven’t either. Of course, it’s usually pretty quiet around here in the mornings, but still, not this quiet.”
“Who lives around here that doesn’t go to work?” Jen asked.
“Mrs. Winters lives over on the next block,” I said, getting excited. “She’s retired.”
“Jesus, listen to you two,” Rivet said. “Aren’t you guys just cozy.”
“Dammit, Rivet,” I said, raising my voice.
“What?” he said, leaning forward. “What?”
“ ‘What’ is you’re being an asshole while we’re trying to come up with some sort of plan.”
“We don’t need a plan,” Rivet shouted. “There’s nothing weird going on. We all kinda freaked out, sure, but that’s like, what, cabin fever. Temporary group psychosis. It’s over, man. Do you feel anything weird now? It’s gone. We fixed it.”
“Yeah,” I retorted, “and for all we know you’re the one who infected us in the first place.”
“Infected? This isn’t a goddamn video game, Ray. Nobody infected anybody. I’ve apologized a thousand times, and I’m going to keep apologizing for awhile, because you know what? I really am sorry. But you can’t sit there and pin this on me. You felt it, too.”
“And that’s exactly why we need to figure out what happened!” Now I was shouting, which definitely wasn’t helping the situation. I’ve known Rivet most of my life; he doesn’t back down from a frontal attack.
“Look,” I continued more softly, “I don’t think I’m alone in saying that nothing like that has ever happened to me. Am I?” I looked back and forth between them. Jennie shook her head. Rivet gave a grudging, “No.”
“And for the three of us to experience it at the exact same time is most likely—not definitely, but most likely—a little bit more than coincidence. Right?” They each gave a quiet affirmative. “So let’s do this,” I went on. “Let’s just call some people. Does that work? Let’s just make a few calls and see if anyone’s experienced anything weird today.”
“We have to know, Rivet,” Jennie said. Rivet stared out the window for what felt like ages before turning back toward me.
“Okay,” he said. “But I don’t have a phone. I couldn’t…you know.”
I nodded. He’d missed too many payments. We’d all been there once or twice. I turned to Jen. “How about you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I got it.”
“Great,” I said. “Start dialing. Mine’s upstairs, I’ll run and get it.”
I took the stairs two at a time while Jennie pulled her phone from her jeans pocket. My Droid was lying on the bed. I tried Foley first. He was my dealer, so I figured if I got him, I could also get something else to tide the rest of us over for awhile. That would at least cheer Rivet up. The ringer blipped once then cut to the deep rhythmic beeps of a busy signal. That was weird. Usually it just went straight to voicemail if he was using it. I tried my sister next, but got the same thing.
“Anything?” I yelled down the stairs.
“It’s all busy,” Jennie’s voice called back up.
“Same,” I said, running back down. “Google something. YouTube. Find some news.”
“Data’s down,” Jen said immediately. “I already tried.”
“TV,” Rivet said robotically.
“I don’t have cable,” I said. “Just Netflix.” I lifted my phone and punched Foley’s name again, hoping something had changed. Nothing had.
“Okay,” I said. “Rivet was right earlier. Let’s not get freaked out about this. We still don’t know anything for sure. Might just be a service hiccup.”
“Do you really believe that?” Jennie asked pointedly. “I don’t know about you guys, but the coincidences are piling up a little too high for me.”
“Murphy’s Law,” pointed out Rivet. He seemed to be in a daze.
“Could be,” I agreed. “Whatever can go wrong, will. One thing derails, and suddenly it feels like everything is. But let’s be logical here. We’ve got food. Power’s still on. Last we checked, the water was still on. Even if it turns out to be something serious, we’re good here for awhile.”
“For awhile, sure.” Rivet seemed to snap back from wherever he’d been. “But for how long?”
I gave him an appreciative glance. He caught it. With enough time to think, Rivet always came around on the right side of things. He was smarter than the junk ever gave him a chance to show.
“What do you suggest?” I asked, deferring the decision to him.
“First we’re going to fill everything we can find with water. Cups, bottles, buckets. The bathtub.” He snapped his fingers. He wasn’t looking at anyone, just gazing intently at the wall as he spoke. “Definitely the bathtub; get it full. Just in case we lose water later, you know.”
“Good thinking,” Jennie said. “A person can only live without water for three days.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Rivet looked at her sharply.
“I don’t know, Facebook I think.”
“In three days you’ll be alive, yeah, if you’re pretty healthy, which we’re not. But at the end of two you’ll be as good as useless. Even the first day you’ll be feeling like hell.”
“What’s with the sudden enthusiasm?” I asked.
“Just thinking, you know. Covering our bases. If this does turn out to be, well, serious, the last way I want to go is dying of thirst.”
“Agreed.” Jen and I said it at the same time. We looked at each other and smiled. Rivet looked annoyed.
“Then,” Rivet said, “we’ll go pay a visit to your Old Lady Winters.” He was taking charge, which was the only way he’d be happy about any plan right now. But it was better than fighting, and I was okay with letting him lead.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Jen?”
“Alright,” I said. “But I’m not going out there without a weapon.”
“For the last time,” Rivet’s voice was exasperated. “There aren’t any zo–”
“I’m with Ray on this one,” Jennie cut him off. “It’ll at least make me feel safer.”
Rivet looked back and forth between us and was about to say something, then seemed to change his mind. “Okay,” he finally said. “Nothing wrong with a little security.”
“Great then,” I said, clapping my hands and standing up. I felt invigorated now that we had a plan. Anything was better than languishing in my doubts. I was still riding pretty high, but the edge had worn off and the heavy feeling was definitely sloping away. It was a perfect time to get started.
“I’ll scrounge for bottles,” I said. “Recycling wasn’t supposed to come until next week; there should be some around.”
“I’ll get upstairs and clean the tub out.” Jen was following my lead. “I’ve seen how Ray lives, and I’m not drinking any water from that without a bleach scrub first.”
We were turning to leave when we noticed that Rivet hadn’t moved.
“You helping out with this master plan of yours?” I asked.
“Of course, but first things first.” He held out the little brown baggie. “Who’s hungry?”
“I FEEL like an idiot.”
Rivet slapped me on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine, bub. You look like John Wayne.”
We were standing on the front porch of my house waiting for Jennie to join us. We’d taken it easy with the dope this time. Just a tiny pinch for each of us. Maintenance doses, Rivet was already calling it. Even so, water collection had gotten sloppy. Jennie’d gone upstairs and scrubbed about a quarter of the tub before giving up and turning on the faucet, then she’d come back down to help the rest of us fill every glass, bowl, and coffee mug in my kitchen. Rivet had gotten this idea to, and I quote, “save counter space” by building a pyramid out of the filled drinking glasses.
“There,” he’d turned toward us, smile radiant and eyes glassy. “We can just take what we need from the top and work our way down.” But when he turned back around, his knee bumped the cabinet. For a breathless moment, the entire shimmering glass structure teetered and it seemed like it would hold, then it came crashing down. Half the glasses shattered and water and splintery shards sprayed over the kitchen floor.
We were in the middle of yelling about it when Jennie clapped a hand to her mouth and raced out of the room. Rivet and I both turned toward the sound of her feet thumping up the stairs. When she came back down, her face was sheepish and her sneakers were sloshing with every step.
“Left the tub on too long,” she’d mumbled as she went back to filling up coffee mugs.
By the time we finished with the water, we had twelve coffee mugs, seven glasses, two water bottles, a milk jug, and a bathtub full of water of questionable quality. We made a unanimous decision to save the tub for bathing, then set about finding weapons for our dangerous quest to Old Lady Winters’s.
And now here we were on the porch, waiting for Jennie.
“Seriously,” I said. “An absolute idiot.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Rivet was scanning the street for activity. So far, we hadn’t seen a single person or vehicle on the road. My house was in a quiet suburb that was a tad on the lower edge of middle class. There weren’t any posh community guidelines about stuff like how short to trim your lawn or where your trash bins had to be placed on the curb, and most of the residents didn’t give much of a shit about those things anyway.
Directly across the street from us was a dilapidated yellow bungalow that was sagging dangerously on its foundation. Could have been sold to a blind family as a split-level, but even real estate agents didn’t stoop that low in Joshuah Hill, so for the past two years it had sat empty while its front lawn grew up like a jungle. Most of the windows had been nailed up, but a few of the boards had been removed by neighborhood teens and junkheads. Two broken windows in the front glared out across the street like a pair of menacing eyes. It had always given me the creeps. I looked away and up the street, where the houses were in decidedly better condition. That was where actual families lived.
Down the other way was an oblong cul-de-sac with a few more vacant homes in various states of disarray. My house was the first one on the street that was lived in, and as such it felt at times like there was a plague creeping up the lane from the cul-de-sac on the right and my home was next in its path of destruction.
If I was forced to be honest, my house wasn’t in much better shape than any of the vacant ones.
“What if we actually run into trouble?” I asked Rivet. I looked down at the object in my hand. “This won’t do anything.”
“Poke ‘em,” Rivet said, eyes still down the street. “What’s that car doing?”
“There at the end, the truck near the stop sign.”
I squinted into the afternoon sun and saw a little green Ford pickup parked at the curb near the intersection with Bloomingdale Lane.
“Oh, that’s Janet Wazowski’s second car. I think it used to be her husband’s. Or ex’s; she’s divorced. She uses her Mazda and leaves that one parked on the street.”
Rivet silently resumed his search.
“They’ll be right up on me before I can even touch them,” I spoke into the strained silence. “Wouldn’t a knife or something be better?”
“If there isn’t anything wrong, a junkie walking down the street with a steak knife is going to get the cops called on us. And we can’t afford that.” He patted the chest pocket of his button-up shirt as if to prove his point. He’d wanted to bring the junk in exchange for letting me and Jennie carry weapons. When I’d calmly pointed out that it wasn’t his goddamn place to decide whether we could arm ourselves, he’d gotten sullen and uncooperative, so of course I had to let him have his way.
Jennie slapped open the screen door and joined us on the front porch. Rivet ignored her, and she watched him scan the street for a moment before looking down at my hand.
“Is that a ballpoint pen?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’ll work,” I said defensively.
“What’re you going to do with it? Sign a check to make them leave?”
“I can, you know, poke them with it. Gouge out an eye.”
“Better than this.” She hefted a bright yellow umbrella still in the store’s plastic wrapping from when I’d bought it years ago. I noticed she stood with me between her and Rivet. “We ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said. “Let’s go, Rivet.”
Finally, he turned to us. The sun was dipping slightly in the sky behind him and from the left, outlining his features in severe golden light. One eye glinted at us from the soft shadow cast by the bridge of his nose. He looked almost majestic, in a disheveled way. Somehow, that chipped wooden porch with peeling paint felt like a dock at the end of the world. A neighborhood I’d known my entire adult life had, in the blink of an eye, become an unknown, a dangerous realm where shadows held killers and danger lurked just beyond the visible.
Then the moment passed and I couldn’t help feeling foolish. It was just a regular afternoon and we were taking a stroll down the street. My imagination would do me in one of these days. I brushed past him and started down the cracked concrete walkway to the street.
“Come on,” I said over my shoulder. I heard the creak of the wooden stairs as they followed me down.
On the street, I cut left, heading toward Bloomingdale Lane and Janet Wazowski’s lone green pickup. There were no sounds on the street, the entire neighborhood seemingly caught in a muffled hush. Even the footfalls of our rubber sneakers sounded mute on the asphalt. Jennie and Rivet quickened their pace to catch up and sidled up beside me, one on each side. Maybe it was the surreal atmosphere that had descended over the afternoon, but the three of us floated away from the curb and, in a straight line, marched boldly up the center of the street.
Was the world already ours? It felt that way. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little thrill working up my spine. I was a child again, playing guns and swords in the sparse woods down by the trickling creek full of runoff from the uptown manufacturing plants. Crouched in the weeds, every sense tuned for the crack of a twig or the whisper of fabric sliding across a tree trunk, Nerf gun spray-painted black at the ready in my tiny hands. Ready to take down the approaching threat, the enemy at the gates, the world, if that’s what it took.
A calming sense of nostalgia settled over me as Jennie, Rivet, and I paraded down the middle of the deserted street, pen and umbrella and drugs at the ready. Why had we even grown up in the first place? We hadn’t asked for it, for this so-called gift of adulthood. Life had been so much simpler as boys, before the jobs and worries. Before the junk. Just me and Rivet making adventures as we went along, never stopping to appreciate the opportunities laid before us in a wide swathe. The future was distant, and we were young. We had only to conjure a dream to make it true.
You learn a lot growing up in a small town, but one thing you never learn is how to really experience something. To us, Joshuah Hill was a jumbled canvas onto which countless generations had tried to paint their own Rockwell of normal life. Kids laughing in washtubs, a happy dog sneaking away a sock. Smiles, nostalgia, infinite shades of dusty brown. It wasn’t real, though. That was the problem. None of those paintings stuck; they just smeared under each new rain and left the canvas a little dirtier, a little more worn, than before. Nobody ever, truly gave a shit about Joshuah Hill, so as the years passed, nothing actually changed.
The junk was our whitewash. Just our own version of it, like so many others that had come before it. Painted it clean, like. Ready for our own projections. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to get into the stuff. After awhile of hopscotching from one part-time to another, the car wash, the washed up bowling alley, hardass Mr. Collins’s general store, you run out of steam, and you run out of options. Every job’s just the same picture with a fresh coat of watercolor.
Truth is, we sucked at life. We grew up with starry eyes filled with cities and lights, but those visions eventually faded. Postcards and movie sets. They weren’t real. Couldn’t be, to us. Life doesn’t always begin in Joshuah Hill, but that’s where it ends. We have the cemetery to prove it.
Rivet was humming, on my left. I told him to shut up and he told me to put it in writing. I jammed the pen in my pocket, incensed. I peeked into Janet Wazowski’s pickup as we passed, then scanned the shuttered windows of the house behind it. Everything was empty, dead. The street, the houses. Not even dogs were barking.
“Hold it,” said Jennie as we neared the Bloomingdale intersection. “You guys see that?”
“Why aren’t there any birds?” Rivet asked, head tilted up. “The sky, the power lines. Where the fuck did they go? Here, pigeon, pigeon, pigeon…”
“Look, guys. Back here,” Jennie insisted, ignoring Rivet and backpedaling a few feet to the old pickup. “See that?”
There’s an active sandstone quarry up north of Joshuah Hill. Most kids my age, twenties or so, they’d be finding their careers up there about this time. They blast once or twice a week, and the fallout is this fine particle dust that settles over everything in Joshuah Hill in a thin, brown layer like a sugar dusting. You don’t sweep every day, the dust builds up and gets over everything, on the counters, in the cushions. Shades of brown, right? So this truck we were looking at, you could tell it’s green by the sides, but since Janet never used it, the hood and cab roof had accumulated about a quarter-inch of sandstone dust, making it into a half-hearted chameleon trying to blend in with the street.
And right on the edge of the hood, down in front where the metal meets the headlight, was a long, smeared handprint in the dust that showed the green metal beneath. A little chill ran up my back and I reached into my pocket to grip my trusty BIC.
“So, what?” Rivet said from behind us. “I swear, you guys are jumping at every—BOO!” He shouted it, leaping forward. Jennie jerked visibly. Rivet chuckled.
“Fuck you, Rivet!” Jennie shouted. “Why don’t you take a bite out of my fucking face again! Go ahead, get it over with. I’m so done with this, both of you. I’m going home.”
“Jen,” I said, trying to keep my voice low and reassuring. “We have to stay together. Rivet’s an asshole, but he was just kidding. See? He’s sorry.” I arched my eyebrows at Rivet, who mumbled something that could have passed for an apology in a thorazine clinic.
“He bit. My ear,” said Jennie. She was shaking, and her eyes were reflecting the light more than they had a moment ago. “Maybe I was in shock before, but you know what? That little fact is starting to hit home real quick. He’s a quack, a real bitchtits psycho. I guess you don’t know, Ray. Don’t even know what your friend is really like. You know what he said to me when we were dating? He said…”
“Jennie,” Rivet cut in. “I’m sorry, right? I said that. Can you calm down before you say something you don’t mean?”
“I damn well mean it, Ritchie.” Rivet twisted his little stud earring, something he always did when he was nervous. Whatever was happening between them right now, this wasn’t the best time. I saw the handprint on the Ford’s hood again out of the corner of my eye. I was nervous, too, but for a different reason.
“How about this?” I offered. “We head back to the house for awhile, just to clear our heads. Sit down. Think. Have another hit.” I eyeballed Rivet, sure that the last would get his attention, but he kept glancing at Jennie and twisting, twisting that little stud. “We shouldn’t be arguing out in the open like this.”
Jennie rounded on me. “You too, Ray. Give it a rest with the zombie thing. We got freaked out, but get this: We were high!” she yelled. “That doesn’t happen. Rivet’s just off his meds again. That’s it.”
“…meds?” I asked Rivet. “What’s she talking about.”
“Like she said, she’s high,” Rivet said. “Let’s get go—fuck. What was that?”
“It wasn’t funny the first time,” Jennie glowered.
“No, there’s somebody in the house. Janice’s house, there.”
“Janet,” I corrected.
“Whatever. There was a face in that little window, on the door. Someone’s watching us.”
His words hit us slowly, like something brushing your ankle before you realize it’s a hand under your bed. I squinted at the window, but didn’t see anything. The lights were off inside, and the glare was all wrong. I could have imagined a million faces in that tiny square of glass, none of them real.
“Back to my house,” I said. “Something’s not right. Janet works weekdays.”
“Maybe she’s sick today,” Jennie said. “Or maybe Rivet’s an asshole.”
“Come on…” I urged.
“Guys…” Rivet whispered. “It’s still there.”
I squinted again, puzzling past the shapes and reflections, and I saw it: Just the half-dome of a pale, partially shadowed face and one wide eye. Staring straight at us. I stepped back involuntarily. I couldn’t tell if it was Janet Wazowski.
“Christ,” I breathed. “My house. Let’s go.”
“Let’s check it out,” Rivet said.
Jennie looked fit to strangle a hog. “Of all the dumb, dipshit, bullshit suggestions, Rivet.”
“I’ll just knock and call a ‘halloo,’ “ Rivet said. He was already walking across the lawn.
“Rivet,” Jennie and I both hissed. I knew what he was doing. Knew it and hated him for it. He was getting back at Jennie for bringing up the medication, whatever that was about. He was halfway across the lawn now, strolling up like a neighbor for a cup of sugar. I couldn’t see anything through the window anymore, but someone was in the house, and I’m not good at much, but I’m terrible at shaking a feeling I’ve been having all day.
“Ahhh,” I intoned indecisively, glancing at Jennie.
“Don’t you even think about it, Ray,” she warned. She’d backed up a few steps and edged sideways so the pickup stood between her and the house.
“But what if?” I said. “Isn’t that always the question? You told me that in eighth grade. What if? And…shit. Two’s better than one.” I took off across the dead lawn in a brisk trot, covering the distance quickly to catch up with Rivet just as he ascended to the cracked stone stoop.
“Heidy ho,” he said softly, failing miserably at nonchalance. He was twisting his earring hard enough to get a friction burn and staring holes through the door. The window, clearer now that we were closer, was empty.
“She gets it, Rivet,” I whispered. “You made your point. Game’s over.”
“Game’s never over, Rayman,” he replied. I cursed him silently. It was our childhood goodbye when we parted ways at dusk after playing in the woods after school.
“I hate you,” I said, but without feeling. He smiled sideways at me. I couldn’t help grinning back. “Just get it over with.”
“Halloooo-ooo,” Rivet crooned, then rapped loudly on the door. Inside, the muffled echoes faded quickly into the shadows, as if they’d collapsed into a pile of black velvet. Nothing moved on the other side of the door.
“There,” I said. “Nobody home. Now let’s go.”
I turned away just as the door creaked open.
“RAYMOND, isn’t it? Can I help you?”
Janet Wazowski was heavy in the way you figure a retired linebacker’s heavy. She wasn’t round, just thick from top to bottom, like a barrel someone screwed a couple fence posts to the bottom of to act as legs, then topped up with the kindest manakin head they could find. No neck, just the head, sort of perched there on her shoulders.
I’d only ever spoken to Janet a few times, mostly when I was downtown working the register at Collins Hardware, but she’d always struck me as one of those people with a genuine streak of kindness. One of the other part-timers at the hardware store, Skinny Lenny, called her Janet Frankenstein once and I’d threatened to take him out back and feed him a few knuckles if he ever said it again. He did, so I did, and he kicked my ass. Lenny was a smackhead, too, just not one of the decent ones. I doubted he’d really been born, just crawled from an asshole pit somewhere down in the Meadows. Dick Collins fired him later for taking an early bonus from the register. Junkies were such lowlifes sometimes.
I turned back quickly at Janet’s voice, ready to apologize for interrupting her, and froze.
She looked a mess. Pale face, sweaty. Bloodshot eyes. Deep wrinkles. She was in her forties, but right now she looked like she could have been collecting her pension. Despite her large frame, she had these twiggy little arms and they were shaking like a papery cicada shell in a high wind. Even so, she smiled at us and asked again:
“Anything I can help you kids with?”
I flinched inside. Rivet was twenty-four, and he hated being called “kid,” but he was just staring.
“Sorry, Mrs. Wazowski,” I said. “We didn’t mean to bother you. We were walking down the street and thought we saw someone inside. Rivet—my friend here—just wanted to make sure nobody had broken in or anything. I told him about that time you helped me out after…after my parents, you know…” I trailed off and made a show of studying my shoes. I should have gone into improv. That was beautiful.
“Of course, dear,” Janet’s wan smile faltered, then steadied.
“Rivet just wanted to repay the favor. If it was needed, you know. Like I said, we saw someone, and we couldn’t walk by without at least checking. You’re here, though. Again, sorry to bother.” I jabbed Rivet with my elbow, let’s go.
“You feeling okay, Miss Wowski?” Rivet asked.
“Caught something, that’s all. Must be one of those bugs going around.”
I nodded knowingly and made to leave.
“A bug…” Rivet wouldn’t take a hint. “Could I ask you a personal question, Miss Wowski? Are you taking any medication?”
“It’s Wazowski, dear. Just some pills for this cricky leg of mine.” She slapped her thigh lightly. “Old war wound. That’s a joke,” she added when Rivet didn’t smile. Her left eyelid fluttered. “That’s a joke,” she said again.
“When’s the last time you took one?” Rivet asked. He backed away a quarter-step. Barely noticeable. But Janet saw it, and she matched it with a step forward.
“That’s a joke,” Janet said. Her frame filled the doorway and she tottered slightly on the raised metal strip at the threshhold. Her eyelid fluttered again, and the left side of her mouth sank, turning her polite smile into a narrow sideways “S.” I backed up, too, and Janet stepped over the threshold onto the concrete stoop. Fuck.
“Why don’t you run inside and take another one, Mrs. Wazowski,” I suggested. I was rolling the BIC pen in my pocket between sweaty fingers.
“Old w-war wound. That’s a j-j-joke,” Janet stuttered, then snagged Rivet by his short black hair and jerked him toward her.
I wish I could say I reacted sooner. Wish I hadn’t just stood there, shocked, while Janet used her weight to yank Rivet to the ground by his hair. His legs slipped back and his head cracked the concrete and he tried to squirm away but Janet had his head in both hands now, crouched down, and one of her hands came free with a thick mat of Rivet’s hair which she held to her face and sniffed before she turned to me and shoved the black wad into her mouth. Tiny hairs stuck out between her lips like spider legs, and she snarled and chewed.
Rivet was slapping at her with both hands, on his back, his feet kicking out in the air past the narrow stoop, unable to get any leverage to knock her away, screaming my name.
And I just stood there, a living lawn ornament.
It was the eye that finally got me. When Janet looked back at me, her left eyeball, the twitchy one, had clouded over with a thin haze of pink, like bloody glaucoma. When I saw that pale orb staring up at me, I finally snapped free and drove a knee right into Janet Wazowski’s kind, friendly face so hard her lip split under my kneecap with a caterpillar squish. She tumbled backward into her dark house. Rivet rolled and sprang to his feet, then rushed through the doorway after her.
I followed, all action now, take me off the bench, coach. The light shining through the open front door illuminated the entranceway to Janet’s house, but all the other interior lights had been switched off and the blinds had been shut, shedding darkness over most of it. Directly through the door, past a small open area for taking off your shoes, was a hardwood staircase that rose up into shadow. On the left of this stairway was a couch and two armchairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of a television—the living room—and to the stairway’s right was another open space with what looked like a dining table.
On the stairway itself, lolling on the lowest three steps with her thick feet splayed over the floor toward the door, was Janet. She moaned weakly and pressed both hands to her face, looking for all the world like someone with a killer hangover. Rivet had run past her into the gloomy recesses of the dining room and disappeared God knew where, and here was Janet. All hundred and eighty pounds of her, twitching on one side at the bottom of the staircase and asking for help, saying it was dark, too dark, it hurt, the darkness, who were these people, these people talking to her, she didn’t know them, it was so dark.
So I said the first thing that popped into my head: “Want me to turn on a light?”
Janet’s head jerked toward my voice and now both of her eyes were that muddy pink. They were almost luminescent in the arc of watery brown outside light. I don’t know how she did it, but Janet went from helpless on her back to her feet before I could blink. She got her hands to my chest and shoved me against the wall beside the door. I grabbed her wrists and tried to twist away, but fuck that woman was strong. Her head whipped closer, got my shirt front in her white teeth. Yanked it. Let go. Teeth again, closer. They pinched the skin of my chest and ripped back, staining the shirt red.
I screamed. Punched at her head. My knuckled popped against her skull, hurting me more than they hurt her. She bit in again, going for the blood. Got a solid grip that time and pulled a thick fold of skin away from the pectoral, stretched the skin into a tent under the shirt. More blood blossomed down the front of my shirt as her incisors, evolved over a million years for slicing meat, did their job with gusto on my skin.
Screaming, punching, slapping, I couldn’t budge her. Her teeth were working deeper now, burrowing through all the layers of skin and into the muscle tissue beneath. Her eyes were closed with an expression of rapture. I worked both hands flat over her forehead and pushed, fighting against the pain, and finally her teeth sank through that flap of skin far enough to sever it from by body with a sound like ripping corduroy.
Her anchor suddenly gone, Janet’s head snapped back in response to my shove, just as a brass lamp stand, sans shade, swung in from the other direction and crunched into the heavy plate at the back of her skull. I slid down the wall, knees weak, and looked up to see Jenny heaving air into her lungs. She cocked back the lamp stand like a Little League hero and swung for the fences, burying the brass pole into Janet’s upturned face. The woman crumpled the way the Towers had fallen, top to bottom, into a heap on the entranceway floor. She came to rest beside a pair of neatly arranged Birkenstocks.
“Fuck,” I breathed, blinking away tears of pain and gingerly feeling the circle of flayed flesh on my chest.
“Fuck,” Jennie agreed. She was trembling.
“Fuck!” shouted Rivet, rounding the stairs with a wide garden shovel in his hands. He brought it down on Janet’s head over and over again, spraying a fine crimson mist with each downward swing. At long last, he dropped the shovel and sank onto the lowest stair. He was laughing softly, manicly, staring at the thing that was now unrecognizable as a person. He was coming apart.
“We killed her,” Jennie said, slumping down beside Rivet. The bandage I’d tied around her ear had come loose at one end and now draped over one shoulder like a pirate’s bandana. Nobody seemed capable of standing. Janet quivered gently on the floor between the three of us. Deep in the middle of the blood and bone pieces, a single pink eye blinked once.
“We had to,” I said. “Right? We had to. She went crazy, like…” I trailed off, but Rivet glanced sharply at me.
“Like me,” he finished for me.
“Something’s going on,” I said. “Will you at least agree to that now, Rivet?”
He nodded, along with Jennie.
“Something bad,” I continued. “I don’t know what happened to her, but—”
“If it walks like a fish and talks like a fish…” said Jennie.
“…then it must be a zombie,” Rivet finished, his voice heavy. “Congratulations, Rayman. You were right for once in your life. And you got yourself an early ticket for the ride.”
Rivet nodded to my shirt, where the blood had now soaked an inverted tree down my stomach.
“Oh…shit.” Crazy Janet had bit me. Zombie Janet had bit me. Rivet stood and reached for the shovel on the floor, and like a miracle from on high, I could walk again. I leaped to my feet and sidestepped into the dark living room, hands out, watching Rivet. Jennie rose and put a hand on Rivet’s shoulder. Rivet barked a cold laugh.
“Calm down, guys. I’m not going to kill him. Just…” he brought the spade head down on Janet’s neck and pressed it to the floor with his foot, “…finishing business,” he grunted. Janet’s body finally stilled.
“You’re not?” I asked cautiously.
“We’re ahead of the curve on this, so let’s think it out,” Rivet said. “We know three things. One, nobody bit me before I crazied up, which means it probably doesn’t work like that. I bit both of you, remember. And you’re still peaches. Two, you hear that bitch rambling about darkness? Yeah, we’ve been there. So maybe we can figure out why it’s happening.”
“Janet wasn’t a bitch,” I said. “She was…nice.” I tried not to look at her body, at the blood pooling into the cracks of the floorboards.
“What’s number three?” Jennie asked.
Rivet fished in his shirt pocket and pulled out the baggie of heroin. His eyes flashed. “We know how to kick its ass.”
It washed through my bloodstream on a silken tide, cleansing my sins with fingers soft and sure. Nobody’d brought a needle, so we settled for toot. A fingernail each. Just enough to keep the demons howling at the ramparts. They’d been creeping in again. Quieter this time. Harder to sense. It was a dangerous cliff. Once you lost the edge, nobody was sure how far you could fall before it became impossible to climb back to the top. Nobody was keen to find out.
We were good now, but nothing lasts forever. Especially brown sugar. That gram bag was little more than wrinkled cellophane by now, a shell of itself. We’d sucked all the meat out.
Jennie and Rivet and I were in Janet’s living room, catching our breaths on her cat fur-carpeted sofa. We’d flicked on a small table lamp, but Jennie wouldn’t let us turn any more on. The blinds were still tightly drawn, the front door now shut, locked, the garden shovel wedged between the doorknob and the flat front of the second stair to keep it from swinging inward. Janet’s mangled corpse sprawled like a morbid Halloween decoration on the bloodstained hardwood beneath the shovel’s shaft. Her head rested beside it, the neck part facing the wrong way. We were high.
Life was good. So good.
“Anyone got a cigarette?” I asked.
Jennie shook her head. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me the whole time we topped up, and I understood why. I even empathized. At the first signs of a zombie apocalypse, her boyfriend had tried to eat her and her best friend had been bitten—twice. It was the kind of horror story the heroes usually watch in passing on their way to the safe zone, the scene that shows the audience how dangerous the infection is. Damn, poor guys. I sure hope we don’t end up like them.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what would happen to me, either. We’re always the heroes of our own stories, no matter how short and fucked they wind up being. And here’s the shit: Looks like I wasn’t making it past the prologue. Everybody dies in Joshuah Hill.
“Where’s the cat?” asked Rivet.
“Upstairs, maybe?” I suggested, not really caring. “Outside. Ran away. Maybe Janet ate it.”
“Sick, Ray.” Jennie.
“Do you feel like eating any animals?” Rivet asked, eyeing me around Jennie, who was between us on the sofa.
“Yeah,” I said. “A cow. Ground up, on a bun. Or fresh human. Are those animals?” It was a joke, but Jennie leaned away all the same. “If nobody has a cigarette, I’m taking a look around.”
“Good thinking,” Rivet said, standing. “I’ll come with you, check out the upstairs. Jen, wanna take the kitchen and any bathrooms down here?” He already knew what I was going for—the best of friends always knew—but for some reason he wanted to keep an eye on me.
“What if the police come?” Jennie ventured. “I know, okay? I know. But we could still be overreacting about this whole thing. What do we really know? Even if there’s some fucked up virus going around, it could just be on this street. Or this neighborhood. Or stuck in Joshuah Hill, or…we killed someone, guys. Jesus, we killed a woman in her own home. Even if something bad is happening now, what happens when it blows over? People don’t forget a murder.”
Rivet sat lightly on the couch and put his arm around her. He brushed a few damp, dangling brown strands from her face. They hitched up against the bandage swathed across her forehead. “You could be right. Even if we say it was self defense, who’s going to believe a couple low-life junkies, right? No matter how beautiful one of them is.” Jennie sucked in a quavering breath, smiling in spite of herself. “So we do what we always do. We stay alive. That’s all we’ve been doing for years in this shithole town, isn’t it? We’re survivors, Jen. All of us. Even chewed up Rayman over there.” I flipped him off. “There hasn’t been a storm rough enough to take us down yet, and you know more than anyone it’s not for lack of trying. Waves are getting bigger, that’s all. We’ve weathered ‘em before, we’ll do it again. Do you believe that?” He tilted Jennie’s face toward his own.
A tear worked its way down the hill of Jennie’s cheek and clung to the bottom of her jaw. She was smiling through quivering lips. “You’re such an asshole, Rivet,” she said. “Those were my lines.” Rivet kissed her lightly, and Jennie leaned into it. I studied the bannisters. I wasn’t jealous. Jennie had been untouchably Rivet’s for years now, even during the breaks. Their’s was a relationship rockier than a truckload of gravel, yet they always found a way to work it out. Yeah, I’d had my chance with her, and yeah, I’d blown it. We’d moved on and, thank God, stayed friends. I was happy that she’d found someone like Rivet, someone she could really trust. Even so, I was ready for the moment to end. This house and its dead shadows were getting to me. I cleared my throat.
“Yep,” Rivet said, pulling away. He held Jennie’s eyes, winked. Her laughter was the warm tinkle of champagne flutes.
“Onward and upward,” I said kindly, hiding my anxiety.
“I’ll search the downstairs. What do we need? Vics and oxys?”
“Anything,” I said. “Grab everything and bring it to the dining room. I’ll look it over.”
“Ray’s what you’d call a pharmacopeia,” Rivet explained. “If anyone’s getting through this, it’s him.”
“We all are,” I said. I fingered the plastic ballpoint pen in my pocket. “And this time, let’s get some real weapons.”
We reunited ten minutes later. Jennie acquiesced to turning on another light in the dining room, but made a show of turning off the living room light first. “Let’s not draw any attention to the house,” she said. “From…whoever.”
“ ‘Whomever,’ doll,” Rivet corrected primly, then drawled: “Ain’t no call for guttermouthin’ ‘round this here doomsday.”
I spread the prescription bottles out on the cherrywood dining room table. Rivet and I had gleaned a half dozen from the master bedroom and its adjoining bathroom, while Jennie had only found three of the translucent orange tubes, but made up for it with a bundle of steak knives and a meat cleaver. Nobody had found a cat. The cutlery was arranged at the far end of the table while I used the closer half for a pharmacology inspection.
“Anything good, doc?” Rivet asked. I pushed away four bottles. Nausea meds. After a brief hesitation, I added a fifth to the cast-off pile. Rivet picked it up and read the label. “Promethazine?”
“It’s a weak sedative and an even weaker antipsychotic,” I explained, “but it’s mainly used for motion sickness and insomnia. It might work—hell, I don’t know how any of this works—but it’s probably not worth the risk. If anything, it’ll just knock you cold for ten hours. It’d make us too vulnerable. I’m going to make a ruling and say anything heavily sedative is out.”
“So we don’t fall asleep fighting zombies,” Rivet said. “I second that.”
“Which leaves us with a half full bottle of oxycodone and a mostly full bottle of Vicodin, and like…” I shook the last two tubes, “…maybe twelve of these Percs from her oral surgery two years ago.”
Since heroin worked to keep us from getting crazy, my thinking was that other things like it would probably do the same thing. Everything I’d picked out was an opiod analgesic, synthetic versions of heroin or morphine or opium, take your pick, all taken from or inspired by the humble poppy and modernized for our cleaner world. Some of the most illegal substances on the planet, unless you had a little sheet of paper from the doctor giving you the right to use them. All this time, Janet had been right down the street getting just as high as the three of us. The only difference was, she had society’s permission. I wondered if she’d have come over for a beer if I’d ever asked.
I suddenly realized that Rivet had taken off without a word, leaving me and Jennie with the drugs. He did that a lot. I looked at the four bottles. Thirty-ish generic oxycodone, fifty-ish Vicodin, twelve Percocet. The oxycodone, 80-milligram pills, was by far the strongest of the three, so we could halve those. Vicodin—5 milligrams of hydrocodone bitartrate—being the weakest, would probably take two pills per pop. If we rationed, this little supply would keep us going for…I counted silently, using my fingers. A hundred doses, probably, and we’d each need at least three a day. With three of us, we had—
“Ten days,” Jennie said. I glanced up and saw that she was studying the bottles, too. “Maybe eleven.”
“About what I was thinking,” I agreed. Not bad. For a junkie, ten days was a lifetime supply.
“We have to be good with them,” Jennie added. “Good” meaning we don’t binge through them in two days. A tall order. “I love Rivet, but I don’t want him carrying them.”
“Agreed again,” I said. “You hold onto them.” A screen door banged at the rear of the house, near the kitchen. “Preseeents!” Rivet called in an effeminate tone. He slumped into the dining room under the weight of a gardener’s wet dream: another shovel, a hoe, a pickaxe, and a regular axe. Cradled in the crook of his left arm was a small lump of mewing fur. “There’s a shed out back. Found Whiskers, too.”
I helped Rivet offload the tools while Jennie liberated the small cat. It was all black with bright yellow eyes, barely older than a kitten. It looked up at Jennie and favored her with a soft, prattling coo, like a pigeon.
“Aren’t you adorable,” Jennie said, stroking the cat just behind the ears. It began to purr.
I hefted the hoe. A thick smear of rust had claimed the metal, and the wooden handle was split by a hairline crack from top to bottom. “You check for the secret compartment under the floor where she hides all her ex-Special Ops weapons?” I asked.
“Stomped all over the place. Not a bunker, not a hole. Not even a chainsaw, but if you ever lose your hand, I swear to God I won’t rest until I find one.”
“My sweetheart,” I said dryly. “I guess this is what we have to work with. Dibs on the axe.”
“Drugs?” Rivet asked. I told him how we’d figured it. He nodded. “Jennie should hold them for us,” he said. I tried to hide my surprise but I guess it showed, because he said. “I don’t trust myself with them, and I sure as hell don’t trust you, Ray, so she’s the one. I’ll see if I can scrounge up some backpacks or something.” Jennie followed him out, still holding the black kitten, and a moment later I heard cabinets banging in the kitchen.
Left alone in the dim dining room, I pulled my phone from my pocket and saw that it still had no bars. Somehow, that single fact, more than being attacked by a psychotic Janet Wazowski, drove home the reality of what was happening to us. How alone we were now. The table was lit by a small lamp on a counter that was fixed onto the wall and ran parallel to the table, and it cast a quiet yellow wedge of light across the center of the table. Shadows held their ground at the rigid edges of the light, claiming this territory for their own. I supposed it belonged to them now. How long would the power last? It was so quiet. I hadn’t really been listening, but I couldn’t remember hearing a single car driving by outside.
It was one in the afternoon according to my phone—Jesus, had all this happened in only an hour?—but even on this quiet street, we usually had some sort of mid-day traffic. Blue-collars coming home for a quick lunch, parents driving kids who’d had doctor’s appointments, the usual smattering of people just, you know, having lives. Being normal. Was that already gone? Was normal just a memory? I hated this quiet. Shoving the phone back in my pocket, I went to the living room and found the remote. Switched on the TV.
Snow. Snow. Blank. Snow. There—channel 16 still showed the morning newsroom, but nobody was giving the news. The big, curved desk behind which the anchors usually sat stood like a monolith of an ancient culture that had been wiped out centuries previously. The station’s logo was frozen on the massive green screen behind it, flanked by polished wood panels and soft pockets of fluorescent insets behind smoked glass. The tops of three red, wheeled chairs peeked over the desk. Simply existing, part of the props. It looked darker than it should, and I realized that the bright camera lights, off-screen, must be switched off.
It must have been a monumentally coincidental series of mistakes that left this image here. Somebody forgot to turn off the camera. Someone forgot to stop broadcasting. Somewhere else, the relay was still firing to send the signal out to the faithful viewers of this once-beloved news station. Everything was as it should be, but for one tiny detail: There were no people. They’d just left, abandoned ship, the way invading soldiers in World War II often entered vacated homes to find the table still set, the stove still burning, the food still warm.
How long would this last?
“Kind of creepy, isn’t it?”
I jumped at Rivet’s voice. He had an armload of bags, packs, and satchels of varying colors and designs, which he dumped unceremoniously on the floor. I should be moving, doing something. Staying busy like Rivet. He already understood how important that was. Sitting still and thinking was poison.
“Take your pick,” Rivet said. We’re loading up and heading out.”
“Why can’t we stay here?” I said.
“For one, Janet’s got a grocery list on her fridge longer than the Bible, so there’s not much food around here. For two, hell no. There’s a corpse in the foyer and I’m not spending the apocalypse down the street from where I spent my life getting high. Call me crazy, but I don’t want to kill any zombies I went to school with.”
The son of a bitch was actually enjoying this. I’d recognize that gleam of excitement in his eyes blindfolded. Worse, I couldn’t find a reason to blame him. Hadn’t I felt a similar thrill while going through the medication in the dining room? I’d been washing dust off windshields and selling bathroom tile sets so long I’d forgotten the simple, innocent pleasure of purpose. Of tromping through those woods, gripping that Nerf gun tightly, checking again that it was cocked when I knew it was, analyzing every minute sound and leafy sway, senses heightened, escaping. Parents didn’t argue out in the woods. Fathers didn’t have a reason not to come home. Mothers didn’t have a chance to lock themselves away from a little boy for hours at a time. Not in the woods. The air was too crisp, the sun too warm, to allow such nonsense. Despite the terrible wars Rivet and I imagined into existence, nobody died in the woods.
“Where are we going?” I asked, surrendering the decision to Rivet.
“Dinkins,” he said. Joshuah Hill’s only pharmacy. I didn’t mention my house, the water we’d managed to stockpile, any of that. What we really needed, we couldn’t find there. Dinkins Drug was the logical place.
A plastic bottle struck the floor in the dining room. I raced around the stairway and saw Jennie scrambling to put the prescription bottles back where they’d been on the table.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Titan knocked them down,” she explained, swallowing.
“The cat.” She nodded. It was on the far edge of the table, eating dry kibble from a little bowl surrounded by knives. “The name was on his collar.”
“We’re heading out,” Rivet said behind me. “Grab some food and pick a good weapon.” He thrust a small blue backpack at Jennie. “That’s for the meds. Let’s go.”
JANET HAD a silver Mazda four-door in her garage. Like us, it was gassed to the rim and ready go. For us, a round of Percs had done the trick. I set the alarm on my phone for six hours later, 7:30 PM. If the voices didn’t come knocking before then, it was the signal for dinnertime.
For our other dinnertime, we had a duffel stuffed with canned goods, a pile of frozen Lean Cuisines, and a twelve-pack of Coke, plus our personal gear. It was bizarre how quickly we’d adapted. I don’t think we really knew what was happening back then, like it hadn’t sunk in yet. For Rivet, and to a lesser extent, me, it felt like we were at the beginning of an adventure. Jennie’s always been the efficient type, and that hadn’t changed, but I couldn’t tell what she thought about the whole thing. She took Titan.
At the last minute, we decided not to take the Mazda. It was Jennie’s suggestion that we go in the green Ford pickup out front. There was more space to store supplies, she said, and it would probably have an easier time getting past…
She had trailed off, not quite ready to give voice to the thought. Rubble, destruction, bodies, Armageddon. I didn’t know what she’d meant to say, but I knew what she meant by it all the same. At that point, we’d only seen one halfy—a half-changed person—and none of the full-fledged zombies. Definitely no stags at that point, a word Rivet coined for staggerers. Those wouldn’t come until much later. Stags, rotters, walking agents of stinking putrefaction—the zombies that had already begun to decay and slow down. I think we were riding pretty high on what we thought was going to be a walk in the park. My chest still smarted, but I’d bandaged it up and thought I looked pretty fucking swag in my bloodstained shirt. Weren’t we cool, making up witty names for dead people.
We had no idea.
So here’s how our gear stacked up, all tidy and packed away in three backpacks, plus one extra duffel:
Jennie—Six cans of food (peaches, red beans, black beans, asparagus, kidney beans, peas). Four bottles of semithinthetic opioid narcotics (outer pocket, for easy access). One large steak knife. One bag of dry kitty kibble (salmon). One flashlight. One pair of scissors. One black cat (asleep).
Rivet—Nine cans of food (sweet corn, pears, carrots and peas, sweet corn, black beans, sweet corn, asparagus, tuna, sweet corn). Two flashlights. One pack of D batteries (seven). One first aid kit. One steak knife. One shovel. One fireplace poker. One roll of duct tape (reflective orange). One length of twine. One cigarette lighter. One magnifying glass. One James Rollins paperback. One bandana (pink). One can opener. One fork. One spoon. One cooking pot. One water bottle. One miniature trowel. One pair of plastic safety goggles.
Me—Six cans of food (coincidentally, identical to Jennie’s stash). One meat cleaver. One axe. One cigarette lighter. One bottle of cabernet sauvignon (dusty).
Duffel—Seven frozen Lean Cuisines (various flavors). Twelve cans of Coca-Cola. Twelve cans of food (pears, sweet corn, asparagus, asparagus, black-eyed peas, okra, sweet corn, peaches, black beans, tuna, black beans, olives). Scotch tape. Masking tape. One coil of braided rope. Three steak knives. Three forks. Three spoons.
Rivet groaned as he hefted his bulging backpack and slid his shoulders into the straps. We were at the front door, gathered around Janet’s body. An eggy, sulferous smell had already begun to work its way into the air around it, and a few black flies were buzzing at its perimeter. Jennie kept swatting them away from where they were landing on her blood-tinged head wrap.
“Why’d you need an extra fork?” I asked Rivet. He looked at me through the safety goggles. They were that old-fashioned, boxy kind with a white elastic strap. He’d stretched the pink bandana over his scalp and tied it in the back. Just a safe, gay pirate.
“In case we get separated.” Like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I grunted. Sure.
“Everybody ready?” Jennie asked. She was in front, her hand poised over the doorknob. We’d already moved the shovel that Rivet had wedged behind the door. I shifted the axe in my hand. It felt good, solid. I nodded. My other hand held the duffel.
Rivet raised his shovel over his head and tapped it against the ceiling. “Onward and upward.”
Jennie cracked the door a smidge. We crowded close, pressing our faces to the hair-fracture aperture. Rivet bumped his safety goggles into the doorjamb and cursed.
“Dammit, move over, Jen,” he said, and flung the door wide. Sunlight streamed into our dark world. Jennie flinched, and so did I. In a little over an hour, we’d become earthworms, albino denizens of a deep cave. The sunlight hurt us. I squinted, looked around the empty yard, and the moment passed. Just another beautiful day in Joshuah Hill, the hemorrhoid scrunched down America’s ass.
I fingered the jingling key fob we’d unearthed from Janet’s back pocket, hoped again that one of the keys on it matched the Ford, took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
I pushed open the glass storm door and sprinted across the yard, feeling Jennie and Rivet behind me. We reached the dusty pickup and I swung around it to get to the driver’s side while Jennie and Rivet fiddled with the handle near the house.
“Locked!” Jennie called.
“Working on it.” In the house, I’d singled out three keys that looked right for the Ford. I tried the first one. It wouldn’t even go in. Second one. It slid into the keyhole below the handle, but wouldn’t turn.
“Lock and load, Rayman,” Rivet hissed on the other side of the truck. “Get us in there.”
I thrust the third key into the hole and tried to turn it. Nothing. I pulled. Shit. It was jammed. I yanked again, and the key snapped in half, its front still wedged in the lock.
“Shit!” I yelled.
“That better be triumph,” Rivet returned.
“I broke it.”
“Broke what?” said Jennie.
“The lock, the key. Shit!”
“Back to the house,” said Rivet. “We’ll take the other car.” He and Jennie started across the lawn.
I ran around the back of the truck to catch up and saw it. God, we were idiots. “Guys!” I yelled. “Come back.” Without waiting, I vaulted the sidewall and landed in the bed of the truck. Rusty springs squealed as the truck shrank under my weight. I slipped in the thick covering of dust, but I caught myself and reached the back of the cab.
On these older Fords, there’s a sliding window in the rear windscreen. They’ve got little plastic latches that lock in place when you slide the window all the way shut.
This window wasn’t all the way shut.
I dropped my pack and the duffel and the axe into the bed and, worked my fingers into the narrow opening, slid the window all the way open, then wormed through headfirst. The small cab was hot and stuffy from sitting in the sun, but I was in. My cheek pressed into the hot vinyl seat cushion, then slid across it as I pulled my legs through the window. My head left the cushion and thumped the floorboard; my foot kicked the ceiling.
“Like a swan!” Rivet cheered. “Way to go, Rayman. Open, open, open.”
I reached over and pulled the inside door handle, disengaging the lock. While Jennie gently placed her pack into the bed beside mine, Rivet hauled me right-side up, and then we were all in the cab and Jennie slammed the door shut and locked it.
The gunshot echo of the door died in the stuffy air faster than a dream, leaving us in breathless silence. I scanned the street, the yard, the neighbors’ yards, the intersection, the road beyond.
“Not a single fucking zombie!” Rivet exclaimed. “Come on!”
Jennie laughed, the sound loud and genuine. I looked at her and caught the bug. For the first time today, she looked happy. The chuckle caught in my throat at first, as if unsure of its destination, then burst free all the louder because of it. My laugh spurred Jennie into hysterics, and I joined her. We were way too fucking high for this.
Rivet made a show of being nonplussed, but Jennie threw her arms around him, giggling, and he finally cracked a smile. I realized he still had his bulging pack on his lap and, Jesus, the shovel! Sticking straight up between his knobby legs in the tiny cab. I lost it again.
“Har har.” Rivet calmed down first, like usual. Jennie and I finally tapered off, Jennie wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.
“Sorry,” Jennie said, smiling. “I guess I just expected…I don’t know. More zombies. After all that. I mean, it was intense, guys. Running all the way to the car. I was scared.” She raised her hand as if she were voting as a member the “scared” group.
“Me too,” I said. “I had this idea that they were all around us. When that key broke,” I laughed again, “I thought we were goners.”
“Speaking of keys…,” Rivet prodded.
After two tries, a key slid smoothly into the ignition and turned. The engine coughed to life. The gas gauge read half full; a minor miracle, since I don’t think Janet had driven this truck in months.
“Onward?” I glanced at Rivet.
“And upward,” he said, peering straight ahead through the goggles.
A left on Bloomingdale and then a right on River Street had us motoring along the back way to downtown Joshuah Hill, three and a half miles away.
As we passed Mrs. Winters’s house, I swear I saw her pull aside a curtain and wave. She looked just fine.
THERE WASN’T a single car on the two-lane highway until we were nearly to Carrborough Street, but near the point the sparse homesteads grew more dense and transitioned into regular houses, we saw a white Cadillac SUV on its side in the ditch on the right side of the road. Jennie was the first to spot it. She sucked in a breath and held her hand over her open mouth. The undercarriage was facing the road, facing us, and the two top tires were spinning slowly, as if the accident had just happened. There was nobody in sight, but I slowed anyway as we approached.
“Should we stop?” I asked. I brought the truck to a crawl. The Cadillac was directly beside us now. Exhaust rolled in ghostly plumes from the tailpipe. The engine was still running.
“No,” said Rivet with finality.
“What if someone needs help?” Jennie argued. “They could be hurt. You know they can’t call an ambulance.”
“What if ‘someone’ turned freak-a-boo behind the wheel?” Rivet said. “We’re leaving them. Go ahead, Ray.”
“I don’t see anybody…” I said. Fuck it. I dropped the brake pedal, then shifted into park and cranked up the parking brake below my door. “I’m gonna look. Real quick. You guys stay here.”
“No, you’re not,” said Rivet. I gave him a sidelong glance, then opened the door and stepped out.
“Be careful, Ray,” Jennie called. “Don’t get close to it.” I nodded. Rivet scooted sideways to the steering wheel. “You need to run, go to that side and I’ll gun it.” Jennie slid into the middle of the bench seat, leaving the passenger side open. I grabbed the axe from the bed of the truck and walked toward the Cadillac.
It had fallen at an angle to the road, putting the hatchback door at the rear closest to the asphalt. The driver’s side door was pressed into the ground. The pavement ahead of the pickup was scuffed and streaked, so I figured the Cadillac must have come from town. Was it worse over there? More people than our little neighborhood, that was for sure. We should be heading the other direction, away from town, into the plains. Find a farmhouse somewhere far away from everyone else. Hole up. Wait it out. I shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be out of the truck.
Beyond the wrecked Cadillac was a white, three-story bungalow. The Cadillac’s grill had dug a wide, earthen trench through the edge of their scrubby front lawn. No sign of movement from the house, nor from the neighbors adjacent to either side. Where the hell was everybody? Not home? Scared to come out? Freak-a-boos already, trapped in their own homes?
Gripping the axe in both hands, muscles tensed, I stepped to the roof side of the toppled vehicle. I could hear the engine idling under the hood, but that, the prattle of the Ford behind me, and my heavy breathing were the only sounds. Every other noise seemed to have been whitewashed into oblivion. The Cadillac had a sunroof, but first I stooped to look through the rear window in the hatchback. Sunlight streamed through the passenger windows, now at the top of the vehicle, illuminating most of the interior. I didn’t see anybody, didn’t see any movement.
I moved along the side of the Cadillac to look through the sunroof. Beyond the glass, I could see the two front seats and the middle seat behind them as if from a top-down view. All were empty. I breathed out and loosened my white-knuckle grip on the axe. Blood flowed back into my fingers, into my limbs.
“Nothing here,” I called, turning back to the truck. Jennie and Rivet were watching me through the window. I started toward them. “Let’s go.”
Jennie screamed, and my first thought was that something had gotten into the truck. She banged the window, pointed at me. Get in here. Help. I started to run just as something grabbed my ankle and pitched me foreward into the grass.
I shut my eyes reflexively as my face smashed the spindly grass, saving my eyeballs from the dry, needlelike blades, and then rolled onto my back and kicked out. My tennis shoe smacked a face. The grip on my ankle loosened. I scrabbled back, hands and feet. Axe? Shit, the axe. The man was on his belly, legs still out of sight behind the hood of the Cadillac. Crawling toward me. Teeth gnashing. A long red crack split his forehead, blood still wet, dripping. Over his eyes, blinding him.
He got his knees under him and lunged, hands out, chest sliding over crunching grass. His teeth nipped the end of my pinky and I jerked back. I heard wet phlegm rattling in his throat, saw bits of grass scabbed to the wet blood on his face. His feet kicked, sliding, gripping. He lunged forward again and I kicked straight forward, snapping his head back. I rolled away from the Cadillac and lurched to hands and knees. In another world, Jennie screamed. An engine roared. Tires squealed. Were they leaving me? Was Rivet leaving me? I couldn’t look. The axe was in the dirt under the man. He ignored it and clawed at the SUV’s roof, using it to pull himself up. He gained his feet, then dropped back to his knees and gripped his face tightly. An immense full of howl of pain and sorrow surged out between his fingers, rattling my bones.
Watching that moment of profound struggle, I felt a wave of pity wash over me. He was still fighting it. Whatever darkness was rising to claim him from within, he still had a sliver of sanity left. We could help him, I realized. Maybe I could hold him still long enough to get some pills down his throat. He wasn’t gone yet.
The man crumpled lower, dug his elbows into his ribs and touched his forehead to the ground, fingers clawing over his eyes, now merely whimpering. Jesus, it was awful. Get the pills, Ray. You can save him.
An engine roared again, and the Ford soared over the ditch beside the road and struck the man. The truck crunched into the Cadillac and scraped along the roof, metal shrieking, leaving a thick red smear across the white SUV and a garden-hose splash of crimson all the way to the top of the roof.
It was over as abruptly as it started, but the sight of the blood carved a deep scar inside me. Maybe my empathy tied us together in some invisible way, me and that man. Twined a thread of our souls into a single strand. I wonder if, if our world hadn’t gone to shit, someone would have found a way to measure empathy, quantify it, like electricity or radio waves.
All I know was that I felt a brief connection with that man, and then something snapped inside me when I saw his insides smear across that metal.
I rose to my feet, knees shaking. The truck had stalled in the middle of the lawn, just past the Cadillac. A rose had bloomed across its windshield. Rivet tumbled out of the driver’s seat and ran toward me, followed by Jennie. I found it hard to focus on their voices.
“Ray, you alright?”
“Did he hurt you?”
“…tried to warn you.”
“Got that sonofabitch!”
“You don’t look so good.”
“Stand up, man. There.”
“Christ, you’re bleeding.”
I looked down, but didn’t see any fresh blood, didn’t feel any pain. Jennie was looking at my face, and I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead. It came away red. I stared. Jesus, it wasn’t my blood. The man had gone off like a cherry bomb in a mud puddle. If I’d just moved sooner…
“You…son of a BITCH!” I rounded on Rivet and shoved him. He landed on his ass, shocked, goggles askew. I jumped on him.
“What the hell, Ray!” He tried to fight me off. My hands went around his neck.
“Why’d you kill him!” I roared.
“Ray!” I felt Jennie’s hands on my shoulders. I shrugged them off.
“We could have saved him,” I shouted. “He wasn’t completely gone. We could have saved him. We could have saved him.”
The words rolled out like a mantra, but each iteration found them streaming with less anger and more sadness. I collapsed to the ground beside Rivet, crying. “We could have saved him,” I sobbed. So much fucking blood.
“You’re welcome, asshole,” Rivet stood and brushed himself off. “Last time I save your life.” I watched through blurred halos of light as he stormed back to the truck. Jennie knelt beside me and put a soft hand on my shoulder.
“We could have saved him,” I whispered to her. “Why didn’t we even try?”
“We don’t know that, Ray. What if we couldn’t? He was trying to kill you, and Rivet did what he thought was best. He did it for you. No matter what you’re thinking right now, remember that: He did it for you.”
This was all so fucked up. Was there a line with this shit? Some border where humanity ended and the cannibal psychosis began? Did any of it mean anything? It was all shades of gray, shades of brown, muddy watercolors, pigment mixing, blending, dreary and dark, as if the spirit of somber Joshuah Hill itself had possessed its citizens and spurred them to bloodshed.
Rivet swore loudly and Jennie and I both looked up at the truck. Rivet tramped around the the front and lifted the hood, tinkered with something out of sight, then flopped back into the driver’s seat without shutting the door.
“Piece of shit won’t crank,” he called. He hopped back to the exposed engine, banged something, and tried again. “Nothing. Must have blown something. Dammit!” He was angry, and I had the idea that he was taking his anger at me out on the truck. I got up to help, already feeling foolish about my outburst.
“Leave it, Ray,” he said. “It’s shot.”
“I’m sorry, Rivet,” I ventured.
“Save it.” He pulled my pack out of the truck and thrust it at my chest, then grabbed Jennie’s. The cat poked its head out of the half-open zipper and mewed. Jennie trotted over and lifted it out before taking the bag from Rivet.
“Who’s a brave kitty?” she cooed. The cat purred and nuzzled her neck. Why couldn’t I be that calm?
Rivet came out of the cab with his overstuffed backpack and slung it on, then leaned in for the shovel. He jammed it into the dirt and retied his bandana, which had come loose in our struggle. Since I had the least to carry, I grabbed the duffel.
“Titan’s hungry,” Jennie announced. “Anybody up for a lunch break?”
Rivet let out a slow sigh of frustration, clearly eager to get into town. My own stomach felt empty. Lunch sounded good. “What do you say, Rivet? Quick lunch?”
Rivet steadfastly ignored me. He said, “I guess I could eat, Jennie.” Whatever, I figured. Let him stew. He had a right to be mad at me.
Lunch agreed upon, we broke into the house right beside us and microwaved a pile of the Lean Cuisines, washed down with apple juice and milk from the refrigerator. The frozen dinners were already getting soggy in the duffel, so Rivet consented to trashing the rest of them. We replaced the space with a dozen cans of beef stew. Rivet made a quick search of the premises, but all he found was a bottle of outdated antibiotic ear drops. Some people just don’t get sick, I guess.
“Find any cigarettes?” I asked, comfortably full from the meal and aching for a tobacco aperitif.
“Please tell Raymond I didn’t find any cigarettes,” Rivet said politely to Jennie. She rolled her eyes and said, “And here I thought I was your girlfriend. Do you guys think we should look through the rest of the houses around here? Could be some good stuff.”
Rivet shook his head. “Waste of time. We hit that pharmacy, we can do anything. Houses we’re just pissing. No, we can head back here for the night, but after we load up at Dinkins. One good thing: At least the power’s holding up.”
As he said the words, the overhead lights winked off, plummeting the kitchen into shadow. Without the unheard hum of the refrigerator, the silence quickly grew eerie.
“Just had to say it. No, Titan, that’s my food. Here, over here. Here kitty.”
“We can still come back,” I said. “At least we know we can get in and there’s nobody else in here. We can also leave most of the food and the cat. They’ll probably slow us down.”
Rivet nodded agreement before he remembered that he was mad at me. A short time later, we all shouldered our lightened packs and headed out on foot.
THE URBAN district of Joshuah Hill covers roughly two square miles and, due to the ineffable wisdom of our founding fathers, somehow got mapped into the rough shape of a lumpy pear on its side with a worm climbing out the bottom. We came in on foot from the west, parallel to the old railway farther north and Joshuah Creek to the south, following River Street past the remaining suburban homes until the familiar sight of the town park crawled into sight on our left. The hot sun beamed down just behind us, pooling our shadows onto the pavement under our feet and making me sweat. Rivet lifted his safety goggles to his forehead and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. I was getting thirsty, but didn’t want to bother stopping until we’d got what we came for.
Ahead, River Street continued into the fat bottom of the pear and became Joshuah Hill’s main street. I think its name was supposed to change to 1st Street somewhere in there—we had a 2nd and 3rd streets—but I guess someone forgot to mention that to the sign-makers, so it was River all the way through. Of course, there wasn’t a river within fifty miles of us either, so it’s possible that nobody gave a shit either way when it came to naming the avenues and byways of our quaint little community.
The park began on the town side of Carrborough and ran about a block along the northern edge of River Street. On the edge of the park closest to the road was a small duck pond that cut under Safehaven Road and nudged all the way up to Collins Hardware, and behind the pond were several dozen green sugar maples, pecans, poplars, and white ash that provided shading for the manicured lawn below. Normally, a few elderly couples walked the mulch pathways or people-watched on the hickory benches, but today the place was silent. Even the ducks and squirrels seemed to have taken refuge.
We trolled up River past the park, somehow back in the middle of the road, astride the double yellow lines. By now we should be seeing the murmur of activity that kept downtown Joshuah Hill alive during the work week, but as with all else, the place was draped in silence.
On the other side of River, opposite the park, was a steep gully that led to a runoff ditch, then rose up again to a patch of woods. It runs through a cement culvert under Troutman Boulevard, then falls away from the road to make room for a row of small shops and businesses—a barbershop, a delicatessen, a nail salon. Just past the salon and the hardware store, 3rd Street cut up from the south and turned into 2nd on the north side of River. Beyond that, we had the graystone courthouse followed by the sheriff’s department on our left, and The Antiquey Torch, Dinkins Pharmacy, and H.R. Gibson & Sons Law Firm in a pretty row on our right.
Parked cars hulked in angled spaces on either side of River, and Collins Hardware’s little lot was packed to its four-car capacity, yet not a single person was in sight.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Jennie said. “God, I wish we hadn’t left Titan. This is creepy.”
“It’s hot enough to bake a duck,” Rivet said. “What is this, August?”
“July,” I corrected, not really thinking about it. Rivet’s head was usually weeks ahead or weeks behind, but rarely in the present. I was used to it.
I could see the courthouse about two hundred yards farther up now, and I knew Dinkins was just opposite. Almost there.
Maybe it was the heat, making me sweat. The walk, pumping my blood faster. I stumbled. Jennie caught my arm and hauled me up, never breaking stride.
“Whoa there, cowboy. You’re cut off,” she joked. “All good?”
I nodded, blinking away sweat. The domed top of the courthouse dimmed, then came back, then seemed to topple, and my knee hit the pavement again. The road tilted sideways. Was that a person ahead? Walking up a wall? No, not a wall. Just River. My head lolled straight, and Joshuah Hill corrected itself. Yeah, a person. I squinted. God, I was sweating. Heat stroke? We’d only been out here fifteen minutes, couldn’t be.
Dimly, I heard Jennie calling out, heard my axe clatter to the hard ground. Her voice sounded so sweet, a spoon dipped in honey. Calling my name. Calling…calling Rivet’s name. Helping Rivet. I forced my head to turn as if it were encased in cement, and saw Rivet on his knees, one hand against the graytop, one hand pressed to his forehead.
What was Jennie saying? Why was she whispering? When had the sky gone cloudy? It was sunny just a moment ago. I shut my eyes, then snapped them open in horror. A streak of painless white flashed across my vision, followed by shadow, eroding the sunlit day from its frayed edges and seeping across the buildings.
You are one.
Whispers, billions of them filling my skull with demon flutters. A pit so deep and black it seemed to take form, falling away inside me, pitching me into it.
“Ahhh!” I cried out and dug my thumbs into my eyeballs, willing the pain to bring me back. My cheek was on hot asphalt, rough and gritty. Feet were coming toward us up ahead, shambling in our direction. I couldn’t focus on them. Jennie was shouting, at me, at Rivet. She hefted my head off the pavement and shoved something into my mouth. I spat it out and caught her thin wrist. It wriggled in my grasp, and I stared at the veins pulsing blue under Jennie’s white flesh. Ripe, juicy. Imagined the blood pulsing beneath, the way it would taste, sticky in my throat. The colors of her flesh grew brighter. The world beyond muted into gray.
A nibble. A taste, and I’d be on my way. Hadn’t eaten in hours. Just a taste. I brought Jennie’s palm to my lips and something smashed into my head from the side. I let her go and toppled onto my back, stared into the full glare of the sun, blinded. Hands tore my chin down and shoved small, soft pebbles into my mouth. I gnashed at the hand and bit through the pebbles. They crumbled, flooding my mouth with bitter chalk. I breathed in and some kind of dust sucked into my lungs, making me cough. I forgot the hand and rolled to my elbows, hacking into the street, and the sudden motion brought me back into a glimmer of sanity.
Pills. Swallow. It was all dry grit on my tongue, but I slathered as much saliva as I could and gulped down the thin paste. Gagged. CONSUME. Swallowed again. My brethren were close. Gotta warn Jennie. Have to join them. I could feel them coming as if they were a part of me, streaming out of all the dark shops and stores. I squinted when they squinted in the sudden light, saw Jennie and me and Rivet as if through their eyes. Jennie was an old, and must die. Of course, it was so clear. Jennie is an abomination. She must be rendered. Nothing must remain.
I lunged out at Jennie’s ankle, but the bitch was too quick and skipped away, then kicked me in the head. I couldn’t come to grips with myself, my body felt foreign, alien, robotic. Useless. Why was my mouth so dry? I spit, snarled. Rose to my feet. The old was in front of me. It held a knife, no matter. Consume the flesh. Live in Vitala. I am one. Behind the old, another of my brethren stood and reached out. The old was unaware. It focused on my approach. Jabbed with the knife. I felt none of it. Hunger, nothing more. Hunger to rend the abomination. Only then will I be sated.
Another flash cut across my vision, and this time I did fall back. A searing pain tore through my side. I touched the pain and saw blood on my hands, brought my finger to my lips, licked it. Then spat it out. Fuck, what was I doing? The clouds rolled away from the sun and heat coursed back into me.
Jennie… The thought was frantic but slurred, far away. The old (Jennie!) jabbed at me with the knife just as my brethren (It’s Rivet, shithead!) clamped his hands down on her shoulders and sunk his teeth into her bicep. She screamed, shrill and piercing, and the sound carried me swooning out of the abyss.
Oh shit, Jennie! I lurched forward to stop Rivet. More brethren—zombies, not my fucking brethren, why did I think that?—were stumbling down River in our direction, some running, others jerking spastically, as if unsure how their limbs worked. I caught Jennie on the arm and she screamed again.
“Get off me, fucker!” She slashed out with the knife and I barely deflected it from its collision course with my neck.
“Issme, Jennie. Issme. It’sme. Fuck! It’s me.” Why was it so hard to talk? Jennie stared at me, wide-eyed, judging, making a split-second decision, then turned away from me and shoved Rivet back. His teeth ripped the fabric on her shirt, but he hadn’t gotten a solid hold on her arm. She cocked the hand with the knife, but I caught it before she could plunge it into Rivet’s chest.
“Give’m time,” I said. “You dose him too?”
“Of course I fucking dosed him. Dosed you too, before you tried to eat me.”
“It’s the drugs. It takes a few minutes. He swallow?” My head was clearing like the burn-off of a thick morning mist. I looked down the street, sucked in a breath. At least twenty of them, the closest just a few dozen steps away. I knelt and scooped up my axe from the pavement. Hefted it, felt the weight.
I’d never been much of a lumberjack, but now was as good a time as any to practice. My earlier reservations didn’t seem as important as they had. Maybe my head was still reeling from nearly crossing over, or maybe the quick-release hydrocodone Jennie had fed me was affecting my judgement. Suddenly, I wanted these things to die.
“He swallow?” I repeated urgently.
“Yes! Yes…I think so.” She grunted and I glanced over to see Rivet locking his fingers over her neck. I rammed the blunt edge of the axe handle into Rivet’s forehead. He stumbled back as if he’d been shot. I reared back again, but the axe caught on something.
“Don’t kill him,” I shouted. “Feed him again. I’ll keep them off you.”
I swiveled to see the zombie that had caught the axe head. “Oh, Christ,” I murmured. It was old, white-haired Mr. Collins, my former boss at the hardware store. His eyes were milky pink in the bright sunlight, and he held the axe tightly up in front of his gaunt face.
I rammed it forward against his nose and heard the gristly cartilage snap out of place. He moaned and let go of the axe. I let the steel head drop without thinking, then used the weight to carry it around in a full circle that came back around on the top of his head. The tapered blade bit through three inches of skull before coming to a stop and, almost as an afterthought, a thick rivulet of soupy blood bubbled up out of the gash and ran down his forehead.
I stumbled back, horrified at the sight. The blood continued to run, as if pumped by an underwater spring that disgorged itself through this fallen man’s body. It was inconceivable that he carried that much inside him.
But I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Even as Mr. Collins fell, I heaved the axe free with a gutwrenching schlurrp and swung it sidearm at the zombie stumbling up behind him, thanking the holy hosts that I didn’t recognize him. The axe struck him dead at the crease where his neck became a shoulder, but the blade was too dull to go through the soft tissue. It bounced away, and the impact sent the zombie sprawling sideways. Its head cracked the road, and I skipped closer and heaved all my weight into the downward swing, intent on putting the blade through his ear. At the last millisecond, though, just before the axe crunched through his skull and split the top half away in a shower of red and white, jigsaw bone shards, leaving his heart to pump away the rest of his blood onto the street, I heaved my shoulders sideways and let the axe blade skip into the pavement.
The impact jarred my arms, made my bones ring. The zombie gasped up at me, blood pooling under its matted hair from where it had struck the asphalt surface. It grasped my ankle weakly, unable to lift its head, just reaching, scrambling, peripherally blind, drawn to my flesh by some force it didn’t understand. All it knew was that it must kill me. I was an old, an abomination. I backed away from it, watched its chest heave, each breath forcing unyielding tissue against sticky phlegm, rasping, clawing, rasping. I watched it languish in the agony of a death that would not come.
These were just the first arrivals, the fastest. I could hear the others shambling toward me, still distant, but closing the gap.
“How’s it going back there?” I called over my shoulder, and I nearly cried when I heard Rivet say thickly, “Walk in the park, Rayman.”
I risked a glance. He was sitting on the pavement, staring at the ground and shaking his head. Jennie knelt next to him, urging him up.
“Gonna need some help,” I said, turning back to the approaching zombies. They were twenty, thirty feet away. “This is a three-man job.”
“Two-man,” said Jennie, coming up beside me. She’d pulled the fireplace poker out of Rivet’s belt, leaving him with the shovel. “And one hell of a woman.” She held out her hand. There were two Vicodins in her outstretched palm. I plucked them up and dry-swallowed. Sugar never tasted so good.
“Quick thinking back there,” I said, looking at her. “I owe you one.”
She wrinkled her nose, then tucked the poker between her thighs and pulled an elastic hair band off her wrist.
“Make that a thousand and we’ve got a deal,” she said, scrunching her brown hair back into a ponytail.
“Deal,” I said, forcing a smile. On the other side of Jennie, Rivet shuffled up, then dipped back and returned with the shovel. “Let’s kick some zombie ass,” he said.
“Let’s,” Jennie agreed, and rammed the fire poker through the soft part of someone’s stomach.
WE EVENTUALLY figured out there’s a learning curve to being a zombie. See, at first, you don’t know what the hell’s going on. Something’s shouting in your head about Vitala, your hands and feet feel a million miles away, random things in your body are shutting down, and you’re stuck doing this clumsy shuffle that only takes you right to the business end of an axe or a bullet or whatever the junkheads feel like slinging at you that day. Some people take longer to get past that than others. Some people never really do. Imperfect programming maybe, who knows.
Eventually, you get the hang of it, figure out how to move like normal. At least, I figure that’s what it is. I’ve never gone that far, and I don’t ever mean to. I think of it like driving the same car all your life, then switching to a different style. You’ve got all the muscle memory for the first car, so there’s a whole bunch of little things that don’t do quite what they’re supposed to in the shiny new one. But you learn. The zombies, they learn.
Mr. Collins was sharp as a tack, and I knew he wouldn’t touch a Tylenol if his feet were chopped off, let alone anything stronger. When that first wave hit, when it hit Rivet in my living room and he bit Jennie’s ear off, old Mr. Collins must have gone over like a slip in the bathtub. All while we were killing Janet Wazowski, trying to figure out what was happening, eating Lean Cuisines out west of town, Mr. Collins was learning the zombification way, breaking in that new car, so to speak.
So when we got there, he was already close to a runner. Not a full-on sprinter, but fast. The guy behind him, probably the same story.
The rest of them, either dumber than shit or just had a tooth pulled or sneaking a toke behind the back exit, so they didn’t turn so fast. My money was on all three. There wasn’t much else you could count on in Jericho Hill. Either because they’d gone over later or couldn’t figure out how their shambly new bodies worked, they were a lot slower, and a lot easier to kill.
I saw four or five form up in a line to take turns letting Jennie whack the shit out of them with the poker. Rivet started working some half-cocked Crouching Tiger moves into his sacred shovel technique, then he just bashed and hacked, hacked and bashed, getting wetter and wetter.
Blood is a terrible thing.
You ever watched a cigarette butt burning out in an ashtray? Your brain’s lit from some fresh powder—not Foley’s tar shit, but the real primo, powder so clean you can see the little crystals melting away in the spoon, stuff a guy like me stumbles across once in a lifetime—and you’re sinking in, so deep you can’t move to get the shoelace off your arm, let alone reach out for the cig you left burning in the ashtray, and the smoke is rolling up in a lacy spiral, real lazy, silver and gold, just floating and twisting, and even though you’re trying, you know there’s no drug in the world that could make you as free as that little twist of smoke is at that moment, unbound, untethered, splitting and spinning and twisting into a hundred versions of itself, each one uniquely and beautifully different, a diaphanous creature born of air currents so soft they barely exist, spiraling toward the ceiling. Endless.
Blood’s like that. Primal. Untethered.
It forms its own patterns in the air. Some blood mists, the particles too fine to coalesce. Other times it’s a gush, sputtery and thick. It catches the light in unexpected ways, glistening and refracting, blood rainbows prettier than an oil slick. And always different. No human skull breaks exactly the same. The contours are different, changing the faultlines and points of fracture. Some skulls crack, others implode. Sometimes your axe blade hits on a dull edge and forces just enough pressure into the cranium to burst it out the other side in a dynamite geyser. Skull cavitation.
Rivet hitched up beside me, puffing, looking like modern art where the only paint left was red. He’d forgotten he was mad at me, because he draped an arm over my shoulders, propped his shovel against his chest, and lifted his safety goggles to his forehead. There was a raccoon-patch of clear skin around his eyes.
“Lot of juice in these fuckers,” he said casually, with the jaded air of a construction worker on a smoke break. We watched in silence as Jennie punctured an old lady’s jugular with the sharp end of her fire poker. The black iron burst from the back of the woman’s neck, and when Jennie jerked it back, the recurved part caught like a fishhook and tugged the woman forward. Jennie swung the old lady around in a complete circle, then yanked back hard and tore the poker free. The left half of the woman’s neck ripped away with it, leaving a concave opening from her chin to her shoulder blade. Her blood was the gushing variety. The old woman fell to the ground like an unloved doll and Jennie turned to see us watching. She waved, and Rivet whistled.
“She looks like Carrie,” I said.
“She looks sexy as shit,” said Rivet.
“If that’s your thing,” I said. “We need to get moving. These slow ones, we can just work around.” There were only five zombies left on the street that I could see. They shuffled up slower than the rest, mostly elderly, one missing his dentures, gnashing gums. They’d be a cinch to avoid.
“Yeah, let’s get going. Jen!” he called. “Come on, hun.”
Jennie took a leaping swing at the toothless guy, shattering his cheekbone, then trotted over to us. She was breathing hard.
“This is better than zumba. Sickening, but what a workout!”
“Get over here, slayer,” Rivet pulled Jennie to him and kissed her. Jennie made a halfhearted attempt to push away, but I could tell she enjoyed it.
“Ew, Rivet. The blood.”
“We’re moving on,” Rivet said. We skipped around the last four zombies and trotted into town. We were already close; as we’d fought, we’d steadily worked our way about half a block up River, so the drugstore was now visible on the right. Rivet was in the lead, followed by Jennie and then me. Another stag worked its way across the hardware store parking lot, but we ignored it. We’d be in and out before it even reached us. The door was propped open, and I could see a cigarette stand through the display windows. I knew where I was going first.
As Rivet trotted past the cars parked outside Dinkins, an explosive boom rang out across the quiet town. The window of the car beside Rivet shattered, and he ducked instinctively. Another gunshot, so loud it left my ears ringing, and I swear I felt the air shake as a bullet ripped past me.
“What the hell?” Rivet yelled.
“Turn around!” shouted a deep voice. It sounded like it was coming from inside Dinkins.
“What’s it matter to you?” Rivet challenged. He was hunkered down beside a bright yellow Chevy. Gummy safety glass from the shattered window littered the ground at his feet. Jennie and I huddled behind the rear fender of a black sedan right beside him.
“I said turn around,” the voice called again. “Ain’t nothing for you here.”
“Mr. Dinkins?” I shouted. “It’s Ray. From the hardware store? I sold you your gutters.”
“I seen you, kid. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will you come any closer. Turn around and live your life.” His words rolled out in a rapid-fire slur.
“Son of a bitch got into his own stash!” Rivet cried. “Never trust a pharmacist.”
“We don’t mean any harm,” I called, “but we need your help.”
“Ain’t got no help to give,” Dinkins said.
“You do. You know you do. We won’t come in, I promise. But just throw us something. We’ll leave you alone.”
“Like hell we will,” Rivet muttered darkly. On hands and knees, he scooted around the back of the yellow Chevy, paused, then leaped across the gap between the Chevy and the next car down the line like a feral cat. Instantly, thunder roared and a metal slug pinged off the fender of the Chevy.
“Whatever you’re trying out there, it won’t work. Now back the fuck away before my aim gets better. Life don’t need to end here.”
“I don’t know if you’ve seen, but there’s not a shit ton of life out here,” Jennie shouted.
“Nice try, sweet thing. I seen this movie in the seventies. One gets in, they all get in. You won’t sway me with your bouncy teets. I ain’t swung that way in years.”
“You better hope you don’t run out of ammo, creep,” Jennie shot back. To me, she mouthed, what the fuck?
“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s…Rivet! Where are you?” He’d disappeared. “Shit.” The stag from the hardware store parking lot was halfway across the street, loping with one leg dragging lame behind him. Three more came out of the courthouse next to it. They were wearing smart pantsuits and ponytails, legal secretaries. Old Judge Mathers loped out behind them, blood caked to the front of his officiating robe. He leaped the curb with a gutteral shriek and made a beeline for us. We’d be trapped in a few seconds.
“Can we…” Fuck, how do I even ask this? “…can we kill these zombies real quick?” I shouted. “Without you shooting us?” In reply, two gunshots rang out of the pharmacy and both of Judge Mathers’s kneecaps exploded neatly under his flowing robe. He pitched forward and began to crawl, leaving a long red stain on the road behind him.
“You have to shoot their heads,” I called. Pause. “I think.”
Another shot. The judge’s head unplugged at the top, spritzing the double yellow lines in the middle of the street. He lay still. Dinkins began to laugh.
“Good sightin’, son,” Dinkins cackled. “Been a few years since ‘Nam, but this old fag ain’t forgot how to sling lead. Call ‘em out for me—hey! How the fuck’d you…ahhh!”
“Get in here, Ray!” Rivet’s voice shouted. “Help me with him.”
RIVET WAS sitting on Mr. Dinkins’s back beside a spilled dispay stand full of condoms when we got into the pharmacy. He had the old man’s arms wrenched up under his knees, pinning them to the small of Dinkins’s back. Dinkins was kicking and hollering, and Rivet sported a cheesy grin.
“Sorry about this, sir,” I said. I meant it; he looked like he’d been enjoying himself. He was wearing an old army uniform that looked like it hadn’t seen daylight in a decade, and every now and then, he eyed a long, wood-stock rifle that lay on the floor a few feet away from his head. A short, silver blade was fixed firmly under its barrel. A fucking bayonet. Behind me, a little bell chimed as Jennie shut the front door and locked it.
“Sorry my ass,” Dinkins spit. “Sorry means you didn’t intend to do what you did. Since you clearly intended to rob me, I refuse to accept your apology as legitimate. In fact, current evidence allows me to speculate that you still intend to relieve me of my medical supplies, in which case your inane apology is doubly moronic. So save your sorries for someone who wants ‘em. If you really wanted to help, you’d get your greasy friend off my back.”
“Talker, isn’t he,” Rivet said. “You been into the Ritalin?”
“I take aspirin for my back, as if it’s any of your business,” Dinkins said. His face was getting splotchy from struggling against Rivet’s weight, and his sweaty, ear-length gray hair flopped over his forehead.
“If my apology was bullshit,” I said, squatting in front of him, “then that excuse is still dripping from the bull’s ass.”
“What’s your drift?” Dinkins looked confused.
“You haven’t figured out how it works yet?” Rivet asked.
“They’re still coming over here,” Jennie said. She was standing by the display window, watching the three secretaries shamble between the parked cars outside.
“Let’s get to the back. Maybe they’ll forget about us. You got a back?” I directed the last at Dinkins.
“Of course he does,” Rivet interjected. “How do you think I got in?”
I bent to pick up Dinkins’s rifle from the floor with one hand, the axe held loosely in the other. It was heavier than it looked, with dark brown wood grain running from the stock along the underside of the barrel. I got the feeling that it was older than it looked, too.
“Can we let you up?” I asked Dinkins.
“I was about to ask the same thing,” he snapped.
“I mean, can we trust you?”
“ ‘Bout as far as you can throw me,” he said. “But yeah, I won’t try anything.”
I looked at Jennie. She shrugged. Then Rivet. A heavy hand thumped against the pane glass in front. I looked to see a disheveled brunette woman looking in, mouth agape, eyes pink.
“I guess we don’t really have a choice,” I said. Rivet sighed and stood up. Mr. Dinkins groaned and stretched his arms out in front of him, working his fingers open and closed, then lifted himself to his knees and arched his back like a kitten, first up, then down, cracking the vertebrae. He let out a sigh of satisfaction and mumbled, “Yeah, there it is. Okay, hoof!” Watching him stand was like watching a dry creek bed erode. First a knee, then a creaking, tottering foot, repeat with the other side, straighten the legs a century later, unbend the back. Finally, he reached his feet.
“Spry as I ever was,” he winked at Jennie.
“How do you get out of bed?” Rivet asked incredulously.
“Usually there aren’t young men tackling me in bed,” he said cynically. “Although there was a time…” This time, he winked at me. I actually laughed. I kind of liked the old guy.
“Go on,” I said, gesturing with the rifle. He stretched his legs once more, then moved surprisingly quickly toward the back of the store. I walked right behind him. Jennie followed. Rivet began sloping through the aisles.
The pharmacy sold more than drugs. The main floor had six or seven aisles that sold makeup, toiletries, toothpaste, shampoo, over-the-counter syrups and tabs for coughs and colds. That kind of stuff. At the rear, where Mr. Dinkins, Jennie, and I went, was the pharmacist’s counter, and behind that, Valhalla.
Plastic orange bottles and little white paper baggies lined shelves that ran from floor to ceiling. Locked glass cases held still more bottles. They glittered like bars of gold, welcoming us into their midst.
“Jackpot,” Jennie said. Dinkins shot her a look.
“Goddamn junkies,” he said, “A time like this, and this is all you can think about?”
“This is all that matters,” I said. “Have you wondered yet why you’re still normal while everyone else turned into a zombie?”
“Been too busy taking ‘em out with that gook bazooka in your hands to worry about it,” Dinkins admitted. “Isn’t there a virus or something? Figured I was fine as long as none of the shits bit me.” He lifted a section of the pharmacists counter on hinges and walked through, then sank into a rolling office chair on the other side. He watched bitterly as Jennie tucked her fire poker into her belt and started picking through the bottles.
“What have you been taking?” I asked Dinkins, leaning against the counter and resting my axe on the floor beside me. I placed the rifle on the counter’s fake granite surface.
“Aspirin,” Dinkins said. “What’s it matter what I’ve been taking?” His eyes shifted to the left, nervous.
“Listen, Mr. Dinkins. You don’t have to worry about it anymore. Nobody’s coming to investigate. I know you’re taking something else, otherwise you’d be like those things right now. Whatever it is, it’s why you’re still alive.”
Dinkins insisted. “I’m telling you, I’m not.”
“You know what all this is, Ray?” Jennie asked, stepping up with several translucent orange bottles crammed between her fingers. She dropped them on the counter. “I got the obvious, oxy, Vics, Percs, but there’s got to be a ton more stuff we can use.”
“Should find some morphine, maybe even fentanyl, and look for dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate. Adderall and Ritalin, but they may be generics. Might try lisdexamfetamine, too. Diazepam, clonozepam, alprazolam…anything that ends in “pam” or “lam,” might as well take those, although I don’t know if they work. We’ll have to put together some kind of benzodiazepine test. Also…” I turned to Dinkins. “You do vet meds?” Back to Jennie. “Look for ketamine. Probably in that locked case over there, if he has it. Look for a little picture of a horse.”
“Jesus, Ray,” Jennie said, then went back to scanning the shelves.
Dinkins was watching me. “You go to school, kid?”
“I mean college. How do you know so much about drugs?”
“Practice.” I shrugged, turned to Jennie. She looked lost. “I got it,” I told her, picking up the rifle and walking over. “You keep an eye on Dinkins.”
“Christ, thank you. These labels are making my eyes squirm.”
She took the rifle and walked back to Dinkins just as Rivet came over and dumped a bunch of cough syrup bottles onto the counter.
“Pink gold,” he declared happily. “Bottled comas, made to order.” He scanned the pile of bottles already on the counter and smiled even more broadly. “This apocalypse is going to be a fucking blast.”
“Robbing from an old man,” Dinkins glowered. “I hope you’re…proud of yourself.”
I froze, my back to them.
“Hope…of yourself,” Dinkins said thickly.
“Hold him down,” I yelled, skipping the few steps to the scattered drugs on the counter. I plucked up one, screwed off the child-safety lid, and dropped two tablets into my palm.
Nobody else had moved. Dinkins shut his eyes. “Fucking hold him!” I said. I gripped him by the chin and shoved the two pills into his mouth.
“…hell off of me!” Dinkins yelled, spitting the tablets at me. “What was that? What’re you trying to do to me?”
“Swallow it, Mr. Dinkins,” I urged. “Come on, you still have time.” Jennie moved behind him and grabbed his arms, but he jerked free.
“Time for what?” he snapped.
“Time to stay human.” I shook out four more pills and jammed them into his mouth before he could snap it shut, then held it closed for him and pinched his nose shut. Jennie got ahold of his arms again. Dinkins’s face grew panicked as he tried to breathe. His eyes bulged.
“Swallow!” I demanded. He shook his head violently against my grip. “Swallow before you suffocate.” He blinked slowly, and his eyes went from clear to bloodshot. Stubborn son of a bitch! Finally, his Adam’s apple bobbed and I heard the slurp of saliva slide down his throat. I let him go. He reeled back, gagging, and Jennie released his arms. Rivet was just watching the whole scene like it was part of a movie.
Dinkins moved to stick his finger down his throat, trying to activate his gag reflex to vomit the pills he’d just swallowed, but I was waiting for it. Fast as a wink, I snagged his wrist.
“What the fuck did you…oh, shit, what is that? It’s so dark…blood…” Dinkins sagged in my grasp, and I let him go. It’d be a hellish few minutes, but he’d be fine. Then I glanced at the label on the open bottle on the counter and caught my breath. Shit. Maybe. I’d just crammed him full of triazolam, a drug used to treat severe insomnia. Duration: 10 hours or more. Onset: Rapid. Recommended dose: One .25-milligram pill. In extreme cases, two.
And I’d given him four. I looked sharply at Dinkins. His eyes were closed and he was still caught in the darkness mumbles. In about 10 minutes, he’d probably be out cold. From there, he’d either sleep until morning or, at his age, stop breathing completely. Or, hell, he could still turn into a zombie. Looks like we had our benzo test subject right here.
Most ways you looked at it, he was a dead man. Life was too fucking fragile these days.
“You look like you saw a ghost, Ray,” said Jennie.
“It’s nothing,” I lied. “Nothing.”
Just then, somebody outside screamed, and the glass window at the front of the pharmacy shattered.
I WATCHED the glass pieces fall as if they were snowflakes, twisting in the air to catch the sun in a brilliant arc and then winking to bronze, spinning, tumbling, a glimmering cascade of dying beauty, jewels tumbling from the heavens while the rot of hell pierced the veil.
The first zombie, the one who’d presumably broken the window, stepped barefoot onto the glass shards. It was one of the secretaries from the courthouse. Her teeth did a little jittering dance in her half-open mouth, like she was freezing and trying to suck in icy breaths. Her feet began to leave red prints on the pharmacy floor. I didn’t know why the hell she was barefoot. Maybe she took her heels off at the desk to keep her feet from getting sore during the day.
Behind her, the two other pantsuited zombie ladies staggered through the gaping window frame, then the trotter from the hardware store parking lot, and…oh, goddammit…a little boy, maybe twelve years old, wearing a torn Orioles jersey and a pair of baggy khaki shorts drenched in blood. His lips were pulled back in a sinister, leering grin that looked carved onto his face, and he had a spongey loop of gore-soaked intestines in his hand.
“Grab the shit!” I yelled, scooping medicine into my backpack. Rivet yanked the rifle out of Jennie’s hands. Jennie unslung her pack and held it down at the level of the counter and swiped a wide armload of bottles into its open mouth. Plastic tubes pattered and bounced on the floor, little green and yellow and white and pink pills clattering in all of them. The open bottle of triazolam tipped over and sent a cascade of sky-blue ovals over the edge of the counter. Dinkins watched us all with half-shut lids, his lips quivering.
The hardware store zombie, a thin, bearded man with a baseball cap askew over thick, curly brown hair, bumped into a magazine stand and sent issues of People and Time sprawling over the tile floor. Rivet raised the rifle barrel, sighted, and pulled the trigger. I barely heard the tiny click among the echoing rattle of medicine bottles. Rivet swore and tried again.
“Take off the safety, shithead,” Jennie shouted over her shoulder. She was on her knees, stuffing fistfulls of fallen prescription bottles into her backpack.
“I did! I did!”
“Did you cock it?”
“Of course I fucking…” There was a rasping sound of metal slipping over metal, then an ear-splitting thunder clap. The rifle barrel jerked up in Rivet’s hands, and somehow, like the random details you remember from a dream, I saw a miniscule puff of dirt rise out of the lawn in front of the courthouse across the street.
“Missed!” I called.
“Thank you,” Rivet’s voice held enough sarcasm to dam the Mississipi. He pulled on the metal knob in the side of the rifle, ejecting a long brass tube. He pushed the slide back and barely took time to aim before he deafened us again. I felt like I was standing inside a massive bell while mighty Goliath whacked it with a sledgehammer. Beside the little boy, a bottle of shampoo exploded.
My ears were ringing with a constant, high-pitched whine, I was shouting something, couldn’t hear myself, Jennie shouting too, yanking the rifle out of Rivet’s hands, bayonet blade flashing. Mr. Dinkins slumped sideways, offsetting his center of gravity and sending the wheeled chair shooting away. He dropped heavily to the floor. Jennie had the rifle now. Rivet was arguing. I couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a damn thing, and then Jennie fired it again and the brunette secretary’s neck erupted in three directions like a watermelon. The woman’s head sagged to the side, down behind her shoulder, a rapidly deflating ballon. I could see a jagged shard of her spine sticking straight up between her shoulders, and she kept walking toward us, blood cascading down the front of her shirt, head still attached but hanging so far behind her it wasn’t even visible from the front.
Jennie raised the rifle again, took a slow breath, squeezed the trigger. The woman’s left breast spewed blood and the dangling head behind her shoulder blades swung up, over her shoulders, a tetherball on a flap of skin, with a small, neat hole in the left cheek and a gaping chasm over the left ear where the bullet had disintegrated in her skull and sent shards of metal screaming out through the bone plate. The woman crumpled with one foot still in the air for her next step.
Jennie lowered the rifle barrel with the butt still pressed to her shoulder, observing her handiwork with a calm, satisfied air. A gust of wind swept through the shattered front window and swept her auburn hair back off her shoulders, revealing the graceful curve of her neck, her slight jawbone, her glowing white skin remarkably unblemished by the blood that covered the rest of her body. Reflected sunlight lit up her face in a wash of silver, piercing her eyes, lighting up the speckled green-brown of her irises as if a hot fire burned bright just behind her soft brows.
God damnit, that girl was beautiful.
Jennie turned and saw me staring. I hadn’t realized I was. She wrinkled her nose and smiled with one side of her mouth and said, “What?”
I stuttered something unintelligible, my mind emptier than the distance between planets, suddenly reduced to an imbecile who couldn’t even form words. Jennie cocked her head and looked at me strangely, then Rivet’s heavy hand was yanking on my shoulder and we were in a pharmacy again and my ears were ringing and zombies were shambling over scattered housewares to eat us alive.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.
“We’re taking Dinkins,” I said abruptly.
“Like hell we are.” His backpack rattled as he slung it to his shoulders, but the sound was drowned out as Jennie fired again and the bearded man half-somersaulted backward in a fountain of his own life. She dropped the rifle and ran over to us, scooping her own filled backpack off the counter and onto one shoulder as she moved.
“Where’s that back door?” she asked Rivet.
“This way. Come on, Ray.”
“Not without Dinkins.” I knelt beside the old man. He looked like a bizarre wax doll escaped from a museum in his pressed, antique military uniform, face sallow and still. I held my face over his nose and felt the thinnest push of air. Still alive. Unbidden, the memory rose from the mire of my mind, like a corpse dredged from a muddy riverbank. Leaning over a face, calm and still, feeling for breath that had to be there, it had to be. Weeping when it was, just a hot trickle on my cheek.
“Fuck him, Ray!” Rivet protested. “He tried to shoot us.”
A metal shelf rattled somewhere beyond the counter. It sounded close. The wet sound of rolling phlegm, the staccato clatter of teeth on teeth, carried over to us.
“Jesus,” I heard Rivet say, followed by a hollow click. They both swore.
“Out,” Jennie shouted.
I gripped Mr. Dinkins under his armpits and started dragging him across the floor. His slight body slid easily on the tile.
“Shit, my shovel,” Rivet said. “I left it out there.”
“Take this,” Jennie said, indicating either the poker or the rifle. I was focused on Dinkins.
“Nah, this’ll do.” Metal scraped briefly on tile. “Not like Ray’s using it.”
Dinkins began to snore. It was a good sign. Even better would be…I took a precious second to scan the shelves beside me. I could hear Rivet and Jennie walking away behind me, down the length of the narrow aisle behind the counter. Opposite the counter, a metal shelf tumbled, and someone—something—shrieked in rage.
“There’s a storage room back here, and a door out,” Rivet was explaining. “Dammit, Ray, come on!”
Come on, come on, come on…there! I spied a small plastic-wrapped syringe and shoved it into my pocket, then gripped Dinkins again and heaved. Something swished on my right, fabric sliding on something hard. Jennie spit a warning, and a pair of scissors sliced into my shoulder. I cried out and slapped at the pain with one hand. My fingers closed on something wet and round and hairy. I twisted my head and saw a small, sideways face leering inches away, its tiny pearl teeth sunk deep into my shoulder, its little pink eyes so high in their sockets they were almost blank, staring up at me.
The boy shook his head like a rottweiler. Muscle tissue ripped. Spasms of agony shot down my arm. I tried to blank out the pain but it was too sharp, too present. It consumed the right half of my body. The boy’s thin upper lip worked up and down, exposing glistening gums. I was so close I could see the root bulges of the teeth under the pink. His small hands clawed at my face. I couldn’t get a grip on him, couldn’t push him away. His nostrils flared. His teeth sank deeper, sparking fire-brand pangs on my tortured nerve ends.
Then something flashed just behind him and the weight of the boy was gone. I’d been struggling away from him, pulling back unconsciously, and the sudden freedom pitched me into the row of shelves. Orange cylinders fell around me like hail. Gasping, I saw a round stump filled with gristle and pumping tissue on the faux-granite countertop, sending a Niagra of blood down the white drawers set into its rear.
“F-f-fu…” I stammered.
“Hold still, Ray,” Jennie’s voice came to me through a heavy mist. “This is going to hurt.” I felt pressure on my right shoulder, then the sensation of sandpaper scraping my wound. Dimly, fingers pulling back on teeth, and then Jennie had a little boy’s decapitated head in her hands. Behind her, Rivet’s blurred form swung the axe at something beyond the counter.
Whatever shock had faded reality for those brief seconds burned away and I gasped as pain came flooding back into my shoulder. I flexed my fingers, lifted my arm. Everything still worked. Jesus, it hurt, but it worked.
“Go,” I croaked, then said it louder. “Go.” I rolled and grabbed Dinkins again, pulling mostly with my left hand. The deluge pouring from the boy’s headless body slowed to a river, then a stream. The tile floor was slick with his blood. My feet slid out, dropping me onto my ass, and I pushed against the shelves, the drawer handles, scooting backward, dragging Dinkins with me. Rivet stepped over us so we could pass and swung again. A piercing howl filled the pharmacy, and Rivet roared back. Jennie stabbed at something with the bayonet, then slung the rifle over her shoulder and lifted Dinkins’s feet. The old man had begun to snore.
With Jennie lifting some of Dinkins’s weight, I was able to scramble to my feet. Together, we carried him to the end of the aisle and into the dark storage room at the back. His body was limp and uncooperative. My right hand gave out and I nearly dropped him, but somehow I managed to catch his shoulder again and keep stumbling backward. Through the narrow doorway to the pharmacy, I could see Rivet swinging wildly with the axe. Two sets of hands reached for him. He shoved them away, swung again, then turned and sprinted after us.
“…get us fucking killed, Ray,” he muttered angrily as he shot past. Then an emergency bar clinked and sunlight streamed into the storage room on the wings of a hot breeze. Jennie and I pushed through, Dinkins snoring peacefully between us. The last thing I saw before the heavy door swung shut behind us was a bloodstained secretary clambering over the countertop and crawling toward the storage room.
“IT’S IRRESPONSIBLE. Idiotic. This isn’t about you and your heroic delusions, Ray. It’s about all of us. It’s about staying alive. How are we supposed to fucking do that if you keep forcing us to wait while you try to save everyone you meet? Huh? Fucking answer me that. What about us? Don’t we matter?”
Rivet was pacing in front of me, shouting and twisting his earring. Now and then he paused and illustrated a point by shaking a finger at me, then went back to wearing a groove in the beige carpet. I sat on the padded armrest of a paisley sofa and watched him, trying to work in an explanation, but Rivet never paused long enough to get a sentence out. Mr. Dinkins reclined on the sofa beside me, his head propped up on a pillow, breathing shallowly but steadily. I checked his pulse every few minutes, making sure he didn’t slip away under the heavy sedatives. On my other side, close at hand on the small end table, was the epinephrine syringe I’d grabbed in the pharmacy. I’d already unwrapped it so it would be ready at the first sign of respiratory failure.
“It’s naive more than anything,” Rivet continued berating me. Titan scooted out of the way of his stomping feet. He ignored the cat. “You know as well as I do that you never check to see if the fucking zombie is okay. Think for once in your life. That’s all I’m asking. Think. Use that chickenshit brain. Hell, we planned for this, didn’t we? What about all the times we talked about killing zombies for real? Don’t remember saving the psycho war vets in there anywhere, do you? We grew up ready for this. We’re living it, Ray. Dream come fucking true.”
We’d gone overboard after getting back to the abandoned house where we’d left our food. Way overboard. But it was deserved. We’d all agreed on that. I was swinging low on a handful of oxys, the bite of my shoulder dulled to a slow, manageable throb. I couldn’t even feel the gash on my chest unless I took an extra deep breath, but narcotics had a pleasurable way of dissuading you from deep breathing. For the first time since that morning, I felt in control. It was hard to believe that all of this had started just a few hours ago. It seemed like a lifetime since I’d woken up in my own bed to the sound of Rivet shouting downstairs.
Rivet had gone the other way, speedballing Adderall and Percocet. His movements were becoming more erratic as the amphetamines soaked into his blood, punctuating his anger with spots of pure rage. The sun had set, and candlelight gave a demonic cast to his face. I didn’t get why he was so pissed, why trying to help someone offended him so much. It was getting on my nerves more than a little bit. He wouldn’t shut up about it, just kept ranting, repeating himself, pushing himself into my face and then going back to pacing.
I glanced down at Mr. Dinkins. Felt the pulse, faint but present, in his neck. Maybe Rivet was right. Why did I want to keep this guy alive so badly that I’d put my best friends in danger to do it? Was it merely a buried impulse of humanity, loyalty to a fellow member of the tribe? No…tribalism was a tenet to which I’d never ascribed. I’d always been a loner. Born ten thousand years earlier, I would have been tribeless. Outcast. Doomed to a lonely death without the protection afforded by numbers. In the earliest days, mankind had grown into a tribal society by sheer necessity, and even in the emotionally disconnected modern world, our actions were still dictated by the need to gather, to coalesce, to share. Was that the way of man, or something vestigial our DNA hadn’t yet learned how to cast off? Was communalism the emotional equivalent of a tailbone? It certainly seemed like it.
So why was it impossible for me to let Mr. Dinkins die? Not mercy—it would have been much easier to simply slit his throat and leave him. Perhaps that would have been an even greater mercy than dragging him into the bleak and unknown future that faced us. I had no answers. Maybe in a past life I could have found a reason, but not now. Now, action and thought were dictated by the chemicals within me, chemicals that held me in an even tighter grip than they ever had, because I couldn’t escape them even if I wanted to. They were now as vital as water and breath. The heartland had turned me into a junkie, and the junk had, in turn, kept me chained to the heartland. Hell, it seemed, was the only escape.
Jennie poked her head into the flickering living room, then seemed to remember something and disappeared again. She’d volunteered to get everyone dinner, but it had already been thirty minutes. It didn’t matter much. I doubted anyone was hungry. I think she’d gotten into the Valium, so I didn’t harbor much hope for a decent meal anyway.
“Are you even fucking listening to me?” Rivet asked. He snapped his fingers at the bridge of my nose, then favored my cheek with a light, echoing slap. It was the last straw. I lunged off the sofa and hurled him against the wall.
“What the hell is your problem with me, Rivet?” I roared, moving forward to pin his chest with my elbow. My fist flew into the drywall beside his head, knocking a framed picture of horses to the floor. “You’re not my goddamn girlfriend. You’re not my dad. You’re not. My fucking. Mom.” I punched the wall again, deepening the depression my fist had left on the first blow. Blood pounded behind my skull, making my vision pulse. “I don’t have to answer to you, get it? If you don’t like what I do, leave. I’m not stopping you.”
Rivet’s anger drained from him in a visible rush. He stared at me, wide-eyed, face pale behind the black blotches that crowded my vision. “It’s me, Ray. It’s me. Jesus, what’s gotten into you?”
“What’s gotten into me?” I repeated. “What’s gotten into me is you crowding my balls for the last half hour. What’s gotten into me is the blood all over your fucking shirt. What’s gotten into me is the pile of human bodies we left in the middle of River. What’s gotten into me is everybody I’ve ever known turning into a goddamn cannibal in front of my eyes. What’s gotten into me is I’ll never be able to be sober again. For life. Forever, Rivet. Do you get that? Because every time I close my eyes, there’s something waiting for me. Because every time the stupid fucking party starts to end, I start to lose my mind, and one of these times, it won’t be enough, and I won’t be fast enough to stop it, and I’m going to turn into one of them. What’s gotten into me is there’s a guillotine hanging over all of our heads, and it’s never, ever going away.
“Is that enough for you, Rivet? You’re having a great time now, a grand old time, aren’t you? All the drugs in the world, waiting for us to seize them. But what’s going to happen in a week? In a month? In a year? What happens when there aren’t any more pharmacies. Are you going to laugh when you chop my head off like you did to that little boy? You gonna high-five Jennie and make a Christ-fucking pun when my blood’s soaking into your shirt? You’re talking to me about survival, but you’re still thinking about this like a fucking junkie. This is forever. And Mr. Dinkins over there, well he just might be the last living human we ever meet. So excuse me for trying to hold onto that. Life just got a lot more rare.”
I glared at him a moment longer, then shoved away and stomped back to the sofa to check Dinkins’s pulse. It was stronger. Rivet was still standing against the wall, watching me like I might transform into a rattlesnake and sink my fangs into his hand. I guess we all had a right to be suspicious when someone started acting crazy. Was this our destiny? Paranoia, constantly looking over our shoulders, waiting for our best friends to start eating us?
I listened to Mr. Dinkins breathe awhile longer, then stood up. “I’m going to bed,” I announced to no one in particular, then took a candle and made my way deeper into the strange house to find a bedroom.
THE ONLY time I can remember praying was in the hospital six years ago, but now I paused before falling asleep to thank God for putting me in a bumfuck town like Joshuah Hill. I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what was happening in the rest of the world, where people were packed in more densely. In the dark bedroom, under the itchy, unfamiliar quilt, enveloped in the heavy silence you only get miles away from civilization, it was hard to imagine anyone else still alive on the planet. There was too much horror even in our little scab of a town; what was it like in New York City, or LA, or London or Paris or Beijing?
So I thanked God that I lived in Joshuah Hill, but I wasn’t naive enough to thank Him for making me a junkie. He didn’t have shit to do with that. It had been my own choice. My own conscious choice, just like it had been my mom’s. There was no divine intervention in that, no heavenly hand guiding us to destruction. We chose our own paths to hell, and each and every one led there as sure as the tides will rise and fall.
I dreamed that it was raining bodies, and when I woke up, the sun was glaring hot and bright through the bedroom window and building vivid shadows in the corners. The strange room disoriented me for a moment, but then the previous day stitched itself back together in my mind and I shot out of bed, inducing a streak of pain in my shoulder. I grit my teeth and ignored it. What time was it? I used my left hand to awkwardly dig my phone out of my right pocket. 10 AM. Shit. I didn’t like the way the shadows looked. They were too hard, almost sinister.
I was almost sober.
Jennie reached the living room at the same time as me, each of us with the same thought. We looked at each other and wordlessly dug into my backpack. As panicked as I was, though, I only swallowed one Vicodin. It was time to start thinking forward, and I wanted my head as clear as it could be.
“You feeling okay?” I asked Jennie after she’d managed to gag down a Percocet. I opened a can of Coke from the duffel in the corner of the room and handed it to her. She took a long draft and nodded, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. She’d apparently found some clothes that fit, because she was wearing a pair of running shorts and a tight t-shirt that framed her body like a second skin. Hadn’t found a bra, it seemed.
She caught me looking and gave me that same half-smile she’d given me in the pharmacy. Embarrassed, I quickly turned my head to Mr. Dinkins, still asleep on the couch. There was no sign of Rivet.
“He was up most of the night,” Jennie said, as if reading my thoughts. “He’ll probably be out a few more hours. It was the damn Adderall.” I didn’t ask how she knew he’d been up so late. I didn’t want to know.
“He’s not…he’s still alive, right?” Jennie asked, stepping up beside me to watch Mr. Dinkins sleep. Her arm brushed mine, and I unconsciously leaned away. Jennie was about five inches shorter than me, and I could smell shampoo in her hair. Lavender. She must have bathed with some of the water bottles from the pantry. I tried not to picture it.
“Yeah, he’s alive. See his chest moving?”
“What the hell did you give him?” Jennie asked. “Strong shit.” Was it my imagination, or did she purposely move closer so our arms touched again?
The air felt too thick. I cleared my throat and said, “Triazolam. Way too much of it, but he’s not in any danger anymore.”
“What you did for him,” Jennie said softly. “It was good of you not to leave him. Most people wouldn’t have done a stranger like that.”
“I couldn’t have done it without your help,” I said. I looked down at her and she was already looking up at me. Our faces were almost touching. Her eyes were wide, alive, staring into mine. What was she thinking? Shit, what was I thinking? We stayed like that for a breathless moment, the warm living room frozen in time, and Jennie asked, “If the time came, would you do me like that?”
I broke and looked away, feeling my neck flush. “Of course,” I muttered. “I would never leave you.” My hands couldn’t find a place to rest, kept brushing my jeans, picking at my shirt. This was too much. I left Jennie in the living room and went into the adjacent kitchen. Out of sight, I leaned my forehead against the cool wall and took a deep, calming breath.
Jennie and I had dated once in high school. The relationship had lasted about a month, up until I kissed her the first time. Looking back, I think it was more of a comfort thing than anything else. We’d always been friends, so when we got to that age where our bodies were changing and the opposite sex held more appeal than it had before, we gravitated to each other naturally. She’d lived down the street from me since, well, since we were both born, I guess. I can’t really remember when she wasn’t around. But after that kiss—we never went further than that—things got awkward. She broke it off with me and I got a little bitter, but a few months later we were friends again, like we always had been.
Whatever she was doing now, if it wasn’t all in my head, was reaching out for that same comfort, nothing else. Her and Rivet got along fine when they got along, and I supported them. I wasn’t jealous. They were my two best friends, had been forever. Nothing else I could say about it. Sometimes life gels in the strangest ways, and as long as you keep rolling with it, it won’t hold you down when it finally settles.
“Better get in here, Ray,” Jennie called from the living room. I took my time, and when I got there I saw Mr. Dinkins sitting up and rubbing his head. I offered him a Vicodin and said, “If you’d rather go back to your usual, we probably have that here, too.”
Dinkins looked up at me like I was a ghost, then like I was crazy, then like I might attack him, all in about two seconds, then sighed and took the little white oval out of my palm. He stared at it, his face wearier than Methuselah’s.
“It’s for the…” Dinkins waved his hand toward the window, the outside world, the freaks somewhere beyond the glass. “…isn’t it? Keeps it out. This doesn’t work the same as that movie.”
I nodded. “Don’t ask me how, but this does the trick. Coke?” I popped a warm can from the duffel and handed it to him.
“Vitala…” Dinkins murmured, then dropped the Vicodin onto his tongue and tipped back the Coke.
I felt Jennie tense at the word. “Do you know what that is?” she asked.
Dinkins rubbed the corner of his eye, wiping away the last vestiges of sleep, then favored Jennie with a kind smile. “Funny thing to hear coming from your own brain, that’s all,” he said. “Where’s your asshole friend?”
“Rivet’s sleeping,” said Jennie. “I’m Jennifer Hartford,” she added, holding out her hand. Dinkins shook it without standing and asked, “Related to Jack Hartford?”
“Yeah! He’s my grandfather. Shit. Was my grandfather.”
“Heard he passed,” Dinkins said. “I know it’s a few years too late, but I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Did you know him?” Jennie asked.
“We did business a few times,” Dinkins said vaguely. “Good friend of mine, once upon a time. You got his stubborn streak in you, I can tell already. And his mouth.”
Jennie blushed, and Dinkins turned to me. “Suppose I oughta thank you for what you did back there,” he said.
“Anyone would have done it,” I deferred, looking away.
“Wish that were true, sonny. I really do. But the fact is, it’s a lie, and you know it as well as I do. This world moves too fast for an old-time sack of bones like me, and most would have left me to die. Or killed me outright, seeing as I was squatting in your gold mine. Sky starts raining shit like this, you see who really has the balls to keep swinging. You got ‘em, kid. Thank you.”
“It was nothing.” I tried to change the subject. “So what do we do now?”
“I could fit a kickin’ hog in my belly, for one thing,” Dinkins said, rubbing his stomach. “You punks grab any grub, or were my narcotics too heavy?”
“Hope you like canned,” Jennie said.
Rivet joined us halfway through a cold breakfast of sweet corn and peaches, eyes bloodshot as hell and still woozy from the last oxy he’d palmed before passing out. He eyed Dinkins with obvious distrust before clumping into an empty chair at the kitchen table. Titan, nose-deep in a bowl of kibble on the table, turned to him sharply.
“Clean that bowl, old man. You’re out of here before noon.”
“Rivet!” Jennie admonished. “Be nice to our guest.”
“Rayman might have a 14-karat heart, but we’re on survival rations around here and we don’t have enough to feed an extra mouth. Especially one that might keel at any moment.” He stared at Dinkins coldly.
“Jesus, Rivet,” I said. “What the fuck did you sleep on? A mattress made of dicks? Calm the fuck down and eat something. Dinkins is with us now.”
“No, no. That’s okay. I wasn’t planning on staying anyway,” Dinkins said, eyes on Rivet. “I’ve got to get over to my son’s to see how he’s doing. Besides, I got allergies.”
“Allergies?” Jennie looked confused.
“Yeah,” said the old man, still watching Rivet. “I’m allergic to cocksuckers.”
Rivet erupted and lunged across the table, upending a bowl of creamy corn and sending Titan wheeling out of the room. “The fuck you say to me?” he shouted. I leaped up and grabbed Rivet by the shoulders and hauled him off the table before he could hit Dinkins. Dinkins didn’t flinch a muscle. “Big words from the king of cock himself,” Rivet yelled. “Go on and get out. We don’t want you here.” He grabbed a can of peaches and stomped out of the room.
“Mr. Dinkins,” Jennie ignored Rivet. “It’s not safe to go out by yourself. Rivet had a long day yesterday. We all did. He’ll come around. Stay here with us for awhile.”
Dinkins smiled at her. “I got a grandbaby needs checking up on. She’ll be missing her pappy if I don’t stop in.”
“Mr. Dinkins…” I began. I didn’t know what to say. “Stay until afternoon, at least. Think about it a bit. They might not be…” Again, my mind came up blank.
“Might not be human?” Dinkins finished for me. “Don’t need to go soft around me, son. I’m tougher than most. I know the chance of them being fine aren’t much. But if I don’t check, well, what kind of pappy does that make me? It’s decided. Besides, the only other option is sitting around getting high with a group of douchebags,” he finished, still smiling. I found myself liking the old guy more and more.
“Bullshit,” said Jennie. “You’re not going. That’s decided.”
“Pack up any supplies you need.” I understood that Mr. Dinkins wouldn’t change his mind, and worse, I understood why. “Go find them. Your car’s out back. We sort of stole it to get you back here, so, uh, sorry I guess.” Dinkins chuckled. Jennie glared at me. “But listen,” I continued. “You get there and don’t find what you’re looking for, come back here. We’ll wait for you here for a couple days. If you do find it, bring them with you. There’s safety in numbers, Mr. Dinkins. Either way, we’ll expect you back.”
Dinkins chuckled again. “Wish my son had turned out like you, Raymond. You got a better heart than most. Call me Torrance.” He held out his hand. I shook it. His grip was surprisingly firm.
“We shouldn’t let him go, Ray.” Jennie said.
“We can’t stop him,” I replied. “Come on, Mr…Torrance. I’ll help you get packed up.”
I gave him my backpack from Janet Wazowski’s house. He refused to take any food, but relented to two bottles of water and a dozen Percocets. Rivet was somewhere else in the house, so Jennie and I were able to bid Dinkins goodbye at the back door in the kitchen without much ado. He grabbed the bayonet rifle, too, and when Jennie explained that it was out of ammo, he said, “Always did like the wetwork better,” and slapped Jennie lightly on the ass. Jennie looked like she might try to strangle him, but I corralled Dinkins quickly out the door.
“Remember what I said about the oxycodone,” I said as we walked to his car. “Every four hours, and better take two at once if you’re going to sleep. Don’t fuck that up. That’s only enough for two days. You sure you don’t want to take more with you? After all, it’s yours.”
“Two days is aplenty, Raymond,” Dinkins said, turning to me as we reached to dusty old Impala parked in the middle of the yard. “I’ll be back, you can count on that. You never did tell me how you know what you do about medicine. That’s a story I aim to hear.” He tossed the backpack and the rifle into passenger seat and climbed inside. He rolled down the window and brushed a shock of gray hair off his forehead. “You told me to think about this earlier, and I’m going to say the same thing to you now. Think about this, son. Start thinking for the future. You can’t steal drugs from old men forever.”
Without another word, Torrance Dinkins drove off, leaving a plume of dust across the dry lawn.
I thought he might just be the last human I ever saw alive. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The end of the world had just begun.
THE DREAMS OF FEAR SERIES CONTINUES
It came at you first like an unexpected chill breeze on a warm day, the kind that makes you wrap your arms around yourself and shiver involuntarily. Most people never had a chance to figure out what was happening before it was too late. Only the lucky ones, the ones already ruined, like me, were able to defend ourselves. The terrifying first installment of Heartland Junk, a zombie apocalypse serial! -- Rivet ignored my reply and began pacing, tearing at his hair with both hands. "They're in me, man. In my head. I can't...all night, they've been talking...whispering...telling me things." "Who has?" "These, I don't even know, man, these voices. And like, I'm seeing this darkness. It's so deep. I haven't touched a needle in two days, but please, Ray, please. You gotta help me out." He stopped pacing and turned to me, eyes pleading. He'd burst a blood vessel in his left eye and a tributary of red ran across the white from the pupil. He looked sick. I noticed his hands, now held out to me like a beggar's, were shaking slightly. This wasn't the Rivet I knew. "Give him some, Ray," Jennie's light voice floated up from the couch. I'd almost forgotten about her, watching Rivet carry on like this. It was frightening, in a way. "Can't you see he needs it?" "I, uh...yeah, yeah sure, man. Just let me..." I turned to look around the living room, searching among the overflowing ashtrays and crusted dishes for that little brown baggie filled with powder. Something pressed at the inside of my skull, like that feeling right before a killer headache. It was hard to think. I needed coffee, a cigarette, hell, a hit of my own wouldn't go down too rough. "I uh...Jen, what'd we do with it last night?" "Kitchen?" She sat up on the edge of the couch and let the quilt fall to her waist. She wasn't wearing a shirt or a bra. "Oopsie," she giggled lightly and bunched the quilt edge up to her shoulders. Rivet had stopped pacing and was staring at her like a row of corn had sprouted from her forehead. "It wasn't like that..." I started, hoping to head off another jealous outburst from Rivet, but he wasn't paying attention. He just kept staring at Jennie's forehead with that blank, lopsided expression, his eyes wide, unblinking. "...Rivet?" Jennie said cautiously. "You okay, hun?" Rivet licked his lips. Then he calmly leaned down and bit Jennie's ear off.