Thursday, April 04, 2013

After the Zombie Aocalpyse


 
 

 



Alice Tremayne walked down the long dark corridor that led to the office in her Manhattan townhouse, the zombie shambling behind her. It was the kind of moment when you told yourself not to look back, because something unspeakable was looming behind you, and it was catching up fast.

She was alone in the house this night, and unarmed, not that a weapon would have helped her against the rotting teeth and the inhuman strength of the undead. She stopped and listened to the heavy shuffle of the monster’s feet against the polished wood floor. Thump, scrape, thump scrape. Soon the icy hand would clasp her shoulder, and turn her around to face the dead eyes and the gaping mouth, the foul breath and the unslakable hunger of the grave.

Or that’s how it would have been, in a different lifetime.

In her lifetime: the good old days, when she’d actually been alive.

She spun around angrily. “Margo, what are you doing up at this hour? You scared me half to death. As it were. Funny, the phrases we still use, don’t you think?”

The zombie made a guttural snort that Alice took for an agreement. No one really knew how much these long-timers even understood. They had to grasp a few key words, of course -- enough to follow simple commands. And they responded to your tone of voice, like dogs. Too bad about dogs. Alice thought. She missed them, along with so much else.

Well get used to it, she scolded herself silently: eternal life is no game for sissies. Her grandmother used to say that, talking about old age. Alice had often thought of trying to find her grandmother -- she would have to be one of the saddest of the longtimers, half rotted, shambling through the ghettos, eating Chewlean out of those bright green poptop cans and praying for another chance at death. Granny had been dead for almost ten years at the time of the Rising.  Those creatures had their own religion, apparently. This world was Purgatory according to that gospel.

Maybe they were right

Margo kept staring at her, waiting. The sluggish moronic inertia of the woman made her want to scream. So she did. “Go downstairs and clean the basement! Polish the silver! The whole second floor needs to be vacuumed! Find a job to do or I’ll find one for you. Go on! Scat!”

The zombie nodded and shuffled away. No doubt she’d forget to change the vacuum bag and just go through the motions, leaving the carpets as dirty as when she started.

It was impossible to get decent help these days.

The longtimers couldn’t do the work and the short-timers thought they were too good for it.

She walked into her office, turned on the light and opened her laptop. She had no new e-mails, no word on her ex-husband. He hadn’t turned up in any of the cattle drives, he wasn’t listed in any of the ranches and no patrols had come across him. If he had been dragged into one of the ‘crackhouses’ where pulsers were dismembered a bit at a time for the desperate short-timers with black market dollars, she’d never see him again.

Alice had a detective checking the chopshops as some people called them, but those abattoirs were strictly forbidden and tough to find. They kept the pulsers sealed in the sub-basements where the stink wouldn’t give them away.

Alice sat back with a sigh. The search was getting expensive.  She’d have to give it up soon.  POTUS disapproved – her obsession distracted her from her job and POTUS liked having your undivided attention. That much hadn’t changed. Still, she needed to see David one last time, even with this crazy uncrossable gulf between them. They had unfinished business and dead or alive, Alice Tremayne liked closure. “It’s not over until it’s over, David” she muttered, closing the computer and preparing to wait for dawn. There was no point in lying down, or closing her eyes. The drift into unconsciousness, the rush of dreams – that was for the living only.

She missed sleeping most of all.

The 99%: They just want to die
 

*****

 

 

            David Tremayne jammed himself into the corner of the basement wall, listening to the footsteps. The creature was coming back again, the “Formie” as the others called him. The formaldhyde the funeral home had used made him look almost alive, yet hideously false at the same time, like a wax museum exhibit, or a teenager smearing pancake makeup over his acne. The other zombies seemed despise the Formies. Their class system was rigid and brutal. Only the lowest of the low worked the chophouses.

David squeezed his eyes closed, but you couldn’t shut your ears and he could still hear the others moaning and whimpering. He could still smell the sweet roast chicken smell of burned flesh and the raw acidic tang of scorched hair. One of the men had no fingers left. Two were blinded – apparently the eyes were a special delicacy. The fat one had been castrated less than an hour ago, the gaping wound cauterized with blow torches. Somehow that was what David dreaded most – not the cut, not being crippled and dismembered, but the burn, the blue flame roasting his skin.

The footsteps sounded louder. Yes, they were coming back again, so soon. It must be a busy day upstairs; payday. All the zombies who otherwise had to subsist on processed human lunch meat (He’d seen the ad on a street hoarding while he was on the run: CHEWLEAN: It Makes Death Worth Living) getting their bits and pieces of the real thing.

He tried to make himself smaller. His wrists were taped together behind his back, his mouth gagged. The door opened. Were they coming for him this time? He felt his bladder release. What did the small of urine do to them? He was shaking like a man with a fever, his teeth chattering. He held his mouth open and let his jaws vibrate in silence, chanting to himself “not me, not me, not me.”

And he got his wish. The Formies carved out one of the blind men’s calf muscles. The guy screamed and the screams turned into rasping shrieks of agony, scarcely even human,  a dog caught in a bear trap, when the torches came out. Finally the man fainted, the door slammed and the steps receded.

David worked his wrists against the tape, but it was no use. How long until it was his turn? His or the woman next to him? She looked a little bit like Sarah, the same high cheekbones and wide-spaced blue eyes. He swiveled himself away from her, put his nose to the cold, dripping wall. He didn’t want to see the woman’s terrified face, or think about his sister.

He had let them take her, he could never forgive himself for that. He deserved whatever happened to him now. Yet what could he have done? What was he supposed to do? The zombies who caught them had looked like remnants, and they were so relieved they’d been fooled for one crucial second. But they had never seen any of the aristos in the flesh before.

Whatever  the appalling government experiment gone wrong that had brought the dead out of their graves all at once fourteen months ago, that moment, the Rising as they called it, re-animated you whether you’d been dead for decades or an hour … or even less. The President, as he styled himself, with his fat spoiled face and his grotesque comb-over, had died of a heart attack ten seconds before the event. Of course he looked normal.

His body hadn’t even had time to cool.

The ones where rigor mortis had set in, who walked a little stiffly, and the ones with post-mortem lividity, livor mortis Sarah had told him, where the blood had settled at the lowest point and whose skin was permanently discolored like a massive bruise, they were a step below the ones like POTUS, who seemed untouched. Apparently zombies could tell by looking at each other how long they’d been dead and every degree of decomposition took you further down on the social scale. God help the ones who looked like real zombies, the oozing decomposed ones that had been the subject of all those movies in the Time Before. They were pathetic creatures, slaves and victims. All they wanted to do was die, really die and stay dead.

Ranisha had told him once, it was like African American culture when she was growing up – every degree of skin color signified your status and desirability. She was fairly light-complected herself, and had looked down on darker women. This was no different, and in fact it made more sense. You actually were superior if you hadn’t been dead as long. The new “one percent” actually deserved their status, though they came by it at random --  a homeless drunk was as likely to be a new aristo as Morgan Stanley hedge-fund manager.

His ex-wife was one of the lucky ones. David had been on the phone the day of the Rising, getting the news of her demise from his son while he watched TV. The local station reporting the apocalypse was overrun with zombies in the middle of the broadcast. That pretty anchor woman was half devoured on live television before the screen finally went dark.

And on the phone, while the world died, David’s son Joe (long gone now, victim of the first feeding frenzy) was telling him that Alice was dead, passed out drunk and drowned in her own bath-tub.

Such a stupid ugly way to die. But well-timed. She owned the world now, what was left of it.

Her and her kind.

Alice had always possessed a knack for timing: selling the house just before the bubble burst, investing in Apple just before Steve Jobs came back, dumping David before the label downsized and the recording engineers lost their jobs … but just after his father’s will cleared probate. She would have taken him for everything he owned if he hadn’t hired that detective.

She thought David was a fool, but she miscalculated there. David knew she was fucking someone else, she had to be, that was Alice. She had to be fucking somebody.  She had stopped fucking David just before his own girlfriend gave him Chlamidia.

Perfect timing, again. The woman made it into an art form, and turned it into a way of life. Or death. Because she was dead now, she was on the other side, and in this new upside-down psychotic world they all lived in, she was his last best hope.

 

 

                                                            *****

 

 

Sarah Tremayne walked through the vast obstetrics ward of the Santa Monica Ranch (or breeding station, as the zombies called it), checking the new-borns, occasionally touching the spot where a cross had dangled from her neck in the old days, before the Rising, before she lost the last of her faith, thinking, “Happy Easter, everyone”.

It was the perfect holiday for zombies.

She slipped a pacifier back into a baby’s mouth, stroked another one’s forehead. She marked the chart on her clipboard: a slight fever, signs of colic.

These children would never have an Easter egg hunt, never open Christmas presents or celebrate a birthday with a cake, never go to their high school proms, never get married, never really live. Some would be sent to the restaurants and the food packaging facilities. The healthiest ones would be fed and housed until they could be put out to stud or used as brood mares when they hit puberty.

Her job was keeping them alive until then.

She had told the zombies who captured them she was a doctor. That had saved her life. Of course it had put her life in jeopardy in the first place, since she and David and the others had only emerged from their Rustic Canyon hide-out to scavenge for non-expired drugs. Sarah was the one essential team member: she could sort through the stores of remaining antibiotics on the stock room shelves, pick and choose with the stopwatch ticking – in and out fast before the legions of the undead sensed their presence.

It had been a suicide mission, and most of them had died. Not all of them, though. Maybe David made it back to the canyon. That was the hope she lived on.

She had last seen her brother running for his life with a paper bag full of Cipro. He was a good runner – a high school track star who finished half marathons in front of the pack. Plus he was smart. And cunning.  And reckless --you needed to be reckless to survive in enemy territory. Caution brought out the zombies faster than an open wound.

She checked her watch and headed upstairs to the breeding dorms. She had good news for one of her favorites, a Hispanic boy named Tavio who had been condemned to the restaurant system for low sperm count. It was just an infection and the course of amoxicillin -- what Tavio called ‘bubble gum medicine’ -- had cleared it up handily.

Tavio’s sperm count was normal again, and he could look forward to a decade of impregnating as many girls as the zombie administrators could throw at him. It wasn’t the most romantic way to lose your virginity, but it definitely beat the alternative.

Sarah smiled ruefully, thinking of that term, ‘zombie administrator’. Maybe things hadn’t changed that much after all.  She’d dealt with more than her share of zombie administrators in the old world, and from what she could tell, the Post office, for instance, seemed to work much better with real zombies behind the counter.

“How are you feeling?’ she asked Tavio when she found him in the video game room. He’d been released from the infirmary the day before.

“Great, Dr. T! I feel great. I’m ready to do my thing.”

“It may be a while. They like to wait until you turn fifteen.”

“That’s six months from now!”

“It goes fast. And you’ll get a nice present when the time comes.”

“Do I get to … you know – see the girl who – the person I’m going to – you know …”

The sexes were strictly segregated in the dormitories.

She pressed a hand to his arm. “I’ll try to find someone nice for you. Someone a little older, who’s had some experience.”

“Thanks, Dr. T. For everything. You saved my ass in here, and I don’t forget that shit.”

“I was happy to do it.”

“Listen.”

He stepped closer, beckoned with a curling finger for her to lean down so she could hear him whisper. “I’m gonna tell you something. It’s like – a secret weapon with these dead-ass putas. When it happened – the Rising, all right? My big brother Estevan was on a date. The zombies ate his girl friend right in front of him, like them crazy paranna fish in the Amazon, you know? Just tore her apart. But they dint do shit to Estevan. It was like he wasn’t even there. It took him a long time to figure out why, but now we know.”

Sarah looked around quickly but the room was empty except for two kids working the pac man machines. The zombies loved those pac man machines.

“Tell me,” she said.

“English Leather cologne – can you believe that shit? I always hated that stuff but it must make you smell like a zombie or I don’t know what, because you invisible when you wearing it. He took the last of what we had and took a run down to San Pete – figured he could jump a boat and get outta here. Never heard from him since so I’m hoping he made it. I got caught when I went looking for more. All I grabbed was this sample bottle.” He pulled it out of his pocket so she could see, and slipped it back in quickly. “I thought they’d take it away but they didn’t think nothing about it. So if you need it someday, like you gonna make a run for it, or whatever? Just let me know. It’ll give you a chance.”

“Tavio --”

“You deserve a chance, Dr, T. You ser buena genta, you know? A good person.”

”Thank you.” She kissed his cheek and continued on her rounds. She couldn’t help resenting him though. He had given her a flash of hope and hope was the most dangerous emotion in the world.

 

 

                                                            *****

 

Time was running out but David had a plan: pull off the duct-tape gag and drop his ex-wife’s name.  It wasn’t much but it was all he could come up with. Alice had real power now.

She could be his shield.

He didn’t even need to get his hands free, if he could move them from behind his back. His fingers could still grip the tape.

The others were dead. Only he and the woman remained in the cellar. One more customer upstairs and the torture would begin. What would they take first? The tongue was a special favorite. And the sinuses – why not? They came with their own delicious mucus sauce. He’d watched them slash open a little boy’s nose and pull the sinuses out like a tangle of red spaghetti. The pain must have been unendurable. Just listening to the throat shredding shrieks and squeals …

Stop thinking. Move.

He forced his hands under his ass, pulled himself into a tight ball, his ankles tucked hard against his thighs. Somehow he had to scrape his wrists past his feet, jamming his heels back through the gap between his arms. His back spasmed with the effort.  He couldn’t do this. He was going to be cut apart and eaten alive because he couldn’t get a fucking gag off his mouth.

A door slammed somewhere down the corridor. The Zombie with the knife and the blowtorch was coming back.

David’s time was up.

He thrust again, his knees digging into his throat. The duct-tape chafed against the arches of his feet. Thank God they’d taken his shoes! This would impossible with those clod-hoppers on. It was almost impossible anyway. The tramp of those heavy boots was getting louder. Another fraction of an inch, he was at the balls of his feet now. One more lunge as the door swung open.

Done! His legs jabbed out spasmodically, every muscle cramping as he tore at the silver tape. It seemed to take half his stubble with it when it finally ripped free.

“Alice Tremayne!” he screamed at them as they closed in. “Take me to Alice Tremayne! You’ll get a reward! She’ll pay you! Alice Tremayne! In the President’s compound! She knows me! Take me there.”

And that was how he came to be standing, filthy and barefoot, in the plush executive office on the second floor of POTUS’ Bel Air mansion, staring across the wide empty desk at his dead wife.

It was uncanny. She looked as alive as he did – maybe more so, with the make-up and the elegant clothes.

He launched into his prepared speech. “We lived together for twelve years, Alice. We had two children together. It ended badly but now we can begin again, We can make things right. We’re in a unique position. We can bridge the gap between the living and the dead, use the love we felt to bring the world together, to stop the conflict –”

“There’s no conflict, David,” Alice said quietly. “Farmers aren’t at war with their crops. Ranchers aren’t at war with their livestock.”

“But --”

“I don’t want to talk about the world and the food supply and the status of the remnant population. I want to talk about us.”

“Us?”

“Do you remember what you said to me before we walked into the divorce hearing? You had found the drugs and the … tapes I made with Raoul. You were planning to show the judge the more … explicit sections. You had my diaries and the police reports I thought I’d gotten expunged. You had witnesses lined up to testify against me. People from the S&M club. Drug dealers who had been given immunity. God knows who else.”

“Alice, that was a long time ago. That was a different world --”

“Do you remember what you said to me? The exact words? Because I do.”

“No, come on, listen to me … Wait a second – how am I supposed to -- ”

“You said ‘I’m going to eat you alive.’ Well David … now it’s my turn.”

She leapt across the desk – he had time to think, zombies are supposed to be slow – and then she knocked him off his feet with one battering side-arm blow. She was upon him, her teeth tearing through his shirt and into his shoulder. She snarled like a dog as she bit into him. He tried to push her away but she overpowered him easily.

He was going to die here. The despair was as big as the terror. He had no strength to fight her. Another jab of her head, He felt teeth ripping flesh, warm blood gouting .He met her eyes for a second. He was like looking into the eyes of a seagull, blank and feral. Another bite, shearing off his left nipple.

“STOP!”

The sandpaper voice of Brad Morton exploded like a gunshot. One syllable was all it took. This was the President of the new United States. The smarmy real estate tycoon who had driven five casinos into bankruptcy before the Rising. The grotesque star of the reality TV show Beg for Your Job and author of its charming catch phrase “Get out of my sight!” Talk about born on third and thinking you hit a triple! This guy died on home base and thought he hit a grand slam home run.

“I’m dining at The Salt of the Earth tonight,” he informed the drooling creature that had once been David’s wife, as she pulled herself together and stood up. “I expect to see this delectable specimen in the viewing tank.” He extended an icy hand, and pulled David to his feet. “We’ll be meeting again very soon,” he said, with a vacant hungry smile. “I’m looking forward to picking your brains! And I mean that literally.”


                                                              The 1%.O f course.
 

                                                            *****

 

Rashina Davis crouched against a tree near the fence line, pressing her baby’s mouth to her breast to silence him. The charge on the wires created some sort of electronic field disruption that confused the zombies, that was what Jack said. Good thing – the voltage wouldn’t be enough to physically stop them, even if the power was on full force, and it hadn’t been on full force for more than a month. Jack had told them – lectured them – about the the dam on the stream that ran through Rustic Canyon.  Members of the Nazi bund had built it in the previous century, just before World War II, to make their little community self-sufficient.

Somehow Jack had gotten it working again. They had power and they stayed off the grid, just like those Nazis. Jack said Nazi ghosts haunted the place. Rashina told him she didn’t believe in ghosts. My, how he had laughed at that!

“You live in a world overrun with zombies, but you don’t believe in ghosts. You’re very particular.”

Rashina remembered David Tremayne  trying to help Jack with the transformers. He made some kind of mistake and gave himself a solid shock. Jack had pushed him down, disgusted.

“You’re useless. Get out of here. I’ll finish  it myself.”

That was Jack – an impatient, coffee-addicted know it all. But he was the kind of person who could do things, build things, make things work, the kind of person you’d seek out if the world ever came to an end.

And it had.

So they were lucky to have found him. But the fact remained, she just want to slap him silly sometimes. And even Jack Brady couldn’t make rain in a Los Angeles summer. The stream had dried to a trickle, and taken their steady power supply with it.

She heard the noises again, and held her breath. Footsteps in the underbrush. Shuffling, uncertain steps. Zombie steps. She wasn’t protected by her pregnancy any more – for some reason the zombies ignored pregnant women (“Don’t choke the golden goose,” that was what Jack said). And the baby was a liability, she knew that.

And yet … she couldn’t stop thinking about the day before the others found her, thinking about the miracle.

When the zombies burst into her little apartment on San Miguel in Lynwood, she had emptied the gun Darryl gave her, and clutched DeShawn’s head to her chest, covering his ears as she pulled the trigger, over and over, knocking the zombies down but not stopping them. Finally the baby began to cry and everything went dark.

The next thing she knew, David Tremayne had her draped over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and his sister Sarah was running ahead with the baby.

But no one could explain the miracle, not Sarah the doctor, not even the great Jack Brady. No one understood why the zombies in her bedroom died while she and her baby survived. Finally the explanation didn’t matter.

 Miracle was good enough for her.

Rashina’s thoughts crashed to a halt as the figure lurched out of the bushes. This must be one of the aristos she had heard about. He looked human. But they never sent aristos on the search parties. She stared as he came closer – just a boy, a little Mexican boy, stinking of English leather cologne.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “My name is Tavio. I come from Sarah Tremayne. She figured how to kill the zombies, but they – they found out and they took her away, they put her into the restaurants. You have to save her before it’s too late.”

 

 

                                                *****

 

“I wanted to speak to you for a moment, before they disposed of you,” The President said. David’s shoulder was throbbing but he couldn’t seem to feel his arm.  His chest was on fire.His hand was a glove of blood. He felt dizzy. He could barely stand.

“What?” he managed.

“You interest me. This moment between you and Alice interests me. Apparently the only emotion that carries over into our altered state of being is hate. Hate and the lust for revenge. Not love or compassion. Not the aesthetic impulse, not pity or pride. Not curiosity or irony or shame. Only hate. How strange that it took the virtual extinction of the human race as we knew it to teach us our first rudimentary lesson about human nature.”

David managed a harsh croak: “That’s why I’m better than you. I feel more than hate.”

“What you feel or do not feel no longer matters. You are food.”

“I’m a human being! You’re nothing! You’re – an abomination. A zombie --”

“We frown on that term. We prefer to be called ‘The Risen’. The word zombie stigmatizes us as the undead.”

David laughed out loud, and felt another flat wave of pain shear through him. “You’ve gotta be kidding. You’re dead! You eat living people. That makes you a zombie, pal. No way to spin it.”

The President’s voice was cold. “I told you not to use that word.”

“You don’t like it? Tough!” he put his thumbs to his ears and wiggled his fingers like a fourth grade school yard bully. “Zombie, zombie, zombie! Zombie, zombie, zombie!”

The president reached out and clamped a hand over David’s mouth, silencing him. “Here’s what I want you to tell me, Mr. Tremanyne. Where does your group hide from us? We’ve traced individuals as far as Casale Road in Pacific Palisades. But we lose them after that. It’s frustrating, like – ripe fruit in the top branches. But you’re going to help us shake the tree.”

“Never.”

He turned to Alice. “Find me an acetylene torch.”

She scurried out of the room and the President turned back to David

“They say torture doesn’t work. But I think on you it will.’

The hand lifted off his mouth. David said, “I always thought you were a sadist. Even watching you on Beg for Your Job.”

“Well this will be something else. ‘Beg for your life’? Or perhaps just ‘Beg for quick death’. But you’ll have to be very quick indeed. Because I’m going to burn your tongue down to the root, first. Then you’ll have to use sign language. Until we shear off your fingers.”

David didn’t break when they secured his head to the high-backed restraining chair, he didn’t break when the metal clamps forced his mouth open. But the first touch of flame on the tip of his tongue shattered him.

He told the President everything. He gave directions. He drew a map. And then the President had him dragged away to be eaten later at the zombie leader’s favorite restaurant, dismissing the broken blubbering human traitor with his favorite catch-phrase from the Time Before.

“Get out of my sight!”

 

 

 

                                                            *****

 

 

“It’s a place called ‘The Salt of the Earth’” Tavio told the assembled survivors.

They were standing and sitting among the ruins of what had been the community theatre, during the days when Rustic Canyon served as an artist’s colony. The low walls, still scorched from the terrible fire in the 1970s that had convinced the state to take the land by eminent domain, were over-grown with bougainvillea, remote,  perhaps haunted as Jack believed. But the ghosts felt benign to Ranisha.

Tavio had passed the key test: they had made him tell a joke. The sense of humor never crossed the mortality line. “How many zombies does it take to change a light bulb?” Tavio had improvised. “Five – four to trash the room and one to eat the electrician.”

Not great; but good enough. Even Jack cracked a smile.

Now the fourteen-year-old boy was giving them their marching orders.

Nothing too difficult: just walk into a crowded zombie restaurant in the middle of a zombie occupied city and walk out with Sarah, somehow not getting captured, killed and eaten themselves in the process.

They had two advantages. Three, counting the element of surprise. The first was the new stock of English Leather cologne that Tavio had scored on his dangerous trek across the city.

The second one: DeShawn Davis, all of seven months old.

“That’s what Sarah figured out,” Tavio told them. “That’s what blows away these fucking zombies. It’s like -- the opposite of us. The sound that gets us out of bed at two in the morning, wide awake – that’s the same thing that shuts down these fucking pinche gueys. You get it? The baby crying, pandejos. That’s all it takes. That’s why none of these fucking zombies ever came into the nurseries. Sarah, she saw something go down, something bad, and she figured it out. That’s why they took her away. To the lobster tank restaurant, that’s what they call it. All the people are behind the glass wall and the zombies get to choose which one – who they’re going to .. you know. And they wear bibs … with pictures of people on them.”

“Do they have an early bird special?”

It was Ragland Bennet Campbell – ‘Rags’, everyone called him – a stringy old geezer with a nasty sense of humor. But he’d fought with the Delta Force in Viet Nam and he’d been a mercenary all over the world since then. People said he could kill you six ways without even touching you. Maybe his bitter jibes were among those techniques. Ranisha looked down, clutched her baby to her chest.

She knew what was coming.

The assembly was silent for a moment or two. They could hear the wind moving in the sycamore trees and the faint gurgle of the stream. Somewhere high above them, near them old fire road, a deer crashed through the underbrush. A bird called out, sharp and plangent. Another one answered – sounds from another world.

Finally Jack Brady spoke to the group.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.”

 

 

 

                                                            *****

 

 

It worked the way Jack said it would, until it didn’t.

Stealing the cars went smoothly. Both Jack and Rags knew how to hotwire a car; the drive to the restaurant proved uneventful. Zombies still drove – they even had carpool lanes on the freeway. That sped things up a little. On the way, Jack and Rags checked the weapons, big automatic rifles with giant packs of bullets stuck into them. Ranisha hated guns. They didn’t really hurt the zombies anyway, just kind of stunned them – and disfigured them. A bullet hole in the face was a social disaster for a zombie, or so they had heard; kind of like a fever blister or a mole. You could burn zombies, but you had to burn them all the way to the bone or they kept coming and there wasn’t enough gasoline in the world to do that job right.

She was the real weapon, she and her baby.

Jack’s plan came straight out of the Delta Force playbook: a pincer attack with an overwhelming show of force. The machine guns would work about as well as tasers against the undead “But don’t underestimate a taser,” Rags told them. “Tasers are sweet.”

“Decisive action in a field of confusion,” that was how Jack described it. “Rags and Billy and Tavio go in the back. I go in the front with Ranisha and Luther.”

Billy and Luther were best friends from the Time Before –  Billy was a skinny mean-spirited meth dealer who’d killed at least three people in the course of doing business and dreaded running into them as zombies. Luther was a body builder who’d worked as a bouncer until he got rich writing what he called ‘chick porn’ under the name of Lucretia Lovardo. He had copies and they had been duly passed around the Rustic Canyon compound.

Sarah Tremayne enjoyed them guiltily; Ranisha thought they were dumb.

But Luther was strong and fearless and spoiling for a fight. That was all Jack cared about. He could put a zombie down for five minutes with one good punch to the head.

They split up, Rags’ car heading down the alley behind The Salt of the Earth, Jack parking a few blocks away. Jack and Luther were hiding the machine guns under their coats – the first shots would be the signal for Rags to attack from the rear.

Ranisha had DeShawn bundled out of sight under her raincoat.  “He’s a good boy. He don’t hardly ever cry.”

Jack stared her down. “He might not have a choice.”

They walked along the sidewalk, stinking of English Leather, staying near the dark store fronts. Ranisha’s heart was pounding in her throat. Pulsers, that’s what zombies called living people. Supposedly they could hear your heart like a bass drum, taste the bulge of blood in your veins, the way you could taste sugar in the air at a carnival. She held her baby tighter and hurried to keep up.

Suddenly Jack shoved them into the entry alcove of what had once been a plumbing supply show room.

“Shit,” he hissed softly.

“What?” Luther said.

“There’s Secret Service outside. Two of them. The president must be eating there. There’s gonna be a couple more inside, too. Aim for them, Luther, as many head shots as you can squeeze off. And feel to blow that asshole Brad Morton away. I want him looking like fucking swiss cheese when we’re finished. If there’s propane in the kitchen set the prick on fire. This might be a good opportunity for us. You know what they say --cut off the head – all that shit. I’ll shoot out the viewing tank. Rags should be coming in from behind. He’ll grab Sarah. Do not let those motherfuckers use their radios. Once the alarm gets out, we’ll have the whole army and the police force down on us. Every zombie who can put on a uniform and a couple of thousand who can’t. And Ranisha? Get ready to hurt that little boy. We may need him screaming.”

To Ranisha the attack on the restaurant was one long explosion of sound.

The men opened fire on the Secret Service agents, bowling them over and charging inside, guns blazing. Maybe DeShawn was crying – it was too loud to hear anything but the thud of gunfire, the smashing glass and the screams of the zombies. The restaurant itself was something out her worst nightmares. Living men and women, and even one child, clamped paralyzed (by some drug?) to the tables where zombies in those hideous bibs were devouring them.

Blood spurted everywhere. The place was a slaughterhouse. It must have taken hours every night just to drain off the plasma and clean up the gore.

Two waiters were bringing Sarah a table, preparing the injection. So they did use drugs! She was crying for help, and Luther leapt forward, straight punching one zombie, and emptying the magazine of his Kalashnikov into the other one’s face.

“David!” Sarah screamed.

Jack stopped for a second. David was gone, everyone knew that.

Two hideous monsters lurched at Ranisha. A lash of bullets swept them off their feet. Rags emerged from the kitchen, splashing propane from a can. The place would go up like a torch. Then Ranisha saw David Tremayne, splayed out on the Presidents’ table.

“It’s him,” she shouted over the artillery roar of the automatic weapons. “It’s David!”

Luther spun and saw David, pulled the trigger and held it against the bucking rifle. The zombie with the syringe was whipped backward, hosed by hot lead.

 Jack leapt to the table, cut the leather straps and slammed an elbow into the President’s face, splintering the creature’s nose and tipping over his chair.

“We’re out of time,” Jack shouted, cleaning out his last magazine and then using the gun as a bat. Someone must have gotten the alarm out. Ranisha could hear the shriek of sirens closing in from every direction.

They fled the restaurant. Rags was just behind them. He threw a match  and dove out the door split seconds ahead of the fireball. The explosion flattened everyone , smacked them to the sidewalk in a rain of glass and mortar. Ranisha twisted to fall on her back. She landed on her elbow and her ribs, her head bounced against the pavement.

Lurther helped her up and little Billy jabbed two knives into the eyes of two zombies staggering up the street toward them. The creatures reared back so hard they pulled the knives from Billy’s hands.

The sirens grew louder.

They pulled themselves to their feet, dazed and bleeding, everyone looking at Jack. For once the big man was silent, stumped, beaten. They were surrounded, unarmed, far from home base.

David spoke up. His voice was choppy, indistinct – something had happened to his tongue.“Thay’s a ‘ecording stuio fie blocks away. We haf to et there. I an record the baby, jack the vaume up.”

“Set your speakers on the window sill,” Rags grinned, understanding instantly. “Blast the Quad. Just like at college.”

“Yeah man,” Billy said. “Rock out.”

There was no time to backtrack to the cars.

“Run,” Jack commanded them.

And they did.

They ran for their lives, David Tremayne leading the way, dodging into the alley behind the buildings, staying out of sight. The breath rasped in and out of Ranisha’s lungs. The baby seemed to weigh fifty pounds. She knew she couldn’t last much longer.

Then the guttural roar of a hundred charging zombies made her forget everything else. They were cascading out from between the buildings like turgid flood water, like a ruptured sewer line. Two of them grabbed Billy and took him down. His screams were muffled by the press of bodies.

“I have a few more shots left,” Rags panted. “I can hold them off.”

No one had the breath to argue. Ranisha heard gun shots, not bursts, but one carefully aimed pull of the trigger after another. She risked a glance back. Rags had knocked down enough of them so that they were tripping on each other’s fallen bodies, tipping over into piles, blocking the alley.

His work was done, the path ahead was clear. Rags sprinted to catch up, but Ranisha saw a blur above him, a  zombie jumping from a low roof. It landed on Rags’ back and tore his head off his shoulders with one swipe, like a leopard taking down an antelope on some Wild Kingdom video.  A thick fountain of arterial blood shot up ten feet and collapsed as Rags’s feet ran out from under him and the pack began to feed.

The whole world was a Wild Kingdom video now, Ranisha thought, gasping for breath. And we’re the antelopes.

The trick was: don’t be the slowest one.

By the time she got to the recording studio door, Jack had kicked it open and the others were already inside. Hands grabbed her, dragged her into the darkness. She could still hear growls and shouts and sirens from the street outside. The zombies knew where they were hiding.

 Jack and Tavio were piling furniture and filing cabinets against the doors. Mike and Sarah found the electric box and threw the breakers. The place lit up and Ranisha saw them pounding for the control rooms. She followed more slowly, giving DeShawn her breast and suffering the sharp pain in her elbow, breathing shallowly against her cracked ribs. The place smelled like fried electrical connections and old trash. Framed record jackets lines the walls: The Shins, Vampire Weekend, Mountain Goats. No hip hop, no rap, no black people. Just white teen-agers. Well they were all probably dead by now anyway, like Rags and Billy and all the others. She might be the last living black woman on earth. And her baby might be the last living black boy and if what Tavio said was true, her little DeShawn could wind up saving the world.

It was too much to understand.

 

 

                                                            *****

 

This is how it happened.

Jack and Luther found hammers and nails and two-by-fours from some interrupted renovation and secured the doors while Mike got the recorders and amplifiers and microphones up and running, working the control board like they were going to cut a hit single.

Then they were all together, barricaded into the big room with God knew how many zombies surging against the building, trying to break in – a thousand? Ten thousand?

 Ranisha heard a crash and she knew it was the filing cabinets going down.

The zombies were inside the building.

“Make him cry,” Jack told her.

“For God’s sake, just do it,” Sarah said.

She shook DeShawn half-hearedly, but the little boy just grinned. What was she supposed to do? Hit him? She couldn’t hit her child. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t. It was all crazy talk anyway.

“ere’s ano-er way in,” Mike blurted.

Jack turned on him. “What?”

“The ontrol room. You nail uh ome boars afer me.”

Sarah said “Mike -- ?”

“I’ll buy us ome time, lea them away.”

“No.”

Jack held up a hand to silence her. “He’s got something to make right, don’t you soldier?”

A tremendous crash jolted them. The barricaded double doors bowed inward but held.

Jack ignored them. “You sold us out, didn’t you? They put the torch to your tongue and you told them everything.”

Mike looked down.

Jack pressed a big, scarred hand to Mike’s shoulder. “Don’t kick yourself son. Everybody’s got a breaking point. Bridges fall down eventually. Even metal gets fatigued. Go on. Go do what you have to do.” He turned away from Mike’s grateful tears, and pointed at Luther. “Get the last boards, move it. Before it’s too late.”

The two men gathered up the supplies and sprinted for the control room.

Jack faced Ranisha. ‘Its up to you now, honey. Make him cry.”

Another shuddering impact on the big double doors; and a massed howl of frustration. Another surge. They were pulling the nails out of the wall. How long until the doors flew open and the avalanche of the undead thundered into the room, mouths open, teeth bared?

A minute? Less than that?

Jack’s voice was raw. “Do it!”

Ranisha was sobbing. “I can’t. I can’t.”

They heard a rumble of footsteps, moving away from the doors.

“They’re chasing Mike,” Sarah whispered.

“Use the time he bought us,” Jack snarled. “Pinch the fucking baby. Yell at it. Something! Anything.”

Ranisha was sobbing. “No, please … he’s my little boy.”

Another rumble of surging footfalls. The zombies were coming back. They’d taken Mike and ripped him to pieces. And all for nothing. Mike was just the appetizer. The main course was inside those double doors.

“Fuck this, “ Jack said.

He grabbed the baby and punched the baby’s mother hard in the mouth. She tumbled over backward and he kicked her fractured ribs. She bleated in pain and the baby knew his mother was hurting and finally he started to cry --  huge terrified high pitched keening sobs that seemed to come all the way up from the balls of his feet.

The doors exploded inward and the swarm of zombies charged them.

In the control room, Luther red-lined the volume,  just like Mike had told him. The blast of sound filled the room, howling like a thousand babies, a hurricane of tears.

And it mowed the zombies down:  a thresher in a hay field.

They kept coming and they kept falling, wave after wave.  Finally the doors were blocked by inert bodies and there was no movement outside the big studio. Luther cut the sound. Jack helped Ranisha up, handed her back her baby.

The silence was epic, impossible, deafening.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She managed a smile. “Any time.”

“What now?” Sarah asked. “We can’t go back to Rustic Canyon. The zombies will be there.”

“What we gonna do, man?” Tavio said.

“Yeah,” said Luther coming back into the room. “What’s the plan, cap?”

Jack smiled. “The plan is – we rig us a sound truck and we take us a drive.”

 

 

                                                            *****

 

            They drove around the city for two days, reaping the zombies. Once the amplifiers broke down and a massive crowd of hideous decomposing monsters surrounded the truck. Luther thought it was the end.

            Jack knew better.

            “Just wait,” he said.

            One of the zombies, it seemed like he was the leader, shuffled forward.

            “Please,” he choked out through his rotten palate and his dissolving tongue. “Please.”

            “They want us to fix it,” Jack said. “They want to die.”

            And it was true. Jack jury-rigged the repairs and Ranisha could see a kind of bliss on their ruined features as the shrill squawks of the sobbing baby took them down.

 

           

                                                                        *****

 

Gradually they gathered up other pockets of surviving humans and set to work burying the dead. Everyone seemed to move around in a joyful trance. The weather was mild, life was beginning again. At a stroke the war was over.

            Or so it seemed.

But in the moments before the sound truck had cruised down San Miguel Street in the Lynwood section of South Central Los Angeles, one of the zombies lying on the floor of what had once been Ranisha Davis’ apartment rolled over and woke up.

            A few minutes later, as the others began to stir, the sound truck passed by. The noise bothered him for a few seconds – like an asthma attack when he was a child. Then it was gone. He had nothing to fear from a crying baby.

He smiled, showing bloody teeth. The old phrase floated into his mind from the Time Before: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And hungrier, he thought, the smell of flesh and blood strong in his nose, making his stomach growl.

 Much hungrier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

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