Chester grabbed the feet of the first body in the pile while Will grabbed it just under the armpit. Chester had on a pair of HazMat gloves, reaching up above his brown elbow. Will was an older white man, in his forties with a gray and brown beard that covered most of his neck. The man was twice as broad as Chester, easily.
While he waited for Will to find the right grip, Chester looked down at the blood soaked shirt of the dead woman they were about to throw into the back of their dump truck. She might have been pretty at one time. Her hair was blond and she had full breasts, one of which was exposed through a slash in her shirt. The flesh had a massive inch thick gash in the side to match the three lacerations on her face. The skin was bloated and mottled through with decay.
Chester knew these wounds hadn’t stopped her going after somebody, maybe some bastard further down in the pile. Chester shook his head as he looked at the myriad of wounds on the woman before seeing the quarter inch bullet hole in her forehead. That’s how you do it, he thought, never melee a zombie.
“Chaz, stop fucking ogling the bitch and come on man. I don’t have all fucking day.”
“Man, don’t give me any more of your shit. I’m done listening to you barking out orders like you runnin’ this.” He hefted up his side of the zombie. Will stood motionless and possibly violent on the other end. Chester and Will were recently paired off by Connor at the Tombs. After the first few runs into the city, both men asked for reassignment and were denied. Connor needed the strongest to help clear the bodies and everyone was paired already. “Quite frankly,” he’d said at the time, “no one’s getting along out there. The quicker we can clean up this mess, the quicker y’all two can say your goodbyes, or fuck you’s if that’s what you’re after. We need into the city, and we can’t have the areas clogged up with corpses. Just get it done.”
Will finally picked up his end and they leveled the woman between them. She wasn’t heavy and Chester and Will threw her into the back of a yellow dump truck. The truck was one of those mod jobs that some survivor had turned into a battle vehicle. There were large iron plates on the windows and windshield, with only enough space to see out of. Barbed wire used to ring the top, but that had been taken off, leaving the angles posts sticking off like eyelashes. They had to walk carefully around the spinner blades, made like old fashioned mowers, welded to the rim of the tires. Not that they could cut you if you walked into them, they were way too dull for that by now. They left bruises though.
Not two seconds after the woman’s body fell onto the pyramid of rotting corpses she began to roll down toward the lift gate at the back of the truck. Limbs slapping around behind her like paper streamers, the woman fell out of the truck and thumped onto the ground. “Fuck,” They both said. Each man turned, ready to lay the blame on the other. They might have said something, but the woman fell directly between the two, signaling they’d both failed equally. They grabbed their respective ends and swung her harder, letting go on the third swing and sending her onto a smaller pile of men, women and children. The two of them had done this hundreds of times and neither needed to speak to the other as they worked, which was fine by Chester.
They cleared most of the bodies at the intersection of North Randolph and North Riverside, about forty-five in all, by noon. Chester admired the wounds on many of them, clean shots to the head with a large caliber weapon. The streets of downtown Chicago were tight all around, so someone had been making a stand here and did a fine job of holding off the wave of undead. They didn’t find any weapons nearby which didn’t necessarily mean the shooter survived, since scavengers tend to find guns like birds find south, but Chester decided that this one did. He liked his style, very Hollywood.
When they were nearly through, Chester rolled a woman over and felt a stabbing pain in his chest. “Oh Jesus,” he said.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Will asked.
Chester felt the air in his lungs give just a little before straightening himself out. Just another zombie, he said. The woman’s eyes looked up at the passing clouds without wonder and without life. It should have been easy to disassociate and distance himself, but he’d never come across someone he’d known.
“Chaz, don’t faint on me. We got three more streets to clear and I’m not going to spend even one minute waiting for you to–”
“Will, shut the fuck up. I’m cool.”
The change in Chester’s tone stopped Will with his mouth open. They normally talked shit just about every hour of their work day when they weren’t completely and obstinately silent. Will looked down at the black woman at their feet, “A friend of yours?”
Chester looked down at the clouded and rotting eyes of the woman on the pavement. He shouldn’t have recognized her, really he shouldn’t. It had been so long, nearly a decade since he’d last seen her and her features were marred by decay. But, God Almighty, Chester knew it was Leshauna.
“I grew up with her in The Hole.”
“The Hole? That piece of shit they tore down on the south side all them years back?”
“Yeah. Me and my grandmother were there until they moved us to the north side, part of their relocation plan. I haven’t seen her since then. Well, since now I guess.”
“Shit. She must have been a tough one livin’ out there.”
“No. She wasn’t. She was a good one though. She sang in the choir in my grandmother’s church.”
Will didn’t say anything as the two men stood over the body of the woman. Her arms were outstretched and her feet were twisted together. Her dress was tattered but had been a modest blue floral pattern with sleeves that covered her shoulders. Where the dress had been low cut to expose some of her neckline, Leshauna had worn a white shirt underneath to cover her skin up to her collar.
“Goddamn.” Chester shook his head and felt more pressure in his chest. When he was very young and still went with his grandmother to Church, Chester had developed a crush on Leshauna, the kind that made little boys blush and hide behind the skirts of women in church aisles while grown folks talked.
Once Chester grew up and had to start fending for himself, she wouldn’t even look at him. When she would pass him dealing in the hallways of their high rise, she never met his eye and he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He’d catcalled and fucked a lot of the women in the Hole as a young man, but he never even tried to get Leshauna’s attention. Now that he saw her he finally realized that it was out of shame.
While he was being a criminal, she was bringing meals to the old ladies who couldn’t ride the elevator down the dilapidated South Side project buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes. Leshuana had to walk passed tougher men than Chester every day, almost every one harassing her, some groping, one even raped her in the hallway of her great aunt’s building. In the end, all she wanted was a Godly man and a safe environment to raise a family. She ought to have had it too, but she got turned into a zombie. “Fuck man.”
“Chaz,” Will interrupted.
Chester turned and was ready to chew the older man out, tell him again to fuck off and maybe even take a swing at him if he pushed.
“You want to leave her?” Will asked.
Chester was surprised. Their job was to clear bodies and that’s what they did day in and day out. As much as Chester couldn’t stand the man, he grudgingly admired the man’s work ethic as much as Chester had come to admire his own. For as little as they got along, once Chester and Will passed a street, they left it so clean you could eat off the pavement. Of all the cleaners coming out of the Tombs, Chester and Will were known to be the best. They didn’t leave bodies behind.
“No, we can’t. These streets gotta be cleaned up, right. We can’t live in the woods forever. She ain’t in there anymore.”
“Look, she’s hamburger as far as I’m concerned.”
Occasionally, cleaners often came across the viscera and gore of a dozen bodies ground up and torn to pieces, mostly frozen to the pavement. They called it hamburger and no one felt like shoveling it up.
Chester thought about it. “Can I get the can?” he asked. Will nodded, went to the truck and pulled out the 12-gauge shotgun from the long holster bolted to the passenger seat. Setting it on the cushion, he reached behind and pulled out a can of kerosene and a long rigged contraption with a smaller gas can at the handle and a three-foot long metal pole, thin like a dowel rod.
“Take your time Chaz.” Will said, passing the equipment to Chester and walking off to the side of the truck. Will took out a pouch of tobacco and rolled a cigarette, looking off down the street toward the old, empty office buildings that flanked either side of the Chicago River.
Chester carried Leshuana’s body to the sidewalk and tried not to look at the bullet hole in her head. He laid her out in front of an overgrown empty lot like she were in a coffin. He crossed her arms and looked around. In the lot, some weeds and dandelions grew tall. He grabbed a bunch of them and laid them in her rotting hands across her chest. He unscrewed the top of the can and began to pour the pungent liquid over her body. He thought back to that old prayer they said at funerals, but he had never bothered to remember it. He wished now, more than ever, that he had.
“I’m sorry this happened to you. I hope you’re on to someplace better.” It was as much of a prayer as he knew.
Chester raised the tip of the igniter well away from Leshauna’s body. He pulled the trigger and a flame shot out about a foot from the tip. When it shrank to a smaller, more manageable size, Chester lowered it to the body and Leshauna caught fire at once, becoming engulfed. Flames swirled in the cold winter air and died a few feet above, leaving only rising heat in waves and the smell of burning flesh. That didn’t bother him. He lived in the shadow of the Tombs, where the inferno rages all day and all night.
As her skin became unrecognizable, taking on texture of charcoal, he turned away. Walking back to Will, neither spoke a word for several minutes until they loaded the last of the bodies into the back of the truck. They repeated the process several more times during the day, all in silence. After they loaded the last body they could carry from a killing field in front of Union station and were driving down to the Tombs, Will spoke up.
“You know, I was sick the day my riding club got turned.”
Chester looked over. “What?”
“I had the flu, I think it was the flu anyway. I tried to get on my Harley, but fuck if I didn’t drop it twice before I even made it ten feet from my trailer. I called Lemmy and told him I’d meet up with him and the rest of ‘em that night, after I got some rest. He told me to make sure I douched before I came out.” Will laughed, staring out at the road from behind the wheel. “I slept for a day and a half, woke up after the fever broke and walked out into a different world.”
“No shit. I rode to the bar we pulled out from, and most everyone was there, dead.”
“You say they were turned?”
“Yeah, Lemmy was laying across the bar, looking like he was tryin’ to steal a beer when the bartender wasn’t lookin’. I turned him over and saw it in his eyes that he was gone, changed. Not to mention he had a fuckin’ boot knife in his forehead and a finger in his mouth.”
“You guys close?”
“Yeah. I lost a lot of teeth ’cause a him. Him and his woman, Christ she had a mouth on her. Fuck man.” He laughed. “I never missed a fight Chaz, not one before that flu.”
“So what’d you do?”
“Same as you, but I burnt the entire fucking bar down.” They were both silent for a moment. Chester broke first, the laugh slowly building from a chuckle to a giggle while Will picked it up afterward like a cold. Soon the two of them were cackling like Charon’s minion, ferrying the bodies of the damned into the fires. They did so until their energy was spent and all that was left was the joy and the guilt of the living.
As night came, so did the smell of the fires. There was a glow over the tops of the trees that lined the road, a faint orange that never died. Pulling off the highway, they ran over a smaller but freshly paved road toward a large factory in a clearing behind the patch of forest. Chester saw a long line of dump vehicles, only a few unmodified, lining the dirt and gravel on the side of the road. “Looks like we’re the last ones in.” Chester said.
“Looks that way. Damn, Delia’s is gonna be packed to the goddamn gills.”
“Yeah, she’s probably gonna be outta food too.”
“Hell, I’d be happy with a beer.” Will said.
“For real, I ain’t that hungry anyway.” Chester looked out the window. The stars were coming out and without the lights of the city blazing away he could see them pretty clearly. That was one thing he never realized he missed growing up and was glad to be able to see now, even if it meant the end of the world.