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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    THAT HOKEY, OFT-QUOTED LINE by Christine Hill
    February 22, 2008  Short stories   Tags: ,   

    Somewhere in the Middle of Kansas

    [Before the Zombie War, mediums were considered con artists by the majority of society. Men and women who were the hosts of flashy Reality T.V. shows, playing up to an audience who tuned in for a quick thrill; sometimes the subject of television or film dramas, mediums have not earned much more than open skepticism and derision. I am speaking with a medium on a dirt patch somewhere in the heart of what used to be America’s bread basket in the state known as Kansas. In the days before the Panic, she was known as Tshilaba, a Romani name meaning “seeker of knowledge.” These days, she is known by something simpler: Mercy.]

    You remember that movie, with that kid who said that hokey little line “I see dead people?” Yeah, everyone born before the Panic does. I can’t tell you how often I heard that from the critics, the skeptics, the jokesters, the media. I still hear it these days, but not as much, and not with the sneer that used to accompany those words.

    You’re saying you get more respect?

    Yeah, because too many people have admitted they saw similar things as I did. The mind-docs have tried to explain it all away – “Communicable mass hysteria” and other big-word bullshit like that. They’re saying the sightings worked the same way… Okay, lemme try again. Y’know, there used to be cases, back in the pre-zombie days, of the legal system screwing people over because some jerk would commit a crime and other people who looked close enough like ‘em would catch the brunt of it. The cops would show the witnesses a selection of photos of people similar to the person they saw do whatever. They’d really push one guy they thought they had a lead on. Y’know what happens next?

    The eyewitnesses superimposed the photographed person’s image over the memories in their minds.

    Yuh-huh. The mind-docs are saying that the same thing happened with the sightings. That the people who said they saw ghosts were all repeating something they’d heard from somebody else, and nobody could convince the doctors that they hadn’t spoken with anybody – that they were just seeing things, or hearing them.

    You saw ghosts? Or heard them?

    [Mercy shakes her head, gives a bitter laugh.] The screwy, karmic ass-kick about all this…? When I was “Tshilaba”, I couldn’t sense a damned thing! I really was one of those smoke-and-mirrors show biz entertainers putting on a show for a bunch of people who liked a really good ghost story.

    What happened to change all that?

    [Mercy gives me a sarcastic look.] A little something called the Zombie War. Perhaps you’ve heard of it…? [Sighs.] Look out there; what do you see?

    [I look out over the flat earth ahead of us – flat to the horizon. There’s a lot of dirt, but some weeds are coming back up through the soil. Here and there are signs of charring. A corn field once stood here, but had been burned once all the food had been stripped from the stalks. I mention all this to Mercy, who nods.]

    It was here where I first saw them. Y’know… them. I’d seen zombies a-plenty – God Almighty, I’d seen more than I ever wanted to! Had a few close scrapes, but somehow I’d managed to do jus the right thing at the right time and I survived long enough to join a group that was trekkin’ along behind the Army, movin’ west. Westward Ho!, and all that rot. We marched here and found that the Army had largely ignored the corn fields, taking only the outer edges of food to supply their kits. We all knew why; we all knew there were bound to be dead folk in those stalks that grew thick and close to make perfect ambush cover for the zombies. Why the Army hadn’t just torched the fields, we didn’t know. Some figured it was ‘cause they were leavin’ the food, lettin’ us make the choice as to whether or not it was worth risking infection. Some figured it was because of the risk of fire spreading out of control. Others figured the Army just couldn’t be bothered. Whatever the reason, there were acres upon acres of corn waiting for us. Ripe. Perfect. There were roughly forty of us in the group. We figured everyone could carry rucksacks of corn, including the kids. The only real problem was how to get the zombies out of the fields so we could go in and get the corn.

    Weren’t the zombies already on their way?

    [Mercy laughs.] Oh, sure. We could hear faint moans, but you know what that sound does to live humans. All of us stood there, shaking and shivering like we were in the middle of deep winter instead of the dog days of August. We were all trained by then: Don’t make a lot of noise. The kids just stood closer to their guardians, white-faced and wide-eyed and resigned while we discussed the best way of luring the dead out of the corn. Eventually, we figured it out and got set so that those of us who were going to be doing the demolishing were covering each other’s backs. I remember standing there, cold-sweating with that instinctive fear and revulsion, but angry, too.

    Angry?

    Mm-hmm. I was pissed. Before the zombies came shambling in to eat everything to the bone, I was a television star. I was somebody. I had a nice home, a nice car, enough money that I didn’t have to worry about anything. I made sure I paid my taxes on time and I was largely left alone to spend my money how I wanted to. [Mercy gives me a little smirk.] Did you ever catch an episode of “Tshilaba?” No? Well, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I was a bit overweight. [She laughs.] A lot overweight, actually. By California standards, anyway, where every tanned bitch out there was a size two or less because God forbid they look real – and real people had blotchy skin and cellulite and size eighteen pants and natural boobs. Me…? I was definitely not a size two. I was swarthy and my teeth were crooked [She flashes a smile at me to show they still are.] and I was loud and flashy. But, damn it all, I was somebody. The zombies took all that away. My house burned down, my car was stolen from me by a pack of desperate refugees… I had only the clothes on my back. I had to worry about things, now. Worry about keeping out of the reach of those ugly things, worry about finding other survivors, worry about finding some authority figure to protect me, worry about finding my next meal. Oh, yeah… I was fucking angry at the zombies for reducing me to that level.

    [We stand on the flat Kansas earth and watch an approaching front of dark clouds. The wind picks up a little and it is cooler; much cooler than the almost-summer warmth we’d been feeling. The sight is awesome and frightening as the sky becomes marbled with light and gray and dark that shifts and moves constantly as it bears down on us.]

    [Mercy makes a soft grunt of sound and resumes her tale.] So, yeah… I was standing there, waiting for the rotten bastards to show their ugly, patty-melt faces. We could hear ‘em approaching on all sides; the corn stalks were waving, we could hear the stalks shushing against each other… could hear that Goddamned moan. That infernal, horrible “I need” sound zombies make. The shaking increased and all I wanted to do was run, as far and as fast as I could. Zombies move at the speed of snail – I’d have been in the next state probably before they managed to make it ten feet down the road. But, we needed that corn. So we waited, and so they came.

    And that’s when you saw…?

    Them. The ghosts. Yeah. But the thing is… I didn’t realize what I was lookin’ at. Not at first. My first thought was that the corn fields were on fire; that what I was seeing was smoke. Then, I thought it was just the zombies that were on fire, but… the smoke… changed.

    They looked like smoke, the ghosts?

    [Mercy nods.] They were this wispy gray mass that was pulled along behind each zombie and there were plenty of the bastards. That’s why I thought it was smoke, y’see. Thought it was a whole bunch of ‘em on fire, so close together… but then I got a good look at the “smoke” and I thought I was either going to crap myself or die of a heart attack right then and there. Maybe both.

    What did you see, exactly?

    [Mercy grimaces.] I saw them – copied. For every ripped up, rotten, pockmarked, solid, gray-toned face comin’ outta the corn, there was an unblemished, gray-toned, wispy face following it. And the faces were… they were anguished. Each “smoke” was open-mouthed, saying something, and straining backwards, tugging at the dead copies lurching towards us with arms raised and moans ringing high. There was this… this… NO sensation. It rolled over me like a wave and left me crying buckets even as I raised my gun. I could see the tethers of gray mist or whatever the hell it is that was keeping the soul tied to the body that forced the previous owner of said body to watch him or herself commit horrific acts against the living.

    [I can’t help it; I feel a chill shiver through me and up my spine at the throb of grief and helplessness in Mercy’s voice. If she is putting on another “show,” telling another “ghost story” for an audience of one, she is doing a superb job of getting me hooked.]

    One zombie lurched directly toward me. It was a woman; a housewife, I’d guess. She wore the remains of a housecoat and slippers, and what was left of her hair was still in the curlers that clung to the decayed strands. I don’t want to go into more detail than that; she was really messed up, probably because she couldn’t have been able to run fast enough to get away from the zombies. She was a large woman. But, behind her… I could see her face. She’d have been crying if she could have, I think. Her mouth was moving, going “No, no, no, no!” just constantly. I couldn’t hear her, but… there’s different “psychic senses,” y’know. Clairvoyance is one of ‘em; that’s when you see the spirits. There’s others, like clairaudience – hearing – and clairsentience, which is when the medium receives the impression, the sense, of what the spirit is trying to get across. That’s what I had: Clairvoyance and clairsentience. Shocked the shit right out of me, let me tell you. Remember when I said I was either gonna crap my pants or die of heart failure…? Guess which one happened.

    [Mercy and I share a grin, but hers fades quickly enough as she looks back out over the ruined farmland.]

    Yeah… there I was, with this dead fat housewife lumbering at me with her ghost being dragged along for the ride unwillingly. She was doing everything she could to make her body stop. That ghost was straining to keep her body back, but it was all for nothing. Then, she looked right at me, and I could tell that she knew I knew. She started yelling at me and I got the sense of “Run! Run! Please, run!

    But you didn’t.

    [Mercy shakes her head.] I was crying, snotting all over myself, even as I aimed between her eyes. I fired and the fat old thing toppled backwards immediately and rolled away a little.

    And the ghost…?

    Stood there. Just stood there. She hadn’t been dragged along with her body – not that time. Because as soon as I killed the body for good, the connection between them snapped. [She snaps her fingers to illustrate the point.] Just like that. She stared at her body, then at me, and reached out for me even as her mouth moved. I couldn’t hear, but I knew she was saying “Thank you.” Then, I shot through her because another zombie was coming at me, this one in better shape. A boy of about fourteen or so, only one bite visible. He’d been bit, but he’d run and later died of his wound. Anyway, the ghost lady kinda looked surprised, but then just… poofed away. Wisped away, I guess. Dissolved…? Yeah; that. She gave me a smile and she had the sweetest look of peace on her face as she went away. I dunno where to – only that she was gone. The boy, he gave me the same look, the same “Thank you” and then he was gone, too. I could see it happening around me to the others, only they couldn’t see the ghosts. But I could see them. With every killing shot, the ghosts got this look of “Oh, thank you, Jesus!” on their faces and dissolved away. I shot more of my own zombies – hah; my zombies – and each time, I sensed gratitude. Then, the killing was done. We’d been at it for hours, but by the time it was done, the fields were emptied and we had about two hundred dead bodies to deal with.

    What happened next? You told everyone about the ghosts?

    Hah! Are you kidding? I needed those people! Safety in numbers and all that rot. They needed me, too. I was an extra hand to protect the kids. But, if I’d said something loony about how I could “see dead people,” they’d have run me out lickety-split. Nobody had time for anyone going mental. Anybody perceived as being a liability to the safety of the group was quickly encouraged to leave, and I still needed them to get me west to the mountains. No… what happened next is that we went in and harvested as much corn as we could carry without hindering us. Then, we rolled the dead bodies into the picked areas and set ‘em on fire.

    You set fire to the rest of the corn?

    We couldn’t take it with us and it was close to dying on the stalk as it was. There wasn’t any point in trying to save it for anybody who might come after us; it would have been as dead and rotten as the bodies lying in the soil.

    I see.

    Yeah… me, too. [She smirks at her own little joke.] So, we loaded up the corn, packed up our gear, and hiked to the nearby town and gathered up every scrap of ammunition we could find. Traded old clothes for new clothes, right down to the shoes, and took any medicine and contained drinking water we could find that was needed. Traded out anything old for anything new that was still good. Took only a few cans of food to add variety that wouldn’t be a weight drag on us. Y’know… only the basics. Then, once we were out of town, runners went back and set the fields and the bodies alight. We didn’t stay to watch the burning; we had to keep moving, just in case. Plus, the west was still a long, long way away and the days would be getting shorter very, very soon.

    You eventually told someone about the ghosts, though. That’s why you’re known as Mercy, now, yes?

    [She smirks again.] Yeah, but only after we’d made it over the mountains. We managed to get there just before they began “border patrol” that would start turning people away to the north and south; anywhere but into the crowded safe zone. Once we were in, we were “processed” and given places to live and assignments… and I told folks about the ghosts, about how killing the zombie set the souls free. I was quickly escorted to the mind-docs and they tried their level best to counsel me out of what was clearly a coping mechanism. I finally had all I could stand, especially as more reports of “smoke” kept coming in – total strangers who’d never spoken with anyone else about ghosts had the same, or nearly the same, descriptions, which lead to prescriptions. I got the hell out before somebody could drug me into a coma for being “different.”

    What did you do?

    I jumped the gun, basically. Before the president could issue his speech about taking back our land and freeing us from the fear of something lurching out of the dark at us, I decided I couldn’t leave those poor souls to be dragged all over the country while their bodies ate every live thing they could catch. So, I took self-defense classes, self-survival classes – everything I would need to be able to survive on my own. Then, I packed up my kit and hiked the hell on out of there, back over the mountains, back into the greater part of America.

    Nobody tried to stop you?

    Oh, hell, yeah! Plenty of people! “Barbie, be reasonable.” “Barbara, think of the good you can do here!” “Babs, you know nobody’s taking your ghost stories seriously. Don’t you think it’s time to grow up?” Assholes; they were only concerned about what I could for them. How my working hands and legs and body could help to make things comfortable for them. In the meantime, their dead friends, family, neighbors were out there, howling in anguish as they were forced to watch their bodies commit atrocity after atrocity. Can you imagine how that must hurt? To be forcibly evicted from your body but still chained to it and forced to watch the solid part of you mutilate and terrify and consume people. Living people, who fought and thrashed and screamed and died in horrible ways brought to them by your hands.

    [Mercy’s rhetoric is so infused with pathos that I cannot help but respond with the horror such words are designed to provoke from me. She doesn’t even seem to notice my unease.]

    But, I wouldn’t be dissuaded from what I felt was my duty to the tormented souls out there. Nobody could convince me to stop, to stay, to not go. The joke began going around about my self-imposed mission of mercy. Soon, people began calling me the “Mercy Lady.” After that, I was just “Mercy.”

    [The dark clouds that had been roiling over us choose that moment to rip themselves open, sending cold rain down on us. I make the suggestion that we go to my car, but Mercy is hardened to such antics of the elements and ignores me. I sense she has more to say, so I pull my jacket collar up around my neck and cover my voice recorder with my baseball cap to keep it from shorting out.]

    I came in handy, though, on my mission. [Her face is almost indifferent, but her brown eyes seem heavy and dark with memory of experience.] I plotted out my route on a map and made copies for various people. I took a radio with me and notebooks and writing tools. Everywhere I went, I left a written account of what I’d found and done. Let whoever came after me know where – if any – the valuables I’d scavenged could be found. But, whenever I had radio contact, I would relay back to the safe zone what I’d found. It helped the Army to prepare for their own efforts.

    Why not just join the Army and go with them?

    [She shakes her head.] I’d already been out in the country for almost two years by the time they caught up with me. Ironically, it was in this state, somewhere south of here. But, yeah… two years. Two years in which the souls of the dead would have been in agony. I couldn’t… I just couldn’t leave them like that. Not when I knew and had the skills to do something about it.

    [She turns abruptly and begins walking towards my car and I follow quickly, grateful to be getting out of the rain. It soon becomes apparent that she was only escorting me to my vehicle, having said all she intended to say. It’s just as I’m getting ready to drive away that she delivers her parting words.]

    Y’know that other hokey, oft-quoted line…? [She smiles at my confusion.] “With great power comes great responsibility.”

    [I watch as she walks away from me, into the rain, into the storm. She’s a hazy speck in the distance by the time I put the car in gear and drive away.]

    13 Comments

    1. Though I can tell this comes to an end, I would /love/ to see it continued. The way it is written…it works so well that I can’t even make sense! XD Seriously, I adore this story, this ‘Mercy’ character, and every single piece that made it into what it is.

      Comment by Istas on February 22, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

    2. Thank you, Istas! =)

      Comment by Christine on February 23, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    3. Excellent story, loved it!

      Comment by Arna on March 31, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    4. Truly a great story, like Istas, I would love to see more! Keep writing my friend, you’ve got a gift.

      Comment by Glenn on May 22, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

    5. Ghosts? You almost lost me with that one. I loved her anger and the fact that the ghost made here feel responsible.

      Comment by Mike Barker on June 27, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    6. This story gave a powerful craving for some corn…mmmm,corn.

      Comment by SMEAR on July 25, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

    7. Good story. As many movies and and stories I’ve read, no one answers the question of souls. Interesting take on it. Ane yes, it does beg for another chapter.

      Comment by David on November 15, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    8. outstandign work a joy to read…Hope in the long dark night

      Comment by Thomas on December 19, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    9. One of the best, most perfect stories here. The only one I have yet found that really takes on the spiritual aspect of all that death. I have pretty much lost my faith but I often wondered what would the souls of the undead be doing if there is an afterlife? You have expressed that being a zombie is like existing in a fluid, murderous purgatory. It was so sad and at the same time uplifting and very, very well told. Like your character, you have discovered a gift and you need to keep nurturing it well. Excellent!

      Comment by Andre on January 8, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    10. Go Mercy! This story reminds me of the story Brooks put into World War Z about the Russian chaplain who started the trend of priests performing mercy kills on the infected.

      Comment by Liam on July 10, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    11. I love the creepy tormented souls attached to the body concept. It makes zombies that much scarier because the idea of eternal torment is horrifying.

      Comment by Chris on September 25, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    12. Zah ah naz gab harmanz. Grargh
      ———————————–
      Translated from kiZombie to English:

      That’s a nice story …for a human. LOL

      Comment by Feral Undead on December 3, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    13. I give this story a 9/10 for its powerful characterization and depth of narrative/descriptives. I would’ve loved to see more of Mercy in her early days, but as is this story could easily have been a WWZ chapter.

      I’ve often considered the notion that the souls of the humans the zombies once were could be trapped and helpless spectators to the atrocities of their instinct/hunger-driven rotten bodies. This story hit all the right notes.

      Have you considered seeking publication in an anthology for this story? It (and you) definitely have the chops.

      Comment by Shawn on October 24, 2010 @ 12:24 am

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