The high oak-board wall cutting across Prairie Road was overwhelmed with graffiti, portions of which were obscene, though chemicals and pressure washers had cleaned some of these areas away. These scoured-off areas left the wood’s surface rough, and were large enough for the high school’s art students to attempt to create vivid paintings of the Garden of Eden, the Statue of Liberty, and Christ’s burdened march through the crowds toward Golgotha. Words such as “survive” and “united” and “faith” spread through these images, as were phrases like “Support Our Troops” and “God Bless America.” Each scene had the added painted adornment of blazing, glorious crosses and flowing American flags.
Hairston watched the wall from behind the wheel, the truck’s engine purring into his calloused hands. Beside him, Rashid sucked on another bent Camel, gripping it awkwardly in his left hand. His right was swaddled in grubby bandages.
Birkey stepped out of the dusty office in a sweat-stained wifebeater, gripping the ten-gauge by the barrel. He was in his late-twenties and reeked of alcohol.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Delivery this close to dark?”
“Fergi and the Stone girl Capped this afternoon,” Hairston said. “Generator went down at the Clinic. They ain’t goin’t keep.”
“Be a hot night too,” Birkey said, his reddened eyes swimming as he leaned on the truck’s battered door. He looked across at Rashid. “How goes it, Jackie. Heerd you caught yer hand in a door.”
Rashid blew smoke in the cab. “Yuh,” he said.
Birkey looked at Hairston. Then he turned and nodded to Hilton inside the office.
The pump kicked on with a burst of air, heaving the wide mammoth door open with a heavy groan.
Hairston leaned closer to the unbearable Hilton. “We’ll be back in ten,” he said. “And don’t make me ask you twice to get this gate back open.”
The narrow road on the other side of the gate was rutted with potholes and scattered with trash and limbs and decaying hedgeapples fallen from the trees along the road. The rattling truck mashed this debris under its bald tires, Hairston being careful not to run too fast: a broken axel or blown tire could turn things around too quickly out here, and a good day could suddenly become very, very bad. He was already scanning ahead and left, where the high, lone trees, mausoleum, and stones of Prairie Rest Cemetery met the orange dusk sky. The field beside it leaned with crumpled corn stalks and trash along the ruined road: heads and shoulders, heads and shoulders — are you out yet?
Rashid cleared his throat, cigarette trembling in his good hand.
“Say again, Rash?”
“Up ahead,” Rashid muttered. “Boxcar’s boy. From last time.”
The bundle of rags against the road’s weed-choked shoulder had blackened in the heat. A tangle of dirty blond hair remained under some leaves blown over it in last week’s storm. What rested beneath was no longer than four feet and no fatter than Hairston’s thigh.
On the last Delivery — this one at noon, which was how it should be, when it was brightest — Boxcar’s firstborn had come after them as they drove out of the cemetery, after Delivering Peaches McGhee. The thing had clawed through the mass of knotted weeds grown up between the stones, throwing white foam and blood from its long mouth, its remaining baby teeth cut to quick razor-points. Someone had long ago thrust a steel icepick through its neck; the pick hung like an obtuse appendage, unwilling or incapable of falling out. One gray eye gaped cockeyed toward the white-hot sky; the other was missing entirely, a hollow socket of black rot. In that twisted eye, Hairston felt the unceasing determination of the damned — as real and undreamlike and as natural, maybe, as the throbbing buzz of the unseen locusts in the cemetery trees, and as furious as a minister slamming a Bible against the Sunday podium. It was a part of all of this. The thing meant to have them, and that was it.
They didn’t think they needed to kill it then. They thought it would lose interest in them once they pulled away. But when it had come out to the road, and when they saw it was going to head up to the gate, Rashid had dropped it with his rifle. It reeled for a single moment, half its skull caved away before falling.
The animals hadn’t touched its carcass. They never did.
“Yeah,” Hairston said, not looking anymore. “Boxcar’s boy, finally.”
He saw Rashid glance nervously back at the pickup’s bed, at the two bodybags. This week, it was Melvin Ferguson and a teenager named Carli Stone. Ferguson had been pushing ninety and died naturally at the Clinic, now located at the Armory. Superintendent Bigbie had Capped Fergi through the base of the skull when the Death brought his eyes back open. Carli Stone, however, had taken sick with meningitis several weeks back. Her parents, whose apostolic beliefs kept them from administering any of the medicine Doc Verdun prescribed, chose to pray over her instead. Hairston remembered her as a very pretty girl.
He wondered if Bigbie had put Sunday clothes on the girl after Capping her. Some folks still brought their dead to church for a service before sending them on to Prairie Rest. Some didn’t like the idea of their deceased riding to their final resting places in the bed of a beater truck, but until the hearse was fixed, they couldn’t do anything about it.
“We never been out this late,” Rashid said, flicking his cigarette out the window. He thumped a new one into his fingers. “This close to dark, I mean.”
Hairston looked at his knuckles on the cracked wheel, then at the windshield. Three bulletholes formed a straight line in the glass. The sun fired a brilliant spark in them: a flash of hot dusk.
“Well, we couldn’t get Fergi till Bigbie was ready. And in this heat, with the fridge generator out — ” he clicked his tongue ” — we got stinkers real quick.”
The standing corn opened to the wrought iron fence and leaning stones beyond.
First, heads, heads, any heads and shoulders? Anything moving out there?
The sun glimmered over the tilted monuments’ surfaces in viscious, blinding strikes, the grass crowding high and overgrown among gnarled weeds. At one time, Prairie Rest had once been the summer passion of one Philip Culp and his hired teenage help. Armed with riding mowers and weed-eaters, they’d descend upon the cemetery twice a week and spend all morning and afternoon tending it like it was the best lawn in some wealthy subdivision. But now, years later, fallen trees and limbs had shaken loose in the winds, crushing stones and tipping even the sturdiest monuments, some bearing such familiar last names as Meeker, Goeken, and Jeckel. A few of these graves and some others were now open holes twisted over with weeds and grass. The coffins and vaults in them had been stripped apart from the inside. These stones and holes sat in silence, their only company the things that hunkered among them once the sun was well below the town on the hill.
That was the part of day that belonged to them. Night was when they came from the woods at the rear of the cemetery. It was when they stayed among the stones and weeds, some even struggling over the short iron fence, moving into the trampled corn and out to the road. Daylight had them going back into the woods or holes by the stones for cover, as if they felt safer that way, as if that part of what they had once been remained. It made Hairston think of the small pile of sticks he had found one day in the ashen spot where Philly Culp and his teenagers used to burn brush.
Now, as August twilight crowded around the truck, the twisting cemetery road was empty. Hairston left the engine as idle as possible as the truck pushed forward. During one of his early trips out here he had bullied the truck recklessly along the road, its engine roaring. Minutes later, even though it had been noon and bright, heads and shoulders had appeared from the woods as he Delivered the Dead. Never again would he race the truck’s engine like that and especially not now. Not so close to dark.
“We’re crazy,” Rashid muttered. “This is crazy. We shoulda waited till morning.”
“Delivery’s ain’t gonna wait.” Hairston scanned through the stones.
“They coulda tonight. You know they’s ain’t goin’t let us back in once it gets dark. They wouldn’t let the President after dark.”
“President’s dead, Jackie.”
Rashid’s face was suddenly sprung against the window. His pause was thick with violent fear.
“What — ?” Hairston said, but he already knew what Rashid had seen, and then Hairston looked, craning his head right and through the cracked rear window at the sunstruck stones and the twisted, animal shape leaning into the road. What was left of its hands and arms grasped outward. Its mouth was a ragged, black hole.
Rashid was clicking through the chambers on his revolver. His hands were shaking worse now.
“It was only one,” Hairston mumbled.
“Don’t give me that,” Rashid breathed. His voice was trembling. “You know damn good where there’s one there’s ten more comin’ behind it.”
“You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack — ”
“I’ll live longer, I keep this with me.”
The sunken sun raised an old splatter of blood on the marble wall of the high mausoleum. Past rains had sent the blood streaking toward the earth. Watching the sun cast this weary light brought a sudden, deep sadness to Hairston. He could not understand it, no matter how hard he thought or felt. But it was there all the same, the light in August with its heat at this hour, its strange sepia melancholy. It brought him closer to the edge of something. As with the ferocity of Boxcar’s Dead boy, it was nearly a recognition about things, even something as mysterious as the Event, with its odd pulse: that slow electric vibration that arced through the air, cracking windows and picture glass and TV screens and cellular phone screens. It was as though something new had been thrust into motion, the universe undergoing a magnificent reboot.
He brought the truck around on the dust-road in front of the mausoleum after a sharp glance down the draw at the woods. Rashid kept his gun up as Hairston slipped the truck in reverse.
Beyond the mausoleum lay the improvised cemetery, three long, black-bagged rows tucked within the high brown grass at the rear edge of Prairie Rest. Each bag lay in the spot it had been set; each had a tag denoting name and date of Death.
Tonight, it was Delivery 402 and 403. As simple as the others before, it involved only backing the truck through the weeds, Deliver, and go — never any problems. You didn’t need to tinker around out here. No one from town came out to visit their loved ones, so the bags didn’t have to be in perfect order. You were only disposing, so that’s what you did, and you kept your ass in gear: get in, get out, get the fuck back to town and behind that wall.
The old Ford clunked toward Row Four where its sole resident, Peaches McGee, rested in her polyester coffin.
He hit the brakes not five feet from Row Four. Rashid’s head snapped backward, and out from it spat another curse. Hairston killed the engine — it would stall anyway if it idled longer than a minute — and told Rashid to come on, they still had all kinds of time.
As he seized the foot of Fergi’s bag, the humid air rattled through his head, ringing a dizziness through him. He heaved Fergi out, even though Fergi was as light as a bag of autumn leaves, and with Rashid helping, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. They moved around with Fergi, dropping him like that very sack of leaves beside Peaches.
There was a cackle behind them. Distant. He felt it like a cold needle in his brain, paralyzing his spine and bowels. The cackle was followed by a kind of low animal bellow. More low bellows followed, like sounds cattle make while being crowded into the kill room.
The leaves of the woods close to the ground across the trampled wheat field moved as if there was a breeze. The first of them began appearing there in the red light. When they saw the men and the truck, they cackled and bellowed and came into the field.
Rashid cursed, spitting his cigarette on the ground.
“Easy,” Hairston said, “they’re far enough away yet.”
But he knew Rashid was right. They were slow — absurdly slow. You could outrun them, you could sidestep them, even as you jabbed your closed fist at one, planting it in the melon: the thing wouldn’t see it coming and would likely topple, leaving you on your merry way. But that was with only one, a Sunday driver browsing unwanted through your backyard. Get them in their numbers and you had bigger problems. Only one bite from the slowest, dumbest Dead would be it for you. And in spite of their being slow and drunken and dumb, they each moved with some kind of unceasing fire. Never mind that that fire was a nothing pilot light, winking out only if you knew what you had to do with them. Forget knocking them over, they’d only struggle up and come after you again with their guttural moans, blank and unstoppable.
He had nightmares of them gathered at the oak fence at night, scratching at it, breaking decayed nails on it, banging their shoulders into it. One day, they would find their way back into town — someone would leave a gate open or a support post would come loose or a tree would pulverize the fence in a storm, letting them inside in hungry droves. It would be a surprise, bloodletting massacre. No cattle truck or horse trailer could round them up like before, depositing them miles from town. Only days after, they had made their way back to town, but found the newly constructed fence in their way. They ended up in Prairie Rest and in the woods except for a few who came up to the fence sometimes — the smart ones, Hairston always thought, because they remembered that what they lived for was behind that fence, with beating heart and hot blood —
A moaning bellow came from the edge of the woods, together, as if in a chorus.
An hour after the Event, Hairston had seen two cadavers break apart the front door of the Davis Funeral Home on Third Street. One was naked, dragging clear tubes hung from its ashen body; the other was in a suit, but the back had been slit open, letting the thing’s bare ass hang out. Both had blood smeared over their mouths and chins and hands. Together they had trapped a chained dog in a yard across the street. Pinning the animal against the path it had worn into the earth, they tore its hide cleanly from its body before pulling its head off. The screams coming out of the dog sounded more human than animal, as the two worked maliciously at it, their blood-streaked mouths long, shit-caked asses hanging wide in the open air.
That was what the Deads did to animals. Their treatment of humans trapped among them was no better. Their ravenous talon-fingers, once finding flesh, quite simply tore it. The vitals that spilled out were stuffed into mouths studded with spiked teeth that cut like surgical scissors. They knew only to kill, and then to stuff themselves with the killed. And no matter how much they ate, they only continued to eat. Once, during the short, caffeinated days following the Event, he had seen a naked man in an office tie slogging down Main Street. The man was so bloated that his blue-veined gut had split in a perfectly vertical fissure through his cavernous belly button, trickling black fluid onto the pavement like thin tar.
Poised at the truck’s bed, Rashid steadied his pistol against his right arm, aiming southeast into the trees.
“Hey, what — ”
The gun cracked through the thick August dusk. The Dead — which Hairston had not seen as it stumbled past the hood of toward the truck from the other direction — spun around to the earth, its skull blown in half.
At the explosion of the gun, the Deads moving out of the woods into the field bellowed again. They were louder now. Getting closer.
Hairston grabbed the end of Carli Stone’s bodybag and yelled at Rashid.
Rashid only looked at him, his eyes struck wild with fear.
“Now!” Hairston shouted.
Hanging onto his revolver, Rashid seized the head of the bag. Together they walked with the girl, letting her roll into place beside Fergi.
A snarl surged from the Deads at the sight of the two men in the open. For the first time, Hairston looked directly at them.
He bit down on his lips. His balls sucked up cold and black.
In the red August dusk, there must have been hundreds of them in that field, with more pushing out of the dark woods. Every one of them had dwindled to skin and bones, caked in filth and blood and donning greasy, tattered rags. Others were naked or only partially clothed, ribs massaging ashy skin, blank faces slack and gaunt. Of those men that were naked, their penises swung long like veined pendulums in the air. Many of the Deads had been injured while in the country or in offenses by the living, resulting in missing or hanging arms and legs. Many were marred with cracked wounds weeping black and yellow buttery fluid. Their mouths had gone long as if their jaws had unhinged, exposing deep, gaping blacknesses around long dirty-green teeth and swollen charcoal tongues. From these giant mouths came sounds produced by vocal cords shattered by years of slow rot.
Hairston suddenly found himself automatically looking for anyone he knew in that shifting crowd, those he hadn’t seen since it all happened —
And thought he saw Olson Briggs, a farmer still in spotted workpants and workshirt. Briggs was now missing an arm, his face greasy with blankness. Joany Peters was there too — Joany, who had been a classroom aid at the grade school, lurched along in her stained panties. One of her breasts was a mangled, twisted mass of hollow flesh. The skin on the left side of her face was gone, exposing the dusty bones of her skull and jawbone and teeth.
Hairston wanted to bring his gun up to put her down, and in fact was reaching for his revolver when Rashid shouted at him.
Rashid was at the truck, his door open, ready to hop in, ready to get back to safety —
Rashid, you sonofabitch.
The Mayor had put it all to him. In his office. With the door closed. The Mayor had kept his blue eyes cold and against him. Hairston almost felt safer in Prairie Rest. At midnight.
Your dark friend, what’s his story? the Mayor had said. Caught his hand in a door? Ten thousand to one. And in the same week Mandy doesn’t show up for the chili supper at the Legion on Friday night? An event she’s been working for years? A million to one.
I could leave him on the old 155 highway, Hairston had said. He wouldn’t come back. Let him find another town —
Let him go, you mean. His kind in another town like ours. You surprise me, Hairston. Out of everyone, I’d think you would understand loyalty. This wifebeater is your friend — has he been loyal to you? Or has he put you in a position which compromises your well-being? His stupidity is astounding. He hasn’t understood — nor will he ever understand — that the early days taught us that we would have to start over. They taught us that after survival for self comes survival for family and then for community. Parameters, boundaries, and walls of justice, my friend, are all we have now. Loyalty keeps them there. Now you tell me: what else should we do with him?
Heads and shoulders were coming now on the other side of them, among the stones and swaying weeds. A few were at the road and ready to come across the matted grass. In a matter of minutes, they’d be at the truck.
But first, the Mayor.
In one motion, Hairston pulled his revolver out of the holster and let it fire.
The bullet caught Rashid through the calf in a spray of blood. Rashid screamed from inside the cab, buckling backward into the grass. His jeans leg was wet with dark blood. One hand clawed at it madly as his other scrambled for his revolver.
“What the fuck, Joey?” he screamed.
Hairston fired again. This time the bullet caught Rashid in the gut. Blood showered across the dusty grass, and Rashid screamed again.
A rising, angry bellow surrounded them in the hot twilight.
“You were out here a few days ago, weren’t you, Jackie?” Hairston shouted. “Special Delivery, I guess? Why don’t you tell me about your wife now, Jackie? Or tell me how you really hurt your hand — was it all self-defense or did you just want to see how it’d do again on her face? How long did it take you to figure she’d get the Death in her, you dumb fuck, don’t you know by now it’s in the fuckin’ air — ”
Rashid’s gun fired, but the bullet skewed off a stone before Hairston’s boot stood on his wrist. He wrenched the pistol out of Rashid’s hand.
“Don’t — ” Rashid spat. Blood spurted from his mouth. “Don’t leave me — ”
The Deads beyond the truck were draped in shadows, moving across the grass with that low sick humming sound. Those from the woods had reached the grass, laboring over the bodybags.
“I get called into the Mayor’s office for you, friend,” Hairston said. “That’s all I need to leave you.”
Rashid choked blood into the brittle grass. His T-shirt was wet with guts.
“The Mayor thinks it evens out, Jackie, and for once I agree with him. The world can go to shit but you still gotta have a sense of what’s right.” Hairston leaned closer to him. “What’s that?”
“Alone,” Rashid spat. “Don’t let me — die — alone — ”
“No one ever dies alone anymore, Jackie,” he said and was moving for the truck before he was done saying it. The first Deads hovered so close they were within punching distance. The closest one looked a lot like Shelly Baker, who was once the manager of the only grocery store in town. Straining for him with blood-grimed hands, she cackled. Turning toward her, he put his pistol at her fat moon-face and fired, blowing her skull bones and brains through the air.
Something tugged at his other arm’s sleeve. He turned just as searing fire scorched through the back of his arm. He screamed as the ragged thing — a boy probably no older than seven — gripped his arm with its teeth, its eyes black and dusty.
The thing gave a quick, smart shake and tore away from him, a hot chunk of flesh clamped in its teeth.
With white pain screaming through his arm, Hairston turned and fired, the bullet tearing into the thing’s neck. It staggered back, hands forcing the spraying hunk into its working mouth. Two of the closest Deads veered from Hairston and toward the child, knocking it over in the grass, fighting for the meat.
He screamed again, collapsing into the passenger side of the pickup’s cab. Bony fingers seized at his legs, clamping at his jeans in a wash of decayed odor, but he kicked at them, planting the soles of his boots in their chests, their jaws, their necks. When they faltered back, he slammed the door and squared himself painfully in the driver’s seat.
Seconds later, the engine fired like an explosion, drowning the swarming mass’ groans, drowning Rashid’s screaming as he lay in the deadened grass, hands on his ruined gut. He continued screaming as the truck slipped into gear and rolled into the crowd, Deads clawing at its windows and rusted body, breaking torn nails and pressing long mouths to the dirty glass, smearing spit and blood and bellowing the whole time.
He was even screaming as they swallowed him under their talon-fingers and chewing jaws, and even as his old third grade teacher, still in the dress she’d worn to school on the day of the Event, her white hair flecked with blood, ate his heart.
Hairston gunned the Ford on the cracked cemetery road, the late summer twilight dark against the truck’s smeared glass. The Deads had thinned out finally so that they weren’t forcing themselves at the truck anymore, leaving streaks of yellowish birdshit spit and blood on the glass. By the time they’d fallen back, following each other to get a piece of Rashid before he was gone, Hairston had run over several, gassing the truck enough so that those against it had their legs snapped under the tires, and those in front of it slamming against the grill before dropping under, their expressions identical in blank surprise.
The rest shambled scarcely against the road, silhouetted beside dark stones and trees. He drove past them with his elbow tucked at his side, hot with dribbling blood. It soaked his shirt and pants, its coppery odor filling the cab and his head.
He swallowed dryly. His head swam with that familiar spinning drunkenness. He couldn’t bring himself to think what it meant now, or what he would be in a few short hours, or what he knew needed to be done. It would only be what was right, and right would come as it had come to Rashid, and as it had on those cold stiff days on the backstreets of Pekin down by the river factories in the old posse. It had been like sport in the days after the Event, taking swift target practice on heads, all with a bottle passed among them — everyone, even the Mayor. They had done what they could on those days when it was dawning on them that everything needed done all over again. The Mayor, together with what they had done inside the walls, knew what he was talking about: right was right, no matter what went on in the filthy horror outside those walls.
A Dead who looked about twenty crouched naked in one of the trees that cut into the sky, penis hanging almost halfway to the ground like a long gray rope. With its mouth as long as a tennis shoe, it stuck a finger at Hairston and cackled as if it knew, its thick tongue curled black against the side of its mouth.
At the cemetery exit, he saw a young woman standing with slumped shoulders in the truck’s headlights. She wasn’t as dirty as the rest of them, nor was she as thin and haggard. Her once-stylish blonde hair was now a filthy tousle. The left side of her face was swollen black and yellow. She watched him with her one eye, mouth drooped long.
He saw chewed twine hanging from her wrists.
He turned onto Prairie Road and gave the truck gas. His breathing shallower now, he thought of Hilton and Birkey and their problem-solver ten-gauges up at the oak-board gate.