“Some days you just want to walk out there and let the zombies munch on ya… Not!”
Nobody laughed. The skinny man with the smile that didn’t reach his eyes poured his last drop of hot sugar-water into the coals. They were out of coffee, tea, out of everything. Time to get on the road, do some scavenging. He turned to the joker.
“You are hilarious, Kermit, just freaking hysterically funny…”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, Ski!”
Kermit scowled and went back to packing. Breakfast had been stale Oreos and peanut butter crackers. The teenage girl with the dark eyes, who had joined them two days back and not said much, was standing at the second-floor window, looking out on the cold Octobers dawn.
“Why do they do it?” She asked.
“Why, what, Dar? Zombies?” Kermit shrugged. “Coz? Just because they do.”
“They fall down, Daria, and then they get back up again,” Ski interrupted. “And now the world is a different place, but it always is; a different place every morning, every day. Now… the dead don’t rest in peace without we help them, and there are a whole lot of them to help.”
They got ready, and used the rope ladder to climb down past the stairs that they had cut away last night. The wood, some of it, had made a fire in the makeshift fireplace upstairs in the little girl’s room. That one had been locked in the cellar, and Ski and Kermit had put her down for general safety and as a favor to the parents, who, according to a note that had been left, hadn’t been able to bring themselves to do it. They had spent a little while last night, over the baked beans, discussing whether those people might have made it. Notes left behind, and loved ones locked away, to keep them from wandering, were a common enough thing on their journey, but they had yet to meet any of the note-writers.
Daria led off. She had established that precedent on her first day with them, always taking point without a word. It was not to be discussed, except between the two men, quietly, when she was asleep (and not fighting in her nightmares) or using the bathroom of a ‘safe’ house for privacy. They headed, generally, east, scavenging houses and businesses and avoiding the herds that formed from time to time. Zeke did what he did, and one thing they did was just start following one another. They hadn’t run into any really big crowds of them, but Ski thought that above a certain size, the crowd might not break up, just making enough of a commotion at the core that those on the edges never wandered away.
The trick to moving through zombie infested areas was to be faster than the zombies, and stay aware. If you saw one, there were always three more you hadn’t seen. Fortunately, these weren’t horror movie zombies. Zeke was slow and dumb, one on one. They rotted away, slowly but inexorably, and Ski wondered about that. He didn’t have the education, or the time, but he imagined that there must be some sort of zombie factor, in the air and water, which caused all the dead to come back now. They also ‘shared the love’, infecting with a bite or a scratch, so that you turned into one. It only affected humans, which meant that there would still be food to eat, when all the supplies ran out. Most animals had enough sense to be where Zeke wasn’t, but their little band had to go where the supplies might be had, houses, stores and warehouses. The other thing to remember was that Zeke was very dangerous in numbers, and some of the ‘walkers’, the walking dead, liked to move together. It might have been some sign of herding or schooling behavior, or like lobsters in a train, the blind following the blind.
The key to surviving was to see them coming and out-walk them, to sleep where they couldn’t reach you, to live quietly and walk softly. They had all seen some of the earlier survivors, drunk on destruction and grief, go out in a blaze of glory, in orgasmic gun-battles that put down hundreds of the undead and called together thousands. In those first days and weeks, ‘Zeke, Mort and Morticia’ had all been fairly fresh cuts of meat, spry and sometimes surprisingly dangerous. These three survivors, even Kermit, had learned the true value of caution. The meek really had inherited the Earth.
By noon they had made a few miles with no appreciable finds, and crossed the river that separated two urban areas. It was burnt out, a firestorm that had happened a few weeks previously from the looks of things. This was typical of the landscape they now moved through, undead and untended by the living; refineries and factories had burned. The oil and natural gas tanks had gone up like Nagasaki or Hiroshima. It had the effect of clearing out some of the undead. Ski and Kermit had actually witnessed dozens of zombies drawn to a firestorm like moths to the flame, snuffed out as they walked around in the inferno, or sometimes spreading the fire when they walked out again, fat rendering and sizzling like a pine log on an autumn bonfire.
“We really gonna do this, Ski? I don’t like it.” Out in the open was vulnerable, now. They could see Zeke coming, but an urban environment offered more vertical routes. Zeke didn’t climb very well. In fact, he or she mostly went downhill, and even a slight grade was a significant obstacle.
“It’s a risk, but we can cover more ground this way. Maybe get to that distribution center, and out again, before dark.”
“I shoulda stayed in bed…”
“Did I ever tell you two about the time when I slept in? An ankle-biter climbed up through a third-story window and right into bed with me! Never woke up so fast in my life…”
“That never happened!” Daria said, and actually laughed. The two men exchanged a look. Kermit gave Ski a sloppy, two-fingered salute. The smile actually reached Ski’s eyes for once. He was always worried about everything now, but especially the young girl and her troubles; the ones she hid away from them.
“Oh yes it did! Surprised the hell out of the guy I was with back then and he… Well he said I was a lucky bastard,” Ski finished lamely, remembering how that one really went. He’d been alone again for a week and then he had found his good buddy Kermit. Ski shook his head ruefully. No good deed goes unpunished.
They went cross-country at march-and-jog, in a pace which ate up miles. You ran or jogged a hundred paces, then walked, then jogged again. Ski had picked that one up from an old novel about a Roman legionnaire. The regimen warmed you up, got you limber and ready, without completely tiring you out, unless you were out of shape to begin with. Ski remembered that joke from the beginning of Zombieland, about how fatty was zombie-chow. He had enjoyed the farce, but it wasn’t so funny now. He’d known one or two people who thought this was all one big amusement park, but they were dead, or undead, now, and maybe had been, even then.
The jogging didn’t hurt your situational awareness much. The idea was to attract Zeke’s attention from a long ways off so that you could avoid him. Walking up on a mess of a zombie that hadn’t been aware of you until you were on top of him or her, perhaps literally, was not fun. Then you bashed it’s skull in and got going, zigging and zagging and doubling back.
They ran into their first real trouble of the day when Daria discovered a void under the ashes. She cried out and jumped to one side, going to one knee. A cloud of ash rose, along with a faint moan from under the wreckage. Ski and Kermit rushed forward, but she held up her hand, palm out and then made a fist, for ‘hold!’
“What’d ya find, Dar?” Kermit called out, turning around to look at the short line trailing them. The best defense is a good offense, and he’d need to put that into effect if they were held up long. He rolled his head on his neck and waited with calm, not bored, not excited, look. It felt like he’d done this forever. He unconsciously rubbed handle of his Halligan tool, muttering, “It’s all good, buddy,” as if saying it made it so.
Ski rolled his eyes at that, but bit back a sarcastic comment. To each his own and whatever it took. After the end of the world, you developed an appreciation for the fine art of getting by. Kermit had his own style, and so did Daria. Ski edged up on her carefully, a timer in his head counting down the seconds until their first arrival. “What did you find, Daria?”
“We’re in a housing development. This was a home, and I almost landed in the basement on top of the current occupant,” she said, pointing. He was at her back and looked over her left shoulder, down into a wrecked rec room, full of water and a half-burnt zombie, now water-logged. The stagnant water hadn’t been kind. It clung to debris with one good arm, not able to climb out, bobbing like an apple. Ski considered sparing it a bullet, but decided against it. Bullets were a finite resource, and tended to attract more trouble than they resolved. Besides, he really couldn’t imagine that this one was dangerous any more. Her burned lower jaw had almost rotted away. As he watched, she opened and closed her mouth, and then her jaw came loose on the left side, hanging down on the right.
Pity was weakness, and pointless, but he took out his pistol and put one in her skull anyway. This wasn’t about the zombies, after all, was it? Daria said, “Thanks.”
“I’m sorry I got us into this…”
“Don’t be. We’ll be fine-”
“Incoming, people!” Kermit shouted and swung. There was a meaty crunch and a sort of sucking sound as he pulled the spike out of the fallen zombie’s skull. “One more down, three hundred million to go!”
Ski and Daria chuckled. Gallows humor ruled the day, and they both thought that Kermit’s obsession with the Zombie-apocalypse as an American problem, thus the three hundred million number, had a certain ass-backward charm to it. Daria had worked the problem over, for what it was worth, with wildly varying variables. How many suicides, how many competent suicides, how many undead that the survivors might have already accounted for… All very morbid, but somewhat soothing after a fashion, reality at one remove. Together they said, “Let’s roll!”
How the mighty had fallen; this distribution center had been part of one of the world’s most profitable businesses. It was debatable if Big Oil was a better performer, what with the indecent profits on the erratic price of crude. At least no one had to worry about Hubble’s Peak anymore. The remaining half of the world’s oil could remain below ground until it bubbled up by natural processes. Now zombies were no longer just a metaphor for consumerism and affluenza; and the ‘S’ mart was as dead as the United States of America.
“The corporation is dead; long live the corporation…”
“Nothing, Kermit. Let’s go see what’s left to salvage,” Ski told him. The bullet pockmarks were not encouraging but at least it hadn’t burned. There might be something here other than undead sales associates, customers and raiders. Something worth the risk.
There was a dog. One moment he was there, and the next one he wasn’t. But Kermit whistled and called, “C’mere, boy,” and then the dog came back out of hiding.
He was a black lab with some other breed mixed in; a big fur ball with a white patch on the back of his neck where there wasn’t a collar. He had a startling, purple-splotched tongue and stood there with it lolling lazily, silently laughing at them in the manner of his kind.
Ski said, “What have you been up to? And how have you survived…”
The dog’s intelligent eyes looked up into his, ever hopeful. He did not bark, but he sidled up cautiously and shied away from the hand that Kermit reached out to his neck. The scarred dog stared intently into each of their faces and then trotted over to Daria, putting his head under her hand. He whined a little and she suddenly went to one knee and hugged the dog for all she was worth. It was a desperate, naked thing, sobs racking her whole body, and both men looked away.
After a while Kermit asked, “Friend of yours?”
“No, I’ve never met this dog before in my life…” Daria answered with her voice muffled by fur. She looked over her shoulder at them. “We had an Australian Shepherd; Mollie.”
Ski walked over and offered the mutt his closed fist to be sniffed. ‘What now?’ he thought, and Kermit drawled, “Well, I guess you done picked up another stray, Ski…” Ski glared at him. Daria was looking at him intently.
“Oh, all right! But if we get hungry enough, I’m dressing him out and we’re eating dog!”
“Don’t worry, Scar, he doesn’t mean that…”
“You named the dog already?” Kermit said. “I was gonna do that!” Daria stuck her tongue out at him.
Ski smiled. “You gotta be faster off the mark, Kermit. This is Daria’s dog anyway, so what did you expect?”
Scar was looking from face to face, tongue lolling, happy, laughing at their curious antics. And then he turned and whined, an urgent low sound, not a scared excited bark.
“Zombies? The wonder-pooch got a spidey-sense?” Kermit muttered, turning towards the indicated direction and casting automatically to the left and right. “Anybody see them, yet? Maybe behind us?” He took the time to look over his shoulder. “It seems clear.”
“No, on your far right. Kay-Zee with a teddy bear,” Daria said. “Jesus wept… two of them, looks like brother and sister.”
Kermit turned half towards them and seemed to fall in on himself. “God damn this. It just goes on and on…” He stood there while the kiddie zombies advanced.
Ski met and made short work of the threats with a swing of his crowbar that caved in the skull the zombie seven year old on his left, followed on his back-swing by the zombie five year old on his right. As the weight of the quieted KZ dragged it off of the hooked end of his crowbar, he reminded them, “They’re dead. You can’t hurt them anymore. And now they can’t hurt you.”
Scar barked once for their attention and charged into a clump of five or six that had turned the corner while they dithered. He didn’t bite, and steered clear of their grasp as best he could, content with knocking them down and getting them all turned around. He didn’t yap excitedly, but growled or snarled or yipped with purpose, as another hardened veteran of the zombie apocalypse. One of the ankle-biters did manage to crawl up behind Kermit, and Scar bounded up to land on its back and then away again. Kermit put the pointy end of his weapon in the zombie’s skull and that was that.
“Thanks for the assist, dog-breath. Good job!”
Scar permitted himself one happy bark and then went to look around the corner. He came back, looking at them as if to say, ‘What are you waiting for?’
There were a few more, but no great numbers of them. The three humans methodically cleared the section which they were most interested in and barricaded themselves away from grasping hands and empty mouths. There were two or three routes out for when they were done, not counting the way they had arrived. As a general rule the group avoided retracing their steps, where there tended to be more zombies stirred up and attracted to their back-trail. Much depended on when and what and how much they would be carrying away with them. The leavings of looters in those first disorganized days were often good pickings, but also sometimes heartbreaking, like a burst bag of flour or a family’s abandoned photo album.
“Why do you suppose they brought that this far?” Kermit asked, pointing. “And then left without it?”
“Some things are too painful to be reminded of,” Daria told him and picked up the album to page through it. There were tear-stains on the last page and she recognized two of the children in the family portrait. Daria closed the album and set it back down.
Their little band continued their gleaning and took their finds with them while there was still a few hours of daylight left to find a safe place to fort up for the night. It was a nice house, zombie-proofed but abandoned. The first-floor windows were covered with plywood and the steel-core doors were scratched and covered in dried blood. No heat and water, which was probably why it had been abandoned, but otherwise a good find.
They tired of speculating about that, and fell to talking about other things. Things they missed, or had hated about the old world, a subject which Kermit and Daria went at with great enthusiasm, and Ski rather less so, until he had had enough.
“The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference- haven’t either of you ever heard that?” They both shook their heads and Ski muttered, “Public education my ass! Criminal indifference is what it was. Look, indifference is opposite because you don’t love or hate; you just don’t care. I don’t remember, this was some guy, some philosopher, talking about the Holocaust.”
“Anyway, Zeke is mostly indifferent to us. He or she doesn’t care about anything except eating our flesh. They… want to eat our life, they need to fill up the emptiness inside, and they never can, because they’re dead.”
The three of them sat in silence for a little bit, while the fire burned low.
“What the hell were you, Ski? A professor?”
“Sure, I was accredited in the school of hard knocks.” He looked into the middle distance, remembering. “I’ve been a lot of things; a college drop-out, a mechanic and truck driver, a scab, and I even did some community theater. I worked a couple of summers in a Ren Faire, and once I worked for the absentee companies buying up sugar-cane down in Belize. That was funny and scary. Some dispute over the sugar content in the crop, and the farmers torched a government minister’s car. Those poor peasants actually screwed themselves over; the company was trying to be fair and pay them by the content, not by weight…”
“I have a healthy respect for learning and knowledge, but little good to say about most of the institutions of higher learning. Except, they’re gone now, and we need a plan for when we actually get back on our feet- a plan, hell, to get us back on our feet. So I made me a list and I’ve been picking up books along the way. How-to books- soap, gunpowder and alcohol; penicillin. Blacksmithing, animal husbandry, plumbing, carpentry. Maybe how to turn a car alternator into a generator for a windmill or a little dam. Hell, steam engines! Whatever I think would be useful.”
Daria picked up a paperback that was on top of the pile. Ski had been browsing through it, re-reading his favorite bits. “What about this novel? ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’?”
“Yeah, well I liked the one with Harry Red better, but Footfall muddles the message with aliens. This has got cannibals and kings; people finding out what they’re made of after the end of their world. Crap.” Ski wiped at his eyes.
“What message, Ski?” Kermit asked.
“That civilization isn’t just the things, the hardware and technology. It’s also the software, the ideas and values. It’s something that you carry with you, in your heart.”
The next morning Ski and Kermit went down to the stream behind the houses to get a few buckets of water. They sterilized drinking water with a little bleach, and boiled it when they could, which was the plan for this morning. Daria waved to them from a second-story window, and Kermit paused. It was a view worthy of consideration and did all kinds of interesting things for him. Ski shut the door of the house with a little too much force and their eyes met.
“Kermit, we had this discussion. No looking, no touching.”
“I can’t help what I was think-”
“Thinking leads to doing, Kermit. And that’s no good for you.” Ski leaned in close and Kermit winced at each word. “I. Will. Kill. You. And we don’t want that, do we?”
“You can’t talk to me like that-”
“If I have to, then I will. Now get this through your thick, drug-addled head. That old world, where you did whatever you could get away with and kept lawyers gainfully employed? Gone. Do you even understand the concept of a lifeboat?”
“What!? What’s a boat got to do with-”
“Everything and nothing, genius! There is no literal lifeboat, but we are all in the same tight spot. Don’t rock the boat!”
“Well, who died and made you captain?”
“I did, and you did, when you didn’t act like you’re responsible for three lives now, not just your own pathetic rat-” Ski stopped himself, deciding regretfully to change tack.
“Do I have to tell Daria about where I found you?” Blackmail didn’t sit well with him; naked threats were at least clean and honest.
“No,” Kermit answered in a very small voice.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I said ‘No!’”
“Good. See that I never have to, and we’ll all be-”
“Why is it you’re like this?”
Ski actually smiled. The man just might do. “I don’t want to be ‘like this’. I could have killed you, the first time you fucked up and got high. Or left you for Zeke.”
Kermit scowled but said nothing.
“You two are the only people in my world now. I love you both-”
“Alright, now you’re starting to freak me out!” Both men laughed.
“Even so, I will do whatever it takes to keep us all alive, get us someplace safe, maybe find some more people. I’m just greedy that way.”
Kermit nodded and turned to lead off. He stopped cold when Ski put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it tight.
“Tough love, Kermit. Don’t forget or misunderstand.”
The path down to the stream was reasonably clear; they only ran into one of the walking dead and dispatched her without any difficulty. Kermit looked down at the corpse.
“Do you remember what she said? ‘You’ve got nothing to fear from the walkers. It’s other people you should be worried about.’ What do you suppose she meant?”
“That one has a lot to say and someday she’ll say it. But not yet.”
“But what about the other people? I mean, we’ve had our troubles, but…”
“Kermit, she’ll tell us when she wants to, when she can. Come on, let’s get to it.”
“She cries at night-”
“Kermit!” Ski rounded on him. Kermit raised his Halligan tool, and Ski smiled coldly.
“Is that how you want it? I found you locked up, dying of thirst and scared out of your mind. Do you really want it to be this way?”
Kermit clenched and unclenched his jaw for a full minute, then whirled as Ski looked past him and his eyes widened. There were three zombies following their back-trail, and Kermit let loose a strangled scream as he went for them.
It was the worst way to fight, blindly attacking with a white rage filling his head. Kermit put everything into that first swung and the big fat zombies’ head fairly exploded into raining chunks, but the halligan got hooked in the neck bones and was wrenched from his hands as the big one went down. Kermit stood there stupidly for a half second, looking from the Halligan tool to the second zombie staggering toward him, then backed up and tripped over a fallen tree limb.
Kermit hadn’t survived this long merely on luck, and he scrambled for the piece of wood. He drew it out from under him and his heart sank as it fell apart with dry rot, but he shoved it up and at the lanky zombie anyway. That one staggered back and over, knocking the third one away. Kermit got his feet under him and threw the bits of wood at the third zombies’ head. She looked like she had been out jogging.
“Ski!? You gonna help me?”
“What’s the magic word?”
“Huh? Please?” Kermit glanced over his shoulder. Ski was standing there with his crow bar at the ready, waiting. “God damn it! Help me!”
Kermit turned back as the third one reached for him and he grabbed her forearms, glad to be wearing work gloves. He shoved her back and away, into the lanky one, and circled around to the right, keeping the fat one’s corpse between himself and the tangled zombies. He reclaimed his Halligan tool and felt a little bit better. Instinctively he circled back around towards Ski and then stopped.
“You really aren’t going to help me?”
“What it boils down to is this- I’m in charge, or we’re all dead.”
“Not good enough.”
“Oh yeah?” Kermit swung and quieted the jogger zombie, dropping it towards lanky one. He got his tool back with a practiced wrench of the handle. Then he spit and stepped back. “Well, ‘aye-aye, Captain,’ then!”
A nice round rock from the stream bed flew past Kermit and struck the lanky zombie in the forehead. Ski followed close behind it, coming around Kermit on his right. He swung the hook of the crow-bar up behind the zombies’ ear. It dropped and Ski dragged it over to the other two, rolling it on its’ belly and unhooking the crowbar.
“Let’s get this water back up to the house. Daria will be worried about us.”
Ski and Kermit came back to the house to find Daria waiting for them with their gear to go. “We’ve got trouble,” she said simply and by way of briefing them led them upstairs.
A rather lot of zombies were going past in the residential street on the front side of the house, going North. Anything they were doing in any great numbers was always dangerous, so she brought the good pair of binoculars with them up to the third floor. Ski looked through them to see what she had already seen. There was something on the horizon, a boiling, rolling mass upon the hills on the other side of the river to the west.
“Oh my god.” Ski realized he had spoken aloud. He handed the binoculars to Kermit.
Kermit swore. “Thousands, maybe tens of thousands. All coming this way, and then our local zombies will swell their ranks…the army of darkness.”
“Do we run or do we hole up?” Daria asked, and Ski looked from her to Kermit.
Even the damn dog was watching him intently, Ski thought. He had to pull himself together, and after a moment he did.
“We run, as fast and quiet, and as far as we can.”
They ran for it; they ran through and around clumps of the locals attracted towards the sounds across the river. The little band made short work of what they had to get through, skirted what they could and sidetracked around a crowd of them piling out of a diner in the center of town.
“It’s a good, crisp afternoon for a little jog,” Ski commented with a grin. He was in the lead, for once; he had insisted. Daria and Kermit ran after him and shared a smile. Even the mutt at their heels had a doggy grin.
“What are you,” Kermit gasped, “so happy about, sunshine?”
“Him. He was so close to despair, before. And now- Now he’s got his second wind,” Daria answered easily, finding their pace well within her limits.
Kermit glanced down at the dog. “Is it just me,” he huffed, “or am I stuck in the Z-pocalypse,” and he huffed again,” with two loons and a pound puppy?!”
Scar gave one happy bark and raced on ahead.
They made their way out of town and fast-walked a little while, to rest, although Daria and her dog took the lead again and kept the two men from letting up very much. They came to the interstate cloverleaf at the edge of town and found it blocked and broken. Abandoned and burned-out cars and trucks choked the lanes, but the high over-pass of the two major local roads was completely down, like someone had fought a rear-guard action here and blown it all up behind them.
“Crap!” Kermit said and looked behind them, where half the town, the half that wasn’t going to the river to meet up with the thousands still coming this way, was following them.
“We go up.” Ski said.
“What about the dog?” Daria demanded.
“The dog-“ Kermit sputtered.
Ski cut him off. “Your dog comes with us and takes the same chances as us. Now, quick, let’s rig up a carry for him.”
They roped the dog up, looping around his legs and over his back. Scar waited patiently, looking past at the oncoming threat and licking the girls’ face. She told him “Good dog!” and Scar wagged his tail.
“Up you go,” Ski said when they had him ready. “Ladies first.” Daria just gave him an ironic look and took the rugged slope at a half-run. “Careful, damn it!”
“Because she’d insist on leading the way?” Kermit commented.
“Because she’s in the best shape, and lightest, and damnation! We take care of her-”
“So she can take care of us?”
“She- she reminds us of what’s good in the world. Reminds us to be men!”
“Amen, Ski. Now, can we please get going?”
They made their ascent of Mt. Rubble in stages, hoisting the dog up the bad parts. Daria took the lead at first but even she needed a break and switched off with Kermit, who claimed to have done a little rock climbing. Out of shape or not, he had surprised Ski by knowing what he was doing.
Unfortunately, a few of the zombies on the far side of the broken overpass were fairly fresh cuts of meat and up to the challenge. They climbed around to the survivors, two, then three, of them between Daria and Ski.
“Keep going, damn it!” he gasped and then he bashed the first one and then the second one in the head with his crowbar. They slumped and together very nearly pulled the third one with them to roll down the steep slope, over the edge to a forty foot drop to the interstate. Ski turned to put some more distance between himself and the last one just as the damn dog started barking and the girl shouted, “Ski, look out!”
There was an ankle biter in fatigues, the mere scraps of a national guardsman in a crevasse of the concrete, lunging for Ski’s throat. It was inside of his reach, but somehow managed to get the crowbar wedged between then. He held on for dear life as he winkled the undead guardsman carefully out of his hole and over. Then he scrabbled as his handhold gave way and he slid after it.
Ski arrested his fall just enough that he caught another handhold at the edge the other zombies had tumbled over and teetered. He could not pull himself back. Ski felt his strength ebbing as the rotten concrete gave around the rusty rebar and he looked down at the upturned faces. “Not,” he gasped, “this… way!”
He fell. Daria screamed and Kermit grabbed her hand before she could start down. “No!”
“You don’t know that! Not for sure!”
Kermit sighed and looked at her and then her dog. He stepped down to where that third zombie was still struggling on, oblivious, and ended its pursuit. Daria was watching him closely.
“We lift each other up, when we fall down.”
‘She reminds us to be men,’ Kermit thought. “He said ’We are the captains of our lifeboats,’ or something like that.” Maybe… it was time to accept that. Kermit sighed again.
“I’ll go get him, or see to what’s left of him.” To the dog he said, “Stay!”
Scar whined disagreeably but sat down and watched him go, then looked up at the girl. “It’ll be alright,” she told him, and wondered who she was trying to reassure; herself or the dog.
Ski came around to the sounds of groans; his own. He felt something touching his boots and he kicked instinctively, scrambling back, or trying to. When he tried to move his left leg there was a flash of pain. He gritted his teeth and kicked again, anyway. He got backed up and facing the open end of the little space between two slabs of concrete. The zombie that had been pulling at his boots was trying to climb up into the space, which was at head height, but he was finding it hard, what with the competition. Ski gulped as he took in the sea of undead faces.
Rubble fell from above, and the chunks fell into and beyond the open end. Ski looked up, warding it off with his left arm. He caught a glimpse of Kermit and then the sounds of a struggle, which he couldn’t see. Then Kermit cursed and a body fell into the crowd, but Ski was relieved to see that it wasn’t Kermit. The man climbed down into the ‘V’ of concrete with Ski, winded and favoring his right arm. His Halligan tool was nowhere to be seen.
“Have a rough time of it?” Ski commented. “Or… did you need to think things over?”
“A little bit of both,” Kermit answered. He looked from Ski to the crowd of zombies and then back to Ski again. “You’re probably wondering if I came back down here to kill you.”
“I admit that the thought had crossed my mind.”
Kermit nodded and stomped on some grasping fingers from below, then kicked a nightmare face with good steel-toed boots. “To tell the truth, I wasn’t really sure what I’d do, myself; I told Dar that I’d see to you, if, y’know…”
He held up his bleeding right forearm, showing Ski the bite. “Somebody made up my mind for me; isn’t that hilarious?”
Ski nodded sadly. “It has me in stitches.”
“I was pretty mad at you, y’know? I thought you were playing the ‘Papa Wolf’ thing up or you wanted me out of the way so’s you could have her to yourself, ya dirty old bastard-“
“She’s pregnant and I’m pretty sure it was rape,” Ski cut in.
Kermit shut his mouth with a click of his teeth and turned to consider the zombies for a while. At last he spit and said, “This is a really fucked up world.”
Ski didn’t know what else to say, so he gave Kermit his motto. “You eat what’s on your plate.”
“So you do.” Kermit wiped his right hand off and stuck it out to Ski. “Thanks.”
“What for, for getting you bit?” They shook hands.
“I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of and now I’ll never-” He shuddered. “You never gave up on me, you just kept trying to- Just thanks, damn it!”
“Damnation doesn’t enter into it,” Ski said quietly. “You’re a good man, Kermit, here at the last.”
“Aw hell, it really is messed up, isn’t it?” Ski just nodded. “Let’s get you back up there.”
“What took you two so long?!” Daria snapped, and the two men shared a look. “Well?!”
“Calm down, Dar,” Kermit said. “We had to take the long way home and I’m a little tired.” He helped Ski sit down and then sat heavily.
“You’re both hurt!”
“Just a bit. Ski’s broke his leg, a green fracture. I’m more worried about that… tired.” He lay back.
Daria looked from Kermit to Ski to the dog, who tried to nose at Kermit’s wound, but the man swatted at his muzzle.
“Go on, now, leave it alone…”
“You’ve been bit!”
“Yep.” Kermit sighed and sat up. He suddenly hugged the dog to him, burying his face in Scars’ fur. He wiped at his face and got up stiffly. He would not meet their eyes, just looked down into that mighty river of undead that was now pressing past on the broken roads below, coming from God knows where and headed, yeah, God knows where.
“That one with my Halligan tool didn’t get very far. I think- I think that I’ll go get it.”
“No goodbyes?” Ski asked his fleeing back.
The man stopped but did not turn back. “I don’t think I could stand it.”
Kermit made his descent with the caution of a man who wanted the last thing he did on this Earth to be done right.
And it was.
He jumped his target from about ten feet up, kicked it in the skull going down and had retrieved his Halligan tool, all in smooth moves, like he had choreographed them. The next three went nearly as beautifully, but Zeke began to crowd him. Then two shots rang out from above, taking some of the pressure off. Kermit looked up, smiling and set to it with a will. There was a little wind-row of quieted undead, twenty or thirty, maybe more, when he went down, not for the last time. He was still for maybe a minute, but Ski and Daria kept close watch for him, and when his body got back up, two bullets took it in the head and neck. It fell for good.
Daria wrapped herself around the dog, and Scar whined once, not fussing, just licking at her tears. Ski sat watching the scene below and also watching for any other over-achieving zombies, but there were none for a while.
“God, whose name I do not know-” Ski stopped and laughed bitterly. “Thank you for my life. And thank you for my friend Kermit.”
Daria looked up, and then got up to stand by Ski. “What was his last name?”
“I’m afraid I really don’t know.”
They watched as the mega-herd filed past. Few of the undead even noticed, and fewer still attempted the climb. The two would be able to deal with those that did. Daria turned back to Ski, offering her hand. “Hello, my name is Daria Parker. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Ski shook her hand gravely. “Konstantin Warshawski… my friends call me ‘Ski’.”
“So, what do we do now, Ski?”Daria asked. Scar crept up to them and whined, and she scratched him behind the ears.
“I don’t know,” he answered, and all three looked back at the army of undead.
“God…” Daria began, “who created all things, even the stuff…” Daria closed her eyes briefly, “even the stuff which has since gone wrong, in us and in the world. But he lives with us, and is in us; he works through us. So that we can make this broken world… better.”
“Do you really believe that?” Ski asked.
“Well… since I don’t have anything else to do, I guess I’ll help you.”