Mike walked into the sun to make sure Beugin saw his shirt. The shirt he wore boasted a Springsteen CD cover, the one with Bruce’s denim-clad butt in front of an American flag. Since the Provisional Authority condemned Springsteen as a cultural terrorist, Mike figured sporting it would give Beugin all the probable cause he’d need to search for the contraband he’d been led to suspect was on the premises. Mike picked the shirt, though, because he bought it at the first concert he took Tina to—a his and hers matched set of classic rock art.
Snatches of the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful,” the one with the organ that’s half blues, half prayer, throbbed from the stereo in Mike’s living room on an endless loop. Mostly the music covered the thud and boom of Tina bouncing off furniture— Swarovski swans shattering when swept off a credenza shelf, Waterford flutes and goblets crashing when the china cabinet tipped. But anthem also served as plan B, Mike being certain that its bodacious illegality would pull Beugin across Linden Avenue even if he was too dumb to notice the Springsteen tee.
Mike scanned the street. Four doors down, Jake Cartwright raked a blaze of leaves in his gutter. Two doors up, coffee-colored Katie Green squirted a homemade WD-40 substitute on her squeaky front gate that smelt like fresh-boiled corn. Catty-corner, old man Meeker popped out of the mud-room of his brick foursquare and began watering his roses. And so on, up and down Linden, his neighbors formed a phalanx of observation.
Tina would have been proud of them, Mike thought; she been all about getting people organized, whether it was a neighborhood scrapbook party or the Wright State track team. When Mike first saw her, she led a file of gasping girls bedecked in university green and gold up an oak shaded trail, her freckled face wreathed by a nimbus of sable hair. Tina let the runners tailing her heave forward one by one, let them seem to be on the cusp of passing, and then, effortlessly, she would surge ahead—full of grace, full of beauty. Half of why Mike agreed to the scheme against Beugin was because he hoped he might see Tina run one last time.
A mail-van pulled by a zombie troika rattled up the road, the harness team surging after a hunk of raw meat stuck on a pole welded to the front. The postman banged letters into curbside boxes as he passed.
Since pretending to thumb through his bills put Mike ten yards closer to Beugin’s newly painted, newly shingled two-story. He went to the mailbox, sidestepping the gift left by Harvey Espito’s malamute, Buddy. Ray Charles and Tina’s crashes softened to silence as he moved off. Certainly, he must be in range of Beugin’s binoculars now.
Above, a squirrel streaked through a tree’s red cover. Mike sorted through the postman’s gifts, which included: 1) another mortgage past due notice in bigger, redder font, 2) an invite to hear the good news about the real resurrection at Good Samaritan Lutheran, and 3) an emigration service come-on promising 100% Canadian placement success. Mike held the mail in two hands over his head, squaring his shoulders and arching his back, making as broad a canvas as possible for display of the outlawed singer’s iconic image. Some days, no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t get harassed by the local fink collaborator.
A thick, iron-studded door banged. Claude Beugin clumped down newly installed marble steps. His cane left dents in the dewy turf of his lush lawn as he crossed toward Mike. Ah, Mike thought, sweet success.
“Random propaganda and immoral material check,” Beugin said as he grabbed at Mike’s mail.
Sunlight glinted off the tin-foil scrape that hung from the pocket of Beugin’s poplin shirt. On the tin-foil Beugin had magic-markered a grenade sprouting flame inscribed with “FMR” in fancy script, the armorial insignia of the Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, the crack Quebecois military unit responsible for the administration of Ohio.
Mike pondered his next step. To pull off their plan, the Linden Avenue Neighborhood Association needed Beugin to do his favorite snitch trick of barging into someone’s home under iffy legal cover, seeking proof of infractions that would earn him Provisional Authority bounties and fill seats on vans bound for retraining centers. But apparently neither the fact he sported a declared terrorist on his t-shirt or played a banned patriotic paean on his living room stereo had penetrated Beugin’s porcine perception. Either was enough to tag Mike as an exigent threat and give right-thinking persons permission to take preemptive action pronto, even if said person was no more than a thug wannabe. Something he thought he smelled in Mike’s mail, though, tickled Beugin’s vulpine sniffer even if he failed to alert on the more obvious scents. So the thing to do was play along, act like he had something to hide, do his best to rile up this douche collaborator into doing something stupid, like kicking down my front door without thinking about what might be waiting behind it.
Mike whipped the letters out of Beugin’s grasp and crammed them into his back pocket. “You have to be either Coalition Forces or hold a position in the Provisional Authority to check my papers, Claudie,” he said. “The only position you fill is that of dropping to your knees and puckering up when you hear a French accent.”
The skin around Beugin’s pig eyes tightened like he was squinting at the sun. “Better let me eyeball it. I’m a friend of the FMR.”
“If you’re such good friends, call the commander and have him send out a patrol. I’ll be glad to let one of their lady looies sneak a peek—but not clown like you.” Out of the corner of his eye, Mike saw Meeker wink; the old man approved of the way he pushed Beugin’s buttons.
Beugin hoisted the top of his cane to eye-level and let it drop. Thud, thud, thud, it hit the ground, like tennis-shoes in a dryer. Mike knew Beguin desperately desired to thump him with its metal-sheathed tip, but too many watched with too many potential cameras and the Canucks had a distaste for violence done on their behalf.
By the burn pile, Jake Cartwright wiped his brow with a plaid sleeve and waved a Wright State Raiders cap at him. Jake, a hardcore Flyers fan, had swapped hats to honor Tina. Jake also had been the one who bagged the buck and carefully butchered the carcass into hunks and strips all below the twenty-five pound reanimation threshold. Mike had watched him make a path of the meat that led from Tina’s bedroom to the front door. Then the big man had kneeled by her bed and kissed her hot forehead. “When she goes,” Jake had said, “You lock this door and don’t go back in again. Press the remote for her door when you go out and press the one for the front door when you get that son of bitch up on your porch. You won’t be able to do it for see what she becomes. You won’t have the heart.” Jake was wrong about one thing, though—if he could see Tina run one last time, he could do anything, bare anything.
“I got intel flagging you as a security risk, Wilson,” Beugin said.
“What you got is zero authority, Claudie,” Mike said, “Kissing frogs don’t make you one.”
Thud, thud against the ground went Beugin’s cane. Mike snatched it before it thudded again. Beugin growled like an angered dog. Mike heard phlegm flap in Beugin’s throat, adding vibrato to the wannabe thug’s wish to force compliance by means of brutality. Mike knew that the danger signaled by Beugin’s rasp hinged on what species of bully he belonged to—skunk or rattlesnake. Mike had heard different stories about how Beugin earned his limp. Some said he got it storming Caracas with the 10th Mountain during the Fuel War’s final hours. Others said Claude caught an ass-load of shrapnel deserting the Toledo barricades for the Quebecois lines.
“Give me my stick,” Beugin said.
“Tell me what’s got you nosing my crotch,” Mike said. “What intel we talking about?”
Beugin squatted down, shifting right leg behind left. It seemed to Mike that he intended to lunge in his direction once he dropped into a good preparatory stance, but instead of pouncing forward Beugin wobbled backwards as his lame leg gave out under him. Beugin reached out for the mailbox’s redwood post to keep from falling on his ass. He pulled himself up on the post and glared. Mike flexed the cane in front of him, bowing it out at arm’s length, the quirk of his smile saying something like: a little more oomph and I’ll snap this cherry twig in two. Mike’s biceps bulged, the ridges of his pecs stretched the thin cotton of the Springsteen tee, rock hard after all the years of lifting Tina in and out of bed, in and out of swimming pools for therapy, all the years of pushing her chair and watching waste away and not being able to do a damn thing about it. But now maybe there could be some small good squeezed out of all that grief.
“Give,” Mike said. “Give it up your source.”
Beugin’s hands twitched over a pistol-shaped lump in the cargo pocket his camouflage pants. He looked left, right down Linden Avenue, eyes sliding over Meeker watering his roses, Cartwright burning his leaves, Katie oiling her squeaky hinges, and all the others who watched him. Finally Beugin said, “Petey Espito saw a big, black truck with an Incin-U-Love logo stop at your place last night. Petey saw two guys dressed like ninjas wearing hoods and ski-masks get out of the truck and carry a big box into your place.”
So, Mike thought, Beugin missed the elaborate show the Linden Avenue Neighborhood players staged for him last night—the panel truck Susie Bernhardt signed out of the Montgomery County motor pool, the magnetic signs of a heart in flames Meeker had worked on that changed the truck from being part of the boring Zombie Services fleet to an icon of the sexy Resistance, the Halloween get-ups Dale Cozort and Tim Waggoner donned to portray terrorist evil-doers. Instead Beugin got his intel by back channel, the pink-lipped mouth of Harvey Espito’s third youngest. This weren’t on plan B, Mike thought, more like plan Y or Z.
“Is that why you’re harassing me, Beugin? Because of a story from a five-year old?”
“Petey spotted Santa doing rooftop stops in December and recently reported Winnie-the-Pooh and Kanga resided in the park. He’s a child and sees what a child expects to see,” Mike said. “Petey heard my wife doesn’t have much longer. So he saw a big, black truck drop off an Incin-U-Love unit, just like on cable TV.”
“You can prove whether it’s a fairy-tale or not by letting me see your mail,” Beugin said.
“My mail’s private and personal,” Mike said, “And has nothing to do with do-it-yourself cremation kits.”
“The Resistance mails out the password for the flame-thrower the next day,” Beugin said. “Anyone who’s ever seen Anti-Insurgent Task Force knows that.”
Above, a squirrel chattered. Mike considered plunging the metal-sheathed tip of Claude Buegin’s cane into the squishy, stinking mound left behind by Buddy—which seemed a fitting poetic justice type act, but one unlikely to get Claude moving toward the porch. So many surreal things had happened—a disease that shriveled Tina like she was a dried apple doll, a war where we set out to steal all the world’s oil, viral dust borne on spacious skies and across purple plains like dandelion fluff after the war was lost, and the sickness it causes that makes it impossible for our bodies to know the peace of death, the sickness that will be forever with us and those who come after until the Coalition receives full reparations and lowers the buzzing force fields that hem us in along every border. So this particular insanity, this idiot man-child who ransacked homes, pocketed blood-money, tore apart families, based on delusions spawned by reality TV—this monster was no more surreal than any other that had intruded into Mike’s life. He could do nothing about the genetic miscue that sucked the life out of wife’s body. He could do nothing about the senseless war waged in his name. But, by God, he’d take care of Claude. He only needed to figure out what levers to pull in order to motivate such a moron.
Off to the side, Mike saw Katie drop her sprayer and put the knuckles of her right hand against her brow, batting her eyes as she did so and swiveling her head so that her cheek rested on her shoulder in a posture of mock distress, like she was a heroine in silent movie melodrama beset by a moustache twirling villain. If you want to make this dipshit do something, she seemed to be saying, you need to ham it up, play a part in his fantasy.
“Curse your razor-sharp mind, Claude Beugin, you’re far too savvy to be fooled by our covert tactics,” I said. “But you won’t get the password from me!” Mike took the letter from his bank from his pocket and tore it into strips. He rolled the strips into balls and began swallowing them.
“Then you admit that an Incin-U-Love flamethrower was delivered to your residence last night?” Beugin demanded, his throat phlegm thrumming like a bass guitar.
“Why else,” Mike said between swallows of past due notice, “Would I be choking down the access code written in disappearing ink on this sheet of paper?”
Beugin whooped in an exaggerated manner that could have been characterized as guffaw. “Your unwise admission of possessing banned technology allows me to invoke section 7.23.2 of Provisional Authority Special Order C-6 and demand ingress to your premises to search for items that pose a threat to the well-being of those living in the immediate proximity.”
Mike let Beugin triumphantly grab his cane. “Damn you, Beugin, and your interrogation tricks.” He let him scuttle up to the door behind which the reanimated Tina chomped on a deer haunch, the now ever-ravenous Tina, the zombie Tina. Mike shook his fist in the air at Beugin as if in futile protest of his victory, but in his clenched hand he held the remote for the automatic openers he installed so that he could easily carry Tina into the house after her disease rendered her body incapable of any voluntary movement. He pressed the button just as Beugin cleared the top step of his porch.
Tina ran out of the door. Mike, in his Springsteen t-shirt, on the sunlit lawn, trembled at this miracle. Yes, the horror that birthed it, the rot and wrath of the zombie condition, tinged and tainted the miracle—Mike had to ignore the congealed gore that clotted her hair and draped her nightgown, had to ignore the cyanic cast of her skin and the bestial hunger in her eyes; but this was possible until she attacked Beugin. Mike could hear Ray Charles sing now that the door was open. He heard Beugin scream as Tina leaped, tore gouts of flesh from his fat throat. “America, America,” Ray Charles sang. Tina knocked Beugin to the cement. His stick skittered into the tangle of tulips and tiger lilies Mike stopped tending after Tina took to a wheelchair. Beugin shoved back on heels and elbows, pushing backward at an oblique angle because of his weak leg. “God shed his grace on thee.” But Tina moved faster. She mounted him like a lover, pipe-stem limbs clasped around the limp apron of his belly. Beugin screamed one more time as Tina tore open his chest and ate his heart. “. . . Crowned thy good with brotherhood . . . .” Then Katie trotted across the asphalt drive that separated her place from Mike’s and shot two darts into Tina from the Zom-Com dart-gun she had hidden under her gingham dress. Tina collapsed into the fifteen minutes of death a body weighing over twenty-five pounds is allotted before the Peace Virus triggered reanimation. And Mike heard the squirrel chatter in the tree above.
Meeker brought out the long poles with leather loops at the end that zombie wranglers used to control their charges. He and Dale Cozort and Tim Waggoner tightened the loops on Beugin’s arms and legs and neck. “America, America.” Katie cradled Tina’s limp body in her lap. She had a moistened tissue in her hand and was trying to wipe away the gore like a mother cleans a child’s dirty face. “Been a long road, sweet girl,” Katie said, “Been a long road, but now you can sleep.” Katie kept pumping more Zom-Com darts into Tina so she would stay dead. “God shed . . . .” All Mike could do was stand and stare and wait for the next thing to happen. Then Susie Bernhardt rolled up in the Zombie Services van.
The reanimated Beugin jerked and swatted on the loops that held him, lust for the fresh meat that circled him burning in his eyes, saliva drooling from his snapping mouth. “We got a good place you, you son of bitch,” Meeker said. “Sent my grandson to Chillicothe for six years for some Captain America comic books. Got my daughter-in-law’s teaching license revoked for keeping a picture of the President. And on and on for all of us here. We got a good place for you, you son of a bitch.” Beugin growled and the phlegm in his throat thrummed as it always did. “Lot of outfits pay better zombie turn-in bounties, but we’re giving you up to Dayton Rapid Transit. That way we can laugh at your zombie ass every day—harnessed up and pulling a bus as it chases after something it can’t have.” Meeker and Dale Cozort and Tim Waggoner shoved Beugin into the cage in the van and then Susie Bernhardt drove it away. And still all Mike could do was stand and stare, feeling as if he were made of ice, feeling as if everything was far away.
Then Jake Cartwright took Tina’s body in his big, bear-like hands and carried her to the sandbox in Harvey Espito’s backyard that the Linden Avenue Neighborhood Association used for such rites. Petey crawled into Buddy’s doghouse brought out the Incin-U-Love flamethrower and then went back into his family’s colonial to listen a story about the hundred acre wood.
“This is the hardest part,” Jake said. “The hardest thing you’ll ever do.” He fit the straps of the Incin-U-Love over Mike’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, I’m going be here. I’m going to help you do it.” He cinched the belt around Mike’s waist. Gasoline gurgled in the heavy tanks on Mike’s back. “But it’s important that you do it, that you’re that one who pulls the trigger,” Jake said, “It’s important that you’re the one who sets her free because she was your wife and you loved her.”
Jake wrapped his arms around Mike, helped him aim the nozzle. Flame spurted out. Tina’s skin blackened, crisped. Mike heard something spattering, sputtering and he thought it might be her fat boiling, her marrow bubbling out—but maybe it was just the sound of gasoline being sucked into the igniter. He thought he smelt something like bacon frying, but maybe that was his mind providing a tolerable overlay to the truth of searing flesh. Jake reached down and twisted the nozzle so the stream of fire came out purer, stronger. Then what was left of Tina turned to grey flakes of ash, like the last remnants of leaves in a burn-pile, and was picked up by the air and floated away in the wind. And Mike thought, there she is again, like the first time I saw her, running on ahead to wherever we go to from here.
Chuck lives in Dayton, Ohio, but wishes he did not. He is an English major at Wright State University and writes zombie stories when he should be reading Dickens.