ALL THESE VIOLENT HEIRLOOMS, PART I by Patrick M. Tracy
October 26, 2011 Longer stories Tags: guns, Patrick M Tracy
“You stand right there for a minute, you son of a bitch. You just abide there and I’ll do what ought to be done.”
My old eyes don’t line up a peep sight like they used to. Something about vision when you pass those sweet years of youth by…it just ain’t happy with settling down to giving you equal perception all through the range. I’m breaking down, but as I steady the M14 over the roof of an abandoned and rusting Hyundai, I can still feel the shot. I take a breath and let half of it out. I squeeze, real gentle.
The rifle, the same one that took my oldest brother through Pre-Tet Vietnam, bucks against my shoulder. The zombie drops. I wait, and the waiting is hardest. The hard sweat after the first volley, as you try to anticipate the true nature of the battle. Will it be one shambler? Two? A dozen? A hundred? Thank all the heavens, but I’ve never seen them in hundreds, but I’ve heard. The dim radio signal that comes up from Philly says that, down in the cities, it can happen. I look back up to the top of the long hill, at the rugged service road that’s only one step up from graded dirt. It’s the better part of half a mile. If they come at me hard enough, it’s my ass. I know that. I’m not spry like I used to be. There’ll be no half-mile sprints coming out of these old legs. Maybe a hundred yards. Once.
Another zombie appears from behind the bank building. I take a hasty shot and remove a chunk of shoulder, spinning the thing around. It’s just a teenager, a girl that was probably playing on the chess club before all of this. The second shot explodes her brain case and puts her down for good. I find myself hoping that there’s no pain afterward, that there’s no memory, that whatever made a person what she was isn’t there anymore after the eyes go blank and the hunger takes over. I hope like hell that the zombies are no more aware and sentient after the Flashover than the dust of everyone else, the ones who didn’t make it.
Not that prayers and hoping accomplish much. Not half as much as a bullet, placed well. It’s a quiet world now, and every report of a gun makes it a bit more so. It’s only out of the dead quiet when the last zombie sags to earth that we might rebound. It’s too much to imagine that any of us, the ones who saw the bright tent of humanity fall all around us, will see that day, but it’s not the tasks you finish, it’s the tasks you attack with all the energy you can muster—those are the ones that count.
The town, New Brocklane, disgorges its walking dead all morning. Seventeen of them, in all, and my few poor shots see the M14 hitting on its final shell by the time the culling is done.
Another day’s grim work, another magazine run empty in the cause of bringing the mindless reign of the zombies to a close. For me, another day closer to the time when I’ll have hunted my last, when the power to kill the dead will pass beyond me.
In the waning hours of the day, when the sun fades behind the trees and the strength of old men starts to wane, I find myself driving the roads, clogged now only with the abandoned wrecks of those who met their ash-bound end at the wheel. The mutter of my truck’s exhaust and the groan of its tires are the only song now, the whispered dirge for a world suddenly drained of all that is vital, all that looks and speaks and reckons the impact of all it might do. I know I am not alone, though I am in slim company. For all that knowledge does, I may as well be. The weight of all those who have passed presses against me, the ache of all those I loved as painful as broken teeth. I try to keep every voice, every face distinct and unmarred in my mind, but all that has come before grows hazy with the end of each barren day. I can only go home once more, and immerse myself in all that remains. What roots I have left must suffice to hold me against the great winds that are blowing.
My people have always gone to war, and they have always returned intact. As far back as memory can stretch, it has been thus. A war would arise, the Kinney men would go out to see that elephant, and we would return, bearing the arms that saw us through the conflict. This goes back to sabers and long knives. In the basement of our home, we have these heirlooms, these dusty military jackets and tools of war.
My father told me that his own grandfather once met Geronimo in the Arizona territory. The story goes that Geronimo squinted at my forebear for some time, finally uttering a grave proclamation and passing on. When Barrett Kinney, the man in question, asked what the Great Chief had said, they told him this: “The One Who Yawns says that your family line has the Power, and that they will never die in battle. He says that, like him, you have the blood of the Magic People who dwell forever below the earth.”
I have no illusions that the story is true, and can lay no claim to magic powers. The closest to magic I have ever been is knowing the love of a good woman and seeing the wonders of nature’s bounty. Still, evidence suggests that there may be something to the old tale. No Kinney man I’ve ever heard of has been killed or maimed in wartime. Closest anyone has come to harm was Maxwell “Weller” Kinney in the Great War, who broke his arm falling off a horse while on leave and wine-addled.
Though no papers have been signed and no declaration read, recent events have, by their very nature, ushered in a time of war. The momentary fire in the sky differs little from the Pearl Harbor attack in this respect. Only the scale and nature of the conflict has changed. As my forefathers did, I aim to take part in this fight. Like them, I wish only to honor my family and return home intact. We have never sought out acclaim or hero’s honors. We are simply duty-bound to do our small part.
The Kinney folk have lived in Upstate New York since the seventeenth century, and we have our share of traditions. One of those, to an outsider, might be considered a sort of inborn hoarding instinct. Kinneys don’t throw things away, they fix them. They don’t get rid of things they can’t store, they build new places to house their collections. We Kinneys are souvenir keepers. If we do something, we need a reminder, a touchstone that keeps those events alive in our minds. In the venue of wars, we tend to spirit away whatever the government lends out to us during the fracas. As my grandfather often said, “if I have it in hand, I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t mine!”
That inherited attitude has seen us accumulate a variety of weapons over the years, enough to fill my basement, as I became the arbiter of so many old things. The younger generation, had they survived the Flashover, would certainly have had recourse to their own purloined M9s, M-16s, and M4 carbines. They, like my wife Jessica and our daughter Marlena, have no more need of such things. They are gone into the air, and I hope that Jessie’s fervent belief in a better, sweeter life beyond this one has been borne out. I believe, as I suppose my father did also, that if there is a heaven, it is probably barren of men who have amounted to a fiddler’s fart. I think that, to prosper and do all that must be done on this world, we lose our grasp on anything that might assure the next one.
Be that as it may, heaven is not my primary concern now, and it has never been. I am busy with the work of the day. If society is to re-establish itself, we will have to overcome this zombie problem. To put it plainly, the Eastern Seaboard is lousy with the walking dead. While my role in the military was wholly non-combatant, running a motor pool at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, I still went through the same training regimen, and consider myself a soldier. An old soldier, admittedly, on the far side of fifty, but those present must wage the war.
As a boy, my first experience with a firearm was with my uncle Clyde’s M1 carbine. He’d brought it back from Korea, and had many good things to say about it. In point of fact, it was the later M2 version, which could be fired in fully automatic fashion. I was not instructed on how to make this happen until much later. At twelve years old, however, I first put the butt stock of the small rifle to my shoulder and pressed the trigger. I ventilated many a tin can with that rifle. I gasp to imagine what the ammunition I blasted through would cost to purchase today. It was an era, then, when surplus .30 carbine rounds were numerous and cheap. Since the machine of commerce is broken, everything is now, ahem, cheap, if not numerous.
I only bring this up because I’m carrying that same little carbine through the woods on the outskirts of town, watching closely for any sign of the walking dead. Everything is close-quarters here, and a light rifle is all that is required. A backup pistol is also wise. Though in fine condition, the old M1 carbine could fail, just like any tool. I carry a Ruger Blackhawk that can fire the same ammunition as my rifle. A Ruger single action revolver is perhaps the most reliable thing that employs moving parts, so I have good confidence that, upon pulling the trigger, the hammer will fall, a loud noise will ensue, and a hole will appear at the point of aim. Kinneys don’t purchase firearms, but this one was given to me in return for doing a valve job on an old friend’s Chevelle. My great granddad could quibble that work for reward counts as “paying”, but that’s a family argument amongst voices who have all gone quiet now, all except me.
While the faculties of your average zombie are not wickedly keen, they seem to be able to hear and see with some accuracy. Certainly well enough to be deadly to a regular human they can approach. It is possible that they have some sense of smell, but I have no proof either way on that theory. I operate on the assumption that they can sniff you out, especially should you have a bleeding wound. So far as they can be said to make sense, an olfactory sense would be reasonable to imagine.
It’s hearing that I have found to be their most troublesome sense. The noise of gunfire carries, sometimes for miles. In most cases, it’s possible to make good your escape from an area before the zombie population can muster to your position, but a single man always has some chance of getting injured, trapped, or running short of ammunition. We plan and equip ourselves as well as we can, we make preparations for all the likely eventualities, but in the end, fate plays a part.
For myself, I try to never wander more than an hour’s walk from my primary vehicle. In addition, I locate any nearby places where, should things become grim, I could take shelter or make some sort of stand. If I’m feeling particularly concerned, I will leave my government-issue Colt .45 Auto and a few magazines of ammunition at one of my fall-back positions. Today, I’ve got a shoulder rig hanging from a sapling several hundred yards back, along with twenty two rounds of hollow point ammunition. If that’s not enough to settle the argument, clearly running would have been a better option.
The animals hereabouts are skittish, going quiet or bolting when they hear me. I’m not after them, not yet, and certainly not here. There’s plenty of actual wilderness in which to hunt–wilderness that should be clean of zombies. They seem to draw into groups and move toward civilization. This could be because no animal would be fool enough to get snared and gnawed upon. The same cannot be said for the average person, though the delicate flowers and half-wits have long since been culled from the remaining herd.
I see something small, probably a raccoon or a skunk, possibly a cat gone feral, scoot through the brush and seek shelter. Mostly the movement of the low growth. I follow my carbine on the slight downhill, picking my steps carefully, moving at a pace that won’t raise much noise or let me miss something. The younger, more macho guys, I think, do themselves a disservice by running red-assed into things when they should have walked. Being an old badger myself, I have these biases.
Just as I can see the faint outline of a house downslope, I hear the loose, clumsy footfalls that I’ve come to dream of, hear the weird, toneless grunt of the unliving enemy. A small shriek, high up there in pitch, clipped at the end, rises from the same place, and the sound of it freezes my blood. I try to engage that red-assed running, but I’m rooted to the spot, listening, hands numb on the rifle.
Another zombie noise, this time the noise I’ve heard them make after a center-mass shot or some other injury not quite grave enough to bring them down. Footfalls come uphill at me, fast and light. I remember my carbine, training it on the upcoming noise. My finger shakes on the trigger, my eye tracking movement through the peep sight. I raise my head away from the rifle. All my body hair has come up in gooseflesh. I find a target, centering the sight on it, letting the sight picture rise up toward the head shot that is the most effective. Such a small one…
“You aren’t a zombie, are you, Mister?”
She’s eight, maybe nine. Her little striped blouse is torn and filthy, her pink shoes coming apart at the seams, only her heart-embroidered jeans holding together through the strain. A dark skinned child, though not so dark as the grime would indicate, little nose, big eyes, raven hair. Her accent isn’t local. She’s alive. Really alive, and for a moment, I think I’ll start to cry. I’d imagined that I’d die before I saw another wholesome child, another live reminder that we were once a vital species. I pull the rifle down off my shoulder and point it to the side and down. My heart booms with the shock of it. I nearly took the shot, by God. Within a half-pound of feeling the trigger break away and let one go. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to a sin that could allow for no repentance. As close as I ever hope to come.
It’s hard to bring words up. I haven’t spoken to anyone in a while, no one other than my own imaginary ride-along, my self-supplied Sancho as I run uselessly at my many windmills. “I’m…not a zombie,” I finally manage.
She looks at me, absent emotion, drawn, holding a spray bottle in one hand. “I got one of ’em, but there’s two more down there. They’ll come up this way pretty soon.”
It takes me a minute to get her meaning. I remember my rifle just as two zombies appear near the side of the old garage, no more than twenty yards downhill. I slide my ear protectors up from my neck and on. “Plug your ears,” I whisper. The zombies catch sight of us and come in a shambling run.
I take a knee and pop one with the first shot. A part of his skull goes upward and he tumbles a few steps up the slope, going still. The second one I hit in the high chest, then the shoulder, and finally catch him in the side of the head after the first two knock the forward momentum to a halt. He slumps, then slides most of the way back where he’d come.
The girl takes her hands away from her ears. She walks over to them, dispassionately kicking the nearer one in the knee to be sure that he doesn’t move. She gives me a little nod, then gestures with her chin to the property below. There’s still zombified bellowing down there. She says something that I can’t catch because of the ear protection.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Better take care of the other one. She’ll get on her feet again if we don’t.”
“Stay behind me, then, and keep your fingers in your ears.”
Down below, there’s a female zombie thrashing and clawing at its face, which is torn to bits, the flesh smoking and bubbling as if it were hit with strong acid. I come within about ten yards and use one shell to finish the creature off. In the silence after the shot, I push my ear protection back around my neck.
The girl shrugs. “Could be.”
“I’m Randall Kinney,” I tell her.
“Where do you hail from, Ferlita?”
“You’re a ways from your home, it seems. How’d you manage to come so far?”
“Doesn’t matter now. It’s just a place. Full of nothing, just like everywhere else.”
Up close, I see that she may be upwards of ten, but just petite. I have a pang of sadness for the world she’ll grow up in, so desolate. To imagine a world where a young girl, alone, would have to come to grips with zombies, is chilling. I try not to consider it, though it is every bit the truth. Truths are often the most horrifying things to consider.
I furrow my brow, thinking about what I’ve just seen, the burned face and agonized crawling of a zombie. “Ferlita, what’d you do to this’n here?”
She proudly hoists her spray bottle. It’s a whitewall tire cleaner. “Good stuff. Like pepper spray, or water on a witch.”
“How’d you hit on that idea?” I’m thunderstruck at the notion, myself. Chemical testing hadn’t ever crossed my mind.
Ferlita shrugs. “Just tried it. Started with WD-40, which blinds ’em for a minute, but not long enough. Lysol confuses ’em for a while. They bump into stuff and walk around in circles. Fine for getting away, but it doesn’t really hurt ’em. This stuff, though…I hope I can find more.”
I’ve seen the brand before, and I’m sure that it’s at every car care place you could find. I tell her so. By then, there are signs of more zombies coming to see what all the gunfire was all about, so I take her back upcountry.
“Have you met anyone else?” she asks as I’m shrugging into the shoulder rig for the .45 and stopping to survey the forest for danger signs. “Like–how many people do you think there are left that aren’t los muertos hambrientos.”
“Not sure I catch your meaning, Ferlita. My Spanish is pretty rusty.”
“The hungry dead, is what I mean. They seem like all you see now. Everyone’s gone, huh?”
I dust my hands on my jeans. “Not everyone. I met a couple Canucks going south right after the Flashover. They said they were headed to Florida, but I think they romanticized the place from the television. Florida was plenty weird before all this went down. Can’t imagine it’d be any different now. Still, they wouldn’t be talked out of it. They had this notion that smoking marijuana had saved them from the Flashover, and that pretty much tells me they weren’t of any kind of sound mind.”
She looks at me for a minute. “What’s a Canuck?”
“A Canadian. That’s what we call ’em sometimes. Probably not very nice.”
“Going south isn’t the worst idea.”
“I’ll give you that, Ferlita. Still, this is the place I know well. I think I’ll stick around.” I offer my hand. “You’re welcome to ride this storm out with me.”
She takes my hand. Her small hand grips hard, her fingers chilly to the touch. “I hope you’re not a weirdo.”
I laugh a little. “No worse than most, I suspect. My faults don’t include doing anything inappropriate to young ladies. That’s not to say I’m not a little rough around the edges.”
“You know how to kill…them. If you don’t hurt me, that’s enough.”
I step in front of her. My heart is beating slow and hard. “Did someone hurt you like that in the past?”
She gives me a defiant look, then drops her eyes and steps back, saying nothing.
“I wouldn’t do that. I promise. While I’m around, no one’ll so much as raise a hand to you.”
Without looking up, she nods and moves past me. It takes me a minute to get moving again. I find that, in my advancing age, a moment gets away from me here and there, when I forget my body and retreat to my mind. The world’s not made for that sort of forgetfulness anymore. With a little mental kick up the backside, I catch up with Ferlita.
She looks like she’s been living lean. There’s more hollowness in her cheeks and more dark beneath her eyes than there ever should be. Not with anyone, especially not with a young one. With the dead upright and walking around, a lot of things that shouldn’t be have come to be commonplace.
I dig in my pocket, locating a candy bar. I hold it out to her. She takes it, eating slowly and without comment. The way the sleeve of her rainbow-colored blouse is all ripped and frayed seems to call out with all the agony of a world gone wrong.
“Not far now,” I tell her, if only to have something to say, and in saying something, distract my attention from each eloquent revelation of the broken world.
She follows as I follow the cut marks on the saplings, letting them lead me back to the road.
Ferlita hears them first. Young ears. Ears that haven’t suffered the indignities of gunfire, bench grinders, and loud music. She looks back at me and points down the rough-cut edge where they leveled the land to lay in a road. The brush makes the two-lane indistinct and ghostly, but that’s where the Suburban is parked. If I strain, I can just here their shuffling feet.
I take a knee next to Ferlita. “How many, you figure?” I whisper.
“Five, six. Not sure.” Nothing shows on her face, but her whole body is shivering. No shame in it. They give me the full-body shivers sometimes, too. I guess that the moment when they stop doing that is the moment you really have to watch for.
“Normal folks or zombies?”
I figured as much. Finding a whole band of normal people isn’t something you’ll see much these days. The zombies have ways of finding each other, though, and seem to prefer the chance to buddy up. I don’t know why, and I don’t relish the idea of it. Means that there’s some sort of instinct going on. Either they’re not quite as dim as we thought, or there’s something…something like what once was still firing in their chilly brains. Either way, it’s something I can’t know, something I shouldn’t.
“Have you got plenty of your Zombie-Off?”
She swishes the bottle of tire cleaner around. It sounds like there’s at least half.
“That should be enough,” I tell her. “You stick here, and I’m going to see if I can do away with them, so we can take the truck and get out of here. We’ll want to get a good meal into you, get you a bath, and put you in some fresh clothes.”
Ferlita gives me a flat, hard look.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. Your duds have just about given up, and if you don’t mind me saying, the dust of the road’s sitting fair thick on you at this point.”
“Okay.” She nudges me forward. “Be careful.”
I find a point about forty yards down from the Suburban before I dig in and start sliding down the rocky verge of the road. My foot catches, and I go down in a heap, tumbling twice before I get my feet back under me. I’m bleeding from the nose and teeth from where the carbine smacked against my face on the wild ride down, and I shake myself to get the tweety birds and spiral stars out.
I’ve seen zombies loiter around. They stagger around in loose ellipses, sort of orbiting some point of interest. They don’t look any more alert, or any less so. They don’t feature much in the way of expression one way or another.
These…are different. I can tell that in the first moment. It’s in their movements, in the suddenness and surety of them. Not quite the dexterity of the living, but certainly leaps and bounds above any of the zombies I’ve locked horns with thus far.
That, and they’re in uniform. Brown jumpsuits, loose fitting, but with a logo I can’t quite read. Like workers at a big factory. Or maybe a chemical plant. There’s little time before they begin jogging toward me, covering the ground faster than I’m prepared for.
I shoulder the carbine and press the trigger. Nothing. Something in the tumble I just took jammed up the works. I shrug out of the sling and throw the rifle down, bringing the .45 out of my shoulder holster. I pull the trigger, and nothing happens. The zombies, now spread out wide and hemming me in, are really running.
I remember the slide lock safety, flicking it down and finally letting loose. The big Colt bucks in my hand until it’s empty, leaving three of five creatures down, two for good. I damn myself for bad shooting, but things are happening far too quickly. I jam the .45 back into its holster and begin to pull free the Ruger, but the lead zombie is upon me, smashing me to the gravel with all the stupid force of a linebacker. The creature’s fists are pummeling me before I know which way is up. I feel blood burst from a cut over my eye, feel a tooth break off at the gumline, feel my ribs straining under the smashing assault.
Somehow, I manage to throw the thing off and get my hand on the Ruger. The first shot blows two of his fingers off, but the second hits him in the shoulder, deadening the whole arm. He tries to leap on me, but I fend him off with the leg that I can still feel. One more shot finally pips the ace, hitting him, smashing through the cheekbone and everything behind it. My ear protection has been dislodged, and so the gunfire has blasted my ears into a fog, but that’s so far down the list of complaints that I don’t have time for it. I get on my feet somehow, and the last of the zombies veers away from me as I point the gun.
I get a deep, empty feeling as I look into his eyes. There’s something in there. Something extra. Something more than simple hunger. Malevolence. I cock the hammer and take a shot at him, but he jukes and runs a crooked line into the forest at the other side of the road, beating what is perhaps the first retreat for their side in the ongoing conflict. He retreats. Understands the danger of the gun and retreats.
I teeter on my feet for a moment, perplexed. The zombie I’d wounded is back on its pins, dragging one leg but coming closer nonetheless. The shaking in my system is so strong that holding the gun steady is fierce work, but two more shots finally end the encounter. I stand over one of them. The jumpsuit says Cavendish Petrochemical Labs. I remember vaguely that they have a plant somewhere west of here. A plant that employed almost a hundred workers, if the news stories spoke true. I calculate odds in a rough way. From all I know about the survival rate after the Flashover, it seems wildly unlikely that five guys from the same spot would zombie up and form a gang. Seems like something to be concerned with, when I have enough energy to be concerned.
I limp to the Suburban and numbly pull myself in. My stomach heaves, my head aching with a vengeance, and all the pain that had momentarily been covered by adrenalin now washes over me. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” I whisper. Ferlita climbs into the passenger side. I stop my cursing.
“You all right, Mr. Kinney?”
“No, Ma’am, I don’t believe I am.” I put my head back and close my eyes for a minute. Before I open them, I feel Ferlita’s small hand wiping blood off my face.
“I watched them. They were different.”
I fish a bicuspid out of my cheek and set it on the dash. I reach back and get a gallon of water out of the back, pouring some onto a shop towel. I wipe up the remainder of the blood and hold the rag against my cut brow.
“Different? Yeah, I’d say they were. Somethin’ happened with them that left some of the lights on. They’re…” I blow out some air. “They’re a whole different ballgame.”
It’s a quiet voice. I smile thinking about it. Like I’m a teacher in some small schoolhouse in the country. Maybe I’m teaching colloquial English in some distant land. Lord knows, my English can, at times, be quite colloquial.
“Mr. Kinney!” The voice is now loud and close. I feel myself shaken. “You gotta wake up, Mister. They came back!”
My eyes flutter. It’s dark. I’m still behind the wheel of the Suburban. I’ve been passed out for a long time. There are two of the new, improved zombies, grossly feasting on their fallen buddies. One of them has a big knife. Tool use. One of the hallmarks of intelligence. Swell. They’re eying us, but seem happy enough to do their thing on the ground. The one with the knife was the one who high-tailed it earlier. He steps to one of the other ones, who’s not having very good luck eating his dead buddy’s arm. Knife boy pushes his pal aside and hacks the arm off at the elbow with a few hard swipes. Cooperation. It gets better and better.
“I’m up, I’m up.” I fish my keys out and put them in the ignition. I get the old Suburban running and flip the lights on. The look in Knife Boy’s eyes as he regards us gives me the screaming willies. I shift into reverse and start easing back, hoping I’ll have enough time to jump out and scoop up the carbine I dropped earlier.
Knife Boy starts running at me, face anything but blank, something like a zombie, but made more terrible with a spark of sentience. I accelerate, spin the wheel, and do a lousy but effective one-eighty. I punch it and we leave the scene behind. I carry more speed than is wise, and a few times only just navigate around abandoned cars and fallen trees in the road.
Ferlita and I are silent. What we saw doesn’t bear discussion. Besides, my head throbs, my face is swollen, my mouth’s filled with the taste of blood. I imagine that I may well have a few broken ribs on top of all of it.
I don’t go back to my house. Not during the day, and not in the shape I’m in. Certainly, not with a non-combatant in tow. We pull into the mostly abandoned parking lot at the side of Farelli Lanes, and I kill the engine.
“Why are we at a bowling alley?” Ferlita asks.
“Cinderblock walls, metal doors, and because old man Farelli put in a diesel generator for reasons unknown. I only know about it because I tuned it up once for a month of free play.”
Ferlita seems to take that in stride, and we walk to the door. I’ve reloaded the Ruger and the Colt by now, and I have my hand on the Ruger’s grip as we walk to the side entrance.
We walk into the blackness beyond the door, like the dark of a shut coffin lid above you. I bend, nearly toppling to the deck as one of my knees tricks out, but managing to scoop up the electric light. I flick it on, and it pushes the cave blackness back some. I have a powerful flash nearby, and I fire that up, too, handing the lamp to Ferlita.
“Wait here. I’ll kick over the genny and we’ll have some lights.”
I walk down the apron at the side of the furthest lane, then through a skinny door and into the machinery behind the lanes. Every time, the place’s big, mechanical presence spooks me out. It’s the best, safest fort nearby, though, a defensible position where even the burliest of zombies couldn’t burst in.
I take a minute to consider the new ones, the ones from the chemical plant, and I shake my head. It’s a little too easy to imagine Knife Boy hoisting a sledge and having at the door until it caves in. It’s way too easy, but I don’t want to think that way. I need to patch up, to rest, and to see if I can’t survive this mess for another few days. If not for my own pride and the family tradition, at least for little Ferlita, who deserves a whole lot better than this.
I move beyond the pin-placers, past the mechanical store room, and through the old staff room, where an old fridge, a cheap microwave, and a cigarette-burned table suffice for comfort. In the furthest corner room, the generator sits like a giant cast iron toad in the dimness. I prime it, flip the switch that opens the circuit with the starter battery, and wait for the glow plugs to warm. When the light on the switch panel turns from yellow to green, I punch the button and the old creature comes to life.
The generator charges a series of 1kw capacitors that I installed a few years back to take momentary power draws, then pushes power out into the building’s circuits. The sparse lights I left on flicker, then come on clearly. I switch on the intake fan that draws oxygen from the outside, then close the door. From outside, the sound is nothing more than a gentle grumble. It’s not cold enough to worry about smoke rising right now.
For the first time, I wonder about the exhaust noise, and if the nearby zombies might be drawn the the chuffing noise of the genny. If they’re your run-of-the-mill zombies, there’s not much harm in that. The building’s secure. If it’s Knife Boy and his pals…still, they are miles away, and if they can track me by some unlikely means I can’t imagine, that’ll have to be that. Can’t worry about things you can’t change. The topic of how “super” these super zombies are will have to be tabled for the moment.
I go back and clean up in the staff room for a moment, then meet Ferlita. She’s sitting behind lane seven, just about in the middle of the building, thinking thoughts known only to brave little girls in the post-human epoch. I flip on a few more lights and switch on the griddle behind the snack bar. I’ve found a bread maker machine that I can work tolerably well, and the processed cheese slices in the small fridge seem more or less impervious to spoilage.
I brush a bit of the buttery substance they keep around for the pop corn machine on the bread, and they make a decent grilled sandwich. There’s chili in good quantities, and I supplement our sandwiches with that. Ferlita digs in and eats until her plate is clean. I’m afraid to give her more, lest it weigh too heavily on her belly.
The soda fountain works, and she has her fill of root beer mixed with orange, which she claims is her favorite. Sounds terrible to me, but I remember my favorite thing as a kid was peanut butter and mustard sandwiches.
I dig out one of the remaining Miller beers and drink it warm. My face is swollen, the new gap in my teeth raw, and it requires a tear-wringing effort to move around with my bruised ribs. Still, we have survived, and it’s enough. You stick around for while, your version of “enough” becomes pretty undemanding.
I turn on the lanes and let Ferlita bowl for a while. In the back, I go through the lockers. Tanya Salinger’s locker contains clothes that will be close enough in size to let Ferlita change. I smell them. They’ve been worn once, and Tanya seemed to like her perfume strong and thick, but they’ll do for the moment. The shower off the staff room will do, and there’s a clean towel. We can seek out better duds for her soon enough.
Ferlita’s eyes are red-rimmed as she finishes cleaning up, and I barely manage a cursory scrub before my body starts to refuse commands. She takes the sofa in the staff room, and I drag a raggedy old cot just beyond the door. It’s the middle of the afternoon the next day before we’re up and at ’em.
“You’re not going to leave me here!” Ferlita turns her small shoulders to me and rolls a ball down the lanes. It strikes the pins with all the force of her conviction, scoring a strike.
“It’s that, or take you into danger such as I wouldn’t be happy to show you, hon.” I slump into one of the fiberglass seats because standing over any length of time hurts too much. I’m somewhere between “treated and released” and “kept overnight for observation”, and there’s no hospital to be had, no painkillers nearby. Just a beat-up old man and a kid. Against not just the run-of-the-mill zombies, but bad hombres who have some level of consciousness.
I sit there, just for a moment, or perhaps for several frames of Ferlita bowling, and think about what could make zombies. Why did they exist? Was there a purpose to them, or was it a galactic mistake, just a byproduct of some other, equally arcane process. If I knew how they worked, I might have a prayer of understanding what could create these new creatures, perhaps not accurately called zombies at all. Wasn’t it part and parcel of zombie-hood that you had no mind, no rationale, no reason? If so, what could I term these new horrors? Ghouls? Revenants? There were creatures of some kind in those books about Hobbits, but I’d long since forgotten what they were called.
I put it aside. I have to. “Well, if you’re going to risk yourself going around with this crazy old man, I suppose we’ll have to get you more of that tire cleaner.”
Even now, she’s got the bottle sitting within a few steps. She’s a survivor, a good kid. I’m lucky to have found her. She makes me remember all the reasons we have to go on, why we have to win. A highly motivated man can do things he has no business doing. That’s what I count on. That’s one of the few things in our favor.
“Will I get a gun?” she asks, holding up a bowling ball between us, giving me a shrewd look.
“If I’m satisfied that you can be safe and hit what you aim at, yes. We’ll need all the shooters we can find, and if you’re willing to go out and risk all, I won’t send you out there without the best protection I can give you.”
“I want a gun like the people use on TV. Like the cops use.”
“I don’t have one of those, sweetie. I’ve only got what our family brought home from war, our family heirlooms.”
“There’s got to be some hanging around. At the police station, or in a gun shop. No one’s going to care if we take something now, will they?” She smiles, turns, and throws another ball down the lanes. It’s a tough split this time. She’ll be lucky to pick up the spare.
I sigh. “I suppose you’re right. No reason to hold you to the same foolish articles of faith we Kinneys labor under.” No reason at all.
“Good. Where are we going?”
“To my house first, and then I suppose we’ll go around to the gun shop and see if we can find you a proper firearm.”
Patrick M. Tracy was born in Maine, but has lived in the Southwest for many years. He works fixing computers in the bowels of a library, but in his off times enjoys strength training, archery, and playing the bass guitar. He has published both fiction and poetry in a variety of markets. His most recent projects can be seen by visiting www.pmtracy.com.