ALL THESE VIOLENT HEIRLOOMS, PART II by Patrick M. Tracy
November 21, 2011 Longer stories Tags: Patrick M Tracy
I don’t know how they hone in on their game. The workings of zombies are too esoteric for me, but I can tell you that within their cold husks, there are, indeed, workings. I bring the Suburban to a halt and pop my door. I reach back into the back seat and bring out the M14, inserting a magazine and ramming it home.
“Doors closed, hands over ears, kiddo,” I tell Ferlita. She puts her small palms over her ears and bites down. I slide the muffs over my own battered ears and sight down toward the hollow in front of my own ancestral house. There are twelve zombies milling about, but recently aroused from their aimless shambling by the sound of my truck’s exhaust.
I flick the safety forward and set myself. My aim isn’t the steadiest, but it will have to do. They’re no more than fifty yards away now, moving forward in their staggering jog. These aren’t the new ones, the ones from the chemical plant. Just average Muertos, as Ferlita calls them. I let go at the first one. I don’t see him drop, because I’m doubled over, tears squeezing out of my eyes.
The recoil of a 7.62 NATO round isn’t overwhelming. It’s a good bump, but not a big deal. Unless you’ve got some broken ribs, that is. In that case, every shot is going to be an act of will, because you know how that grating, knifing pain will shoot through you when you press the trigger.
“Get it together, Kinney. Get it together,” I whisper. I fire again, flinching and missing altogether. I have twenty rounds with which to do the job. Miss many more times, and it might not get done. They’re no more than thirty yards away now, time eking away like dust through my fingers.
I bear down, shooting through the smeared vision and the pain. The world fills with thunder and muzzle flash. Muertos go down, some thrashing, some finally still. The last one falls mere feet from me, its slow blood dripping down the Suburban’s aluminum wheel and pooling beneath the aggressive tire tread. I feel as if I’ve been shaken by the hand of some malevolent giant, as if I’m some angry kid’s doll, and all the world’s frustrations have been taken out on my frail stuffing and old fabric. It’s only the rifle’s butt that keeps me from falling flat, and that accomplishes only allowing me a semi-graceful slump to my knees.
I’m crying, weeping silently in a quiet world that’s filled up with pain and broken hopes. Ferlita stands near me. I see her bottle of whitewall cleaner dangle at the edge of my vision. She says nothing for a moment, then reaches down to my shoulder holster and pulls free my .45. I see her feet disappear. I look up through the vagueness of my pain and despair. She holds the pistol with both hands, just like you see in the shows. She puts a bead on one of the zombies that’s struggling forward without use of its lower half. Nothing happens. She finds the safety. The pistol roars. The Muerto stops. For good.
I have a sudden, perfect remembrance of my own daughter, firing my friend Steve’s target pistol for the first time. She was about Ferlita’s age. Her smile had been so vibrant. She’d kept her best target for weeks, touching the holes closest to the bull’s eye with her thin fingers. All my recent food threatens to come up. I can’t watch as Ferlita puts paid to another of the zombies.
When she returns, the slide is caught back, the rounds all expended. Her little hand is bleeding from slide bite, but she says nothing, only cradling it with her left and waiting. I take the gun and somehow get up. The single remaining zombie gets its ticket punched for good with the front bumper of the Suburban. Ferlita helps me get to the house and sink into a battered Lay-Z-Boy. In the bright afternoon, the world becomes speckled like a bird’s egg, and I nearly pass out.
“That was fine work out there, Ferlita.”
She sits on the couch opposite me. “Are you okay?”
“Ribs aren’t feeling so great, but I’ll manage. I should find something to wrap them with while we’re here. How’s your hand?”
She looks down at the blood speckles on her brown skin. “Stings. That gun’s like catching a fastball.”
“You play softball?”
She nods. “I did, when there were other kids. I liked playing baseball better.”
“First base. I’ve got a good arm.”
By the next morning, I feel good enough to get the snow blade installed on the Suburban. Using it, I push the zombies off the road and into a ditch nearby. I can’t quite hoist a fifty pound bag of quick lime, so Ferlita carries the stuff out to the open grave in a few buckets I have hanging around.
If I felt better, I’d just douse ’em with a 1:1 mixture of gasoline and diesel and set ’em to burn, but my house is in a low place between folds of the land, and it would fill with corpse smoke pretty quick. If you’ve ever smelled burning remains, you know what I mean. The sharp smell of the hair, the taste that lingers at the back of your mouth until you can’t remember when it wasn’t there. Anyway, with the new, improved Muertos around, I’m concerned about anything that’ll raise a smoke trail that big. Quicklime will at least keep the smell down some.
Later, we’re sitting at the long dining room table, bowls of bean soup and rice before us. The last of the venison jerky is in there. It’s big times in the post-human world, with two people at the same table and reasonably safe. It can’t last, and we both know it.
“Did you have kids?” Ferlita asks.
I nod. “A daughter. She’d be twenty-eight this August.”
“I bet you were a good dad, too.”
That hits me in the heart. I have to put down the spoonful of beans and breathe for a moment to get the tears to stay in place.
“I don’t know. I did as well as I knew how.”
“Did she still talk to you? Did she come over on days other than holidays?”
I nod. “A few times a week. Most times, to see her mom, but she’d drop by my work once a week or so, just to say hi.”
Ferlita’s eyes grew wise in her young face. “Then you were a good dad. Good compared to mine, anyway.”
I open my mouth, but decide that it isn’t smart to pick off scabs I don’t have to. If she has something to tell me, she’ll do it when she’s ready. “Maybe so,” is all I say.
“How are your ribs?” she asks, thankfully changing the subject. “You were pretty bruised up.” She grins. “And furry…like Bigfoot.” She’d helped me get them wrapped the night before, and though I would have spared her the sight of an old man’s bare torso, it’s hard to minister to your own ribs.
“Hey, thanks. Good to know the Kinneys are about on the level with a forest monkey.”
Ferlita laughs, a sound I hadn’t expected to ever hear again, that simple, unrestrained laugh of a child. It somehow turns the moment bittersweet, and I catch myself wishing for things that can’t be, miracles that have yet to occur.
I think we both know it when we’ve violated some unspoken rule of the apocalypse, and the dinner table grows quiet for the rest of the meal. Even the clatter of the dishes seems muted as we clear away the spread and clean up.
I think of the disapproval of all the female influences in my life as I spread out a stained and oil-spotted towel that evening. Ferlita sits by me as I take down, clean, and reassemble the firearms I used on my recent foray. I explain to her how each one functions, which springs work against what leverage, and other random facts that come to me. It occurs to me that I’ve always been a bit of a minstrel, always spinning tales and keeping up long strands of conversation. I come to know how much I’ve missed those words being audible, and received by another human ear. I realize that I’ve been standing at the verge of a pit so deep and black that, no matter how much of my thoughts and words I throw into it, I can never hear anything hit bottom.
“Your family brought all of these home from the wars?” she asks.
“All except this one,” I say, pointing to the Ruger. “It’s more of a hunting revolver than a war weapon.”
“Is the gun I want a…war weapon?”
“We’ll have to see, Ferlita. I’m not sure if you’re talking about a Glock, a Beretta, or a Sig-Sauer. They’re all featured heavily on the television, or they were, before. I imagine that they’ve all been used in military service somewhere, though it’s the Beretta that our troops have used for many years.”
“Will they jolt my hand as much as yours?”
I shake my head. “Not likely. Those guns, at least the standard police issues, are usually 9mm or .40 Smith and Wesson. The pistol you fired was a .45 ACP. The loads I use have a bit of pop to them.”
Ferlita gets a faraway look in her eyes. “When do we go?”
I gesture to the window. “When it’s light.”
“What about after that?”
“I show you how to shoot, and then we’ll see.” I can somehow tell that she’ll be okay, that she’ll skip right over the flinching and closing her eyes. Little Ferlita has ice water in her veins.
“I think we’ll have to see if those zombies with the…” she makes a all-over gesture.
She nods. “Jumpsuits. We have to see if there are more. We have to get ’em.”
“That’ll be dangerous,” I tell her.
She sits back in her chair. “We can’t let them wander around. They’re too…”
“I know. Too bad to tame, too numerous to ignore.”
The guns are arrayed on the table, the magazines loaded, the smell of gun oil and powder solvent sweet in the air. We walk into the dim light of the single bulb that burns in the living room. Between the meal and my tortured ribs, I’m having a hard time breathing. The three beers have helped a little, but not enough. I slump into the recliner again, letting loose an involuntary grunt as my torso muscles flex.
Ferlita wanders from place to place, looking at books, family photos, magazines, and all the other junk that I’ve been too…paralyzed to move. “Do you have any music?”
“I do. Have you ever seen a reel-to-reel tape deck?”
It feels strange to simply walk into Hennigan’s Arms and Equipment, but it’s that easy. It was open at the time of the Flashover, and stayed that way. The scent of long-rotten food, probably someone’s lunch, lingers in the air. I prop the steel-barred door open with a box of clay pigeons to let the place air out.
“Wow,” Ferlita whispers. “Look at all of them.”
Hennigan’s has a full supply of every sort of gun, from the smallest .22 Derringer to a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Hunting rifles and shotguns line the walls. Handguns of all sorts lay on the blue felt below hardened glass. Ammunition occupies a whole side of the store, the colorful boxes like afterimages of all the country boys’ birthdays now forgotten.
“Maybe I should have a shotgun, too,” Ferlita tells me, walking forward, easily slipping behind the counter and running her fingers along all the finished wood and blued steel.
“Let’s find you a pistol first, Honey.”
She turns back to me, her eyes narrowing. She blows air out her nose and smiles after a moment.
“Not into pet names?”
She shrugs. “They’re okay. I just…”
I see that I’ve tripped on a painful memory. They abound. No one is whole, no one’s soul anything other than an old road sign after it’s been peppered with birdshot and .22 fire. “I’m sorry.”
Ferlita looks directly at me. “You can call me ‘Honey,’ Mr. Kinney.”
I set my teeth, my heart filling up with things I’d thought to be all the way gone. “Then you’d better call me Randall. Old as I am, I still think of ‘Mr. Kinney’ as being my father.”
Ferlita reaches down, picking up a ring of keys that must unlock the cabinets. She tries a few, finally hitting on the right one, and reaches in, pulling free a Beretta 92. “Found one.”
“That’s sort of big for your hand, but we can give it a go.”
“A war weapon?”
“Indeed. A war weapon.”
By the time we’re done shoplifting from the abandoned gun store, we’ve both got pump action shotguns, and we’ve stripped the place of ammunition in the calibers we use. I lament that .30 carbine is so sparse now, but Hennigan’s has several thousand rounds of .308, .45, and 9mm. I come back in just before we leave and purloin another Beretta 92 and some random supplies I might need down the line. Cleaning solutions, patches, a .30 caliber bore snake. It seems that I’ve broken through my initial squeamishness about stealing from the dead. They are all heirlooms now, taken from the great land of graves where we once existed.
There is a shutdown paper mill twenty miles up the road. I intend to use the huge interior space to muffle the gunfire while I teach Ferlita how to use her new weapon. It’s far from my house, and we’ll only be there for an hour or two, so drawing Muertos to us isn’t a big concern. If they do come, we’ll be very heavily armed and deployed in a defensible hard fortification. It seems safe enough, though safety is always half illusion and half hope.
Ferlita’s eyes are bright, her hands moving nervously on her lap as we drive the distance. High speeds are no longer wise, even when you imagine that you know the road well. Beyond the stopped or crashed cars that were remainders from the sudden violence of the Flashover, which immolated drivers in an instant and left the cars without a pilot, there are also natural hazards. Trees fall across the road. Wind blows debris into the roadway.
In the short months since the bustle of humanity was muted, the animals have grown bold and unmindful of our creations. It is not at all uncommon to see wild horses, packs of dogs, or any native animal hunching on the road. Bears, specifically, have become very successful. They are adept at breaking into cars and houses for food. Feral pets have also provided them with an easy source of nourishment. Even the Muertos (I’m growing more and more fond of Ferlita’s terminology) are a potential meal. Even a black bear has little to fear from the average zombie. Once they associate a human shape with being both food and enemy, however, that requires that you tread carefully.
The Suburban runs shy on gas, and I’m forced to look for a gas station. I know which marks denote premium gas, and I carry a rig that lets me pull gas straight from the underground tanks. It’s just a hand crank, so it takes time, but it’s quiet and robust. Ferlita and I take turns cranking the pump, gradually filling both the truck’s normal tanks and a few auxiliary tanks on the back. We wash up, filch all the good canned and packaged food, and get back on our way.
I’ve always found abandoned buildings to be at once wonderful and frightening. I don’t believe the sensation of walking into all that silent space has ever changed, not from the time I was standing only up to my father’s knee.
The paper mill, Quinland Paper, has been empty for nearly fifteen years. It squats at a slow bend in a river I cannot name, tan paint going to rust, pipes and ducts without purpose, stacks beginning to fall in on themselves. There were those I talked to that, for each place of industry that shut its gates and ceased to produce something, would have a vital, palpable pain shoot through them. I find that, though I had never thought too much about such things when I was younger, I now understand. The silence of a place where hard goods had been made, where people had coaxed valuable products out of the resources of the earth—those silences are like lingering deaths, every one a precursor to this immense death I walk through, and I wonder if it is hell, and if I am Virgil, showing Ferlita the way through the deepening circles of gloom.
Ferlita, within the horrors of her own mind perhaps, or simply content to suffer the silence without reflection, takes my hand and leads me further in. The gear we’ll need fills a duffel bag, and though the wounds to my face and ribs still ache and twinge, I am not so crippled by them as I was a few days ago. I can carry the weight of guns and shells without pain sweat popping against my skin.
Behind two sets of heavy doors, within the sanctum of the paper mill, Ferlita gets her crude training with weapons. She is a rare person, not prone to flinching at the press of her trigger finger. She watches carefully and quickly grasps how her Beretta operates. She is soon able to hit objects under eight inches across with good frequency.
“How come people in the shows are always pulling the slide-thingy back?” she asks.
“Because actors like something to do with their hands, and sound effects guys like the noise of the action taking a bullet into battery. That, and it’s not uncommon for the Hollywood guy who’s cutting the sequence together to have no clue about how a gun works.”
She gives me a thoughtful look, then puts a loaded magazine in the grip of her pistol, releases the slide, and takes aim. An empty soda can we brought in skitters across the floor.
After the Beretta, teaching her how to use the Mossberg 20 gauge is fairly simple. The recoil rocks her little shoulder, but the trials of the apocalypse have forged her into stern stuff. She doesn’t complain. She doesn’t even comment.
“Are you confident? Can you use these weapons under duress?”
She scrunches up her brows. “Does that mean, like, when things get scary?”
“That’s exactly what it means.”
Ferlita pushes her lips together, hands me her shotgun, and leans against one of the steel columns that holds up the roof. “I figure I can do whatever I have to.”
The titanic sound of the mill’s heavy door giving way comes through clear, even with our hearing protection on.
“Duress?” she asks.
I nod, too intent on loading shells into the shotgun to make a sound. We’ll be under duress in a moment. It’ll be all around us.
The hard rain falls on both the wicked and the just. We are not spared our trials upon this dusty earth, nor are we given reprieve because of what has been done or left undone. The mute horror of the Flashover reaches long, cold, grasping fingers into every crevice. Nothing remains untouched, no deed untainted by what has gone before. In this new conception of the earth, we must fight with all that we have to prove that we have not become outmoded, simply quaint and short-lived reminders of a time gone by.
I push little Ferlita behind me. She has the clip to her Beretta in hand, doing her best to press the 9mm shells in. Her index finger is smashed pale at the end, her eyes bright. The zombies are coming, and I have a strong feeling that they aren’t the normal muertos, but the souped-up version from the chemical plant. Normal zombies are stopped by steel doors. Knife-boy and his pals probably aren’t.
Everything moves slow, time dilated. I drop a 12 gauge shell, and it seems to take an eternity to hit the deck. The first door is already down, and it still had its metal deadbolt. This inner door won’t hold for more than a moment when they get to it.
“Don’t rush. Take clear shots. Aim for the head. If they get too close, you bolt. There’s got to be a way down to the river from here. You leave me, do you hear?”
Ferlita looks into my face and shakes her head. “Not leaving.”
“Don’t be muley. I get to die for you, if the time comes.”
“Uh-uh. If it gets bad, we both run, or we both stay.”
I see that she won’t be moved. Fierce, dark pride shoots through me. She has, simply and without the aid of a special creed, encompassed the warrior’s oath. To stand by a comrade, come what may. All of this explodes outward into my soul over the course of a single moment. “Okay. There ain’t much running in these old legs, though.”
She pushes home the filled magazine, works the slide, and engages the safety, tucking the pistol into her waistband. In a smooth, quick motion, she scoops up her 20 gauge and begins to load from the box of buckshot at her feet. “I don’t want to run anymore.” The look on her face is calm, her eyes intent, her small teeth biting her lower lip.
The second door explodes inward, pulling the hinges free and hitting the raised metal stairs hard enough to slide half way across the catwalk. A zombie shoots the gap and I take him with the Mossberg. His head caves and he tumbles to the foot of the stairs with the wet sound of a bag full of broken melons. Jumpsuit. It’s one of the souped-up zombies. Not death proof, though.
“Get any of them that get to the bottom of the stairs, or if I have to reload.”
“Bottom of the stairs,” she shouts back as I open up at the next to rush through the door. I get him in the midsection and knock him down, but he’s a super-muerto, and that doesn’t settle their hash. Two more come after and I lose track of the injured one. Ferlita’s shotgun roars beside me. Neither of us are taken down. I can’t spare the sideways glance, but I’m sure she took care of her end.
The shotgun is hitting on empty in a moment, four jumpsuit muertos down. “Cover the door!”
Ferlita pounds her last few rounds of 20 gauge at the door as another muerto comes in hard and fast. The first misses, the second shot blows his foot off. He’ll be ankle biting from here on. Her Mossberg is exhausted and I hear her start taking shots with the 9mm, one per second, like I told her. My old hands fumble with the magnum shells for the 12 gauge, but I get the tube filled again just as the Beretta falls quiet.
“I couldn’t get the last one,” Ferlita shouts, the ear protectors and the sustained thunder of gunfire making our hearing indistinct. I turn to her, and she motions with her chin.
I get the shotgun to shoulder and back on target. Two Muertos have the metal door and are using it like a big shield. They’re most of the way down the stairs now, and another two are shooting the gap with the diversion.
“Catch!” I throw the big gauge at Ferlita and pull the .45, falling two steps back to get a better angle.
My heart thundering, I make myself hold steady. If there was ever an important shot, it’s now. I take aim on the moving feet and ankles that are the only things I can target. Squeeze the trigger, Randall. Squeeze it easy and hit what you aim at.
I take my own advice. The door topples, the jig is up, and I hammer at the clever super-muertos with the last five rounds of hollow point. It’s enough.
Ferlita puts the big gauge to work, tearing into the two runners as they hit the stairs. They tumble down to the pitted concrete, coming still no more than ten feet from me. The ankle biter on the catwalk rears up and she relieves his shoulders of the weight of his head. I have enough time to really see the carnage, and wish that I had looked away. Even a muerto, even in the heat of battle, there are things that you’d rather not see too well.
I put the spare magazine into the .45 and hold it at the low ready, waiting. A minute goes by, though it seems an eon of echoing and fear and galloping heartbeat. I give back several steps, clearing Ferlita’s position, watching her as she puts the 12 gauge down and starts loading the 20. She winces as she moves her right arm, tears standing in her eyes. The big gauge was too much recoil for her, but she did what she needed to. Suddenly, I start to really believe that the human race might survive.
“That was extraordinary valor under fire, Honey.”
She grits her teeth and says nothing.
“How much ammo do we have left?”
“Just five shots for my…”
“20 gauge,” I fill in.
“20 gauge, yeah. Five shots. Ten more for the Beretta, and, um, three for your shotgun.”
I blow out breath. “Well, I hope they’re not waiting for us out there, huh?”
“Maybe we can circle around and see.”
I wipe my brow. My brain seems to be reeling, useless. Of course we should try to circle around. Ferlita, at least, hasn’t gone into trauma shock.
“Let’s see if there’s a way out down here,” I tell her. We walk through the dimness of the old paper mill, relying on the high intensity flashlight that I lifted from the gun shop for light. The whole place seems haunted and claustrophobic, the light dancing like the reflections of demon images against the wall. If you ever had any inclination to being twitchy, a full-on zombie attack will bring those tendencies to the fore. Ferlita, blessed little girl she is, seems to have no such issues.
“Don’t fire the shotgun any more if you don’t have to. I want to take a look at that shoulder, see if you’ve really hurt it.”
She just nods, her eyes flat now, revealing nothing.
We exit the mill near the river, taking a rusted steel catwalk across a spillway and then disembarking from the abandoned hulk via a long stair made of yellow-painted diamond plate. The nearby environs is overgrown and rough, and we use that to our advantage, coming back around to the front without being seen.
The muertos are smart, and so I’m careful, waiting and watching for nearly an hour. They could be hiding. When we approach the Suburban, I’m ready for any kind of ambush or other skulduggery, but nothing transpires. Just our feet scrunching on the gravel, just the sun slowly falling out of the sky.
The sound of the door closing behind us, putting us safely in the car, is like a toggle switch. I begin to shake and sweat, feeling that I have to do everything from puke to urinate all at the same time. I just lean back and wait, wait for it to be done, and Ferlita slides over, holding my sweat-slick hand, looking up at me while I struggle to get it together.
After a while, I can breathe again. “Belt in, Honey. We’re going home.”
I key the ignition and the engine catches. It still burbles sweetly, the sound of a dream not quite slipped away. The night falls, and we drive through the emptiness of it, the deep, primordial dark pushing at the corners of the headlight sweep.
It is a failing with me that sometimes, as the difficult events of life subside in my rear view mirrors, I become unable to look forward, but only stare at the fading remnants of what was, growing all the more diminutive as the miles stack. I run onward, but blind and hurt, consumed by the hungry mouths of yesterday’s sorrow.
I am a man of simple enough tastes, and a quality tequila, unadorned, has always been sufficient to the purpose of disinfecting these psychic wounds, the sting of the sharp brown liquid enough to finally awaken me to what I still possess, rather than clutching for things I’ve lost.
I remember parts and pieces. The careful cleaning of our weapons of war. The desultory meal of canned stew and dried apricots. The livid bruise on Ferlita’s shoulder, evidence of her bravery and the terrible cost the world forced her to pay for her life. I remember pouring her two fingers of the Cuervo 1800 to quell the pain and blunt the sharp shards of the day. I remember my own indulgence, too many fingers of fire to easily reckon. More than what was required to cauterize the wounds, just less than what it took to scorch the ground to molten glass.
Now, I struggle into the middle of the next day, grasping upward out of clinging verdigris and spider’s silk, entering the painful, confused wakefulness that is the price for a moment’s forgetting. Suffering, to paraphrase Neil Young, the bottle and the damage done.
Ferlita, her eyes too hollow, her face too knowing, looks up from a slim paperback that is already read to the halfway point. “Conan the Usurper”, a book I had to comb through yard sales and thrift stores for years to find. She’s brought in a chair, a tube of Pringle’s potato chips, and her 20 gauge, which leans against the wall within arm’s reach. Her shoes don’t quite make it to the floor, swinging slow as push rods on an oil derrick as she scans the pages.
“How do you like that book?” I ask, finding it difficult to address all the greater topics.
She nods. “This guy Conan’s a bad hombre. We could use him against the muertos.”
I sit up. My stomach quavers, making me hold still for a moment. “Can’t argue with you there. Any hero would do.”
“We’ll have to do, Mr. Kinney. It’s just us. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them—the book heroes.”
“This Conan guy woudn’t hide out and wait for something to happen. He’d go right to the heart of it, kick in the doors, and…”
I let go of my air, holding hard against my knees. Of course I have a clear idea what Conan would do. Or Kull, or Bran Mak Morn, or Tarzan of the Apes. “And let the gods decide,” I say, finishing her sentence.
“Right. Let the gods decide.”
I swing my feet out and stand, shaky on my feet for a moment. The floor seems frigid against my soles, all the age and minor injury weighing me down. “You’re saying we should go right at them, come what may?”
She puts the book aside and stands up, hard and straight against the pain I know she feels. She stands, and as soldiers do, delivers. “Whatever happens.”
“We both may die.”
“I know. I’d rather die doing something tough than live in hiding like a mouse.”
I shake my head, not speaking for a moment. Her hands are fists at her sides, her eyes throwing fire as she imagines that I’ll try to dissuade her from her chosen course. “So says the young Joan of Arc, and so do I heed.”
“What’s that mean?” Her teeth are set, her jaw flexed.
“It means that I’m in, Honey. Right to the wall, I’m in.”
There are no dry runs allowed. We’re duty bound to land a telling blow against the enemy now, even as we test our theories. We are few, but clever. The enemy’s numbers are vast, their resolve unwavering. If we’re to neutralize their greatest threat, the high-functioning muertos like knife boy and his friends, we have to develop advanced tactics. They’re evolving. So must we.
Ferlita had half the idea. I just filled in the destructive element and the tactical considerations. It took us two days to find the materials, then two more days with the arc welder and the chemistry book. It’s not elegant, not how Dr. Porsche would do it, but I have faith that it’ll work. We’ll test small, then we’ll go big.
In the center of the public square, three hundred yards from our position atop an old Rexall drug store, is a lowrider truck. The stereo’s on, playing a band called Godsmack, which was the loudest thing I could find without obsessive twiddling at the record store. The windows are cranked down, the doors wide open. The stereo in the lowerider was clearly designed to keep audiologists in business and to serve as a public nuisance. It’s doing so now.
On the hood, there’s a feral hog, two wild dogs, and a yearling buck deer, all victims of opportunity. They’re eviscerated, the one thing that Ferlita elected not to watch closely, and I suppose the wind is carrying a fine blood smell outward into occupied territory.
One last thing. The whole car is a bomb. Yes. That’s the cool part. We are now approaching our fight with the muertos by using bait scenarios and improvised explosive devices. Progress.
Back in the big before, I had a friend who was a bit of a nut. One of those guys you didn’t necessarily invite to a family dinner. I remember someone referring to him as a “wild eyed lunatic” after one of his little stunts, wherein he started a magnesium fire we had a hell of a time putting out before it caused a forest fire. This guy, whose name was Lamonte Brecht, would tell us all sorts of stories about his exploits. Lamonte’s exploits often involved shooting things, being seriously injured in automobile wrecks, and blowing stuff up. He had the scars to act as bona fides.
One of his favorite explosive chemicals was something called Tannerite. It’s basically ammonium nitrate and aluminum dust. There’s some other stuff in there, too. A little titanium and some zirconium, I think. Anyway, Lamonte loved to mix up some of this stuff, put it into a pop can, and shoot it with his rifle. While Tannerite’s mostly harmless, even fully mixed, an impact as dramatic as a high velocity shell will cause it to go, “boom.” A half pound will throw a lot of dust up in the air and blow the hood off of a car. A coffee can full, I’m told, will burst a refrigerator into shrapnel.
I’m not one to go low ball. The cab of the lowrider has a hundred pound canister of Tannerite in the passenger seat. The bomb canister is surrounded with a secondary container that contains my hasty equivalent to “grape shot”. Short lengths of chain, nails, scrap rebar…anything I could find. There’s an eight inch target area painted red, the only place that isn’t packed with fragmentary material. The whole rig started life as a forty gallon chemical drum, and suffered the indignities of my poor welding until the current configuration was attained.
I have a pilfered Weatherby rifle chambered for .378 Weatherby Magnum, topped by a Leupold scope that can give up to 22x magnification. My sniper shooting isn’t what it was when I was thirty, but it’s not a difficult shot. The difficult part, as we’re now become aware, is waiting for the muertos to get to the party.
“The big umbrella was a good idea, huh?” Ferlita says, fishing for a compliment. It was her idea.
“We’d be sunburnt by now otherwise.”
“You would be, pale face,” she shoots back.
I hand her the binoculars and roll to my back. “Ouch.” My body’s aching all ready, and it’s only been a few hours. I figured they’d come sooner. Soon as someone can figure out the thought process of the muertos, they should let me know. It’d save me a lot of time.
“There’s one,” she whispers. “Shit, it’s him.”
“Him? Knife boy?”
I roll to the rifle, up on sand bags and trained on the target all ready. It’s knife boy, all right. The knives, though, have proliferated. He’s found a heavy weightlifting belt and put it around himself. He has knives of every imaginable sort tucked under the belt, and he’s now carrying what looks to be an actual Roman sword.
“Blow it. Blow him away, Mr. Kinney.”
I shake my head. “Not yet. I didn’t do that much work for one super muerto. That’s not good return on investment.” For all that, though, the urge to just shoot knife boy’s head clean off is pretty strong. No good, though. I don’t know if that would queer the pitch for the others.
“But…it’s knife boy,” Ferlita urges.
“I know. Let’s get a few of his friends down there, then we’ll frag ’em. Okay?”
She blows out air and keeps watching. Knife boy circles the truck, far more intent than even super muertos should be. I see that he’s changed clothes, and he’s wearing something on his head. It takes me a moment to figure out what it is, but I eventually see that it’s one of those little hats that bicyclists used to wear, before helmets became the preferred headgear. An odd green and white. I search my memory, thinking of that, thinking of the Bianchi ten speed I had back in the seventies. Knife boy circumnavigates the lowrider like a cop on a television show, bent slightly, on his toes, alert.
“That bastard’s getting smarter all the time.”
“I’m telling you, blow him to hell,” Ferlita tells me.
I take my eye away from the scope and look at her. She’s shaking all over now, sweat on her upper lip. She can’t hold the binoculars on target at this point. Not for a three hundred yard distance. Tears stand in her eyes.
“Shit. Shit. Okay.” I put my eye cheek against the Weatherby’s stock and make the minor corrections in position that swing the field of vision of the rifle nearly twenty yards way out there. Where is he? I don’t see him immediately, but I swing the scope around to take in a bigger zone. There he is. The Roman sword is bloody. Knife boy’s face wears a feral grin. He has the carcass of the deer slung over his shoulder, and he’s shagging ass away from the car. I try to get a bead on him, but he’s already under cover, already moving too fast to hold the cross hairs on him.
Hesitate and be lost. Here we are. We waited for the sheep and let the lion get away. I say a lot of things I shouldn’t say in front of Ferlita. She nods and says them back to me. No recriminations and I-told-you-so’s, at least. There’s no need.
“Didn’t work, sweetie,” I say. “Sorry.”
“Maybe we can still blow up some of the normal muertos. I don’t think they run in knife boy’s gang. They may still fall for it.”
“That’s gonna be some cold comfort.”
She shrugs. I shrug back.
“We’ll give it until nightfall.”
I’ll say one thing for our little gambit. It was a hell of a boom. Our roost three hundred yards away was, in fact, about minimum safe distance from which to observe the lowrider’s supernova. That said, never has so much ordnance been used to lay low so few zombies. Three, to be exact.
But boy, were they ever terminated. I found a smoking boot, foot still in it, just slightly over a hundred yards away, standing up as if someone had been standing there and had otherwise been vaporized by some science fiction weapon.
The truck’s gas tank had been topped up as high as it would go, and I’d put another twenty gallons of diesel in the bed in Jerry cans. The fuel burned hot and high for better than an hour, the tires going up with all their sickening white smoke plumes, the black of oil smoke around the outside to round out the industrial disease we’d caused.
We continue to watch, upwind of the worst of it, as all the material and effort go upward into the dark sky. The fire’s now jumped to three of the nearby buildings. It’s unlikely to go further, but the wood of the old town hall, especially, is decorating the night sky with red plumes of fire, every window alight like the empty eye sockets of burning skulls in hell.
“What’d we learn?” I ask Ferlita.
“Plan wasn’t Conan enough. Just bait and shoot would be as good. Way easier to set up, too.” She puts her eyes back against the binoculars. “Here’s something we didn’t know. They like fire.”
“Muertos. They’re coming around for the cookout. Hard to see ’em until they get close to the fire, but there’s a shitload of them down there.”
“Ferlita, I don’t want you picking up every rotten word in this old soldier’s vocabulary,” I chide, not even half-hearted.
She ignores me. I put my eye to the scope. We’re only about half as far away as we’d been at zero hour, and my scope settings require me to aim several inches low now. I don’t have the wherewithal to make the exact calculation in my head. If I see one, I’ll just have to wing it. Hold low and some reverse Kentucky Windage.
My old eyes rebel against the sting and flash of the fire, when intensified by the high power scope. I already have a headache from the blast of the bomb, the waiting, and the fumes of the fire down below. No one ever said that living on would be easy.
I see one, loitering with its dull eyes staring into the brightness of the flames. The pale gray of the muerto’s flesh is given life by the flames, an artificial rouge, but nothing can restore true sentience to their slack expression and imbecilic stance. No creative lighting has that level of magic in it, short of the golden bolt of the divine that wrings new life from mute clay. Nothing the hand of a simple fool like myself can create with bullets and bombs. I gesture for Ferlita to put her ear muffs on, sliding my own maximum suppression plugs in. They don’t fully ameliorate the noise of an ultra magnum rifle, but we take what we can get.
I take the shot, holding too low. The mighty .378 makes my poor sniping count the best it can, blowing a shot put sized void in the middle of the zombie’s chest. It goes down and doesn’t come up. With enough static shock, it seems that even zombies respond to a center-of-mass wound. I rack another round into the chamber, having to take my eye away from the scope to draw back the long stroke of the rifle’s bolt.
With the cartridge sent home again, I search for the next one, and the next, and the next. Come morning, I have but five of my .378s remaining, and my shoulder is as black and blue as Ferlita’s, but the muertos are laying thick and rank upon the ground. In the end, the solution is as simple as fire, though we come to it unawares and through long and foolish bouts of theory.