ALL THESE VIOLENT HEIRLOOMS, PART III by Patrick M. Tracy
December 1, 2011 Longer stories Tags: Patrick M Tracy
I rationalize my serial theft from the quiet crypts of civilization by imagining myself as the inheritor of all those now dust. Perhaps not me, an old man, a relic, but Ferlita, at least. It is she who stands some chance of seeing our species coming back from the brink, she the one who may lead us back into the light.
The pattern of larceny, once begun, grows easier with repetition. The Kinneys, strange as we were, earned what we took, and were proud of standing on our own two feet. Aside from our trophies, we hated to borrow, rejected help, and bought only those things which we couldn’t gain by direct action. My primary action now is to think of things I can rob from the community chest and ways I can use those items to prosecute a war perhaps only myself and Ferlita have formally declared.
No matter. The extremity of the battles we face must take its toll, and even as we speak for those beyond the veil, we are ourselves diminished. We write small changes on the walls of this this quiet world, and quickly are used down to the nub. Useless soliloquies on my part change nothing, my efforts to make sense of things larger than myself always doomed to end with a series of question marks and frustrated doodles upon the page.
Ferlita comes to me as I sit in the midst of the yard sale pile of bits and pieces I’ve drawn together, looking at the thumb of my left hand, where I’ve lost the nail at last, and now simply have an ugly darkness of soft flesh. I can’t remember how long it’s been that way, or what happened in the first place.
“Have you got a plan, Mr. Kinney, or has your little rubber band snapped?” She kicks a big plastic bag full of packing peanuts, twirling a road flare between her fingers.
“There’s a plan in the formative stages.”
“I used to have my homework in, like, the formative stages. Never seemed to get any credit for it.”
“You’re a wiseacre some times, kid. Not being Conan or somesuch, it takes an old man a few swings at the ball before he hits one solid.”
“So you’re just gathering up a whole lot of random junk and hoping something’ll come to you?” She softens her words by shimmying up on the camp table next to me and leaning her head against my arm.
“No, I’ve got the basics down. I just need to ask you a few things before I’m sure.”
“Like what?” I both admire and abhor the look in her brown eyes. She is what she must be, but I can’t excuse a world in which a little girl has to be so hard, so young.
“Can you ride a bike?”
“Riding fast, with stops and starts, and for up to three or four miles?”
“I used to ride all day. No problem.”
“What about your arm? Can you throw?” I ask her.
She gives me a disgusted look. “Like softball?
“Sure. Like that.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. One more thing. If I don’t…if I’m not around anymore, are you going to be able to lay low and survive?”
A sudden pain crosses her eyes, but she clamps down hard on it and it turns inward, into places I can’t see. “I don’t want it to be like that.”
“I don’t either, but I have to know that you’ll be able take care of yourself. I’ll teach you everything I can while we’re getting ready, but plans fail, things fall apart, and I need to know that you won’t…do anything hasty if I’m not around.” I find that it’s hard to get the words out.
“I’ll be careful. I can hide. I can find food. I can go back to how it was if I have to. I don’t want…” She turns away, putting her small fists against her face. Her breathing hitches, just once. The rest of it is controlled, silent. I can do nothing but put my hand against her spine and clench my teeth. There’s no one to curse, no easy target for my anger.
“Whatever happens,” she says, turned from me, “I don’t want to leave any of them—the smart ones—behind. The super muertos have to go down.”
I haven’t ridden a bike for some embarrassing number of years. Still, there’s two rules I know, or perhaps just made up. One: you don’t ask your troops to do things you won’t do yourself. Pretty sure that’s some rough paraphrase of a real maxim. The second: you assess your enemy’s level of readiness, their response to someone encroaching on their territory. For me, that involves a bike ride.
The pain in my thighs and the aching in my old knees humanizes everything. Still, I’m alive to ache. The bike shorts I found to go along with the bike, a Cannondale with fat tires and more gears than I’ve ever seen, are constrictive, but given the cruel dimensions of the seat, it’s probably a good idea. Just because my wedding tackle’s old and likely without any rational usage, that doesn’t mean that the nerves have died down there.
Bicyling and .45s in a shoulder holster were not meant to converge, as concepts, I don’t think. I can’t find a comfortable posture or adjustment, and finally give in to the idea that the ridge of the magazine will sometimes clip me in the ribs. If I’m not careful, the hammer will get me on the back of the arm. Clumsy as my old body is, I’m often pretty sketchy on “careful”.
Cavendish Petrochemical Labs sits alongside a newly-paved road, the deep blackness and sweet tar smell still cooking up from the surface as the sun sits high in a sky devoid of clouds. There’s high chain-link all the way around the facility, which looks like it must be several acres in total. There’s a big parking lot behind a wheeled gate. The building’s blocky and steel sided. At least ten or twelve small exhaust stacks rise from the rear part of the structure.
Gate standing open and parking lot mostly filled with cars, I guess that a shift was in progress at the time the Flashover hit. This shift, for reasons I don’t pretend I can grasp, went muerto at an astronomically higher rate that the norm. That norm, guessed only through my own small calculations, was something like one or two percent. Not the Cavendish employees. It had to have been way higher. Maybe everyone.
I pedal slow, dawdling to see if there’s going to be any attempt to impede my progress. Or gnaw my shin bones, like the muertos do. My surmise that they use this place as their base camp is just that—a surmise. A groundless guess on my part. There could be…
Nope, I’m right after all. Five, six, shit, maybe ten super muertos explode from the cover of a barberry hedge and start sprinting to catch me.
I think about pulling my .45 and trying to fire over my shoulder, but just pulling one hand from the bars makes the bike veer dangerously. I feel the smooth track of the new pavement degenerate at the edge of the road, the sandy shoulder grasping at the fat tires and trying to pull the bars out of my remaining hand.
To hell with this. I put my other hand on the bars and get my course righted. I pedal for all I’m worth. The way the switchgear works is still a mystery to me, but I try for a higher gear.
“Balls,” I whisper. I’ve got a lower gear now, so that my legs flail around to nearly no purpose. I’m slowing down. I can hear the muertos’ feet slapping against the pavement. They’re closing in.
Heart straining close to redline, I push the switchgear the other way, and the chain hops up onto the big front sprocket. The sudden resistance shocks me up to the hip bone, the speed of my leg’s rotation quartering in an instant. I stand up off the seat like I’ve seen the Tour de France riders do and go for it.
My heart’s hitting so fast that half my vision’s filled with snowflakes and colored fire, but I don’t quit. A wild tendril of humor goes through my mind, imagining them finding me lying at the side of road, heart exploded like a doped horse’s, my flesh already cooling before they can lay a tooth upon it.
I don’t have enough breath to laugh, but I go on. It seems as if a gulf of a thousand years is breached before their footfalls fade away behind me, before I’m safe.
I pull to the side and, devoid of grace or care, fall against the weedy downslope, back flat against the ground, breathing like a bellows. It takes my heart the better part of a half hour to finally approximate its usual cadence.
“So. That’s dangerous,” I reflect, before crawling back to the bike and forcing my body, now in full revolt, to get back on. It takes me nearly two hours to get back to the Suburban, and by that time, one of my calves is in such a fierce cramp that tears are gathering in my eyes.
“How’d it go?” Ferlita asks.
I put my palms against the rear hatch of the Suburban and try to work the knots out of my legs. My clothes are soaked with sweat, my brain foggy and inert. “One problem with my plan, honey.”
“What’s that, Mr. Kinney?” She hands me a bottle of water, perching on the rusty back bumper.
“It’s too risky. On a bike, anyway. Way too risky. It’s stupid.”
“Tell me what happened, huh? I’ll decide if I can do it.”
“You’re, what? Ten?”
“Eleven. I’m just little. And we’re partners. Tell me.”
I do. She grins.
“What?” I ask.
“We can use this. We can totally use this,” she tells me. After a minute, I’m smiling, too.
Enthusiasm turns to trepidation as we churn closer to the actual risk. Bold plans look great on paper, sound great as they arc across the still, safe air of conception. Putting them into practice…that’s something else altogether.
I pace in front of the Suburban, suffering doubts, kicking at the insides of my ribcage with an angry heart. Was half a mile too far? How fast can Ferlita pedal? Will they chase her that far? What if there are others, both before and behind her?
Too many questions. Too much time in which to ask them. I’ve checked my M-14 and its respective magazines of ammunition a dozen times. I’ve checked how my .45 sits in its holster an equal number of times. I’ve done everything but worry about having forgotten to turn off the burners on the gas range at home. If there was a sink nearby, I’d be washing my hands like those folks with mental problems, back when that sort of thing seemed like a bad problem to have.
Then I see her, bent down hard over the bars of her small frame ten-speed, trailing a half dozen running muertos. I can see her teeth, her face filled with an mean little grimace as she makes herself small, helping me get an angle for my shot.
The M-14’s butt plate hits my shoulder and I take aim. The peep sight fills with the snarling face of the lead muerto. Crazy, but they seem to grow more…evilly aware every time I see one. I time the bob and rush of his gait and squeeze the trigger. My shoulder is till tender from my adventures with the Weatherby, but I continue to fire for effect on the muertos.
After three fall and other is spun and deposited on the tarmac with his left arm foreshortened at the elbow, the others leap from the road surface and into the brushy forest.
“What I wouldn’t give…” I begin, but I won’t finish wishing for the simpleton muertos. I knew what we were facing when I came here. It’s them we’re concerned about.
I catch Ferlita’s bars to help her get to a stop, throwing her bike into the back of the Suburban. The action causes cramps to ripple across the small muscles of my torso and lock up one calf muscle. She leaps into the car as I load in the M-14, still trailing vapor from its open slide.
“Mr. Kinney!” Ferlita yells. There’s a sharp, panicked edge to her voice.
I fall backward into the back seat’s footwell, drawing the .45. One of the super muertos had been jogging through the woods, coming around for a flanking rush. He’s right on me. The sound of the Colt is like the end of the world inside the cabin of the truck, but it reduces the left side of the rushing zombie’s head to pink-red pulp. His momentum isn’t checked, and he hits the open aperture, thumping atop me in a bloody, reeking mass of dead flesh.
Something hits the other side of the Suburban. I can’t get up, but I start pushing the terminated flesh with my free hand. Ferlita chirps a curse and I feel her move violently enough to rock the Suburban. I look up, and I see two muertos hammering at the side of the vehicle.
Ferlita’s first shot blows out the passenger side window, and I see her hang her off hand out the ragged opening, pumping shots into the other muertos until the Beretta’s slide locks, barrel exposed and grinning empty.
They’re down. I can’t see them from my prone position. I struggle to extricate myself from the still zombie’s unwanted embrace and barely manage to climb into the driver’s seat. I fire the engine and we vacate the scene in a wash of half-burned gasoline and tire smoke. My leg cramp has grown worse, and I’m shaking all over like someone with a high fever, but all I can do is put my foot against the dead space on the firewall and grit my teeth.
“Shit. That was a piece of cake,” Ferlita says. She’s digging at her ears, trying to get the ringing to go away, I imagine.
I laugh. It sounds like the barking of a jackal coming up from a buried drainage pipe.
We harnessed fire, and that made us as gods on the earth. I jockey a fifty gallon drum of gasoline and plastic packing peanuts onto the huge flatbed trailer, that last of twelve that I was able to fill from the nearby wells. Frankly, the last one I can wrestle onto the trailer. Ferlita hands me up a loop of poly rope a few hundred feet long. I throw a big bowline-on-a-bite around one drum and then pace around and around the whole group until I’m out of line. I hitch the rope hard, and know that it’ll stay, bumps or no. In amongst the fifties, I’ve got three ninety pound propane cylinders, each with an eight inch red dot of paint. Come twilight, Cavendish Petrochemicals is going to have a big problem. That’s my prediction.
I want to ask Ferlita if she’s sure, but she’d just glare at me. She’s said she can do it, and so she’ll do it. That’s her. We’ve got a little car that was still in running order at the dealership. One of those Toyotas that runs on batteries sometimes. It’s quiet, and she can put the seat close enough to reach the pedals. It should work. If it won’t, it’ll be too late for us to lament. We’ll be food for the muertos.
We both get into the Toyota, Ferlita driving. It’s midday, and we crawl past the chemical plant at walking pace, waiting. I flex my hands, hoping that I’ve got enough speed to get this done. They don’t jump when they jumped the first two times. Are they gone?
No. They’re just learning. When the muertos do jump, it’s really close, and they’re coming from every direction.
“Hit it!” I yell.
Ferlita does, and two muertos get a taste of the Toyota’s bumpers. She’s a little shaky behind the wheel, but her nerve always holds. She’s my girl. My partner. We make a little distance on them, maybe three hundred yards, and I tell her to get it stopped.
With the squealing of the Toyota’s thin tires, we’re to a stop. I do my best to leap out, and she pops the hatchback. I hoist the makings of our distraction fire out of the back, my bones and muscles protesting to high heaven. Ferlita is in the center of the road, her Beretta held at rest, red ear muffs on her head.
Four five-gallon jugs of diesel, four VW engine blocks made out of magnesium. One twenty foot length of hemp rope, already soaked with fuel and ready to burn.
I push the rope through the handle of each of the Jerry cans, then into the top of the last one. I stretch it out, all the way out to the edge of the road.
“They’re coming,” I hear. I fish for my lighter and spin the flint. Sparks, but no fire. Again. Same thing happens. I try for a harder spin, and the metal sides of the Zippo squirt out of my hand, tumbling down the embankment at the roadside.
I leap downward, my feet slipping, my ankle twinging. I tackle the spot where the lighter has landed, wondering if I’ll be able to get out.
The sound of gunfire rips open the roof of the day. I force myself up, crawling back to the end of the fuse. I spin the flint sparker one more time, and the flame comes up. I touch it to the fuse, and the bright fire of diesel dances up the fuse fast as you like.
“It’s lit!” I yell.
Ferlita falls back to the Toyota’s door, reloading and spraying a whole clip at the oncoming muertos to check their progress. More than a few already carry some of her lead.
In the moment that we pile into the car, the whole tinder behind us goes up, red-gold flame leaping thirty feet into the air, singing the back of the Toyota, and scaring the hell out of us. We are moving, though, moving out of the conflagration and into the clear air.
“How long will it burn?” Ferlita asks, hands tight on the wheel.
“If the magnesium goes up, quite a while. If not, maybe an hour. Can’t tell. This is the sort of stuff they used to put you in jail for.”
As the view of the fire fades, we can just make out a crowd of muertos forming. Smarter, they may be. The allure of the flames affects them nonetheless.
We circle back to the old Suburban, using an access road through town and sucking up much of the time that our fire might burn.
“This is it. This is the big show,” I say as I get myself ready for it, as I prep my aching body to make the surge into the truck again.
“It’s all or nothing,” Ferlita says back. She puts her arm around my waist and gives me a short squeeze.
I creak my way into the Suburban, now clean of all my important belongings, ready for its road of glory at last.
“Mr. Kinney?” Ferlita’s standing by the Toyota, a Prius, she’s informed me. For a moment, I miss the wonderful names cars used to have. Imperial. Impala. Falcon. Those were names.
“What is it, sweetie?”
“I…” her face quirks.
“Me too. Me too.” I pull out, the Suburban working hard to get the heavy trailer moving. She pulls in behind me. I don’t look back at her, for fear of what I’ll see, what I’ll feel.
The smoke from our distraction fire is still coming up in the distance. We roll to a stop at the open gate before Cavendish. Someone has been left to guard the fort, and they appear next to the Suburban. The window’s open, and I fire the big Ruger right into the muerto’s face. The flame front from the pistol soaks the thing’s head, the sudden hit of a high velocity shell cracking the skull like a dropped pumpkin. It folds up, and I pop the door. Ferlita’s already out, already holding the M1 Carbine that I’ve recovered and made functional again. She levels the little rifle on the other two muertos and three reports end their career on the far side of dead.
I brace the dowel rod against the seat and the old engine roars. I reach up, dropping the transmission into gear and getting out of the way. The Suburban’s tires bark and scrabble at the tarmac, the rear end hopping under the strain, but it gets the heavy trailer moving, and it assumes its collision course with the chemical plant.
“Always was a great truck,” I whisper, as I walk back to the Prius. I get the big Weatherby out of the back as the mighty crash transpires behind me. As I look back, the Suburban is doors-deep in the front of the building, still straining and roaring to punch further, still in frantic, heroic action.
I level the Weatherby on one of the big propane cylinders. The trailer didn’t flip, which was my biggest worry. I can still see a red dot. I think that I should say something prophetic, something clever, at least, but I can think of nothing. I press the trigger. The heat and pressure of the explosion is vast and profound at thirty yards, the flames leaping a hundred feet in the air, a series of smaller explosions blending together like the cycles of a massive engine.
Ferlita goes into the passenger seat, and I rack the driver’s seat back to the rear of the tracks. I drive the little car roughly, and it responds as best it can. I drive in the opposite direction of our distraction fire for about fifty yards, then stop.
We take up our positions on either side of the little car, her with the M1 Carbine and me with my M14. As the supermuertos stream down the road, we fire until our magazines are spent. Those we don’t kill, we maim. Those that we don’t maim, we force into cover and pin down.
In the Prius, we flee the scene before our victory becomes failure. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I could swear I see knife boy, tiny in the rearview, shaking a long blade in wordless rage. We have not destroyed them all, but we have struck a mighty blow. The living may be relics of a time now passed, no more than violent heirlooms, but we somehow contrive to remain. In all our noise and fury, in all the desperate plans and destructive stratagems, we are not yet gone from the brow of the earth.
Hi. This is Ferlita Sanchez writing this now. I just wanna say that I’m not writing this alone. I have help. There’s someone. Well, I’m going to get to that in a minute. I want to tell you that, in the movies, back when there were movies, they would always stop where Mr. Kinney did. You stop after the good guys win. The music plays and everybody’s name rolls down the screen. You walk out and everything’s sweet. So. If you want it to be that way, you gotta (said it like that on purpose) stop now. I’m serious. The movie’s over. All of Mr. Kinney’s pretty words are done. It’s just my part of the story now, and I don’t have any pretty words. So stop now. Don’t read what I am writing. If you keep on going, I warned you. I told you about it.
Mr. Kinney and me drove a little while after the mess at the plant. I don’t think we was even going in the right direction. We just drove. I wasn’t even that scared right then, but I got the shakes real bad. I didn’t want to, and I wasn’t all sad, but I started crying. I thought of all the cheesy Mexican pop songs they used to play at the beautician shop in Yuma. The guys had always done their women wrong, but they were begging them not to cry. It seemed like all the songs were like that. I imagined a really nice looking boy singing for me not to cry in Spanish, but it didn’t do any good. I kept on. Mr. Kinney just stared ahead and drove, his eyes somewhere far out there. I stopped crying, then got hungry, then got real tired and went to sleep. I don’t know when we finally got back to the bowling alley. Mr. Kinney carried me in, I guess.
A few days went by. We stayed pretty cooped up, since we thought that any of the muertos that were still out there might try something. I started to get real good at bowling. And making grilled cheese sandwiches. We didn’t talk much. It seemed like we’d won, and we didn’t trust it. Mr. Kinney said that he expected Knife Boy, the lead muerto, to come back at us all knuckles. He expected…reprisals…I think that was the word.
I couldn’t do much to make things different. I was having a tough time sleeping, and when I did, I was having a lot of dreams that made me feel like I’d never be able to breathe normal again. We were both all messed up. I started missing my Mom like anything, and my little cousin Raul, and my friend Sammi. All the people that were gone. The people that were just dust. When I was all alone, and it was just the tire spray bottle and the muertos, it was different. With Mr. Kinney, and what we’d done, and thinking about actually having some kind of life again, I was maybe wanting too much. I opened the doors, and all the bad stuff from the world going to hell came in, and I was not dealing.
The only thing that helped was reading. It took me out of it a little. I read these books about this guy who was like a blacksmith, and the stuff he would make was wicked powerful. But man, this dude had some bad luck. He was always getting himself into the shit. If he did one bad thing all year, this girl he was digging would be there, and she would leave him because of it. When I was worrying about these books, it went away a little. It wasn’t so bad.
When there was nothing decent to eat left at the bowling alley, we finally knew we were going to have to take our chances. Hanging around was just making it worse, anyhow. When you’re all messed up inside, you want to move. At least when you’re doing something, you can fool yourself a little. Hiding like a rat in a storm drain just lets you pick away at your own scabs.
We came out of the bowling alley like a SWAT team. We had every gun loaded, and we came out ready rock. My shoulder finally looked like it was supposed to again, and I was ready. Yeah, I got the shakes again thinking about it, but I went through the door, and we made it to the car. Nothing came out. We didn’t see anything.
It wasn’t until we got back to Mr. Kinney’s house that things got bad. He would have ways of making this part so you can see it happening, and have a lot to say about it. I just have to put what happened. Just doing that, and I’m having a hard time. You guys don’t know how long it’s taking me to write this stuff. It’s like you dig a hole in sand, and it just fills in, like you haven’t done anything but push the stuff around.
We got out of the car like we’d gotten to it. Cop show stuff, ready in case the muertos tried to jump us. Again, things looked clear. We got in, and maybe for the first time since blowing up the plant, we started to relax. I know that, somewhere inside my gut, I started to feel like everything was cool. That’s a feeling you need to get rid of, because it always lies.
It was after dark, hours later, and we were heating up beef stew out of cans. The propane that Mr. Kinney had piped in had just run out. The blue little tongues of fire went out, and he went to the back door. He turned to me and said he was just going to duck out and change it. I asked if he wanted me to cover him, but he said that we had to stop living scared at some point. He said it would just be a minute, because he had five cans hooked up to a common line, and he’d just have to turn a valve to get us working again.
And then he never came back. I heard him shout, then something big hit the side of the house hard enough that the pictures of the Kinney people fell to the floor, all the glass breaking up and coughing everywhere. I opened my mouth, and there was scream there inside, but I couldn’t get anything to come out. I reached, and the shotgun was there, because I promised myself that I wasn’t ever going to be more than three steps from the twenty gauge, ever. The back door burst in, and there was Knife Boy, and he had blood on him, and he was running full out at me, and I raised the shotgun and shot, and the booming sounds kept going until I couldn’t hear anything.
Mr. Kinney’s head wasn’t connected to his body anymore when I went to the door, pumping shells into the belly of the shotgun. I could see him looking at me, his eyes open and empty. I waited at the door for a long time, crying real hard, but straining to see, to make sure there weren’t any more. I dragged Knife Boy outside and shut the door. I found a hammer and nails, and I nailed the door shut. It’s still nailed shut now. It ain’t ever gonna open again. I went and climbed into Mr. Kinney’s bed. I lay there until morning. When I closed my eyes I saw him laughing. I saw him telling me some story about how you can switch crank shafts on an engine and make it bigger inside, somehow. Much as I didn’t want to, I saw him, dead and staring. Sleeping was pretty hard. Maybe it always will be now. I guess we’re closer to the dead when we sleep, and I’m not used to the company any more.
It took me all day to bury him, but Knife Boy burned easy when I poured a bunch of booze on him and lit him up. I took everything good and moved back into the bowling alley. I was alone there until Tiffany found me the next spring. It wasn’t until then that I came back to the house and found this story. Now it’s done, ready to be told.
Mr. Kinney taught me to shoot. He taught me to drive. He taught me how to run his big tape player. I guess maybe we taught each other about how to fight the muertos. He made me out to be something amazing, but I was just a kid. Things were tough, and I tried as hard as I could. It almost was enough.
I could have covered Mr. Kinney. The happy ending was right outside my reach, but I could have stretched for it. I didn’t. Mr. Kinney was a good man. I miss him more than anyone.