“Fuck orders.” Mort scratched his crotch with his rifle butt.
“We’ll check out some Rite Aid’s in Philly when we’re in town. Probably some anti-fungal shit somewhere.”
He drove the butt hard into his groin, then he spit on the body we just put down. The bullet had shattered the body’s jaw but hadn’t destroyed the brain. The rotten garbage reached for Mort, clawing at his boot. It hadn’t even finished chewing up Sanchez’ shoulder, and it hungered–always ravenous. Mort aimed his rifle. I knocked it away.
“Use your pounder,” I said. “Ass. You want to use up all our ammo?”
He unhooked the mallet from his belt and caved in the body’s skull. It hungered no more, but still it gazed on us with glassy eyes. The mad scientists back at base in Ocean City said their motive force ended with the brain destroyed, but its eyes twitched, watching, locked in its flesh.
Sanchez moaned in the corner, clutching his shoulder. Grim finished fastening a bandage over the rip in his gray-camouflage uniform.
“We should just nuke the city, burn the brotherly love shit.” Mort scratched.
“Enough nuclear power plants have blown already. Anyway, once the fire goes out, the dead are just radioactive and spread that filth wherever they go.”
Mort sneered at me. I ignored it. If he kept mouthing off, the men would pay him a visit later in his sleep. His nose still bent crooked from the last ‘adjustment intervention.’
“Anyway, there could be people alive,” Grim said. He fiddled with his eye patch. “Command spotted pattern electric lighting in Center City. They tasked satellite to watch for it. That’s our orders. Restore communication to the city.”
“Burn ‘em all,” Mort said.
“Could be kids. You want to kill kids?”
“And save them from this dead world? Damn right.”
My gut kicked, and I bent over. Vomit poured up my nose and dripped out my nostrils. I swallowed the acidy bile.
“Captain, you feelin’ poorly? Is it the smell?”
“Winters,” I ordered. “Take point. Mort. Watch our Six. And cut the chatter. You’ll bring every body in a mile down on us. God damn kindergarten.”
They racked up, rifles ready. They made a good squad, knowing each other’s rhythms. The patchwork military had been drawn from the survivors of the various armed forces: navy, marines, army, national guard, coastguard. They all understood discipline, and we kept each other alive.
“Watch your asses,” I said.
Grim ran his fingers through Sanchez’s curls, then he formed up and moved with the squad. I knelt down in front of kid. He held a pressure bandage on his shoulder.
“You’re allowed thirty seconds prayer or recollection or silence, according to policy.”
“Captain,” Sanchez said. “It didn’t break the skin. I cut myself when I tumbled.”
I studied the wound again, the teeth marks. “You know protocol, Private. We gotta survive. It’s hard. Life always was. Anyone suspected of infection or being a carrier gets their burden relieved.”
“Could you at least shoot me?”
His eyes glazed over with a sleepy look like he dreamed.
“I can do that much.”
I grabbed my pounder and struck his skull. It cracked wide, and blood smeared down his forehead. He fell over, and I pulped his head to make sure he wouldn’t wake up.
“Sorry kid. Can’t waste the bullet.”
I caught up with the squad.
* * *
The silver spire of the Blue Cross skyscraper glimmered in the faded crimson sunlight, a metallic obelisk rivaling the sky and threatening Heaven’s reign. It towered over Philly, joined by derelict buildings, growing out of Center City like a field of rotting wheat. We marched up I-95, over the bridge that crossed over the lower streets through North-East Philly, keeping the Delaware River on our right. The wide highway gave us some cover through elevation and space to maneuver. Bodies scurried in the lower avenues amongst the detritus and rusting cars. We’d be caught down there and trapped among the old row homes and industrial plots where they infested the shadows.
“Got roaches in my head,” Grim said, rubbing his black crew cut. “Do you hear that shit?”
With humans evicted from their crowns of civilizations, the cities slept, sometimes whispering as the wind blew through the street and broken buildings like playing a ruptured flute. I heard the harmony too, a steady chant, sotto voce, laying low in the under roads.
“Maybe a dream?” Grim asked.
A directive had come down over the wire about delusional nostalgia. As a species, we’d become so accustomed to our magnificent constructs and designs that without the roar of engines on a highway, jet engines or just talking people our brains fill in the noise to calm us. The delusion spreads through the mind in a shared hysteria, and the squad could hallucinate.
“Ignore it. Focus on the road.”
Ahead on I-95, an ice cream truck had flipped over at the Cahill Street Exit leading to Center City. It crushed a Toyota and massed against several rusty cars. The bones of the drivers clutched their steering wheels.
“I love it when the ice cream man comes,” Grim said.
I halted the squad. Something felt heavy about the bulwark of cars.
“I used to run out into the street with a dollar in my hand, mouth watering for a Cherry Rocket. My daddy was stationed overseas. Momma used to drink Vodka straight up with a bit of lemon juice. I tried sipping it once, and I threw it up. Burned all up my nose.” He reached into his pants and pulled out some torn paper. He fondled it like money.
“Corporal. Stay where you are.”
“Was the only thing that would get me through the day when Momma started screaming and slapping me. Called me her biggest mistake. A whore son.”
“Mort. Stop him.”
Mort scratched at his crotch. “Just let him, Captain. There ain’t no god watching to punish you. One less dumb ass in the world suits me fine.”
Grim approached the ice cream truck, the torn paper dangling between his fingers. His face broke in a wide grin from ear to ear. I nearly didn’t have the heart to break him out of such a kind delusion. I hoped to be so lucky to have such a fantasy when the dead feasted on me. I aimed my piece at his leg. My finger pressed the trigger, then the sound box on the truck tinkled–bells ringing, moving to a melody, the notes too slow to recognize the tune. My hand trembled.
Daddy. Can we got ice cream?
Clara. Shhh. They’ll hear you.
The calliope played “The Entertainer”, faster now, the melody uniting.
“You get your fucking ice cream, Grim,” Mort said. The rest of the squad held their positions, waiting for my orders. We’d let men go off before. We didn’t have time to bring them back, to fight them out of their delusions. “Whole lot of nothing is what this world is.”
Grim reached the side of the ice cream truck and marched to the window. The flap opened. A rotund body fell out, rolled up on the cracked blacktop, then wobbled up, clawing for Grim. Her chest cracked on impact with the road, and one of her rotten lungs poked through the rip, slipping out of her stained blouse. She chomped at Grim like a snapper turtle. Another body pulled himself from out of a car window. Two more stumbled in from the sides. Their cracked skin oozed putrid slurry, and their foul odor blew in on the breeze.
“Back now Corporal!” I ordered.
“But Momma. My Cherry Rocket.”
“Christ,” I yelled. I opened up on the rotund zombie with my piece. Her neck exploded, but she still chomped after Grim. He looked down at her with puzzled eyes, turning his head. The rest of the squad opened up. More bodies massed, converging into a horde. Two slithered up from the side and grabbed one of the squad, Gray Girl. They grabbed her by the shoulders and bit into her back, tearing through her coat. She screeched as they fed until finally passing out from exsanguinations. Mort laughed as he fired, a devil’s cackle. He stomped his feet like he listened to a jug band.
“Bug out. Down the ramp.”
I smacked Grim hard and pulled him by the arm. His delusion broke, and he aimed his rifle, putting two bodies down. Two of the remaining five in the squad laid down cover fire as we ran down the onramp to Cahill Street. We crossed and fled into an apartment building. The horde closed in behind us. We climbed up the stairs, knocking two walkers down the well. With precision, single purpose, they followed our path. They staggered up the stairs, unable to match our haste. We charged up seven floors and broke through the hatch to the roof. Only two of the squad, Mort and Grim made it. We didn’t wait for the progress of the others. We knew they weren’t coming. Mort grabbed some crates from the roof and weighed down the hatch. Then we leapt to the next building and silently slipped down the fire escape. We could see South Street, the round Penn Tower Hotel with its windows shattered. I’d been to South Street in my youth, came up from Delaware to a jazz festival at Penn’s Landing. I looked down over the river, over the boats crashed up on the pier. Bodies wandered about mindlessly, searching for food or maybe purpose. They needed us for that. Their faces frowned, a misery obvious in their eyes, but when they saw the living, their eyes lit up like a child’s.
We paused to catch our breath and setup a defensive cordon in an alley. Grim fell back against the brick wall. He dropped the paper he’d believed was a dollar.
“What did you hear, Captain? Before. Your eyes looked funny back at the ice cream truck.”
“Go take point, Corporal,” I barked at him.
He held his rifle under his chin, poking it on his jaw. His skin bleached white. “You tell me. Now. I need something, something small, or I’m cashing in my chips. You want my blood on my your hand? Probably splash in your face too, stain that pretty uniform.”
I nearly let him do it. What would it matter if the world lost another man now? A body was just going to munch on his ass eventually. Still, I needed him for the op.
“I heard my daughter’s voice. My Clara.”
“Damn. Sorry Captain. What happened to her?” Grim asked.
“I put her down.”
He reached out and rubbed my shoulder. I punched him in the jaw, knocking him back into some red plastic cones piled along the side of South Street. He toppled into a hot dog vendor’s cart turned on its side. He pushed himself off the ground, rubbed his jaw and shook his head.
“I’ve disappointed you?” I said. “Fuck off. Now take point, or do I need to get you a Cherry Rocket?”
He sighed and took Mort’s spot. I nibbled on some trail mix, sucked down some water, then we packed up and moved out. We marched forward, moving deeper into the city. Philadelphia closed in around us, smothering us like a mud hole. I spotted movement in the office buildings, shadows passing by the windows. A hand banged against the showroom window of a furniture store, smearing black ooze.
“We just wandering?” Grim asked. “Whole world’s just wandering.”
“A few clicks west. That’s where the satellites picked up the lights. GPS targets it at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.”
We stayed to the back streets, moving behind the buildings and shops. We put down a few bodies amongst the dumpsters and parking lots. I wondered if Command was watching us with eyes way up high. As we approached the target, we encountered rainbows freshly painted in vibrant colors on the brick walls and below the highway bridge. They had to be painted after the plague and had been maintained. I remembered hearing something about a cult that grew popular just at the time civilization fell. They’d predicted and embraced the end of the world. They called themselves The Rainbow Cult. Their literature and websites had been banned by Command, and I wondered what frightened the brass so much to censor. Something powerful must lay at their threshold.
“The choir’s back,” Grim said. “They’re real. Did the dead learn how to croon?”
The sun set into the western face of the city, and I didn’t want to navigate Philly at night, when the bodies come out from their holes to enjoy the cool dark. The rainbows glowed at dusk, and they grew more frequent as we traveled. It felt like a series of markers, a map, signals the dead couldn’t understand drawing survivors on to a central location, a temple, the Church of the Rainbow.
“They’re expecting us,” Grim said.
“Horse shit,” I replied, trying to sound convincing.
In the avenue between the front of the Penn Tower’s Hotel and the main building of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the residents had rigged a rope system about thirty feet above the road. The bridge that had connected both buildings had collapsed onto the road and formed a barrier of concrete and glass, a debris moat.
“There’s a stairwell in the parking lot,” I said.
“Been here before, Captain?” Grim asked.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t tell him this is where I’d brought my wife for the experimental Helsinki 221 protocol for her lymphoma–a desperate move from desperate people. I promised her she’d live, promised my daughter, and the miracle cure worked like the hand of God. Then the miracle turned on us.
Where’s Helsinki, Daddy?
In Sweden, baby.
I shook off Clara’s voice.
We scanned the parking garage. Shadows excreted bodies, but we dispatched them with our pounders. We took the stairs to the third level and stood at the edge of the rope system. I read the chant painted on the concrete pillars that supported the roof:
Come on home
Oh, come on home
Lie down with us in the dirt
Life is the source of all your hurt
The horde of bodies swelled in the street below, so thick I couldn’t see the blacktop. They poured into the first level of the parking garage, and we heard the moans moving up level.
“We should make a break for the boat,” Grim said.
“This is their city,” I said.
The excited dead spilled onto the third story of the garage, knocking each other to the concrete floor, piling up but lurching forward like a tendril, clawing for us.
“Kick off hard to get enough momentum,” I said. The lines declined to a balcony on the second floor of the hospital where the railing had been cut away.
“How do we know anyone is still alive over there?” Mort asked.
“This gear is new, maintained. And the rainbows have been touched up. Not faded.”
Grim kicked off first, using the handlebars to glide down the tether. He landed on the balcony. We set up the next handlebar.
“You next, Captain” Mort said. He checked his rifle and aimed into the surging mob. I gripped the handles, steadied myself and kicked off the garage. I sailed over the undead congregated below, and they raised their arms in praise, reaching for me, worshiping my warm flesh. They moaned in frustration as I passed. I prematurely released my gripped and rolled onto the balcony. I banged into the wall. Warm blood streamed down my forehead, and I licked it off my lips.
Grim picked me up under the shoulders. Then I slipped into darkness.
Forgive me baby. I just wanted you to be safe. Mommy was already dead.
* * *
“Oh Captain,” spoke the voice like a cello mourning song, played from the bowels of the instrument. In the miasma of concussion, the stupor between waking and sleep, the voice disturbed my peace, and I ran from it through visions of brambles and thorns. “Your life is a fantasy, a lie. Come on home now to us. Life is the aberration. Wake now to your sleep. Or sleep now to your waking.”
I struggled to open my eyes. I perceived a telephone pole towering over me, bearing hands and legs and a face. On his visage ticked an hour hand, a minute hand and the number ten and two gazed through me. The towering clock sneezed then rubbed his nose.
“But sleep now, Captain. Most of your men are dead, and we celebrate that. They’ve returned to balance. They’ve found their truth. Corrected the malfunction.”
Darkness collapsed on me. I slept.
Singing ripped me back to the world–a subtle chanting with simple melody, a child’s song. I heard it in Clara’s gentle voice:
Come on home
Oh, come on home
Lie down with us in the dirt
Life is the source of all your hurt
Walk with us in oblivion come
Oh, come on home to the new world
Come on home
I woke in a patient’s bed in private room. The walls had been stripped of tubes and pumps and wires, leaving leads and sockets. Clock face stood before, and I realized that he had tattooed chronometer’s hands over his eyes. He wore a black thong, exposing a pale and flabby body.
“I don’t believe in Heaven,” I said.
“You can be saved.”
He picked up a silver teapot and poured hot brew into two cups. He handed me one.
“I’m afraid we don’t have the luxury of sugar. The climate doesn’t care for sugarcane, but the pot grows well. Plenty of sun.”
He sipped from his tea, then I sipped from mine.
“Where are my men?”
“The unfortunate ones still live the lie. So named Mort and Grim. My cult hopes for you. My name, at least the one I endure now after the liberation: Father Wild Time, master of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Rainbow Cult.”
“Bunch of lunatics if I remember,” I said. “Anarchists. You preach for everyone to off themselves.”
“That responsibility has been lifted from our hands by our compassionate emancipators. They are the true ones, filled with the emptiness of the universe, the aberration of life. We released them with the Helsinki 221 virus. Our founder, High Priest Peter Moloski was the first to come back. They roam to eat and release us. And you, Captain. Have you found release? I can see the guilt heavy on your shoulders.”
I sipped the bitter tea once more, and he watched, pleased with each gulp. I threw the cup. It hit the wall and sprayed in porcelain shards. My vision wobbled and waved.
“You dosed me?”
I reached for my sidearm, but I could find no weapon. I watched as my hand melted.
“Easy now, Captain,” Father Wild Time said. “A little Lucy in the Sky to show you the guilt. It ties you to the old world, weighs you down, fetters you from true freedom. I will free you, then you will fulfill your task to free us from life. We have waited long. We are ready.”
Could he know about the directives, why my squad had been sent into the city? Survivors living outside of quarantine could be just as dangerous as the dead, especially those who had lived this long when exposed to the infection. The virus could lie dormant. One survivor taken into a refuge camp could turn the population.
“What do you see, Captain?”
“Your body beat to shit,” I yelled.
“All in fine time.”
The hospital room faded. Father Wild Time handed me a doll. It animated in my delusion. My daughter watched me, held in arms just like she had. She turned her face to look upon me and planted marigold seeds from her eyes into my chest.
Mommy is sleeping now, darling.
You said that before, Daddy.
She’s really sleeping now. Don’t look now.
I’m scared, Daddy. I’m shaking. Are the dead really waking up?
Daddy’s going to put you down to sleep too. You’ll hold your breath and wake up with
Mommy. You won’t have to be afraid anymore.
I held my hand out over the doll’s mouth, sealing it. I felt the tug of her lungs on my palm, and I kept it firm, so sure of what needed to be done to spare my daughter from the new cruel world. She whimpered against my skin, and I lobbed the doll. I raged on the room, kicking the chairs, the bed, ripping pipes from the wall. My hand snapped, and it surged with pain. I fell to my knees.
I only saw Father Wild Time towering over me, as tall as a grandfather clock.
“We’ll be assembled in the garden when you are ready. You’ll find your men in the next rooms. It’s time for you to release us.”
“Why don’t you just do it yourselves? You are a suicide cult, right?”
“Same old. Same old. We’re cowards.” His voice broke into ticks and tocks.
* * *
I slept most of the day, and when my eyes cleared from the trip, I discovered my sidearm and gear waiting on the bed of the trashed hospital room. I found Grim and Mort tied up in the adjoining rooms, and I set them free. They’d woken up bound and blindfolded.
“Get your ass moving,” I said. “We’ve got our orders. What must be done.”
They loaded up and readied for the task. We followed the chanting to the courtyard between the hospital complex, moving through empty corridors. When we looked out at the city streets through the windows, we spotted walls of dead waiting, massing on the hospital complex. They had to be thirty bodies deep, passing into the alleys deeper into Center City. The air reeked of their rot.
The Cult assembled in the courtyard, around an orange painted glass pyramid. I remembered it from when I took my wife here for the consultation. They laid on ratty comforters and blankets, sipping moonshine from plastic milk jugs and smoking weed. Most of the men dangled scraggily beards, and the women walked around without a top, fat tits hanging out. The Father Wild Time stood in front of the pyramid, chanting with the group. We walked out onto the balcony from the second story cafeteria, overlooking the courtyard below. When the cultists saw us, they raised their liquor in our honor, cheering.
“We could leave them be,” Grim said. He adjusted his eye patch.
“The directives are clear. Some of them are carriers. They’ll eventually make their way out of this hive and to secure civilian locations. We smoke ‘em.”
They aimed their rifles.
“I’ll just be glad when we can go home,” Grim said.
I nodded. I didn’t tell him the truth.
The cultists watched us aim our weapons, but they cheered us on, screeching in joy. They raised their arms, and some of the drunk ones stumbled for us, determined to be first.
“We’ll be out of ammo after this,” Mort said. “Good as dead.”
“Got to be done.”
We unloaded our weapons, spraying into the crowd. They stood their ground, and when a bullet struck their bodies, they laid on their backs and looked up at the sky. They welcomed the sun.
“They waited for us,” I said. “We’ve returned them to nothingness, to their natural state. Oblivion.”
We crawled through the steam tunnels under the complex, putting down the stray dead we found. The Cult’s song buzzed in my head, and I mouthed the lyrics:
Oh Come on Home. . .
It lingered behind my thoughts. We’d been infected.
We exited from a drainpipe on the river and made for the boat. Grim stopped on the bank, knelt and used his last bullet to join the Cultists.
I hate converts.
“We sailing south, Captain?”
“Can’t go home,” I said. “We could be carriers. In our bodies. In our souls.”
T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA—author and historian. He’s published in nearly 200 international journals and anthologies, and his first novella, New World, will be published by May December Publisher. He’s a cancer survivor. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com/. http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham