It was colder than than the back-side of Frosty the Snowman’s nuts, and yet my delivery van still stunk from three weeks’ worth of corpses. So I think I could be forgiven for being anxious to get to Detroit, to escape the aroma of rot, stale sweat, and piss. That’s why my eyes were continuously glancing at the time, counting the hours and minutes. That, and the fact that she’d be waking up soon, as they do.
The drumbeat of horrific luck that had plagued me that week had been nothing if not consistent. A new Homeland Security checkpoint had sprung up between me and my destination, caught me by surprise. Not “surprise” in the sense of friends leaping out from behind your living room furniture with balloons and gifts. No, it was more like a sudden boil arriving over one eye. Or the onset of incontinence in the middle of intercourse.
Fiona Apple was crooning away on my radio. Outside, the cold night air was shot through with a dozen spotlights. Eventually, a single officer stepped out of the booth, gut dangling below an ill-fitting winter coat, and crossed the icy highway toward my idling van. Fatty’s flashlight bounced in rhythm to the current track, “Criminal.” It struck me as funny to watch the portly TSA officer swagger up to my delivery van accompanied by the seductive beat of the song, gut swinging like a pendulum. “Let me know the way, before there’s hell to pay. Give me room to lay the law and let me go …”
I let the officer rap on my window with the end of his flashlight before turning the radio off. Couldn’t roll the window down, it was frozen shut. Stupid heater. So I opened the door, and a blob of snow plopped into my lap. I uttered an expletive, and then flashed my best smile at all three-hundred pounds of doughnut oil and lonely nights standing next to me. “Help you, officer?”
Expressionless, he swept a flashlight beam from me to a stack of thick red envelopes on the passenger seat, to my lunchbox, and then back across the dash. He paused at a photo of my little girl taped to the dash – red hair in pig-tails, her missing tooth prominently displayed. Daisy had a relentless smile.
“Just turned ten,” I said.
The officer aimed the light back at me. “Papers please.”
You know that isn’t your daddy’s United States of freaking America when men with guns go around asking for “papers please.”
“Right here officer.”
“What’s your business in Toledo this time of night? You aware of the curfew?”
“I’m on my way to Detroit, officer. I deliver bodies to Our Lady of Good Intentions. Government research, looking for a cure.”
The officer’s eyes widened. “Bodies?”
“Well, only one body tonight, officer.” Gave him my business card. You never know when you might stumble upon a potential customer. “Yes, sir. But that’s not all I deliver. Reginald Smiley’s Speedy Delivery Service, as it says on the side of my van.” I flashed my smile again. Felt like I had to – it’s in the name. “Been in business for myself for a year. Just me, as I said. Well, me and my daughter, actually. But she’s only ten, as I told you.”
The officer stumbled backward, eyes wider than Orson Welles’s backside. He nodded furiously and waved at me to shut up. “I’m sure everything is in order. Just get that thing outta here, quick as you can. Understand?” He pulled out a handkerchief, put it over his mouth.
“She’s in the back, if you want to meet her,” I offered, but he was already gone.
I watched as he scurried a few feet from the van, slipped and fell on his ass, got back to his feet and hustled toward the guard booth. The barricade was raised within seconds. Soon as I was on the other side of the checkpoint, I was elated. Only sixty more miles to Detroit. I quickly flipped the Fiona Apple cassette over to side B. Ya, cassette. Old school. That’s how I roll. And I couldn’t help but to drum my hands on the cold steering wheel while peering through the eight-inch clear spot on the windshield.
The reason I was feeling so jazzed was pretty simple: I was gonna be King Hell. Kid A. Finally, I was on my way to realizing a sense of purpose. Gonna be somebody important. After forty-seven years of misery, a litany of failures, the gods were finally on my side. Could almost feel an otherworldly tentacle on my shoulder. I’ll tell you what, my wife wouldn’t have left me if she could see me now.
Well, I’m kidding myself. She would have left me much faster.
“Sixty miles, Sweetie,” I said over my shoulder. “Almost there.” My words fell on deaf ears.
Dark and cold and really damn lonely. That’s how I would describe the next thirty miles. I’d made this trip several times in recent weeks, carrying the recently bitten from Cleveland Memorial to Our Lady. The pay’s been ok. But I didn’t recall the journey taking this long.
I couldn’t stop shivering. After listening to the same cassette over and over again, I shut it off and began to hum to myself. Anything to keep my mind active and to pass the time. Would have been nice to have a working radio – all I could get from the dial was static. Must have passed at least fifty military outposts already. Passed a good hundred used-to-be-zombies, too. The former “living dead” were littering the shoulder of the highway, heads either blasted off or caved in.
Came across one who was laying just far enough into the lane that I ran over it. It was totally an accident – pretty sure it had been moving. Did my best to avoid it, I really did. My heart broke as it’s head exploded against my front bumper, lobbing black goop and bits of scalp across the windshield. The whole van shook as the passenger-side tires rolled over the helpless creature. Wanted to yell an apology out the window but it was still frozen shut. Stupid heater.
Not long ago, I had been exactly like the zombie-haters. It’s understandable. Like most businesses, Reginald Smiley’s Speedy Delivery Service hit a snafu when the so-called zombie apocalypse descended upon us. The infection had taken everyone by surprise, spreading faster than a hooker in Skechers. It’s hard to run a business when all your customers are being eaten, or joining the walking dead. Unless you’re selling brains.
Hey, that might be something to look into. Always on the lookout for opportunity.
And speaking of opportunity, soon as I heard that a government lab had been set up in a Detroit hospital, and was seeking victims of the plague for research, I was all over that opportunity like tattoos on a biker chick. Boy howdie, I needed the work! Apocalypse or not, I still have a beautiful daughter to look after.
The trips had been a heck of a lot of fun for Daisy. She loved to ride next to me, holding the map, being my little navigator. It had given us something to do, as we waited for the plague to blow over. Seriously, if we lose our grip on family, we lose our grip on our humanity. That’s what I always say.
It was on that last trip, which took place on Daisy’s birthday, that I had a change of heart about our undead brothers and sisters. While thinking about my newly-found cause, I gripped the rear view mirror and twisted it at an angle so that he could keep an eye on the back of the van. Should have been in Detroit by now. Thought I saw an arm lifting. Just as I looked over my shoulder, the van jerked abruptly. Must have hit a pothole.
The highway was icy, visibility was lousy, and struggling with that steering wheel was tougher than trying to drive it home in an oily three-dollar whore. In other words, the van went all over the road, and finally, despite my best intentions, I plowed it into a snowbank and the engine petered out.
Everything went still, and quiet. It hurt to move my head. And then I could hear Daisy shuffling, moving around in the back of the van. She was awake. Darkness overtook me.
“Hello? Any body alive in there?” The voice was muffled, coming from behind a wall of snow. When I touched my head, my fingers came away sticky. I reached up and turned on the dome light, saw blood on the steering wheel. How long had I been out? Tried the door, but it wouldn’t open.
“Hey, pal. Gimme a hand with the door, would you?”
“You’re pretty well stuck in a snowbank,” the man said. “I’ve got a shovel in my car. Be right back.”
The sound of shuffling from behind me reminded me that I was out of time. My darling little angel was awake. I tried to force the door with my shoulder. A small hand landed on the back of my seat. Dried birthday cake was still on her fingernails. We had just stopped for dinner, and birthday cake, and celebrated her turning ten. She only ate the frosting, like usual. When she looked over the seat with her dead, grey eyes, I was pleased to see that her pigtails were still in. Her hair gets all frizzy and crazy, unless we put it in braids or pigtails.
She reached toward me. I dodged her hand, slid over to the passenger seat. “Get me outta here!” I tried that door and got similar results, but it felt less stuck than the driver’s side door. So I laid back with my feet toward it and gave it a kick. While I’ll always love my undead daughter, I was never in a huge hurry to join the walking dead.
“Got a shovel. Hold on.” I could hear a metal blade being sharply inserted into the snow just on the other side of the door. I kicked again, felt it give a little. My darling little girl started climbing over the seat back, toward me, mouth agape. No breathing. No sound. She used to be a heck of a chatterbox, and maybe that’s what I found so unsettling. I kicked at the door again. And again.
“Hold on, mister.”
“I can’t hold on.” Kicked again.
Her pudgy, cold hand was on my shoulder.
A firm kick, in the center of the door. It flew open. My rescuer fell to his back. I launched myself from the van, scrambled to my feet, and slammed the door shut.
“Jesus, mister. Your van on fire? I didn’t see any sign.”
Took a minute to catch my breath again. I bent over, hand on my knees, shook my head. “Transporting a subject to Detroit. I’m late. Out of time.”
Calling them “subjects” didn’t used to bother me. Now the word felt dirty.
I nodded my head and looked over to him. My rescuer was a Michigan state trooper. Skinny dude clad in snow pants, and a thick highway patrol jacket. He was pretty young, by the looks of him. But Michigan had been going through cops like maggots through corpses. His patrol car was parked up along the highway.
“Already called a tow-truck, Sir. Might be a while before they get here.”
“That’s no good, man. I’m already late. And she’s awake. Can’t drive a van with her tugging at my shirt, changing the radio station and, you know, trying to eat me.”
The officer scratched at his stubbly chin, gave me a really queer look. “DARPA just came out with these new tranquilizers. They say just one will put ‘em down right away, and keep ‘em knocked out for a good thirty minutes.” He gestured at his belt. A long chrome gun was visible between the black grip of his pistol and his boxy yellow taser. “I can give it a shot, if you like.”
A gust of wind kicked up a swirl of pellet-like snow that pricked at the side of my face. He trudged through the snow toward the back of my van. I picked up his shovel.
“This should only take a moment,” he said.
He opened the rear doors of the van, and I saw her sitting in the passenger seat. Waiting, perhaps, to hit the road again? The possibility tugged at my heart strings. She turned, and stared at the officer.
“Has that been tested?” I said. “Is it humane?”
“Excuse me?” he said. He turned toward me, briefly, appearing puzzled at a perfectly respectable question.
“Sure.” He shrugged, and prepared to line up a shot.
She climbed over the back of the seat and landed on the cold metal floor. Her face bore an expression of plaintive hunger. It was then that realized that she hadn’t had anything to eat in the last twenty-four hours, aside from a bit of cake frosting.
I stood just behind the officer, shovel in hand. Just as he was squeezing the trigger, I hauled back and brought the shovel down on the top of his head. The officer stood there, rocking back and forth, spitting blood from his mouth. His words came out slurred. “What are you doing?” It was good he was still alive. They seem to prefer ‘em still alive.
Daisy continued crawling toward the rear of the van, as I fished his keys from officer’s pocket, and fetched his gun. Then I grabbed him by the arms and dragged him to his police cruiser. I’d never seen the back seat of a cop car, and didn’t realize that there was so little room back there. Movies and television always make them look like an ordinary back seat. There was actually no foot room, and I had to lay him sprawled out across the seat.
Good thing Daisy was so slow. It gave me time to get the dinner into the back of the cruiser, leave one door open, and then climb into the driver seat. There was a handy divider between the front and back seats. It had a window in the center that you could open if you wanted to have a conversation with the guy in back – which made me think of a confessional. Was that guilt whispering into my ear? Wouldn’t be the first time I ignored my conscience. Wouldn’t be the last, either.
I turned around and watched the officer groggily trying to figure out was happening, moving his arms around, attempting to shimmy back out of the car. He was slower than my living dead daughter. Soon as she was in, I jumped out and slammed the door behind her.
Aside from the properly working heater, was the benefit of a riot gun nestled between the two front seats. While Zombie Daisy enjoyed her first meal, I went back to the van to fetch the officer’s tranquilizer gun, the red envelopes and, oh yes, the fuckton of explosives. I thought to myself, zombie liberty is at hand. I was gonna be Thomas Paine. George Washington. Joan of Ark. I was gonna be freaking V, from that Alan Moore comic book.
After about five miles, a wrecker flew past us. I presumed it was the one the cop had called for us. Flipped the radio on in time to catch a public service announcement from the Secretary of Homeland Security, Nathan Scabs. His voice was dripping with faux paternal concern as he encouraged neighbors to watch one another. He listed signs of infection to watch for, such as unusually cool body temperature, eyes rolled into the back of the head, sudden craving for human flesh. He further encouraged citizens to report such things to the local authorities. If we do not have the utmost vigilance, Scabs stated, “the zombies win.”
It was eerie seeing Detroit in such desolation, although I know full well that the city had been on its downward spiral long before any walking dead started haunting its streets. I slowed down near a post box and saw a gun-happy civilian taking shots at an innocent living-dead brother across the street. Disgusted, I grabbed the riot gun and the red envelopes, and jumped out of the cruiser.
“They still have mail delivery in this town?”
“Sometimes,” he said. Then he took a shot at the zombie across the street, only grazed her shoulder.
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?” He fired again, missed.
With a sigh, I drove the butt of the gun right between the eyes of the zombie-hating turd. He fell flat on his back, stunned, and a swift kick sent his gun spinning across the street. And then I dropped the letters into the mailbox. Dude looked surprised. The zombie came shuffling toward him. A second one came from around the corner – a runner. That one got to him first. I didn’t stick around to watch, but I sure hope the runner shared with his slower brother. Selfishness can make monsters of anybody.
The envelopes were all addressed to various news media, and the United Nations. They contained a list of demands that, should they be followed, would amount to human rights being extended to zombie-kind. One thing I included in the list that I was particularly proud of was a demand for zombies to be granted grazing rights in cities that I didn’t think would be missed, like Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Other demands included Congressional representation, voting rights, anti-discrimination legislation, and a marriage law permitting living and living-dead unions. After all, true love doesn’t discriminate between life and death, so why should we?
Naturally, the letter explains that if the demands aren’t taken to heart, other attacks would follow. I assumed that my intended bombing of Our Lady of Good Intentions would inspire like-minded masses to rise up.
I zipped through a yield sign, and came to a rolling stop at a stop sign. The hospital was in sight, several blocks away. I felt my pulse quicken. The next moments were being rehearsed in my mind. I’d pull up to the main entrance of the hospital, climb out of the vehicle, open the rear door, and I’d run off down the street. My zombie daughter would shuffle away to safety. The bomb would explode, removing the entire front of the hospital. The news media would take note of the attack and circulate my demands via radio, television, and print. Like-minded activists would follow my example, and the road to zombie and non-zombie reconciliation would be paved in a confetti of blood and broken glass.
Meanwhile, my daughter would run off to enjoy the natural habitat of her kind: the dank streets of a dead city. She’d be free to romp and graze and live, as it were, with other walking dead. This was my purpose in life: zombie activism! I tossed my head back and laughed. Destiny was a mere three blocks away. Two-and-a-half. Two blocks. I could read the sign from this distance, “Our Lady of Good Intentions: God’s Love is the Greatest Salve.”
But then I could feel my little darling’s fingernails break the skin on my neck. Didn’t I latch the window? I wasn’t sure how she could have forced it open from the other side, but I supposed it didn’t matter. My skin was torn open like a harlot’s blouse. As I tried to push her hand back through the window behind me, she managed to bite one of my fingers off at the knuckle.
The scratch on my neck hadn’t been enough? It was pretty clear at this point that the gods had withdrawn their tentacles of compassion and goodwill from me, and left me to my former life of failure and mediocrity. It was as apparent as the crimson fluids that were spraying all over the inside of the car.
With my head down, both hands on the back of my neck, and inside of the windshield quickly becoming covered-over in my blood, the car swerved freely across the street until it slammed into a telephone pole. I had gotten close to my destination, for what it’s worth. Daisy and I were right across the street from the hospital.
I must have blacked out at that moment, because when my eyes fluttered open, I saw emergency room doors exploding open at my feet. I was taken into the center of an operating room, and a doctor was discussing administering a hoped-for cure.
“This is a godsend. A miracle,” one doctor said, pulling a mask over his face. “We needed someone freshly infected. And just such a patient was delivered to our doorstep. Lets see if this cure indeed works.”
“We can compare the results between this man and the girl,” the other said. “Her infection has clearly progressed well into the third stage.”
I attempted to protest, but was too weak. They put me under, and when I came to, I was told that would not be joining the ranks of the walking dead. Abundant success for them. But as I lay on the table, eyes blinded by the unforgiving lights of the examination room, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had suffered another insurmountable failure.
What a let-down! I had just warmed up to the idea that my cold dead ass was gonna stalk the streets alongside my darling Daisy, frolicking along desolate streets. And I was really hoping I’d get to be a runner. That would be totally bad-ass.
My little girl remains undead. Obviously, the vaccine didn’t cure people who’d already completely succumbed to the virus. They had discovered a mere inoculation. Upon release from prison, I was pleased to find that Daisy’s foster family had weaned her off human flesh, although she still preferred raw meat and brains. Which reminded me of that excellent business idea I had stumbled upon. I need to jump onto the brains market before other entrepreneurs realize it’s a business idea just begging to be exploited.
This is my calling. I’m gonna make a killing on this idea! I’m thinking that my daughter and I can drive around the country picking up transients. She can hold the map. “How about a road trip, Darling?”