Call me iZhmael. A few clusterfucks ago—never mind how many—I was down to one bag of wasabi almonds and even fewer friends, so I oiled my revolver, sharpened my machete, and set out to see what was left of America. Whenever I experienced a bloody November in my soul, whenever I grew overly philosophical about razorblades, whenever I caught myself glassing a horde and conjuring elaborate backstories for constituent ghouls, and especially whenever I started fantasizing about bursting out of a perfectly safe dumpster and methodically chopping the head off every zombie I met—I knew it was time to bug out. This was my substitute for the old Space Needle Swan Dive. With a shotgun, Nirvana’s frontman blew his own head off; I just hit the road. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who knows anything about U.S. history knows our highways were built for escape.
After scouring the ruins and wastelands of the West for several seasons, I found myself back where I’d started, or close anyway, not Seattle proper, but thirty miles east, quarantined at an outpost in a wooded valley not too far from a pile of charred rubble people used to call North Bend. Some public relations wizard had dubbed the outpost Progress. It was an oddly hopeful name, almost precious in its optimism, but even the most cynical wayfarer had to acknowledge there was an electricity in the air—it made the hair on the back of your neck prickle up—and yet, in many respects, it was like so many other strongholds hastily constructed since The Collapse, many of which had already fallen, many of which would continue to fall for years to come. The quarantine zone, or QZ, was fenced-off in a large clearing between a dense forest and the main fort, which promised to be quite formidable if they ever completed it. Two of the sanctum’s outer walls were already standing and featured twenty-foot palisades hewn from the trunks of old larches that must have stood in this very spot for a couple hundred years, weathering every storm and human ambition until now. The rest of the fort was secured within long stretches of tall industrial chainlink fencing, much of it blacked out with tar paper, but not all, and the people inside must have been feeling the outside breezes more keenly now that the palisades were going up, as if the juxtaposition of the solid wood and wire mesh made the latter feel suddenly like an open invitation to death. There was an almost palpable dissonance between people’s hopes and fears. As such, Progress’s soundtrack was an atonal symphony of axe blades biting wood, hammers ringing nails, and men abusing each other to measure quicker, chop harder, nail straighter—a song against the inevitable.
I’d just been looked over by the camp doctor—well, more like a Physician’s Assistant, one of those types from our old world who still managed to be impressed with himself for having achieved some penultimate position, like Vice President, or Lucifer—and, having received a cleanish bill of health, was now wending and pressing my way through the QZ’s scrum of despair, relieved of my weapons by camp security, that is, unarmed for the first time in years, feeling all but naked, more vulnerable among my fellowmen than I had been out fleeing the hordes. Any number of urchins and madmen were milling about, shouting, boasting, bartering, whining, offering-up long strings of meaningless invective as if fuck-fuckity-fuckfuck were some prophylactic incantation against the outer doom: over here, a man with dreadlocks and teeth like a jack-o-lantern stood in the cold drizzle reciting a poem he’d penned about that satisfying thwp one got when plunging a knife through a zombie’s eye or, as he put it, “penetrating the pink folds of consciousness/divine hymen between innocence/and knowledge”; and over there, across a muddy footpath, two shirtless men were squaring off to fight, reportedly because the first had looked too long at the second’s woman, a bewitching dark-haired and blue-eyed forest hellion pacing back and forth, shouting, “Braveheart, c'mon" and "rip his head off,” her filthy little fists clenched tightly, prepared to beat to death the first son of a bitch who dared sniff her hair; and a few paces further down, a briny-looking, red-haired man with a long braided beard was juggling three shrunken heads though whether human or zombie was impossible to say; and let’s not forget the acne-pocked barbarian of indeterminate race with a cleanly shaven head who was giggling and bleeding uncontrollably from his nose into a dented tin trough. To drink now, I wondered, or whip up a blood pudding for later? As I walked past, he glanced up from his hemophilic deluge just long enough to explain: “Sprung a leak—tee-hee-heeee!”
I made a mental note: steer clear of that one.
Beyond him was a line of impromptu outhouses clouded about with flies and mosquitoes. Ah! but upon closer inspection, it became clear that these weren’t outhouses at all, only shacks and lean-tos that looked like someone had explosive diarrhea all over them. Each hostel’s proprietor had his or her own business model dictated by his or her own momentary needs so that one took non-perishable food, another tools or various gadgetry neatly listed on a board outside the door flap, another IOUs for various weapons and ammunition, those very precious items that the outpost staff were generously holding for us in “a secure location.”
One proprietor was outside telling passersby that he accepted vitamins, supplements, or (wink! wink!) maybe “a nice slow blowjob,” and then a few paces down the line I walked past one of the more upscale establishments with a couple guards in mismatched riot gear out front holding maces fashioned out of wooden baseball bats retrofitted with heavy steel flanges. This particular establishment had been fashioned out of eight or ten of those family-size nylon tents, all of a brand you probably would have recognized if, before The Collapse, you ever spent a minute outdoors, this cluster of fine tents so carefully stitched and duct-taped and tarped together that you couldn’t get a peek inside or even glance through the main flap into the lobby area without having something really valuable to barter with—a sack of bloody engagement rings, an IOU for a pipe bomb you checked with outpost security—and, rumor had it, this glitzy joint not only offered occupants room and board but even “a taste of the Orient,” which, I suppose, explained the hand-drawn sign of what looked like Moses French-kissing a clam.
Unfortunately, most of these five-star hovels expected a bit too much from such a one-star rabble. I passed by one after another because they were out of my price range or offered amenities I wasn’t keen to pay for—one advertised “blackberry and rosehip enemas garanteed [sic] to cure compstipation [sic],” a very niche demographic indeed—but as I walked, the fate of my peers became abundantly clear: many of these survivors, if not most, had little or nothing to barter with other than their labor or various disease-riddled orifices and little hope of ever striking upon anything better than the opportunity to come here and apply for one of these roughneck jobs we’d all seen advertised lately in hand-painted ads on every crossroads billboard in the region; and yet, even among this huddled mass were those even more huddleder than the rest, even skinnier, even scabbier, even deader around the eyes than their counterparts, and these, the lowliest of the low, avoided the shacks not so much as extravagant indulgences as roiling rattlesnake pits, and all these emaciated men, husks of their former selves, were simply attempting to make nests outdoors and wait out the quarantine period (three days), so they were scattered all over the compound in any little space where they might avoid the proclivities of the more devious sorts who’d surely conned their way into camp just to rape and steal from the weak, all these poor people lying about, basking in a brief moment of respite, most of them men, though there were a half dozen women or so—just enough to make us feel their absence more keenly—all of them browbeaten, twisted, broken people of every color and creed, all curled up like dogs in little divots they’d scraped in the hard ground with rocks or their own gnarled hands, snuggled pitifully around backpacks or pathetic little bindles, as if they were protecting the last innocent things on the planet.
I’d reached that same point of destitution myself a couple times over the past years, life clinging to me like some kind of discarded plastic bag that had whipped up in a whirlwind and clung to my face with static electricity so that every time I tried to peel it off it only got stuck to my hand and then to my other hand and back and forth, yes, life, which had become something I just couldn’t seem to shake off, and the truth is I probably would have been dead by then if, two weeks before, I hadn’t gotten extremely lucky and found a cache of canned pumpkin-pie filling someone had lashed high up in the branches of a giant old larch, right where I happened to hang my hammock for the night. Like so many times before, I’d thought about not eating it, just letting myself wither away. But, of course, I’d eaten it straight away. Got just enough energy to keep going. To find the next thing and the next. So that, here, now, in this camp, walking past the cases of anemia and scurvy and gout and gangrene and septicemia and just plain old starvation, I felt almost like an elitist, like some privileged potentate strolling by, evaluating their miseries, soaking up their plight when the truth was that I was one of them or at least never too far off, as if every one of them was but a vision of me three weeks hence; and yet that day happened to be one of the few days when I was still looking for something more, not indulgences, not luxuries, but at least something slightly better than the kind of threadbare minimum existence huddled all around me. Jesus Christ! I thought as I passed one sleeping man with only one arm, his shoulder nub gyrating in little subcutaneous circles like he was still fending off whatever took the arm in the first place.
I saw the way they slept, knew firsthand this kind of sleep, the one-eye-open kind, the only kind I’d known for at least three weeks myself, but I just couldn’t go on like that, not when I was within reach of something more, not when I could see the glow of kerosene and battery-powered lamps casting faintly but warmly through the thin walls of the tents I passed, not when I could already hear others snoring through their nightmares, reminding me of what was once possible. If I’d been outside the ramshackle quarantine of Progress, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think bigger, better. How strange, then, that simply being in camp I could suddenly feel something inside me releasing, unclenching, letting go? What I needed now was not rest, but to slip into the blackness of a coma, to fall so far down into sleep that I had to climb back out.
It took some doing, but I eventually found a place that suited my needs. This was on the far side of Quarantine, on the northwestern-most corner, adjacent to a short airstrip that, like the QZ, fell outside the fort, but within a larger perimeter fence—and what a fence! It wasn’t like the nice chainlink around the fort. I’m talking loose panels of chainlink nailed to uprooted stumps; loops of razor wire tied to T-posts with orange bailing twine; every so often a line of three or four cars, bumper to bumper, tipped up on their sides, and buttressed with angled logs. But as pathetic as it all looked, there was an aura of safety nonetheless, not just because of all the camp people constantly walking the perimeter, but because, every hundred feet or so, there was a lamppost and, on it, a crow’s nest where a Progress sniper watched over things from on high. The establishment was situated directly beneath one of these crow’s nests and, just then, thousands of moths were congregating above the sniper’s head, around the dim orange halogen at the top of the pole, dumbly plinking and tinking over and over against the bulb, the way more catatonic sorts of zombies will endlessly bump their foreheads against a clear pane of glass, drawn to the mysterious hum and warmth and light inside. The moths caused the light on the hostel’s roof to fluctuate and creep all over with shadow wings and, for some reason, it reminded me of the artful lights you might have seen behind an ornate fountain at some exclusive club in the old world.
Honestly, I would have thought such a swanky establishment out of my price range. I mean, this place had everything: three full walls salvaged from one of those big canvas wall tents and a fourth wall fashioned from a big brown tarp that had been patched several times over with grocery bags and pieces of old shirts taped over various tears and holes. A number of people had probably passed this place by just because the sign hanging over the door read “The Crap $hack” and looked like someone had made it by using a finger to smear shit on particleboard. But I’ve never been one to judge a Crap $hack by its cover, and, for once in my life, that attitude paid off; indeed, upon entering, you saw that the main tent, the only part you could really see from the outside, was nothing more than a lobby where guests came to eat and engage in what passed for mingling in those times, but from there the establishment opened farther back into a hallway made out of scraps of moldy lumber and tarps with various flaps opening into tents like so many rooms—what we used to call a Super 8 motel.
A dozen or so men were sitting about on stumps of different heights, smoking, sipping coffee from plastic cups. There was a cast-iron stove in the corner venting out a stack that disappeared through the ceiling and here the proprietor—a scarred, gray walrus of a man in a filthy apron—was heating something in a pot, filling the space with the smell of wood smoke, potatoes, pepper, and a trace of burning possum hair. Beside him, on the tent wall, hung a large piece of cardboard a child had scribbled over with crayon, almost in the shape of a brown dog saying Woof! Its origin was sure to be a long and sad tale. Here, the proprietor raised his bushy eyebrows, looked me up and down.
“Now there’s an outfit!” he barked. “Can’t say I’ve seen a man in a mink coat before!”
Some of the others laughed. This always bothered me, the way the last man into a room was always made to feel like an outcast, as though there were something inherently sinister about being positioned anywhere other than in the middle of the group, as though we had reached consensus, secret to me, that old sheep and baby penguins were the baddest motherfuckers around. That’s okay, I thought. Let them laugh. Style was a more practical matter now than it had been in the sparkling carnival of illusions we’d been living for the past century and especially those last days before The Collapse, that endless merry-go-round of fashion, ever cannibalizing itself, presenting old styles as new styles, and new styles as magical raiments that made one impervious to loneliness or death. I had my own problems with fur, though I doubted these were the same as my critic's.
"Fuck it," I said. "The coolest thing you can do now is not die of exposure."
“Anyhow," he said, unsure. "What can I do you for?”
“Some soup? One of those rooms through the tarp there?”
“Fresh out,” he said with an exaggerated shrug.
“Ever heard of a No Vacancy sign?” I asked.
“S’cuse me?” he snapped.
The others fell silent as the proprietor’s meaty paw wandered to the meat cleaver tucked into his belt.
“Sorry,” I said, raising my hands in apology. “Haven’t talked for a while. I’m stupid tired but easy to please."
He eyed me suspiciously for a moment, seemed to be evaluating whether I was worth the trouble, but it passed, and he snapped his meaty fingers.
“Now that I think of it, there might be a space for you, but….”
“Won’t interest a fella of fancy tastes like yourself.”
“Well,” he continued, “it’s just that you’d have … a roommate.”
As he said roommate, he glanced ever so slightly—he must have thought imperceptibly—toward the others. Someone stifled a chuckle, but when I turned toward them to see what it was about, none of them would even look at me. I didn’t like this, not one bit, so I told the man I appreciated the offer but wasn’t much of a snuggler, not anymore.
“Suit yourself,” he said, lifting the ladle to his lips again.
I knew it was in my best interest to find somewhere else to sleep, somewhere where people weren’t acting quite so cagey, if that was even possible. But the soup had a hold on me. And the prospect of going back out into the camp, spending more time looking around, feeling out a whole other set of men who were probably every bit as untrustworthy—the thought of all this got me down. I mean, it was already so warm in here. Several candles and an old-fashioned oil lamp were glowing at various points about the room.
“How much to just curl up by the stove?” I asked.
The proprietor shifted his weight from right hip to left hip and, with it, the tenor of conversation: “Depends. Whatcha got?”
After stepping outside and haggling over the contents of my bag a few minutes, I returned, a few cans and a roll of toilet paper lighter, to join my fellow lodgers. All the stumps and spots on the bench were already spoken for, of course, but I managed to score a fine musty rug in the dirt and, as I crossed my legs, an impromptu barista in a porkpie hat poured me a tiny cup of a dark, hot liquid that boasted the faint but aromatic bouquet of something nearly approaching on coffee.
Ah, fraternity! The tendency in these situations, as a defense mechanism after spending so much time alone, was usually to assume the mannerisms of one of these American road warriors, the strong silent types, the loners always stoic to a fault, to give the impression that you loathed the company of others, as if this whole zombie-apocalypse thing suited you just fine and if you never had to speak to another person again it would be too soon—then immediately forget yourself and say everything you ever thought just as fast as you could say it. It’s true: such embarrassing ejaculations of words had become the norm, because, whether or not men admitted it, sometimes we felt deeply alone, and still wanted a little bit of proof that other people could at least still hear our voices, because, if someone heard your voice, then, by simple deduction, it proved you were neither dead nor a zombie, that you were still at least alive enough to speak.
Yes, conversations had gotten very strange in the two years since The Collapse, stilted, disjointed as a zombie stuck to the grill of truck dragging it down the road, all dislocated shoulders and shattered pelvises and random flaps of flesh clinging to the body by nothing but ligaments so frayed they were always on the verge of snapping. Many discussions were still composed of overlapping quips and quotes pinched from movies, but more and more frequently they were nothing but abutting monologues in which one person said all he had to say and then the next said all he had to say and only in this liminal No Man’s Land—that is, in the space between one man’s wall of words and another man’s wall of words—was there anything like an actual exchange taking place, and that little more than the exchange of exhalations, fore and aft, dudes imbibing the same pocket of ever thinner and more putrid air, each man pretending to listen to the other while his thoughts drifted invariably toward the inescapable memories—the flashes of fractured teeth, the random kernels of gore marking some ghastly nameless massacre, bodies, bodies, and more bodies, yes, an unending montage of moldering corpses, and the attendant black flies, and red flies, and beetles of every description wading through sloughed skin and blood and bile, as well the magpies, and ravens, and eagles (O, so many bald eagles, digging in with those sinister curved beaks, peeling back long fibers of grayish flesh, throwing their white heads back to gulp eyeballs and tongues and unnamable morsels down their insatiable gullets)—before, once again, it came his own turn to contribute to the incoherent conversation, pile another layer onto the impregnable barricade of verbiage.
“I spent hella time out there thinking how wandering round isn’t what man’s made for,” the man in the porkpie hat was saying, “and not like hunting. Cuz that’s something. No, I mean nothing. Not this guy. These hands? Made for doing. DeComp? They can call it whatever the fuck they want: Zomb-O-Matic, Reactor Z, Burn The Fuckers and Set Us Free. I don’t give a shit! Just give these hands something to do. A man’s gotta have purpose. That’s why I’m here: purpose. Heard some dude come back from a stint saying DeComp’s a thousand times worser’n a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouse?! Hell, that sounds like purpose, man! Sign me the fuck up!”
Across from Pork Pie sat a guy in a stiff jerkin, something he must have carved from a deer and stitched together with neon-green fishing line; since no one had anything to add to the previous treatise on purpose, Stiff Jerkin seized the opening and offered a kind of preface: “Anyway, there’s us. And there’s them….”
He went on like this for a while, the way people always did with their natural theories and supernatural theories, culminating in something about how they were the yin to our yang, or vice versa, then how they were the winter to our summer, at which point someone changed the subject to how autumn was almost upon us, which led to the unfortunate fact that winter would be coming shortly thereafter and rain and more rain and how cold it got when you were just a tiny bit wet and how great it would be to find a really great shelter, a warm shelter so camouflaged that zombies and bandits alike would fail to notice it, but this was a dangerous shift toward nostalgia, looking back on all the stuff that used to be so abundant, so much food we couldn’t even eat it all, so that it would rot in containers in the refrigerator, and, by and by, eventually the ever-looming topic of how much they missed women being around, how they used to be everywhere.
Just right out in the open.
All day, every day.
As if there were nothing to fear.
Here, of course, on the subject of women, the Pandora’s box of worry and existential dread fell unabashedly open, exposing a deep kind of rawness inside. Sure, one guy went on and on with a story that might have been titled “How Much I Used to Fuck,” but I could even hear something beneath this bravado.
Something was gnawing away at the men’s egos from some dark pit below. Because seriously, they asked, where had all the women gone? were they really gone? were that many of them dead? had they been abducted by warlords? were they being held in harems on islands? or were they still out there in the trees and shadows watching us get hunted down? and, if so, were they really that much better at hiding than us? or was it something more? had they seen something like this coming? had they instinctually banded together in the first days? holed-up together to live snug as Amazons? just waiting for the apocalypse to end? for the last throes of male brutality to work itself out of the gene pool? was it true, what some women used to say? that they never really needed us? or at most a handful of gentle genius strongmen with healthy sperm cells to usher in a utopian epoch of docility and peace? a nouveau Garden of Eden rooting itself in the fertilizer of all we wanton wastes of flesh?
My fellow lodgers may have pretended such thoughts didn’t eat them up on the inside, but they did, and soon enough none of them could handle another second of such talk so that everyone started yawning exaggeratedly, as if the voids inside them required nothing but a little air to fill, and I suspect everyone would have started begging off very soon, even forgoing the soup, if a tortured wail hadn’t suddenly cut through the night, lopping-off the last sentence like a hot blade through a tongue—and three eliding gunshots.
One of the men, a thickset guy with the intense, narrow-eyed look of a grizzly, clutched at his hip for a revolver that he must have checked with camp security. Others were already on their feet, too, ready to run at the first sign of that the walls were failing to hold. The bear slipped out into the dark. Less than a minute later he re-entered, shaking his head.
“What was it?”
“One. Out back. Beyond the fence.”
The proprietor slipped his cleaver back into his belt, while the rest settled back into our places, but it was too late; there was something strained about the atmosphere now, as if the bubble of comfort we’d all been settling into had suddenly been punctured and all the warm air, all the atmosphere, had been sucked out in an instant. Now most of us felt stupid for letting ourselves ease into a false sense of security, as if a moment of comfort were a fault, discomfort the very price of survival. Yin-Yang, for his part, tried to talk himself back out of his anxiety: “This is exactly what I was saying! There’s us and we’re in here. And there’s them and—”
“Fuuuuuuck!” groaned a man in a green-and-black winter coat. “Enough with the hippy bullshit!”
One man laughed and another leaned over to clink cups with Winter Coat. Yin-Yang flipped them off, but there was a twitch about his eye, and anger stewing in the eyes of a few of the others who didn't like the way Yin-Yang had been treated. Violence may have been averted outdoors, but the ghouls' tension had this way of pressing in nonetheless.
“Soup’s on!” the proprietor called.
I’m sure this timing was not coincidental, hastened to avoid bloodletting in his joint. And, this time, it worked. We formed a line so the proprietor could ladle his alleged stew into our little saucer cups, and, soon enough, we'd all retreated back in our same places, eating in uncomfortable silence. Only one man, myself, was dumb enough to try to break it, wondering aloud over the ratio of grub to possum.
The proprietor feigned to laugh like the others, but I could see in his eyes: I'd made no friends tonight.
The conversation never got going again, and soon the men were begging off to their allotted spaces in the back. When it was only the proprietor and myself left in the lobby, I went over and curled into the fetal position in the corner at the base of the iron stove. In truth, this was so much better than the other places where I’d been sleeping lately—hammocked up in trees, hunkered beneath cardboard on the floorboards of cars or in a leaky rowboat out in a lake on a windy night—and I was just about to fall asleep when the proprietor came over, opened the stove with a long rusty squeak.
I didn’t trust him, nor did I like someone looming over me this way, so I sat up.
“Offer still stands,” he said, placing another bundle of stick on the fire so that the bark sizzled and popped.
“This is fine.”
“There’s one a them mattress pads. Disinfected.”
Of course that did sound inviting.
“Where’s this roommate?” I asked.
“Still out, I s’pose.”
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch,” the proprietor said, crossing his arms across his belly, pressing one hand up under his chin, “Well, he’s—I guess you could say he’s—what’s the word I’m looking for?"
A single gunshot broke the silence.
We turned our ears toward the sound, listening for the telltale signs of a breach. Another shot rang out; men yelled; more shots; boisterous laughter and mockery of some poor soul or another. Silence.
Eventually, he turned back to me.
“So?” he said.
I recalled the knowing look he'd exchanged with the others earlier in the evening when he mentioned this roommate.
“I’m good here," I said.
“I’m sure you are, young man. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t like reaching over a guy to tend my own fire. And out here, you’re more … exposed.”
“I can handle myself. Wouldn't be here if I couldn't."
“Sure, but I really think you’ll be more comfortable—”
“Fine," I snapped. "I’ll take the room.”
I didn’t believe anyone who’d survived an apocalypse could have retained this country-boy charm. Perhaps a fella could hold onto it for a week, a month, maybe even a year, that is, if his well of folksy hospitality ran deep enough, but it was hard to believe that anyone could see as much carnage as we’d all seen and come away quaint. Even so, even if this was all just an act, even if he was only planning to lure me back and slit my throat for a little more dental floss, so be it. I just couldn’t stomach talking to this man for another second. He was persistent as a ghoul and his breath reeked of rot: either serious tooth decay or a piece of meat he should have picked out of his molars two weeks ago.
“Great!” he said, clapping his hands. “That settles it!”
“Which way?” I asked, gathering my few belongings.
“Last flap on the right.”
I crouched and started making my way through the so-called hallway, between blue and brown and silver tarps crinkling with a breeze and what sounded like the first pops of rain.
“Nighty-night,” he called out, and muttered something else under his breath, which had the distinct cadence of don’t let the bedbugs bite.
The flap on the right opened into a square tent big enough to sleep four, with a high dome and rain flaps covering a tattered, nearly useless fly guard. I looked over the space, made sure no one was hiding in the corners. Seeing no one, I crawled inside. There was a large mattress pad on the ground, something that people used to put over the tops of their soft mattresses to make them a little softer, an artifact of more comfortable times. This one had probably come out of a package years ago white as snow, but now it was filthy, stained with dirt and soot and probably piss and blood and god knows what else—but puffy, pillowy, and generally more inviting than not. The blanket on the right side of the pad had obviously been used recently, so I claimed the left side as well as a woolen blanket folded into a neat square at the foot. I situated my coat as a pillow, lay back, pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared up at the tent’s ceiling for some time.
Outside, some men were talking not too far away, but I couldn’t make out any words, just the muffled murmur of speech. There was a clank as if someone far off had tipped over an old metal appliance and then there was laughter. I noted the smell of diesel, the underlayment of decay, the leafy mulch that must have been below me and probably the bonemeal and bloodmeal of however many people had been wiped out to carve out this pathetic little stronghold in the woods.
I’d assumed sleep would come quickly, but I’d assumed wrong. Part of it was the foreign noises outside, but the other part was that I couldn’t stop thinking about the proprietor’s inability to describe this alleged roommate—all in all, just making it hard to know which way as up and which down. So I lay there for some time replaying the proprietor’s words over and over in my mind, over and over, seeing things I probably hadn’t thought enough about at the time. I mean, was I remembering correctly? did he or did he not wink half a dozen times?
No, of course not. He hadn’t winked. And yet….
And yet I did find myself wondering what the look had been about. I’d heard rumors of people as close as Olympia, or what used to be Olympia, who trapped others with zombies and took bets on whether or not they survived and—
O, how stupid I was being! The proprietor was probably just messing with me because he knew I was exhausted and it was a way to pass the time and it was working because he had my mind ranging far and wide and further and wider and that’s how I finally slipped into a fitful dreamscape of a continent, across history, space, and time, up, down, frontward, and backward, across every geographic and sociopolitical dimension, drifting into this half-waking, half-sleeping headspace where things that used to make sense no longer did and things that never made sense at all were the new norm: my mind was convoluting everything I’d seen since coming to the camp in that nauseating way the fading, dreaming mind tries to reconcile everything all at once through feverish, kaleidoscopic symbolisms: the proprietor’s dead kid's or grandkid's delirious doggy scribblings and and severed heads going round and round and blood in a trough and moths plinking against glass and beyond it a map of a America rotating to fit into the great tectonic puzzle that was the world only now the globe was not a globe but a head, with a face, with teeth jagged as mountains, with mantle opening into gullet and the deep glow of magma, like the knowing grin of an earthquake, a chasm opening up all along one side of the Pacific Rim, the great maw of earth swallowing the ships of every race of humanity, this thing, which was so familiar somehow, though I didn’t know exactly how, suddenly looking up, noticing me, and grinning, eyes dried out, sunken into the great subterranean cavities of its skull, reflecting nothing of the light, seeing nothing, but staring into me, unblinking—
I woke to crinkling, the tent flap opening, a dark shape slipping inside—on all fours.
This was probably nothing to worry about, I thought, just my roommate. There was nothing so strange about crawling in, after all; that’s just how I’d come in—a perfectly normal, perfectly human way to enter a tent—and yet despite all logic my heart was thudding away, pulse pounding inside my head so loudly that I could hardly hear my own racing thoughts. Do something! say something! don’t just lay there!
But, just as I started to speak up, I lifted my head from my folded coat, and the coat crinkled the tarp, so that the silhouette snapped its head toward me, face bathed for a second in a rectangular of orange light filtering in from outside, black eyes locking onto me where I lay.
No, not a face, but a horrible visage, flayed clean to the bone.