-28-

Custer v. Starbucks

When we arrived on scene, zombies were already spilling through a large breach in the fence between the turnstiles and the lake. Two of our men were trapped on top of a transport truck, already out of ammunition, surrounded. Among the bloody dead clamoring to reach them were a couple mercenaries and several of the workers in their neon vests.

Ragnar, who had been among those guarding the depot that day, had scrambled to the top of one of the shipping containers thirty or so yards away from the truck and appeared to be safe but then we saw the truth: now he was sitting child-like, his legs crossed, trying to scoop something back inside himself, not to save himself, but to spite the others below, deny them a taste of whatever was falling from him. Some of us started forward. He didn’t blink hard, nor flex his muscles, nor make the raindrop noise with his mouth, but only waved us off, as if to say he had this one, could handle it on his own.

“See you in Valhalla!” he called out with a pained grin, then nudged the barrel of his pistol up under his chin, closed his eyes, and fired.

Even the most disturbing image can hold a certain beauty: here, Ragnar’s skull seemed to erupt upward, almost like sea ice being heaved up from beneath; all in one fluid motion life breached up out of him, like the head of a small northern whale spouting a plume of fine red mist into the air and sliding back into the darkness.

Even now, these years later, I imagine him, free of his tics, finally at ease in his own pale, tattooed body, kicking back in some great golden mead hall in Valhalla.[1]

 

***

The horde’s vanguard pushed toward us, swarming around the vehicles and boxes, seemingly enraged for having been relegated to the far side of the fence for so long. But there was no solidarity in their dissent: the fast shoved the slow to the ground, the standing trampled the fallen, so that only the strongest and angriest seemed to pursue. Or maybe we only saw our own anger reflected in their faces, the anger of how wrong everything had gone right up until Ragnar shot himself, right up until this very moment. We formed our lines and fired into them. Heads burst like fireworks building to their crescendo. A toddler clawed her way out from beneath them, reaching for a mercenary’s pantleg with her little hand. He turned and looked to the others, smirked, then turned and stomped his boot heel down on her skull—cracking it open like a coconut filled with fermenting berries.

Seemingly unmoved by any of this, Custer turned and said, “What are you waiting for? Look for him!”

“Him?” Starbucks shouted. “Hole, sir!”

“Hole? the one inside me? fill it with white—”

“No sir!” Starbucks said, firing three rapid shots from his rifle into the heads of two flailing berserkers. “The Shareholders would have us prioritize the hole in the fence!”

A zombro—young, goateed, wearing Carhartts, work boots, and a blue tank top—stumbled around the side of the command Humvee and grabbed Custer’s shirtsleeve. The captain lodged his hatchet in its forehead, placed his foot on the fallen thing’s head, dislodged the little axe, and replaced it in its sheath all while answering his lieutenant: “You’re always prattling about the Shareholders as if they were my conscience. Where are they now? their true locus? The keeper of a convoy is its captain and, get it through that thick skull of yours, Starbucks, but my conscience is a turret—a turret!”

“Captain Custer,” Starbucks said, blushing, stepping hesitantly toward the captain: “Better men than me might be quick to ignore what’s going on with you even while resenting it in a younger man or maybe … a happier one?”

“Who do you think you are? Move out!”

“With all due respect, I only want us to understand each other before this whole operation gets—”

Custer, who had only been shaking his head, jacked a shell in his shotgun, lifted the barrel to Starbucks’ navel.

“God may be dead, Starbucks, but there is still one who is lord over Plymouth. Now move out.”

For an instant, Starbucks’ eyes flashed with fury, almost as if Custer had actually shot him, but he mastered his emotions, nodded, started to step away.

The lieutenant waved to some men to follow him back to the trucks, but then paused, turned back, and spoke as clearly as he could: “I won’t say beware of me—you’d probably laugh—but I’ll say this: Custer should beware of Custer. Beware of yourself, old man.”

As the rest of us rushed by, the captain reached out and grabbed an arm, any arm— my arm, as it turned out—and held me there as a kind of sounding board for the following: “He talks bravely, but then he does what I say. What am I supposed to make of that? What did he say? Custer beware of Custer? There’s something there!”

He let me go and stood thinking about these words as zombies broke for him around the boxes. Two mercenaries rushed up beside the captain and fired into them. Behind him, the machine gun on the nearest Humvee chewed into the cluster of bodies so that the very tableau of Custer’s dilemma emerged as bodies torn asunder, flesh so thoroughly blasted as to look like tattered scraps of fabric. The captain looked after Starbucks, eyes narrowing, chewing the inside corner of his lip. Soon he was hobbling furiously after Starbucks on that splintered leg of his, the zombies gaining on him as his personal cadre of mercenaries stopped, fired several bursts back into the crowd, then rushed ahead to flank him once more.

Custer caught up to Starbucks by the trucks, where the lieutenant was firing into a cluster of the others approaching from the other side as the last of his men climbed aboard.

“You really are a goldenboy, Starbucks,” Custer said, clapping the man on the back, then called out to the others over the din of truck engines and gunfire and the zombies’ keening. “You’re right! all signs lead to him—all! If we don’t follow, we’ll be rebuffed!”

“Sir?” the lieutenant said, turning and firing his pistol point-blank into a zombie’s face. “That’s not what I was—!”

“There has been some confusion!” the captain cried out for all who could hear. “Go ahead! fix that hole in the fence! but figure out who made it! for a hole leads to its creator! and its creator is none other than the Dork’s ambassador!”

<< >>

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

[1] I don’t know what it is about the apocalypse that made men compete for the best final words, but we were all aware of this phenomenon: many men, when death is imminent, will attempt to say something memorable, knowing, as we all do deep down, that those who hear our words will surely die themselves, as will any person they choose to tell, and that every last trace of us will soon be forgotten, and words are the only thing tethering us to this ephemeral existence. For more final words, see Appendix M: Famous Last Words.