Days after our return, Chucho was still moping about, a foul weather having swept over him while escorting the bodies. The depot had worked perfectly. We were safe and increasing our shares for the time being, but Chucho was a sensitive guy, far more so than people in our old world would have ever recognized through all his tattoos and threatening silence; seeing all those ex-humans trapped thus in their final pit had him quieter than ever so that, even when you asked him a question, he often wouldn’t answer, but only gaze further into whatever internal pit he’d been gazing into already, like a kid who didn’t know the answer to a math problem and, when asked, only glared at the nonsensical numbers that much harder, as if he might have overlooked an escape.
We were sending out sorties every day, further and further to the west, to the north, luring more and more zombies back toward the depot, and so doing there’s a good chance that the source might never have run dry. Custer, perched there above the fence, eyeing each carefully as they passed beneath him, had ceded all other administrative and logistical tasks to Starbucks and Christopher Martin—Neo and the others were still out there somewhere and by now we all presumed the worst had befallen the jocular lieutenant—and sitting there with his feet dangling over the edge, every hundred bodies or so, our captain would sigh, raise his hands to the sky as if to choke someone. Was he worried about Neo? No. We others talked about him but not the captain. He was just hoping to glimpse his white zombie passing through the turnstiles and we seemed stuck now in a nauseating purgatorial loop of watching: me watching Chucho watching Custer watching the horde flow beneath him watching only the backs of one another, oblivious to their fate.
Not Starbucks. Starbucks could be heard at all hours going around reminding the men that there was never any meaning in the world but only hard work propelling the momentum of continuing existence, one foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the one—a strange kind of pep talk dating back to his puritan roots, no doubt. But it worked a little, to think all meaning might lay in the doing.
That is, until the diarrhea struck.
Everyone got a touch of it. Despite all the sanitizer, some bacteria or virus must have worked its way into the camp, this one via the water supply or chow hall, and so it was that one day people started, well, shitting their guts out. After all we’d seen and endured, it was quaint, charming, how much blushing there was every time someone had to jump up and rush to the latrine; such shame in the very existence of these universal bowels, the very same we’d seen unspooled so many times, even hanging in great loops through bushes and the lower limbs of trees, or wrapped around the necks of the entangled dead.
Then a man came staggering out of the barracks one day, seemingly dazzled by the brightness of the sun, though the sun fell behind what seemed a never-ending bank of clouds.
“What’s up, Kandahar?” someone asked, Kandahar being the man’s nickname on account of his wartime trip to the Kandahar province of Afghanistan in the years before The Collapse. He’d thought it was a cool word and, of all the words in the world, he’d picked it as his name.
Kandahar whipped his head toward the noise and came lurching toward them.
“Oh shit!” someone yelled.
At least a dozen people popped holes in the zombie Kandahar’s skull before he’d made it five steps, neutralizing the threat.
Into the scrap box it went. Commander’s orders.
Then, that very same night, another man turned into one of them while lying in the top bunk in the barracks, rolled off the top and tried to savage the man below. Huckleberry happened to be in the adjacent bunk and captured it—refusing to kill it because it was worth more when animate.
Into a box of animates it went. Commander’s orders.
And Chucho? If he was feeling low before, he now discovered a new emotional basement. In a world of zombies, that men must die of diarrhea? get tossed by your supposed friends into the scrap box? or shipped whole like a gasbag to the abattoir? Such a thought was almost impossible to accept.
Not that Chucho said any of this; he didn’t say anything about any of it. As Ragnar grew sicker and sicker, his nervous tics getting the better of him so that he no longer only flexed but was starting to make a strange raindrop noise with his mouth every time he blinked, something none of us had heard before, when it seemed like Chucho’s garishly tattooed white analog might soon succumb not only to his own nervous system but also to death, I found my friend sitting off by himself with a bottle of some kind of citrus hooch in the back of one of the transport trucks, fully crocked, staring out into the world with the same blank look I assume he wore back in the day whenever he knew his bosses were about to order him to kill someone else.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked up, then looked away, took another drink.
I started to climb in.
Looking back, I know how he must have taken this: who the fuck did I think I was? some compassionate yet vaguely streetwise white man from the movies, swooping in to save an angry cholo from his own inner barrio? some Jesuit on a mission in the hood, trying to save a doomed young man from a world that both made and despised him? Which is to say, when I climbed in, Chucho climbed out.
When the men were busy hogtying a third dead crewmember the next day—not Ragnar, but one of our mechanics we had called The Ump because he reminded us of a baseball umpire—Chucho stormed out of the barracks to stand alone out in the courtyard, shoulders slumped. If the man were capable of crying I think he would have been doing so then. You’ve never seen such a depressed skeleton, the way his shoulders dipped, the way his hips shifted forward, the way he just balanced there over his own internal axis, not going back, not going forward, almost as if he’d turned himself. What magic compels a skeleton not to collapse into a pile of bones?
Just then, two mercenaries coming back from a sortie were walking by in full battle regalia and, as they swaggered by, they eyed him up and down through those matching sunglasses. It’s hard to say if they smirked or if smirks were only permanent expressions etched into their flesh through years of constant use, but it probably didn’t matter much. Chucho had had enough. Enough of all he’d seen and all he’d done in his life before this. Enough of seeing his crewmates shot or shoot themselves over nothing. Enough of fighting off hordes only to find more hordes behind them. Enough of gazing into an open pit of bodies rendered into the slurry of lives once lived. Enough of looking down the powerlines toward lives he’d never get a chance to live. All of life’s indignities he’d suffered through. But this? to wait in some camp to die of diarrhea? to shit your life out and then get kicked into a box? Tattooed though he was, you could just see it on his face. It was too much. Just too much. And now these cocky motherfuckers were smirking?
Chucho’s dark eyes darted toward me.
Thanks for the good times, as if to say. But it’s check-out time.
I shook my head but it was too late for him to see because he was already thumping his chest with the heels of his hands.
“You got something to say to me?” he shouted at the mercenaries, pistol still holstered, machete still sheathed.
“Stand down,” one of the mercenaries said, smirking behind his sunglasses.
Both thumbed their safeties off.