-14-

Divide & Conquer

The trees on this side of the road were shaded and heavier with moss, their limbs sagging under the weight, and everywhere the ground was softer and wetter and old fallen trees were going soft and spongy; and every branch I stalked beneath seemed to have a spider web and every spider web a spider that was suddenly creeping down my face, neck, shirt; and the air was thick and heavy with accumulated diesel fumes and it took an almost Herculean effort not to cough and give away our positions. But soon I heard gunshots. These were further up the hill, to my left. I turned toward them and saw a young man, eighteen, maybe nineteen years old, come tearing through the trees in a sea-green t-shirt at a dead run and, just as quickly, Chucho burst through after him, leaping a snag of downed trees in his pursuit; and here a rabbit burst out of the brush, running in an arc toward me but then, spotting me, nearly broke its own back to turn away, scrambling around and down through the ferns through a patch of white mushrooms and out of sight; and, as if this were all a choreographed dance, just like the rabbit, the young man tried to evade Chucho, turning in an arc, leaping, sprinting, ducking, Chucho gaining on him a little more with each step until finally my friend dove, extending his body the way artful major-league outfielders used to barely snag fly balls just before they struck the turf, slapping the young man’s foot with the very tips of his fingers, sending the runner off balance so that he went crashing down a short hill, shoulder first, into the trunk a narrow larch. 

But this young man was a survivor so he immediately tried to get up, only something was wrong: his right arm was useless, dangling limply at the shoulder. The young man looked up. I can only imagine what he must have thought as Chucho’s demoniac face burst through that green fringe of foliage, nostrils flaring, eyes wide and white with excitement for the hunt like some Mayan warrior exploding out of history for revenge on the conquistadores.  

The gunshots were slowing all around us, down to a stray pop every few seconds, a shout somewhere in the woods, a command muffled by flora. People were lying dead and obscured all throughout these woods, some of ours, but many more of theirs. All that wasted violence and death was just the kind of thing that set one to hating others and doubting the wisdom of fighting for the survival of the human species: why start a fight with such a convoy? why step to this? Even if one understood the lengths despair drives men to, even if one understood the bad planning of total dipshits once you put big guns in their hands, even if one knew the exact gravitational force exerted upon us all by death or the exact moment-to-moment acceleration rate of entropy, and even if one sympathized with all one’s fellowhumans for giving into the constant subconscious draw toward nothingness, some part of you still wanted to hurt them—and hurt them badly—just for being out here where we didn’t want them to be. 

Anyway, Chucho wasn’t taking the whole thing personally as so many others of us were. By then I had my scope trained on the young man, this kid, and I suppose I was seeing what Chucho was seeing, that this kid, like all kids, hadn’t been pulling the strings, that this punk, like all punks, was only doing what he had to do not to die alone in some gutter, that this fuck-up, like all fuck-ups—maybe even like Chucho of old—just needed someone to give him a chance to redeem himself. 

Chucho pressed the barrel of his rifle against the young man’s kidney, but only nudged him out onto the trail.  

***

The young man’s t-shirt featured a stylized white bird soaring across his pectorals and, below this, shifted slightly to the right, the word Albatross in a neat cursive, also in white. This must have been a tour shirt for some band I had never heard of, but my guess, based on the minimalist design, was that the band was one of those that specialized in layering soft, synthesized sounds over subtle folk melodies evoking seasides and mountain glens—a revolt of silence and subtlety over a culture overwhelmingly belligerent and gauche. It was possible the kid had only found the shirt, that it could have just as easily featured the Pokémon “Gotta catch ‘em all” slogan, but I immediately found myself hoping this was no accident, that he was the kind of young man who, if not for The Collapse, might have gone on to leave his mark on the world with beautiful things.

Coming down onto the trail, we saw men assessing the situation. Huckleberry and Ragnar and a couple others were kneeling by Buttplug’s corpse, Ragnar taking a bite of a rock-hard granola bar he appeared to have taken from the dead man’s pocket. It occurred to me in all the fight I hadn’t seen him flex or blink, but now he seemed to be making up for lost time, blinking a fury, time and time again, like he was trying to unsee what he had seen. Beside him, Huckleberry was lacing up the boots he’d just stripped from the corpse’s feet. As soon as he noticed Chucho and his prisoner, Huckleberry jumped up and started toward them, waving the business end of his machete. 

“Let me see that one there,” he said.

Chucho placed one hand on the young man’s shoulder, raised his rifle with the other. 

“Seriously? You’re gonna protect that piece of shit?”

“Yup.”

“Whose side you on?”

“Stop.”

Starbucks and Neo were coming down past the line of trucks, talking to men as they came, and they hadn’t yet seen what was unfolding here, or they probably would have come faster. 

“It’s a free country,” Huckleberry was saying, “and I’ll do whatever the goddamn hell I want whenever—”

Chucho pulled the trigger and the machete snapped out of Huckleberry’s hand. 

Huckleberry casted about for help, his eyes settling on Ragnar, who was now standing. In that instant, they seemed a sort of pair. Ancestors of the pagan north. Shunted down the line, first by Romans, then Christendom—and yet somehow Chucho was the enemy? I was ready. I was ready for anything. 

But I didn’t have to be.

“Constantly with this bullshit,” Ragnar said. It took me a second to realize he was talking to Huckleberry. “Setting yourself up to get put in your place. It’s fucking stupid.”

None of this deterred Huckleberry, of course. 

Like his Celtic ancestors, he seemed almost genetically disposed toward the notion of going out in a blaze of glory. His eyes narrowed. 

“Men! stand down! now!”

Starbucks and Neo were running over.

Chucho relaxed his rifle but Huckleberry continued to glare for a moment more, like he was calculating his last move on earth, but then he too relented, put his hands up, and said, “Glad ya’ll’re here. Me and El Chapo here was just disagreeing about protocol.”

Starbucks gestured to the young man: “Take him to the captain.”

 

“Am I fuckin hearing right?” Huckleberry asked. “We’re taking prisoners now?”

 

Neo stepped toward him. “Easy there, sailor.”

 

“But these—” he said and stopped, looked around as if for his own argument: “they killed Buttplug!”

Starbucks and Neo looked over and, for the first time, saw the ex-lieutenant’s body in repose against the hill, head resting in a mess of blood and bone and sodden, burgundy leaves, one of his eyes herniating out of the socket, bulging almost cartoonishly, like he’d been trying to see something in the sky never meant for mortal eyes. 

The other lieutenants glanced to one another, shoulders slumping visibly.   

“Like I said,” Starbucks said to Chucho. 

Huckleberry started to protest.

“Go! I won’t tell you again!” 

Part of me hoped he’d defy Starbucks, place his stupid hand on his stupid revolver, that the lieutenants would put an end to this, but in the history of the world, this type of man has continued to survive, almost out of sheer belligerence, as other, much stronger men all around him look at him the way bigger dogs look at aggressive little terriers: with mirth. You could almost conceive of liking this guy despite yourself. 

 

Huckleberry puffed his chest out a little more.  

Once again, for just a moment, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d play out his sad fantasy of dying in a hail of bullets—maybe shouting one last Down with tyranny! or Don’t tread on me! or Molon labe! [1]—but that’s when, as if on cue, a twig snapped, and the others began materializing from the trees. 

***

Those who hadn’t been shot in the head had risen and were staggering now between branches, pushing through the brambles, tripping over fallen logs. In the heat of the moment, when we’d been firing on them, I hadn’t noticed, but now I noticed an underlying uniformity about them. It was hard to pin down precisely what it was but the first had been a narrow-hipped young black man in jeans soaked through with blood from a femoral break and a gray hooded sweatshirt and a backpack, who came lurching down a hill toward us, hands extended, and just behind him was a white woman, maybe twenty-five at the utmost, with thick orange hair braided like a nineteenth century bar wench, and then a skinny Native-American girl of perhaps sixteen wearing a green and white scarf around her head like a gypsy, so that I realized most of them were young, but that wasn’t all of it either, because here too came a gray-bearded man in a vintage army jacket and a t-shirt with a stencil of a tree on the chest, and thick black woman who must have been in her early forties wearing a black hooded sweatshirt screenprinted with white letters that read Demilitarize the Police—and only in seeing this shirt did it occur to me that their uniform was largely the non-uniform of the protest movements we were seeing in the days before The Collapse. But, of course, there was no time to think about all this, to wonder about how they came to be together out here in the woods, because time was of the essence, was always of the essence; indeed, there was no time to think about the messages such people bore, but only to fall back into little clusters and protect ourselves from being infected with whatever sinister forces had brought them to their feet, and so we fired, and fired, and fired—and then ran.

Here, a woman, a young Latina, staggered down the grade to our left, between a pair of finger-thin spruce saplings, half her body mangled, as if maybe she had been struck with shrapnel from a grenade, or crushed against a tree with the plow of one our frontmost trucks, shoulder, clavicle, ribs, shards of indistinguishable white bone exploding out through torn, bleeding flesh, half her face pulverized. Even though one side of her face had burst, even though the loose eye lolled in its broken socket dry and white and fuzzy as an old clutch of spider eggs, I could see the terrible need in her remaining eye, the way it kept trying to focus on these forms before her. She wore jeans and a gray sweater covered in blood bright and red as cranberries boiling in a pot of water. She was straining to open her mouth, but one side of her jaw was so broken and splintered that she couldn’t move it at all, while the other side worked away, molars chewing the air, straining that last, motile strip of flesh that used to be a chin. 

A hand reached out and grabbed hold of my pantleg and I looked away from the other in time to see a young black man in a red hoodie trying to pull me down into the gaping hole of his mouth and for a moment I felt a sort of relief or acceptance I can’t quite explain—like this was just the way things were supposed to be, that this was the spot where I was going to die, and I’d never deserved anything more—but then Chucho rushed in, buried his machete deep in its skull, then stepped on its back, and tugged it free. 

 

“You ain’t getting off that easy,” he said, and away we ran. 

 

All around men were stopping and firing or swinging axes or hatchets or machetes, destroying the bodies we’d so recently already destroyed and I had no sense of time or space, no idea how close we were to our trucks, or how many more there might be before we were safe. I didn’t want to be here. But it was too late for second-guessing everything that had brought me here. I wasn’t even a man: I was a mere instrument, an instrument of Plymouth, recalibrating in a blur of steel and blood and death. 

 

Neo kicked away a muscular young Filipino who seemed to have been gutshot, and Chucho, all in one motion, caught hold of his arm and chopped into the back of his skull.

 

“Sorry, man,” he said.  

 

Huckleberry let an old white woman in a kind of earthy caftan walk right up to the end of his barrel before saying, “What’s up, grandma?”

Then he blew her face apart so that a piece of her lip quivered on the needle cluster of a nearby larch.  

We were only 20 yards from the road now, and I could see the convoy, the back of one of the trucks through the trees and some of our men down on the road, firing away into the woods. Custer was standing in one of the machine gun nests on top of a truck, not manning the gun, not helping us in any way, but only scanning the field with binoculars; he turned this way and that, the frustration heavy on his brow, as if at any second he expected his precious white zombie to come strolling out of the woods, his knees surrounded by a glimmering silver fog, but, since that most decidedly was not-happening, he just kept sighing and whirling about to look at more faces, and more, and more, and more.

In looking for his object, he only spied the lot of us, but called down: “Ah! Starbucks! Have you seen the white one?”

Shots were still going off all around but they were already slowing to periodic pops. Someone near me squeezed off two rounds in quick succession and dropped a pair of young bearded white men. 

Someone up ahead in the convoy was screaming in pain. 

“No, sir! but lots of others! and we lost Buttplug!”

“Pity. But you’re sure no sign of the Dork?” the captain called out.  

Neo snapped, “Is he out of his fucking—?”

“Lieutenant!” Starbucks interrupted.

“I feel him Starbucks!” the captain was shouting now. “Feel him haunting this forest down in my marrow!”

Down below the captain, a black zombie in a snug peacoat was trying to claw her way up the side of the truck, but the captain either didn’t notice or care. Two of his mercenaries came around the front of the truck. One deferred to the other with a polite gesture of the hand, and the other stepped forward and dispatched her, the last of this mob, by casually jamming a boot knife into her eye socket. 

“Wasn’t that fun?” Custer shouted. “Now—for a word with those prisoners!”

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[1] Many people don’t realize this now or have forgotten, but in the days before The Collapse, an entirely different sort of collapse was imminent. We were in denial, but the truth was there were a few thousand people in the U.S. who owned pretty much all the nation’s wealth. They had turned the political left and right against each other with Machiavellian skill, via the ancient tactic of Divide & Conquer. The left, which had pretty much all the intellectuals, was mostly shouting, “Stop siphoning our life forces!” The right, which had pretty much all the guns, was mostly shouting what the Spartans shouted at Thermopylae after being told to surrender their weapons: “Molon labe! Come take them!” The left and the right had a common enemy—which wasn’t just the extremely wealthy nor just the government, but the extremely wealthy and the parts of government they wielded as mere extensions of industry—but they also hated each other, aesthetically as much as politically, and it remained to be seen whether they would destroy each other or find common cause. A reckoning was in the air. Then … enter zombies, stage right.