A trio of berserkers rushed our perimeter with gaping mouths, three banshee nurses who had perhaps just started a shift when the office went dark, the male in scrubs covered with flying pigs who tried so furiously to grab us through the chain link fence that his hand split between his middle knuckles—and still he pressed on, rupturing tendons and ligaments that twitched and glistened in the moonlight. Another impaled her throat on a pike angling out from the base of the fence and tried to rotate away without taking her eye off us, the pike slowly prying apart her neck, exposing an inflamed red lump that could have been a goiter or perhaps a child’s heart half-chewed lodged in her gullet. The third, a small Asian woman with short bristly hair, rushed against the fence between pikes and pressed so hard with her face against the chainlink that her teeth splintered on the wire, her scream almost human, full of pain and terror, as if she were being overrun from behind, forsaken on the outside the fence, and so thorough was this disorienting effect that I almost thought to help, but here someone drew a revolver, held it point blank to the thing’s forehead, and fired a shot that instantly silenced not only her but everything in the vicinity and, as the ring of tinnitus grew to a crescendo in my ear, I looked out deafly as the slower zombies were continuing to amble forward through our floodlights, every second or third impaling themselves, but most of them only shoving their bulk up against our fence, mounding one upon the next as though rushing the stage at a concert. It occurred to me that we may have waited too long to run, that we might not be able to make it out of this alive, but, just as I was thinking about retreating the other way, scrambling a fence, trying to make it out there as I always had—that is, on my own—I felt in my chest a sudden heavy thudding as someone began firing one of the machine guns atop the truck outside the perimeter and, here, before my hearing had time to return, quickly chewed most of the others into a couple long mounds of masticated limbs and torsos, faces caving into toothy black holes, bone shards and splinters, flaps of scalp, and everywhere rivulets of black blood congealing in little pools thick as liver. The riflemen kneeling inside the fence fired once more into the remaining attackers and, just like that, it was over.
Well, almost over.
Looking out through the silver smoke into those indistinguishable mounds, you could still see the age-old subtle movements of an expiring battlefield—twitching, shuddering bodies playing out neurons’ final commands, so that you wondered if they were only playing out various routine motions from life, typing numbers into columns on the computer, rinsing dishes and placing them in the rack and, cast over the top of all this was something else, something new, a writhing sheen, burst boluses of maggots, undulating, squirming, a thin larval carpet showing faintly blue in the inescapable glare of our floodlights.
Someone tittered. Others openly laughed and high-fived and shouted inanities at the twitching mounds on the other side of the fence, the inevitable “Come get some!” and “Eat that!”
But the celebrations were cut short as the lieutenants immediately rousted everyone and marshaled us into various work details. Here, for the first time, I had a chance to take in the big picture of our convoy, all the men rushing about, here and there, up and down, in and out. We might have even won a corporate diversity award, if such a thing existed. We could have been lined up from the darkest west African immigrant to the palest towheaded Scandinavian and congratulated ourselves on the smooth shifting gradations of hues between.
Then again, maybe that diversity award would have been a little hasty, because the northwest had a highly white population, so that the lighter hues would have stretched fully two-thirds of the way across, even featuring some duplications among the Scots-Irish types, while the darker portion, perhaps only one-third of the total line, would have seen a rapid darkening over a handful of men from heavily creamed coffee to a shade of espresso tinged with blue. But, while it’s true that our top men, our captain and his lieutenants, were invariably drawn from the paler portions of the line, it was also true that all the men of Plymouth, even the officers, were treated not so much as men of various creeds or colors, but as bodies for the mysterious Major Shareholders to break against a never-ending litany of terrifically dangerous tasks—though most were still thankful to have bodies left to sacrifice.
Security specialists, like Chucho, rushed outside and finished the job, ran around knifing and piking and hatcheting any heads that continued to turn or twitch in the mulch. Men up on the masts called down to report no more movement in the surrounding area. Scouts and a few hearty laborers deployed to see if any more were out there where the goggles couldn’t see. The rest of us split up, some beginning to break down the camp and load the gear into the trucks, others gloving up, dragging the bodies to the small shipping container spray-painted with the word “scraps.”
Everyone knew we had to work fast. This wave had subsided, but the gunfire was sure to lure more, so we had to be ready, not only to protect the convoy, but to round up the inevitable busybodies.
As I was dragging the lower half of a severed body through the dirt, I felt a sprinkle from above, and looked up so that rain drops began to fall on my face. My raincoat was in my backpack, which was on my back, but I didn’t want to dig into my stuff with contaminated latex gloves, and so I let the rain pour over me, plastering my hair down in my eyes. Someone readjusted the floodlights so that they angled more downward into the mess of bodies and here the light sheered across puddles of seepage mixing with rain in ruts in the road and I looked down at what I was holding, at the decomposing shoes, the torn cuffs of the jeans. The body had been severed at a diagonal across the hips and part of a woven belt was left frayed and sticking out from the belt loops. How surreal, to look upon a pair of legs attached to nothing. The mind revolts: surely they must be attached to something! It was almost easier to imagine that whoever this once was had simply found some sort of portal to another dimension, that he’d dived in, that his upper half was right then toiling away on the other side, like everything was okay, like it was just business as usual, and I was only holding onto this end to keep him from drifting too far into the abyss. The brain can only rationalize so much.
I passed a bearded man tightening the hood of his once-yellow raincoat and he muttered something inaudible.
“Hmmm?” I said.
“Wish Meg was here.”
“She loved this straight-down kinda rain.”
As I continued working, my mind settled on any number of subjects, but mostly how strange it was that Captain Custer hadn’t shown himself through any of this. Captains, bosses in general, will often let their lieutenants run the show during preliminary phases of any operation, but the second shit gets serious, they usually appear to offer the illusion of order amidst chaos—and to claim credit if things happen to go right. So I kept looking around for our captain, thinking he might pop out of that private trailer-cabin of his at any moment. I imagined this Custer looking like the old Custer, wearing a blue frock, a woolen cape, tall gauntleted gloves, a cavalry hat with crossing sabers, a smug smirk—the same expression I remembered George Bush wearing on that aircraft carrier when he declared “Mission Accomplished” re: a war that might still be going on for all I know. Yes, that was the image I always had of Custer, anyway, the historic man, always popping out of well-appointed tents, twisting his mustache with his fingers, resting a booted foot on some powder keg, always ready to take decisive action, whatever decisive action, including the dumb kind. Our Custer never popped out that day, but, every so often, his strapping first lieutenant, an underwear-model of a man everyone called Starbucks, would knock on the captain’s door and stand there waiting in the rain like a penitent. Sure, the door would eventually crack and you’d get a tiny sliver of a peek inside, glimpse the corner of a map, or maybe something white down at the threshold that could have been the tip of his infamous peg leg—but then the door would close and the mysterious corner or edge or tip would retreat back inside and the door would close again.
No, as we worked well into the morning, as it rained, then as the skies cleared, then as the skies clouded and the rain came again, I settled my sights on his lieutenants and then his lieutenants’ anointed security specialists:
§ Starbucks. Starbucks, who, as I’ve already said, was first lieutenant of Plymouth, appeared to be what we used to call a “golden boy.” He was maybe 33, about 6’3”, thin in the hips but wide-shouldered, with a small brown beard and intense blue eyes. He hailed from Olympia but reportedly had worked as a public defender and then as an environmental attorney in Seattle a few years before The Collapse and was about the most conventionally handsome and altogether composed man left alive on this earth. You really had to admire how earnestly he approached every minute’s task. A Protestant? Definitely. But not one of those denominations that had believed dinosaurs and men coexisted, no hell-and-brimfire televangelist was he, but more likely a Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or one of the more serious types of Methodists. His faith expressed itself primarily in his devotion to work and he took it almost as the moral duty of everyone beneath him in this convoy—that is, every person but Custer—to go find a little work to do on break time. Not much of a talker, he usually led by example, and didn’t yell or threaten or kick, but only had to fix his eyes on you, which was maybe only a passing disapproval on his part, but felt on the receiving end like your own mother giving up on you. Starbucks was “a natural leader,” as people used to say. You had him pegged for the kind of baby who had changed his own diaper, later a homecoming king, captain of the state-winning basketball team, darling of every teacher, coach, and team mom who ever laid eyes on him.
Where did the name, Starbucks, come from? Perhaps you remember the ubiquitous coffee shops found three per block in every city in America? You don’t even have to have been alive before The Collapse to see the forsaken storefronts all about the ruins. But it’s not the ubiquity that speaks to the personality of our Lieutenant Starbucks; it’s just that, love it or hate it, there was simply no mistaking it; the Starbucks brand had been, above all, constant—to an almost spiritual connotation of the word, to the nth degree.
All that morning, this man, Starbucks, was striding back and forth between people loading the trucks and people keeping watch and then on over to Custer’s quarters to give reports. Here, he’d pat a blood-spattered hunter on the shoulder—Good job not dying. Here, he’d explain the mechanics of how to more efficiently stack mismatched crates—Practice makes perfect. People sucked in toward this man, not up to him, because Starbucks was their man, never the other way around. He didn’t treat them like shit and they appreciated him for it. But I don’t want to suggest he was all work and no play. I did, after all, catch him once standing still, later in the stint, when things were going particularly badly for us all. That day, he stood there, arms behind his back, staring off at the horizon.
“Hey, Lieutenant!” I teased: “Enough with the stand-and-stares!”
He turned, a little misty-eyed, and seemed to snap out of his reverie.
“She was a good kid,” he said, furrowed his brow, and resumed his work.
§ Neo was second lieutenant and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that his given name had been something like Chad or Brodie—indeed, he was very Brodie-like. Which is to say Neo was unusually laid-back and good-natured for a man who, on our first night, I watched stroll outside the fortification and literally punch a writhing zombie’s head apart with his naked fist. I heard he hadn’t been a northwesterner until fairly recently, that he’d moved up to Portland from San Francisco to get away from the rat race he himself had helped foster. Would it be safe to say he had been “a computer guy”? Safe as a bunker. Apparently, he’d co-created some social media app called Kudzu, one of any number of such things created during a virtual tidal wave of computer applications built around the idea of connecting people who felt disconnected, and it posed just enough of a threat to the top app in that line that they bought it from his team for tens of millions of dollars, not to perfect or incorporate into their own app, but only to delete, so as to eliminate a market competitor. That he’d poured all that time and effort into something summarily erased from history wouldn’t have bothered Neo, however; his manner was very surfer-like, just the sort for casually catching and riding waves—all the way to the bank. Just because Neo took all things in stride didn’t mean he didn’t like to yell and cuss. To the contrary, he was a champion yeller/cusser. It all seemed a game to him. He loved to shout orders and toss in a bunch of nautical-sounding gibberish just to give it a fun, pirate-like texture, and probably to give himself a laugh, though he never did laugh at any of his own nonsense. Shiver me fucking timbers! Avast, dicklicker! Heave to, you poop-butt motherfucker! Sure, you’d do what he said, but largely because you’d see that playful twinkle in his eye and knew poop-butt motherfucker for a kind of wisdom, the wisdom of allowing yourself a little fun even while out here making a living on the wide, wild seas of blood. Childish? Sure. But what did Neo care about all that? He’d already gotten his in the old world. If the end came tomorrow—or the next end, or the final end, the dissolution of all complex things into loose particles—no one could take his past away. Indeed, he seemed to be riding the wave of this enterprise as well—whether to the bank or a burning lake of fire.
§ Buttplug. Sure, Buttplug had the basic requirements to be a third lieutenant. Sure, Buttplug could hold his own against the zombies and went after them with an insane furor, but almost like he was using them as stand-ins for other, deeper frustrations. Buttplug had another name. He had two in fact: a separate and less insulting nickname he preferred and a given name he told anyone who would listen, because he wanted one or the other to stick. O, how he hated that people called him Buttplug! But whoever gave him that nickname must have been a brilliant poet. For one, the man was truly shaped like a buttplug. He was one of those men you always saw in gyms, all upper body, because he never worked out his legs, because he thought no one would notice. Think of the letter V. Or the top half of an hourglass. Or an honest-to-goodness buttplug. For another thing, he was just the sort who deserved a nickname he didn’t want, particularly this one. How many buff young men before The Collapse or after have you heard casually toss around homophobic or misogynistic epithets? If you answered “shitloads,” you are correct. Buttplug was one of those. Everyone to him was “a queer,” “a homo,” “a bitch,” “a fag,” “a faggot,” or “a pussy” or even a “pussy faggot,” whatever that was, and yet one look at him and you knew—just knew—he was one of those young men who made sure everyone in listening radius knew he didn’t tolerate “trannies” sticking stuff up his butt, which was “exit-only”; and yet the very vehemence with which he declared all this also betrayed something concealed, like maybe a late-night trip to an ER? to get a household item removed from his butt? a marker or the handle of a screwdriver that accidentally got there somehow?
O, just get a buttplug already, Buttplug! the only people who ever cared were you, and other morons like you, and freaky evangelists who, of all the better things they could have been thinking about in a world of greed and murder and war, just couldn’t seem to stop thinking, apparently in explicit detail, about other people sticking stuff up their butts! So it was that, when Buttplug would go on a tear, yelling shit, knocking shit over, and kicking men in the butthole—coincidence?—we’d all comply, not because we respected him—because we didn’t, not exactly—but because we pitied him this furious sort of repression. Even the dumbest of us could hear the secret longing buried in rants such as this: “What’re you two, a coupla faggots? I bet you pack each other’s fudge real nice! bet you gently suck each other’s dicks all night! bet you snuggle up real sweet like a couple homosnugglebunnies and forget zombies exist at all!”
O, Buttplug—ye hardly knew ye!
Now these three lieutenants—Starbucks, Neo, and Buttplug—were valuable commodities and it was standard practice among convoys that these three lower officers would command smaller detachments during roundups, deciding which herds of zombies could be safely diverted, while still mobile, into containers, and which should be dispensed of, mowed down, crammed in boxes with the other scraps. It was pretty standard, as I said before, that captains and lower officers were white dudes (Bollywood was but the exception that proved the rule). So, yes, our lieutenants were all white, but who did these decidedly white lieutenants select as their right-hand men? who did they most trust with their lives in battle? who did they trust to clear an unsecure area? who did they want on point? white dudes?
Let us examine the facts:
§ Chucho. You already know a bit about Chucho. Here it suffices to say that Starbucks, our first lieutenant, selected him as his own chief security specialist. Some of the men grumbled behind his back about this, but it was no matter, and their grumbling quickly began to ring a little empty when all of Chucho’s zombodies started stacking up, each of his new kills increasing all the grumblers’ shares by a small percentage.
§ Chief. Chief was tireless, quick, and seemingly fearless, and it was neck-and-neck as to whether he or Chucho was the better shot. Some said this tall, barrel-chested, and long-haired Native American man was Duwamish, others Tulalip, and still others said he came from an inland tribe: I myself heard Nez Perce, Flathead, Blackfeet, Lakota, Crow, even Pequot—an absurdity since the Pequots were slaughtered centuries ago. Chief never said. Because Chief never talked. Besides his bulk, his complete silence was his most distinguishing characteristic. Rumor had it he was a veteran of some three stints, but while his reputation preceded him, it was never quite clear to me if they called him Chief as homage to the mute Indian who went by the same name in the novel and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or if they were just racists who would have called any Native American man Chief. Since many of them were only marginally literate, if literate at all, I suspect the latter.
While Chief did not talk, he did laugh. He laughed often and what a laugh: big, boisterous, deep, resonant, like someone thumping the heel of their hand on the hull of a wooden boat. It was laughter of another kind, not a petty comical laughter, not a light laughter for spritzing banter, but a sad laughter, a laughter that suggested a deep recognition of the folly of all things, the divine comedy of existence, the dual nature of the living universe, the tenderness of a mother bear tenderly licking the ears of a healthy cub but devouring the sick one without sentiment. Chief was Chief but no one’s Indian. Once, later in our stint, another man of much less import in Neo’s crew—Killer or Basher or some other stupid thing I can’t remember—used a rubber band to secure an owl feather to a rusty hatchet and presented this tomahawk to Chief with a smirk. Things were very tense for a moment. Neo jumped to his feet and started to step between them—fighting was a breach of contract, and breach of contract death (or worse)—but Chief only smiled good-naturedly at the man and accepted the gift. I suppose it was only a coincidence that, some days later, that same man came lurching into our camp, throat punctured, blood all down the front of his shirt, a newly turned zombie. Chief silently gestured, volunteered to dispatch him. He walked over and split his skull in two—with that same mocking tomahawk.
§ Christopher Martin. Christopher Martin was the largest man in Plymouth (about 6’5” and probably 240 pounds of muscle despite the bouts he must have had with malnutrition), strong, fast, and quite capable; he’d been a UW Huskies tight end, a captain his senior year, and he was someone you really did want on your side in a fight. He hadn’t adopted a new name after The Collapse. No, Christopher Martin, one of the most boring names ever uttered, had been his brand, and he planned to carry it with him, perhaps just in case the NFL ever started back up again. He was not stupid, but neither would I say he was smart, but he was likable, not too quick to temper, quite self-deprecating at times, fine with a joke at his own expense.
And yet there had been controversy over the selection of the so-called “big man.” Buttplug picked Christopher Martin over a black man who went by the name Jason, even though this Jason was the stronger choice, a veteran not only of war but two stints, one as just such a security specialist, while Christopher Martin had only been on one stint and as a run-of-the-mill roughneck. This man, Jason, was not very big, but then neither was Chucho and I’m confident in saying Jason was even more obviously qualified for these horrors than probably my friend. Jason had been a child soldier in the Sierra Leone, had immigrated to the U.S. as part of a program to protect child refugees. What horrors he must have seen and participated in…. At any rate, he became a citizen, a soldier, and, as I heard it, a U.S. Army Ranger—which seemed perfectly likely once you saw the man in action. You could see it instantly in a fight, the calmness with which he approached it all, not a single wasted motion, just action/reaction, perfect fluidity of movement. Christopher Martin was a good fighter, too, and very powerful—he could use his massive fist like a hammer—but even as he was destroying zombies hand-to-hand, a careful eye saw all the wasted motion: he could overpower most anyone or anything, but he’d always burn more calories than necessary when doing so. One could imagine why, if you were a short guy named Buttplug, and you were looking down a line of men, you might see this NFL-prospect of a man hulking above the others and immediately think Hello, He-Man! Maybe to him Jason just didn’t stand out as a warrior, didn’t seem like anything special, just some African-immigrant-looking-dude with a thousand-yard stare and thick black muttonchops harkening back to 1970s soul albums. Maybe it was just an oversight. I’m willing to concede that, in the history of the world, it has happened that a white American man innocently underestimated the skills of a black African man, but were any of us wrong to wonder if something besides reason went into such decisions?
Still, to watch Christopher Martin and Jason raze bodies side by side, you couldn’t say there was ever any competition between them. In fact, they worked together, even became close friends, close as Chucho and me. Weeks later, on a cold and depressing night, I would overhear them warming their hands over a fire barrel. Christopher Martin had had a particularly bad day, having opened fire and killed one of his own men. Head down, he muttered to Jason, “You shoulda got this job, dude.”
“No way,” Jason said in his still-accented English, then reached up, patted Christopher Martin on the shoulder. “You will figure this out, big man.”
Management in Action
That first morning loading the trucks and getting ready for my first roundup, I watched these officers and their chief security men in their comings and goings. All of them had experience doing this, even if it hadn’t been much, and they’d all survived, thrived even, so I took them as good (or at least better than average) role models for how not to get eaten. During my first rotation in the bucket truck, in the crow’s nest high up on what we called “the mast,” I got to look down and see how one of those little specks would run up to a group of other specks and how that group of other specks would scatter in ten different directions, some of them running up to other specks so that this other group of specks would also go running in different directions. I tried not to hear anything, to take it in the way I might amoebas under a microscope and it had me in a pretty high philosophical state wondering about the nature of pain and thinking a horde of zombies was really just a swarm or not even that but just a number of dots, single pixels, that overwhelmed another, smaller number of pixels, and how could pixels feel pain? Yes, if it came to it, I’d just leave my body, return to this mast, and behold the scaled scurrying of my cohort, just take a mental snapshot in case some glowing glob of pixels, the Great End Boss from the videogame of existence, ever pinged me in the future like, “Account for your fellowpixels!”—and this really was some quite excellent philosophy that was undoubtedly going somewhere useful, I’m sure, but then I got distracted just gazing out at the open land and the rolling hills and forests and one road going to the west and one to the north and a small mirror lake a couple miles in the distance and two deer pricking their ears up at something behind some boulders and thought how nice it was that I didn’t feel compelled to try to kill them and that’s when I saw a motorcycle come screaming around a bend in the road to the north and the rider skid around in the mud and right the thing again and keep coming. He rode up to the front rig and stopped and jumped off and went running toward one of the specks, who I looked at through my binoculars, and saw Starbucks, who clapped his hands together in excitement, and swirled his arm around in the air and gave a whistle, and took off running back to Custer’s trailer-cabin.
The trucks started up almost in unison, their diesel engines sputtering to life and churning out little puffs of black smoke. I peered through my binoculars at the drama at the cabin, thinking for sure Custer would come out, because something was clearly happening, something that had Starbucks smiling ear-to-ear. Surely we would see him now. Surely. But once again I was at just such an angle that all I could make out was a hand at the door, Starbucks saying something in reply, then nodding solemnly. When the door shut, Starbucks ran over to Neo and relayed the orders. Neo took off to tell Buttplug and Buttplug started barking out orders in the most abusive manner he could at Christopher Martin and all the men around them.
“What’s happening?” someone called up to me.
“I don’t know,” I shouted. “Looks like we’re about to roll out?”
I used the levers in the crow’s nest to lower the boom and, when I was almost down, Chucho came running up.
“The scout found a shitload,” he said. “In some canyon.”
“Cool. I saw a porcupine up a tree over—”
“Shut up. We gotta roll fast.”
He ran across the gravel pad to load into one of the shuttle vehicles with Starbucks. Out here, Chucho was always running around like some kid who just smacked an easy double and was rounding first base. I wouldn’t call it joyful exactly, but his stride was definitely long and carefree.
A couple minutes later, all things secured, Plymouth rolled on.
That afternoon we stopped at a bend in the road on the far side of the hills. The convoy sat idling while the officers talked it over. Word filtered back through the trucks that there was a sizable horde up ahead, a real bonanza, down in the river valley below. There was talk about a blown-out dam and some insane plan for rounding them all up, and it all sounded quite interesting, indeed, but my bladder felt like it was about to burst, so I hopped down out of the truck and stood relieving myself by the tire, careful so the little stream flowed back between my feet and down the road, rather than back onto my boots, which were surprisingly nice for once.
I looked down over the valley at the trees along what used to be a river. Since the dam had blown out, there wasn’t so much as a trickle of water left, but the floodplain rose fifteen or twenty feet over the banks, all of it disappearing around an elbow about half a mile ahead. Debris littered all along. There were two cars down below. An old Forest Service road led to a wide cleared spot in the process of being reclaimed by the wilderness, by saplings some three or four years old—I took it for an old campground. Both of the cars seemed to have been burned long ago, and were grown through with blackberry bushes.
Then, something to my right commanded my attention.
I turned and, for the first time, beheld Captain Custer.