Once, early in my wanderings, I holed-up with a crew for a few days, several young men and women who guarded me closely every second of my stay. They had fortified a luxury resort situated on a high butte outside Jackson, Wyoming, and, from certain parts of their fort, commanded a nice 360-degree view of the snow-capped Tetons and the surrounding valley. It was the kind of place where people used to pay mountains of cash to ride horses or go on carriage rides in between massages and hot tubbing or to drive carts around golf courses, a place where people from California and New York came to rock coats with fur collars and/or authentic Native-American quilting patterns. These kids were definitely not the elite clientele its developers intended. They looked a lot like those people, in that they were all white, but they were locals, or sort of locals, from nearby Riggs, Idaho, or some township or farm community I don’t remember outside Riggs—and they possessed this land with a fierce determination as if it were theirs by ancestral right. Apparently, there were more of them when they first took it. They’d done so by force and at no small loss of life, a fact they mentioned before pouring out sips of homemade saké for their dead friends. Several of them bore the scars to prove it: puckered bullet wounds, deep, glossy burns, a missing chunk of a chin calcified, lumpy, and gray. At any rate, one of the kids—Jennifer, or Niffiner, as they called her—was an incredible shooter, and they said she’d actually been an Olympic biathlete. I have no reason to doubt this; it was this young woman I watched make the single most amazing kill I saw in all my years.
On the morning of my third day with the group, as they were beginning to ask when I expected to heal and move on, several zombies were seen approaching far out to the west. I watched Niffiner and a couple of the others get their beloved, much-prized guns and go out to the fence. She still used a competition-grade .22 rifle, an Anschutz, I believe. They settled into chairs at a line of bench rests and started sighting. The others’ shots soon echoed through the valley, and while they periodically jerked this way and that as the high-caliber bullets tore through them, no one made a kill shot. The zombies were still too far away, lurching, jerking their way across the plain. When they were somewhere between 375 and 400 yards out, I was looking right into the eyes of one of those semi-professional dog walkers, those disheveled and often frazzled women you would see back in the days before The Collapse wearing neon green vests, any number of accoutrements jangling on her doggy utility belt—and though she no longer had any pets to call her own, she seemed to still be out on a walk with her best friends and companions. Niffiner asked which one I was looking at.
“The pro dog walker,” I said. “The one with—”
The pop of Niffiner’s .22 cut me short and in that same instant the dog walker’s eye didn’t so much disappear as well-up, swell to fill the socket, and overflow with a torrent of rusty effluent. She took two or three more steps before collapsing in a pile, her ghost dog free to run unchecked forever, her final duty complete.
I looked to the other zombies and felt an immediate pang. It seemed a cruel sort of targeting, singling this one out for her totally harmless eccentricities, when the other two actually looked like the kinds of ignorant trash I so despised before The Collapse: a comedian named Larry the Cable Guy and any one of the bearded belligerents from a show called Duck Dynasty. Why had my eyes landed on her? Was it because she stood out, because the other two looked like so many others I’d seen in my wanderings through suburban America, those cretinous hordes shambling about the hinterlands, dead-eyed fucks who’d mistaken folksy platitudes written on sleeveless shirts for authenticity, mistaken inane bluster for fortitude, all of them on the lookout for nothing more than a good supper, dying to bury their faces in plates of that undercooked barbecue we once called “other people”?
I asked Niffiner how fast she could take them out.
Her reply: two kill shots in about three seconds.
They all died a few days later, but, in my mind—and by extension here on this page—it’s almost as if Niffiner lives on.
Or how about the time in Billings, Montana when I watched a guy named RePete I’d just started traveling with get himself cornered near a loading dock behind a big box store. It was late in the day in the fall. The sun was making its descent but the moon was already up where we could see it above the buildings and the trees. He knew this was it. He was backed against a locked door and dozens were pinching in from three sides, too many to fight his way out and now there was no way he could reach the trailer I’d just barely scrambled on top of and, looking down at his pistol, he seemed to register the simple math of this equation: even though he had some ammunition left, there was nowhere near enough to make it out alive. But RePete wasn’t done yet; RePete wasn’t ready to say, “Goodnight, moon”; RePete was going to offer up one last spasm of life in defiance of endless nothingness, which is why he hurled his hatchet at the closest zombie, still at least fifteen feet away.
And it lodged right between its eyes with a pronounced little chirp!
RePete looked up to me, just to make sure I’d seen.
I nodded and smiled.
He doffed his hat, fired three shots into the crowd, then shot himself in the temple. I managed to escape, and left him there to rot, but I can still see him alive in my mind’s eye, just as if I were watching him in a scene in a film, rendered in high definition.
Such stories, the ones about impressive kills, never failed to buoy the spirits, even if for just a second, because they seemed to tell us that we too could live on, even long after our bodies had given out, reconstituted, reanimated, zombified as heroes of someone else’s recollection. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why either:
In the long view of human evolution, there were many thousands of generations of people at the mercy of a world so far outside our control that we had to worship it; then, for several thousand more years, we found ways to mitigate against the external forces, to bank surpluses of food against harsh winters; then eventually we made any number of crude engines that allowed us to say Fuck the night! and the seasons! and the tides! and illness! and to more or less control our comings and goings on the planet; then, for a very brief period, there were those of us in the so-called First World, particularly those of us who lived in the good ole U.S.A., the epitome of such thinking, who had started to see ourselves as the very gods out ancestors had worshipped, because the fiercest weather was something we could generally check and scoff at on our phones, these strange little rectangles we gods wielded in our palms, and if we ever needed more energy to make the seas rise even higher and even faster all we needed to do was send our space munitions to the other side of the globe and open fire on the primitive shitheads still living in “history” or even to leave the uppermost boundaries of our planet; then, in an instant, the shit hit the proverbial fan, and we were back to being so many know-nothings clinging to debris out in the middle of an endless sea of hostile forces, found ourselves humbled again, facing the truth that the something as simple as the flu or a little earthquake or some sneaky punk with a couple good rocks or even the half-dissolved grandma from next door could take us out faster than we could say Oh, shit!
So, yes, of course it was nice to dip back into those old feelings of superiority now and then, to try to convince ourselves that we could press the bogeymen of the world under our thumbs, and we could still be the good guys, the victors, the heroes. This was all an illusion, of course. The universe hadn’t singled us out to be good guys or bad guys or anything in between; it hadn’t singled us out for anything at all, because the world not only didn’t give a shit but wasn’t even capable of giving shits, but there was nothing like a good story about some hot chick who could shoot out a zombie’s eye at 400 yards or some funny dude thwanging a zombie in the head with a hatchet to make you feel like maybe it was true, maybe we ourselves might outlive death if we could just attain a certain level of fame. And how? By killing death in grand enough fashion.
Which is why Chucho one night bragged about the time his little sister, Salina, was climbing a ladder onto a second-story balcony of a stylish apartment complex sided in what looked like large scales of copper when a white old zombie in a sweater vest broke through the window and lashed out at her over the rail. As if mimicking the martial arts of the anime she watched while he was in prison, or channeling that inborn, informal aikido of the ages, she reached up her hand, took hold of the zombie’s wrist, shifted her weight so subtly on the ladder that Chucho couldn’t even perceive it where he stood below, toeing the ladder, and aided the zombie’s momentum so that he catapulted out over the rail, somersaulted through the air, and pulped its face on a statue of a copper salmon adorning the west wing’s courtyard.
Which is why Huckleberry endlessly counted and recounted the tale of how he once been racing a motorcycle across an overgrown hayfield outside Ellensburg when a zombie sat up dead in his path. Allegedly, he swerved to avoid it while drawing one of his pistols, but lost control, and, as his bike flipped, in that moment when he assumed his life was about to end, in that very instant when he was so twisted and topsy-turvy to the world, he managed to zero in on that zombie and fire a round so that it’s head burst in a dazzling display of bright red mist. Total bullshit. But nonetheless.
Which is why Jason underplayed the time several men saw him rush into a swarm to pull one of our men’s foot from a tangle of cables. They were at the back of one of the boxes and half a dozen zombies had loosed themselves from some overlooked basement or bunker and here they pinched in on our repairman, Leatherman, pinning him between the box and a copse of trees. He had been sorting out a tangle of cables and now couldn’t free his foot from a loop. Without hesitation, Jason rushed in. All in a dervish, he flipped one over his hip, stomped its skull to pieces with his boot heel, swung his machete up under the chin of another, twisted it to block a third, pulled the blade free, cleaved the second zombie’s head in two, turned to a the third, chopping its skull sideways so that it careened into a fourth, lost the blade in the collision, drew his sidearm, fired two rounds, dropping two more, retrieved his blade from the zombie twisted dead on the ground, and cleaved the head of the last as it pulled itself across the ground to grab his foot. He said he didn’t even remember doing this, and there was something in that, as if the not-remembering, the sheer nonchalance of the action, made it possible that such acts might be replicated a hundred times over, an endless repetition of shots and slashes and deft neutralizations, on and on, and on and on, for the rest of time.
Which is why Ragnar bore witness to a man who fired blindly over his shoulder as he ran away from a swarm and, with three bullets, struck two zombies square in their faces—one a fast-food worker still wearing his headset, the other a priest still wearing his collar.
Which is why Lard Ass, poor Lard Ass, remained ever flabbergasted by the time he saw a 60- or 65-year-old woman in a bloody denim smock take careful aim and fire a compound bow at a zombie about 50 yards away, the immediate collective sigh her companions let out when the arrow fell 20 feet short and the nervous laughter that followed a second later when the arrow skipped up off the asphalt, plunged through the thing’s open mouth, and pierced the back of its skull.
Which is why Chief once drew us a series of comic book panels: (1) Chief in a t-shirt that read “Chief” and several injured, exhausted young people wearing shirts that read “Niece,” “Nephew,” “Neighbor,” respectively, walking down a deserted highway; (2) a zombie in a Washington Redskins jersey popping out from behind an SUV and grabbing hold of Neighbor’s t-shirt; (3) a motorcycle flashing by out of nowhere with a caption that read only Zeeeeeeew!; (4) a Bowie knife extended horizontally; (5) the zombie’s severed head lying on the road; (6) the back of the rider speeding off, two long black braids each adorned with a feather flapping in the wind; (7) Neighbor angrily punting the head out into a field of grass and loose plastic bags.
Which is why Pippin, poor Pippin, in one of his beautiful Kaleidoscopic perceptional inversions, thought it the most sublime thing in the world that he once saw his friend Lard Ass not shoot a berserker rushing right at him in a mad rage, but simply sidestep it and tug a big black garbage bag over its head. “Like a matador!” Pippin had always said every time he told the story. And one could see he was so enthusiastic, because, in this way, our cook didn’t even have to debase himself, allowing the zombie’s own unthinking, apoplectic fits to do the dirty work for him: it lashed out wildly to the left where this man had been only a second before, but he wasn’t there, so it whirled furiously back to the right. Again, he wasn’t there, so it freaked out, whirled hard to the right, like it might turn itself into some kind of whirlwind of teeth and claws and spit and insane hellfire, and that’s when it stepped off a ledge, tumbled down a steep slope—ass over teakettle—and impaled its chest and face on a row of pikes. Every time Pippin told this story, Lard Ass only blushed.
Which is why Buttplug, poor Buttlplug, had gotten so excited when he told us about the time he watched a guy climb a flag pole on the edge of a football field. As the third lieutenant had told it, there was a trench dug out in a circle around the pole, with at most a 5-foot radius, and, once the man was situated on a little perch just out of their reach, he threw a match, igniting diesel that sent the crowd up in flames and long, acrid coils of black smoke. The flag, tattered as any old zombie, waved on.
Which is why, I suppose, Custer told us in somber tones that, in his first days, long before there was any talk about DeComp plants or converting them into energy, he, well, he saw some little girls and their father showing them how to shoot a rifle, and in this particular memory the youngest was holding an old family heirloom, an M-1 Garand affixed with a bayonet, he said with a smile, the gun longer than the girl was tall. There was a strange light in his eyes when he described how she held it out and positioned her legs, how she worked the bolt uncertainly and said, “Like that, Papa?” And he said, “Just like that, Munchkin. You’ve got it.” And she said, “Now what?” And he said, “Now I want you to breathe in slowly, draw your breath, slowly, all the way in, and hold it for just a second, yeah, just like that; now slowly breathe out, slower, yes, yes, and then, as you get to the end of your breath, don’t think, don’t pull, but squeeze like ... like you’re trying to stick a Lego to another Lego!” And when she had exhaled, she didn’t think, didn’t pull, just squeezed, and furrowed the skull of a zombie ratchet-strapped to a big spruce. “It was squirming and everything!” the captain said proudly, then quickly returned to his trailer, no doubt to let that talented little girl, whoever she was, return to life in his memory.