The Chase: Hour Three
The sun had crested and was making its long, slow descent, the air of the chase blowing through our cab fair and fresh. We had been riding up on the ZombX Humvee for some time now, gaining, falling behind, gaining, and it now seemed inevitable that, as we drew nearer and nearer to DeComp, we would certainly catch them. Custer was in high spirits, his voice crackling over the radio for all of Plymouth to hear: “We’ll catch them soon enough…. Ah! After so much rain, what a lovely day again! There’s never been a finer day—”
I was driving a rig now with Starbucks and Chucho and here Starbucks offered commentary for our ears only: “What about the day you met your wife? or your kids first blinked?”
“—and that tingling in here—it should be sufficient information for stupid beasts like us. Thinking gets us in trouble. Leave the thinking to Hawking or Chomsky, or neo-Hawking, or neo-Chomsky, or whatever names may yet emerge from the stinking bog of humanity. Thinking ought to be calm and collected, but our poor hearts throb and our poor brains beat too much for that…. Hey, Starbucks! I was wondering: did you read the newspaper comments online?”
Starbucks waited to see if the captain was going to say anything more, then keyed the set.
“Once was all it took to cure me,” he said. “Over.”
“You’re too good by a mile, Starbucks,” the captain sighed. “How you went through life with all that discipline, I’ll never understand. Me? O, trolls infuriated me to no end. I couldn’t stop myself. Even though I suspected half the handles were political operatives arguing with themselves to earn their paychecks and the other half only having a cynical lonely laugh at we fools who despised them and cared about the world. Maybe that’s exactly what I found enticing about it: I never understood people who said things they didn’t actually feel—increasingly everyone. Until it all imploded. Then again, part of me thinks a man can convince himself of anything if he only says it enough times, which is why peace is always silent. What does one need to be convinced of at the end? when you’re beyond illusions and staring reality in its face or at least peering under its shroud? Yes, Starbucks, you were right to skip the forums. A terrible symptom. Worse than a hemorrhagic fever. A whole society overleaking a trillion electromagnetic pulses of panic and loss, each veiled over with a thousand layers of sarcasm, branding, false bonhomie—personality more prized than production. I thought I was surfing along the top of that pulse, riding the crest—but more likely banging my head against a wall, Starbucks. I imbibed of what ailed us. But what better things…. My wife, how she—how she used to kiss the very tip of my nose, how—O, O, O, but why think of that now? Look at this glorious day! feel the wind blowing through your hair, boys! don’t give her a name! don’t try to contain her! what a day to see and see and see! what a fine and perfect day!”
For a moment more, he could be heard breathing into the radio but then it went silent.
He never said over.
Soon, we turned onto a vaguely familiar dirt road—yes, the dirt road I remembered from my lone trip to DeComp, a thing I had all but forgotten, but was suddenly exhumed from the pit of my memory like a corpse from a recent grave—and just after we trundled by a rustic track into the trees on our right, the truck ahead of us screeched to a stop. We slammed on our brakes to avoid rear-ending them. One of the doors on the truck ahead flew open and Barbra jumped out, sprinting back toward the side road, her backpack slung over one shoulder, a purposeful glower on her face. I don’t know how, but it suddenly seemed obvious to me that, before all of this, she had been a bartender, the kind who abused her regulars because they loved and deserved it and, though they wanted to know everything she did on her days off, remained private and mysterious till the bitter end.
I steered the truck up beside the one Chief was in and stopped. Starbucks opened the passenger door and the driver’s door on the other vehicle opened; Starbucks conversed with Chief over the driver, who was sitting there looking back and forth between the two men, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, a man whose name I never even knew, a doughy man I saw all the time around camp but never spoke with beyond a few words, a man missing three of the fingers on his left hand from some long-ago accident or mishap, whom everyone called Two Fingers. It struck me suddenly, though not for the first time, how strange it was to have fought beside men but not to know much more about them than a name and not even their true name, but then how this has always been the case, that we all had names before, first names, middle names, last names, even social security numbers, and we wrote all these down a million times per life, announcing ourselves to the world through them, but in the great totaling of things that is the universe, we were never to be found in those names or any names at all because they were always, at best, temporospacial coordinates. Two Fingers was not Two Fingers or Mike D. Johnson or Kevin L. Jones or whatever he may have been called before; we were not located in our monikers, but in the sum total of the wending four-dimensional paths of our entire lives from day one, where he may have had no name at all, to the moment when we died, and spoke our true names into the soil in the pattern of our lifelong dissolutions.
Chief told Starbucks that Barbra was getting her “secret weapon,” and a moment later, as if on cue, a gold minivan emerged from a thick camouflage of ferns and spruce fronds and steered onto the road behind us. The window was down and she was listening to the opening strings of a classical song that sounded somehow very familiar but which name I couldn’t quite locate in the fog of my memory.
“Come on!” Custer screamed out his door, though no one was listening to his rantings anymore. “We’ve almost got him now!”
Starbucks hailed Chief: “Gold, huh? Aren’t there better colors for covert ops?”
“What can I say? She’s … unconventional.”
How true: besides the gold paint, the entire back end of the van was packed with industrial fertilizer, dynamite, and detonator—a mobile bomb stashed here for the final act of Barbra’s revolutionary anti-dystopianism, her Utopian Big Bang. Now I suddenly remembered the song’s title: Adagio for Strings. By Samuel Barber. He was an American composer, the song sentimental but beautiful and somehow uniquely American, one that had found its way into so many war memorials as it seemed to follow the ethereal spirit being released from a wrecked body lying face-down in a field somewhere all the way up to the stratosphere where it finally came apart in entropic catharsis. This was one of the few classical compositions that even the great middle-American masses might have recognized—one of the very few I ever knew well, and one I remember thinking, at one time, I could never forget.
Custer’s truck veered up along a bank around us in a terrific clatter, and bounced back onto the road, quickly accelerating ahead of the rest.
“What’s that guy’s deal?” Starbucks deadpanned.
With that, we rolled on, three war rigs and a gold family van of mass destruction.
We raced around a bend to see the road drop down the hill and Custer already engaging the last of the ZombX Humvees. Down in the broad valley we could see the plant, the river snaking beneath its toxic effluent, the tailing ponds ever threatening to breach, so many trucks logging their hauls, others empty and heading back out for more, the crane shifting shipping containers from one spot to another, and crewmen locking a new box to the chute that dropped fresh bodies into the bloody abattoir.
The last of the R1 mercenaries were making a mad dash for cover, for safety in numbers, but here, they came around a corner too fast and almost clipped a semi coming up the hill with an empty trailer, and the whole stretch of vehicles paused for a moment as Custer, who had once again mounted his turret, opened up with the 240. The semi veered toward an embankment and lodged down in a narrow drainage and the Humvee floored it downhill again; this gave us enough time to catch up and soon our three rigs were mere feet apart, racing after the truck and its bizarre hood ornament, Custer firing, the mercenary in the turret before him now hanging limply from his once-perch, his entire torso flopping with each bump limply as a bloody washcloth; and as the ground leveled out and they made their way out across the flat plain, the captain’s truck pulled up beside them and, just as the dead man on top reanimated and started grabbing wildly at him, fired at the driver-side window so that the driver panicked and veered hard to the right, breaking the new zombie’s leg at a brutal angle so that he dangled there on the side of the truck by loose sinew and fabric and then fell away, tumbling beneath our tires so that we felt a slight bump and only continued on our way.
But the Humvee ahead had gained ground again so that the white zombie on its hood pulled further and further away toward the gates. Up ahead, the gate was closing after the last truck out. Perhaps their radio communications were still down, but it seemed they didn’t like what they were seeing and hearing approach; they were trying to shut the large, rolling gate against us so that it rolled slowly on its great wheels along its track but here the truck with its bizarre squirming hood ornament raced through so that the gate nearly clipped its fenders. It seemed we would have to find another way in and so I and the other Humvees were already slowing but out of the corner of my eye I saw the plow truck flash by, not slowing, but accelerating. I don’t even know who was driving it at this point, but whoever it was raced out ahead of us and smashed into the steel gate with a thundering crash, turning at the last second at just such an angle as to wrench the whole thing off its track. The plow and the grill and the hood and even the gold buffalo caved inward so that the great rig spun around to one side, tipped first onto its side and then onto its roof and slid this way until it came to a stop, kicking up a great wave of dirt, and all this just as the gears of the gate grinded against any number of sprung internal components until the entire mechanism ground to a deafening halt.
We seized our opportunity and gunned it; a second later, the last trucks of Plymouth and the gold van passed through the gap, our gunners firing steadily up at the impotent guard towers as we passed.
Just like that, we were inside the belly of the beast.
I can still smell that day. It comes on sometimes late at night, just as I am falling asleep, the smell of my friends’ sweat in the cab, the gunpowder over so many endless layers of corporeal rot; yes, I still see it all as if it’s happening right now before me, as if I could reach out and touch the dashboard and turn and feed a new can of ammunition to my friend Chucho in the turret. The sounds clatter one over the other in my mind: bullets plinking off metal, several heavy rounds slamming against our hood as we followed Custer’s rig around the great decomposition tanks, the sound of our engine chugging as we swung out into the open alongside the gaping pit of zombies writhing and churning one another into fetid paste, and then, looking back as that little gold van suddenly wheeled wide and, with no further warning, plowed directly into the architecture of that great hulking bank of generators and stacks letting off smoke into the blue, blue sky.
The van was riddled with bullet holes, the windshield shot out; how it is that one of those rounds didn’t detonate her entire payload half a mile back, I will never know, but Barbra made it through, and a moment after impact, a ring of dirt and smoke burst out from under the van’s undercarriage, some small ordnance she’d pilfered from god knows where.
None of us knew she had been planning to blow herself up—to risk herself, sure, but to sacrifice herself this way? No.
I don’t think anyone knew and the reality of it struck quick and hard.
I heard Chucho groan up in the turret, a groan of sudden loss, as though the air had been sucked out of him, as though something magnificent, something magical had been taken from the world in a flash.
But there was no time to think about it. That blast—it was only a catalyst.
An instant later, an enormous raging fireball erupted in all directions, swallowing up the van and Barbra and all her fierceness along with all the mercenaries who had been rushing in to capture her and all the controls and the entire base of that great industrial skeleton, the fire red and angry, now rolling, crashing back in on itself in curling black waves, doppelgangers of the white-capped sea—and just as fast this explosion reached their nitrogen rendering facility, lit off another that might have blown the top off a mountain, burning men down hundreds of yards from the center, knocking our vehicle almost off its tires, sucking the very oxygen out of our lungs, a shockwave pulsing through us all the way down to our cores.
Those buildings that hadn’t been immediately incinerated shuddered and began to collapse and, as it fell, we raced out along the abattoir after the white zombie, the crane on its track spinning that horrible rowel through the zombies along the edge nearest us, muddling the masses, flinging limbs and random slabs of meat and broadcasting gore over all those trudging near the middle and then, glancing back, I saw the power pole closest to the generators collapse, pulling with it a stretch of cable that must have reached out mile after mile and on and on into the distance, feeding energy to the families of Shareholders, those faceless potentates of this new world order, and I imagined, at that moment, all the lights going out in this undisclosed locale upstream: a tiny community of rich people fortified above and beyond the reaches of our apocalypse, thriving on the sweat and blood of we anonymous peons, suddenly looking to one another, a cold realization setting in—for the first time in generations—that this world was not their own.
Custer pursued his own quarry tirelessly. It seemed like the driver of the ZombX truck had little choice now but to continue fleeing, his new gunner now as dead as his predecessor, flopping backwards and forwards, their only chance to run and hope to make it around the abattoir, around the compound, back to whatever semblance of support remained, but this is not what he did, not what he did at all.
Either out of frustration or madness or pure balls of steel, the driver suddenly braked and spun his truck back toward his pursuer, facing him head-on; and Custer’s driver, the gutterpunk, Crusty, slammed on his breaks and veered to the left so that Custer cast a sidelong glance at the white zombie on the hood of the truck as it flashed by.
In that instant, the captain’s hand shot out, straining to touch that fleeting, inscrutable thing—like God in Michelangelo’s famous fresco straining to touch an almost indifferent Adam’s finger—and just as fast it was gone again.
But the other two rigs were close behind so that, now, Moby-Dork barreled toward us in what seemed some grand comedic game of chicken, still gazing down past its toes so that, if its eyes had been focused on anything other than its feet, it would have been looking at us head on. Our truck was no longer firing on all cylinders, maybe because of one of the shots to the engine, and we were rapidly falling behind, loping along almost in fits and jerks. The other, Chief’s truck, had pulled ahead, and seemed not at all inclined to slow or turn, but, at the last second, both drivers steered in a panic away from the pit and crashed in a cloud of dust.
I panicked, and steered hard to the right, hard enough that I lost control and our truck rumbled up over the crane’s rail, skidded up onto the very lip of the abattoir, scraping along the edge until screeching to a stop at the most perilous angle imaginable.
And there we teetered, above an angry sea of flesh, bone, and blood, hundreds of hands upstretched, clamoring to pull us down into the depths.
Custer’s rig was already racing back this way, but he had no interest in helping us, and now he was skidding to a stop beside the wreckage and scrambling down the side of the vehicle, dropping several feet down to the dirt. He crumpled over and jumped to his feet again, drawing his sidearm. Meanwhile, to the other side, a squad of mercenaries was picking its way along. Chucho, still manning the machine gun in the turret, turned and opened fire on them, causing the truck to shake, to inch further out over the pit; and then Jason scrambled up into the turret Custer had vacated and here these two brave gunners seemed joined as brothers; and so too did I see Chief firing from his own turret in that settling cloud of dust; and all of this such a sight, Chief up there in his own turret, bleeding out his mouth and ears and eyes, firing that machine gun as though it were an extension of his will and all the while screaming some half-ironic pagan battle cry, and here, before these three brothers of the earth, these indigenes of the world, the sunglassed mercenaries began to fall, one by one.
Starbucks and I tried to escape from the teetering vehicle by climbing out the driver’s side door, but the second we started to lower our weight to the ground, the truck started to keel further out over the zombies, and so here we hung, no more than animated ballast on the back of the Humvee, as our friend above us fired his rounds.
Custer was over by the wreck.
Most of the dust had settled and he was looking at an empty hood, wailing, “Where are you?! where?!”
And then, as he cried out again, he saw:
The Dork, still wound with nylon ratchet straps, like some new-age, glow-in-the-dark mummy shrouded in dust, but not alone, rather clutched tightly before a battered and broken mercenary caked in blood and dust from the wreck. The man was holding a gun to its head—the only zombie hostage in history—but, for its part, the Dork seemed oblivious to this human melodrama unfolding all around him, all the fighting, all the crashing, all the shouting and cursing, and only stood there, unmoved as an unmanned avatar in a videogame long forgotten.
“Back!” the mercenary screamed. “Drop your pistol! now!”
Custer started to lower his pistol but, just as he did, a shot rang out beside me.
Starbucks was hanging precariously out our window—having just taken a shot with his rifle.
But at whom? had he done it? put an end to the white scourge?
My eyes darted back toward them.
The hostage-taker stood there for a moment as blood began to drizzle down his forehead, his eyes crossing and rolling back into his head before dropping to the ground.
Custer glanced our way, at the truck teetering on the brink, at his men in limbo.
“Sir!” Starbucks called out. “A little help?”
Custer nodded, and smiled, and this smile was full of gratitude, even a kind of fatherly affection; it’s doubtful he would ever have chosen us over his zombie, but there seemed at least a chance, a fleeting chance, and yet we will never know, because here the white zombie, once again under its own control, sensed something before him, not Custer, per se—no, nothing so individuated, more like a mere not-zombie among a few remaining not-zombies—and stumbled forward, trailing behind him the bright yellow ratchet straps that had so recently secured him to the hood of a truck.
Custer turned his back on us, drawing his machete from its sheath.
The crane with its mutilating rowel was still making its circuit, circling the pit on its track, not even a manned machine, but only programmed as any robotic thing to continue on its endless, unthinking loop, pureeing into mush anything in its path softer than steel. It cut a wide, gory swath along the edges as it came, chewing through skulls and torsos and flinging out into the center of the pit a steady wave of viscera and bone chips and whatever internal slime and it was evident that it would soon be upon us. Its very vibrations threatened to send our Plymouth rig—our veritable Plymouth Rock—careening into this twisted, teaming sea of death.
The zombies were wailing up at us now from a few feet below, a sea of clamoring hands, beckoning Starbucks, Chucho, and iZhmael to communion. In that moment, I knew how some people at their wits’ end managed to walk into the open arms of a horde: if your eyes landed on any one splayed-open face or the clacking of broken teeth, the body reeled back of its own accord, but if you let your vision settle into the spaces between them and maybe let your focus go a little hazy, a great tumultuous mass turned almost serene, like a pad of moss gently undulating on the water’s surface at the edge of a marsh.
Chucho broke me out of this downward mental spiral when, suddenly, he spun his turret to one side, and fired a few rounds at a small group of mercenaries picking their way truck to truck across the field.
“We jump!” Starbucks called out. “On three!”
But Chucho didn’t look down; he just shook his head and fired another burst.
“It’s cool,” he said, his eyes darting quickly toward my own. “I’m good.”
I realized immediately what he was saying.
“Please don’t!” I cried. “Come on, bro!”
Let me pause for a moment to say that, to that point in my life, I had never once called anyone bro. I had always refused such sentimental terms of endearment for my friends, those rampant false displays our culture manufactured to sell everything on earth using our inborn hope for sincerest friendship, but here, I meant my bro. I did. I saw this tattooed freak as none other than my very brother in that great, doomed family we called humanity, because I loved him and didn’t want him, of all people, giving into the sensuous draw of eternal release.
Chucho had avoided death for so long, years in the wilds of America—death by poverty, death by crime, death by cop, and for so long now death by zombie—why now simply accept the end?
It’s cool, he’d said. I’m good.
I’m good: in the history of great last words, these may be the truest ever uttered: if only we all could end things finally knowing ourselves to be good.
Starbucks and I could do nothing more, had no choice but to let go.
“One…!” Starbucks shouted. “Two…!”
I looked to Chucho, even extended a hand, but my good friend had already turned toward death.
With this, I jumped, and hit the ground in a crouch, and turned back helplessly to watch, as if in slow motion, as the increasing vibrations along the crane’s rails caused the tail of the Humvee to surge upward and the whole hulking rig—from tire to turret—to slip over the edge, slamming down into the edge of the roiling pit where it teetered on end for a long moment. The others were crushing inward, swarming up and over one another to reach Chucho where he hovered just out of reach, still firing into whatever passed for the heart of this ever-shifting mass, sheering away a few final heads before one last wave of mangled arms and exposed cavities broke hard against the truck and swelled up, and up, and over, swirling around Chucho, rocking the truck, rocking it some more, until the whole thing groaned and fell, upside-down, into a whirlpool of mortified flesh.
And yet there was no time to linger: the crane on its track had come nigh and the lieutenant and I leapt backwards, dove for cover just as that huge rowel tore with a deafening screech into the armored hull of the truck, sending up a huge fountain of sparks and bones and blood.
Just like that, a breaker blew, and the whole machine ground and screeched to a halt.
I couldn’t look down into the pit again. I neither wanted to nor had time. So I turned to look out into the haze of dust, tried to make out the others. Chief had abandoned the machine gun, had lowered himself from his turret down onto the ground, and was limping toward us, bleeding as he went, turning to fire his .44 every few steps at Huckleberry—or what was once had been Huckleberry.
I have no idea how Huckleberry had turned, if he had simply passed from his earlier wounds or had been bitten in the firefight, but here he staggered forward, belligerent as ever: he clutched a revolver in each hand, though he couldn’t have known why, only that their weight had been somehow comforting, soothing, twelve rounds of fury, however impotent against the world.
Chief fired at our old crewmate again, but his revolver only clicked.
He dropped it with a heavy thud in the dirt and turned to face Huckleberry head on. Wounded, he had begun to settle into himself, and took a deep breath, his great bulk rising out of itself one last time, like a dying bear about to assert itself finally in the world.
He had nothing but his hands left to fight with now and two of his fingers appeared to be missing, blood was dripping from the nubs to the ground, but he’d scratch at life until he had nothing more to scratch with.
Jason was still firing from his turret, holding off the last of the mercenaries, one of his arms now hanging at his side, tattered and useless, but here he turned and saw Chief moving toward Huckleberry. Let there be no question where the ex-child soldier’s sympathies lay: he swung toward them in his turret.
“I’m your Huckleberry!” he called and fired three rounds.
Our ex-crewmate’s head exploded in a shower of gore.
Chief turned to Jason and nodded thanks.
Jason nodded back, but then, just as he swung back around to continue firing at the mercenaries, his head jolted back, lolling permanently, half-grinning at the clouds and the circling silhouettes of eagles.
Custer was staggering backwards, the white zombie finally in his clutches. Indeed, there was no way for the thing to escape his grip, or for him to escape its: he had wrapped his left hand in the end of the yellow strap and was doing his best to hold it there, trying to get himself into the perfect position so he could start hacking away with his machete, but all the while, the white zombie, this once-docile creature, was pressing forward, awkward but relentless. It didn’t try to bite. It didn’t reach out with those hands to throttle the captain, but only bumbled forward, as unaware of its own body as he must have been in life.
Even from a small distance I could see that Custer needed to let go, reposition himself, get a better grip, but the logic of the moment was overpowering: it was so close that he wouldn’t let go if even for a second.
But here a trio of mercenaries seemed to see they had their chance, and started toward us in a V-formation, slightly crouched, rifles aimed. Chief saw them but seemed not to care anymore. He was gawking at the carnage, at all Barbra and he had accomplished, all they had done to set this awful industry back, if not forever, then at least a couple years, time enough that others might take up the call: humanity’s return to a state of grace. They’d already won in a world designed so they never would—won! After generations upon generations, the coin had finally flipped.
No, bullets could not hurt him now. Nothing could touch him.
Just as the mercenaries were creeping around the side of Chief’s own Humvee, just as they were about to fire on Chief, the door of the truck snapped open, and out tumbled Crusty. He hit the ground, pressing his hand to the side of his blood-caked dreadlocks, trying to sit up, as if too drunk to do so.
“Where’s Spider?” he asked no one in particular, looking around, seeing nothing. “Spider!”
One of the mercenaries fired on him, bursting his heart and lungs so that he looked down at his chest, studied the triangle of wounds for a moment, and offered his last words: “If you see a little border collie….”
Starbucks took this opportunity. He was already racing. In all my life, I never saw someone run so fast. Indeed, I could see how, at one point in his life, the brave lieutenant had been the hero of everyone in his small town, a shining beacon of perfect possibility, a quarterback racing into the endzone, unguarded, alone. The mercenaries opened fire on him, of course, but they were no match for such a man. He juked one way and fired a round into the thigh of one of the men and dove behind a truck and came around the far side firing into the stomach and chest of another, who, in his panic, spun and shot down the man with the bullet in his leg. Just as quickly, Starbucks was diving headfirst into the dirt and coming up behind Huckleberry’s corpse, not ten feet from where Crusty now lay on his side, dead. Starbucks fired from this prone position, but the last mercenary rushed behind one of the trucks, started to circle around. The lieutenant changed his magazine, took a breath, lay out so his firing arm was only inches from the dirt and fired under the truck. The mercenary howled and crouched behind the wheel on the far side. Starbucks closed his eyes, inhaled, exhaled, centered himself. Then he heard Crusty groan, watched the gutterpunk’s body begin to jerk and spasm. He sighed and fired a round into that nest of dreadlocks and, by the time he had turned back, the mercenary was setting up a shot over the hood of the Humvee. He had the drop on the lieutenant.
But he hadn’t seen me.
I screamed and fired a hasty shot at his body mass that rather, passed through one cheek and out the other.
This was all Starbucks needed; the golden boy of all golden boys was already up and running. The mercenary was staggering backwards, trying to wipe the blood off his face. The man’s sunglasses had fallen off and his eyes were wild with fear, as if he’d just beheld the sun for the first time in his life.
The mercenary’s Adam’s apple exploded out the back of his neck.
Amazingly, the man did not die, but only dropped his weapon and scrambled along in the dirt, pouring out blood as he went, unaware of what was coming.
Ah, but we were all unaware.
A wave of zombies, it seemed, had been steadily rising from the pit, clambering up over the wreckage of our annihilated Humvee, spilling now onto the grounds so that several of them now fell on the dying mercenary, peeling back long strips of flesh on the injured man’s scalp, neck, arms. Now, too, they staggered and trotted and dragged themselves across the ground toward Chief and Starbucks and me, others toward Custer, where he was still wrangling with his Dork.
Starbucks, winded, exhausted, looked away from Custer just in time to see them coming. His shoulders slumped. He sighed. He tried to scramble to his feet, but one was already upon him, grabbing his arm. The lieutenant fended it off with his hands and then another was upon him, and another. He fired a round into one just as the other bit into his wrist and he fired a round into a temple and then another bit his shoulder just above his clavicle and here Starbucks seemed to look up, as if for help from the birds now circling above, hoping maybe they were angels, but help didn’t come, and so he fired a round into the one hectoring him from behind, and then another came, and another, and another, and soon the stalwart lieutenant’s gun clicked and he was buried in a flailing octopus of bloody clothing and writhing flesh.
Three young zombies, all white, all in sweaters, stumbled toward Chief.
“No,” he said flatly. “Not by missionaries.”
He punched one so hard that its face seemed to collapse into itself, then impaled the second on a bolt sticking out of the base of the crane, but the third, which wore a gray sweater with a white shirt collar, grabbed hold of his arm and leaned in for a bite, and he swung this one off so that it somersaulted back into the abattoir where it vanished into obscurity.
Suddenly, there was a shot from somewhere high up, up on the platform encircling one of the structures behind us—and Chief spun off to one side, clutching his chest.
He glanced up to where the shot had come from, then wrenched an M4 from the death grip of one of the mercenaries splayed at his feet and fired what seemed like an entire clip up at the catwalk before a body slumped over the rail, tumbled over and over onto a pile of smoldering, charred metal below.
At this, the gun fell from Chief’s fingers.
He stumbled back a couple steps and sat down heavily on the crane’s rail, pressing his fingers into his own ribs as if he were trying to plug a compromised dike. He shook his head, and looked to one side, and grinned at something, seemed to take great pleasure in whatever it was.
So I looked where he had looked and saw Custer shove the white zombie to one side to swing his machete at an approaching berserker, a young, shirtless bodybuilder, chiseled, hairless, someone who in days past must have prized his body above all else and here it lunged toward them; it was almost certainly going for him but perhaps Custer saw it as a threat to his precious Dork, a bully of the old order still playing out patterns of abuse, or maybe Custer just didn’t distinguish between himself and the Dork anymore, but either way he swung around, positioning his own body between the two zombies, and lodged his machete in the bully’s shoulder.
Despite whatever wounds had brought it low, its body was still powerful, however, and couldn’t be so easily dissuaded, and so it kept lurching ahead against the blade, and the captain was struggling to hold it back.
Here he yelled something inaudible and kicked it fully in the chest with his prosthesis. The thing stumbled backwards, clutching one last time before falling to the ground—and taking with it the captain’s false leg.
Custer was still clutching the white zombie, but no longer had his machete, and no longer a second leg to stand on, so was using the tottering enemy almost as a crutch, even as he gripped its face with his free hand and tried to jam a thumb into its eye socket, but the white zombie snapped at his hand, and the captain pulled back, and the object of his fury pulled loose from his other hand and stumbled to one side. In that second they were separated, the captain screamed, and caught the end of one of the dangling ratchet straps, quickly coiling tight loops around his hand and wrist and now that he had it again he started pulling the thing closer and closer yet. Now he gripped either side of its skull, but instead of trying to bite, it only stood there, teetering, strangely quiescent.
The captain blinked a few times as if he were coming to, as if he himself had been a zombie beyond his own control but was coming back into whatever person he had been before. He looked about, for the first time surveying all the carnage about them.
Sparks flew. Fires burned. Black smoke curled up among the birds. Brass casings twinkled in the sunlight. Twisted bodies littered the ground. Plymouth was smoldering. Noxious fumes hazed and blurred the middle distance. The entire edifice of this horrific industry heaved and buckled in the background. A burning American flag was flaming and flapping in the updraft.
Through every breach, zombies now poured, as mountain torrents down a flume.
Custer began to laugh until something seemed to crack inside him; his face went red and he cried with a maniacal laugh into the din, “Manifest Destiny!”
Indeed, it seemed that what had started by ship those centuries ago on the Atlantic coast was grinding to a halt here on the Pacific, the great bending of nature to mankind’s whims, the great swallowing up of bodies by bodies, assimilation by consumption, and this was it: all the ghouls and ghosts of a bloody history converged in this very place and moment, indistinguishable scraps of flesh littering the field, blood streaked across steel, unthinking bodies down in the pit tromping what remained of their macerated brothers and sisters into red pulp and froth. Custer might have said something more here, but there was nothing left to say, and this seemed all the more infuriating. He only gave into the chaos he himself had helped unleash, and tried to crush the face of whiteness between his two powerful hands. But when he shifted his hands to get a better grip, in that instant, the Dork tilted its head to one side and sunk its teeth into the soft meat between Custer’s index finger and thumb with no more care, no more feeling, than one passively biting into a taco.
The captain howled and hopped forward, trying to crush that tormenting alabaster thing with all the pent-up force of a pure and singular hatred and, for a moment, it seemed almost that the thing’s head was going to cave between his hands, but fate didn’t decree it: as they spun about, the captain failed to notice the muscle-bound bully on the ground behind them. It was between them and the abattoir, down on its hands and knees, gazing dumbly at the prosthesis in its hand, as if trying to figure out what meat might be left on a bone, so that, when Custer rushed forward, the Dork tripped over the other and tumbled backward into the abattoir.
The captain’s eyes widened, not so much in fear as with curiosity or even reconciliation, as if he had finally arrived at his one true destination and didn’t want to miss a thing; maybe he could have let go, maybe not, but we will never know: an instant later, the yellow nylon strap coiled about his wrist suddenly snapped taut and jerked him on—and, just like that, Custer whipped out into that tumultuous, bloodthirsty sea like so much bait at the end of a line.
I had clambered up onto the top of a truck to escape my own pursuers, and, from this vantage, looking out, I almost couldn’t believe what I had seen. I turned to Chief, hoping I wasn’t alone, but that broad-shouldered man was no longer sitting up, no longer laughing; no, he seemed to have seen all he needed to see in order to die contented, and was now lying back, blood blossoming out of his many wounds, black hair hanging ever so slightly over the lip of the pit.
Down below, hands were all over clamoring for this prize, and one soon found purchase, so that his body started to jerk, inch by inch, toward that wretched, sulfurous pit. All throughout the fight, magpies and ravens and dozens of eagles had been circling and perching; indeed, all about, they were already settling into the feast, stripping out those most delicate morsels, mercenaries’ eyeballs, Huckleberry’s tongue, Starbucks’ lips; but presently, I spied an old bald eagle, some bold, obese paterfamilias of that noblest of American icons, as it hopped brazenly over toward the large and once-powerful body inching limply through the dirt, stepped onto the man’s abdomen as if he were any old piece of driftwood, and sunk its talons into the soft flesh of his stomach, just as Chief’s head angled back into the pit, exposing a bare throat to the others. As though feeling the bird’s grip on his chest, or spasming with one last jolt of neural electricity, Chief clutched the eagle’s talons and, as he slid down into those waiting mouths, pulled the bird, with its archangelic shrieks, and its imperial beak thrust upwards, down along with him into the bloody, roiling pit.
Now eagles and ravens and even a few seagulls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf. The ravenous broken mouths of our old countrymen tore into Chief’s flesh, exposing for an instant seemed an entire history’s worth of blood and glistening white bone, but just as quickly the feeding frenzy collapsed on itself, and the great stinking morass continued to rot just as it rotted five thousand years ago.