The Chase: Hour Two
Here be it said that the pertinacious pursuit of one particular zombie among all the zombies of the world was a thing not wholly unprecedented, as many a survivor, in the grips of despair, having seen a loved one torn down, having nothing remaining to live for but revenge, would quite often single out the ghoul that did it among a crowd and risk everything to chop it into a hundred pieces, luxuriate in the bacchanal of jabbing its eyes out, bludgeoning its skull up to but not quite surpassing the point of no return, dismasting it of every extremity so it could only lie there, able only to rock back and forth, back and forth, until the eagles and the beetles and the bacteria eroded whatever remained down to soil. No, the only thing truly unusual about Custer’s pursuit was that he pursued it so singlemindedly over so long a course—all for a lost leg. Of course, reason dictates that the leg, then, must have been something more than a mere leg to him, not just the thing that helped him move from here to there or kept him from tipping over when looking at a sunset, but a stand-in for everything else he’d lost besides, his wife, his daughters, his friends, his routine, his comfort, his sanity … but haven’t we all lost those things? Well, maybe he lost more family or friends, or more comfort, or maybe the man was by degrees saner than the rest of us when all this began and thus had further to plummet when the bottom dropped out, so maybe the extreme distance of that fall is what unmoored him while the rest of us simply shifted from one degree of neuroses to the next; or maybe it is that he always felt more keenly than most men, had once been an unusually sensitive man—emo in the deepest sense of the word—so that his hatred was for all those things he had loved so much in the world but had used this calamity to justify betraying his sentiment; or maybe he had been a ticking time bomb of fury his whole life, only pretending to care for family or friends or comfort or sanity and only in The Collapse, and all its inevitable indignities, had he discovered his truest self, or his one true path, the honest-to-goodness secret self the yogis and gurus of pop psychology were always prattling on about as if completely unaware that not all selves can be pure, that some percentage of men always ached for nothing more than some little justification, the universe’s permission to dive headlong into melee and bloodbath. Honestly, I don’t know what drove him. It has vexed me for a long time and I can’t ever get a firm grip on it because it always slips away as soon as I feel like I’ve hit on the thing. For instance, there are even further possibilities, most depressing among them that he was ever that rare combination of man, gifted with intelligence and broad perception and artistry, not to mention raw physical power, such a specimen of humanhood that he almost couldn’t be stopped except by his own hand, and so secretly craved to escape himself, desired beyond all desires the sweet release of all responsibility that accompanies a more mindless zombism. With great power comes great responsibility, as they used to say, so maybe all the trappings of middle-American life had weighed on him greatly and he regretted feeling the relief he felt when the apocalypse finally came. Or maybe he had just always kind of felt like a weirdo, and wanted to be like everyone else, everyone around him who was so obsessed with things, especially paltry things, superficial things that masked over deep existential dreads—gadgets, big boy toys, man caves—and, since he was Custer, he couldn’t even imagine achieving a state of like-everyone-else-ness without becoming more like everyone else than anyone who had ever come before. At any rate, whatever it was, it all had filtered and funneled down through his being and settled on this one hazy object: the white zombie lashed tightly to the hood of a truck no more than a few hundred yards away.
The mercenaries were in no hurry to engage, of course. They were outnumbered but had the uphill advantage and an attack helicopter approaching, so all they had to do was take pot shots at us and wait for their friends in the air to chew the last tatters of Plymouth to shreds. All this was evident to our crew—or was it gang now, or posse, or band? As the helicopter grew louder and louder, Starbucks and Neo and Jason were racing through thoughts about how to win here. For them, the white zombie wasn’t the end game. We had all given up over time, had come to Plymouth in desperation, many of us on the verge of suicide, looking for meaning, for one thing to keep us putting one foot in front of the other, even if that thing was only a temporary deferment, a few weeks of work, a job. But working for someone else wasn’t a thing to live for. We had all sensed it. Maybe that’s why we’d followed Custer even when he led us away from the profit centers and into the wilderness, because he’d seemed to know something we didn’t, to have a purpose to cleave to. But now we had it, too. You could see it in the men’s eyes: Custerism, but of a different sort. They understood that Chief’s and Barbra’s plan, their purpose, was much greater than Custer’s, that DeComp—as method, as model, as realization—stood for an evil in this world every bit as (or maybe even more) troublesome as the endless hordes of zombies the white zombie epitomized, and that this moment was, therefore, not the essential moment, only another moment to get beyond, which is to say we weren’t planning to run headlong toward our deaths today. But what did Custer care? He could already see what he had come for, his meaning, his raison d’être; as such, he’d already abandoned all strategy, didn’t even hear the helicopter, and was already firing madly up the hill toward the other vehicles. He was screaming for us to drive on, stomping his legs almost like he was trying to spur on a stubborn metal horse.
Jason was scanning the treeline.
“The closer the trucks are, the better,” he said. “They won’t risk their own.”
“These people don’t care about personnel,” Starbucks said.
“No, but rigs are worth a shit-ton,” Barbra said.
“We have to go,” Jason said, pointing to the east. “Now.”
The helicopter emerged over a hill and, like that, our plan was sufficiently settled: Barbra, Neo, and Chief bolted into the woods on one side of the road; Jason, Starbucks, and Chucho bolted into the woods on the other; and the rest of us climbed back into the vehicles and shut the doors behind us as we had any number of times before in our lives, as if this were all nothing but a Sunday drive.
As we advanced, there was a loud crack and at once an almost perfect circle of spiderwebbing erupted into my line of sight, an intricately fragmented pattern, and almost simultaneously another down and to the right of its epicenter, a white burst like a spider’s egg sack exploding, and a smudge of white that shifted between cracks reminding me of smoke, the visual display almost mesmerizing if I hadn’t been driving and trying to look through a cloudy white space the size of my own head, the proof that the bulletproof glass worked, and that my brains hadn’t been scattered all over my seat.
I leaned to my left a bit so I could see out the window where we were going and we were veering off the road and so I righted the vehicle and continued on; now a shadow flashed by overhead and I saw this the way a fish might spy the underbelly of a shark passing through the sun’s rays nearer the surface, there, then gone. Here, if you are to die, this all you might know of what kills you, a momentary shape, a shifting form, a confusion, a surge of adrenaline to stave off the pain. But they didn’t fire on us, rather strafing the vehicle directly in front of us so that the man in that truck’s turret barely had time to swing his gun upward before the bullets jerked through his rail-thin body as though he were being mounted by some pagan god in a voodoo procession and, for one moment, inhabited both the world of the living and the world of the dead, seeing the mortal dance through to fruition.
The helicopter was now circling back around. This wasn’t going to work. If we lost all the trucks we weren’t going to make it to DeComp. Not on foot. And yet there was nowhere to go. Nowhere to turn off and hide. We could neither turn around nor burrow down into the ground like moles to wait this out. There was a barrage of bullets from the trucks and a barrage of bullets from the helicopter and, if the armor, if the thick glass didn’t hold, if the trucks stalled, we would be caught out in the open, and this lonely stretch of road in a place with no name would be where our bodies seeped out into the universe and all I could think was that I would rather not decompose on pavement, or any manmade surface, but into the soil, into the grass growing wild in a field, into a bed of leaves and larch needles in the dappled shade of a high-up canopy.
We raced up the hill into the jaws of death and here, peering through the penumbra of cracked glass, I saw the Huey settling before us like a dragonfly slowly lowering itself to rest on a branch. It was close enough now that I could see the heads of two men in the cockpit, goggles like giant holes into their skulls glimmering with the juices of once-life. The thing rotated to one side and a door gunner swiveled his .50-caliber toward us and opened fire, little tufts of gray smoke erupting from the barrel. I swerved to the right and ducked down as the bullets thudded along the hood and cab and two or three snapped across the windshield and when I looked up there was only a small part of the glass on the far left that wasn’t white and opaque with cracks. Custer was hunkering in the cab now but he immediately rushed back up into the turret and opened fire as the helicopter turned to fire on another of our vehicles. I looked out my side window to get my bearings and saw men emerging from the woods, advancing on the trucks. Chucho ran out, leapt onto the side of the truck and fired several rounds into the gunner in his turret and then jammed his arm down into the cab and fired several shots before pulling out and pressing himself against the rear of the Humvee and as I was lost in watching a bullet struck the window I was looking through and everything disappeared into another web of splintered glass.
“Drive!” Custer shouted.
“I can’t see anything!” I called back.
“I’ll be your eyes!”
He told me to turn the wheel left and so I did and began to drive up the hill and he told me to turn it more to the left, a little more, then no, it was too much.
“That’s right!” he called. “Straight on! accelerate!”
He was firing as we went and now he screamed for me to stop and he was back inside the cab and bullets were suddenly pounding against the hood and roof and when we tried to go again the vehicle would not move. I checked the gauges and there was no oil pressure.
“On foot!” the captain cried. “He’s right there! I can smell him from here!”
We burst out the doors and hit the ground, looking around for the helicopter which was concentrating fire on our people at the treeline, chewing up the forest’s edge so that splinters of wood flew in every direction and whole trees began to sag and buckle. The mercenaries were firing at us from their position but now it seemed only two of them were shooting, the third having been incapacitated by my friend a moment before.
“Give me your rifle!” Custer yelled at me.
I handed him the .30.06 I was carrying, and here he took careful aim at the helicopter through the scope. The pilot looked our way and started to swing the tail end around, so that the gunner ceased firing and shifted the gun. But before they had rotated ten degrees, Custer fired, worked the bolt, fired again. Both shots struck the windshield so that two white spots emerged, like an amoeba magically appearing and instantly dividing itself in two. It is my understanding that these windshields are bullet resistant, so it seemed entirely unlikely that this would work, that we would be able to pierce it from this distance, so perhaps it was the case that the glass was already compromised, or perhaps it is the case that Custer simply guided the fates, but, whatever the cause, at least one of his bullets struck true, and the pilot’s head sagged behind the twin amoebas, and the helicopter banked hard to its left, plummeted nose-first ten or fifteen feet; the co-pilot tried to right it, even managed to pull the nose up a few feet, before the rotor blades cut into some trees off to its side and in an instant the helicopter chewed itself up and what remained of its hull came crashing down on the road’s shoulder among the saplings and tall grass.
The strange reality of watching a helicopter crash was too much for me to process—much the same, I recall, as in the early days, trying to process the reality of zombies in my midst, the schizoid process of the mind checking and double-checking and triple-checking what the eyes saw and the ears heard and what the nose whiffed against an internal log of accumulated experiences, of things permitted to be—but, while I was stuck there gawking, Custer, who was impressed by the awesomeness of nothing but his white zombie, only seized the moment, calling out, “Advance!”
Now I, too, could see the white zombie, strapped to the hood of the vehicle, a sunglassed ZombX mercenary in the turret firing above its head at Chief and Barbra and Neo who were hunkered behind natural earthworks in the woods. The gunner in the other functional truck was firing toward Chucho and the others. The Dork was no more than a hundred yards from us now, directly ahead of us in the road, the route all in the open, and our only hope of reaching it, no matter how fast we closed in, was that the gunners might remain too preoccupied with those on their flanks to notice us, and this Custer seemed to take for granted. Indeed, he wasn’t waiting for me or the other of our men who remained, a young dreadlocked gutterpunk we called Crusty, who, like me, was still struggling to accept the crashing of a helicopter and the arm inside the cockpit waving about. Custer was already sprinting, or as close to sprinting as he could go, unpracticed as he was on the new prosthesis, and in this flurry of activity I didn’t see who fired the shot, but it struck one of the machinegunners, the one firing on Chucho and Starbucks, so that the thunderous echo of the firing in this valley was instantly cut in half. All seemed to register the import of this at once. Starbucks and Jason burst from the treeline and Chucho came around the truck and moved toward the incapacitated middle truck, everyone concentrating their fire on the last man in his turret, who continued firing over the head of the white zombie, whose head lolled this way and that, as if trying to make sense of all this, or simply looking at the bodies coming his way, as though anticipating one of his nerdly afternoon snacks from life: slimy pizza pockets on the right, 2-for-1 gas-station burritos on the left.
The driver must have realized then the futility of his position, and so the truck suddenly jerked backward, and swung around in a big circle so that the Dork seemed to swoon against the force of the turn, and the rig sped away from us. The gunner swiveled the turret around so that it faced back toward us, continued to fire until the gun clicked empty, and all disappeared around the bend, so thoroughly gone that it seemed somehow possible that they’d never existed at all, that is, if not for Custer continuing to race after all this nothingness on foot, firing from his shoulder as he ran, though a bullet had torn through his left shoulder and his blood spread across his back. Finally, he too came to a stop, hurled the whole rifle after them so that it clattered in the middle of the road, and screamed so insanely that it seemed almost as if his inner demon had finally loosed itself or some bat-winged dragon might soon emerge violently from his body—passing through the splitting egress of the bullet wound, slipping out of Custer as if the man had always been a womb—take wing, and continue pursuing the Dork until the end of time.
Here turned toward us, eyes hot with the chase. And yet no order was necessary now. His purpose and ours had finally, if not converged, then at least aligned. Our people were already running around, dispatching those who had zombified, and shifting gear into what few trucks remained. I looked over and saw Starbucks and Jason looking toward one another, then toward one of the fallen dragging its way toward them, right leg blasted to tatters, abdomen and shoulder shredded so that fragments of fabric sunk into blood-drenched chunks of loosed flesh. It wouldn’t take its eyes off the two of them, as if it were trying to warn the two of them away in particular, clawing itself forward one painstaking foot at a time, heaving across the asphalt in a terrible, halting progression, every last broken fiber of its being seeming to tell the others, Beware, I am you; Beware, I am your future; Beware, I am your fate! Jason offered to do it, but it was Starbucks who raised his sidearm toward the zombie that had been not only their coworker, but a compatriot, mouth now wide and bloodied, eyes now dead and cold, white streaks of paint on its face hardly visible anymore but for the spruce needles congealing in streaks of blood.
“Sorry, Neo,” the lieutenant said. “I hope there’s any afterlife and you’re already there.”
He fired a shot into the thing’s skull, and, with that, we were all on our way.