The Prisoners' Story
As we reorganized around the front rigs, Starbucks counting our dead, Neo checking men’s wounds for signs of bites or necrotic tissue spreading too quickly, Custer came down from his perch atop the truck, bullying his way toward the few prisoners we’d made to sit crosslegged on the uphill side of the road, their backs against a steep incline of loose dirt, rock, and thick, scaly, snakelike roots.
“You four!” he called out in such a thunderous voice that Chucho’s young prisoner flinched. “Have you seen the white zombie?”
There were two older men, Chucho’s prisoner, and a small, wiry woman with short hair, perhaps a little on the pixieish side, in her early or mid-twenties, who wore a red and black flannel rolled up at the sleeves, and refused to look up even for a second during the following conversation, but only seemed to be looking inside herself for strength, or praying, or maybe just trying to avoid the eyes of the men who were gathering around, openly leering.
The two older men turned to one another, started conferring in hushed tones, but our captain wouldn’t have it.
“Speak up!” he shouted. “Tell me! have you seen Moby-Dork?”
The man nearest the captain—an old barrel-chested man who, though his hair was cut short, looked more like the Lakota actor and activist Russell Means than anyone I had ever seen in my life—spoke for the group.
“We’ve seen the white one.”
Custer’s eyes nearly burst out of his head and he lurched forward on his unwieldy peg, pointing his finger, not at the man so much as his soul.
“Don’t lie to me! tell me true! describe him!”
“The whitest I’ve seen,” the old man said. “Like snow.”
Custer looked out into the woods as if the white thing he was imagining might suddenly totter out. In that second the captain was looking away, Chucho must have seen something in the other man’s eyes.
“He’s lying,” my friend said.
Custer spun back and looked at the old man, then to Chucho.
The old man glared at Chucho, as if he’d betrayed him, and spat.
The other old man—an older white man in good hiking gear, maybe 60, 65—said, “He’s telling the truth. We can help each other.”
“I’ve got nothing to gain or lose,” the other man said. “You’re going to murder us either way.”
“We’re not going to murder you,” Starbucks said.
“Well,” Custer said, “that depends….”
“On whether what he says is true.”
The old man looked to Custer and Custer to the old man, their eyes locked in a kind of spiritual negotiation or combat, and though one was sitting and the other standing, they were on the same plane: captain to chieftain.
“You can’t look at someone and tell what all they’ve seen,” Starbucks said.
He was right, of course. We all knew it and were all thinking it, all but Custer, locked as he was in this weird staring contest, searching in some strange marauder’s eyes for a ghost of a reflection, as if a dervish of whiteness might suddenly play across his black irises. This searching was so intense as to produce a kind of weather around Custer and those of us who were near to him, as if the barometric temperature had dropped, but just here, in an area no bigger than a single den or living room. At some length, the captain seemed to see something, and a thin grin spread across his face, an almost demoniacal grin, and here he turned to Starbucks.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“We’ve all seen all kinds of shit but—”
“It, Starbucks! It!”
“Sir—” Starbucks said.
“Quit calling me ‘sir.’ Every time you call me ‘sir,’ I can hear it in your voice, like you’re being sly, calling me something low.”
“That’s not how I mean it.”
“Then how do you mean it? Admit it, Starbucks: you don’t believe.”
“Even if I did, our duty is energy and—”
“No. Your duty is to carry out my orders.”
“And to advise you.”
“And what advice do you have for me now?”
“Focus on the thing that’s profitable.”
The captain scoffed: “Worldly profit.”
Starbucks furrowed his brow: “It’s the only kind of profit there is, sir.”
“You were defending a boarded-up church when I met you and now—”
“I’ve continued to believe a lot longer than most people have, but I don’t believe we have to live like monks, either, always thinking about stuff that’s higher than this world. Ledgers may be earthly, but it’s human enough to set us—”
“You’d put credits and debits both on the same plane, wouldn’t you? But you’ve got it all wrong. Debits are on this side! credits on that!”
The first lieutenant wasn’t quite sure how to take this last part, though I doubt he was alone, as no accounting school in the history of the world has ever divided its books the way Custer was trying, with Life on one side, Death on the other; not that making sense of this statement mattered, because Custer didn’t give the lieutenant time to respond anyway, instead seizing on Starbucks’ hesitation to turn on the old man sitting on the ground, the one who reminded me of Russell Means.
“You,” he said. “Where did you see him last?”
“About two miles up that way. By a small lake.” He turned to the others sitting beside him. “What’s that stupid thing Che Barista called it?”
The woman prisoner spoke without raising her eyes: “Crystal Bloodbath.”
Her voice was smoky, oddly intoxicating, the first woman’s voice some had heard in what I presume to be a very long time. Several of the men gathered around smiled at the sound and it was best she didn’t see this creepiness, that she continued looking down at the ground, knowing how many men’s minds might contort even the most accidental glance into consent writ large.
“That’s the one,” the old man said.
“Bloodbath?” Starbucks asked.
“The first time we found it, we lost several men. The water is clear now, but, that day, it was red with blood. We weren’t prepared for what we found.”
“Zombies?” Starbucks said.
“Of course,” the man said. “They’re the landscape. All the rest of this plays out on their terrain.”
“Other men? another ambush? like the one you’re trying to send us into?”
“Young man,” the older man snapped, “we have no more men, no more women. Unless a few escaped into the forest. But I doubt that.”
“You shouldn’t have chosen to—”
“I didn’t choose anything. We voted like human beings. But it doesn’t matter now. I just want you to remember this: we watched your people come on our land. We did nothing. But then you came back with all your trucks, to do what people like you have always done: take everything. Whatever happens is on you.”
Custer, bored by all this talk, said, “But you’ve seen Moby-Dork.”
“If that’s what you call it,” said the old Native American man. “We didn’t give it a name.”
“How many undead do you think there are at this Crystal Bloodbath?”
“Sometimes none. Sometimes dozens.”
“Why there?” Starbucks asked. “Isn’t it remote?”
“We think they wander over the pass. Come down the coolies. Get disoriented by the water. They get backed up on the far side of the lake. At a waterfall. They don’t know what to do. It confuses them.”
“Them them them!” Custer shouted. “But one is white?”
“White as arctic ice, my friend.”
“And when did you last see him?”
“Myself? Two weeks, maybe three. But he just killed two of our men,” he said, turning to the others. “When was that?”
“Maybe three days.”
“It’s Thursday,” Starbucks said.
“Afraid not, young man. Today’s Sunday.”
“I’ve kept track of every day since—”
“So have I.”
Myself, I thought it was Monday.
Starbucks changed tactics midstream: “Why go up there?”
“Your people. Why risk going up there if they attack you? for what?”
“Salmon,” the Russel Means lookalike said. “Coho like you wouldn’t believe.”
Lard Ass, who was tending to a wound on his elbow, perked up when he heard this, even licked his lips.
Pippin grinned at Lard Ass and said, “Wouldn’t that be something?”
“I don’t believe it,” Starbucks said, turning to the captain. “Our men have been up any number of creeks up here. Only two or three have any fish in them at all and very few. But these guys say there’s some magical fishery?”
It was a very clear line of thinking, and one the captain ought to have heeded.
“In some streams, The Collapse made them thrive,” the other man said. “Toxins down, bridges blown, the end of us was good for the—”
“Bullshit,” Starbucks said. “Your story doesn’t make sense.”
“You think your little convoy makes sense? People have always fought and died for something. We were all fighting for something before all this happened, something better, in our own ways. That’s what brought us together. But you people? if you call yourselves people? fighting and dying to profit some—?”
“Well,” Huckleberry interrupted with a snort, “I wouldn’t call what we just had a fight.”
“Some of your friends are over in that ditch, too,” Chucho’s young prisoner shot back, pointing to a line of bloodied corpses, including Buttplug.
“Not near as many as yours, faggot,” Huckleberry said.
“Shut up! all of you!” Custer shouted. “Starbucks, ready the men!”
“We’ll need at least an hour to bury the—”
Everyone stopped what they were doing, stopped posturing, stopped eyeballing the young woman—all looked to Custer as if he’d just stuffed all our contracts, our futures, into a wood chipper.
The captain started up toward the front of the convoy. Starbucks trotted after him, stepped in front of him, not blocking his path, but walking backwards in front of him. Custer’s security men didn’t see it that way. Three of them rushed now around the front of the nearest truck and bullied their way between the two men, rifles at ease, but clearly threatening the lieutenant, who stepped back, and held up his hands, and continued trying to plead with the captain.
“Sir, the contracts specify burial or cremation.”
The captain stopped, eyed the lieutenant for some time.
“There are no contracts with the dead.”
“But it’s all very clearly spelled out. The men need to trust we’ll honor—”
“Haven’t you read the fine print?”
“Yes, and there’s nothing authorizing—”
“No, the fine print of the fine print,” Custer said.
“With all due respect, sir, there’s no such thing.”
“No such thing? and I suppose now you’ll tell me there were no asterisks in the U.S. Constitution? none for women? or slaves? or poor landless whites?”
“Should we talk about this in your quarters, sir?”
“No, Starbucks, we will talk about this here. Say what you will.”
“I know you are captain, and I am lieutenant, and these men just contingent employees, and all I am trying to tell you is that every man has his breaking point and, for a lot of these men, the way we treat them in death bears an extremely outsized importance. They don’t have much else.”
Custer glanced back at the smaller cluster of us behind Starbucks, looked around at others who were watching, some in the process of dragging bodies, some nursing wounds, or restocking ammunition, then up to Lard Ass and Pippin, who was sitting up on an ammo crate on top of one of the humvees to his left, looking down on this interaction. Pippin’s eyes were now wide with dread, as if his whole world were about to implode.
Custer’s chin tilted upward to Pippin, not going so far as to acknowledge the concern in his eyes, but at least his existence. Then he looked back to Starbucks, stared into his eyes for an uncomfortable long time.
“One hour, Mr. Starbucks,” he called out, strolling with his sentinels toward his quarters.
An hour later, when Custer reappeared from his trailer, holding a map, we were finishing burying our dead. Starbucks and Neo were lowering Buttplug into his grave and some others of us were leaning on our picks and shovels, shirts off, sweating and, as for those without gloves, complaining about newly formed blisters. The four prisoners were working alongside us, under the naïve hope that they might help speed things along enough that they’d have a few minutes to bury at least one or two of their own, but now you could see it on their exhausted faces as Custer came forward, the realization that it was too late, that their friends’ bodies would be shoved into the scrap box, flesh indistinguishable from flesh, that, soon enough, after a journey to DeComp, they’d be trampled under any number of zombo feet, like grapes at a vineyard, reduced to pulp, to rotting gases, the lights of tomorrow.
The man, the leader who looked like Russell Means, pleaded with Starbucks: “Please, just a few more minutes. We dug our asses off for your men. Just a few more minutes is all I ask.”
Custer was approaching, grim obsession etching deep in the lines between his brows and on either side of his tightly pursed mouth. Starbucks crawled out of the grave and asked the captain for another 10 minutes but the captain shook his head and told the men to load the gear and mount up.
“Captain,” their leader said, stepping forward.
Custer’s guards in their sunglasses stepped up between them and the man laid down his shovel to appear as non-threatening as possible.
“We helped bury yours. Just a few minutes to bury our closest friends. Just shallow graves is all I ask.”
Custer didn’t even acknowledge him, only peered down into the hole at Buttplug, lying there pitifully on his back, a despondent, permanent gasp on his lips, eyes open, one eye bulging out, indifferent to the flies. He kicked some dirt on the third lieutenant’s graying face and motioned for Starbucks and the others to shovel the rest of the dirt on top and get this show on the road.
“Captain,” Russel Means said again.
Custer addressed not the man but the sky: “Captain? Captain? Captain? What is it? Can I bother you for a second? For what? O, just destroy time, just devour the present and eat into the future….”
“Just 10 minutes,” the other old man said. “One of the men you mean to treat like dung was … is … my son in law. His name was Michael.”
“Names, names, names. But you struck on just the right word," he cried: law! the first and second laws of thermodynamics! energy and entropy, man!”
As he talked, Starbucks and Neo worked furiously to shovel the rest of the dirt over Buttplug as quickly as they could, not even bothering to intervene or interject anything, seeing in Custer’s strange rambling little more than additional time to do right by a dead coworker, something about keeping time, not getting off schedule’s set by the cosmos. The prisoner seemed about ready to protest again but just then Custer shouted to load the remaining remains into the box and shove off. The old man stepped forward but the young woman grabbed him by the arm, tried to urge him back, to live.
“Barbra, let go,” their leader said, then turned to Custer: “You are an empty man, hollowed out and soulless as the things that destroyed our world. And I can see it in your men’s eyes that they know it, too.”
“Enough,” the old white prisoner said to him. “Don’t.”
“You all see it,” the other man continued to all who would listen, which was very few: “Your captain’s compass is spinning round and round. He doesn’t even know which way is up or down. We helped you bury yours and it’s only decent to give us a couple minutes to—”
He stopped. Defeated. All around, our crew was already hoisting up his friends’ bodies and carting them toward the box and so he must have seen in our eagerness to move on a complete, careless indifference, though, in fact, it was something else entirely: inertia. Our bodies were used to living and wanted to continue doing so and every one of us, to a man, understood that lingering here in this place of death was no way to stay alive, and that defying Custer, here, now, was no way to stay alive. This other leader must have known it, too. There was no mistaking Custer’s attitude. But a man can only take so much of this sort of understanding before he starts appealing to higher powers, trying to call down meteor showers.
“Custer!” he screamed at our captain’s back as his friends tried to quiet him: “History has seen your type before! annihilated at Little Big Horn! humiliated! have you been to that graveyard? I’ve already spit on your grave! and I may not live long enough to deny you another grave but it’s coming, arrogant bastard! you’re already marching toward—!”
One of Custer’s security guards casually raised his rifle and shot the leader in his stomach.
As he slumped to the ground, his friends tried to minister to the wound. Chucho’s prisoner pulled his Albatross t-shirt over his head and tried to sop up the blood but the old man shoved his hands away and used his shoulders to pull himself up and stand and defy Custer some more.
The captain turned and looked at him, unfazed by curses.
“Throw them in the box,” he commanded, then turned and walked away, indifferent to whatever came next.
Our men were suddenly looking around at one another, unsure what to do, or not to do.
The Collapse had brought out certain disturbing aspects of the human character that none of us wanted to accept previously, which, despite periodic glimpses into our darkest, loneliest, late-night revelations, we tended to bury behind walls of distraction, each to his or her own taste, be our walls quiet runs in the wilderness or leatherworking or masturbating non-stop to internet porn or reading incomprehensible essays re: postmodern literary theory or zoning out to movies featuring magic superheroes or giant transforming robots or, in some cases, all of the above, and then some; but, for all the gloomy talk during the darkest hours, it was also true that, for a time, The Collapse brought out the best aspects of the human character as well, and all of us who are still alive certainly remember seeing acts of incredible heroism and compassion and, even after the scales tipped too far into the darkness, we all had quiet moments where we glimpsed ephemeral traces of goodness playing across people’s faces, little appreciations for the moments of true beauty that still existed in the world.
Here, too, it was easy to see the concern in the men’s eyes, and it was at least something to remember on dark days. Three of Custer’s guards were approaching, M4s drawn. Another was mounting the side of the nearest truck, toward the machine gun. If they felt anything, it’s impossible to say, since their eyes were protected behind their sunglasses. But their coming only quickened the dilemma for everyone else. Were enough of their fellow roughnecks willing to fight these men? should such external considerations even matter? were these others, who had just killed Buttplug and others, worth dying for? or worse? was there truly any way to save them?
Huckleberry held up his hands to the guards. “Guys,” he said. “Hold up.”
“Stand aside,” one of the men said.
For a second, it seemed like Dingleberry might redeem himself. He still seemed to be working out some finer moral detail, like all he needed was a little more time, just another second, to do the right thing, but then he spoke, giving voice to something other men may or may not have been thinking, something entirely different than what I was hoping.
“What about her?” Huckleberry said, tilting his chin toward the woman. “You really just gonna throw that away?”
Entire histories were contained in Huckleberry’s words and not one of us failed to relive them in an instant. It wasn’t that he’d looked at her, desired her, wanted her, because I had, and did. I’d wager that every heterosexual man there had already thought about it, and that a large part of the dilemma for some of us had revolved around her, a pureness of motive driven by an impureness of motive in which men wanted to do the right thing either to impress her and win her affections, or just to keep her alive on the off chance that he could, at some point, win her affections, or just to keep her alive for exactly the same kinds of reasons Huckleberry was suggesting now. We didn’t know our own thoughts yet. But Huckleberry knew his. There were crossroads yet to come to, but he’d already crossed them. How do I know? Because he hadn’t called her her—he’d called her that.
If I was already realizing how this would play out, it’s because I was a man, and slow. But she was a woman, quick to perceive—and to run.
By the time her male companions had turned to look at her with worried eyes, she had already bolted into the forest.
As Huckleberry started after her, the gutshot Native American darted his hand and grabbed his foot and, all in one motion, Huckleberry centered a pistol on his forehead and fired.
He tried to jerk away to pursue her, but couldn’t, and looked down to see the dead man’s hand still clutching his pants, and he tugged again, but the dead man would not release him, and only looked up with a kind of relieved look on his face. Huckleberry yanked his leg and yanked his leg until he was free and then started out into the forest after the woman.
“Let her go!” Pippin screamed above the din of gunfire.
Just as he said this, as if Pippin’s words were an order straight from Custer himself, the guard at the machine gun opened up so that everyone ducked. Divots kicked up in front of Huckleberry and he stopped stock still, not sure whether to go forward or back.
Pippin was trying to scramble down off the truck now, but Lard Ass was holding him back as he thrashed and flung his elbows.
“Let her go!” he was still screaming. “Let her go! let her go!”
Just then, Custer came limping past the truck faster than I’d ever seen him move, pistol in hand, face bright as a radish, spitting out his words: “Did I say stop and play games? No. No. Said no such thing. Move out, I said. Move out. And here we wait. Here we play.”
He came around the end of the truck and immediately perceived the situation at hand, walked toward the two remaining prisoners. He fired a shot into the back of the old man’s head and, here, Chucho released the young man, who began to scramble away, but Custer quickly fired twice, striking him twice between his shoulder blades, so that the young man clawed the ground, lurched forward onto his belly, and finally came to a rest. Custer walked over, fired one more shot into his ear, then turned.
“Let her go!” Pippin was still screaming, tears streaming down his face while Lard Ass held tight. “Let her go!”
“You heard the boy!” Custer shouted after Huckleberry frozen where he stood in the tall grass. “He’s the only reasonable one among you! let the girl go!”
Custer didn’t even acknowledge him, but only turned toward the gunner atop the truck.
“If he takes another step in her direction, mulch him!” With that, he turned to the rest of us, and gestured to the prisoners’ bodies: “Now scoop that shit into the box! and get ready to go!”