The Sandwich Board
Zombie sieges happen any number of ways, but in the end it is only one way: beyond all sense and reason, they come. Despite the fact that someone was on lookout, despite the fact that several someones were on lookout, they come. Despite the fact that a minute ago it seemed clear for miles, they come. Even though, after all these years, the mind still can’t fully reconcile the zombie of the mind with zombies of the flesh, they come. Zombie affirms zombie. Horde affirms horde. Are you going to argue with the phenomenon, pretend it doesn’t exist, because you find it beneath your own peak humanity? fold your arms and refuse to participate? pretend We The People aren’t being consumed by the sanguine horrors of this reigning capital-Z Zeitgeist? Sorry, but ignoring a thing doesn’t make it go away. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Shut the zombies out. Pretend they aren’t manifold. Now open your eyes. Don’t you see they are only closer? that they aren’t going away until we deal with them? and not on our level but on theirs?
They come, they come, they come.
The industrial-strength fences and half-finished palisades of Progress could withstand, had probably already withstood, hundreds of them at a time, but the QZ wasn’t inside the fort proper, just inside the perimeter fence that circled the larger compound. You could almost hear the logic of those who built it: Quarantine was supposed to be temporary anyway, moveable; if something happened, you wouldn’t want to restage in the same spot because blood, biohazard, contagion, it all seeps deeply. To hedge against eventualities, they’d placed the lamppost crows’ nests every hundred feet or so, with one at each end of the QZ and one in the middle, but were three shooters enough? The heightened anxiety brought the situation into crystal clear relief: there was no way a stretch of chainlink fencing and three snipers could stop a horde from pressing through that outer fence. No, if they were particularly steady shots, they might pick off a few dozen each, maybe even a hundred, before they reached the fence from the woods, but that had never been their purpose: they were up there mainly to turn inward, to stop any threats developing on the inside.
By the time Pennywise had jumped down off the truck and was running toward the front of our convoy, shots were already registering from all these crows’ nests. The siren was wailing again, but this time, as it cycled down, the shouts of men still trapped in the QZ seemed to displace it.
Men were rushing away from the trucks back into the main part of the camp and I ran along with them but, in the chaos, couldn’t quite see what was happening. What I soon saw, however, was that the bald bureaucrat had come through the turnstile and locked it down and men were clustering here at the checkpoint, on both sides of the fence, both the ins and the outs. The men on the other side were shouting to be let through. What exactly was happening I couldn’t quite make out, but I spied a wooden bar stool that one of the gate guards had been sitting on and here I climbed onto it. Even elevated, all I could directly make out was a mass of bodies on the other side, though it was clear by their body language and the general sweep of persons that they were crushing inward, away from the outer fence.
“We’re not turned!” I heard a man scream.
“Let us through!”
“Let us in!”
“Stand the fuck back!” a guard shouted.
“You pieces of shit!”
“Stand back!” another guard shouted, threatening them with a pike.
“You fucking pieces of shit!”
More and more shots were ringing out until, in an instant, everything turned to pandemonium. From my slightly lofty vantage I saw men on the other side start to duck and cower as shots rained down. Those pressing the fence around the turnstile started pounding at the metal and trying to push through the wire. Now that the crush was focusing here I could see past them and between some of the shanties to a stretch where men were trying to reinforce the outer fence with whatever they could find in the QZ. One man was standing in between the outer fence and the inner, swaying on his feet like he was in a trance. Had he been bitten through the fence? I’ll never know. His eye suddenly burst out of his head and he fell forward onto his knees and to the ground. I could see it plainly now. Whether there had been a breach somewhere along the line or whether there had not, it was over for the QZ. The guards inside would hold the gate against whoever or whatever rushed it, and make their stand from inside the sanctum.
But those trapped on the far side had not given up and were still shouting and trying to shove through. A Progress guard was standing inside the corridor with a bullhorn, warning them back—as if his death threats were somehow worse than the ones from the other side. That’s when I saw men at the perimeter fence scramble backward, retreating as it pressed inward and began to topple inward, zombie bodies spilling over the top. Every high-up sniper was firing burst after rapid burst, so many you couldn’t distinguish all the shots, like a great wall of impenetrable sound, and now twenty quarantinees at the back of the mob along the inner fence began to suddenly fall in a quick, smooth succession, like weeds reaped with one clean sweep of a scythe.
I could see the horror on dying men’s faces, this moment of cold realization washing across them like they were all blushing as a pretty, smiling girl strolled past, all of them realizing they weren’t getting out of this, that the officials wouldn’t take any chances now, and then an eye burst like a firecracker, and a heart, and a neck, and so many mists of blood mingled in the air and began to settle even before they finished slumping against the fence and another line of men rushed up behind them and fell on top of them; even worse were those who didn’t fall or whose arms burst or popped and white shards of bone erupted through plaid shirtsleeves as zombies rushed in among them scratching and tearing and screaming and biting and falling under fire along with more and more men screaming forward, clawing at the fence, almost zombielike themselves, at the fortified metal grid trying to get through and away—so much force concentrating in one spot all at once that the gate began to bulge and bend in toward the corridor and the turnstiles lurched and popped against their moorings.
My thoughts had been turning to Chucho and here they did again as men from the armory were handing out pikes, wondering if I was even willing to pike anyone through the fence, assuming not, thinking maybe this was it for me, my last stand, a peaceful one, a self-sacrificial one, and such high-minded stuff even as I was caught up in that same panicking rush of survival instinct, carried forward by the momentum of this human tide. Inside Quarantine, all those rows of shacks appeared to be buckling, toppling. Everywhere, the men left inside were rushing around for shelter, scrambling along the ground as bullets rained down from above. For an instant, I caught sight of the strange preacher out in the thick of it all, spinning in a small, slow circle, eyes closed, arms raised, grinning perversely, like he was expecting the spaceship Emmanuel to beam him up, and suddenly he was overrun in a wave of bodies, and I myself was simultaneously shoved into the ranks of those jabbing and stabbing through the fence, where I was a little off balance in a sudden mosh and knocked from my feet, shoved down to the ground, up against the wire where I looked through and there, crushed below the weight of dozens of dead and dying men and creatures, I could see two eyes peering out, like the eyes of any dead thing, unresponsive to constant shifting of the light as bodies jostled this way and that way, not even a faint trace of a dilation, even as they rolled back and forth inside the sockets like they were looking for a way out and suddenly locking onto me in that vague, unfocused way revenants can be said to see, cold, disaffected, otherworldly; and yet here I was on the other side of the fence pressed into a similar position, his living doppelgänger. He wanted to claw himself nearer me; I wanted to claw my way away from him. He was being crushed under all the weight of his kind; I was being crushed under the weight of my own. He couldn’t focus his eyes anymore but somehow he was looking right into mine, like he saw something there he needed, something deep inside, and I knew exactly what it was, because I could feel it starting to slip out of me: my consciousness, my life. But I guess I was lucky, because something shifted above me, and I was able to clamber to my feet and drive my pike through the fence into its face, and on to the next, and the next, letting my own eyes go blurry now, so that, amidst all this flurry and fury, between the stab and scream and stab, I could no longer tell whether I was striking people or only things.
After I don’t know how long I pulled back through the crush of men and looked about to get my head straight. Zombies were climbing up the writhing pile of bodies against the fence and it was bulging more and more inward, creaking, groaning. Now the other men around me were retreating and shouting and others were shoving, men in gasmasks, wielding strange weapons with tanks on their backs, and just as I realized what they were—flamethrowers—men around me fell back and the men in the gasmasks stepped forward in a line sending a dozen or more orange torrents of flame through the fence.
Men began to pump their fists and yell, to scream in the faces of the zombies still hurling themselves against the fence and wailing, more and more flames drizzling out of the flamethrowers, each burst pouring out the end of those torches almost as a liquid that sprouted suddenly into hellish torrents of flame, swallowing everything until the faces on the other side were nothing but ghostly shadows shivering in the heart of the fire.
I started retreating to the convoy. If the fence gave way, I wanted to be near the trucks. Many in the Plymouth outfit seemed to be having the same idea and I found myself trotting along with half a dozen other men, including the buff little lieutenant and the man I’d seen wearing a garbage-bag poncho and Pennywise and Bollywood and … Chucho!—yes, Chucho! holding his own gore-covered pike!
“Chucho!” I couldn’t help but shout. “Chucho!”
He patted me on the shoulder as we ran toward the trucks.
Shots and more shots were still ringing out endlessly. It seemed like maybe everything was about to come to an end, and the weight of the thing started to sink in, the weight of the atrocity. All those quarantined. Just trying to get back some semblance of life. Gone. And why? whose fault was this? who could let this happen? how many people? five hundred? more? and who among them besides the preacher? the proprietor? Probably all of them. Probably every last one of them.
Bollywood was shouting at the other men as we neared the truck, telling them to organize.
“You call that a horde!” he called out. “I call it a paycheck!”
Pennywise came running over to meet him.
“Custer’s ready to roll!”
“What? But we’ve got a whole horde right—”
“I know, I know, but—”
“This is easy—”
“Enough! CannibalCorpse got the rights!”
I was looking around to see if I could spot Custer, to see what color hair he had, to see if he looked like the kind of person I hoped he wasn’t, the kind to abandon now before it was too late. But the only men I saw barking orders were Pennywise and Bollywood and the three men I already knew for Custer’s lieutenants.
“Doesn’t matter!” Pennywise was suddenly shouting at a tall, gaunt man. “I ain’t risking a whole convoy because you’re waiting on a fucking barrel of pickles!”
“Check for stowaways!” Bollywood was ordering the lieutenants.
The rigs started to fire up.
I looked to Chucho; he looked to me.
“You men over there!” the short buff lieutenant called out to a group of us. “Line up! I said line up! Papers out!”
We went to the line and got our papers out as we heard men over by the fence shouting something about barricades. The gunfire had increased if anything. As one of the lieutenants, a short, stocky man, went down the line checking, approving one man, tossing another out on his ass, we eyed the fence. It seemed to be bending inward on one end. Men were bolstering it with whatever they could find to mound up as a fork lift drove across the compound.
“Doesn’t look like it’ll hold,” someone said down the line.
“What kinda shitheads let this shit happen?”
“We gotta get outta here.”
“Steady, men! steady! we’ve got time!” the stubby lieutenant shouted. “Just have your papers out! Not that paper, douchebag! the other one! Bingo! Good work, genius! Stay in the line! Don’t break out till I say! You there! What the fuck’s with short-arming that shit? what’re you, a fucking T-rex? Out where I can fucking see it! There! Sorry! Wrong paper! Outta my line!”
“I’ll get killed! this shit’s going down!”
“That’s what prayers are for, shitdick! Next!”
The lieutenant approved our papers quickly and passed by. Chucho and I looked to each other. The dark circles of ink filling his eyesockets were spattered with blood and it was running down his face in streaks like red tears.
“You look fucking crazy,” I said.
He looked at something over my shoulder and I turned to see. There was a man standing back, eyeing us keenly, wearing, of all things, a sandwich board. How a dude wearing a big white billboard on his body snuck up on us, I don’t know.
“You two there!” the man called out.
We ignored him because it is best to ignore walking billboards, especially long-haired old white men with a couple twigs and sprigs greased into their locks and one eye larger than the other. You don’t want to hurt such people’s feelings, but it’s hard not to when they start in with their ranting.
“You!” he called, waddling over toward us, his eyes screwed up like some ancient mystic who thought he recognized us from some long-ago jamboree out in the infinite stretches of the cosmos.
“No hablo Ingles,” Chucho said with a shrug.
“Friends!” the hermit said. “You’re with Plymouth?”
I tried not to look at the advertisement scrawled by hand on his front plank of whitewashed plywood, but failed. I have always been a reader, and as such, am pretty much helpless to resist when someone puts a block of text in front of me.
The man’s sign wasn’t exactly a model of good document design or typography, consisting of red and black block letters that started large and grew smaller and smaller as the man tried to cram more and more words onto the board, smaller and smaller as he ran out of space, that is, except for the last lines, which were about the same size as the first like, like this:
When the last TRUE PERSON shall have perished, and the memory of ALL TRUE PEOPLE became a myth among the EARTH CONQUERORS, these shores will swarm with the DEAD, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the WASTELAND, or the HIGHWAY, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they WILL NOT be alone. In all the EARTH
there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the WASTELAND and OUTPOSTS are silent and you think them SAFE, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. THE EARTH CONQUERORS were never alone. They were not just and did not deal kindly with my people, and see now
the DEAD are NOT POWERLESS.
Dead, did I say?
There is clearly NO DEATH,
only a CHANGE OF WORLDS.
I recognized these as the words of Chief Seattle, heavily amended. Even though people have disputed whether or not the famous Duwamish chief actually said any of this, whether even the original was itself heavily edited or otherwise put in the old chief’s mouth by a well-meaning whiteboy sympathizer, they were fairly well known in certain circles, part of a longer chunk of text that was really quite moving and was often used to motivate people to fight back against imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, dogmatism, racism—all kinds of troubling isms.
Like many sandwichboarders, he seemed to know everything about the ways of the world, but had failed to understand people or realize (or care) that his methods were off-putting; yes, people will often read texts, will often humor very complex thought processes, but they often have a harder time taking seriously texts scrawled with tempera paint on particle board—to humankind’s detriment, I suppose.
“Tell me, do you know the captain?” he asked.
“I heard about his, um, quirks.”
“Is that what Pantywaist and Bongwater call it—quirks? Did they tell you his name is Custer?”
“Do you know who Custer was, young man?”
The fence was starting to topple, and it didn’t appear the flames had worked. Flaming zombies were flailing and throwing themselves against the fence over and over again, bits of ignited flesh and hair and clothing flinging into the camp like embers flung ahead of a forest fire.
The lieutenant reached us in the line and took our papers, inspected them, and without so much as looking at the old man wearing the sandwich board.
“Get the fuck outta here, Willie,” he said. “You two are good to go.”
Just then, Willie looked back at the goings-on behind him, men fleeing, shouting. Chucho and I took this opportunity to bolt, but the man reached out and grabbed hold of my arm and looked me in the eye with his one big eye and his one little eye, neither of them focusing. I couldn’t help but think of the zombie whose eyes I had been staring into when pressed against the ground by the fence, the way their eyes seemed to take in something more about me by looking through me or beside me rather than at me—as if my spirit or soul or aura or whatever you want to call that inscrutable power of life were leaking out and only those half-lost to the world could see.
“You think they’re worse than us? those things that got no choices to make? Hahaaa!” he screamed over the din of diesel engines and the thump-thump-thump of automatic gunfire and men screaming and the rush of flames casting us all in that same hellish orange stoked in a furnace: “Stop! Wait! Did they tell you about Custer’s leg?!”
As the fence collapsed, as the first of the zombies charged flaming into the inner sanctum of the compound, as the gate started to open and the first trucks in the convoy started to lurch forward, I yelled out: “Let go, you crazy fucker!”
“You want crazy?! Lock eyes on Custer! Lock eyes on that thing they call a leg! What’s it made of? Yes, bone, bone, they’ll say! But the bone of what?! or whom?!”
I tried to yank my arm free but couldn’t. How the old man had such a grip, I’ll never know. Maybe he used one of those little hand-strengthening clamp things you used to see, or maybe he jacked-off very intensely for very many years—whatever it was made him incredibly hard to pull away from even as several blackened berserkers came racing toward the convoy. Chucho leapt down from the back of the transport truck and wrenched the man’s hand free so hard that the deranged old coot stumbled back a few steps, arms circling for balance, and he sat back on his sandwich board. We jumped in the truck just as it shifted into gear and started rolling toward the tunnel, which dipped underground, beneath one of the completed walls of palisades, and led to an exterior gate some hundred yards past the wall.
Men around us on the truck were opening fire at the zombies reaching up for the tailgate so that I couldn’t hear what the old man was screaming, except a few words erupting out of his mouth between shots and explosions and cries of anguish and pain:
The truck in front of us entered the tunnel as gunshots began raining down from every side of the wall. A young man on a catwalk above us burst a water balloon full of viscous diesel on a berserker as an older woman beside him ignited the furious wet thing with a flaming paper airplane. Nearby, a grenade exploded, scattering half a dozen bodies in a cloud of dust and debris and blood and metal and bone.
The old prophet’s head lurched forward violently with the blast and, just before we rolled down into the tunnel and out of sight, he lifted his head as if to watch us go, a shard of shrapnel poking through his throat, a demoniac grin contorting his face—and a waterfall of blood pouring down his neck and spilling over the once-white sandwich board.