Forgive the superstitions of men who believed Custer’s rage commanded the weather: though it was cloudy and gray, the rain had subsided earlier that morning, but here, far off among the receding clouds, just then the sky thundered with such rage that it seemed almost an extension of our captain’s own terrible vigor. He leapt from the safety of his turret, adjusted the fitting of that strange, half-bionic leg, and took off running after that white apparition. We followed, though not on foot, maneuvering the trucks around the block the best we could, trying to keep an eye on our captain as traces of the white one flashed between overgrown hedges and the odd old vestiges of what people used to call “landscaping,” the cobblestone footpaths and the stone benches and trellises and even the plastic lattices with realistic wood grain patterns succumbing to this dewy coastal flora as ancient pyramids to sweltering equatorial jungles.
“There, there!” Starbucks was yelling at the driver. “Is that…? No! What about…? Agh!”
We turned left, then right, thumping over the bodies of zombies coming at us at full pace, and emerged onto a wider avenue, where, again, we saw the white one moving across open space and past a blue dumpster wedged between a nap of saplings breaking through the cracks in the pavement. A moment later, Custer rushed across the road, shotgun at his shoulder, preparing to fire; in his haste, he hadn’t even noticed the seven or eight wedding guests stepping through the glass of the convenient store facade, a brief, unsolvable riddle, their best attempts at cheery formal attire so uniformly blasted with holes that they seemed to have been mowed down by a single shotgun blast from an giant paterfamilias and now one of the groomsmen reached out and caught hold of Custer’s collar and pulled him off his feet just as the grill of our truck plowed through the others behind them. The guy driving our truck, our last mechanic, K, opened his door hard, knocking the zombie away from our captain. It was a tremendous rescue, beautiful in its execution, and he deserved to be rewarded for it, but the captain had already almost righted himself so that, just as K waylaid the groomsman with the door, the captain fired his shotgun upward from where he lay on his back.
K’s body remained in that position for a long moment, leaning out over the ground like a drunk puking on the shoulder of a country road, spewing out the last red bile of his being, nothing left of his head but a dripping wad of raw burger and a glisteningly white chip of vertebrae poking out through the chuck.
He slumped out just as the captain scrambled to his feet and raced after the white one.
I was never much of a driver, more of a passenger with a keen eye, but here I had no choice; I shifted into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, and tried to anticipate the captain’s next move by making a left at a four-way stop. We went up a hill, flanked on the right by a dense grove of trees whose leaves flickered in the breeze, but then, as we crested the hill and looked down onto the neighborhood below, we saw what none of us wanted to see: hundreds of them, no thousands, marching down a boulevard; they were moving south, toward the school, toward the water tower, toward where we’d just been a few minutes before living out our small dramas like seaside villagers haggling over the price of a fish as a tsunami bore down.
Custer, we saw immediately, was cutting through alleys and heading downhill right toward them. I had stopped. Starbucks looked to me. The isolated subterraneousness of the cab made a certain humming silence reign there, hooped round by the idling of the diesel, the rain, the collective din of so many far-off moans. His look spoke volumes. We could end this and whose fault would his death be? His own. We could confab with the Shareholders, finish out our contract, live to see another day. But … abandon the captain? aren’t we all just Custers in the end? or at least complicit in his Custerness? Have we all come so far just to let him be torn apart? Tempting, though. Would the world be any different if lightning had struck General Custer on his way to the Little Big Horn? or would any old Westpoint flunky have ended up in the same position, done the same thing, died for the same sins? Oh, but that doesn’t sound like Starbucks. No, it sounds like Custer.
The first lieutenant sighed. You saw the deliberation. Who would fault him if he let a man seeking his end go ahead and find it? But, of course, this was not good Starbucks' way.
“I guess we better help,” he said.
I swung the truck into an alley ahead of where we expected Custer and saw the white one … run past? We were still trying to figure out what was going on when Custer appeared at our window followed by three ghouls, then ten, twenty more emerging from behind a house. The captain cursed us and made to scramble over the hood of the truck but it was a large obstacle and he had to strain and, as I drew a bead and started shooting at the zombies emerging on the one side, Starbucks leapt from the other door and intercepted the captain, pointing after the white one.
“It’s not the Dork, sir! it’s a decoy!”
“Get moving!” the captain shouted.
“But it’s a trap!”
Custer heard none of this; he was already off.
The “white zombie” was running down the hill, but suddenly the first of the zombies from the large horde emerged between buildings below, seemed to realize what we had realized, that this was no zombie but an imposter, and started to give chase.
Whoever it was skidded to a halt, gaping back up the hill toward us, the white powder or paint on its face melting down like some demonic clown overheating in Hell; and here he pointed his finger up toward us defiantly, as though leveling a curse on us all.
Or at least I assumed he was pointing at us, until I heard the whump-whump-whump of a helicopter approaching behind us, and machine-gun fire churning up asphalt.
The men in back spilled from the truck, scrambled for cover just before the bullets ripped apart the canvas tarpaulin. Most of us dove under the truck but others ran for nearby houses.
Christopher Martin was just about to leap a short picket fence when a succession of bullets tore open his abdomen, spilling his entrails onto the ground like a bowl of bloody lampreys.
A bullet ripped through Huckleberry’s thigh, exposing a strip of muscle that spasmodically contracted and released, contracted and released.
The helicopter rotated in the air and fired on our rear trucks, trying to block us in. Starbucks came running over from the truck behind us, his left shoulder separated from what must have been a nasty fall, and I looked up to see Jason take hold and set it for him with a jerk, then the two of them calmly herd everyone toward the shelter of the houses to our right.
As we passed the big man, Jason patted his dying friend on his shoulder, said something no one else could have heard. The two of them clasped hands and then Jason fired a bullet into his forehead so that his skull heaved against the pavement, blood bursting outward like an exploded paintball and seeping into the street’s craquelure.
The zombies were still coming, flowing uphill like a rising flood, packed so tightly together on the avenue that there was almost no distinguishing them one from the next, as if each t-shirt were stitched to the blouse beside it to each polo behind, an undulating field of every color and hue, like the processions in the capital in those final days, packing the national mall, flowing around symbols of the republic like water around boulders in a river, right before our final calamity started spreading through the crowds and everything started turning red. Chucho and another man scooped up Huckleberry and we shuffled into a house with cheap vinyl siding, which, like every third or fourth in this neighborhood, was beige, that omnipresent neutral tone of a former culture ever more concerned with selling than inhabiting. A moment later, as the helicopter rained hell on our convoy, Custer and a few others burst through the front door, slamming it behind.
Custer called over Starbucks and Christopher Martin.
“The big man’s dead, sir,” Starbucks said.
“Who’s next in line?” Custer asked, looking around.
Starbucks gestured to Jason.
Custer pointed at the ex-child-soldier and named him third lieutenant.
Huckleberry groaned, “Fuckin affirmative action.”
Custer looked down at Huckleberry lying on the floor. The wounded man was pale and sweaty and caked with his own blood, and looked not long for this world, but he still had that twinkle of nastiness in his eye. Whatever made him incorrigible was also keeping him alive. He was tying-off the fresh leg wound with his own shirtsleeve.
“Let me help with that,” the captain said, and pressed the toe of his new prosthesis into the man’s femoral artery so that Huckleberry cried out.
“A bad joke, Captain,” Jason said, stepping between the men. “This one—he can’t help himself.”
It was good to see this good man finally get a position he deserved, but there was no time to celebrate, nor even to congratulate him. Jason’s first assignment as a lieutenant? To run out across the open road, drawing the helicopter’s gunfire, so Starbucks could try to take a better position on top of the condos.
“Yes, sir,” he said, selecting Chucho and three other men.
But just as they were getting ready to head out the side door, we heard the sound of trucks pulling up outside.
We stole a glance.
ZombX had arrived.
We hurried to the other side of the house and thought to go out that door, across the other street, spread out into the alleys, but when we got to that side of the house we came to a large, rectangular window above a TV that was, to my eye, the exact same size and dimensions; but where the TV screen was blank, the window was filled with the faces of zombies ambling past; maybe it was the stress of the situation or maybe it was the proximity to the TV, but the view through that picture window was disorienting, so that I seemed to be back in my old life again, watching yet another zombie movie or dead things walking on cable, so detached from the moment that I thought I could actually feel my body detaching from my mind, like I might, at any moment, turn into a zombie myself, and walk out of this suburban coffin into the soulless crowd of peers, to occupy the streets of wherever we happened to be.
We were all entranced by this show, so we all saw it when it shuffled past this window.
Not a man painted white this time, but an actual zombie, an albino zombie.
Mouth slightly agape. Hair nearly white. A bloody cowlick.
In that instant, his head turned ever so slightly toward us, almost as if directed to do so for his audience’s benefit. He was unmistakably white, skin pocked as drywall, one side of his face scorched with the telltale black mottling of Custer’s buckshot but the other with the scars of acne, slightly walleyed, wearing an expression at once abstracted and belligerent, like a computer programmer who lost his mind in the middle of writing a long string of code long ago, or else a gamer stuck eternally in pause. No, you know what he looked like? The very sort of dipshit who used to carry on endlessly in online chat rooms about how his first move in a zombie apocalypse would be to score a Shaolin spade. Indeed, you could see it right there on its blank zombie face: on the first day, whoever this creature had once been probably overlooked a dozen passable weapons searching for something that could only be found in 19th-century China.
Behold! the white zombie!
Custer started toward the door and I have no doubt he would have tried to fight through that mob of mottled gray cannibals to lay hands on his nemesis, but, just as he grabbed the handle, and just as the rest of us grabbed him, a door on the other side of the house banged inward. We trained our weapons on the door.
Odd. No one was there.
Just a silver canister rolling slowly across the floor.