We hustled forward, listening for the others. Broken glass littered the floor where someone had long ago hurled a trashcan against the chemistry lab window, a last act of petty vandalism on the day school was let out forever. Just beyond this, emerging from the swaths of spotty black mildew, was a painting of an eagle’s head and, below it, the name Ed—short for Edward, Edgar? No, of course not. Some superintendent with a crewcut probably picked Ed because it was short for Education—and thought himself brilliant for it. The eagle emblem was an incongruent blend of that minimalism so popular in X-treme sports logos in the days before The Collapse and that style so thoroughly appropriated by white people in the Pacific Northwest—like the spirit of the NFL had fucked a totem pole. It seemed to be prophetic of a comfortable kind of multiculturalism in which the right drawing finally whitewashed away all the tensions but it was apocryphal at best: after all, Ed the Education Eagle wasn’t standing on a flesh buffet, plucking the eye from a human corpse.
We heard something down the staircase and started down into the dark, flashlights on, guns at the ready, and as we got closer, we found our fellow crewmembers readying themselves outside a door in the heart of the building. Custer was pressing his ear to the door, listening. All the rest of us could hear was a pulse of music, the muffled, steady snap of a snare drum and a far-off, female voice. Here, the captain pulled back, and looked toward each of us very seriously, as if preparing to intone some great wisdom never to be forgotten, then, almost philosophically, he spoke: “Girls just want to have fun….”
“Huh?” someone said.
“That’s all they really want.”
The captain stepped back and gestured. “The door, please.”
Chucho stepped forward and kicked once, twice, three times, but the door wouldn’t give. He was holding a rifle, so Custer offered his shotgun. Chucho handed me his rifle, pumped the action on the shotgun, and fired until the door gave way and several others swept in to clear the area.
It was a short staircase down into an old boiler room with heating ducts and pipes and conduits running every which direction. Shop lights glared from the back corner. The men slowly moved up, carefully, clearing each recess and cubby, making sure to avoid any traps or gunfire, and as they moved up, a song faded out and started over again on a loop, an endlessly innocent and upbeat ode to girlish fun:
I come home in the morning light,
My mother says, “When you gonna live your life right?”
Oh, mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones,
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh, girls just wanna have fun!
As we moved up, we all started to see what was happening, the bizarre contraptions arrayed here in this lost cavity of suburbia, the posts and beams, the ropes and nooses and hooks and chains, and four girls’ bodies suspended just so, inches from the clear plastic sheeting carefully laid out on that cold cement floor, breasts heaved up with small nylon ropes and netting, bent over at just such a sensual angle that the nubile zombies seemed almost to be arching their backs in joyous anticipation of various insertions, bludgeons, cudgels. One was wearing a cheap plastic mask, a kid’s Halloween mask, with giant fawning eyes of an anime princess. The other three were gagged: two gnashing at bolts of satin or silk tied neatly behind their heads, one groaning around a bright red ball and leather. For zombies, their skin was still soft, almost supple, like models from the catwalk of necrosis.
Someone had been carefully ministering to the needs of their flesh.
I was so disturbed in the moment that the song coming from the CD player on the shelf faded almost entirely into the background, but, thinking back, I can’t remember the scene without the song’s third verse breaking through my memory, almost as a zombie through a soft, moldy door:
Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest of the world.
I want to be the one to walk in the sun,
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh, girls just wanna have fun!
Some boys indeed: standing there, unarmed among his pets, was a man, a white, middle-aged man whose dirty blond hair had gone shaggy around the sides and back, the top covered with only the faintest whispers of what once was.
He was barefoot, wearing threadbare jeans and a faded button-up shirt, something every man of a certain station in life had owned, purchased years ago when it was stylish and bright, now ill fitting, worn along the stitching, sad; he had the weary look of a long-time teacher, maybe a teacher here at this very school, or maybe the principal of Such and Such High where Ed the Eagle encouraged lifetime learning. Yes, you could imagine this same face on stage at assembly, telling the kids in back to knock off the horseplay, introducing a motivational speaker, some lug who claimed to have kicked his own drug habit and taken up a life of tearing whole metro phonebooks in half or bending rebar or breaking baseball bats over his knee to demonstrate the power of clean living. But clean living this was not. Here, the man had dropped a large bottle of lubricant on the sheet-plastic on which he stood by the girls, and it glugged out around his toes like the last protoplasm of some spent ghost.
A scrunched brow. A tortured, plastic grin.
He didn’t seem so much ashamed as relieved: Finally, as if to say, it’s over!
Someone, I don’t remember who, aimed a pistol but deferred to Custer: “Shall I?”
Custer waved the man off and stared for some time before he finally addressed the man.
“So much can be forgiven if the person doesn’t know what he’s—”
“Just kill me,” the man said, closing his eyes and holding out his arms, almost as if he were martyring himself on a cross. “I’ve been waiting for this so long.”
“But the song….” Custer said.
“The song. The song! Am I wrong in thinking it sounds like you’re celebrating the very thing you claim you want to be released from? Ah, isn’t that the culture? hedging bets since Pascal ? always salvation at the last second? Dear Lord, I never meant to be a monster! I loved every minute of it but set me free!” The man’s chest was heaving with fear now. His zombie pets were thrashing against their ropes and Custer was looking to the young once-women when he winced and continued: “O, how you disgust me! And yet … how curious … what I don’t understand is why I can feel your eyes searching around in my soul … as if you recognize something … familiar … inside me….”
“Go ahead!” the man screamed. “End this!”
“Tell me: what sign is this? how does all this lead us toward him?”
The men groaned almost in unison.
“No sign, sir,” Starbucks said. “Just a sick man.”
“Just tie this zombiefucker up! chop him up! leave his head like he did the girls!”
“Shove that gravel rake up his ass!”
Custer shook his head impatiently, waved their suggestions away like a priest conversing with the Almighty.
“Why is it,” he said calmly, “that someone so craven can reach out and touch the objects of your desire? touch them? hold them? It’s all right here for you in this room, isn’t it? But Custer? What Custer desires is more—I look for it constantly but it’s always a white shadow slipping through whiter space. I can’t catch it to put a gag in its mouth, lean in to its ear—”
The men had been growing more and more uncomfortable during all this talk. Indeed, the sadist’s once-girls, in all their lithe, squirming nudity, were making the men angrier by the second—but could that sensation properly be described as anger? angry at whom? the captain? No, not him. Angry at the zombiefucker? Not so much as disgust. Surely it couldn’t be anger with the girls themselves? No, not anger—but this hit closer to the mark. Even if they would have denied it, I’ll go ahead and implicate myself in their stead: even turned, even bound, those breasts, those navels, those hips, those narrow slivers of light shining between their once-nubile thighs, they stirred something inside me, something hidden and reviled. What if I’d been alone and found this place and these dead girls tied this way and no one would ever know? What a question to have to ask oneself in company, and yet we were each asking it, so insistently inside our own heads that the static was sparking one man to the next: And what if they were still alive? would that change anything? All minds were crackling with such questions, all so charged by the momentary uncertainties that I don’t even remember who it was that made the first move because it could just as easily have been every one of us; all I can say for sure is that the collective tension finally broke and several of the men were suddenly advancing and driving pikes into the girls’ brains—ostensibly to end the girls’ suffering but mainly their own.
As they were killing the second and going for the third, Custer started screaming for them to stop: “Stop! stop! listen to the song! it even tells us the means!”
We turned our ears to the speaker. Cyndi Lauper, in all her youthful glory, sang out:
Oh, when the workin’ day is done
Oh, girls, girls just wanna have fun!
The sadist’s eyes widened. He stepped back, bumping against a metal shelf. A bottle fell from one side, shattered on the floor. He knew what the captain—nay, the singer—prescribed: two of his poor fuckpuppets’ heads already lolled, but the other two were thrashing against their restraints in a frenzy, activating various pulleys so that, the harder they struggled, the tighter the ropes were squeezing their necks: one was wearing the plastic mask, which jerked this way and that; the other’s eyes bulged out of the sockets like she was trying to consume her captor through it, and maybe we were only seeing what Custer had planted in our minds, but it really seemed true, that this girl really did want to have fun, a very particular kind of fun.
Plymouth’s nagging superego, Starbucks, spoke up.
“Sir! none of us has lived this long by playing games with Zs. Best to be quick and clean. I understand you probably see some whisper of your daughters in these poor girls, but we have to be—”
Custer whirled and rushed at the lieutenant in a furious gale. Chucho, Jason, and K stepped between them and held them apart.
“Don’t psychoanalyze Custer, Prom King!”
In the split-second of this commotion, the sadist took his opportunity to dart off to one side, get over behind the girls, and release them so that, a moment later, they came stumbling into the middle of the fray. It seemed a stupid gambit: at one point, they might have been fierce amazons, but now their joints were too stiff, rachitic from so much time contorted on the machines, plus they were still wearing those gags so there was nothing much they could do but flail and scratch and try to tear at our skin.
Chucho and Jason stepped forward and dispatched them swiftly with their machetes.
But now where was the sadist?
We searched the room until we spotted a gap in the wall panel about twenty feet from the contraptions, and pulled it to one side. Behind was a narrow gap extending into the darkness, one he would have had to squeeze and shimmy through, a space that must have marked the separation between an old building and newer construction so that the parts of the old and new schools sat on two separate foundations. This man who should never have been allowed to run free was doing just that.
Custer tried to cram himself into the space but couldn’t fit. Neither could Starbucks. So Jason set his pack on the floor and tried. He was able to wedge his shoulders in so he called for a headlamp and Chucho offered his from his fanny pack, but, just before Jason slipped back in, he stopped, looked back to the rest of us.
“I will catch him,” he said, the light of the headlamp beaming in his superiors’ faces.
“But you two need to sort out this animus before you get us all killed.”
With that, he wriggled deeper into the space and slowly receded into the darkness before slipping around a corner and disappearing from our view.
The rest of the men left Custer and Starbucks where they stood, glowering at one another in the dungeon, and spread out on the first floor, searching for other staircases, loose vent covers, anything the sadist could have used to exit his subterranean passages.
The original portion of the school had been constructed around a large communal atrium, clearly in a time before the architects of our failed society so effectively welded the word communal to communism, so that, no matter which classroom we exited, no matter which hall we crept through, we all eventually ended up in this open space with high narrow windows through which a half moon presently glowed like the wink of some lecherous, radioactive giant.
Here, back in the corner, behind several stacks of plastic chairs, Chucho found a door that opened into a stairwell leading down into a basement. Our sadist, or maybe our sadist and some of his old friends, if he ever had any, had apparently been working like moles for some time to ensure multiple points of escape: crude tunnels led from an old storage area in two directions, one heading back toward the dungeon, the other back under the stairs and back beneath the atrium. We waited, listened and eventually heard some shuffling coming from the direction of the dungeon. We took cover, turned off our headlamps, waited.
After a few moments, the sound stopped, seemed to anticipate us, to hear our breathing where there was usually none. We held our breath, steadied our heartbeats.
It was Starbucks who finally broke the silence: “Jason?”
“Shit!” Jason said from the darkness. “He’s getting away.”
He flicked his headlamp back on and came rushing out of the tunnel into the storage room, took in the shelves of forgotten cleaning supplies, the bucket and mop, the stairwell. We decided he must have beaten us all to this place, must have gone under the atrium, so we moved in after him.
The left side of the narrow tunnel ran alongside the cement foundation and the rest was braced every ten yards or so with bits of sodden wood and beams taken from elsewhere in the building. About fifty yards in, the tunnel came to an end. A hole had been broken through the foundation and here those of us who could fit squeezed into an even smaller tunnel latticed with tree roots of every size—less a tunnel than a grave—but we could see with our headlamps that there wasn’t far to go, that the wormhole rose and opened under a wooden workbench. We clicked off our headlamps and climbed out like so many men the earth was giving birth to, shedding placentas of mud.
This was some kind of shed, a gardener’s or field crew’s shack filled with sheers and mowers and weedwackers, coiled hoses, a bevy of empty orange soda cans. Its twin particle-board doors were slightly ajar, shifting slowly back and forth in the wind, a cold, steady rain splattering mud inside. The brace that had been blocking them was cast aside. Jason squatted, peered out the door. The shack was against the building, in a grassy area between the outside of the atrium and a short fence surrounding a track and overgrown practice field. He pulled back inside.
“There are a few,” he whispered back. “Moving away after something.”
They sent me back to tell the others he was going to pursue, so I crawled back into the earthen womb beneath the school, made my way through the tunnel, up through the atrium, and went to find the others.
By the time everyone was ready to go after the others, a fair amount of time had already passed, and as the captain was dictating his approach down into the tunnels, Jason and the others came stomping up the stairs to stand in the atrium so covered in mud that it looked like they’d just visited a spa and partook in rejuvenating mudbaths.
“Where’s his head?” Custer asked.
Jason said, “He went up a water tower. He is surrounded by the dead. Chucho stayed to watch and make sure he does not escape. He will be an easy target as soon as the storm breaks.”
“Shouldn’t we just end this bullshit now?” someone asked.
“No,” the captain said. “No, I want him to see us coming, squirm, feel the end closing in. We’ll wait.”
So we all found corners in which to bed down. Most quickly drifted off to sleep, but some others of us were too haunted by the day to sleep, but it was strange how, of all the things we had seen and done, the zombiefucker might keep us up. I was among these, and found Custer sitting up, staring up through the atrium windows into the darkness. We entered into a dialogue about what we had seen in the dungeon and why it disturbed us so, but in the end, I came away feeling even less comforted, curled up in a ball on the floor, and finally drift into a fitful sleep populated with so many boys lost in labyrinthine tunnels, dark living holes moist with mucosa; there was a permeating sense of dread, as if we knew finding our way out brought freedom but would also lead to death, and a strong, foreboding sense that the exit was neither where nor what we thought it was, that escaping might turn the whole cavern inside out like a glove or a prolapsing womb. Whether forward or backward didn’t matter. It was all the same now.
The captain had us up as soon as gray light filled the atrium windows above.
The rain had slowed to a trickle and, without delay, we departed this haunted place, loaded into our rigs, and moved on the water tower.
 The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal took the rationalist position that it is better to wager one’s life on the existence of the Christian God, risking only some mundane pleasures, than on the non-existence of God, risking eternity. It was a rather middling position that had successfully infected millions, zombie-ing its way throughout colonial history and beyond.