Fri
Aug 13 2010 8:30am

Pariah (Excerpt)

Bob Fingerman

We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Pariah, new from Tor Books!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

February, Then

Larry Gabler lay there, gasping, bleeding. At seventy-two, he was Abe’s junior by eleven years, but at the moment he could have given Methuselah a run for his money.

“You gotta get home to Ruthie,” he wheezed as sweat glossed his waxy face.

“Yeah, yeah,” Abe said, pouring himself a stiff one from the bottle in his desk. The radio droned the barely cogent reportage of nervewracked correspondents attempting to articulate what was happening throughout the five boroughs—not to mention the entire globe. Abe took a tentative sip of the whisky, then downed it as he sauntered over to the window to catch an eyeful of uncorked chaos below. As he peered down, three taxis collided, the driver of one bursting through his windshield like a meat torpedo. People were jostling, shoving, climbing all over each other, every man for himself, the hell with the rest. The sounds of screams and random gunfire echoed in the darkening canyon of office buildings, the sun ducked for cover beyond Jersey to the west. Mixed in with the usual filth in the gathered curbside snowdrifts was a new hue: deep red, and plenty of it, like big, bloody snow cones.

“Oh yeah, I can’t wait to get down into all that,” Abe said.

The stray who’d brought Larry limping in cowered, nearly catatonic, on the other end of the waiting room’s lumpy sofa. She was a good-looking young Puerto Rican, maybe in her early to mid twenties. Maybe Dominican. Abe couldn’t tell. Young was young, old was old, Hispanic was Hispanic. Larry let out a chalky groan, farted loudly, and slumped forward, chin on chest, blood oozing from his nostrils.

“I think your friend is dead,” the Latin girl murmured.

“He was dead when he came in,” Abe replied. “I could smell it all over him. You get to my age and death’s one of the few things you can recognize easy.”

Abe looked at the blood-soaked material around Larry’s chewed up calf, the slacks shredded. He downed another shot of whisky and made for the door.

“Where you going?” asked the girl.

“I gotta pay Menachem Bender a visit.”

“Who?”

Without explaining, Abe left the office of Cutie-Pie Infant Wear and hastened down the hall to Menachem Bender Men’s Big & Tall to pay a visit. Abe tried the door. Locked.

“Bender, you in there?” He pounded a few times, rattling the pebbled glass with Bender’s name and logo painted upon it. “Bender, c’mon! It’s me, Abe Fogelhut! You in there?” No answer. Abe cased the hall, then elbowed the loose pane out of the frame, the glass crashing to the linoleum beneath. Taking care not to cut himself, he opened the door, experiencing the giddy thrill of breaking into his neighbor’s business as well as a jolt of bowel-tightening fear.  “Bender!”

Nothing.

Abe gave the unlit room a quick once over, then stepped in, flicking on the overhead fluorescents, which buzzed in protest. A cursory look at Bender’s books made clear Cutie-Pie wasn’t the only outfit in the garment trade to have a lousy last quarter. “Oy,” Abe sighed.  “My condolences.” Abe stepped around the desk toward the storeroom, nearly tripping over Bender’s body, a .38 clenched in his white-knuckled hand. Bits of skull and brain matter flecked the adjacent wall and floor. Abe raised a hand to his mouth and then lowered it, realizing he was going to neither scream nor throw up. He just shook his head and opened the stockroom, repeating his previous sympathies.  Turning on the light, he allowed himself to smile.

“Perfect,” he said, eyeing stacks of unsold winter wear for enormous outdoorsmen.

Moments later, he returned to Cutie-Pie to find Larry hunched over the Latina, violently munching on her entrails. The contents of Abe’s stomach disgorged, searing his throat. Larry didn’t even look away from his still-twitching repast as Abe, grateful he’d retrieved the revolver from Bender, emptied the cylinder into his undead partner. The fifth shot removed the top of Larry’s skull and he collapsed onto the girl’s remains. Abe spat bile onto the floor, took a gulp straight from the bottle of Cutty Sark, swished it around, then spat again.

“Okay,” he said, affecting as much calm as possible. “Okay.”

He wiped his mouth with his hankie, took a box cutter and sliced open one of the myriad boxes of his unsold stock of Baby Sof’ Suit®infant winter onesies. “Okay,” he said, “time to redeem yourselves.”

Five-foot-five Abe, with his thirty-inch waist, stepped into an XXXL pair of Bender’s Breathable Sub-zero Shield® Sooper-System™ Weather Bibs, a double-insulated hunting overall for fatties who like traipsing off into the wilderness to shoot helpless critters. Leaving the bib down, Abe began stuffing onesies down the pants, padding himself from the ankles up. When he’d reached maximum density he pulled up the bib, heaved on the matching camouflage parka, and stuffed in more onesies. With the hood cinched tight around his scarf and a pair of snow goggles, Abe resembled Santa Claus geared up for combat.

“Okay,” he said again, this time muffled, “let’s go home.”

 

July, Now

Flat on his back, Dabney lay awake in the open, the sky above him a slab of starless slate. No clouds differentiated the opaque murk that hung above, but it wasn’t a rich blackness, either. It was grayed out, lifeless. Stars would be nice. Maybe the moon. Something. Instead there was nothing, nada, zip. How could that be? Maybe his eyes were going. Beneath him the silver-painted tar paper was lumpy and hot, still retaining the heat of the day. He felt the texture with his thick fingers, creased and peeling, much like his own skin, which was sunburnt from spending all his time up here on the roof. Let the others rot in their apartments, he figured. I’d rather rot in full sight of God.

Dabney touched his forehead and plucked a strip of his peeling skin away and pressed it onto his tongue, tasting his own acrid saltiness on the paper-thin jerky substitute. He let the rind sit there for a while, building up sufficient saliva to swallow it. He knew this was disgusting behavior, but so what? He was doing a self test of what senses he could stimulate. Taste: check. Touch: check. Sight: negative.  Hearing? All was quiet above and below so Dabney forced an acidic burp. Check. Smell?

Smell.

Smell had taken a beating in recent months, not that smell had ever been his favorite. The nullification of smell was sort of a blessing, given the circumstances. So, three out of five, for the time being. Morning would come and sight would soon return to the roster.

Four out of five.

Not bad.

 

“Jesus, even a little air movement would be an improvement. Movement. Improvement. A breeze through the trees would please as it rolled over my knees like a disease or honey from bees and it would ease my . . . my . . . Fuck. Lost it.”

With the rhyming game over, Karl rolled over on his side; the mattress where he’d been lying was damp with perspiration. Moisture he could ill afford to lose. Karl stared at the wall, or at least in the direction of the wall. It was so dark he couldn’t see it, but it was there, a thin layer of protection between him and them. And he wasn’t even thinking about the big them. The capital T them. He was just thinking about the them that constituted the others in the building. His neighbors.

All the windows of apartment 5B were open but you’d never know it, the air was so still it felt like a vacuum. Karl inhaled deeply through his nose, some buildup within the nasal passage creating a high-pitched whistling noise. He breathed in, out, in, out, changing the tempo, attempting to negate his insomnia by nose whistling some half forgotten pop tune, the melody of which had come unbidden from the depths of his subconscious. What was that tune? Now he began to hum it, a ditty sans lyrics. But there were lyrics. He knew that much. This was killing him now. The more he hummed, stretching out the notes, the less the words came into focus. This was killing him. Well, not really. But it wasn’t helping.

Weighing, like, a hundred or so pounds was killing him.

Being dehydrated was killing him.

Not sleeping was killing him.

The earworm was merely aggravating.

With internal creaks and pops belying his actual age of twenty-eight, Karl swung his legs over the side of the bed and touched his toes to the bare wooden floorboards, which were as warm as everything else. What kind of world was this where even the floor was tepid? Floors were supposed to be cool to the touch. Even in summer.

Before stepping from the bed, Karl groped at his night table for matches. Though he was loathe to strike one and add to the heat even a little, he was more averse to stubbing his toes or tripping over something. After living in this apartment for the last few years you’d think he’d know the lay of the land, even blind. But he didn’t. His sweaty palm found the book of matches and Karl snapped one into life, the brightness singeing his eyes for a moment as they adjusted to this pinprick of light in the absolute dark. The small dancing light found the blackened wick of one of the candles, which sputtered to life, creating a pool of comforting incandescence.

Karl had lots of candles, gifts from his mother, aunts, grandma, and past girlfriends. Even female coworkers—Secret Santa crap. What was it with women and candles? He’d gotten them as gifts, pretended he’d appreciated them, then thrown them all in a box in his closet. Now he was grateful for them—except the scented ones. He’d learned that lesson the hard way. The fresh, fruity, cinnamony, flowery aromas reawakened his dormant sense of smell, unfamiliar odors rousing the olfactory receptors, which in turn refreshed the revulsion from the overwhelming tang of rot outside. It had only taken one Apples ’n’ Spice candle to teach him his lesson. He’d lit the wick, basked for a moment in the delicious bouquet, and then puked from a crushing whiff of the ceaseless alfresco parade of putrescence.

So, unscented.

In the light Karl could make out the trappings of his bedroom. The posters on the wall—Kiss, Slipknot, Metallica, Judas Priest, Ozzy, Motörhead, Korn—reassured him, though none of those bands was responsible for the rogue melody assailing his brain at the moment. What was it? Familiar yet unfamiliar. It was sort of pretty in an annoying kind of way.

Karl’s eyes roved to The Wall of Beauty, a veritable tapestry of pinups, centerfolds, magazine clippings, and most personally gratifying (and now, in retrospect, most painfully sentimental), Polaroids from the good old days when he was “getting some” and could occasionally convince his conquests to pose for him in the raw. When things had been different he’d been discreet and kept these pix salted away in a private place, but now? Now they were on permanent display.

Karl got up from the bed and shuffled over to the wall. The flickering candlelight made the images seem to writhe. Though there was some mild twitching south of his personal equator, it was insufficient for the purpose of autoeroticism. Eroticism! What a joke. Is there anything less erotic than jacking off before an altar of two-dimensional representations of nubile flesh? Of any flesh? In this case, dead flesh? All dead. At least Karl assumed they were all dead. So, did whacking to these beauties’ images constitute virtual necrophilia? Back in the day, one of Karl’s fave porn starlets offed herself. Consequently, his massive cache of videos in which she’d appeared became anathema to his libido. He gave the tapes away to a friend less burdened by . . . what would that be? Sentiment? Conscience? Ethics? Empathy? Plain old decency?

Decency seemed an antiquated concept. So when he could work up the energy these days, he spanked to dead ladies. Were there any other kind?

Karl ran his fingertips over some favorite images. Long of leg, wide of hip, narrow of waist, all with come-hither eyes. His prize was the Polaroid of Dawn-Anne McCarthy, his junior high crush. He’d run into her years after they’d graduated, on line at a store here in the city. Her disdain for him in junior high had vanished and for a few dazzling weeks they’d fulfilled every last one of his adolescent fantasies about her, and several his pubescent mind had been too inexperienced to even conjure.

Until he’d blown it, of course.

“You were the best, baby,” Karl said, touching the tip of his index finger to the flossy hub of Dawn’s sex. He exhaled with conspicuous melancholy, not that there was anyone to notice or lend comfort. “You were my Everest.”

Karl flushed with embarrassment at his floridity, then looked up at the ceiling and considered going up to the roof. Maybe it was cooler up there. Maybe there was some air up there. Then he considered Dabney and reconsidered, slunk back to bed, blew out the candle, and curled up on his side on the edge, in an attempt to avoid the damp spot.

Which was warm.

* * *

“You asleep?”

Across the hall, in 5A, Ruth Fogelhut poked her husband of forty-six years in his xylophone ribs with her chicken claw of a hand, her hard, pointed fingers raking his translucent epidermis and leaving behind scarlet trails—not that either could see them in the dark.

“Who sleeps around here? Especially . . .” Pause for a brief dry-throated coughing fit. “. . . with you torturing me all through the night. Sleep? What is this thing you call sleep? I should be so lucky to sleep. Even a nightmare is preferable to your constant mutchering.”

“You don’t have to be so unpleasant, Abraham.”

 “Is that supposed to chasten me, ‘Abraham’? What, I’m a five year old and saying my whole name is a scold I’ll abide? Abe, Abraham, call me what ever you like. Call me Ishmael, for all I care. Sleep. Sleep’s a sweet memory.”

“I’ll call you a shit, how’s about that?”

In the blackness, Abe smiled in triumph. In all her years, Ruth was never one for cursing. It was beneath her, such vulgarity. Swearing was for the common folk, the hoi polloi. But take away amenities like food, running water, electricity, hygiene, etc., and even Emily Post might call you a cocksucker at dinner.

“I’m sorry, Abe. Abe, is that better?” Ruth’s voice was croaky and plaintive. It sounded like it was coming from something not quite human, something rattle boned and cotton mouthed. Something mummified and meager. Oh wait, it was. Ruth, once a breathtaking, slightly Rubenesque ringer for a young Ruby Keeler was now a crinkly sack of bones, nearly bald, with craters like eggcups holding her dulled, gummy, gray eyes.

“Abe’s fine,” Abe mouthed, almost silently. Why raise one’s voice? Gone were competing noises, like traffic and planes roaring across the sky. Gone were the cries of children, or mugging victims, or brawlers from the bar catercornered from their apartment. Gone were the ghetto cruisers with their booming systems, the bass so deep you could feel it in your colon. Gone were the nightly aural assaults from the garbage trucks, the thunderous growl of the crusher mechanism, the clash and clang of the emptied cans being slammed back to the pavement, the inarticulate badinage of the sanitation workers. Who’d think you’d miss that crap? “Abe’s fine,” Abe repeated, as much to reassure himself as Ruth. It felt better to talk about himself in the third person, made him think of himself as not quite real. Reality sucked. Abe’s not fine, he thought. Who the hell is fine nowadays?

“I can’t sleep.”

 “Really?” Abe said, the sarcasm creeping back, edging out his miserable attempt at tenderness. “You could knock me over with a feather.” The fact was, you could knock either of them over with a feather, and not a particularly large feather at that. Two skeletons with a soupçon of withered meat held together by decrepit membrane lying side by side in a dilapidated sarcophagus.

* * *

One flight down, on the fourth landing, ear pressed against the door of 4B, Ellen Swenson clasped a hand over her mouth, suppressing the urge to call out to her husband, Mike, who dozed sporadically in their apartment, behind their currently unlocked door. Ellen had left her left flip-flop wedged between the door and the jamb and tiptoed across the narrow hall to eavesdrop. Mike didn’t believe her assertions about their neighbors, the jocks—the former jocks, at any rate. They were regular guys. Beer guzzlers. Hockey players. Bullies. Republicans. Regular guys, for crying out loud. Guy’s guys. Because they were so surface, to Ellen they also were something of a mystery. Mike’s argument, by way of Freud, was that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Ellen didn’t buy it. With empty apartments still available, why’d they choose to live together when they arrived here? She didn’t just accept things at face value.

She had her theory, she needed proof and this gave her something to do when insomnia hit, which was almost invariably every night, especially since nights became interminable. No light, no entertainment, no conventional diversions. So Ellen made her own fun. As a girl she’d been a fan of Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and even Scooby-Doo, so this meddling kid would tumble the jocks’ game if it killed her. If it didn’t, the boredom might.

The plus of a nearly silent world was that sound traveled.  Sometimes that was a minus, but not right now. They must be in the living room, Ellen surmised. They sounded close. Really close.  Like, right by the door. But sound had a way of tricking you in the absolute dark. All she wanted was to hear something incriminating.  Something to lord over Mike, to prove she was right.

“I don’t even know why I listen to you, Mallon,” came Eddie’s voice. Eddie, Ellen figured, was the alpha dog. He barked louder, seemed scarier. He was the one Ellen feared. Pasty, ginger Dave just kind of annoyed her. “You’re wrong about everything.”

“Dude, you need to take it easy on the water.”

“Vaffanculo, dude. Don’t mother hen me.” Eddie slammed the jug down on the counter to emphasize his dominance—case closed. “Fuckin’ twerps across the hall,” he spat. “Fuckin’ Swensons!”

At the sound of her name, Ellen stiffened.

“We should just beat the shit out of Mike and take his woman. Make her our sex slave. Only two fuckin’ women in here—”

“What about Gerri?”

“Only two fuckin’ women in here and one’s like ninety and the other’s married and monogamous. Fuckin’ monogamous! What kinda selfish outmoded shit is that, anyways? Don’t the Jews share everything on those kibbutz things? This is like that now, yo. This here. I’m tellin’ you, bro, it ain’t right.”

“Hey, chill out,” Dave scolded in a hushed voice. “Sound carries, you know?”

“I don’t give a shit,” Eddie boomed. “Let her hear. Let ’em both hear. Hey, Swenson, I’m gunnin’ for your woman, bitch!”

At that, Ellen’s insides felt like they were imploding. It wasn’t funny anymore. Though neither Dave nor Eddie were the strapping behemoths they once were, both still were formidable. Mike and she wouldn’t stand a chance against them in a physical confrontation. Sex slave. As she began to tremble, Eddie let out a burst of loud, bellicose

laughter.

“I’m just fucking around, Dave. Chill.”

Chill, indeed. Even in the stultifying heat, Ellen’s skin erupted in goose pimples, sweat turning cool on her forehead. Like a silent movie blind man she extended her arms and groped back toward her apartment door, slipped in and triple locked it in case Eddie wasn’t “just fucking around.”

* * *

Alan massaged his temples, removing his glasses, which were streaked and stained with sweat and skin oil. His “T-zone” was working overtime, his eyebrows smearing translucent patterns onto the lenses. Candles flickered, adding to the already oppressive temperature, but what was he supposed to do if he couldn’t sleep, just lie there and stare into the tenebrous void? He wasn’t in the mood to draw, so reading was the only thing left to do since television and the Internet became extinct. All his batteries were dead, so no more Walkman or iPod. Music was becoming but a sweet memory, along with regular meals, luxuriously long showers, movies . . . hell, everything.

Alan kept rubbing, feeling his pulse throbbing away just under the gauzy layer of dermis stretched over his skull. He contemplated dipping into his dwindling supply of store-brand ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin. Eyestrain. His mother always warned him about ruining his eyes by reading in inadequate light. She also warned him about sitting too close to the TV, but that advice was now moot. He wanted to keep reading. This was a good book, a real page-turner. His father used to lecture him about wasting his mind on junk. He’d urged Alan to read the classics, to broaden himself, to refine his mind. But Alan persisted in reading potboilers. Alan liked escapism when things were still good. Now escapism was his only luxury. His collection of sci-fi and crime paperbacks was worth its weight in gold. Scratch that; gold wasn’t worth anything any more. It was better than gold. Sorry, Dad. Maybe Chaucer or Dickens or Goethe or Balzac or Sartre or whomever would have made me a better person. Hard to say. But right now I’ll take my fantasy, thank you very much.

Horror, on the other hand, he left to molder on the shelf.

The pain in his temples encroached into the middle of his head, meeting at the bridge of his nose, the beat incessant, insistent, insufferable. He switched from massaging the sides of his head to working between the eyes. He was going to have to stop reading and sink into the insomnious darkness. He really didn’t want to medicate himself. Alan licked his fingertips and pinched out the candles.

He slumped back onto his mattress. His face itched, still unused to being so thickly bearded; he had not mastered the art of the dry shave. Naked, sweaty, furry, blind until sunup, head pounding, and dry heaving from the fetor. Alan depressed the button on his digital watch. The red LED display announced it was 3:27 in the morning. Sunrise was about two hours away. An eternity. As Alan scratched and convulsed he drifted off, the only person in the building actually asleep.

One flight down, situated above the boarded-up abandoned Phnom Penh Laundromat, apartments 2A and 2B were vacant. No one wanted to live that close to the street, and 2B housed bad memories.

 

 

2

 

Blackness was ebbing. The room began to take on a dark, sickly bluish-lavender tint, like the walls were bruised, heralding the start of a new day. Ellen lay on her side, facing away from the twin windows beside the bed, watching the wall change color. The purple drained away, replaced by jaundiced ochre, which as brightness increased lost pigmentation. Finally the normal drab off-white hue solidified, the glaringly bright sunlight accentuating every imperfection in the wall’s surface—each crack, each patch of Spackle under the substandard paint job. The wall was scarred beneath the paint, reminding Ellen of her former boss, a woman with an unfortunate complexion who’d applied way too much base in a sad effort to mask what imperfections lay beneath. Instead all she did was draw attention to each pit on her acne-ravaged face, a hopeless topography of dermatological strife. Too much makeup was the female equivalent of the shoddy toupee. Whenever Ellen had seen a man wearing an obvious rug—and most of them were pretty damned glaring—she always figured no one really liked or loved him, because no one would allow her husband or good friend go out in public looking that foolish.

The wall was pitted, a trifle buckled, somewhat bulgy in the middle. Their building was old, almost a hundred, but still settling. A couple years back she’d read in New York magazine that her block was right near a fault line. Maybe the earth would one day just start to shimmy and shake and swallow them all up. Better the earth than those things.

As hot as it was at night, it would be worse during the day, but at least she could see—not that seeing was much of a blessing. At night her field of vision was a wash of pitch black, unless she lit a candle. She could remember herself the way she was before. She could imagine some meat on her bones, some tone in her muscles. Hell, she could nostalgically remember some rolls of fat that she’d wished would go away. At night. During the day she could really absorb how awful she and everyone else looked. It had gotten so bad that your archetypal Auschwitz inmate would look at the residents of 1620 York Avenue and say, “Damn, those are some unhealthily skinny-looking motherfuckers.”

Or sentiments to that effect.

Ellen poked Mike in a furrow between his ribs until, with effort, his eyelids separated, revealing red-rimmed, yellowed, mucilaginous eyeballs. His mouth, a thin, wide, desiccated trench while sleeping, clenched and unclenched, lines radiating in parched spokes from his dull gray lips, which back in the day were red and full and the most kissable in the world. His mouth, as it attempted to form his first words on the day, pursed like the shriveled sphincter it was, lost in curly beard growth. Ellen still kissed that puckered bunghole of a mouth, but now it was perfunctory, a sad nod to past romantic glory.

“What?” Mike’s voice was Gobi hoarse.

“I think we need to bar the door better. Like, push some furniture up against it to make it impenetrable.”

With considerable effort, Mike sat up and rubbed crumbs from his eyes and nose.

“Why?” he croaked. “You think the amblers are going to get up here? They haven’t since that one time and I think it’s pretty well—”

“Not the amblers. Dave and Eddie. I heard them talking last night and—”

Mike gave her a sour look.

“Oh, what?” she said, folding her arms across her slatted chest, her breasts drooping like withered cutlets. Not the supple breasts of a successful twenty-seven-year-old Upper East Side urban-professional mom. They were more like the breasts seen in a magazine spread on depredation in Ethiopia or Somalia or some other godawful place—the kind of breasts that play landing field to legions of flies and their owners don’t even notice. These ruined teats had fed their child. They’d been large and full and life sustaining. They’d been ample and erotic. They’d been real ego boosters. Now they were depleted paps.

You’re no longer a mom when your child is dead—your former child.

Everything was former.

“You’re crazy,” Mike managed. “If they’d heard you out there, who knows what they would have done to you?”

Ellen had a pretty good idea, based on Eddie’s brief but memorable rant last night. She didn’t think they were above rape; if those jock assholes were slightly less malnourished she’d live in serious fear of them. Especially Eddie. Her assumption they’d gone the way of Fudgy McPacker might not be as watertight as she’d thought, and losing the comfort she took from the notion they’d been focusing their brutish carnality on each other didn’t improve her spirits.

 “Anyway, promise me you’ll never do anything stupid like that again.”

“It wasn’t stupid, Mike.”

“Okay, not stupid. Uh, foolhardy. Ill-advised. Perilous.”

“It’s like you actually care.”

“I . . .” Mike began to sputter like an Evinrude. “What the . . .I . . . Of course I . . . What kind of way is this to start the day?”

Ellen shrugged and stepped off the bed, drifting toward the kitchen. “You want some water?” she asked Mike, whose face twitched apoplectically. He blinked a few times, then nodded, and she left the bedroom. Let him stew, she thought. She had no reason to torment him, but it killed time. Besides, it would give her something to apologize for later. The hours had to be filled with something, so why not a little domestic turbulence? Sex took too much energy, and besides they were both so thin and kindlinglike it just wasn’t fun any more. Bones ricocheting off bones, loose skin flapping around, bad smells. But it also passed some time and sometimes that was enough. They’d read all their books and magazines. Neither had any talent worth pursuing. Mike had been into photography, but that was no longer an option. She wrote bad poetry back in the day, but now why bother? What would she write about, the death of everything? Been done and done and done to death.

In the kitchen, Ellen poured half a glass from a 16.9-ounce bottle of Kirkland Signature Premium Water. But the water was far from premium. It was rain water. Ellen couldn’t remember how old the bottle was. They filled a whole case of them last rain. Ellen traipsed back into the bedroom where Mike now stood by the window staring straight across the alley at the neighboring building, not ten feet away. The windows there were stripped of any coverings and all were dark, bereft of life. There used to be noisy neighbors. Directly across from them there was this Latin couple who’d blast salsa music at all hours of the day and night. They’d openly do drugs by their windows, smoking pot, doing lines. Once, the man spotted Mike peeping at them and made a finger gun and mouthed, “Pop, pop, pop,” then winked and flashed a gold-accented toothy grin.

Mike leaned out the window and peered down into the alley. Stragglers who’d broken off from the herd shuffled back and forth, having breached the gate that someone in a panic must have left unlocked. Mike cleared his throat and a couple looked up, their dulled eyes twitching in recognition of something delicious. One let out a faint but audible gasp and began to limp in Mike’s direction.

“Be careful,” Ellen said as Mike leaned out further, bent at the midriff.

“It’s like you actually care,” Mike threw back at her, but when he did so, he smiled.

Ellen sidled up to her husband and put her hand on his back, feeling guilty about pushing his buttons, especially so early in the day. She could have at least waited until after their scant breakfast.

“I brought your water,” Ellen said, holding up the small juice glass, an old jelly jar with Huckleberry Hound on it.

Mike lifted his hands off the window ledge and straightened at the waist, eager to drink, unmindful of the window frame. His head slammed into the sash and his feet lost purchase on the smooth floorboards, thrusting his upper portion forward. Ellen dropped the glass and grabbed for Mike, her hands moist with perspiration, muscles neutered by malnutrition. She made contact with his left bicep but it slipped away. He pitched forward, his bony, naked ass slamming against the sash as his legs pinwheeled by her astonished face. An inarticulate screech was the only sound she could manage as her husband fell out the window.

Swallowing hard, she rushed to the other window, the one with the fire escape. It was possible he’d survived, that they could rescue him. She pushed the curtains aside to reveal the folding security gate and stared at the padlock like she’d never seen it before. The gate had been there from the previous tenant, a model not approved by the fire department. The combination. She couldn’t remember it. Mike had it somewhere.

His laptop.

His dead, useless, worthless laptop.

Now the blood in her veins seemed to slow. She dragged her feet across the floor toward the open window Mike fell through. She didn’t want to look, but desire was not a factor. She poked her head out, her posture exactly aping that of Mike’s mere moments ago. In the alley below, Mike lay splayed on his back, his spindly arms and legs arranged almost comically about him. From her vantage point he looked like a human swastika, legs bent in a cartoonish running position. His face stared straight up and they made eye contact. He wasn’t dead. Ellen’s mouth opened and closed but no sounds came out. She wanted to shout something comforting; some final thought Mike could take with him. “I brought your water,” seemed entirely deficient.

The zombies advanced on Mike, shambling forward. Ellen’s teeth began to chatter and Mike’s eyes implored her to say something. Anything. With effort she managed to mouth, “I love you,” but mute. Please let him die before they reach him. Please.

A small pool of blood was forming beneath Mike’s head, and Ellen noticed his neck was at an odd angle. A four-story fall. His neck was broken. He was paralyzed. Please let him be numb all over. Please at least spare him the pain. Mike’s eyes began to swim and lose focus. Let him lose consciousness. The first of his defilers stooped over and dropped to its knees, baring its teeth. At least Ellen couldn’t see its face, but she knew what it looked like. Cadaverous, leathery skin, yellow as a dead plucked chicken, translucent enough to display dull plum-tinted veins, blackened gums receded all the way, teeth huge, eyes glazed—if it even had any.

A shriek echoed through the alley as they tore into Mike, picking the meager flesh off his bones with those horrible teeth, digging their jagged nails in, peeling him. Ellen was locked in position—sympathy paralysis. She wanted to close her eyes but was unable. She watched at they dismembered Mike. With ingenerate knack, one scored perforations around Mike’s left shoulder with its teeth then jerked the arm clean off and began to devour it, ripping the meat off the bones. Another disemboweled Mike, unintentionally inviting several others to mooch off the uncoiling spoils. Bestial growls accompanied the feeding frenzy, the things poking at each other, scrabbling, circling like hyenas. More stumbled into the alley from the side street, attracted by the noise, the scent of fresh blood. Soon all she could see were their backs hunched over the spot on which Mike lay. Her nails dug into the brick beneath the ledge, grinding them down, a rudimentary no-frills manicure. Tears blurred her vision.

“I brought your water,” she said again, her voice thinner than she was.

“Ellen,” a voice cried out from below. “Don’t look at this! Pull your head inside!”

Was Mike trying to spare her? That was so Mike of him, always trying to protect her feelings, even now. She was sorry she couldn’t oblige, though. She was vapor locked. Sorry, Mike. Sorry about everything.

By the time her temporary immobilization eased, all that was left of dear, sweet Mike was a dark crimson stain on the pavement and some picked-clean bones. Ellen wrested her fingers from the mortar, contemplated jumping, reconsidered, and slumped to the floor, hugging herself, taking no solace from her bony limbs and digits.

Former mother.

Now former wife.

Next door she heard Eddie bellow something unintelligible. But his tone, as always, was ugly and portended trouble.

And now she was alone.

 

 

3

 

“Open the door, Ellen!” Alan implored.

He’d raced up the stairs and now pounded on the door of 4A. This was excitement no one needed or wanted, least of all him, but he couldn’t just sit in his apartment and pretend it hadn’t happened. He’d heard the howl from the alley and had looked down in time to see Mike’s head come off, a sight he hoped Ellen had been spared from her vantage point, but probably not. He’d looked up from the alley’s floor and seen Ellen perched at her windowsill, eyes like saucers swimming in roomy sockets. Ellen didn’t seem to hear him. He’d pled for her to look away. Instead she’d watched her husband transform from significant other to outdoor buffet. And it wasn’t even eight in the morning.

“Ellen, come on!” Alan cried. “Open the door! Please, Ellen!”

Across the narrow hall the door to 4B opened and Eddie appeared, standing in the doorway in his boxers, which hung too low beneath his diminished waist. “What’s the fuckin’ ruckus?” he said, just oozing compassion.

“Mike . . . ,” Alan began, then stopped himself. Eddie’d find out soon enough, but why tip the hand? If he and Dave were unaware of Mike’s demise, why let them know? They’d just up the harassment ante on Ellen.

“What about Mike?” Eddie said, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing. I just need to talk to Ellen.”

“What for?”

“Jesus, Eddie, whyn’t you mind your business? You’re like a hausfrau looking for gossip. I swear; if we still had power you’d be sitting on the couch watching your stories.”

“I’ve got no problem busting your fuckin’ lip open, wiseass,” Eddie growled, wagging a finger. “Just you remember that. Seriously.”

“Uh-huh. That’s great,” yawned Alan, indifferent.

“You just better hope I never bulk up again, faggot.”

Alan smirked. “I count on it.”

And with that, Eddie slammed the door shut. Once upon a time Eddie had spooked Alan, but that was fifty or so pounds ago. Now they were both in the same weight class. Fact was Alan had a little more meat on him than Eddie because he’d been better at squirreling away, much better. Not that Eddie needed to be privy to that info. Alan tried the doorknob again, rattling it. Locked, of course. Who’d keep an unlocked door, especially with those goons next door? After several minutes, the clack of multiple dead bolts unlocking came from the other side of the door and it opened a crack, revealing Ellen’s gaunt shell-shocked face.

“I don’t know what to say,” Alan said, feeling stupid for having said it.

“Come in, Al.” Ellen opened the door wider and stepped aside, which seemed a formality considering she was too attenuated to block his entrance. She wore a pale-pink tank top that accentuated her lankness, her neck cords so pronounced Alan fought the insane temptation to strum them.

 “I saw what happened. When you didn’t answer the door I was afraid you’d done something to yourself.”

Ellen just stared at Alan, eyes glassy with grief. She plopped herself down on a wooden dining chair and Alan could hear the bones in her ass knock against the hard surface. The sound made him wince, but she didn’t notice. After a few hushed seconds passed, Alan pulled out a chair at the table and joined her, seating himself slowly, carefully, mindful of the hard-on-hard dynamic. No one had padding any more. “The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’ ” days were over.

Ellen’s arms hung limp at her sides, her wrists grazing the lower rim of the seat of the chair. So many hard angles. Alan had lusted after Ellen when she and Mike moved in six years ago. That was before she’d been a mother—not that women who’d had kids weren’t still sexy, but motherhood was a sacred institution. Wasn’t it? Was anything sacred anymore? Anyway, this wasn’t a booty call. Ellen had no booty. Her ass had been so perfect, a flared, ripe pear. What was Alan thinking?

That was crazy.

Now more than ever each life was precious. Mike had been precious to Ellen, even though they bickered. Alan heard them. Alan’s thoughts were jumbled. He’d liked Mike well enough. Mike was a good neighbor. They’d even hung out together a few

times, back in the days before. Hanging out after didn’t count, because choice was no longer a factor. Alan slapped himself across the face, snapping himself out of this unproductive internal loop, the sound stirring Ellen from her torpor.

“What did you do that for?” she asked, somewhat horrified.

“Sorry, my mind was kind of malfunctioning. Nothing to be concerned about. I’m here for you, Ellen. Sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“No, it’s okay. It was just kind of weird is all. But it kind of helped, in a way. Seeing you slap yourself was odd enough to wake me back up.” She paused for a few long beats, then added, “Mike’s dead, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I saw. I was calling up to you, trying to get you not to look. I don’t know if you heard me.”

“Ohhhhh,” Ellen said, a faint smile playing on her drained lips. “That was you. I thought it was Mike. I wasn’t thinking too straight. That was really considerate of you. Thank you.”

Ellen looked and sounded far away, which might be for the best. Though Alan knew they were dead, he’d been spared having to witness any of his loved ones being devoured. Strangers, sure. By the dozens. But family? Mercifully no. As Ellen evinced the thousand yard stare, Alan’s eyes roved about the kitchen. Pretty bare, like everyone’s. His eyes drifted over each surface, eventually finding their way back to his vacant hostess. He tried to envision her fleshy past self. He’d done her portrait a few times in pastel, pencil, even ink, so her face was pretty well ingrained in his psyche, but it was hard to conjure and superimpose on this bloodless husk. He’d wanted her to pose nude, but Ellen thought that would make Mike jealous, even if it was strictly business, no hanky-panky. What the hell was the point of being an artist if you couldn’t get chicks to pose in the buff? Alan had wondered. There are no other career-specific perks. Alan had suggested that he document her pregnancy with some tasteful nudes, but again the answer was no, even though she’d thought it a good idea at first. That was a real pity. Her breasts had gone from admirable to astounding during those months, and then stayed that way for quite a while. He’d never seen her nude back when that would have been a thrilling experience. Now he routinely saw her in various states of undress and it was tragic.

With the merciful exception of the Fogelhuts, most of the residents had adopted a slightly more “progressive” version of permanent casual Friday. Their building, 1620 York Avenue, was a “clothing optional” residence. Maybe it was hypocrisy or maybe it was modesty—which seemed so passé—but Alan kept his clothes on when dealing with his neighbors. It’s not like he strutted around like Dapper Dan, wearing a suit and tie, but he kept his shorts and T-shirt on. Let the others sashay around in the raw.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked, attempting to stay grounded in the now.

“Huh? Oh, no, no. Just stay with me.”

“Okay, as long as you need.”

“No, I mean stay with me. Stay in the apartment. Move in with me.”

Alan looked at her face, trying to glean how serious she was. Serious as a heart attack, as the old axiom went. Once upon a time that would have been the answer to his prayers, but now?

“Move in?”

“Move in. I don’t want to be alone, especially with those two Neanderthals next door. Listen, I loved Mike, Mike loved me, but these, I dunno, these are savage times. I can’t think about what’s prim and proper and what will the neighbors say? ‘Look, that whore’s shacking up with someone new already.’ Who would think that, except those creeps across the hall? Can you imagine what my life will be like if they think I’m—Christ, I can’t even say it. Available? Oh, Jesus. Fuck that. Mourning and starving are all most of us do, anyway. It’s not like you have to move your shit up here, but stay with me. Sleep in the same room. We don’t have to even sleep in the same bed if you’re not comfortable with that. There’s a foldout couch in the living room, but . . .”

Ellen rambled on, the stream of words blurring. Alan became aware that she was gripping his wrist, hard, her thin fingers clenched together like a vice. They went all the way around his wrist now. That was disturbing. Alan Zotz and Ellen Swenson, he mused. Once upon a time he might have wanted to carve that on a tree, with a big “4E” under it. But what could he say? This was a cocktail of unmitigated grief and panic and adrenaline. When she calmed down she’d probably want him to move back out. This was temporary. Life was temporary. They’d all starve to death pretty soon, anyway.

Might as well go out one of the good guys.

 

 

4

 

Karl knocked on the door to the roof, not wanting to intrude on Dabney—at least not without Dabney’s concrete approval. After a few more tentative taps, Dabney called out a brusque, “Whattaya want?”

“It’s me, Karl. Permission to come above?”

Dabney half scowled and half chuckled at Karl’s unfailing dorkiness. He appreciated Karl’s respect for his personal space, but this was the roof for Christ’s sake. He didn’t own it. If Karl wanted to come up—if anyone wanted to—who was Dabney to say no? Though he seldom used it for shelter, Dabney had set up a shabby lean-to of corrugated aluminum and loose brick. When it rained he’d sleep under it, allowing the buckshot-on-metal clatter to lull him to sleep. It had been weeks since it rained last. Nonetheless, strewn about the roof were various containers for collecting water: garbage cans, buckets, plastic drawers, and file boxes. And a few planters with failed attempts at vegetable farming, all dead before they yielded anything edible.

Karl stepped out onto the blindingly bright tar paper; the sun was blazing full tilt to the east. He wished he’d brought sunglasses and sandals but didn’t want to go back down just to come back up. Instead he squinted and winced, scorching his eyes and toasting his feet. Karl nodded at Dabney, who returned the acknowledgment before resuming his post on the lip on the roof, belly down on a mottled canvas tarp, head hung over the edge. Beside him was a pile of chunks of brick culled from the neighboring buildings, the roofs of which were all adjoined, separated by low walls which Dabney periodically demolished and raided for recreational target practice. The only constructive use the residents of 1620 had found for masonry—part of a renovation project that never got past the supply stage—was walling up the interior front entrance with cinder blocks, fortifying what the harried contingent of National Guardsmen had hastily thrown up to bar entry to their building. Up and down the block, doorways both residential and commercial were boarded up with rusting slabs of corrugated sheet metal. FEMA had done a bang-up job of sealing everyone in and abandoning them. Now many of the fortifications were shearing away, the elements having corroded the substandard no-bid bolts.

Karl walked over to where Dabney lay and squatted next to him, looking over the edge from a safe distance. Heights and Karl didn’t cozy up. Besides, the view was torment. Directly across the avenue from them was the linchpin of their collective woe, a tantalizing siren that beckoned, but one they could never answer: the Food City Supermarket. Behind its boarded-up façade, they imagined, lay a cornucopia of uneaten, unspoiled canned goods, bottled water, batteries that still had juice in them, you name it. Sure, the produce and meat had gone bad, but there was likely an embarrassment of provisions in there, all hopelessly out of reach. Sandwiched between the east and west sides of York Avenue, as far as the eye could see in both directions, north and south, was a sea of doddering bodies, all with but a single purpose: eat anyone stupid enough to venture from the safety of his or her home. Karl had witnessed it many a time.

Food City was situated in a big steel-and-glass apartment building, the only truly modern high-rise for blocks. Next door to the supermarket, its entrance raised and bordered by a small enclave of benches and shrubs, was a bank. Above the supermarket was a shallow inset area—maybe five feet deep, eight feet high, the full width of the market—that allowed the air-conditioning units to vent. Right above that were the windows of the first tier of dwellings, permanently sealed, like newfangled hotels and office buildings.

All up and down the avenue, as the status quo grew worse and worse, either lots were drawn or people went nuts or what ever, but folks made countless attempts from the neighboring buildings to gain entrance to Food City. Karl had observed what in other circumstances might have been comical stabs at it all go awry—real life Wile E. Coyote-style maneuvers. Several jokers driven mad with desperation tried the Tarzan thing, throwing a line out from a high window, lassoing a streetlamp, swinging, falling. Unlike Tarzan, though, they’d all ended up being torn to shreds, their final resting place the guts of those undead things down there.

Some had attempted a different approach, still from above, casting a line from their windows or roofs down to the streetlamp right in front of the market. They’d anchored the ropes like a clothesline, then shimmied across the street, only to find themselves stranded above the sidewalk, still with ten feet between them and the airconditioning alcove. Even then, what would they have done? There was no way in from there unless you knew how to dismantle an industrial air-conditioning unit. These were regular citizens, not special ops personnel trained in breeching bulwarks. So they either shimmied back into their shelters, or dropped to the pavement and were devoured.

Some aspirant swashbucklers slapped together homemade armor. Egged on by their hungry neighbors, they’d either lowered themselves to the sidewalk from windows or fire escapes, or even more imprudently breached from within their blockaded front doors, which inevitably led to an unstoppable tsunami of zombies surging into their dwellings, costing all within their lives. The ones with enough foresight to reseal the entranceway usually didn’t make it ten feet from their homes before the horde picked them clean. One did get as far as the entrance to the supermarket, and even managed to detach the moldering sheet metal, but the doors had been automatic. No power; no way in. He’d pounded on them as much in exasperated fury and disbelief as in attempt to actually infiltrate the emporium. His makeshift armor just made the zombies work a little harder for their meal, but like a boiled lobster, the shell came off and they enjoyed the tender bounty within.

Now, because of one of Dabney’s brick tosses, the supermarket doors gaped open, the pavement glittering with fragments of safety glass, taunting everyone.

And the avenue might as well be a thousand miles wide.

“Watch this,” Dabney said, selecting a chunk of brick from the pile. He hefted it once or twice in his palm, getting the feel for it, then lobbed it down into the crowd. It disappeared amid the shoulder-to-shoulder multitude of shuffling cadavers.

“Fuck,” Dabney spat in annoyance. He picked another nugget from the stack and this time took aim. “That one,” he said, not specifying which one, which would have been difficult to do anyway. Which one, the rotting one? The ugly one? The one with the bad skin? The one with its skin peeling off? With the exception of their clothing and hair, to Karl they all looked the same. It was a good thing there were no rules of political correctness regarding the undead.  “They all look alike, huh?” Karl imagined someone saying, in that shrill, strident, bygone PC tone. Just what the world would need: zombie special interest groups. People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies—PETZ.

Karl smirked at the notion.

Dabney launched the missile and this time it slammed down on the skull of a bald zombie. Even from the roof they could hear the crunch as it penetrated bone and punctured what lay beneath. Brain? Only in name. The thing collapsed amidst its fellows, one less head bobbing aimlessly in the ocean of bodies. Dabney and Karl high-fived. This was one of those enjoyable, rare male-bonding moments.

“Wanna have a go?” Dabney said, jerking a thumb at the brick pile.

“Yeah? Why not,” Karl said. He chose a slab of jagged slate and stood up. Dabney maintained his horizontal position on the tarpaulin.

“Flat ones don’t throw as good,” Dabney said, but Karl didn’t intend to pitch it like a ball. He cocked his arm, pressed the slab against his chest, then swung out his arm, a light flick of the wrist sending the wedge spiraling like a Frisbee into the crowd, where it sliced off the side of a female zombie’s face with a juicy thwack. She didn’t hit the dust like the one Dabney clobbered, but she let out an satisfying yowl and thrust both her hands up to the gaping wound.

“Damn,” Dabney said, his tone reverential. “I never would’ve thunk to throw like that. I always go for the solids, but that was pretty sweet. Nice goin’, kid.”

Karl basked in the praise. As the runt of the building he always felt nothing was expected of him but failure. This was a defining moment, scoring approbation from John Dabney, resident loner. In a city full of vacant apartments, Dabney chose to live on the roof. The others barely acknowledged his presence, but Karl found him fascinating. Dabney held onto his role as iconoclast. Dabney was . . .cool.

“It’s only a matter of time, you know,” Dabney said, eyes hooded.

“What?”

“This. This here’s a waiting game. Look at those misbegotten things.” He pointed down at the street dwellers. “They’re same as us, only different. Maybe they’re reanimated flesh, I dunno, whatever it is. But they’re not from Mars and they ain’t made of plastic. Look at ’em. I mean really look.”

“It’s hard from up here.”

Dabney shot Karl a scowl. “Don’t be so damn literal. They’re fallin’ apart, same as us. They don’t eat each other. How long can they keep truckin’ around on empty? We know we’re gonna die if we don’t eat, but I figure so will they, eventually. I’d like to live to see it happen. I’d like to set my feet down on pavement again, even if ain’t exactly gonna be tiptoeing through tulips.”

“Me too.”

“It’s a waiting game and nobody knows how it’s gonna play out, but play out it will. It has to. Things rot. They’re rotten as hell. Their hides might be tanned as shoe leather, but mark my words, they’ll fall. It’s nature.”

“I suppose.”

Dabney frowned.

“All this talk’s makin’ me hungry. You want something to eat?” Dabney said. Karl’s stomach growled in anticipation of food. He had stuff stashed in his crib, but an offer of food from Dabney augured something mysterious and tantalizing. What did Dabney keep in his private stash? “Yeah, you do,” Dabney answered, lifting himself from the tarp. He strode across the roof to a sooty, bunged up metal contraption fashioned from salvaged commercial exhaust ducting. He bent down and opened a crudely hinged door he’d cut out of the cylindrical appliance. “It’s a smoker I made,” he said, by way of explanation.

 “A smoker?” Karl repeated.

“Like a smoke house. For smoking meat. Last I checked, refrigeration went the way of the dodo, right? So, smoked meat.”

“Meat?” Karl gasped. He was salivating.

“Meat. Jerky. You got a beef with vermin jerky? I got rodent jerky and pigeon jerky. Doesn’t sound so appealing when you know what it is, but it’s not so bad. Wanna try it?”

Dabney reached into the box and pulled out a thin, fluted strip of dusky matter and offered it to Karl. He smiled. Jerky. Karl thought of the old Jerky Boys pranks. Was this a prank? It didn’t seem like Dabney was the type. Karl accepted the barklike sliver and tentatively raised it to his nose, taking a sniff. Instantly his mouth began to water and with no further hesitation he took a bite—manna from heaven. Karl almost began to cry but stopped himself. That would be unmanly and he didn’t want to seem so in front of Dabney. Not today. Not after impressing him. The meat was salty and dense and tough, but the flavor sent him back to his college days when he’d subsisted on mac ’n’ sleaze and bags of teriyaki jerky from the 7-Eleven.

“Enjoy that,” Dabney said. “Won’t be much more, I don’t think.”

Karl’s heart almost broke at the thought. “What? Why? Why not?”

“Haven’t seen any critters around in the last week or so. None airborne, none skulking around on the ground. No squirrels, no rats, no mice. Sure as hell no cats. Anyway, I think what I’ve got in there is the last of it. The bottomless empty is right around the corner. After that, we are all well and truly screwed.”

That was a helluva pronouncement. Karl studied the older man’s leathery puss—peeling, brown, raw, not unlike the jerky he was consuming. If they started dying in the building would they mimic the behavior of those things on the street? Would this turn into some Manhattan version of the Donner party? Of the Andean soccer team incident? Karl flashed on the movie Cannibal! The Musical, the comedy about the Alferd Packer, which didn’t seem so funny anymore. He thought about Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chikatilo and Ed Gein. Wasn’t Idi Amin a cannibal? Oh fuck that, Karl thought. I’d rather die. I’d rather feed myself to those things than eat a human being. You have to hold onto who you are. Life isn’t that precious. At least not any more it isn’t. Maybe those sons of bitches ate each other because there were still things to live for. Their circumstances had been way different. Packer and the Donners and those soccer players had a world ahead of them.

Dabney eyeballed Karl’s twitching face, sensing his thought process.

“You know what one of those Uruguayan footballers had to say when they picked him up?” Dabney asked, his voice neutral. “It’s a quote I remember because it seemed so fucked-up at the time. Now, I don’t know how I feel about it. The kid was talking about how they’d cooked their teammates. He described the meat as, ‘softer than beef but with much the same taste.’ It’s animal nature to survive. Man’s an animal. To survive, folks adapt. Whattaya think of that?”

Karl doubled over and puked up the jerky. When he finished retching he remained bent over, hands gripping his knees to keep from toppling over, thick ropes of bilious saliva drooping from his twitching lower lip.

“Last time I offer you any chow,” Dabney said. Eyes stinging, Karl glared at the lumpy puddle between his legs, his face broiling with shame. What ever cred he’d established he’d just pissed down his leg. He’d reverted to Karl the Puss—no more, impossible to be less. He felt anger coursing through his wracked body. Anger at himself, anger at Dabney, anger at everything.

“If you had food this whole time,” he bleated, revolted by his wheedling tone, “why didn’t you share with us?”

Dabney sighed, not angry. Seemingly bored with the question. “Because I sing hard for my supper. No one ever stopped you from hunting and gathering. I don’t own the roof. You want food, show some damn initiative. Don’t come whining at me because you’re a bunch of spoiled Upper East Side ninnies. Grow some hair.”

Karl straightened up and made to leave.

“Clean your mess up before you go, kid. I might not own the roof, but it’s still my turf. Don’t be leaving your mess here.”

Karl opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, but he couldn’t access any words that might redeem the moment. Dabney cocked his head like a wary dog and closed one eye in warning, shaking his head in silent rebuke. The gesture said, don’t say a word. Karl looked around for a towel, saw none, then looked back at Dabney, who offered nothing but the stern authoritarian glower of someone about to lose his cool.

“What do I clean it with?”

Dabney pulled a rag out of his back pocket and tossed it to Karl, the motion reminiscent of that old Coke commercial with Mean Joe Green tossing the kid his sweaty game jersey. Karl thought a joke might help, and when he caught it he said, “Thanks, Mean Joe,” instantly regretting it.

Dabney turned away and resumed his vigil at the edge of the roof.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Karl chanted as he mopped up his puke.

 

 

5

 

“That Zotz better watch his mouth is all I’m sayin’,” Eddie said, stomping around the kitchen.

“Let it go, dude,” Dave said. “It’s no biggie.”

“It is a biggie. It is. It’s fuckin’ huge. First he gets lippy like, what, he wants a piece of me? He thinks he can handle The Comet all of a sudden? Like suddenly he’s a big man? He’s a little pussy, that little bitch. I’d stuff his fuckin’ crayons and paintbrushes up his ass if I didn’t think he’d fuckin’ love it.”

“Just chill, Eddie. Come on, seriously, you’re gonna give yourself an embolism or something. Park it and chill.”

Eddie paced a couple more times, then grudgingly heeded Dave’s counsel, taking a seat on an ottoman. He clenched and unclenched his fists, kneading his thighs, swallowing his lower lip. He threw his head back, the veins bulging on the sides of his neck, his Adam’s apple jutting out like a walnut. His nostrils flared like a horse’s as he exhaled over and over, sweat pouring off him. Dave watched Eddie attempting to decompress, to defuse. Ever since they’d met in high school they’d been inseparable buds, Dave the calm one, Eddie the hothead.

“The Comet” had been Eddie’s hockey handle—hokey, but apt. He’d been an awesome center whose speed and ferocity earned him an athletic scholarship to Rutgers. Dave had been goalie but he’d often kept his eye more on Eddie than the puck. Eddie tossed bodies around like they were nothing, which to him they were. It was magnificent to behold. Unfortunately he spent as much time in the penalty box as on the ice. Too much high-sticking. Too much hooking. Too much fighting in general. Too much blood on the ice.

Dave came over and ran his fingers through Eddie’s hair, petting him, trying to soothe him.

“Don’t do that,” Eddie snapped. “What’re you doing? I don’t need that shit, man.” He stood up, vibrating with barely contained rage. “You can’t do shit like that to me!”

Dave looked at his roomie, incredulous.

“I’m a little confused, Ed,” Dave said.

“What? What? What’s to be confused about? I don’t want you fuckin’ touching me all girly like that.”

“But we . . .”

“That’s not about . . . fuck, what’s the word?”

“Tenderness?”

“Exactly!” Eddie said, his face split in both triumph and disgust. “That’s exactly it! Tenderness. Tenderness is for women and fags. We’re not fags, Dave. We just have to let off some steam once in a while. Nothing wrong with that. Sex and tenderness have nothing to do with each other. You think all those guys in prison are fags? Hell, no, dude. They just do what they gotta do. Adaptation isn’t conversion, okay? You think they trawl for dick once they get sprung? Bullshit! They head straight for the punani! You need to remember that shit, bro.”

Yeah, but we’re not getting sprung, Dave thought. This is all there is.

 “What ever,” Dave said, and left the room.

“What’s the matter, is it your time of the month?” Eddie said. With that he erupted in laughter.

Dave stepped into the foyer and paced a few times, then opened the front door and stepped into the unlit common hall. This was the world now. A staircase leading up from the walled-up street entrance, the larger square landing of the second floor, the flights of stairs connecting each level, the narrow landings, the roofs, period. The entire rest of the planet was off limits. Why does Eddie have to be so nasty, Dave wondered. We’re all under pressure. We’re all in the same boat around here, not like he’s the only one who’s suffering, the only one who’s hungry, the only one who’s afraid.

Dave trudged downstairs to the sealed-up foyer. In the pitch dark he pressed his back against the almost-cool cinder blocks, girding himself for physical punishment. Better to not dwell on Eddie and his foul moods and fouler humor. That kind of shit had been funny in the locker room before and after a game, but now it cut deeper, seemed uglier. In the dark, Dave calmed down and collected himself. “Work it off,” he said, then inhaled and exhaled deeply several times. Midway through a half-assed stretch his elbow touched something clammy and fleshy and he let out a very womanish screech.

“Work what off?” came the drab, croaky response.

“Jesus,” Dave barked, “don’t do that. Hey, who is that? Who the hell hangs out in the dark? You trying to give someone a freakin’ heart attack?”

“Work what off?” The croaky voice was neither masculine nor feminine. It reminded Dave of the possessed girl’s in The Exorcist. The question was posed without any urgency or even curiosity. It sounded mechanical. That’s what made it so disturbing.

“Jesus Christ. Gerri.”

With his heart audibly thudding in his chest Dave began jogging up the stairs, taking each landing, then the next flight, and so on, up to the roof door. When he got there he hesitated for a moment, then gave it a loud rap with his knuckles and threw it open. Dabney was there, sitting in the shade of the stairwell, reading a battered paperback.

“Yo, John, mind if I do some laps?”

“Knock yourself out, kid,” Dabney said, returning his attention to the book he’d borrowed from Alan. As Dave began to jog north, Dabney added, “But not literally. I don’t wanna have to haul your carcass downstairs.” Then he chuckled. Same joke, different day. Different day that might as well be the same, for all intents and purposes.

Goddamn Gerri Leibowitz, Dave thought. Eddie had dubbed their old neighbor The Wandering Jewess, a haggish woman with an explosion of ratty grayish brown hair radiating from her seemingly vacant head. Sometimes she was stark naked, sometimes she wore a thin house coat, and always she toted around the withered carcass of her dead Yorkshire terrier, cradling it like a baby. She had no fixed abode, sometimes sleeping in the neighboring building from whence she’d originated, sometimes in the halls, sometimes the roof—though not Dabney’s. He didn’t cotton to her at all. Gerri would occasionally spend a night or two in one of 1620’s vacant apartments.

Though comprised of all the fleshly ingredients, in essence she was a ghost.

Dave and Eddie had come over from three buildings north, when that building was breached. The zombies had flooded in and made short work of the residents on the lower floors. Dave and Eddie escaped, just barely. Since then, the rooftop door to the stairwell of that building was solidly blocked. No one could forecast which building Gerri would materialize in from day to day. Didn’t much care, either, but she was a perpetually unnerving presence.

Dave built up enough speed to use the short walls dividing the roofs as hurdles. The sun lashed his bare back and sweat poured off him like a race horse. This was stupid. He knew this was stupid. Who was he trying to keep in shape for? Himself? The end was nigh, as the Bible thumpers put it. Why even attempt to stay fit? He was a rail, each muscle, each tendon, each ligament, each vein and artery stood out in sharp relief. He was a walking—jogging to be more precise—anatomical chart. This wasn’t definition. This was depletion. Everyone in the building had a six-pack.

Six-pack.

Just the phrase made Dave want to bawl. How sweet would a sixpack be right about now? Some tasty ice-cold beer? As perspiration beaded and ran down his hairless chest, Dave imagined himself a tall, amber bottle of Bud, his sweat sexy commercial-style condensation on a flagon of his favorite brew. And began to cry.

 

 

6

 

February, Then

“This’ll pass. You watch.”

“I dunno,” Dave said, then took a swig off his Stella Artois. Eddie and he sat side by side at the bar, both watching the muted television suspended over the liquor shelf. Since both sets were tuned to FOX there was no need for sound, the text tickers scrawling across the screen covering the major points in bullet form.  Dave’s stomach was double knotted and the beer wasn’t helping. He drank it anyway.

“You dunno,” Eddie sneered. “Have a little faith. The government’ll take care of it.”

“That’s funny, coming from you, Mr. Libertarian.”

“Hey, I’m what you call a social libertarian. I just don’t want no one tellin’ me who I can and can’t screw, what I can and can’t drink, or if I wanna smoke a doob or do a bump I gotta go to jail for that shit. The government should keep its nose outta my private fuckin’ business, know what I’m sayin’?”

“But they can bail us out when bad shit happens, huh?”

“Catastrophic disaster shit? That’s right. That’s their fuckin’ jobs, bro’. Our tax dollars at work. Send in the fuckin’ Marines.”

Dave was about to point out that they didn’t have any Marines left to send in any more, but bit his tongue and took another mouthful of beer. Most of our troops were still abroad, the National Guard was spread thinner than an Olsen twin and chaos was erupting everywhere. Footage of cities on fire—entire American cities—filled the wide screen monitors. Dave was accustomed—indifferent, even—to seeing foreign cities ablaze, but American ones? It was bad enough when the towers came down, but this was epic. Presently, footage of St. Louis in flames was splashed across the screen, the visibly shaken anchorwoman—he’d heard they were called “sprayheads” in the news biz—mouthing silently. He could lip-read enough to catch the gist, and the worry was creasing her copious makeup. It had been the same all day: an epidemic of violence and cannibalism. Ridiculous sounding, but there it was.

“This is your WMDs,” Eddie said. “Right there, in HD. This is some chemical shit the sand niggers cooked up in some fuckin’ cave. Our guys’ll come up with the antidote and then we’ll get payback.”

“Where’d you get that from?” Dave asked.

Eddie pointed at the ticker. Dave wasn’t so sanguine about the source of this mayhem, nor about getting revenge. According to the news—and on this point there seemed to be no dissenting views—the state of affairs was global. What was happening here in New York was happening in Paris and Tehran and Madrid and Hong Kong and so forth. Still, the cause was up for conjecture and debate and people needed to assign blame. What good was a crisis if you couldn’t say, “It’s so-and-so’s fault”?

From outside the bar the assortment of unsettling noises grew louder. A concussion rocked the small building, spilling Eddie’s beer in his lap.

“Fuck this shit.”

“I think we should head home,” Dave suggested, not wanting his mounting terror to show too much. Eddie looked at his emptied mug and wet lap and rose from his stool without a word.

The twosome hesitated at the door. An SUV plowed down some pedestrians in a mad attempt to beat the light, sending bodies flying through the air, one thudding against the plate glass window, adding a red smear to the pink neon glow.

“Jesus!” Dave shrieked.

The bartender, an old school drink slinger with a permanent scowl, grabbed his keys and a sawed-off shotgun from under the bar.

“I let you out you’re out for good,” he said. “I ain’t lettin’ ya back in, no matter what I see happenin’ out there. You’re on your own.”

“Uh-huh,” Eddie said.

“I’m serious.” He turned to face the others at the bar. “Anyone else wanna leave, now’s the time. After these two, you stay until they says otherwise an’ that’s it. Lockdown time at Casey’s.”

A couple of other patrons polished off their drinks and plodded over to the door, reluctant to put the barkeep’s edict to the test. The rest stayed put, watching the televisions, gorging on chicken wings. Eddie and Dave locked eyes and like they’d done

before matches, punched each other on the shoulders.

“You ready for this shit?” Eddie said, uncertainty tingeing his voice.

“No,” Dave said, opting for honesty.

“You’ll be all right.” Eddie smiled. “You’re with me.”

“Awright,” the bartender said. He undid the lock and pushed open the door a hair. “Get out, quick.” As an afterthought he added, “An’ good luck.” Then he pulled the door shut and locked it behind them. Eddie and Dave lived across the avenue and halfway up the block, but that short distance looked like an uphill battle, even though it was downhill. Dave looked south and saw black smoke rising from various unseen fires. The body that had hit the window lay dead a few feet away, its head collapsed from the double impact. A military troop transport rumbled up York Avenue with little regard for the foot traffic that surged around it in blind panic.

“See?” Eddie beamed, “Here comes the fuckin’ cavalry!”

The vehicle roared by and Dave and Eddie saw bloodied bodies affixed to the sides, scratching at the armored plating. The bodies looked broken but agitated. A man clung to the side, his head facing away from the truck, twisted one hundred and eighty degrees the wrong way. Drool and blood hung in long swaying loops from his shattered jaw. As the truck passed, Dave and Eddie gaped as they saw the troops inside being attacked and consumed by similar assailants. With another, “Fuck this shit,” Eddie took off in the wake of the truck, which momentarily cleared a path. Dave followed, slipping once or twice on fresh blood that leaked from the vehicle. They were more like Custer’s cavalry, with York Avenue as Little Bighorn and the infected as the Sioux and Cheyenne.

As Eddie fished for his keys at the front door to their building a freshly reanimated little girl, no more than five or six, sprang up and attempted to bite his forearm through his thick leather coat. Eddie knew this kid. Not by name, but he’d seen her and her mom in Carl Schurz Park. Her mom was a bona fide MILF and he’d always slowed his jog to get an eyeful of her cleavage. The kid had been cute, too, though more than once he’d seen her pitching a fit for ice cream or cookies. Now the kid’s blood-streaked face was contorted into a parody of childish greed, and human meat was all she craved. One eye bulged from its socket, the white showing all the way around the iris.

Without a moment’s hesitation Eddie punched her square in the face, shattering the small skull within. She dropped to the pavement, disoriented but not motionless. Twitching, she rocked herself side to side, like an upside-down turtle.

“Fuckin’ cuntlet!” Eddie bellowed, examining the bite marks. Assured he was uninjured, he raised his foot and stomped on her head, splattering bone and brain onto the sidewalk. Dave froze a few feet shy of the episode, raising his hands to his mouth. Eddie unlocked the vestibule door and with great impatience shouted, “You in or out, Dave?”

Dave sidestepped the stain that used to be a little girl and, once safely inside the entrance hall, puked. He then looked helplessly at Eddie, who was examining his bare forearm. A little discoloration from the bite was evident, but that was all.

“If that little cunt didn’t still have her milk teeth I might be in trouble,” Eddie said, brow creased as he mulled this over. “Seriously. That was close.”

“Yeah,” Dave said, wiping his mouth.

Their neighbor, Gerri, stood at the top of the steps, looking bedazzled. As they stepped past her onto the second floor landing she pointed at the vomit.

“You can’t leave that there. It’s unsanitary.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Eddie grumbled.

Gerri’s Yorkie, Cuppy, skittered down the stairs and began lapping up Dave’s sick.

“Sorry,” Dave murmured. “I’ll get it later.”

 

 

7

 

July, Now

“Do something, you piles of pus.”

Even before things got as bad as they’d gotten, Abe Fogelhut knew the drill. He was eighty-three years old, the TV and radio were shot, he’d never been much of a reader—except for the occasional paper, and even there it was strictly the Post or the News, never the hoity-toity bleeding-heart Times—so he did what old people do: he sat by the window and watched the world putrefy, counting off the minutes until the final letdown. If he had any balls he’d have hurried the process up. Why forestall the inevitable?

Because as lousy as this life was, this was all you got.

The final reward was finality, period. Except these days it wasn’t, so death had lost some of its appeal.

So Abe did what he did. Today, much like the day before, and the day before, and the day before that. He’d arranged his frail, emaciated body into a semblance of comfort in the threadbare upholstered chair, parted the dingy chintz curtains, opened the dusty venetian blinds and took his position as eyewitness to nothing. The throng milled about—same old, same old. Nothing ever changed. Even the ache in Abe’s empty belly had quieted to a dull numbness. He’d actually welcome the sharpness of the hunger pangs, but you can get used to anything. And that was the problem. He was used to the way things were.

With some effort, Abe opened the window, leaned his head out a little, worked up some glutinous saliva and spat into the mindless crowd directly beneath his fifth-floor dwelling. The thick, pasty blob plopped onto one thing’s noggin and the schmuck didn’t even have the decency to notice, to become outraged or even annoyed. They never reacted. Abe sighed with resignation and eased back from the window, repositioning himself in his seat. “This is what it comes down to,” he muttered. “This is what passes for entertainment in this hollow semblance of a world. Feh.” He mashed his head back into the cushion and clamped his eyes shut, grinding his already nubbin teeth, taking shallow breaths. “What’s the point?” he moaned. “What’s the goddamn point?”

“What’s the point of what?”

“Exactly.”

Ruth shuffled into the room, her slippers shushing against the worn carpeting. He kept his eyes shut. She was unbearable to look at. The skin under her sharp jaw was a loose curtain, what ever nasty business lurked beneath barely hidden by her translucent epidermis. Abe could avoid looking at himself. He didn’t bother with mirrors any more, not since he stopped shaving. His whiskers had itched at first, but they concealed the sins of his lank flesh so they earned their keep. Plus, why waste water these days? For the sake of vanity? Vanity was outmoded folly, even in light of the facial hair. Abe smelled like the old parchment he resembled, his skin felt like membranous cheap leather. He’d stopped changing clothes on a daily basis weeks ago. Why bother? He’d stopped bathing before that, except to wipe a damp sponge in a desultory manner under his pits and over his balls and ass.

But to see Ruth in the same situation was intolerable. She’d always taken such pride in her appearance. She had been vain, back when vanity wasn’t such a futile pursuit. Now she looked like a wizened mummy sheathed loosely in drab Kmart dressing. If Abe had anything in his belly to vomit up upon seeing her, he would, as a eulogy to her former beauty.

“What’s the point of what?” Ruth repeated.

“Of anything. Of everything. Of answering that question.”

“Then what’s the point of asking it every day?”

“Exactly. Exactly so.”

“I hate talking to you when your eyes are closed,” Ruth complained.

“I hate talking to you when my eyes are open.”

Weeks ago that rejoinder might have brought tears to Ruth’s eyes, but she knew what Abe meant, and if she had any more tears to cry she still might shed a few, but she was dry as the Sahara. Abe listened to Ruth hobble back out of the living room and gradually opened his eyes again to stare out the window. Though Jewish in name, he’d always been an atheist, and nothing he’d ever seen or experienced dissuaded him from that. This was it. This was all you got. So, he’d live as long as possible, and when the time came that he keeled over in his chair from starvation and dehydration, at least he’d be able to say to himself that he’d ridden it out.

What ever that’s worth.

It wasn’t like he didn’t envy the dumb bastards who had faith. They were the lucky ones. They just assumed, even in light of the nonstop reality show outside, that when you died your soul departed for a better place. Those ambling piles of rot out there were just empty husks.

In the kitchen, Ruth foraged in the cupboard. They still had a few tiny provisions, most provided by the generosity of their neighbors, but those would soon be depleted. There was a box of melba toast, some peanut butter, a can of lima beans, a can of SpaghettiOs and an individual stick of Slim Jim beef whatever-it-is. There were also three plastic gallon jugs of water. The pipes were as arid as she was, so they no longer bothered to test the faucet. All it did was groan, and if she wanted to hear that noise she’d stay in the living room and listen to Abe.

Unlike her husband, Ruth’s faith had come back to her, and that was before things had turned to shit. Around the time of her mother’s death, Ruth had renewed her bond to Judaism, which had caused much consternation in her husband, who thought she was cured of that foolishness.

When Ruth turned sixty-six, her mother, Ida, ninety-two and more vegetable than animal, finally gave up the ghost. At the time of her death, Ida’s age and weight were the same; she was bedridden, had virtually no brain function and, if this was possible, looked worse than Ruth looked currently. Prior to her actual demise, bits of Ida had predeceased her in the form of amputated limbs gone sour from gangrene due to poor circulation.

At the time it had put Abe in the mind of an old World War II joke about a captive American in a German POW camp who is on work duty fixing the roof in the rain. He slips while mending a hole and catches his leg on a rusty nail. He ends up losing the leg and requests that the guard send it back to the States to be buried. The guard is sympathetic and honors the request. The same POW is back on work detail and fixing another roof hole when the same thing happens. He loses the other leg and makes the same request, which is also honored. The POW, now legless, is on work detail in the lumber mill. He is feeding planks through a table saw and loses an arm. He makes the same request to have the limb sent back to the States for burial. This time the guard denies the appeal. “But why?” the POW asks. “Because,” the guard says, “the commandant thinks you are attempting to escape, piece by piece.”

That joke lost its appeal as old lady Ida escaped piece by piece from the Golden Acres Assisted Living Facility of Maspeth four times—plus she’d gone blind from diabetes, was incontinent, lost the power of speech, didn’t know who the hell she was, where she was, if she was. And as one terrible thing after another befell Ida, Ruth began going to the local temple to make her peace with God. By the time Ida mercifully kicked the bucket—no mean feat considering she had no feet—Ruth was very active in the temple and Abe was very alienated from his wife. They lived together, but apart. It would have bothered him more if he was still sexually attracted to her, but that part of their relationship had “escaped” long ago. He’d watched Ida’s nightmarish living putrefaction and thought to himself many times, There is no God. Ida had never been his favorite person, but no one should have to go through what she did before snuffing it. He wouldn’t wish that on Hitler.

Well, maybe Hitler.

And Stalin.

But that’s about it.

From outside, a guttural yawp burst the bubble of silence and Abe heaved himself to the window in time to watch the spectacle blossom below. This was new: one of the pus bags had sunk his teeth into another, much to his victim’s consternation. As the aggressor tore out a chunk of the other’s rotting flesh, both uttered unutterably foul noises, setting off a wave of restlessness through the normally torpid crowd. The antagonist choked down the chunk of fetid flesh, quaked a little, then vomited it back up. A spastic skirmish ensued.

“You gotta see this!” Abe shouted. “Hey, honey . . . ,” old habits die hard, “. . . these sons of bitches have finally started in on each other!” Abe clapped his hands in delight. “They’re evolving! Soon the miserable bastards will be at each other’s throats, just like regular people!” Abe began laughing and coughing simultaneously.

“What’s so great about that?” Ruth said.

Abe caught his breath, sighed, and squinted at Ruth. “You really know how to suck the joy out of the moment.”

“How is that joyful? What is joyful about those things attacking each other? It’s horrible. They’re horrible.”

“Irony is lost on you, Ruth. You never could handle it. It’s funny to me, see, because in spite of all the terrible things you could say about those sacks of waste out there, they always seem to get along, even if it’s completely mindless. But now they’re pushing and shoving. Even dead and reanimated we’re hardwired for odium. Even those brain-dead heaps of flesh eventually manifest hostility toward each other. It’s the human way to be inhuman.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“Just go away, Ruth. Let me enjoy this. Forget I said anything. Please.”

Abe poked his head back out the window.

Things were back to normal. No pushing. No shoving. No turbulence. Just the usual vegetable parade. He mashed his head into the upholstery and, eyes shut, pondered the quiet. Once upon a time he’d have cherished such silence but not now. He missed the sound of traffic. The buses that used to run along York, even their whining hydraulics.

Sitting there, eyes closed, a faint sound wafting past the discolored chintz oozed into Abe’s ears; one in addition to the brainless lowing of the shamblers. One that he couldn’t place, dull and echoey. With effort Abe disengaged from the chair and craned his head out, looking north—nada—then south—bingo! Something was plowing uptown through the crowd, weaving past abandoned vehicles left at jagged angles. As it approached the sound amplified. Thumping. “The hell?” Abe said to himself. It was moving at a decent clip. A car. No, taller. One of those mini-SUVs, only he couldn’t hear the roar of an engine over the wet thud of rickety bodies jouncing off its hard surfaces. Maybe a hybrid; they ran silent.

Abe wanted to shout to its pilot but there was no point; that machine wasn’t stopping for anything. But unless those things had learned how to drive, at least there was evidence of life beyond this sapped bunch. As it neared the building Abe got a good, albeit fleeting, look at the vehicle. The front end was a dark mass of blooddrenched concavities. Though he was pretty certain those things didn’t feel panic, it was clear they weren’t thrilled with becoming temporary hood ornaments as they were bounced up off the pavement, or ground up below.

As the small sport ute plowed northwards it hit the shell of a dead car masked by the crowd. The savage impact echoed through the canyon of buildings and again Abe witnessed a driver explode through his windshield. “Poor bastard,” Abe sighed, anticipating the crowd swarming on the mangled driver, ripping him to shreds as the entrée du jour. But they didn’t. An aperture opened in the crowd before the now-smoking wreck of his ride.

“What the hell?” Abe said, confounded.

The zombies were spreading out, away from the area where the driver’s body lay. Abe couldn’t see him, he was out of range and masked by the multitude, but there was no doubt they weren’t all swarming him. A bestial moaning came from that direction, making the hairs on Abe’s neck rise. “That’s new,” he gasped.

With reluctance, he tore himself away from the window as Ruth entered the room.

“What was that?” she cried.

“A crash,” he said. “A car. It crashed. I gotta see if anyone else is seeing this.”

As he left the apartment Ruth shuffled over to where he’d been for her own look. In the hall there was a commotion of voices. Abe heard Karl shout something about the roof and in spite of his protesting legs, he hied upstairs. As he neared the top few steps an explosion rocked the building and he gripped the handrail to avoid tumbling back down.

“My heart,” he sputtered.

When he stepped onto the tar paper he saw black smoke churning up from below. Energy spent, he shuffle-jogged the rest of the way, joining some of the other men at the edge of the roof.

“I didn’t think hybrids blew like that,” he panted.

“The car he hit did,” Karl clarified. “Anyway, why do you think it was a hybrid?”

“I didn’t hear the engine.”

“Engine was makin’ plenty of noise,” Dabney said. “You’re just a bit deaf, old-timer.”

Abe was about to protest, but Alan shouted, “Are you guys nuts? Who cares what kind of car that was? A person’s dead!”

“Yeah, and they weren’t eating him,” Karl added.

“Maybe,” Dabney said.

“I saw it, too,” Abe confirmed. “They were spreading out. It was weird.”

“Maybe they smelled some leaky gasoline,” Dabney countered. “Backed off ’cause they knew it was gonna blow.”

“That’s giving them an awful lot of credit,” Karl said.

“Animals know when trouble’s afoot,” Dabney said. “Thunderstorms and earthquakes. We don’t know dick about those things except they like eating us. They could have all kinds of animal cunning. Some heightened senses. They can smell blood.”

Hearing that, Alan thought about Mike and turned to go downstairs to check on Ellen, who’d popped an Ambien or two earlier and was out like a light. Just as well. Two fresh kills in rapid succession would be too much. As he passed back into the building the others continued to debate what they’d just witnessed.

“Too much excitement for one day,” he said to himself.

As he let himself back into Ellen’s apartment, Eddie and Dave tore out of theirs and Alan was grateful, at least, to have avoided them.

 

 

8

 

Alan stared across the queen-size mattress at Ellen, who slept peacefully. He didn’t know how to feel. When he’d come back in, through her Ambien-induced haze she’d burbled something dreamily at him, and before he knew it they’d been a tangle of naked limbs. Mike had died a scant few hours earlier. Died was the least of it. That made it seem peaceful—in their current predicament almost enviable. He’d been devoured, and here Alan lay, in Mike’s bed, perhaps even on Mike’s side—chances were that Ellen snoozed in her normal spot, so Alan was occupying a dead man’s very personal real estate. Talk about fate tossing him a live grenade.

Ellen’s body, even dissipated, still held attraction for Alan. Okay, it was a sort of hot emaciated-supermodel Buchenwald kind of sexiness, but she still had that certain indefinable something that put lead in Alan’s pencil. Thinking of pencils, Alan grabbed one and a scratch pad and began to sketch her.

Gone were the pleasing soft curves, but if he could get into an Egon Schiele state of mind he could do some good work. Some people found Schiele’s work erotic. Alan didn’t happen to be one of them, but one must adapt to the here and now. Ellen’s areolas and nipples were dusky, almost burgundy, in sharp contrast to her pale skin. Her wasted breasts pooled on her chest, flattened empty sacs, yet he’d sucked on them like they dispensed the antidote. Unlike the others, Ellen steered clear of the roof and had gotten paler and paler in the weeks past. The triangular patch of black pubic hair stood out in sharp relief against her ashy skin, thick and matted with sweat and the commingled fluids of their lovemaking.

It didn’t feel like love. It had felt desperate, rapacious, panic stricken, violent. It had also been the first pleasurable expenditure of energy Alan could remember since everything turned rotten. Even with their bones grinding together it was the fulfillment of a bygone wet dream. Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he ’live, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread, Alan remembered from childhood. What the hell kind of fucked-up thing is that to teach a kid? Grind his bones to make my bread? What kind of bread is that? And now the things out there wanted to do the same basic thing, only skip the carbs. We’ll just eat you alive, thanks all the same.

Alan’s drawing was not turning out the way he wanted. Ellen looked twisted and knotty, her contours convex where they oughtn’t be, concave likewise. Her tangle of brunette curls a greasy amorphous blob, obscuring her face save for one closed eyelid tinted dark as a shiner. She looked as if she’d been elongated on the rack like some accused heretic during the Inquisition. His pencil said Ticonderoga but it might as well have read Torquemada by the way it rendered Alan’s fluky new girlfriend. The First Grand Inquisitor of Spain would have been proud to reduce a human being to Ellen’s pitiful status—all in a day’s work in the name of the Lord. The problem with the drawing was that it was perfect. It looked just like her.

Ellen didn’t need to see this. Alan crumpled the drawing and tossed it out the window, where it landed right on the bloodsmeared spot on which Mike had met his fate. What would Goya do? Alan wondered. The phrase reminded Alan of those WWJD bumper stickers and T-shirts and friendship bracelets and what everelse they emblazoned that catchphrase on. What Would Jesus Do? Well, from the looks of things, he’d abandon his precious flock and let them rot. Good thing Alan didn’t believe in that nonsense or he’d be pretty disenchanted with the Almighty.

Back to Goya and an artist’s duty. Though he did plenty of pretty canvases, ol’ Francisco didn’t shy away from capturing ugliness. Alan thought of Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring One of his Sons. In it, the mythological giant grips the partially dismembered naked body of one of his sons, the giant’s eyes insane with paranoia and perhaps a tinge of grief as he gnaws off his progeny’s head. Alan had plenty of firsthand experience seeing bodies being dismembered—and documenting them. In his apartment he had several walls covered top to bottom with drawings and paintings he’d done of the mob outside, both individual and group studies. He was the Audubon of the undead—keeper of the visual record of humanity’s demise.

But for whom?

Who would look at these renderings? The likelihood of future generations was pretty much nil. Time travelers? Space aliens? No, this was art for art’s sake. Like the need to breathe and eat, Alan had discovered he was predisposed to do art. He’d always wondered how pure his drive was. Did he merely create in order to impress others? He’d mostly done work for print. Now there was no audience. For a while he thought he’d only do art if there were remuneration upon completion. What a price to pay to confirm one’s dedication. His apartment was a gallery devoted to but a single theme: The End. Pencil drawings, pastels, pen and ink, a few watercolors, which strictly speaking weren’t done with water. Not with their water shortage. He used urine, which worked out fine. The yellow pigment added authenticity to the subject matter. At least he could work in oils. Plus, the thinner got him a bit high.

So art still had its little dividends.

And he’d bagged the model of his dreams.

Who now stirred.

“Mmmmm,” she purred. “Hello.”

Speaking of high, Ellen looked a trifle baked. He wondered how many Ambiens had she’d taken, then choked back the notion that she’d maybe tried to join Mike. Her eyes swam in their hollows, unfocused. As she blinked herself back to cognizance she looked confused, rabbity.

“You’re not Mike. What are you doing here?” Her query was accusatory. She shook her head, attempting to reengage her brain. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Mike’s dead. Mike’s dead now. Alan. I’m sorry.” She attempted a smile, but her mouth made the wrong shape. “What a day, huh?” A failed attempt at mirth employing the frowsy cadence of a secretary at the water cooler.

“Yeah,” Alan mumbled.

“What’s that smell?” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Uh, a fire outside. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“A fire?” she repeated, eyes still glassy.

“Yeah. It’ll keep.”

Ellen eased closer to Alan on the rumpled bedclothes and pressed her head against his bare chest. She draped her arms around him. He yearned for his monastic apartment.

“So,” she whispered, “are you moving in or not?”

An entreaty.

An invitation.

A trap.

* * *

With the pretext of needing some things from his pad, Alan disengaged from Ellen and fled her constricting lair. With nimble assurances he edged out into the common hall and left her standing in her kitchen. At the cessation of the multiple clicks of her dead bolts engaging, the door across the hall swung open and there stood Eddie, looking wry and malevolent with a fishing rod in his hand.

“You don’t waste any time, do you?” he leered. “Y’know, I always figured you for queer, but I doff my lid to you, Zotz. You got right in there like a champ and got the booty. Hats off, bud.”

“What are you . . . ?”

“Don’t play dumb, champ.” Waggling the fishing rod to make his point, Eddie held up Alan’s smoothed-out crumpled drawing of Ellen. “I did a little fishing in Lake Swenson.” He turned the drawing over, its back flecked with bloodstains.

Alan stared at his handiwork in disbelief. “With everything going on outside you rescued that drawing from the alley? Are you fucking insane?”

“Car crashes are a dime a dozen,” Eddie said, grinning, “but art is forever.”

“Car crashes are a dime a—” Alan shook his head like a wet dog trying to make sense of that statement. “What? Name the last time you saw a car driving by.”

“Been ages. But it didn’t do us any good, did it? Anyway, other sounds were of more interest. Ellen never moaned like that with Mikey boy, I can tell you. Even back in the day.”

Alan shoved Eddie into his apartment and closed the door behind them.

“Jesus Christ, Eddie. She might hear you,” Alan said, jabbing his finger into Eddie’s ditchlike sternum.

“Everyone hears everyone, Casanova. Sound travels. Especially when you’re bangin’ a screamer. She was making so much noise I thought she was gettin’ eaten alive. I guess maybe she was, actually.” Eddie smirked. With a plastic magnetic banana he affixed the drawing to his refrigerator door, admiring it. “Not like the old days, though, huh? Back in the day Ellen had some boasty titties. Well, you make do with what you’ve got, right? Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good enough.”

“Look, don’t make a big thing of this, okay?” Alan said, hating the vaguely inveigling tone in his voice. “Ellen has enough on her plate. . . .”

“None of us have enough on our plates,” Eddie interrupted.

“I meant figuratively. Jesus. Anyway, this is just a temporary thing. I’m just trying to . . .”

“Get your dick wet. I understand. Dude, if there’s anyone in the building who’s on your wavelength it’s yours truly. That sensitive artist shit worked its hoodoo. I get it. Some chicks dig jocks, some dig nerds. I should’ve known Ellen was a nerd whore. Just look no further than the late Mikey Swenson. What was his racket? Computers?”

Mike had worked in the IT department at an investment brokerage down on Wall Street, so point to the observant jock.

“Look, just keep it on the DL, all right? Let the woman grieve in peace.”

Eddie sniggered. “Okay. On one condition.”

Alan sagged. “Name it.”

“Keep the nudie art comin’. I want you to keep me supplied with fresh whacking material. I don’t know why I didn’t think to tap you sooner, what with all other resources being non ex is tent. Not like I can log onto Bang Bus any more.”

“You want me to do porno art of Ellen for you?” Alan gaped.

“Not just Ellen. And not the way she looks now. I’ll come up with some scenarios for you to do up for me. Okay? Okay. Now get the fuck outta my apartment.”

Alan traipsed downstairs and fell onto his bed in a daze. This was what prison must be like. Alan had always wondered if he could endure incarceration—especially long term. He figured his only survival skill would be doing pervy fantasy art for the other inmates. The rapists would want rape fantasies. The murderers would want murder fantasies. The hyphenates would want hybridized fantasies, one from column A, three from column B, and so on. And now a blackmailing ex-jock was leaning on Alan for post-apocalyptic pinups.

What would Vargas do?

 

9

 

April, Then

“She’s turning blue, Mike. She’s turning fucking blue! You have to do something!”

“What am I supposed to do, Ellie? What? Go to the Duane Reade? Call a doctor?”

Ellen held Emily, barely a year old, and watched her tiny mouth open and close like a fish out of water. She’d wrung every drop of nutrition from her mother and the coffers were nearly bare. Ellen hated rationing, but what else was there to do? Mike was right, what could he do? Go out there? Sure, only to never return. Baby in tow, she tromped over to the front windows and radiated hatred at the undead things in the street below, milling about as ever, even in the freezing rain. She threw open the sash and leaned out, sleet stinging her face. She shielded Emily, pressing the small head against her depleted bosom.

“Fuck you all!” Ellen shrieked. “Fuck each and every one of you goddamned parasitic motherfuckers!”

Emily started to cry.

“What are you doing?” Mike bleated as he hastened to the window, grabbing his wife’s arm. “You could drop her.”

“And what, Mike? What? She’d be taken days before her time? Maybe I’d be doing her a favor. Look at this fucking world we’ve got here. And look at this family. A balls-less dad and a worthless mom with sand in her tits. She’s gonna fucking starve, Mike. Starve. So will we, ultimately, but Emily’s got no reserves. She’s wasting away. And blue.”

“‘Balls-less’?” her husband peeped.

“That’s what you got from all that? Brilliant.”

Over the prickly clatter of sleet the zombies heard the commotion above and stared up at the scene of domestic turmoil, hunger being the only urge left to animate their lifeless eyes. Ellen looked away from Mike back at the throng. She could win this bunch over in a second if she’d just fling herself and the petite hors d’oeuvre in the organic-cotton sling down to them. The lunch crowd would go wild, then move on. She remembered how the world had gaped in stupefaction and revulsion as Michael Jackson dangled his infant son out a hotel window. The multitude below, with their caved-in faces and bleached skin, reminded her of Wacko Jacko, but she was the one dangling the baby.

She slumped against the wall beneath the window and joined Emily in tears. Mike closed the sash and crouched down to comfort his girls, but his touch and gentle tone brought none. They were disconsolate and he was, truth be told, balls-less. But who wouldn’t be? Was it balls-less or just common sense to not leave the building? How could he? Ellen and Emily’s wailing grew louder, amplified by Mike’s sense of worthlessness. He rose and left the room to get some water for Ellen, but by the time he reached the kitchen, forgot his reason for being there, opened the front door and stepped into the common hall, his own expression as absent as those normally worn by the zombies.

 “Quite a racket they’re raising,” Abe said, gesturing into the door, which hung ajar.

“Huh?” Mike said, his thoughts muddled. He blinked and focused on his neighbors, Abe and Paolo, the good-looking South American from 2B. “Oh, yes. Rough day.”

“Aren’t they all?” Abe said, earning earnest nods from both younger men.

“Indeed,” Paolo added. “These are dark days.”

Feeling the need to talk to people who presumably wouldn’t scream at him, Mike joined in, though he wasn’t feeling very conversational. “They’re hungry, Ellen and the baby. Hungry and tired. And frustrated. Ellen wanted me to go out and get supplies, but that’s not going to happen.”

“And that, my friend, is the difference between your generation and mine,” Abe scoffed. “If I had a starving child you can bet your last goddamn cent I’d be out the door trying to provide for her, damn the consequences.”

“Easy for you to say—,” Mike started, but Abe cut him off.

“Damn right it’s easy for me to say. As I recall you were home when this all began. Me, I hadda schlep all the way from the garment district to get home. I braved all kinds of madness to get home to my frightened little wifey. Granted, if I’d had some foresight I’d have stopped at the grocers before coming in, but hindsight’s twenty-twenty.”

“It was different then,” Mike stammered. He’d really thought other men would commiserate with him over female troubles; bad to worse.

“Different! Feh. There were those lousy zombies all over then and they’re all over now. What, you think they weren’t chowing down on everyone in sight that day? Eighty-three years of age, I managed to get myself home intact. If any of you young men—,” the word curdled in Abe’s mouth, “—had any cojones you’d go out and do what I did. Show the same resourcefulness and—”

Mike was tiring of having his gonads impugned and was about to protest—albeit weakly—when Paolo chimed in, his machismo also under attack.

“I have the cojones, Abraham,” Paolo spat, pique scoring his rugged features.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“You challenge me? You saying I don’t have the cojones of an old man?”

Abe chuckled. “I sure as hell hope you don’t have a pair like mine.”

Paolo’s expression softened as Abe winked at him.

“These are dark days,” Paolo repeated, a bitter smile sneaking past his anger onto his lips.

“Amen,” Abe agreed. The sound of the crying, which hadn’t abated, brought the three men back to the matter at hand. “Regardless—and I don’t want to get into a shouting match—but the fact remains that there is a woman and a child who need sustenance and it’s a man’s job to provide.”

Mike’s face flushed. Sitting at computer consoles for the last decade hadn’t exactly toughened him up or primed him for huntergatherer mode. Men of Abe’s generation were built differently. They were shaped and hardened by war. Abe was a vet of World War II. Mike’s only combat experience involved button mashing on a game controller. Countless hours spent on World of Warcraft and Call of Duty didn’t count. He nudged the door open an inch to look in on Ellie and Em. Though the volume had decreased, both were in a bad way. And Ellie had said Em was blue and meant it literally. The apartment could be warmer and even though they were all wearing layers, they were cold in the damp chill.

“That baby needs to eat,” Paolo said, voice steely.

“I know, I know,” Mike replied, eyeing his shoes.

“If you are not enough a man to go, I will.”

“Now wait a minute—”

“Abraham is right,” Paolo said, in his formal, mild accent. “He is an old man and he made it here. He’s told us many, many, many times of his perilous journey. We were lucky, you and I and some of the others, to be here already, but he and John came late. And they suffered.”

Mike was about to assert that they’d all suffered, but point taken. Abe had walked the walk. As an old man was wont to do, he’d recounted his trek often—maybe even embellished a little—but scrawny old Abe Fogelhut had bested all the “young bucks.”

“My gear is down in the locker,” Abe said, but Paolo waved him off.

“I do not need hand-me-downs, señor.”

Paolo about-faced and trundled down to his apartment.

“What? I insulted him?” Abe scoffed.

“You insulted both of us.”

“Shaming isn’t the same thing. A little shame is a good thing.”

“If you say so.”

* * *

From their respective windows the residents of 1620 watched Paolo make it halfway across the avenue before being overwhelmed and consumed in his insufficient version of Abe’s improvised survival gear.

Abe retired his heroic saga.

A week later, Emily died.

Mike manned up enough to dispose of the petite corpse, sparing Ellen the details. He hoped the wrappings were sufficient to keep the creatures from eating her. But then again, they only seemed to go for live flesh.

Did that count as a blessing?

 

10

 

July, Now

Karl stood by his open window, looking out across York Avenue. Between the zombies and the abandoned cars, including today’s fresh one, the street was so packed you couldn’t see the pavement, but Karl knew it was sticky as a movie theater floor in the glory days of Times Square. The street below, however, was shellacked with immeasur able quantities of blood. With the fire having burned itself out, the only noise was the hum of flies and the occasional grunt or moan.

Karl often wished he’d been old enough to enjoy the myriad adult entertainment palaces that had operated freely in the days before “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani, had cleaned up the city. It was getting harder and harder to remember “important” figures from the days before the pandemic. Giuliani had been on a mission: to make the city safer and more antiseptic for its citizenry, but mainly for the tourists. New York had endured decades’ worth of bad image, fostered by both fact and distortions in the media. America overall had a skewed conception of the Big Apple: graffiti-streaked, litter-strewn, oozing with degenerates of every ilk who were ready to ply their vile talents on wholesome, unsuspecting visitors.

Karl had relocated to New York from Ohio for the express purpose of being plied vilely, but it never happened. Like a nomad in the desert he’d followed a dreamy ignis fatuus of chimerical pendulous bosoms swaying to throbbing disco beats. By the time Karl got to Fun City, however, Times Square no longer resembled the one captured by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Paul Morrissey, or even Frank Henenlotter. This Ohio boy had wanted Taxi Driver, Forty Deuce, and Basket Case.

Instead he got The Lion King.

Karl got a job, an apartment, and an education in reality versus illusion. And shortly thereafter it all went south. People started dying and coming back and eating each other and the rest was history. Who was to blame? No one knew, or at least no one was saying.

“Thanks, Mean Joe,” Karl spat, a vicious parrot tormenting himself. “Thanks, Mean Joe. Thanks, Mean Joe. Oh yeah, Dabney’s really going to welcome me up there again. Beyond thinking that I’m the biggest douche in the world, now he probably thinks I’m a racist. Thanks, Mean Joe. What else is he going to think? Stupid dumb stupid-head! Of course some hick from the hinterlands is going to be a cracker redneck racist. I’m just fulfilling my geneticslash-socioeconomic obligation.”

Karl continued to glare at the graceless meat puppets stumbling around beneath his window, more vegetable than animal. Meat. Vegetables. Karl’s stomach growled. He wished he had more of Dabney’s vermin jerky. Rat. Pigeon. Squirrel. What ever it was, it was good. The way they meandered down there, individual forms swallowed by the massiveness of the crowd, Karl could cross his eyes slightly and blur the overlapping double image. Meat. Vegetables. The surface pulsated like stew burbling in a boundless Crock-Pot. Meat. Vegetables. His life had been reduced to a sad homage to those cartoons where starving castaways on a desert island pictured each other as anthropomorphized hot dogs and steaks and hamburgers. Karl’s stomach lurched and he cursed himself for having purged Dabney’s vittles.

The shadows were beginning to deepen as the sun started setting. Soon the oppressive darkness would spread, drowning everything in pitch black, and another seemingly endless night would begin. Another reason Karl had been seduced by the city was that like heights, the dark was not one of his favorite things. When Karl had first moved here, he loved the fact that the streetlights kept the city bright all night long. Now it was country dark.

Back in Rushsylvania, Ohio—a tiny blip in the already bliplike Logan County—it got so dark at night you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face after a certain hour. There had been streetlamps outside, but they didn’t saturate everything with that pervasive sodium-vapor lambency that city lights did. For most of his childhood Karl slept with a night-light, much to his father’s chagrin. A night-light was a crutch, and Manfred Stempler wasn’t raising any cripples, emotional or otherwise. Manfred got the bright idea to go camping in Hocking Hills State Park. Nine-year-old Karl had been dead set against it, preferring to stay home and watch late movies under his blanket on his eleven-inch black-and-white TV.

“Manfred Stempler is not raising a sissy,” had been his dear papa’s response.

So off they went. Could his father spring for one of the cottages in the park? No way. That wouldn’t be “roughing it.” A tent was pitched, a campfire was made, and with as much detachment as a spooked nine-year-old could muster, Karl observed his older brother, Gunter, and their father enjoy themselves in the great outdoors. “Is this so bad?” his father kept asking, and though Karl’s shaking head said, “No, no, no,” his eyes held a different answer. When the last traces of daylight ebbed away, swallowed by the earth and foliage, the campfire’s light seemed pitiful and inadequate. The woods made noises. Karl wasn’t a superstitious kid, so he didn’t believe in monsters—which in light of the current state of affairs was kind of funny—but there were things creeping about, rustling the leaves, crunching the soil, which unsettled Karl.

Small oases of light had dotted the periphery from nearby RVs, accompanied by the purr of generators and the occasional drunken whoop, but it felt like the surface of Mars to Karl. Just because someone is born in the country doesn’t mean he’s not a city boy by nature. At home he’d secreted away a prized single from destructive Gunter and evangelical “all contemporary music is the dev il” Manfred: David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose.” Roth was Manfred’s worst nightmare: a sex-charged metropolitan hedonistic Jew in showbiz, put on this Earth to lead impressionable youths—like his sonny boy—down the primrose path to Hell. Karl would listen in secret to Diamond Dave rhapsodize, “Show me your bright lights, and your city lights, all right! ”

That had been 1986.

And Karl started planning his run from Logan from then on.

New York City was to be his Yankee Rose, resplendent in bright lights, city lights.

Even with its Lugosily ghoulish name, Rushsylvania—population just shy of six hundred—boasted a nearly 100 percent white populace, all good Christian folk. Everyone was pink and fair-haired. His father—Big Manfred—was very active at Rushsylvania Church of Christ on East Mill, epicenter of nowhere. Every Sunday Manfred escorted Karl, Gunter, and their mom, Josephine, into the bland house of worship. White faces upraised praising their lily-white version of Jesus, all soft, mousy brown hair and blue eyes, very European, very not Middle Eastern—very, extremely, super not Semitic.

If Christ had been portrayed in art as he actually looked in life, Christianity never would have caught on. All those generations of European artists westernized the Christ to conform to standards suited to their parishioners’ predilections—early market research. A Yasir Arafat-looking spokesmodel wouldn’t have put asses on the pews. Pushing the Christ was all about marketing and demographics. But tell that to Big Manny.

And then count on the beating of your life.

For all the times his father whipped out the Bible—and occasionally whipped him with it—Karl couldn’t remember a single time Big Manfred cracked it open. He wasn’t even sure his father could read. But it had made a compelling prop, thick of girth and bound in chipped oxblood leather.

Karl remembered the Lord’s Supper service on Sunday mornings—an odd time for supper, but why quibble over details when illogic reigns supreme? The bread, representing Christ’s body, cups of juice, representing Christ’s blood, passed out to all. Those who believed in Christ as their personal savior were invited to eat the bread and drink the juice that was dispensed. What a ghoulish practice. Though Karl didn’t miss that old-time religion, he could go for some of that body and blood right about now. A big heaping helping of Nabisco Body of Christ. Yum. Blessedly bland bites in every box. He looked at the zombies on York. Mindless, conformist, primed to eat bodies and drink blood.

The sun was almost gone for the day. Five stories below, the seething stew turned a deep burnt umber. Accompanied by a chorus of growls from his abdomen, Karl stalked over to his bed and willed himself to sleep, intoning a sacred hymn.

“She’s a vision from coast to coast, sea to shining sea . . .”

 

Copyright © 2010 by Bob Fingerman

2 comments
Roland of Gilead
2. pKp
Hya,

Just letting you guys now that I hopped straight to Amazon after reading this and bought the book. I think about 1/3 of my books purchases (and probably close to 100% of my first-hand book purchases) in the last 12 months originated from this site. Keep postin', I'll keep buyin'.
acesfull2000
3. acesfull2000
Loved this book. Eagerly waiting for the sequel!

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment