Aug 30 2010 8:30am
The Reapers Are the Angels (Excerpt)
After you read the first chapter of Alden Bell's YA zombie apocalypse novel over at PanMacmillan, check out chapter two below!
That night, by firelight, she removes from the hatch in the floor the things she stowed there when she first arrived. The cooler, the canteen, the pistol with two good rounds left in it. Later, she takes the gurkha knife and the pocket stone down to the beach and sits on the sand whetting the edge of it in long smooth strokes. She takes her time with this, sitting there under the moon for the better part of an hour, until she can taste the sharpness of the blade with her tongue. It’s a good blade, a foot long with an inward curve to it. It whistles when she swings it through the air.
She sleeps soundly that night but wakes herself up just before dawn and gathers her things.
She puts the knife and the pistol and the canteen and her panama hat into the cooler and drags it down to the beach. Then she walks back up to the lighthouse to say goodbye.
It’s a sorry thing to leave your home, and this one’s been good to her. She feels like a pea at the base of that tallboy tower. She climbs the steps one last time to the catwalk and looks at herself in the thousand little mirrors of the dead light. Her hair is long and stringy, and she takes a band and ties it up at the back. Then she reaches in and uses her fingers to prise loose one of the little mirrors and puts it in her pocket as a souvenir of her time here.
Truth be told, the inward gaze is something she’s not too fond of. But there are secrets that lurk in the mind, and she doesn’t want any of them sneaking up on her. Sometimes it pays to take a deep look inside even if you get queasy gazing into those dark corners.
Back at the bottom, she goes out and shuts the door, pulling it closed tight behind her so the wind won’t blow it open and stir things around in there. It’s a warming thought to picture it staying the same after she’s gone away from it.
She stands at the base and cranes her neck to look up at it.
Goodbye, you good old tower, she says. Keep standin true. Take care of whoever settles down in you next, dead or alive, sinner or saint.
She nods. It’s a nice thing to say, she thinks, like a blessing or a toast or a birthday wish or a funeral sermon—and she knows that words have the power to make things true if they’re said right.
* * *
Down at the beach, she strips naked and puts all her clothes and her shoes in the cooler with everything else and shuts the lid as tight as she can, stomping up and down on it a few times. She pulls it into the waves until it begins to lift in the current of its own accord, then she swings it in front of her and pushes it over the breakers until she’s beyond them and beyond the swells.
She swims towards the mainland, keeping far away from the shoal so the current won’t pull her onto the rocks. She keeps her arms around the cooler and kicks her feet, and when she’s tired she stops and floats and keeps an eye on the mainland to see which way the current is taking her. There’s a breeze that sweeps over the surface of the water, and it makes goosebumps on her wet skin, but it’s still better than trying to make the swim at midday when the sun is directly overhead and parching you up like a lizard.
She has no way to tell time, she’s no fast swimmer and it feels like an hour before she reaches the mainland and pulls the cooler up onto the beach. She sits on a rock wringing the saltwater out of her hair and drying her skin in the morning breeze.
The beach is deserted. She opens the cooler and takes out a miniature spyglass and climbs a set of broken concrete steps to a gravel turnout overlooking the shore to get the lay of the land. There are two cars parked down the road and some shacks in the distance. Against the horizon she can see a few slugs. They haven’t caught her scent, and they’re limping around in their random jerky way. She keeps her head low and focuses the spyglass again on the two cars. One of them is a jeep, and the other is a squat red car with two doors. All the wheels seem intact from what she can tell.
Back down on the beach, she combs out her hair with her fingers and from under the screen of her hair she can see a figure on the shore in the distance. She doesn’t need the spyglass—she can tell by the way it lumbers. Slug. She finishes tugging the knots out and ties it up into a ponytail.
Then she takes her clothes from the cooler and dresses.
The slug has spotted her and is headed in her direction, but its feet keep getting tripped up in the sand. She pulls out the spyglass and looks through it. The dead woman is dressed in a nurse’s uniform. Her top is medical green, but her bottoms are brightly coloured, like pyjama pants. Temple can’t tell what the pattern is, but it looks like it could be lollipops.
She closes the spyglass and stows it in her pocket.
Then she goes back to the cooler, takes out the pistol, checking the rounds to make sure they haven’t got wet, and puts on the sheathed gurkha knife, which hangs from her belt and straps it to her thigh with two leather ties.
By the time she’s finished, the nurse is twenty yards away, her hands reaching out before her. Instinctual desire. Hunger, thirst, lust, all the vestigial drives knotted up in one churning, ambling stomach.
Temple looks one last time at the nurse, then turns and climbs the concrete steps up towards the road. The other slugs are still in the distance, but she knows they will catch sight of her soon enough, and that a few have a tendency to turn quickly into a pack and then a swarm. So she walks directly to where the cars are parked and opens the door of the red compact. The keys have been left in it, but the engine’s dead.
She searches the jeep for keys and can’t find any, but there is a screwdriver under the front seat, so she uses it to rip away the cowling from around the ignition and prise out the cap on the ignition barrel. Then she feels for the notch at the end of the barrel and puts the head of the screwdriver into it and turns.
The engine coughs a few times and starts, the gauges on the dash rolling to life.
Okay then, Temple says. That’s a boon for the girl. Half a tank of gas, too. Watch out great wide open, prepare to be motored on.
* * *
The world is pretty much what she remembers, all burned up and pallid—like someone came along with a sponge and soaked up all the colour and the moisture too and left everything bone dry.
But she’s also glad to be back. She’s missed the structures of man, which are pretty wondrous when you put your mind to them. Those tall brick buildings with all their little rooms and closets and doors, like ant colonies or wasps’ nests when you bust open their paper shells. She was in New York City once, when she was little.
They had it pretty well slug-free because it’s an island, and she remembers standing at the bottom of this terrific tall building, thinking that civilization’s got some crackerjack people working for its furtherance, and kicking at the base of the building with her foot to see if the whole thing would topple over but realizing that it didn’t and never ever would.
In the first town she comes to, she spots a convenience store on the corner and pulls up onto the sidewalk in front of it. Deep slug territory—there are meatskins milling around everywhere she looks, but they’re spread out so there must not be anything for them to hunt around here. And they’re slow, some of them even crawling. Nothing to eat for a long time, she figures. This place is written off—she’ll have to go further north.
But first she goes into the convenience store. She discovers a whole box of those peanut butter crackers she likes—the ones made like sandwiches with the bright-orange cheese crackers. She rips open one of the packages and eats it right there in the store, standing in the window and watching the slugs inch their way in her direction.
She thinks about her diet on the island.
Ain’t a fish swimming in the ocean, she says, could beat these crackers.
She takes the rest of the box and a twenty-four pack of Coke, some bottles of water, three tubes of Pringles, a few cans of chilli and soup, and some boxes of macaroni and cheese. She grabs some other things too: a flashlight and batteries, a bar of soap in case she gets a chance to wash, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush, and a whole spindle of scratch-off lottery tickets because she likes to see how much of a millionaire she would have been in the old times.
She checks behind the counter for a gun or ammunition, but there’s nothing.
Then she notices the slugs are getting closer, so she loads up the passenger seat of the car with her haul and gets back on the road.
When she’s out of town, on a long stretch of two-lane road, she opens a Coke and another packet of peanut butter crackers, which taste like cloudy orange heaven.
While she’s eating, she thinks about how smart it was for God to make meatskins not interested in real food so there would be plenty left for regular folk. She remembers an old joke that makes her smile—the one about the meatskin who gets invited to a wedding party. At the end of it they have twice the leftovers and half the guests.
She chuckles, and the road is long.
* * *
She takes the coast road for a while, shaggy palm trees everywhere and overgrown beach grass coming up through the cracks in the road, and then she turns inland for a change. Gators, she’s never seen so many gators before. They are sunning themselves on the black tarmac of the highway, and when she approaches they skulk out of the way in no particular hurry. There are other towns, but still no signs of regular life. She begins to imagine herself as the last person left on the planet with all these meatskins. The first thing she would do is find a map and drive the country to see the sights. She would start in New York and then adventure herself all the way to San Francisco where they have the steepdriving hills. She could find a stray dog or tame a wolf, have it sit next to her and put its head out the window, and they could find a car with comfortable seats and sing songs while they drive.
She nods. That would be a right thing.
The sun goes down, and she turns on the headlights and one of them still works so she can see the road ahead of her but in a lopsided way. There are some lights in the distance, a glow on the horizon that must be a city, and she drives in the direction of the glow.
But on the road at night, you start thinking ugly, alone thoughts. She remembers, it must have been five years ago, driving through Alabama with Malcolm in the seat beside her. She was very young then, she must have been, because she remembers having to push the seat all the way forward, and even then she had to sit on the edge in order to reach the pedals. And Malcolm was younger still.
Malcolm was quiet for a long time. He liked to chew that gum that was too sweet for her, and he liked to put two pieces in his mouth at once. For a while she could hear him chewing next to her, then it was silent, and he was just looking out the window at the big black nothing.
What happened to Uncle Jackson? Malcolm said. He’s gone, she said. We ain’t going to see him no more.
He said he was gonna teach me how to shoot. I’ll teach you. He wasn’t your real uncle anyway. To get the memory out of her head, she rolls down the window and lets the wind play in her hair. When that doesn’t work, she decides to sing a ditty she once knew by heart and it takes her a while to remember all the parts of it.
Oh, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, Yes, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, A kiddley divey doo, wouldn’t you? A kiddley divey doo, wouldn’t you?
It’s on a long stretch of country road that the car dies, and she pulls over and pops the hood to look. It’s probably the fuel pump, but she can’t be sure without getting under the car and poking around, and the engine’s too hot to do anything for a while. She doesn’t have any tools to poke around with but she can see a house set back away from the road down a little dirt drive, and there might be tools there.
She looks into the dark horizon towards the city lights. Distance is difficult to determine at night; it’s possible she could walk it by morning.
Still, that house. It might contain something worthwhile. She’s been out of the game for a long time now and she’s feeling bold—and anyway, she wants something to distract her from her night memories. So she straps the gurkha knife to her thigh, jams the pistol in the waistband of her pants—two rounds, emergency use only—and takes the flashlight and walks up the packed-dirt driveway to the house. She’s ready to kick the door in except she doesn’t have to—because it’s standing open.
There’s a stink in the house, and she recognizes it. Flesh mould. Could be corpse or could be slug. Either way, she tells herself to breathe through her mouth and make it quick.
She finds her way to the kitchen where there’s an overturned and rusting Formica table and peeling wallpaper with a strawberry vine pattern. Because of the humidity, patches of furry grey-green mould are growing everywhere. She opens the drawers one by one looking for a tool drawer but there’s nothing. She looks out the back window. No garage.
There’s a door in the kitchen, and she opens it and finds wooden steps leading down beneath the ground. She waits at the top of the steps for a moment, listening for any sounds in the house, and then descends slowly.
In the basement there’s a different smell, like ammonia, and she sweeps the flashlight around to a table in the middle of the room cluttered with bottles, burners, rubber tubing and one of those old-fashioned scales with a long arm on one side. Some of the bottles are half filled with a yellow liquid. She’s seen this kind of set-up before. Meth lab. They were big a few years before when some people were taking advantage of the slug distraction. She finds a workbench against the wall and roots around for a screwdriver and a wrench, but what she’s really looking for is a pair of pliers.
She sets the flashlight down on the tabletop but it rolls off and falls to the floor where it flickers once but stays lit. Good thing—she wouldn’t want to have to feel her way back to the car.
But when she turns, she sees something she missed before. By the stairs there’s a utility closet, and while she watches, the door of the closet, illuminated in the faint glow of the flashlight, shudders once and flies open as if someone has fallen against it.
Then she can smell it, the flesh-rot, much stronger now—it was masked before by the ammonia smell of the lab.
They stumble out of the utility closet, three of them, two men in overalls with long hair and a woman dressed only in a satin slip which has been ripped open to expose one desiccated breast.
Temple has forgotten how bad they smell—that muddy mixture of must and putrefaction, oil and rancid shit. She sees a faecal ooze sliding wetly down the back of the woman’s legs. They must have fed recently, so they will be strong. And they are between her and the stairs.
She puts her hand on the pistol and considers. Her last two bullets.
Not worth it.
Instead she sweeps the gurkha knife out of its sheath and kicks over the man in front, sending him crashing down to the cement slab of the floor. She swings the knife and buries it in the skull of the second man, whose eyes cross absurdly before he drops to his knees. But when she tries to pull the blade back, it’s stuck, bound up in sutures of wet bone.
Then the woman has her by the wrist in a tight fleshy grip. She can feel the brittle nails digging into her skin. Leave go my arm, Temple says.
She can’t get the knife out of the man’s head, so she lets it go and watches the body drop backwards, dead, with her blade still stuck in it.
The woman is leaning in to take a bite out of her shoulder, but Temple drives her fist hard into the slug’s head, first once, then twice, then a third time, trying to dizzy the brain out of its instinctual drive.
But now the other man has got to his feet again and is coming at her, so she spins the woman around to get her between them and the man barrels into both like a bear hug that sends Temple crashing back into the workbench. The smell, as they crush against her, is overpowering and her eyes flood with water that blurs her vision. She reaches behind her, feels around for anything and comes up with a screwdriver which she grips hard and drives into the man’s neck. He lets go and totters backwards, but the angle of the screwdriver is wrong, it goes straight through rather than up into the brain, so he begins to walk in circles gurgling liquidly and opening and closing his jaw.
The woman who has hold of Temple’s wrist opens her mouth again as though to take a bite out of her cheek, but Temple swings her around and slams the woman’s forearm against the edge of the workbench so that it cracks and the grip on her wrist loosens.
Then she ducks and moves to the corpse, putting one foot on his face for leverage, and prises her gurkha out with both hands.
The woman is close behind her, but it doesn’t matter. Temple swings hard and true, and the blade whips clean through her neck and takes off the head.
The last man is distracted, clawing awkwardly at the screwdriver in his throat. Temple moves around behind him to catch her breath. His hair is long and stringy with flakes of paint in it as though the house has been crumbling to pieces on top of him. She lifts the knife and brings it down hard, two quick strokes like she learned long ago—one to crack the skull and the other to cleave the brain.
She picks up the flashlight from the floor, which is now slippery with blood and excrement. Then she finds a clean part of the woman’s slip, rips it off and uses it to wipe her gurkha clean.
Meatskin tango, she says. God-awful messy business that is.
* * *
See, there’s a music to the world and you got to be listening otherwise you’ll miss it sure. Like when she comes out of the house and the night-time air feels dreamy-cold on her face and it smells like the pureness of a fresh land just started. Like it was something old and dusty and broken, taken off the shelf to make room for something sparkle-new.
And it’s your soul desiring to move and be a part of it, whatever it is, to be out there on the soot plains where the living fall and the dead rise, and the dead fall and the living rise, like the cycle of life she once tried to explain to Malcolm.
It’s a thing of nature, she said to him while he chomped down on a jawbreaker he had squirrelled in his cheek. It’s a thing of nature and nature never dies. You and me, we’re nature too—even when we die. It’s about souls and open skies and stars crazy-lit everywhere you look. She makes a decision to take a few things from the car and hoof it the rest of the way towards those lights on the horizon. And soon she sees a street sign and shines her flashlight on it. The letters she can’t decipher, they don’t look like the name of any city she’s been before that she can recall, but the number is 15.
And if it’s got a light fingerprint on the sky that can be seen fifteen miles distant then it must be no small town, and that’s the place for her, a place where she can make the acquaintance of a few people and catch up on goings-on in God’s green earth and maybe get a cold soda with ice in it. And fifteen miles, that ain’t nothing. That’s three, four hours of night vistas and deep cool thoughts, barring the sad ones.
She’ll be there in time for breakfast.
Copyright © 2010 by Alden Bell
The Reapers Are the Angels is published by Tor UK in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US.