Sep 14 2010 8:30am
We hope you enjoy this short story from The Living Dead 2, edited by John Joseph Adams.
* * *
The sun was coming down over the desert, painting the red rocks a hundred different shades of purple, silver, and ocher and making spiky silhouettes out of the few creosote bushes that eked a living out of the barren land. I watched the hot pink clouds scud by overhead for a while before turning my attention back to the fence.
Then my heart stopped beating.
The dead man was only a couple feet away from Candy when I saw him. He was on the wrong side of the chain-link fence but he was leaning on it, hard, and it was starting to sway. His clothes were bleached white by the sun and his skin was gray. His lips had rotted away, like most of his face, and his teeth were huge and yellow and broken until they looked very sharp.
Candy was three years old. She didn’t even look up. There’d never been a time in her life when the dead people weren’t around, weren’t reaching for her, gnashing their teeth at her. There’d never been a time when Mommy wasn’t right there to save her.
I wasn’t going to let her learn different. Not until she was old enough to hold a weapon.
So I didn’t shout at her, didn’t scream for the dead guy to back off. I brought up my bow and nocked an arrow. Drew back, nice and steady, and took my time to aim. My bow string twanged but my arrow didn’t make a sound as it went right through the chain link, and right through his skull. The point came out the other side.
He fell down in a heap. Silently.
Thank you, Girl Scouts of America, I thought.
I went over to Candy then, to get her away from the corpse. They don’t smell so bad anymore—the sun down here dries them out—but you can still get sick just by being near them. And sometimes they aren’t as dead as they look.
Candy was squatting down on the ground by the pump house that used to fill up the swimming pool. She had a bunch of credit cards and she had laid them out on the yellow grass, sorting them by color. The plastic had gone white around the edges over time and the silver ink had rubbed off the numbers, but the holograms still flashed back and forth in the sun as I reached down to pick her up.
“Look at the bird,” Candy said, pointing at one of them. “It flies if you close one eye, then the other.”
“Sure does, pumpkin,” I said, and kissed the side of her head.
It’s been a year and a half since I saw a bird. I don’t know when she ever had, but she knew, birds fly. Birds fly away. People have to stay on the ground, right where they are.
Bruce and Finster came out of the shade of the motel complex wearing gloves and bandanas across their faces. I covered them with my bow while they dragged the corpse into the empty pool and set it on fire. The bottom of the pool used to be painted blue but the paint had chipped away months ago and now the bare concrete showed through. There were black scorch marks like flat craters all over the concrete.
The guys couldn’t just drag the body out into the desert to rot away. That would just draw more of the dead—they don’t eat their own kind, but once you destroy the brain, all bets are off. Anything that could hurt us, anything that would draw attention to us, was dragged down into the pool and burned until there was nothing left but ashes and bones.
I didn’t stick around to watch. I took Candy back to our room instead, to let her play inside where the air might be stuffy but she couldn’t just wander away. Then I went into the dark bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror for a while.
I did that every time I killed somebody. I was looking for any sign of fear, or weakness. If I found my lips were shaking I made them stop. If my eyes looked too wide I forced myself to squint. If I had gone white as a sheet I held my breath until my color came back.
I could have been an actress. You know, Before. I was a dancer in Vegas—yes, that kind of dancer—but I was saving my money to go to LA. Then it got overrun and everybody there died. Guess it was a good thing I never got my big break. This time, when I stared in the mirror, I didn’t see anything looking back. My face was there, my cheekbones more hollow than they used to be, lines around my eyes a little deeper. Blond hair bleached by the sun. I looked even skinnier than I used to when I was dancing. But there was nothing there in my face, no expression at all.
I wondered if that was a bad thing. If that was worse than finding signs of weakness there.
Then I decided that was a stupid thing to worry about. Times like these, you learned pretty fast what was important and what was bullshit, and you let the bullshit go.
The rules were that when you even see a dead guy, you had to tell Vance. I headed out, leaving Candy alone where I knew she was safe, and walked down the row of motel rooms toward the reception office, the place he was most likely to be. As I stepped in through the glass doors I found about half of the survivors there. It was the stuffiest part of the motel, and there were no curtains on the windows so the desert light came glaring in, but ever since the dead came back people tend to want to congregate in central places where they can see each other, so reception is always crowded. There were old folks logging in cans of food from the last foraging expedition, and young guys bristling with weapons, just standing guard. Good people, all of them. I’ve known plenty of the other kind, but we left all of them behind.
Of course Simon was there, tinkering. Just like always. Simon was the only one of us who couldn’t walk, because he’d lost both his legs. Whether that happened Before or After, nobody knew, because he didn’t like to talk about it, and if you pushed Simon on something he didn’t like to talk about he usually started screaming.
He claimed he had Asperger syndrome. When we first met him most of us just thought he was crazy. A lot of us still thought he was a drain on our resources, which is one thing we don’t normally forgive. But Vance had refused to leave him behind when we headed south from Scottsdale. Said he would come in useful, eventually.
Lucky guesses like that were what made Vance our leader. Simon, it turned out, had a way with machines. He could take them apart in his head and figure out why they didn’t work, and how to fix them. He’d put a truck back together from spare parts back at Scottsdale and that was the only way we got out of that hell alive. The truck had brought us all the way here before it ran out of gas and we couldn’t find anymore. When Vance found the motel, with the little creek running behind it, it was Simon who figured out how we could pump water up from the creek and survive in the desert.
Just looking at Simon, you would never believe it. He was maybe fifteen years old. He had a mop of black hair that hung down over his eyes. He was overweight, even after a year and a half of eating no more than I had. His fingers were pudgy and short and the nails were always cut down so far his fingertips bled.
With a couple dozen yards of PVC pipe, though, and some parts from the empty swimming pool’s pumps, he gave us running water. He gave us water for cooking, and washing, and even cleaning our clothes. He gave us water to drink in a place where you could die in four hours without it.
When I walked into reception he was fiddling with an old clock radio from one of the rooms, picking at a circuit board with those non-existent nails of his. “I wanna build a radio transponder,” he said. “So’s the Army can find us. I wanna build a computer so we can get back onna innernet.” In many ways Simon still lived in the Before—or maybe he just took the extremely long view, and assumed that this wasn’t the end of the world, just a momentary pause in civilization. “I wanna check my website, check my traffic. Traffic—traffic, we can get the traffic lights back on.”
Vance stepped out from the back office and nearly tousled the kid’s hair. He stopped himself before he actually touched him—Simon does not like to be touched. “Don’t worry,” Vance said. “You and me, buddy, we’re going to rebuild the entire world together.”
Simon looked up with an idiotic smile on his face. “I like to build things.”
Vance smiled back. “Darcy,” he said, turning to look at me. “You have something to report?”
He probably already knew what had happened out at the fence. Bruce and Finster had probably already let him know. But he wanted to hear it again, from me. Vance is not a big guy but you can see in his eyes that he’s always thinking. He’s always two steps ahead, which is how he keeps us alive. Nobody ever voted for him to be leader, and he didn’t have to fight anybody for the right. He led us because he was always on top of things when the rest of us were just trying to survive. “One dead guy, out by the southwest fence. I got him with an arrow.”
Vance nodded. “And did you retrieve the arrow?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He nodded and reached over to touch my arm. Most guys I’ve known, they would have grabbed me around the waist, or maybe patted me on the shoulder if they were trying to be PC. Vance squeezed my bicep. “I hear he was going for Candy.”
I shrugged. “Not anymore.”
He gave me another squeeze, on the strongest part of me. Like he knew. Just somehow he knew what was inside of me, and he approved.
A guy like Vance, back in Before? I wouldn’t have bothered giving him a second look. Now I’d move into his room if he just asked.
“Three this month,” Simon said, his face curling up. He looked like he might start screaming. “Three: one, two, three.”
Vance frowned. “That’s right,” he said. “More than we’re used to.”
I shrugged. “Some months we don’t see any. Sometimes we get a few. We can handle it.”
Vance nodded, but his brow was furrowed and I knew he was thinking of something. He went over to the drinking fountain that Simon had rigged up to be our main water supply. An inch-wide pipe stuck up out of the top of the box, and there was a crank on the side that pulled the water up from the creek. Vance started turning the crank but you could see on his face he was still thinking. “Simon,” he said, “is there any way to make that fence stronger?”
The boy started bouncing up and down in his chair. “Yeah, lots of ways! I wanna sink the posts in concrete, and double up on the chain link, and uh, and uh, we could ’lectrify it if we had some solar panels, and there’s barbed wire—”
He stopped suddenly, which wasn’t strange for Simon. Sometimes he just stopped talking and that was it. He would be silent for the rest of the day. Sometimes it was just a pause while he worked something out in his head.
This time he started screaming.
Vance was still winding the crank. You had to pull hard to get water out of the little trickle of the creek, and sometimes pebbles got in the pipe and you had to crank even harder. This time Vance was really working it, his arm flashing around and around. He’d been too preoccupied to notice why he had to work so hard. Something was in the pipe, something bigger than a pebble.
When he heard Simon scream, he stopped cranking—and then everybody saw what set Simon off. A human finger was sticking out of the top of the pipe, gray and mottled and topped with a broken yellow nail.