We hope you enjoy this taste of Dust by Joan Francis Turner, from Penguin Books—and be sure to watch the zombie public service announcements below the cut!
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Nine years ago, I was alive. Nine years ago, Jessica Anne Porter was fifteen and lived in a nice house in the very well-guarded town of Lepingville, an hour out of Chicago, and got okay grades and wanted to do something someday with animal rights. Her hair was auburn dyed something brighter, I forget what. I don’t see bright colors well anymore. She had a mother, father, a sister in her first year of college, a brother in his last—neither of them could wait to get out of the house, they barely spoke to her parents. And her parents barely spoke to each other. Then one day they were in a rare good mood and took her out to dinner, and then there was the Toyota ride home.
Dad took the back roads home, the scenic tour. You weren’t supposed to do that, you were supposed to stay on the main highway with the blindingly sulfurous roadside lights (the “environmental hazards,” as we called them, you never put it more directly than that, supposedly hated bright light) and the toll booths. Each booth had a FUNDING COMMUNITY SAFETY sign so you wouldn’t throw a tantrum as you forked over your money, a sentry bearing an emergency flamethrower. See? Safety. Suck on that, you suburban cheapskates. The small, cramped booths could serve as safe houses in a pinch, if a “hazard” somehow surprised you on the road. They had to let you in, that was the law. But my dad had paid four tolls in eighteen miles just to get to the restaurant and my mom complained the road lights gave her headaches and it was a pretty night and for once nobody was screaming at each other so why not take the old road, the long way home? Rest your eyes. Have a bit of peace and quiet.
It was two miles from the county line, where the former industrial park gave way to beachy dune grass and rows of half-built condos sat empty along the roadside, silhouetted in weirdly dim, soft white road lights. The old-fashioned kind. This was after they finally passed the moratorium on residential building in rural areas, the one the developers held up as long as they could, until the “hazards” somehow got into that gated community near the Taltree Preserve; whose woods, fields and ex-farmlands these are, even they then managed to figure out. Nothing hazardous that night, though, just the dark sky and the low fuzzy whiteness and everything peaceful and sleepy until suddenly there were two blinding headlights bearing down on us from the wrong side of the road, howling brakes and screaming and then, like the lost breath from a hard stomach punch, everything gathered into a fist and struck, and then stopped.
I remember a pickup truck, yellow, gone faded saffron under the road lights. And a woman’s voice, not my mother’s, moaning over and over like some nauseated prayer while I lay on the pavement dying, Oh Christ, oh God, oh Christ oh Christ oh Christ oh my God and I thought, Lady, it’s a little late for that now isn’t it? Her voice was washed out, staticky with the buzz of a million angry flies eating her up, and the buzzing became louder and louder and there were new flashing lights, red ones, but it was too late, I was all eaten up, and I closed my eyes and fell asleep for a long time.
Then, days or weeks or months after the funeral, I woke up.
In old horror movies where someone gets buried alive, there’s always that moment where they blink into the darkness, pat and grope around the coffin walls and let out that big oxygen-wasting scream as the screen goes black. Me, though, I knew I was dead, really dead and not put away by mistake, and another giant fist was gripping my brain and nerves and shoving away shock, surprise, bewilderment, only letting me think one thing: Out. And I knew, with absolute certainty, that I would break free. I didn’t seem to need air anymore, so I could take my time.
I tried putting my hands out just like in the movies, to feel the force and weight I was fighting—six feet under, that’s a lot of piled-up dirt—and that’s how I found out my right arm was shot to pieces. The left could rattle the box a bit, but not enough. I raised my legs, each movement a good long achy stretch after the best nap in the world, and pressed my palm, knees, feet against the white satiny padding overhead. Felt a rattle. Pressed harder. Heard a creak.
Then I kicked.
The first blow tore through the satin lining and slammed into the wood without a moment’s pain; the second splintered it, cracked it, and I kicked and kneed and punched until I hit shards of timber and musty air and then, so hard my whole body rattled, a solid concrete ceiling overhead. A grave liner, Teresa explained to me later, another box for my box, but I felt real panic at the sight and had to make myself keep kicking, harder, harder, and that awful concrete became fine white dust that gave way to an avalanche of dirt. I was gulping down mouthfuls of mud and I was sad for my shirt, they’d buried me in my favorite T-shirt that read ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS TO EAT, WEAR, OR EXPERIMENT ON and now it was plastered mute with damp black dirt, but I kept swimming one-handed, kicking, tunneling upward through a crumbling sea. The moist tides of soil were endless, then I felt something finer and powdery-dry and my good hand found thin cords of grassroots, poked through the green carpet-weave and ripped a long jagged slit open to the air. The air—I didn’t need it, maybe, but as I lay there drained and exhausted and felt it cool on my dirt-caked back I almost cried.
The sunset was a needle-thrust in my eyes. I crouched in my own grave hole, retching up pebbles and earth, and gasped at the smells of the world: the turned soil, the broken grass stems I clutched in my fist, graveside flowers old and new, the trees and plants and the thousands of people and animals that’d left scents behind traversing the cemetery grounds. My own dead, dirty stink, and it still didn’t shock me, I was too distracted by the other million fits and starts of odor flooding my nostrils—this was how to experience the world, this note of mushrooms sprouting in damp grass, this trace of old rubber from a sneaker sole, compared to this banquet eyes and ears told you nothing! My head pounded, painlessly, like a great throbbing vein: the hard pulsations of my new brain, my undead brain, but I didn’t know that yet. I reached up, like someone would be there to lift me, and touched something rough and cold. A tombstone, my tombstone: AUGUST 14, 2001. I died on August 14, 2001, but what day was it now? Where was I now? Where would I go, where will I sleep, do I have to sleep—
I smelled it before I saw it, darting quick and confused across the grass. Rabbit. Fresh, living rabbit.
Every other scent and smell in the world instantly vanished. Hunger rattled my skull and shook my bones—pork chops, hamburgers, steaks rare and bloody, everything that would have made me vomit when I was alive but I had to have them now, I had to have them raw and oozing juice and if I didn’t get that rabbit, if I didn’t kill it and devour it now, I had nothing to live for at all. I staggered to my feet and stood there trembling, legs stiff and exhausted, but before I could even try to run for my food something bloated and rotten in the shape of a man, his dark suit jacket torn and spilling fat little white grubs, crawled on all fours from the pile of dirt that had been his grave. The grave next to mine. The rabbit had halted too soon, crouching frozen with fear by our collective tombstone, and as I watched it spasm and kick against death, as I watched my father sink long teeth into its skull and spit out soft tufts of brown fur, I was small again and only wanted to scream and cry, Daddy, why did you take my toy?
Something crawled from behind a yew tree, feverish and fast. A woman in the rags of my mother’s favorite blue sweater fell on him, grabbing the rabbit’s meaty hindquarters for herself, and held on tight and chewed no matter how hard he punched and kicked, so hard she sobbed between bites: Whap, cry, swallow, whap, cry, swallow.
But, Daddy, that’s my toy.
They rolled on the ground, snarling with rage.
And you. What are you doing in my mom’s favorite sweater?
But they’d dropped the rabbit carcass, fighting that hard, and I was so hungry and it was so good and I knew the answers to my questions, I already knew.
A garter snake slithered over my mother’s foot and they both went crazy, grabbing fistfuls of grass where it had shot out of reach. Arguing again, fighting forever, only with sounds now and no words—screeching violins, deafening pounding drums. I was gone already, walking away. I never saw them again.
I scraped a deep, gouging ridge in my back, crawling through a gap I’d torn in the cemetery fence, and felt only a paper cut. A pinprick. I ran my tongue along my teeth and almost screamed; the fence’s barbed wire was nothing, but my teeth had all grown long and blade-edged and when I pulled my hand from my mouth, there was something thick and syrupy from the new cut on my tongue and fingers, almost like blood but black. Coffin liquor, Florian told me later, my own putrefaction flowing through my veins. My hand was swollen and livid, the veins and arteries gone dark.
I could barely walk. I staggered, tried crawling like my mom had but with the bad arm that wasn’t any better. CALUMET COUNTY MEMORIAL PARK, read the sign; that told me I was in the middle of nowhere, if you insist on burying instead of burning they make you do it far away from everything and don’t come crying to us if the funeral procession gets attacked, but where this particular nowhere was I had no idea. Other than me and that garter snake, no sign of life. I crawled and stumbled and crawled again, pushing through grass, gravel, leaves and underbrush. Snapping branches scared me, a single car speeding by terrified me; it’d find me and run me down if it got a chance. I didn’t feel like a monster but I knew I looked like one. I cried from fear, wept from hunger, black syrupy tears splattering my muddy shirt.
I kept walking, deep into the countryside, no company but the animals I was too scared to stop and hunt. What the hell was I looking for? My throbbing skull started pounding in earnest, yielding to real pain, and my ears were flooded with a sudden off-kilter symphony of screeches, buzzes, trumpet squawks, strings sliced shrilly in half. The buzzing like flies, that sound I remembered from dying. I shook my head to get rid of it, like real flies stuck in my head, and it grew louder and sharper and became muffled disjointed words:
I started shaking. Never mind what had happened to me and my parents, never mind the guard posts along the highways and every Lepingville entrance and exit, never mind all the school safety drills and town committee handouts about the others, the “hazards,” the reasons you either burn like a Good Responsible Person or you get buried behind barbed wire in No Humans’ Land—never mind all that because it couldn’t be true, I couldn’t be true—
Circles, dizzy and hunger-sick around the same clump of trees, and I couldn’t find those voices or escape them but I tried to follow them not knowing why: hot-hotter-COLD—turn left—warmer-warmer-COLD—not so far left—so hungry-hotter-COLD—straight ahead—too quiet—turn around. My guts twisted hot-hotter—ON FIRE with emptiness, no more meat, no nothing. Voices faded, returned in tinny crashes of music, then vanished. I was on the worst ice-cream truck chase in the history of the world, but if I kept going the voices would find me, they’d tell me where to go and feed me and take me in—but then I took a wrong turn and it was cold-colder-absolute zero, every sound gone. The clouds overhead seemed to burst and collapse like bubbles, inky night pouring in as I stood there covered in mud and black blood. All alone.
I doubled over, threw my head back and screamed. Frankenstein’s monster, roaring, and it felt so good that I crouched in the leaves and shouted louder, ripping myself inside out with hunger and fear. Something small and furry shot past me, terrified of the sounds I was making, and I could have chased it but my head pounded and throbbed and everything before my eyes melted, sliding off my plane of vision as I succumbed to the vertigo. A spoon heated seething red scraped my gut away piece by piece, slow starvation cauterizing my insides, and I pounded my forehead, my good fist, against the ground and wailed.
I don’t know how long I lay there. Silence, my horrible crying met with utter silence, and then I felt what I thought was an insect brushing my face. No, not an insect—soft swollen fingers. A stench pressed in on all sides, I was fresh and sweet in comparison, but I was too tired to move and it couldn’t mean anything. I was all alone.
The fingers touched my ruined right arm, lifted it. It fell back with a soft thud. Chit-chit, I heard, a strange wet-dry click like someone chewing a mouthful of popcorn kernels. I pulled myself upright, and looked.
The whole right side of his face was smashed in, concave forehead and crushed cheekbone and one eye bugging precariously from a broken socket. He was purplish-black, and dirty white: Maggots seethed from every pore and crawled across him in excited wriggly piles, blowflies waving and blooming and wilting, the bits of bone they’d scraped clean glinting like tiny mosaic tiles. Scraps of jeans and a leather jacket clung to the sticky seething mess of his flesh. He was big, big-shouldered, a good foot taller; chit-chitter, he went, even standing still.
Behind him were more stinking, seething masses shaped like people, their skin in the thin moonlight every color bruises go: some barely rotten at all, one shriveled and bony as an unwrapped mummy, one so bloated and gas-blackened it scared me. Standing right behind Bug Man was a half-skeleton with wild dark hair and silver rings clinking on her finger bones, eyes bulging nearly out of her head as she sized me up, grinned and let out a loud, belching guffaw. They all groaned with laughter. Their teeth looked the way mine felt, long and jagged and dull gray like tarnished blades.
I can’t explain it. You can be a monster yourself and still scream, puke, faint seeing what you are staring back at you, but none of it seemed monstrous. It was pretty, almost, the weirdest kind of pretty, seeing how they were all young or old in their own inhuman way, how slowly and methodically the bugs took care of everything, how clean bones and pulsating brains were underneath the skin. How natural it all was. But then those teeth, so dull and dirty but a glint at the tips, if you looked closely, the flash of a needle that could crunch through bones and penetrate to the marrow. Under their laughter a thrumming sound, not quite musical but not quite mere noise, and the longer I stared the more the shapeless sounds took on outlines, defined themselves, by whom I was looking at: That one there, with the bleary laugh, a trumpet; the one with the thin sad face, banjo; the black-haired scarecrow with the rings, shrill strings. Bug Man’s noise was louder and stronger than the rest, so I mistook him for the leader. Electric guitar, that would blast you flat to the ground if you got too close.
I reached out and touched his face. Chit-chit, said the bugs. He grunted, almost belched the crude shape of words, a caveman with a rotted tongue—but soon as all that hrruh-hrruh-mmmuhhhhh shot through my head it became waves of sound, transformed radio waves, and then words precise and clear as pieces of glass glittering on the beach.
“I’m Joe,” he said. “Happy birthday.”
The others mumbled something in turn but I couldn’t hear them properly just yet, only their noises that were almost but not quite trumpets and banjos and strings. The smell of fresh flesh wafted over me, and Joe the Bug Man stepped aside as someone in a ragged black fedora emerged from the trees, something swinging from his hand, and dropped a warm furry just-dead thing right at my feet. A possum, its neck neatly snapped.
My stomach gurgled and Fedora Man snorted, walking away. Dark drops fell on the carcass, plink-plonk, and Joe laughed, reached out to wipe the black drool from my mouth. “Go on. Eat.”
I ate and ate and couldn’t stop. Rich raw meat. Warm blood. Leftovers from God’s refrigerator. When I looked up again, putting down the bones I’d been chewing to twigs to get at the marrow, they were all standing over me. The dark-haired one with the rings smiled.
“I’m Teresa,” she said. Jerked her head toward a soft, bloated gaseous mass with a lone lamplike eye and ragged remnants of red hair. “That’s Lillian. Remember her name, even if you don’t remember mine.”
Lillian, the chieftainess, though of course I didn’t know that yet. Teresa was her second in command back then, already planning, scheming. They both watched me crunch another bone down to splinters, then Teresa smiled.
“Good girl,” she said. “Now, time to earn your food.”
Her fists caught me in the jaw, chest, gut, and when they all piled on me at once, my gang induction, all that meat came rocketing straight up again. Dry bony feet kicked me, squelching rotting ones, and Joe sat there watching it all happen. I crawled through a gap in the fists and feet, even one-armed it was better than tottering on legs that would never work properly again, and I rose up and punched Joe hard in the gut and he gasped, laughed harder, and hit me back more viciously than all the others. I hung on. Bones cracked, his and mine. They only pulled me off when we were both dizzy and spitting out mouthfuls of bilious dark blood, and even one-armed I’d passed my test so well that Teresa, then Lillian, beat me up again so I’d remember who was in charge. I couldn’t move for three days. They brought me rabbit, squirrel, the dog-ends of deer. They’d been needing someone new who could really fight, they said, and didn’t hide their surprise that the someone was me.
But there wasn’t anyone to fight, not in the middle of nowhere in a former county park with only squirrels and deer and each other for company. They were the first gang for me, the only gang, and so I didn’t question why we all stayed out here when other gangs routinely marauded in the poorer, unguarded human areas, the ones whose property taxes just couldn’t float guard teams and electrified fences and infrared video security, it’s like they all want to be attacked, too bad, so sad, why don’t they all just quit their goddamned whining and move somewhere else?
“You broke six of my ribs,” Joe told me, when I could stand and walk again; he said it nose-to-nose clenching my good arm hard enough to snap but there was admiration in his eyes, that little hiss in his voice that someone gets when you’re not at all what they expected, when they realize they’re not gonna get what they want without a fight and they like it. That singular sound of: Damn, woman. “Six. You stomped me like a fucking cardboard box.”
“I’m hungry,” I told him, and there wasn’t any whining in my voice, no please-feed-me, just a hard flat-out demand for what I required. He liked demands, I could tell already. Hearing them, issuing them. “I’m always hungry.”
“You’re supposed to be.”
He pulled me aside from the group, from everyone smirking at us both. Florian, the walking skeleton with the watery blue eyes, he was the only other one of them I liked. “It’s time you learn to hunt,” Joe said. “I’ll show you how. Lillian’s a shit hunter, don’t let her tell you anything. You’ll be good at it. Put some of that crazy to use.”
Plenty to hunt. Plenty to hunt far outside our attenuated neck of the woods. Plenty of low-hanging two-legged fruit rotting on the vine in Gary and East Chicago and South Chicago and parts of Hammond and Whiting, plenty of what I kept being told, over and over again, secondhand, have heard, they say, everybody knows, is the only real meat. But turns out, I didn’t want brains, I didn’t need hoos; meat was meat, any fresh kill would do, and it did for all of us, for all their talk.
“So just what the hell are we looking for?” I asked Joe on our first watch patrol together at the wood’s very edge, sitting side by side against a tree trunk, not watching anything but the wind kicking up the dry dead stalks of a neighboring cornfield gone to weeds. “There’s nobody here. There’s never anybody, Ben said, nothing but feral cats and every now and then a crazy-ass bum—”
“Do they still go around saying you can shoot us?” Joe interrupted, squinting into the painfully blue sky. High noon, the whole rest of the gang deep asleep. “Guns don’t work. Not pistols, not machine guns, not automatic rifles, never be afraid of any little hoo who comes at you waving a gun—”
“So Sam said.” I’d started liking Sam too, not half so worn out and dusty as Florian but with so much wearier, sadder eyes. “But they don’t say that anymore. Didn’t.”
“Fire. That’s it. Or a good stomp to the head, till your skull’s kicked in.” He folded his arms, a little humorous glint in his eye. “Like a flattened cardboard box. Otherwise you’ll just crumble to dust, whenever it’s your time. Stomping, or fire. Ever seen a crazy hoo-vigilante wandering around the woods with a flamethrower, thinking he’s gonna toast our collective asses once and for all?”
“So what would we do then?” They don’t go for controlled rural burns anymore, once they realized all that does is send the surviving “hazards” crowding closer and closer to hoo-territory. Gotta eat. Of course, hell with what the government does or doesn’t do, all it takes is one crazy redneck with a book of matches. It’s just been sheer luck. “By the time we see him, already too late.”
“What do we do then?” Joe chuckled, still gazing up at the sky. “Mostly we die. But at least we die knowing who got us, and we don’t die alone.” He raked one leather-jacketed shoulder against the tree bark, working away at the ceaseless bug-itch of his own rotten skin. “Died alone once. I’m not doing it again.” He turned to look at me, narrow dark eyes staring from a seething feeding sea. “Never. Ever.”
I stared back, watching the perpetual movement of his skin as the maggots and flies crawled around and into every niche of flesh, made the worn creased jacket sleeves wriggle all of their own accord. Dead? Bursting with life, literally, all the life you could possibly want, that d-word applied to any of us was so ludicrous and willfully oblivious and just plain bigoted and how old and aged was Joe, anyway? Not by hoo-measure, but by our own lights? He’d said he died sometime in the fifties but couldn’t remember just when. I’d forget too, he said, in time.
“I don’t want to die alone either,” I said. “Again.”
Joe just laughed and shook his head. “Not a larva on her yet, and she’s already hand-wringing—you have any idea how many decades Florian’s got on you? Sam? You’re a goddamned baby. You’re so young.”
“And you’re not so damned old either,” I said. Asked. Worried. “However much you brag.” Silence. “Right?”
His eyes were adrift and lost in his own face, that whole ocean of insect life; I had to look that much harder at him to read his expressions, gauge his mood. Keep my attention on him constantly. If it had been me I’d have been creeped out, someone staring at me all the time like that, watching every last thing I do. Joe, he didn’t mind.
“I’m not so old,” he said, softly. Then he grinned. “And I can’t drop even if I wanted to, now I’ve got a goddamned diaper-shitting baby to feed—”
I hit him, and he laughed again and louder and we wrestled until I shrieked for my arm, not my good arm, goddammit. The sky was pure cloudless blue that whole afternoon and the sun pressed in hard on dark-loving undead eyes but it was still beautiful, the sky, the woods, even that ratty old cornfield, all ours.
What the hell were we looking for? He never did answer that question. Him or anyone else.
They were the first gang, the only gang for me. Lingering out here in the middle of nowhere, years and years, shy kids at the perimeter of the playground, hiding and skulking when there was not a thing to hide from, there had to be a reason for that, it had to be some sort of deliberate strategy. I thought. It couldn’t be that some of them stayed out here because it was easy. Because they really had been big noises in faster, stronger, more aggressive gangs, but they’d washed out or been thrown out or left thinking they’d be king hoo-killers all on their own, crowned and canonized, and it never happened.
Because they were old, some of them, older and dustier than they liked to say. Because they were young, and hiding was easier. Because they just didn’t care for killing, not really, not once the hunger that never really left you got put in its place up on the shelf for another few hours, and that was a shameful thing even fleetingly to think so they just kept very quiet.
And then there was me. And now that I knew I could fight and that it wasn’t hard to hunt I could have left any time, kept to myself for years or decades and avoided all the trouble that came after. I stayed because of Joe—his smile, the loud pounding music in his head, the way he hit right back and looked at me afterward with shrewdness, new respect, and then something more. Every time. What would repulse any sane human, the bugs, the smell, the casual brutality, the gleeful killing, meant less than nothing to me now. Even knowing then and later that I should have collected my strength and wits, turned around and left for good, no looking back. I stayed because of him.
Like I said, I was fifteen.
Copyright © 2010 by Joan Francis Turner