Friday, May 03, 2013

Scenes from a Zombie Abortion VIII: The CONFEDERATION Project


Nothing much to say here but it builds towards the night flight I never got to write. What the hell. It’s past time I set up a separate page for these chapters. Not tonight, though. I’m wrapping up another novel. Let’s run the boilerplate and get on with the show:

In 2008 James Robert Smith and I collaborated on a project we hoped would turn out to be the Winesburg, Ohio of zombie epics, a mosaic tale describing the communities coming together (and squaring off against one another) in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. For various reasons the collaboration fell apart. Bob took his part of the narrative — which included his idea of a border collie manipulating the other abandoned dogs and zombies—and crafted The Living End. I scuffled around for a couple of more years until I came up with The Saga of the Dead Silencer.

For the benefit of those readers who were following the first part of my saga, Bleeding Kansas, and miss having something nasty-mean to read, here’s the eighth installment I wrote for the project. Of course, if you like this, feel free to pick up Bob’s completed work. Support your local architects of the apocalypse....



GREG

Ol’ Ranger Rick was certainly anxious, but then he wasn’t carrying corpses to the communal piles on either strand of the loop. As Greg and many others working the cleanup of Wildwood Holler campgrounds observed in the aftermath of the early morning attack, the day didn’t go fast enough.

Two adjacent campsites on either side of the loop road where the piles were sited had been emptied by way of providing a firebreak. Not that anyone wanted to be that close to the smoke of crisping human flesh (it was well-known that the flesh of long-dead zombies smelled exceptionally awful when burned), but some campsites had been emptied out of sheer misfortune.

The Finleys had been caught sleeping in their tent — like too many others, they didn’t see the point of getting up early when there wasn’t much to eat. Before the west-end loop pile could be started the Finleys’ reanimated remains had to be clubbed into the collapsed Nylon they had been caught in. The entire tent was then used as a drag to pull Nate and Karen, along with Angela (age eight) and Brandon (age twelve) to the pile of deadwood which served as its foundation.

A square of the tent had been cut away to use as a litter for the other bodies around the campgrounds, with the remainder folded over to cover what was left of the Finleys. Victims of The Thing were never a pretty sight, but what had happened to little Angela and Brandon were particularly hard to take. Nearly everyone had liked those kids. They’d been real troupers, just like their mom and dad.

There were some loud and angry complaints about the attacking zombies thrown in with the more recent victims, but simple expediency carried the day. There were only so many people with camp shovels, and this rocky mountain clay made for tough digging. The campsites in the middle of the loop were serving as a mass grave for the bones once the burning was done. West and east ends were separated by the same line of trees that had separated the middle-loop campsites. Still, it somehow seemed fitting that all the dead of Wildwood Holler should lie as close together as possible.

All save for Shannon Jergens, of course, and one other holdout who had refused to throw his child on the piles. Greg supposed if there had been more holdouts there would have been trouble. Manpower was at a premium. The campgrounds had suffered heavy losses, and there was more to do than simply move gnawed and torn bodies from one place to another, then dig a hole for them all.


There was also the matter of the dogs. There were so many — and these were the ones that had been killed. Many more had gotten away.


More than a few campers saw these dead dogs as a windfall protein source. The New Bethany people scoffed, but then they hadn’t had to go without fresh meat for so long. Eating the dogs also served as a form of payback. Judging by the way some of the people had been torn into by these dogs it was apparent the walking dead weren’t the only ravenously hungry creatures abroad in the land.


Greg thought of all the distance they had to travel to get to Sparta. Assuming they made it across all that wild country, what if Sparta and the rest of the Confederation had already been overrun?


Despite repeated promises from the New Bethany people of a grand cookout following the mass funeral service a small group of people set to accumulating the dogs into their own pile and dressing them for cooking. Most were worthless, little more than a tick-studded hide stretched over a frame of bone. There were enough, however, with sufficiently muscled flanks to merit a good spit-barbecue, if only for a few people. And those people had to wait until the dressers and cooks got a share stuffed into their aching bellies.


The flies had been bad enough to begin with, but with the skinned dog carcasses stinking up the grounds along with the gnawed corpses everyone decided to get the fires going without further ceremony. Greg noticed that some of the same people who had been complaining about the attacking dead piled in with the newly dead were now bringing their camp refuse to the pyres to burn.  Expediency again — especially if you didn’t feel like walking all the way over to where they were skinning and cooking up the dogs and burning their hides.


Greg had not thought to ask Rick for the census, but it seemed enough people had survived to create enough noise and confusion now that all the bodies — twenty-eight of them here on the west side — been stacked between layers of deadwood and garbage and debris from the campsites. It had taken an hour and a half to assemble these pyres. Now they needed tending as they burned, with people poking more fallen tree limbs into the fire to keep it hot enough to burn down the bodies while others stood by with buckets of water from the stream in case the flames got too high.


After this the bones and ash would have to be shoved into the pits, still under construction. There were only so many camp shovels to go around. Everyone was working half-hour shifts. Clay Creighton had already come up to tell Greg not to go anywhere, his turn was coming up soon.


God, this was going to be one long-ass day.



DARYL

You’d think Caesar and his legions were passing by. The cavalry, at the very least. Maybe that’s what they were. Maybe they had frightened those dogs off.

All Daryl knew is he had a fire poker in his hand and he’d been ready to swing it upside Jim Dozark’s head when the weird yell and the rumble of the trucks snapped him to this strange sense of — reality?


As a systems administrator who specialized in troubleshooting troublesome computer networks Daryl had developed a reflex towards assembling all the known facts when things went wrong. Sometimes it was the unknown x factor that caused the network to crash. Sometimes it was known factors in conflict that created the problem. Whatever the case you had to have all the facts of the situation on the table.


Daryl lined up the facts regarding his ill feeling. They were thus:
  1. Despite a relatively easy existence prior to The Thing Chloe had been disappointed with Daryl for not showing more ambition in taking over his department. Despite Daryl’s protests that he was content to solve the networking puzzles for his company, that aspiring to middle-management only created stress that mere money couldn’t justify, Chloe had decided she wanted to leave Daryl.
  2. The onset of The Thing indeed only intensified Chloe’s resentment. It was bad enough she had been dependent on Daryl to puzzle their way out of the suburbs as they became rapidly overrun. She also resented having children dependent on her. Yet she also resented the children’s natural attachment to Daryl. If she didn’t love Daryl, then they shouldn’t either. They should side with her against him.

Daryl stopped himself. That had been dealt with already. Hadn’t it? The loving, supportive woman he’d married had turned out to be a mercenary bitch looking for a ride up the ladder. He’d thought the extremity of being forced from their home and on the run from flesh-eating walking dead would bring them closer. It hadn’t. They had come to this camp where she had attached herself to the most vicious son of a bitch here. She claimed it was her way of providing food for the children — food Daryl could not provide because he, foolish man that he was, did not own a gun. It was just another way for her to humiliate him. That was all.

Daryl felt the ache in his hand where he gripped the fire poker. So that business with Chloe still hurt. That in itself was a problem. It was a distraction from the other problems at hand.

He was aware of the doors opening on the van. Chloe walked up to stand by Dozark, who was cheering and dancing like an idiot as the trucks came into view. Daryl half expected him to shoot his gun into the air like some Middle Eastern crazy. Chloe stood, arms crossed in front of her, making sure the only part of her Daryl saw was her back. She always did have a nice ass, Daryl thought. A damned shame he couldn’t cut it off and put it on someone nice. Assuming there were any nice people left in this grave new world....

Even beneath their coatings of mud and dust the trucks from the church stood out bright, shiny red. Candy-apple red. Two teenage boys in the flatbed of the second truck were throwing boxes to the campsites as a stocky, middle-aged man waved to the cheering campers. The middle-aged man’s parade smile faltered as he took in Daryl’s camp, and Daryl in particular. Daryl almost laughed. He knew he cut a pathetic figure, standing there with his bloodied fire poker.


But he was most curious to see what was in the box that landed at the edge of his site. Danielle and Josh were already running ahead to see, especially as Dozark had left their camp to tear open his. Chloe took a step to follow him, but turned instead to the box in their camp. Her arms were still crossed, her face still scowling.

Daryl glanced down to see Allie looking anxiously back up at him. She was not going to move until he did.


“Allie,” said Daryl, “would it bother you to hold this for me? I know it’s messy but....”


Messy with what’s left of your sister’s brains, thought Daryl. Good God, what was he thinking, asking a thing like this!


But Allie reached up and took the fire poker from Daryl. “Thanks,” said Daryl. His hand tingled, the air cooled his palm.

“Your hand must really hurt,” said Allie.


“Yeah. It does.” Daryl used his other hand to massage his palm, his wrist, his forearm. “It’s one of those things you don’t think about until it’s all over. Then it comes and gets you.”


Comes and gets you. Way to go, champ! Another great turn of phrase. Daryl looked down at Allie and smiled ruefully. God damn it, he was too tired to worry over checking his speech....


“You’re very brave,” said Allie.


“What?”


“Mr. Dozark said all those mean things and pushed you around but he had that gun. He didn’t go too far from his trailer, either. You stood there right in the middle with all those dogs. I saw it. I thought they were gonna get you but you kept swinging. You wanted to save Carly.”


“Yeah,” sighed Daryl. “Fat load of good I did for her.” He squinted his eyes shut against the memory of her tear-streaked face. “God, Allie, I’m —”


“Don’t! Don’t say you’re sorry!” Allie had grabbed his aching hand, her little fingers pressing into his. “It’s like what Dad said about Mommy. She didn’t have a chance. Once they get their hands on you that’s it.”


Daryl knew well the tale of how Jake Patterson had gotten Allie and Carly into the SUV when their mother was taken inside the house by ghouls which had broken in the back sliding glass door. She’d gone inside for something. Her ID, her little folder with the credit cards, something like that. Jake was about to go after her but she screamed Run! and more swarmed from around both sides of the house, one was already at the glass on the other side of the SUV and the girls inside were screaming and it was when Jake heard that he got inside the SUV, turned the key, and drove off into the night, the tears pouring down his face....


“I know maybe you think that’s what people say but I saw that happen a lot while we were driving away. You see people in their yards trying to fight them but if they grabbed you or if they got their arms around you, you never got away.”


“Mr. Greg over there will let them grab him,” said Daryl. “He lets them do that so he can put the gun under their chins. He says it’s the only way to be sure.”


“Greg’s got a gun.”


“He’s still plenty brave.”


“Braver than Mister Dozark.”


“A lot nicer, too.”


“Dad said it took more guts to be nice to people than not.”


“Yeah. He did.”


“No one ever got away. I thought they were going to get us then because Dad kept hitting and driving over the ones who got in front of us in the street. I kept screaming at him to stop, we just had to get away but he was mad. He was mad he had to leave Mommy.”


Daryl spared a glance towards Jake’s old SUV. Like every vehicle in the camp its shine had worn off with the weather. More so than most, it had a lot of dents across the front bumper and hood. It also had a red-black stain right across the radiator grill, which Jake had never tried removing. Over time it had rusted out that part of the grill.


Allie was looking towards Chloe and Josh and Danielle as they pawed through the box. “You’re still gonna take me with you, aren’t you, Mr. Kirkland? Dad and Carly and I were going to go, but — I still want to go, okay?”


“You don’t want to go to the church with those people in the trucks?”


“Dad wasn’t gonna let me go!”


“You’re dad’s not here now.” Daryl winced at his own bluntness. “What I’m saying is, it’s up to you now. They probably have all kinds of food and other children and schools and things closer to normal than where I’m taking Josh and Danielle.”


“You’re not making them go to the church.”


“No.”


“Why not?”


“Allie, I’d really rather not go into that....”


“It’s because they got real strict rules for everybody. And if you’re not a church member already or in real good with the people in charge you’re the next best thing to a slave.”


“Well, I could be wrong.”


“I wanna go with you, Mr. Kirkland. I don’t wanna stay here tonight.”


“Allie, fine. But you gotta understand —”


“I don’t wanna be married off to someone I don’t like and have to have their babies!”


“Jesus!” It was Daryl’s turn to steal a glance at his wife and children. They didn’t seem to have heard. “Allie,” he said, crouching down so they were face to face. “This is gonna be a hard walk across country. I don’t know how much food we’re gonna have, if any. I can’t have any complaining or anything. I need brave people!”


“So? I can be brave,” said Allie.


“Okay. Yeah, I know. It’s just that I don’t think Ranger McCracken even wanted me coming with my own children for just that reason. Or even your father. This is going to be hard.”


“It’s gonna be all right when we get to the ‘federation, though, isn’t it?”


“That’s just it. We don’t know for sure.”


“But it’s gotta be better than the church.”


“It’s still gonna be a long, hard walk. And we have to go tonight.”


“I know!”


“And these church people, they might not let us leave. We have to be quiet, sneaky and careful. And not too obviously sneaky, or they’ll know.”


“Josh and Danielle are doing it.”


“Okay. I just want you to know. You’ve got a choice. I don’t want to make you go if you don’t want to.”


“I want to go!”


“All right, all right! Just be quiet. Stay close to me. Don’t say anything.”


“I can be a help, Mr. Kirkland. Daddy said I was always a great helper.”


“I know. And you can help me now by walking up with me and seeing what’s in these boxes. If you’ve got a little school backpack or something you need to get it so we can carry as much as we can.”


“I got two backpacks. I can use Carly’s, now.”


“I just need one. And we can’t go digging through all this until Mrs. Kirkland goes away. We might not even get a chance. We might have to eat what we can eat and just put up with being hungry until we get to Sparta.”


“Okay.”


“All right. Keep hanging on to that, all right?” Daryl said, indicating the fire poker. “I need to rest my hand.”


“You don’t have to worry ‘bout being ‘sponsible for me.”


“What?”


“I said you don’t have to worry about being ‘sponsible. I can help.”


“You’re helping now. Good. Let’s go.”


They walked slowly up to the road where the box at the edge. It was a white, cardboard storage box with a simple lid, easily removed.


“Mom wouldn’t let us eat any of the snacks ‘til you got here,” Danielle said. “But she took the potato chips all for herself.”
Daryl looked at Chloe, who was apparently savoring every bite of the chips she was taking from the large, family-size bag. “So,” Chloe said, swallowing, “you two certainly spent a lot of time talking.”

“I suppose.”


“Let me guess. We’re adopting.”


“I’ll take care of her, Chloe. No one’s making you do anything.”


“I’m sure the church people will be happy to help,” said Chloe. “You know there’s some parents out there who’ve lost children who’d be happy to take her.”


“I said I’d take care of her, Chloe. Enjoy your chips.”


“Hmp. Touchy.” With that, she walked away towards Dozark’s camp.


Daryl let her get some distance between them, then kneeled down at the box. He looked it over. A lot of snack items. Peanut butter crackers, in the long cases such as one might find in the warehouse stores. Juice boxes, still in the plastic. No telling if it might be turned or not, but it was better than nothing. A big bag of beef jerky. Again, just the size and kind you got from the warehouse stores, and a damn sight better than the greasy chips Chloe apparently planned to eat all by herself. A pack of one-size-fits-all white socks. Underwear. And a clean blanket at the bottom of it all. Maybe they were supposed to fight for that one. Or maybe all fit under it, as one big happy family.


With one eye towards Chloe as she walked up towards Dozark, Daryl said, “All right. Let’s get this to the back of the van.”


“But Dad! Can we —?”


Now.”



GREG  

Greg laughed to find the waterless anti-bacterial hand soap in his box. It figured that would turn up right after he’d torn into the chips and crackers.

Still, it could be useful. He tucked it into his shoulder-strap laptop bag and wondered if he should bother trying to carry his laptop. If Sparta could send out radio signals it stood to reason they had some kind of power source to recharge his battery.

He pondered this for longer than he would have liked. It was only three pounds. But those three pounds would count for a lot over three, maybe four days of all-day hiking, with the additional weight of everything his was carrying in his regular shoulder-strap soft luggage. Including this food: who knew a good thing like this could complicate things so much? Daryl could carry only so much for his own children, plus Allie. They would need all the calories they could stuff themselves with.

Even those greasy-nasty potato chips. Oh yeah, those carbs and calories were gonna burn....



KEISHA

For all his general self-sufficiency, Rick didn’t mind a woman taking care of him. He certainly could have packed his own damn bag.

On the other hand, at least he didn’t expect Keisha to carry it. And those were her clothes in there with his. The backpack he was also carrying had all their survival gear plus a tent and a bed roll. Keisha also knew Rick wouldn’t think of taking that bedroll for himself. This was going to be a hard trip for all involved. So what was she so bitchy about?

Well, aside from the stress of her particular mission there was the not-so-small matter of those goons guarding the trucks. If they saw her walking out the door with what she was carrying....


DARYL

“You gone eat all these?”

Daryl had just finished stacking the bodies of the dogs when one of the people from near the bottom of the loop came by and asked that. Daryl just looked at him. The man asked again.

“No,” said Daryl. “I’m not eating any of them.”

“You mind if we have ‘em, then?” said the man.

“Um, sure. Help yourself.”

The man whistled to someone further down the loop and he came running up with a piece of tent in his hands, such as they were using to haul away the bodies of the deaders and their victims. It took them three trips to get them all. They weren’t easy trips either. The Nylon dragged the ground with the weight of so many bodies. Regardless, these men moved as if someone would come and take the rest before they got back.

Daryl was pleased to see he’d killed so many. The pleasure evaporated quickly in light of the fact that, a) they’d damn near killed him, and, b) they’d damn near killed him. Damned monsters. If he could only have killed them all....

It didn’t do to dwell on these things. Just as he’d had to steer the children past Carly’s body when they brought the box back he had to steer himself from dwelling on angry and miserable thoughts.

When the men from the church came to ask how it was going for him Daryl mentioned he had another mouth to feed, and one of the men got on the walkie-talkie and called down for more food. Daryl was surprised they’d done that. A sweet little piece of luck. The more these kids could get into their little school backpacks the better.

Later, once everything was cleaned up, even the accumulated garbage from the past couple of weeks, the head guy from the church, “Deacon Dare” or something like that, came down to invite the children to the station they’d set up down near Caleb Spencer’s camp at the bottom of the loop. “How many of you remember candy?” said the Deacon. “We got candy and a Message of Hope for all you little ones!” Daryl decided that that statement tied with the dog collector’s for the most surreal thing he’d heard in a long time.

Daryl nodded for Josh and Danielle to go but Allie wasn’t having any of it. “She just watched her father and her sister taken down this morning,” he explained to the Deacon.

“Yes, you were the one who asked for the extra food,” said the Deacon.

“Believe me, it’s not for me. Look, Allie, they’ll probably feed you there —”

Allie squeezed Daryl’s waist as if preparing to be dragged. “I’m not hungry!”

Daryl shrugged.

The deacon squatted on his haunches and faced Allie. “Honey, we’ve leavin’ outta here tomorra mornin’. It’s a hard day-and-a-half ride even with the trucks, but this I can most certainly assure you — once it’s done you’re not gonna have any more worries. You’re not gonna worry about whether or not you’re gonna eat. You’re not gonna have to worry about those Things comin’ to get you. You won’t have to worry about the people around you, either, because everyone’s a believer and by the commandment of Christ we love you as much as we love ourselves.

“An’ I’ll tell you something else: we’re gonna pray for your daddy an’ your sister tonight. We’re gonna pray for this fine man takin’ you in. An’ when we get to where we’re goin’ we’re gonna keep on prayin’! The mortal shells of your loved ones may be left behind here, but they will always be in our hearts, an’ we will never forget them. Because God made our hearts, and God never forgets!”

Allie squeezed harder about Daryl’s waist. Daryl squeezed her with his arm. “She’ll be all right with me, Deacon. She just needs some time.”

The man stood up. “Where’s your wife, Mr. Kirkland?”

“I don’t have one,” Daryl said. “Not anymore.”

“She’s gonna need a momma, too. You know that, right?”

“Are you saying I’m not qualified to take care of my own children?”

“No, that’s not I’m saying.”

“I’ve been doing this for a while, Deacon. And damned if it doesn’t sound to me like you’re the big bad Government telling me what’s best for my children. The same Government people like you used to complain about.”

“We’re not the Government, Mr. Kirkland. No one’s taking your children away from you. I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.”

“Allie wants to stay with me right now.”

“I see that. And I humbly ask your pardon for speaking out of turn. Will we see you this evening?”

“What’s happening this evening?”

“We’ll be having a service for those who passed this morning. Afterwards, a Thanksgiving feast for the survivors.” The deacon grinned. “I run a mean barbecue, Mr. Kirkland. I’d hate to see you miss it on account of a misunderstanding.”

“Of course. Thank you, Deacon.”

“So you’ll be there?”

Daryl smiled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Good.” The deacon looked down the trail. “Looks like the others have run ahead.”

“Yeah. Sure does.”

“Well, we’ll see you.”

“Sure thing.”

Daryl and Allie turned away and walked uphill, away from the deacon. They cut across the middle of the loop at the first vacant campsite. The could see the smoldering remains in the twin pits, the men taking turns shoveling dirt upon them. Greasy smudges of human fat still smoked on the road ahead of them. The air was heavy and still, the stench unspeakable.

“Daryl?”

“Yes?”

“Do you believe God has a plan?”

“Uh, I’m probably the last person you want to ask about that, Allie. I’m not real big on the whole God thing.”

“I’m not, either.”

“Why do you say that?”

They made large strides past the smoking pits of dirt, garbage, and blackened bone. Upon reaching the other side, they passed a similarly sticky patch of tarry fat bubbling on the asphalt. They had to cross over to the opposite side and walk through the empty camp there to pass it on the way to Greg Copeland’s site.

It wasn’t a matter of heart, Daryl figured. More like stomach. To press Allie for an answer would require opening his mouth, and he sure as hell wasn’t about to do that here.

“Tell me the truth, now. Does this make me look fat?

Copyright © 2008, 2013 by Lawrence Roy Aiken

The Living End © 2013 by James Robert Smith

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