Thursday, December 11, 2014

As the Dead Begin to Rise in BLEEDING KANSAS, Part I

THE SETUP: Two men sit at the bar in a luxury hotel in a city on lockdown. Most of the hotel’s guests left while it was still possible to travel, but there are a few still in their rooms, many of them too sick to move. One of them has bitten Angie, the desk manager, and she’s reacted badly to it. 

The narrator is one Mr. Derek Grace, who will, in time, go from middle-aged job seeker to the Dead Silencer. For now, he’s fuming over the recent death of his wife, who died with all the other victims of the Final Flu, while the job that was going to save his family literally perished before he could take that final interview. 

It’s difficult taking in the end of the world as a whole when your world has pretty much ended all on its own. Now he’s stuck at a bar 600 miles from home, listening to this asshole brag about his fabulous life, and he can’t even leave to see about his wife.

Things are about to get worse. Much, much worse. From the pages of Bleeding Kansas comes...

“Tasteless frosting on an unspeakable cake”

It comes off as quite the magnanimous gesture when Tanner pauses in his litany of First World problems to let Angie know he’s thinking about her: “Why don’t you find an empty room and go to sleep for a while?”

“I feel better out here with you guys,” she croaks at us.

“So long as you’re comfortable,” he says.

“Fine. Thanks.”

I get up and walk to the sofa we’ve dragged behind the front desk for her. Angie’s skin is covered in a greasy sheen. I touch the back of my hand to her head. “Ow!” she cries out.

“I’m just seeing if you have a fever.”

“It hurts!”

“What’s going on over there?” says Tanner.

“She’s got an infection!” I snap, annoyed at the accusatory tone in his voice. I look down at Angie. “Can I get you to drink some water?”

“I just want to sleep.”

I go into the back and fill a glass with crushed ice and water. “I’m setting this here,” I tell her when I get back. “Don’t be shy. Believe it or not, you need this.”

I’m aware of Tanner looking at me as I return to my seat at the bar. I pointedly ignore him.

“There are a lot of germs in the human mouth,” he says. “In fact, a bite from a human is one of the worst you can get.”

He says this oh-so casually. Never mind the young woman burning up with fever on the couch. Just when I think I’m the most bitter-twisted, soul-numbed waste of skin in the house, here comes Mr. Cool-Head All-Is-Well Security Consultant.

I pick up the remote and begin flipping through the channels. The coordination of the media is impressive. Each of the local stations has their assigned neighborhoods and their parks to cover. They have their separate theme music, even separate logos and titles but the narrative is the same: a straight-out-of-nowhere summer cold somehow became the Final Flu and now the world takes historic pause to bury their first wave of dead from this once-in-a-century epidemic. 

“Like in the days of the 1918 Spanish Flu we all look forward to getting back to more-or-less normal,” I hear people on two different channels say word for word. “Of course, the new normal will take some getting used to!”

The other satellite channels show documentaries on the Spanish Flu, with nods to plagues past. I suppose if you watched some of that for long enough you might come to accept that one out of three people dropping dead is perfectly natural.

Of course there’s the usual corny-phony scenes of prayer among the surviving members of Congress and the Senate on the Capitol steps. “We encourage everyone watching to tune into their own local channels for coverage of what’s happening in their own areas,” says the voiceover. “We know it seems out of the ordinary to ask viewers to turn away but it is imperative we stay in touch with our local communities and do what has to be done to normalize issues specific to our respective localities. Every community has its own issues with the Flu, and its own requirements for taking care of the remains of the deceased. Meanwhile, we take you to scenes of faith from around the globe….”

The clips they’re showing from inside churches could just as well have come from coverage of Easter services in any given year. The voiceover repeats the script.

So, good citizens that we are, we click on to the coverage on the parks closest to our area. The solemn bumper music plays as they come back from break—the break being a list of the stations to call to have your deceased removed for you, based on ZIP code, school district, etc.

“Worldwide catastrophe” is a phrase that turns up now and again. We’re coming together, of course. Americans always come together in Times of Crisis.  (Unlike those snooty French, I suppose.) And so we will gather to mourn our dead and carry on…shopping, or whatever.

The narration is hushed as the camera follows a soldier/Guardsman pulling a little bundle in a sheet from the back of a canvas-covered truck. “The flu was extremely random in its selection of victims,” says a male narrator. “Whereas the Spanish Flu of nearly a hundred years ago targeted young, healthy adults and spared the very old and very young, this flu took infants, the elderly, the young, middle-aged—everyone. Every family has been affected. My family, my co-host Andrea’s family, Jeff the cameraman’s family, our producer, Jean, in the van. Your family, too.”

“Balls!” I say. “Let’s open up the bar.”

“Let’s wait until all this is over,” says Tanner. “Then the first one’s on me.”

This pompous ass is hardly dressed to be in charge of anything but a country club tennis court and I wouldn’t recognize his authority there, either.  I’m sliding off my stool to pour myself a beer when I hear the firecrackers again. I go to the plate glass doors and try to make out where it’s coming from.

“Sound to me like its coming from one of the problem areas,” Tanner says.

“Problem areas? How is anything a problem with damn near everybody dead and the National Guard on the streets?”

I’m aware of Tanner looking me over, weighing my capacity for frankness: “There are certain cultures that resist having their deceased taken away from them without a proper viewing period.”

“The blacks aren’t giving up their dead so the National Guard is shooting them?”

“Ah! You’re aware of the practice.”

“Of the long vigils, yes. Shooting people for it, no.”

“We’re in the midst of an epidemiological emergency. Two days ago it was a bunch of people with colds. Now people are dead. A lot of people.” Tanner gestures toward the TV. “This is about getting a biohazard good and buried before we lose what’s left of us.”

We see shots of the canvas-covered flatbeds pulling to the curb in various neighborhoods. The volunteers in their Day-Glo yellow vests walk up to the doors on either side of the street. They don’t use gurneys but stretchers. Once they have the body they jog to the back of the waiting truck.

The survivor fills out the paperwork on the clipboard held out by one of the government volunteers. Name, age, sex, approximate time of death. They get a numbered receipt for the body in lieu of an official death certificate.

The narration is excruciating to listen to. Platitudes, benedictions, soothing words: tasteless frosting on an unspeakable cake. I think of Sibyl and Jack having to deal with their mother’s lifeless body. And I’m not there. I keep telling myself they’re capable and mature enough. Which they are. Still….

The scene cuts to a park. There’s a long trench and yellow police tape all around.

“This is just three blocks over,” Tanner says.

“Yeah, we heard the backhoe earlier.” I’m looking at all the people behind the yellow tape. Even from the screen you can feel the tension of the crowd. They want to see their loved ones covered, even if it is with a backhoe.

Tanner frowns. “This isn’t good.”

“Why not?”

He doesn’t take his eyes from the TV. “They’ve had some issues at some of these burials.”

“I thought this was the first wave.”

“The first wave here. Burials have been going on pretty much all day everywhere.”

“So, aside from the logistics of burying so many people at once, what issues have they been having?”

“There!” Tanner says.

Most of the bodies are wrapped in sheets; the ones that aren’t are wrapped there at the park before being lowered into the ditch.

One of the bodies is apparently resisting being wrapped up. A pale little girl kicks and flails at the sheet. The two wrapping her are knocked back on their rears as the girl sits up.

“The hell?”

“Watch!” says Tanner. He leans eagerly towards the image on the screen.

NEXT: Part II: “Crimson spray erupts”

First edition. Available
only in paperback.
AFTERWORD: Crazy as it sounds, there are two editions of Bleeding Kansas, and they differ in more than just their covers. The first edition contains more overtly misanthropic observations from Grace about the people and even the undead around him, some of which apparently hit some reviewers where they live. It also contains the death of a special-needs child that really upset some others. The child dies because Tanner is an asshole, but people blamed Grace, then me, for being fucking heartless, or whatever. Because innocents don’t die in zombie apocalypses, only people who have it coming. Or who can defend themselves. Or whatever.

Second edition, in Kindle
and in paperback.
So I rewrote the book. Six pages fell away as I niced it up for sensitive readers. We slapped a new cover on it and figured we could leave the bitchy reviews behind. Although the reaction to the new version hasn’t been all that bad, it seems we got more positive vibes from those discerning readers who expect a properly violent and nasty apocalypse than not. When I finish the third book in the series (yes, the second is already out) I’ll restore the child’s death and some of the misanthropic snark, in the course of making the Ultimate Version. If the death of special-needs children bothers you, if angry people make you feel uncomfortable, this is the version for you.