Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Chapter 13 of The WRONG KIND of DEAD: “Hard Choices, Soft Bodies”

From the ALL-NEW, Yet-To-Be Proofed and Published FINAL BOOK of the SAGA of the DEAD SILENCER

PREVIOUS EPISODE: Chapter 12: “Showdown at the Smiley Place”

Naturally, we can’t just jump in our trucks and leave. Loretta stomps out onto the deck to chastise her son for breaking the rail with that Air Force sergeant. “Just because we’re never coming back, there’s no need to trash the house you and your brother grew up in,” she says.

Loretta turns to Pastor Julie. “Speaking of trash,” she says, stepping up into the fat woman’s face. “I don’t care if this place is about to swarmed, I don’t want this hateful woman anywhere near what used to be my home.”

“So what do you want us to do?”

“Take her away. Anywhere but here.”

“The colonel, too?” Tommy points to the man with the broken leg, writhing face down in the dirt 15 feet below.

“Never mind him. At least he’s not getting into my house.”

Some bodies of the colonel’s squad will be left inside the house regardless. There’s no time. A set of handcuffs from one of these men restrains Pastor Julie. She sits down in sulky protest and has to be carried to the flatbed of the Mom’s Taxi, which Agnes drives parallel to the broken rail on the deck.

With easy access to the deck established, A.J. now decides she has to go to the bathroom. She’s not out of the truck for 30 seconds when the first one is spotted coming in from behind the screen of trees on the edge of the property.

The man wearing the torn blue T-shirt looks interested in the noise we’re making. For now his hunger compels him to batten down on the easy meat groaning and smoking on the road. I didn’t expect anyone up there to be alive, but the arm the ghoul is raising to his mouth is trying to pull away.

At last, A.J. runs out of the bathroom and back onto the truck. Loretta and Martha’s luggage are thrown onto the flatbed with me and the handcuffed Pastor Julie, before Brother Christopher, Ethan, and the rest pile down the stairs to the ground floor and into Justin’s truck.

I have the unenviable task of holding Pastor Julie by her broad, meaty shoulders as we back out of Loretta Smiley’s driveway. As we reach the road, I see two more ghouls have joined the one feeding on the guards we left there. One turns her gore-painted face to watch us as Agnes cuts the wheel and we pull away. Her dusty white eyes are eerily dispassionate for a member of the Undead Diner’s Club. As if, so what? She’ll see us again soon.

The rendezvous point with our women and children should have been a little further off the road, but it took long enough for Brother Christopher and Ethan and the rest of the men to get to us as it was, so I can’t fault them for that. Besides, judging from the bodies around their trucks and the SUV, there is nowhere to hide in these woods. The dead are coming in from all over.

Agnes crunches over three bodies as she lines up with a knoll alongside the road, all the better to unload Martha’s and Loretta’s luggage, as well as Pastor Julie. “Come on,” I say, pulling the heavyset woman to her feet.

“Why?” she says. “Where are we going?”

“I’m sending you on your way.”

“You’re not taking me with you?”

I call out to A.J. She clambers out of the cockpit. “Get her phone,” I say.

A.J. takes Pastor Julie’s phone and hands it to me. It’s in a pink case, but Provisional Government-issue. “Agnes,” I say, holding it up for her to see.

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “I saw you throwing that kid’s phone away back at the checkpoint. Looks like they had these gadgets when they were still too cool for us.”

Pastor Julie gasps as I throw her phone into the woods. “Think of this as one of those reality show contests,” I say, “where you have to survive without any lifelines.”

“You can’t,” says Pastor Julie. She bends her knees and plops hard on her rear onto the flatbed. A.J. and I stagger with the impact on the truck’s suspension.

I look over to where Lance and Tommy and Justin are rearranging the loads in the trucks. “Hey,” I call out to them.

“Oh, all right,” she says. I still let Lance and Tommy pull her up, and none too gently. She stumbles coming off the flatbed and onto the top of the knoll. I jump after them, jogging ahead to lead them to that part of the road I want them to leave her.

“Aren’t you taking these cuffs off?” she says. 

“I was thinking about it. Thing is, every time I consider showing you the least little bit of mercy, I keep coming back to Bethany Driscoll and her daughter. You’re aware of what happened that night, aren’t you? Martha might have saved one of them. All you had to do was mind your own business.”

“Well, I’m sorry for what happened, I truly am,” says Pastor Julie in a tone that indicates she finds the whole affair trivial. “But what became of that girl and her child was God’s judgment. Just like everything else since the Fall last summer.”

“What happened to Bethany Driscoll and her daughter was because you declared yourself the Supreme Soviet of Abundant Life, where no one got out or in. You talk about God’s judgment, those same people at the checkpoint who turned away Justin Driscoll were threatening to rape my wife and daughter all of ten minutes ago. I’m wondering how many people suffered and were sent away or shot because—and let me guess—you don’t know anything about what goes on at the perimeter checkpoints. Just so long as no one gets in or out.”

“Well, it sounds to me like you’ve got it all figured out,” says Pastor Julie.

“Not everything. This is the first time you and I have ever clapped eyes on one another, but damned if you didn’t have it out for me and my people. What on earth was up with that?”

“Oh, I’ve known who you are since you got here, Mr. Grace. I was there when Pastor Bryce introduced you to the women’s congregation last year. Like you were God’s own gift. I saw your prideful, sinful nature in your very face; you weren’t fooling me. Then Donna Grayson told me how you shot her husband and left her and her children to be eaten alive by the Unclean, and that was all I needed to know. People think you’re some kind of hero. You’re just another murdering bandit. Some piece of low-class nothing who’s found a way to weasel his up out of his place.”

“So, for all that, Bethany Driscoll and her daughter had to die.”

“You said it yourself. I didn’t know anything about it. That was the decision of Brother Joseph and his people. They were following orders. I’m sure they would have decided differently if they’d known what was really going on.”

I look from Tommy to Lance. Walking almost in lockstep alongside Pastor Julie and myself, their eyes are straight ahead, their faces like stone. They’ve no doubt spoken to Justin as I have, and if they know the sorry tale of how he was mocked and attacked for trying to get the one person who could help his wife in labor, they also know Justin’s attitude towards retribution. They’re not giving this woman the satisfaction of seeing them the least bit moved by her evil.

Which is exactly as it should be. For them. As the man who accepted responsibility for putting the pistol under the chins of dead Bethany and her daughter so they would not come back from the dead, what happens next here—I’m not accepting responsibility for anything. I’m demanding it.

“In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I command you to unlock these cuffs!”

“For the love of a stillborn child who didn’t live long enough to get a name, you will keep walking.”

“Or you’ll what?”

“I’ll break a kneecap, and you can roll around in the tall grass waiting for the ghouls to find you. By the way, you had to know Abundant Life was being invaded by these things. Why aren’t you at the office coordinating a response? Why are you even bothering with me and my people when you’ve got a settlement with hundreds of people to evacuate?”

Pastor Julie Pearce looks me up and down before gifting me with an ugly sneer. “It’s too bad they could never get good audio on the shots they took of you for that TV show so people could hear just how stupid you sound when you talk.” 

The woman turns on her heel and walks away down the macadam road. I give her a minute to convince me she is indeed walking away before we turn and begin walking back to our rendezvous point. Tommy and Lance say nothing, and I’m not in the mood to make conversation, myself.

Almost everyone is out of their trucks and SUVs and stretching their legs. Elyssa spots me from where she’s talking to Teresa, and runs to meet me. She has no words, just a quick squeeze and a kiss before running back to her SUV. I nod at Tommy and Lance and they double-time it to their respective vehicles.

The other trucks are starting up as I step onto the back of Mom’s Taxi. “So where do you want to go?” says Agnes, pushing her glasses back up on her nose.

“Has anyone gotten any responses from our people here?”

“Jenny’s husband has a vehicle running but they don’t know if they want to leave yet. Beth would like us to swing by and pick her up. It would be awkward, though.”

“How’s that?”

“We’ll be passing by the Wilsons’ place. They have no way of moving out, and it’s hard to miss this truck. They’ll know we’re picking up Beth and leaving them behind.”

“As much as I love Beth for helping with evacuating us from the solar garden last summer….”

“…we owe the Wilsons for making sure we didn’t starve to death last winter,” says Agnes. “It would be a hell of a squeeze. We couldn’t take all of them and their baggage. They’d have nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

“The only way it could work with Beth and the Wilsons is they drop what they’re doing and hop in with our vehicles still moving. You know that’s not going to happen. The Wilsons won’t have time to say goodbye to their dogs and chickens and goats. Frankly, I don’t know if I have the heart to ask them to do that. I don’t even know that they will do that.”

“So to be fair to everyone, we’ll leave everyone here to die.”

“I rather liked the Huddlestons and the Harmons, too. I’m open to suggestions.”

Agnes puts her glasses on and starts the engine. I slide my headset on, as does A.J. “Mom, Dad?” says A.J. as Agnes pulls out onto the road.

“I’m sorry, A.J.,” says Agnes. “We can’t—”

“Look,” says A.J. She hands me the phone.

“Son of a bitch,” I say.

“What is it? No, don’t show me that thing while I’m driving!”

“Col. Dietzen is alive. He says he’s gathering everyone at the clubhouse so we can lead them out.”

“Now?” she says. “I mean, he’s just now getting in touch? How is anyone going anywhere when they don’t have fuel? There’s no time to gas everyone up and get going.”

“For all we know, they already have. We know they got the phones before we did.”

“But Beth and Jenny didn’t have…oh,” say Agnes.

“Right. We get to risk our lives protecting Heather and Pastor Julie’s people for a live TV audience, while our people are just learning something’s wrong—and get eaten alive, anyway.”

“Well, this will be an easy decision,” says Agnes. 

“What do you want me to tell him?” says A.J.

“Nothing,” I say. “Tell everyone in our group we’re going straight to Monument Hill.”

“You’re not even curious as to what Dietzen’s story is?” says Agnes.

“What story? How he waited until we were off the mountain before starting down? The fire wouldn’t have been so bad by then that he couldn’t race right past it. As for this business about us killing him, that was just some bullshit to goose up the drama. Funny how the kids at that checkpoint ‘knew’ we’d killed him.”

“So,” says Agnes. “Monument Hill?”

“Got any better ideas?”

After coasting in idle to give everyone a chance to make formation, Agnes puts her foot to the pedal, and we pick up speed driving into the heart of Black Forest and Abundant Life. Our best way out of here is through, and the stink of ambulatory corpses seems to be everywhere. 

Two former citizens are coming out of the woods behind Pastor Julie as we pass. She’s too preoccupied shouting curses at us to notice the tall, shirtless teen closing the distance behind her with long, stiff-kneed strides. Ethan and the rest of the moon roof shooters ride past with expressionless faces and eyes straight ahead, as Tommy and Lance had done when we set her loose. 

I wave at Pastor Julie as the boy raises his arms to take her down. We’re moving along at a good clip, though, and I miss seeing the look on her face when she feels those cold hands clamping down on her broad, meaty shoulders. 

We make our first turn through the middle of the wooded settlement. There’s another turn for the road going past Beth Reynolds’ place and the Wilsons. Agnes drives past it. I keep telling myself that feeling lousy for leaving these people here won’t make it better. That we don’t have time to argue or plead. That we wouldn’t be moving, either, if it weren’t for Col. Dietzen wanting to put us on the road and record us via drone, fighting for our lives for the amusement of an audience hundreds of miles away. At least their deaths won’t be transmitted via satellite for people with decidedly morbid tastes in entertainment.

So help me God, heads will quite literally fucking roll if I find out they are.

A.J.’s voice comes over my headset. “Col. Dietzen wants to know if you’ve forgotten that everyone in Abundant Life is counting on you to lead them out.”

“Tell everyone on your phone list to mobilize immediately, any which way they can. Catch up with us on I-25 northbound. I don’t know what it’s like at the clubhouse, but the woods out here are full of dead people. We’re not waiting around to get swarmed.”

Given that most of our people at Abundant Life are stuck here for want of fresh gasoline, it seems a rather cruel thing to say. Still, if all they do is walk, run, skip or crawl, dodging the dead as they go, it would be better than waiting for the area to be overrun. I can only hope someone at least tries that, instead of wasting time watching Drone TV with Dietzen and his goons. 

A.J. speaks up in time for us to reach Baptist Road on the far north end accessing the Interstate. “Dietzen says you don’t know the exact coordinates where to meet.” 

“Like I trust him not to put us smack in the middle of a stinking horde. Screw him.”

“Derek!” says Agnes.

“Sorry, Mom,” I say. I look back at A.J. Her eyes are wide.

“Daddy…” she says, her hands trembling as if she might drop the phone.

I reach out to take it. I look at the screen.
Fuck Dietzen. Feed these coord into GPS app on one of yr phones. Drive like yr lives depend on it b/c they do. Don’t stop. A friend.
As I’m scrolling into the coordinates, Dietzen cuts in blubbering about the illegitimate transmission; it’s a trap set by unknown and unauthorized agencies. I figure it’s obvious he or an underling he has to be texting from a full-sized keyboard to get all those words in. I back up to the pirate text. 

“A.J., can you pick up either your phone or your mom’s phone and access the GPS app?”

“What?” says Agnes. “You’ve got the coordinates?”

“Yeah. From someone who isn’t Dietzen. No caller ID or anything.”

“We’re trusting this person?”

“I want to see where these coordinates are.” I show A.J. the phone screen with the coordinates and she taps them into the open GPS app on one of the other phones.

The map comes up. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I say. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke?”

“What?” says Agnes.

“It’s exactly where I thought we were going all along. It’s right on the Interstate. Monument Hill.” I show it to her. “No, seriously. It’s right where the sign is saying, ‘Monument Hill, 7352 feet.’”

“Which means?”

Another text comes through, this one from Brother Christopher.
Need to stop immed after turn for Baptist Road.
I begin to fumble-thumb a reply before thinking better of it and handing the phone back to A.J. “Tell Brother Christopher we can’t stop.”

“He’s already sent another reply. He says we need to meet our people there.”

“Our people.”

“He says it won’t take long.”

I look around. I don’t see any stumblers coming at us. Yet. The stench is strong. “Fine,” I say. “Whatever it is he’s talking about, it better be quick.”

I unbuckle from my harness and wave everyone behind us to pull over and stop. Agnes cuts the engine. I duck into the cockpit, pull the hatch and drop the ladder. 

I need to talk to Brother Christopher directly, but Elyssa will never forgive me if I go to his side of the vehicle when she’s right there behind the wheel. I walk over to her side, her window already down, and address our family’s lead warrior. “Christopher, I don’t know if you all got the text, but Col. Dietzen’s alive.”

“We know, sir. Do we have to meet him again?”

“I wouldn’t do that to you, Brother. We’re going straight to Monument Hill. Did you get the text from the other guy?”

“Excuse me?”

“We’re getting messages from an anonymous third party hostile to Dietzen. They gave us coordinates to meet them on the Interstate where it crosses over Monument Hill. I don’t know about this guy. True, we’re going through there regardless, but this might be another one those situations where you’ll want to hang back a bit and see what happens to us first.”

“Sir, if you can hang on for another couple of minutes, we should have some help getting our Abundant Life people out.”

“Okay, talk fast.”

“I’ve been meaning to tell you. We’ve been busy.” Brother Christopher glances about quickly, then exits the SUV. He comes around to where I’m standing next to Elyssa and raises his arm to the vehicles behind us. All the young men, with Melinda and Rene, step out of their vehicles, AR-15s muzzles up, and begin jogging towards us. 

“I’ve never told anyone,” Christopher says to me. “I didn’t see the need for it. No one ever went out in that direction.” He looks at me, embarrassed. “I didn’t bother you with it because…they’re just another bunch of knuckleheads.”

“Right now, a bunch of knuckleheads who can get some vehicles moving is what I need. You say they can help bring our people from Abundant Life? Can they do this in time?”

“They’ve been organizing their own load-out since this morning. I don’t know how, but they know what’s going on. I’ve been in touch with them since we left the mountain.” Brother Christopher shrugs. “They were enthusiastic about helping. They just needed to know where everyone lived. I sent them to the Wilsons. They said they could get the animals and everything.”

 I thought Brother Christopher was shrugging. No, God help me, he’s squirming. “What’s your problem with these people?”

“Well, I think everyone will be all right. It’s...they’re just not our kind of people, sir.”

“Brother Christopher, you of all people should know there’s three kinds of people left since one year ago today. People who want to kill us and take our stuff, people who want to trade with us, and people who prefer to be left alone. Which I’d say is pretty much like us, except if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this past year, is it takes a mess of help to stand alone.” 

I turn to look at the men gathered about us. Ethan looks as mortified as poor Christopher. I’m half-mortified myself for going off on the young man, myself, and in front of the people he leads. “So how are they able to move?” I say.

“When I was at their camp they had just gotten a working bike going. You can run one on alcohol if you adjust the compression in the engine. Naturally, they already had stills going for other purposes, so it made sense.”

The way his lip curls when he says “naturally” makes me want to remind him we maintained a still to fuel Mom’s Taxi, and that Ethan brewed a fine ale. “How many vehicles do they have?”

“I don’t know, sir. I know they had a lot of bikes. Dirt bikes, chopped-up hogs, all kinds. They were just getting going on the project when I met them.”

“When was that?”

“November, sir.”

“November? I’m just now hearing about this?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t think anything would come of it. They were way out past Peyton, almost to Calhan. We were never going out that way.”

I shake my head. I knew Brother Christopher commuted daily to Abundant Life until the rise of Pastor Julie a few months back. He didn’t always touch base with the leadership, much to Pastor Walsh’s annoyance. I’ve never pressed him for details about where he went, who he talked to, or what he did. I trusted him to tell me if something was going on I needed to know about. 

The sound of engines funnels down the road between the tall pines. “They were going to kill me,” Christopher says. “The only reason they didn’t was because one of them recognized me as being associated with Mr. Grace and Ms. Agnes.” Christopher looks at me. “They’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time, sir. They appreciate you bringing down Deacon Sparks.”

“You, your crew, and Pastor Walsh deserve more credit for that than I ever did.”

“We don’t have time for that, sir,” he says. He turns back to his men. “What everyone needs to understand is that, despite what they may look like to you, they are smart people, with impressive unit cohesion. Don’t give them any reason to feel threatened.”

“How did you get in touch with them?” I say.

“Scuzz gave me his number. I told him we didn’t use phones but he said we would someday.”

“Scuzz?” I laugh. “He was right. Thanks for hanging onto that. And for arranging this.”

“Well, he and his crew really want to meet you. Ms. Agnes and Mama Elyssa, too.”

I feel Agnes’ arm slip through my elbow. I hadn’t realized she had followed me down, but she stands by my side, glasses off, her face all business even as she pulls me to her. A.J. is here, too. Elyssa steps out of the SUV and takes my arm on the other side.

“I know, no one should ever meet their heroes,” I tell him. “Don’t worry, we’ll try not to let them down.”

Some of the women are taking advantage of the clean zone and stepping out with their babes in arms as the sound of dirt bike engines grows louder. One bike after another emerges upon the horizon, riding in no particular formation. Some trucks follow, along with a couple of SUVs I recognize. I see the bright yellow of school buses riding two abreast towards us.

At this distance, what strikes me most these riders are the long machete blades bristling from each bike. They’re coming in fast and here we are, standing and waiting, trusting them not to swing those things at us. 

NEXT EPISODE: Chapter 14, “The Battle of Baptist Road”

For the price of a happy hour drink you can enjoy many delirious hours slashing and shooting your way through the delightful hellscapes of my first two SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER books, available in Kindle and paperback from Severed Press. We commence the collapse of civilization in Bleeding Kansas, wherein our intrepid hero, Derek Grace, must survive a plane crash, combat with the undead at the local Wal-Mart, an exploding fire truck, a female hardbody assassin, and lots of walking dead people-things.

Book 1 has ONE exploding head
on its cover.

I’m told it reads even better in German. This edition from Luzifer Verlag also sports a hellacious one-of-a-kind cover courtesy of ace artist Michael Schubert:
You can buy this German version stateside here.
You know you wanna.

Book 2, Grace Among the Dead, steps up the game with a tale of love and redemption, the living dead, and a flame-throwing monster truck. We’ve got an arc going from decadence to...respectability?...for our hero. As close as it gets, anyway. You should savor this big book o’ hell while it lasts, because things are about to go completely to shit.
Book 2 has TWO exploding heads.
See the pattern here?

They’re also available in Canada and the UK.