And The Dead Moved On Part 1

Renna stared at me, her wrinkled face full of fury. The tiny woman with sagging cheeks and salt and pepper gray hair was normally a doting, adorable granny, from her red and green flannel nightgown to her fluffy pink slippers. But now that diminutive bundle of cuteness held barely restrained beserker rage. “You need to make this right,” she screamed. And then the old woman broke down, deflating in her sadness back to the little, malnourished, tired survivor who’d lived across the street. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She turned her head away. “I know this isn’t how we do things. I know I shouldn’t want another human being to die…” her voice broke for a moment, but then, like the rest of us, she found her composure. “She was all I had left, Mr. G. You need to make this right.”

The last of her strength gave way, and all we could hear was a melange of sobs and moaning. One of the Neighborhood Watch kids took her hand and led her back toward the development. But as she walked off, I could see that her lips continued to make those six words over and over. Her eyes lifted up and locked onto mine. “You need to make this right.”

I nodded.

“We’re so, so sorry for your loss,” our HOA president boomed. Jared Nielsen was a tall, thick slab of dark muscle on a pair of ebony sculpted legs wrapped in a gray hooded sweatshirt and tight hugging knee length shorts. His face was all angles, a mix of sharp cheekbones and a diet of scrounged ramen noodles. The words he spoke came out deep and strong and there was a surety of purpose in them. “We will make sure that your granddaughter’s death is dealt with properly and the person responsible will be brought to justice.”

Renna paid him no attention. She shuffled outside, not sparing the man a glance.

Jared stared after her, waiting for some acknowledgement. When none came, he placed one of his big paws on my shoulder – an attempt at camaradrie of purpose, I suppose. I turned toward his hand, then stared up at him quietly. He took it off apologetically and stepped back against the wall.

The shed we were in technically belonged to the neighborhood, but since most of the residents avoided it, the place was essentially mine. Mismatching Ikea bookshelves laden with tools stood next to the walls. A print of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night hung on the back of the door. My collection of Jim Butcher Dresden paperbacks were stacked in three neat piles on a rocking chair in the corner. A table with leather tiedowns that I’d scavenged from a nearby sex shop lay in the center of the room. Normally, I used it for domesticating zombies – whenever I caught one with most of its limbs that wasn’t too decomposed, I’d strap it down, cut off its lower jaw so it couldn’t bite and harness it up so the neighborhood could use it like a pack animal.

At some point during the previous night, the table had been used for its original purpose. Jenny Knox, the captain of the Neighborhood Watch, lay bent over it. Her wrists were strapped securely in the middle portion while her feet remained on the the floor leaving her naked hips and bottom accessible. Her long blond pigtails whipped back and forth as she thrashed against her bonds, kicking and bucking her body to try and free herself. All the color had drained out of her skin and her eyes had the pasty white pallor of the living dead.

I picked up a rubber mallet and an aluminum tent stake from one of my cabinets and approached her, stepping over the blood pooled on the floor, careful to avoid her lunging feet. She thumped her body violently against the table, turning her head this way and that in a manic attempt to get a good bite out of me. I grabbed a fistful of her hair and forced her to look away from me. The sliced flesh of her neck gaped like a little mouth as I stabbed the stake into the sweet spot – a patch of skin at the base of the skull just to the right of the spine. Jenny gnashed her teeth, groaning loudly and snapping at me. I lay my left forearm on the back of her skull, pressing her nose into the table while bringing up the mallet.

I swung hard once. Then a second time. She quivered, and her limbs went still.

Jared threw up. His face was over the garbage can and his mouth was spewing orange liquid. I’ll admit that I smiled a little. On his second day, he’d cavalierly ordered me to kill the outgoing HOA president. I’d done it, but made sure he knew that there were always consequences to killing. I was more than a little glad that he had taken the lesson to heart.

“How do you do this?” Jared managed to say. His dark face still had a tint of green to it and he pointedly stared away from the table and Jenny’s body.

“Outside,” I said, adding “please” a second later.

“No, seriously,” he said wiping his mouth with the back of a sleeve. The deep bass of his voice cracked, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. “We take down zombies. Hell, I’m supposed to teach the 8-year-olds in a few hours. We do it all the time. It’s the world we live in. But she was one of our own.” Jared looked at Jenny, his eyes glistened and he looked away. “How do you kill people?”

I released Jenny’s wrists, ignoring his question. He just stood there staring at me as I unfurled a canvas tarp on the ground. “You’re what? Twenty-three? Twenty-four?” I asked. “You were just a kid when the zombies came. But me…” I paused. “When I was nineteen, I did a guy in Laos with a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe fifteen, twenty guys in the world could make that shot. Killing’s the only thing I was ever good at.”

Jared looked at me quietly, his expression uncertain. I turned around and chuckled at his cluelessness as I repositioned Jenny’s body so she was fully on the table before buckling her arms and legs down. “Just a precaution,” I told him. “Horror movie 101 – make sure the dead can’t come after you when you’re not looking.”

“Never seen a horror movie,” he mumbled.

I grunted and gave him a half smile before grabbing a machete and decapitating our Neighborhood Watch head.

Jared helped me wrap Jenny’s body in the tarp. I took her shoulders, he took her legs and we lifted her outside. A crowd of neighbors were waiting on the sidewalk and when they saw us carrying a human shaped bundle, the tears and excited chatter began. A couple of the younger ones, members of the watch’s JV squad, ran over immediately and pummeled us with questions.

“We heard something happened to the captain.”

“It can’t be Jenny. I just saw her last night.”

“Where’s Miles? Did he see who did this?”

“Please, please!” Jared bellowed. “You have to calm down. I know what Jenny meant to you but we have to keep our heads.”

The kids looked to me. I shrugged. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to corpse disposal – I disembowel the torso, bury the innards, then sever all the limbs and leave them in the sun to dry out. To ensure our safety and to prevent the spread of disease, we have to burn the dead, so we use dried bodies for fuel and spare the trees. Obviously, Jenny couldn’t be treated in so practical a manner. “She’s your captain,” I said. “Your focus should be on honoring her. Why don’t you take her to The Park and get the pyre set up. Jared will let the neighborhood know.”

The watch members quieted. They surrounded the tarp, lifted their captain’s body and walked away.

We watched them take Jenny across the street and down the block. The group of neighbors looked at them go, then turn toward us. “I’ll have to deal with this,” Jared said. He took a breath and straightened up, reacquiring his imposing stature. “Most of them will want to just move on, but a few will be like Renna…”

His tone was questioning. He wanted advice, of course. Every HOA president did the first time they faced this kind of thing. I reached up and hit my fist lightly on his shoulder. “I don’t make the decisions. That’s up to you guys.” I tried to put some kindness in my voice, but kind isn’t really my thing. So I just tried to not sound like an ass. “I’m going out on rounds. Don’t worry about the vote. If they decide no one needs to die, that’s great. I’ll help celebrate. But if they decide the other way, I’ll make it happen.”

Jared thought on that. Then he lifted a hand toward my shoulder, thought better of it and just presented it to me. I gave him a polite smile, shook it and went back inside the shed.

While the crowd surrounded Jared with questions and demands, I grabbed an old nylon messenger bag out of one of the cupboards and tossed in my gear: a tackle box. the mallet, a dozen tent spikes, a ten foot section of chain and some padlocks, a can of silly string and a creme brule mini-torch. I jammed an aluminum baseball bat through a side drink pocket, grabbed an old, long-handled garden spade and strode outside to the corral.

There were several zombies wandering jawless and handless inside the large dirt corral we’d created with broken dinette sets and stacked futons, but I ignored all of them in favor of a tall, thickly muscled male with a sash draped across his chest that read Mr. Football. I’d caught Mr. Football in the remains of a subdivision a few miles away. He’d been inside a house pacing back and forth between a living room still decorated in game day posters and a garage with three empty beer kegs. He’d been wearing a Liberty High School football jersey and the sash and had somehow managed to lose both his pants and underwear – but not his socks and shoes. That oddity and the fact that every time he reached the beer, he bent over and mindlessly attempted a handstand on top was just endearing to me. I brought him back to the stable, found him some pants and made him my personal pack zombie.

Mr. Football was in the far corner as usual, repeatedly bumping into a toppled armoire trying to get to something that caught his eye – in this case, a bird that was pecking at some low lying blackberry vines. As I approached, I noticed he had a fresh wet splotch on his shirt. I lifted it up and found a gash. The undead high schooler had cut himself on a sharp corner… again. I grabbed a large needle and fishing line from the tackle box and sewed up the tear with big, ugly stitches. A few minutes later, he had a fresh set jagged lines to add to his already Frankenstein-like torso. Mr. Football blinked (I like to think a bit apologetically) while I snapped a collar in place around his neck, hung the bag on him, attached a leash and led him by the forearm back to the gate. We left the corral and I nodded to Jared as we passed the agitated crowd, jogging away up the street.

We weren’t the only people in the area, of course. Our home, the Turnkey Station development, had been built on a parcel of land on the outskirts of Portland’s western suburbs next to an open field that had originally been a thoroughfare for power lines and the ugly towers that supported them. Through the luckiest of coincidences, we’d managed to convert our little neighborhood into a safe haven, one of the few in our stretch of the Pacific Northwest. While we kept our existence quiet, other survivors routinely found us. Most moved on toward the promise of year-round warmth down in California or west to the coast and the rumors of safety on pirate controlled islands. But some stayed, taking refuge in the immediate vicinity to be near our stability and protection.

So as I led Mr. Football along the crumbling sidewalk, a procession of people passed us on their way to the neighborhood – solitary travelers hauling backpacks stuffed with expired canned goods looking to make some trades, families toting rubbermaid bins filled with smoked meats, artisans who’d been relegated to the Renaissance Faire circuit Pre-Z but were now the only manufacturing in our corner of the Post-Zombie world. One duo, a man and woman clad in thick leather jackets with chainmail protecting the forearms and along the collar, tried to guide a dozen goats toward the neighborhood. The little furry beasts weren’t cooperating, clip clopping all over the street, winding their way around the moving carts and causing the air to fill with F-bombs. A couple of screeching girls, decked out in scavenged sweaters that were too long in the arms and fleece pants held up with twine suspenders, dove at a particularly cuddly baby goat. It easily sidestepped their lunge, trotting back across the street as the girls landed in a heap right in front of Mr. Football.

The kids took one look at my pack-zombie, scrambled backward and came to their feet. Black metal rods appeared in their hands and, with practiced flicks of their wrists, extended into batons. They yelled, high-pitched and bird-like, before swinging slowly for his knees. I took one big step forward and planted my spade’s handle into the ground in front of the girls, blocking their slow, yet enthusiastic, strike.

“Uh uh, kids,” I said gently. I took hold of the ends of both batons and forced them onto the ground. “Mr. Football is a good zombie. He’s completely safe. Let’s leave him alone, okay?”

They screamed at the sight of me. Then another, even higher-pitched scream lit up the morning air, and I spun around to find the leather jacketed woman running toward me. “Don’t you touch them! Don’t you touch them!” she yelled then picked both girls up, hugging them to her protectively. “They’re okay. You don’t have to kill them. They’ll leave you alone.”

The rest of the travelers still on the road, purposely avoided looking in our direction. Even the father stared down at his goats trying to not look at me. I picked up the batons and collapsed them, then handed them over to the girls. Tears were running down their faces.

“You have a good day,” I told them. I tugged at his leash and Mr. Football followed me down the road.

We walked another hundred yards, the occasional bah of a goat the only sound besides our footsteps, stopping at a tall wooden box painted a deep blue that sat next to a collapsed portion of the road. The words Police Box were messily spray painted across the top in white. An identical box sat just up the street. Between the two was a stretch of four lane bridge missing most of both outside lanes. A strip of crumbling asphalt two cars wide floated over a deep gully filled with algae clumps and fetid water. Thick mounds of blackberry bushes choked off the slopes trapping anything that was unlucky enough to fall in and survive. Mr. Football blinked seriously at me and turned his head back the way we’d come.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” I asked him. “It’s not like you can die again, right?” I tugged his leash and lead him across.

“Hey!” a voice yelled once we reached the opposite side. “What shines brighter than the sun and the moon?”

A beard wearing a green and red plaid kilt was standing on the sidewalk in the shade of a maple tree. It was magnificent. Thick and brown, it hung down a good foot and a half from the chin that was attached to it like an enormous furry stalactite. Just above it was an equally stunning mustache that looked like it was spun from the wool of the Dali Lama of sheep. It was fluffy and wide, narrowing down to curled up points on the ends and nearly glowed with its impressiveness, even out of the sun.

The man the beard was wearing wasn’t nearly in its league. He was short and squat and the dome of his head was as follically challenged as his face was abundant. Interlinked black leather pads covered his shoulders and the top of his chest, hanging down over a sagging belly. His hands were wide and forearms thick and he had multiple patches of healed skin that would have made me cringe on sight had I not already known to cringe at his horrid personality. “Don’t do it, Norman” I said.

“The moon…” he yelled, spinning around and lifting the back of his kilt so his colorless, sun-starved backside flashed at me. “And the sun!” He turned again, lifting the front hem up so albino privates surrounded by a hedge of thick curly thatch burned themselves in my retinas.

Mr. Football took one look and started heading back across the bridge, his eyes wide. That made Norman burst into uncontrolled laughter. I held the leash taut against his struggling until Mr. Football settled down, put as pleasant a smile on my face as I could and said, “Do you guys need me today, Norman?”

“That we do, Mr. G. That we do.” He pointed his beard toward the blue shed. “Mel and Dave got bitten before sunrise. Melly lost a finger and Dave says he got a chunk of calf torn out when he tripped on, get this, a banana peel. It was right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Talk about an idiot – dying by cliche.”

“Sure, sure,” I nodded, avoiding eye contact. Engaging Norman in anything but a professional manner led to crotch grabs, requests to smell his finger and, once, a offer to “plunger the clog” with his sister. “How close?”

“Not yet, but soon,” He pointed down the road past a row of burnt out homes. “I see some deadies coming. Do me a favor and watch the bridge while I deal with them. Everybody’s running late – they’re all a bit down about the whole thing. Don’t know why. It happens every day, so you’d think they’d get used to it.” He shrugged, picking up a thick metal rod with a spiked hammer head at the end. “Stupid. Like we haven’t been living in the shitty end of history for years now.” Two wild zombies shambled out of the blackened remains of a two-story McMansion, and Norman hurried off to meet them. “Now you and me, Mr. G,” he yelled as he ran, “we know about dying. We know about it from way before the deadies came.”

I forced another smile and lifted up my spade in an awkward salute. As Norman smashed his hammer into a dead woman’s sternum, I very gently knocked on the blue door. “Hello,” I called, “Avon home delivery.”

A female voice moaned, “I’m begging you – kill me now. Please!” At the same time, a second, deeper voice hoarsely groaned “Shut up. We’re okay. We just need the doc to come patch us up.”

I tethered Mr. Football to a tree, positioned myself with my spade up and ready to fend off a rush and opened the door. Inside, a woman in a yellow coat with a fuzzy green cap on her head sat on a wooden bench holding her hand tightly to her chest. A towel was wrapped around the fingers and the cloth was soaked in red. A balding man with gray glasses on his wrinkled face lay on the floor next to her. A crimson soaked shirt was strapped around his thigh with an old belt. Chains ran from a metal bar on the wall to each of their left wrists.

“I see you’ve had a rough day,” I said.

“Just get the doctor. We’ll be fine,” the man said. His skin was graying and his voice already lost some strength even from when he’d called out through the door. I squatted down and lifted the edge of the makeshift bandage, and he groaned in obvious pain.

“Dave,” I said quietly, but the man shook his head.

“It wasn’t a zombie,” his voice pleaded. “One of those freaking hyotes was eating something. I startled it and it went after me to protect its kill. I’m not infected. Just get the doc here and she’ll sew me up and I’ll be all good.”

“You know I love the doc, but she can’t fix this.” I gestured to the liquid dripping from the shirt. “You know the score, Dave. You have family inside the neighborhood. A little girl, I think? She’s the one that always gets the apples at the very top of the tree. Every harvest you’re yelling at her to come down so she doesn’t get hurt, right?”

He nodded. His shoulders slackened and he closed his eyes.

“I can’t endanger her or anyone else in the neighborhood,” I said.

I lifted him to a sitting position and kneeled behind him. With his eyes closed, he nodded and murmured, “Tell her to be careful when she’s climbing.”

“Of course.” And I twisted his neck until the bones snapped.

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Posted in post-apocalypse, short story, zombies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Love Your Coffee… But Don’t “Love” Your Coffee

Strands of Riley’s long blond hair dangled in her face, tickling her cheeks and nose and eyebrows like invisible spiderwebs. Her hands flew up, brushing them away with frantic movements that caused wariness in the eyes of more than a few passersby making their way to work. She returned their looks with a feral snarl, pulled a plain white scrunchie from her purse and gathered her hair up into a ponytail with all the fervent, head dipping, flipping and twisting dramatics of an 80’s metal band.

She sniffed angrily, straightened her blouse and hurried onward. Her heels clicked on the sidewalk, an aggressive tat-tat-tat warning other commuters out of her way. She passed store after store, patios of black metal tables and the skinny hipsters seated at them clutching cardboard lidded cups in one hand and their phones in the other. The burnt smell lingering around each place made her hands shake, but Riley gritted her teeth, checked her anger and concentrated on her every next step.

When she finally reached the house, her desires threatened to burst out in screams of joy, insane declarations of fidelity, the primal need to run straight inside and take her love into her arms. Riley breathed in deeply, taking the aroma into her lungs and holding it there, savoring the scent in her nostrils before walking up the steps and going inside.

“I need it,” Riley declared upon entering the room. She crossed the hardwood floor marching directly to the counter, oblivious to the curious looks of customers seated at the tables. “I have been stuck with whimpy, underwhelming, bland, generic nobodies for the last two months,” she told the man behind the register. “The memory of the real deal touching my lips and exciting my tongue is the only thing that’s been keeping me going.” She slapped her hands on the tile and looked the man in the eye. “Give it to me,” she whispered, pulling a wad of bills from her purse. “I want two pounds of the hand-roasted Guatemala-Dominican blend. Make that three – no, four pounds.”

The man looked toward a window in the back of the room. “Sorry, but we don’t have any ready just yet. We roasting it right now. If you want to come back in an hour -”

“I’ll wait,” she told him.

Riley turned to the closest table and gave the woman seated there a challenging look as she grabbed a chair and dragged it to the window. Behind the glass amid floor to ceiling shelves laden with clear glass jars filled with so many varieties of beans the sight nearly made Riley swoon, stood a waist-high propane tank. Blue flames sprouted from the burner on top. A worker came into view and poured succulent red and green ovals into the round metal disk that lay above the fire. The lush, ripe fruit sizzled upon contact with the hot pan, white smoke rising into the air.

Lifting the cash to her face, Riley fanned herself. She leaned closer to the glass, staring at the roasting beans with naked desire. “You bad, bad boys,” she mouthed. “Brown for me, baby. Come on. You know how I like you. Golden and warm. Hot and strong and just a little bitter. Angry enough to make me wince and not ashamed of it.”

“Oh yeah! That’s the stuff!” someone yelled.

Riley turned around. A man in a suit stood in the center of the cafe. He held a lidded ceramic mug emblazoned with a picture of ruby red lips in his hand. The look of longing he gave it drew the attention of everyone in the room. He took a long drink, tilted his head back in ecstasy, then lowered it and planted his mouth on the picture. He gave it a lingering kiss, touching the tip of his tongue to it as he withdrew.

“Weirdo,” Riley said and turned back to the window. The worker was prodding the beans, flipping the still green sides down onto the hot metal. She pressed a hand to the glass as her mouth watered.

Posted in coffee, Flash Fiction, humor, random musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Year 43 – Day 15

Dawn had broken when I heard knocking on my door. I was already awake. I’d woken up a good hour earlier all jittery, my copy of The Stand falling off my chest to the floor as I scrambled up from the couch. I’d been rereading the part when King describes the accidental deaths of plague survivors and I’d had a dream of a distraught man jogging in the aftermath and having a heart attack. The death had been disturbing in its simplicity and I’d needed to splash water on my face from my bathtub stash and curl up in the closet for a bit to calm myself.

I went down to the second floor and looked out the window. Mai was on my stoop frowning with all the indignation and self-rightous fury that a 12-year-old can muster. I climbed the ladder down to my door and opened it to a shotgun blast of high pitched complaining. “I…I…I can’t believe it. How she can do this – out of her mind – cute but still… only been a few days… what’s she thinking…”

I didn’t even bother to try and make sense of her stammering. I took Mai’s hand and she led me to Jenny’s house where five of the Seattle group were standing outside, surrounded by neighborhood watch members.

Renna, Jenny’s grandmother, was yelling at everyone. Her salt and pepper hair whipped back and forth like a geriatric sprinkler, spraying verbal attacks equally amongst all of the people trying to calm her down. “We took that boy into our home,” she screamed. Her wrinkled hands slapped at Trent who, aware of how it would look if he defended himself against a ninety pound woman in a frayed, flannel bathrobe, calmly stepped back from her enfeebled attack. “How dare you people! How dare you!”

Jenny gently took hold of the old woman’s waist and pulled her back to the porch. “It’ll be okay, Grammy. Please, sit down.”

The old woman snarled like a miniature doberman, “Mister G, this is your job. This is what you do. Deal with these degenerates.”

Everyone turned to me. I looked back at them all and smiled. “Jenny,” I said, “what exactly is going on?”

She shook her head. “Grammy is just -” she began, then let out a happy screech, “Oh screw it! I’m getting married!”

We left the watch and the Seattleites where they were and exited the compound. “Last night,” Jenny took a deep breath, “was a lot of fun. Miles and I were flirting something fierce. At least, I was flirting. He had something else in mind.”

I grunted non-commitedly. The HOA declaring fifteen as consenting age was still a hot topic and not something I wanted to be seen as taking sides on.

“I invited him up to my room after Grammy was asleep. We were messing around, and he told me how he was tired of wandering. That he wanted to put roots down somewhere.”

We were walking along the perimeter wall to the field just next to the neighborhood. It was a patch of undeveloped land that would have been turned into new townhomes and/or rental properties had the “end” not come. We’d built a ramshackle hut there and a corral of sorts made of broken Ikea furniture that contained our working zombies. Miles was standing next to a black, four-tier bookshelf laying on its side. He was staring at Mr. Football who was repeatedly bumping into the shelf trying to get at him.

“Mister G, I was wondering if you needed someone to help take care of the Z’s,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He played like it was, but I knew. His stance was all wrong. His shoulders were square, his back straight as a board. He held a sheepish grin, one that seemed deferential, but his eyes locked on mine with a determination that told me he was not going to take no for an answer… especially from someone like me, someone inconsequential.

“Well, I don’t know,” I told him, drawing out the “well” a couple of seconds while I shifted my feet, squaring them up with my shoulders. I shuffled around, thinking about the question and settling with one foot forward just enough to use in a lunge should I need to take the kid out. “I can handle the stock I have well enough on my own. I don’t really need an assistant.”

He smiled with his head tilted down just enough to convey submission and apology. “I shouldn’t have asked. You wouldn’t need help. I was just hoping that I could show the HOA I’d be useful, so they would let me stay here with Jenny.”

He filled his voice with just the right tone of embarrassment and threw a glancing look Jenny’s way at the precisely right time. She returned the look with a loving smile, completely missing his hand resting on a toppled armoire. His fingers were pulling at the jagged edges of particle board. Nervousness or anger, I couldn’t really tell, but true love and marriage were clearly not the most prevalent things on his mind.

“Okay.”

They both just stared at me. Mr. Football extended his stumps, determined to get to them. He walked into the fence, bumped off and stumbled to the dirt.

“Well?” I nodded at the dead football player. “Get him up , make sure his shoes are tied and harness him.”

Miles and Jenny looked at each other. After a moment Jenny broke into a big grin, then hugged him. She ran over to me and squeezed me so hard my ribs ached.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said, then ran back and hugged her new fiance again.

“Enough of that,” I barked. “The sun’s up and daylight is burning. Go back inside the neighborhood. Tell Jared and your grandmother that Miles is going to work with me today. I’ll make a final decision after we get back.”

Jenny gave him a quick kiss and literally skipped away, her cheeks blushing. For his part, Miles walked up to me, hesitated, then offered me his hand.

“So I was sitting at a coffee shop a day before the zombie outbreak hit,” I said, ignoring his strained attempt at thanking me. “A lady behind me was chatting to her friend in this deep loud voice that let us know she didn’t care whether people heard her or not.” I adopted a gravely, female smoker’s voice. “‘So the woman tells me that she’s got something going on with her kid and needs to leave. Now that’s not going to help her. And why should I do something that’s not going to help her or help me. So I told her if she left that she shouldn’t come back. And I’m the bad guy? I’m heartless? It’s bullshit. I only said what everyone else was thinking. Colbert once said ‘Brown people make babies. It’s what they do.’ He was joking but he’s right. They do make babies. Sometimes shit just comes out of my mouth. It happens. Deal with it.'”

Miles put his hand down as I spoke. His face was wary. “What are you talking about?” he said.

“That lady was a dick, pure and simple. I saw her get her face chewed off while the barista that had to listen to her crap with me locked closed the blinds on the coffee shop door.” I looked Miles squarely in the eyes. “I don’t for one minute believe this love story of yours. You’ve got some other agenda in mind. I’m not saying I care what it is. I just want you to know that if you want to live with these people… with me… you better not be a dick.”

“Because you’ve been such a nice guy,” Miles countered. “You threw zombie penis at me.”

“That’s right, I did.” I smiled grandly. “Are you saying I’m a hypocrite? Maybe. But you’re the one that wants the job. Nowadays, there’s no HR department to whine that you’re being treated unfairly. You want in, you earn your way. And the first step to merit being my apprentice is to lose the attitude and tell me just why you’re marrying Jenny.”

Miles said nothing, and you could almost see the waves of anger casting off his body. “Don’t want to talk? Fine. Get lost.” I stepped inside the hut, grabbed the leather harnesses and came back out. Miles was still standing where I’d left him. I tossed a collection of black, studded straps to him and jumped the fence. “Still here? Second and only chance. Get this on Mr. Football while I get the others.”

I harnessed three zombies on the far end of the corral and led them outside to a detached pickup truck bed still on its wheels. When I went back to Mr. Football, I found Miles adjusting the straps which were now on the zombie’s body. A chrome metal ring hung in the center of his chest just above the his solar plexus and on top of his sash. Two black lines with silvery studs running their length angled upward to Mr. Football’s shoulders then down his back, crossing like an ebony X. A third leather line hung straight down his front. Miles was looking at it trying to figure out where it went.

“Just let it hang. There’s supposed to be a crotch plate it links to there.”

“I need to hide out,” Miles said while he led Mr. Football to the truck bed. “I stole some supplies from another group migrating to California and they’re hunting me. Your settlement is far enough from the I-5 corridor that that other group wouldn’t chance straying so far off the trail.”

I shook my head. “You’re still lying. But you’ve got my interest. I’ll go along with that for now.” I took the zombie wagon’s reigns in my hand and led them to the street. Miles followed.

“Now I have a question for you,” he told me.

“Go ahead.”

He nodded toward the zombies. “Is that fetish gear they’re wearing?”

“Yup. That’s right. Why go to the trouble of making a human-sized harness from scraps and bits when you can scavenge an adult novelty store and find leather numbers already made.” I laughed. “I tell you this, until then, I thought that zombie strippers were just a myth from old movies. I can take that off my bucket list now.”

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Year 43 – Day Twelve

I was tending to our zombie herd, sawing away the lower jaw of a high school football player (he was still wearing both an orange jersey labeled Liberty High and a white sash proclaiming that he was “Mr. Football”), when I heard three shrill whistles. I put down my hacksaw and turned toward the window.

Jenny was in the middle of the street some four blocks away. She lifted her arms, first shaping them into an “O” then angling them and raising a leg to form her body into a scrawny version of a “K”. She put her arms down and waited.

I jumped as something grabbed my ass. I’d gotten too close to the table. Mr. Football’s left hand was able to take hold of the back pocket of my blue jeans. His emaciated fingers dug into the denim, mindlessly trying to pull me toward him even though his mandible was partially disconnected. Fortunately, I’d strapped his arms, torso and legs securely before I’d started working on him so I was safe. “Kind’ve cliche for a football player to be so handsy,” I said to him. “No means No, pal.” I broke his fingers and freed myself. “See, that’s why you should at least offer to buy a guy a drink first.”

I finished removing Mr. Football’s lower jaw. The braces cemented to his teeth were all  gummed up with pieces of hair and shards of bone. I threw it in a bin, picked up a machete and lopped off both of his arms at the elbows.

“You don’t remember the response signal, do you?” I heard Jenny yell.

“That’s beside the point,” I called back to her. I undid the straps at Mr. Football’s wrists, pulled loose his forearms and lay them on a stack of drying body parts. “I’m in the middle of working on a zombie and I don’t want any distractions. It’s Horror Movie 101 – the moment you leave the monster alone, that when he gets free and kills you.”

The neighborhood watch captain stepped inside the shack, eyed Mr. Football who was waving his stumps around like a clawless crab and rolled her eyes like only a 16-year-old girl can. Whatever kegger Mr. Football had been attending when he’d been turned must have been a doozy – as he’d somehow lost both his pants and his underwear.

I shrugged, picked up a shop rag and tossed it on his hips. “Like I said, I’m in the middle of working on him.”

“Whatever,” Jenny said, pointedly looking away. “I need you to put up the purple flag. The neighborhood’s probably seen us already and they’ll be freaking out.”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me outside. Fifteen dirty, scruffy faces dressed in matching unitards – all bright yellows, reds and blues – were respectfully standing on the sidewalk.

“They’re from Seattle,” Jenny said a bit breathless from her excitement. “They said they scavenged a costume rental place up in Tacoma. They’re getting an early start on the winter migration and want to trade. They’ve got PayDays and Nutty Bars and these gold foil balls of chocolate and nuts.” She leaned in close. “By the way, what’s Star Trek?”

I shook my head at Jenny and looked them over. Men and women in their thirties. A few were older than that. Ignoring the Starfleet uniforms, they all had the bearing of people that were exhausted and simply looking for a safe bed and hot meal. One tall young man on the end, however, kept taking very quick glances at us. Jenny beamed back at him, fluttering her eyelashes constantly.

“So that’s the kind of candy you’re interested in,” I whispered. She punched my arm.

“Hello,” I called out. “I’m sorry but I’m actually in the middle of some delicate work right now. I’ll just be a few minutes. Have a sit down and try to relax. In the meantime, why don’t you send your lead person over so we can chat.”

A short and stocky dark-skinned man in a red and gray command jacket came forward. “I’m Trent,” he said. “And before you say it, I know we look like a the worst landing party in history.”

“Wasn’t going to say a thing about that,” I chuckled.

Everyone in the group dropped down onto the overgrown grass next to the sidewalk except for the tall guy. He jogged over, arms pumping stiff and serious. “Can we get a move on,” he said. “Our ladies really need to get out of the sun.” He looked to Trent. “If this guy’s too busy, we can just go somewhere else. We’ve passed quite a few apartment complexes that will work as shelter, and we have more than enough supplies.”

“This is Miles,” Trent told me. An exasperated grunt escaped his nose. “He’s my helper.”

I purposely looked Miles up and down. He was taller than me by a good foot and a half, and his face was etched with a combination of smile and sneer. His long, dark hair fluttered behind him in the breeze and his muscles made the form fitting uniform look good, unlike the rest of his traveling companions. I abruptly turned around and went inside the shed, beckoning them to follow.

Mr. Football was still strapped to the table, but his movements had made the shop rag fall off. I picked up some pruning shears, spread the handles wide and lay the long, rusting blades down on the zombie’s crotch. I snapped them closed just as Miles walked in the door, the loud snikt sound filling the room.

“So what exactly are your intentions?” I asked Trent, though my gaze was fully on Miles’ rapidly paling face.

“We’re migrating South,” he said, smiling as Miles leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “We need to know the best route to take, and we’re ready to trade as payment for your trouble.”

The waste bin was right next to Miles. I flipped up the pruning shears, launching the zombie’s package into the air. I lifted the shears and swung them horizontally, striking Mr. Football’s penis and testicles about chest high, and sending them sailing into the garbage. Miles jumped away, bumping into Jenny and knocking her to the floor.

“We can get you route information,” I told Trent who was attempting to stifle his laughter, “but you should know that if you’re permitted to enter our compound, you’re expected to follow all of our rules.” I looked to Jenny, then looked back at Miles who was hurriedly whispering apologies. “If we tell you something’s off limits, you’d better not touch it.”

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Year 43 – Day Ten

“That’s your job, isn’t it?”

Jared Nielson was tall. Ridiculously tall. And built. Think of boxers and mixed martial arts guys from back before the end, subtract for a little post-apocalyptic malnutrition, add a nose for finding caches of non-perishible food supplies and that’s Jared.

Oh and wrap him in a baggy green sweat jacket with a hood perpetually covering his dark, bald head.

“Of course it’s my job,” I told him. “But I get to choose how I do it.”

And then he stood up from the leather arm chair. His eyes glared down on me from beneath the hood like a great big, spooky wizard’s, albeit with the words “Minecrafters Like To Pick” printed across the plateau of his left pec just above two pickaxes. He scowled, growled and yelled. I just shook my head and smiled. Every new HOA president tried something to that effect when they first called me in. Predictably, he gave me a blended melange of threatening adjectives and a lot of orders. I let him expel the lot.

“And you will do this,” he snarled, “because it could mean the end of our neighborhood, the end of the life we carved out of this new, crazy world.”

I gave him a couple of chuckles. “Your speech was better than Cherie’s, I’ll give you that. Much less high pitched screeching.” I turned and went out the door, my hands clasped behind my back with both middle fingers extended.

The neighborhood was going about its business as I stepped out onto the HOA townhouse’s front stoop. White smoke rose from a fire on the road next to the north wall. Two older men, survivors from a senior living facility that had made their way to us on a pair of electric wheelchairs (proving that the old TV commercial saying that a Hoverround could climb the Grand Canyon wasn’t bullshit) fed dried body parts to the flames while two teenagers poured water from garbage cans into the old metal dumpster that was propped up above the pyre on the hoods of a pair of old Subarus. A metal pipe stuck out from the bin’s base, a trail of PVC leading from it to an elevated basin made of waterproofed canvas. Multiple green garden hoses dangled down making the whole thing look like an oblong, beige octopus.

Another pair of girls hefting garbage cans of their own, climbed up ladders and added cold water to the basin’s boiling contents. As a cloud of steam rose into the air, one of the kids tentatively touched her elbow to the water. The strained tension on her face disappeared. “Hot shower Saturday is ready!” she yelled.

The neighborhood cheered. Five women standing in makeshift shower stalls squeezed the triggers on their hoses. The ecstasy on their faces as they washed off weeks worth of grime in utter comfort was evident, as was the impatience of the people in the five lines waiting their turn.

Each woman quickly rubbed soap on her body and hair and rinsed it away. Then they just stood there enjoying the warm water until the girl on the ladder, a perky thing named Alia, called out “Time.” The ladies put on various pieces of clothing and stepped out, their places taken by the next in line.

Plastic sheeting lay under the showers, making the soap and dirt laden water run down a short, steep slope, straight to a strip of grass that lay next to the vegetable garden. Little kids sat on the edges with their feet in the stream of hot water. A few threw pebbles and small toys and watched the water carry them along a miniature rapid.

Men stood at the opposite end of the garden, discretely looking at anything but their ladies showering. When a joyful octogenarian stepped out of a stall, whistled across the yard and lifted up the hem of her terrycloth bathroom, flashing a wrinkled thigh, the guys all broke into cheerful applause. The freshly scrubbed ladies around her wolf whistled. The saucy senior beamed across the way as her older fella mimed a heart attack then blew her a kiss.

Laughter filled the neighborhood air. I stepped off the stoop, walked up to former HOA president, Cherie, as she stood in line, grabbed her chin with my left hand and the back of her head with my right and twisted until her spine snapped.

Cherie crumpled to the ground. The ladies around her scrambled away from me. There were gasps and fingers pointing in my direction from all around. Cherie’s ginger colored Pomeranian yipped and yapped in a frenzy. I pushed the dog away with a gentle kick to its side, then planted a boot onto the dead woman’s throat and called out, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”

Once everyone’s attention was on me, I pointed up to the balcony of the HOA townhouse where Jared was looking out through the closed glass doors. “Per our homeowners association board, Cherie Peterski, has been deemed a nuisance and threat to neighborhood safety. As official HOA Killer and in accordance with the HOA bylaws, I have killed her in plain sight of a minimum third of the HOA membership. My most heartfelt condolences go out to her friends and family.”

No one spoke. I’d half decided to quote paraphrase Julius Caesar (“but Jared says she was ambitious and Jared is an honorable man”) when a sputter came from Cherie’s lips. The ladies moved farther back. I looked down as her eyes opened, faded brown irises slowly focusing. The Pomeranian sensed her change to zombie and backed away just before Cherie snapped her jaws at it. The dog ran off, whining. Her arms jerked, and I leaned more of my weight down on her throat, forcing my boot between the portions of her spine. Cherie’s limbs stopped moving.

“I really should take care of this, right now,” I told everyone. “As always, please see your HOA representative if you have any questions.”

I reached down, grabbed Cherie’s wrists and dragged her away. Her head snarled and bit and I hurried my way toward the gate as Jared came out on his balcony to address the neighborhood residents.

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Year 43 – Day Eight

I was clearing out bodies from the street-side foyer of my townhouse when Mai, the twelve-year-old lieutenant of the varsity neighborhood watch, appeared at the top of the hallway.

“Anything good?” she asked.

“Not really.” I pointed at the various pieces. “I’ve got an extra large crossing-guard vest, a waterproof jacket missing an arm, a pair of tights with ‘Juicy’ labeled on the butt -”

“Any jewelry?” There was a gleam in her eye.

I stared up at her, and she pulled a battered paperback from her inside coat pocket. The cover was creased and stained, but the words “Harry Potter” were clearly legible. She presented it in her left hand while her right fancifully waved in a nonverbal “tah-dah.” A smile half hopeful and half dorky beamed down on me.

“Come and take a look,” I told her.

“Sweet,” she said, tossing me the book before descending the rope ladder. The exterior facing side of our townhouse wall still had doors and windows the zombies could breach, but we’d all torn out the stairs years ago. They couldn’t get up and the top of the hallway was a perfect hunters’ perch. The only drawback was cleanup. While everyone pitched in with extermination, debris removal was up to the individual owner.

“Oooooh, I’ll take those earrings,” she said, pointing at a thin woman in the remains of a business suit – ripped, shoulder-padded jacket on top of a black and white blouse. Diamond studs in her earlobes still managed to gleam despite the black, goopy blood that oozed over them from the bullet holes in her forehead. I waited patiently as Mai tore off each of her ears and pocketed them. After she wiped her hands on the woman’s blouse, I picked the body up at the waist while Mai lifted her shoulders and together we carried her outside.

“This is not old America where any idiot has a say,” I heard someone yell.

Mai and I negotiated our way through a hole between sections of spiked tree branches and out to the sidewalk. We dropped the lady at the curb onto a growing pile of bodies.

“I’m not doing this,” someone else screamed. “This is a waste of my time.”

On the far end of the street, a group of children was standing in front of a couple of surviving zombies that were tethered to a fallen telephone pole. A burley man with a shaved head and his husband were pointing out weak spots while the kids practiced swinging aluminum baseball bats. Across the way, two grandfatherly men were stripping clothing from the dead, while a pair of older ladies chopped limbs with axes and lay them on the sidewalk to dry in the sun. To the right, a dozen people were repairing the defenses on the bus blocking the neighborhood entrance.

And in the center of the street, Ramon stood toe to toe with Cherie, a tiny woman with a great big scowl. Cherie was very much like the Pomeranian that was pulling at the leash in her hand – both had poofy, ginger hair and both barked annoyingly non-stop. “We are a Meritocracy,” she yelled. “Do you understand what that means? We all earn what we get through our actions.”

Ramon had a canvas bag hanging from a strap around his shoulders and a pole with a metal tip in his hand. “So you’re saying I deserve garbage pickup?” he said, matching her volume. He waved down the street. “I can do more for the neighborhood out there, scavenging and mapping the area. I shouldn’t be doing this crap.”

Cherie’s dog growled at Ramon while she pointed at the pile of bodies. “Twenty people saw you shoot your mouth off and get the attention of a hoard. You should be happy you got garbage duty. You could easily be stuck inside the neighborhood watering the vegetables.”

Mai took one look at the verbal sparring match and went back inside my place.

“Hey, hey!” Ramon yelled in our direction. He abruptly left Cherie and stormed toward me. He marched past, ducked inside my door and came back outside with Mai in tow.

“Tell her,” he yelled. “I am an integral part of the watch. I should be out with you making the neighborhood safe. Tell this crazy bitch that I should be back on the team.”

Mai’s eyes were wide as dinner plates. And they got even wider as the ginger-haired lady came fuming over. “Mai, you have a leadership role,” Cherie said. “You are obligated to do what’s best for your teammates.” She looked at Ramon with distaste while her dog yipped and growled at him. “Remember when I appointed you to varsity? I told you you’d have to make some tough calls. This is one of them. Your friend needs to know that the watch is better off without him.”

The girl looked from one to the other, then looked at me.

I shrugged. “Not much to decide. Cherie is the HOA president. She makes the call on who does what around the neighborhood.”

“Thank you, Mister G,” Cherie said hotly. “Even though it’s nice getting the approval of someone -” she looked me up and down while her nose wrinkled like she was smelling a mixture of skunk and dirty feet – “like you, I don’t need to justify my authority.”

She then looked daggers at Ramon. “You will either collect the garbage around the neighborhood or you can live somewhere else. We need productive neighbors, not people too dumb to tell the difference between a crate of charcoal and a crate of dried moose turds. In fact, I take back putting you on garbage duty. From this moment, you can stay inside and use your fucking moose shit to fertilize the garden. As god is my witness, you will never work outside the neighborhood again.”

The kids stood silently through Cherie’s rant, cowed by her fury. The dog yipped and yapped as she spoke, matching her piercing voice with its high-pitched barks. When our dear HOA president was finished, I put a hand up on Mai’s shoulder. “Did you know,” I said to her, “that way back before the “end,” people hated home owners associations? The people on them were typically power hungry assholes that got off on being able to bully their neighbors. That’s why our HOA is appointed by merit rather than popularity. Do the neighborhood a service, you get a say in how it’s run.”

The dog turned toward me and started barking. I picked it up and walked toward the street. “Put Fluffy down right now!” Cherie screamed, but I ignored her.

“And if someone on the HOA board is being an asshole,” I yelled so that everyone on the street could hear, “anyone in a meritoriously appointed position can call for a new election.” I reached the curb and the pile of bodies laying at it. I took the tiny, snarling dog and stuffed it into the open, bloated stomach of a dead fat man.

I went back to the kids smiling while Cherie ran to the muffled barks of her bitchy, little dog. “And if I’m not mistaken, lieutenant of the varsity neighborhood watch is awarded by merit.”

Ramon’s face brightened. “Fuck yeah, it is!”

Mai looked at Ramon and then at me. “I don’t know…” she mumbled.

“You are so lucky, G!” Cherie screamed from the street. “If we had someone else to do your job, you’d be gone in a heartbeat.” The dog stuck its head out of the belly cavity and barked at us. “And Mai, don’t you dare think you can go up against me. You’re an infant – a toddler. No one in their right mind would follow you.”

Mai’s back straightened. “You… you…” She looked at me, exasperation and anger etched her lip into a snarl.

I lifted the book. “Said the great Albus Dumbledore to his former student, Lord Voldemort, ‘screw you, you  arrogant douchbag.'”

Mai stared at me a moment before looking back at Cherie. “Screw you, you arrogant douchebag. I’m calling for an election.”

“You will not,” Cherie screamed. “This is my association. My neighborhood. It’s all mine.”

“Not for long,” Ramon said. He took Mai’s hand and led her back inside. “What’s a douchebag?” he whispered.

Mai shrugged and turned to me. “Who’s Albus Dumderbore?”

Cherie continued her ranting, but all I could do was look at the kids. “Seriously? You guys need to read more.”

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Year 43 – Day Seven

So something strange happened today…

Ramon, this 14-year-old Filipino kid that leads the neighborhood watch JV squad – great with blades – came running down the street from the east. There was a red frisbee in his hand and he was waving it like a madman over his head.

The guard team at the entrance saw him and immediately began pulling on the ropes attached to our makeshift flag pole. In thirty seconds, a faded red bed sheet had climbed the side of my townhouse, up a thin, tall pie safe that was nailed to the roof and onto a wooden coat rack that was nailed atop the pie safe. The sheet rippled in the wind like a tray of strawberry Jello being carried across a room.

My townhouse is part of the neighborhood’s southern wall and faces the remains of a trailer park. As soon as the red flannel climbed past my side window, I ran to my balcony. I crouched down, looking over the short wall and watched the distraction team hurry through their jobs. We had cleared out the center area, set ten empty oil drums on bar stools around a large tree and attached chains to their tops. The opposite ends were then tethered to thick branches. As soon as they saw the sheet rise, the guys stationed there were pulling the stools out, leaving the drums dangling and banging against each other. When all of the cylinders were free, they climbed up ladders, gaining safety on the flat trailer tops.

Ten seconds after our makeshift flag was up, a steady dum – dum – dum came echoing out of the trailer park. Loud growls immediately rose from up the street, making Ramon run harder. He sprinted past my balcony, right up to the toppled schoolbus serving as our main gate. He leapt at a knotted rope hanging over the side, caught hold and the guards hauled him up and over.

Just as we had a hundred times before, the neighborhood went silent. I squatted lower, my eyes just barely over the railing. Every balcony facing the street was packed with the tops of heads doing the same as me. We watched the zombies approach in ones and twos but after a few minutes, a full hoard appeared – at least sixty strong.

Undead men, women and children in various states of decay stiffly bobbled their way toward us, following the cracked asphalt and sidewalks. They took their time, moving inch by agonizingly slow inch. And all the while, a cloud of flies buzzed above them, diving down onto their rotting flesh or living in it – I don’t know. Yellow jackets were flying around like our street was a picnic table and someone had left out the world’s worst potato salad. The insects and the stink were so horrible that once we heard the distinctive sound of a glass door slide, we all started retreating back into our homes.

I was slipping through my door when I heard a different sounding growl. I turned back to the street and saw – I kid you not – a freaking LION running full speed at the hoard. The zombies were so intent on the sounds coming from the trailer park that they didn’t notice until it lunged in the air and tackled the lead undead, a bulky, formerly Asian, man who was missing the left side of his bulbous stomach. The lion pinned his flailing arms down with its massive paws and bit down on the zombie’s neck. It shook its thick black mane several times until the man’s head pulled off. The lion then latched its jaws on an arm and moved backwards away from the rest of the hoard, dragging the body with it.

The attack happened in less than a minute.

When it finally registered to the rest of the zombies, they turned away from the trailer park entrance. They growled at the lion and did their slow, relentless shuffle toward it, hunger for living flesh the only thing occurring to them.

That’s when eight lionesses, all golden fur and muscle, came running from behind a burnt out house on a side street. With utter precision, they cut off a dozen zombie stragglers at the back of the hoard and, one by one, took them down to the asphalt and tore off their heads.

I heard tapping on glass behind me, turned around found Ramon standing inside my living room. I realized that I was standing as well, as were the rest of the people on the other balconies. I opened the door and Ramon stepped out to join me. “I hope you don’t mind,” he apologized. “Everywhere else was full.”

“Sure,” I said and turned back to the street. ”

The lions were dragging zombie bodies and body parts away while the rest of the hoard groaned and inched their way in pursuit. The male roared back at them and let loose a torrent of urine on the still biting head of the zombie it had taken down. Then it turned and dragged its prey away.

Ramon grabbed my hand and raised my arm up in the air. “Holy shit, you were right!” he yelled. He called to the other balconies. “Mr. G was right. Someone did open up the zoo. We’ve got lions, man! We’ve got lions!”

I stared at him a moment, then looked to the street. A good fifty zombies were still standing there, and they were all looking up at us.

“You’re so staying on the JV team,” I said.

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