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.”
“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.