The hand-painted sheet of cardboard in the window of Shop-Rite bore the words CLOSE-OUT SPECIAL…BARGAIN-LOW PRICES!!! What it did not say was STOCK UP FOR THE END OF THE WORLD or LAST-DAY-ZOMBIE-SALE. Signs like that carried the potential to incite panic and panic could turn to riot and riot in these conditions, with this many folks toting firearms in itchy hands and itchy fingers would be dangerous. As dangerous as what they said was headed our way.
The parking lot was crowded with last minute cars and trucks, but mostly trucks, as the majority of Mississippians, especially small town Mississippians, prefer utility to fuel-efficiency. The vehicles that weren’t in motion, U-turning or K-turning, pulling in, pulling out, were idling and as ready to go as a John Dillinger get-away. I glanced into the cab of one such truck and crazy eyes peered back at me like some frightened animal from a hole. I didn’t recognize that face but as I moved on, I did see some folks I knew, that I had known for a lifetime, and raised my hand in what passes for a wave in these parts only to get a tight lipped nod from a few. Most just looked back expressionlessly as if I, with dead groping hands, might rip their car doors from their hinges and open their skulls for chili bowls.
The IN-door dinged like always over my left shoulder and there was Bobby Lancaster’s smiling face, slightly flushed around the cheekbones where his skin was pushed up.
“We’ve got good deals today,” he said, obstructively kind. “From light bulbs to lighter fluid, tomatoes to tortillas. And the canned goods of course.”
Bobby had never met customers at the door before but this was a day for never-befores.
“Okay Bobby.” I tried to shuffle past him. “Thanks.”
“I mean it. If you can name it, we got it. And for cheap. And plenty enough for everybody. Pah-lent-tee.”
And I walked off, escaping to my left. Behind me, the door dinged its hollow electric ding and Bobby started in on the same spiel with his next customer, saying out loud what the sign in his front window said only in its readers’ minds. And both avoiding the same truth.
I grabbed a cart and wasn’t surprised that the back right wheel flopped uselessly when I pushed it as if it couldn’t determine whether it was coming or going. Shop-Rite only had hand-me-down carts and this particular model probably hadn’t driven true since it swung up and down the aisles of one of the chain grocery mega-joints in Littleton or Martin. As I looked down to kick the wheel into alignment, the smells of cheap perfume and baby powder swept me over.
MaryAnne Gipson had been two grades below me in school. Most freshmen girls would murder to go to the prom with a junior, but not MaryAnne, not with me. She had turned me down colder than witches’ breasts. Now as she sped past me and my defunct shopping buggy, her left paw loaded down with a battery value-pack and a precarious tower of canned beans, her right slung around a baby of perhaps six months, I thought about asking her to reconsider. Her man had up and left her with that baby still in her belly instead of on her hip and that was back when survival had meant a completely different thing. But MaryAnne Gipson-Something-Or-Other went right on by, her eyes set on the check-out lines and her attention set on not tumbling her cargo. And I let her.
“Hey!” A shout from my right. “What the heck-o are you doing?”
I spun around and up aisle two stood Maude and Clutch McBeene, my Pops’s old railroad buddies and, besides me, the only two mourners at his funeral last spring. Maude had me sighted with a scowl that passed for her look of concern. There was a rifle in her fist.
“Stocking up, I guess.”
She waved her free hand. “No, I don’t mean what are you doing-doing. I mean what the H-E-double-L are you doing un-fricking-armed?”
I looked at her rifle. It was a relic of a World War and looked capable of felling a woolly mammoth. Then I looked down at my own hands. One rested flaccidly on the buggy handle with the words SHOP-RITE OR DON’T SHOP AT ALL stenciled over the original proprietor’s name and logo. The other clutched a dozen large eggs.
She spoke as she stalked towards me, Clutch following along behind like a dog tethered to the bumper of a slow-rolling automobile. “Look-here, you see this fricking crap?” She snatched my carton of eggs and waved it in front of my face. “Worthless. If it has to be kept cold, it’ll ruin before you can eat it. Power’ll be gone soon, you can bet on it. So if it’s stocking up you’re here for, fill that buggy with bottled water and something canned. Maybe bags of rice. Jerky. Anything with big expiration dates and minimal prep. That’s short for prep-are-a-tion. Use your fricking head.” She slammed the eggs down and I heard a crunching-squishing sound as every yolk in my carton and the one below it was introduced to the outside world.
Behind Maude, the puppy caught up with the car and nodded at me.
“Clutch,” I said and nodded back.
Clutch’s eyes were downcast and he shook his head. “Dad-blamed zombies,” he muttered to the floor and me. “The dad-blamed mother-truckin’ undead, can you believe it?”
Maude McBeene, the murderer of twenty-four unborn chickens, rounded on him. “Yeah and what are you gonna do? Fricking hurl curses at ‘em?” I saw that Clutch’s hands were as empty as mine. Maude turned back to me, the ammunition belts crisscrossed over her flannel shirt sparkling with brassy reflections of Bobby Lancaster’s fluorescents. “Look-here, you need to get cowboyed up with some iron and ammo once you finish up here. No two ways about it, you hear? I suggest a rifle, high caliber if’n you can place a hand on one-”
“Now hang on just a second.” Clutch’s voice sounded full of timid certainty. “He never said he wanted to tote a gun, Maude. Matter of fact, I reckon that if that’s what he wanted, he’d just scoot on down to Paulie’s and buy one for hisself. You gotta stop projecting yourself onto everybody around you.” Then he got more timid than certain. “I love you, sis, but you do.”
Maude’s breath pulled in and her knuckles turned white around her own piece of iron that had no more come from Paulie’s Sporting Goods than Adolf Hitler had come from Utah. “Projecting? What are you, fricking Sigmund Freud? This ain’t projecting Clutchey. Heck-o, it’s just being fricking smart. These things are coming and if they don’t get shot,” she shook her gun and the shells inside rattled like a baby’s toy, “they will kill you in a fricking atrocious manner. Now, if being breakfast for some moaning, foot-dragging, slack-jawed, fricking dead-undead goon sounds fine by you, well then…” She spread her arms in a surrendering cruciform. “But if you’d rather stay alive and uneaten, like me, then I suggest you get over your gun-phobia and arm yourself with more than just a load of that pacifist-psychology-hogwash.” She spun back towards me with a pointed finger. “That goes for you too, buddy.”
There was a moment of awkwardness in which I watched yellow goo glop out of the busted egg cartons and onto the tile floor. Folks passed us by like a shallow stream around three boulders. You could feel the tense terror radiating off them like a brush fire that could catch wind and be out of control in an instant. Finally, I looked back up at the McBeenes.
“What’s your…” I floundered but there was only one word for it really. “What’s your plan, Maude?” Clutch looked up and caught my eyes before trailing them back to the floor. I nodded. “Clutch.”
Under his breath. “Dad-blamin’ cannot believe…dad-blame Saturday night horror flick zombies…”
He was ignored by his sister who leaned in close enough for me to lay out the complete menu of her previous three feedings by smell alone. The thought drew me back to the crushed eggs, but I didn’t dare look.
“See all these other folks?” She paused and we scanned around at all the scurrying little ants, gathering stores and scurrying, scurrying, scurrying. “Most of these folks are going to ground. Storm shelters and the like. And that’s alright if this thing don’t turn to fighting, but me? I’d rather see what’s coming.”
I looked to Clutch for help but all I made eye contact with were the age-spots showing through the wisps of gray that still clung hopelessly to his scalp.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “I don’t follow.”
“I’m talking about high ground. Tactical fricking advantage. I’m talking about not being trapped down in some cellar like a mole in a hole.” She startled me then by hoisting her rifle and peering down the barrel at as-yet unseen creatures. “I’m talking about fricking picking these gut-bags off one by one. Putting a slug of lead in anyone or any thing that makes toward me or my kin, even if all that amounts to is my half-wit Clutchey.”
“Okay, someplace high up. You got a place like that?”
“Sure do. Muddy Pine Ridge. I do my deer hunting up there and I’ve got a stand. It’s one of those industrial-sized jobs big enough for three persons and supplies and what-not. So we’re getting what we need – what will last – and then we’re picking up Clutch’s pressure medicine at Baxter’s and hiking up there before…well, before you know.” After a moment’s contemplation, she looked over at Clutch and nodded. “You wanna be our third guy? If’n you ain’t got nowhere else?”
I didn’t. Have anywhere else, that is. Embarrassingly enough, my plan was to get eggs, milk, and bread and then go back to my trailer and lock the door. Maybe board up the windows if things got hairy. In the stark clarity of hindsight, I realize I would have been dead or worse by moonrise that first night. But before I could answer, and as if summoned magically by the mere mention of his name, Doug Baxter walked by and Maude’s attention shifted.
“Dougie, hey Dougie!” she called.
He turned and his eyes looked as empty as clay jars. They weren’t panicked eyes and they weren’t zombie eyes; they were well past the former and drawing nearer to the latter.
“Doug, is the drug store closed? We’ve got something to get filled. Clutchey’s pressure pills. We want to buy as much of them pills as you got and don’t give me no hogwash about not having enough refills or insurance or any of that.”
Two summers ago, I had an abscessed tooth. A back molar. It felt like someone had stabbed my gums with something pointy but not quite sharp, like a pie server. Repeatedly. The pain was such that I didn’t flinch at going to a high-dollar dentist over in Littleton to get it seen about. I’ll never forget the sideways way Doug Baxter had looked first at my pain prescription and then at me. That sideways glare had a way of making you feel like a drug-seeking criminal even if all you wanted was for the pain to stop for twenty minutes so you can eat a meal consisting of something other than mashed potatoes.
But this Doug Baxter was devoid of that sideways-ness. Maybe devoid of everything else too.
“Eddie Dill from the parts store said his cousin saw them,” he said, his voice sounding far away and oddly unconcerned. “Coming up from Martin. I asked him was he sure, that the news said they’s coming down. Down the east coast, down, down. That would give us a day at the least, maybe more with luck. But Eddie said he’s sure. Up from Martin. So there’s really no time at all.”
Doug stared off into the pallet of colors on the produce aisle. Maude’s eyes danced as her mind no doubt raced through scenarios and poor one-track Clutch mumbled about dad-blamin’ zombies walking north from the county seat.
“Door’s open,” the pharmacist continued. “I propped it back with a cement block. The shelves are alphabetical from left to right. Take what you need if it’s still there, Maude.” Then he nodded and muttered, “Clutch.” And he stalked away.
Just then Bobby Lancaster came jogging up. His smile was gone, replaced by a 12-gauge side-by-side laid over his forearm. He looked like a frantic pheasant hunter.
“You folks hear the news? They’re closer’n we thought. Eddie Dill’s cousin spotted ‘em-”
“Yeah Bobby, thanks. We know.”
“Good. Okay, good.” He hefted his shotgun and seemed surprised that it was still there. “We’ve got a pretty good set up here. I sent Biggers and some of the boys out for lumber to board up the front windows. We’ve got food and drink and a generator and radios and you-name-it-we-got-it. Figured we’d make a go of it right here.” His eyeballs swelled when they fell on Maude’s rifle. “You three are welcome to pitch in with us.”
Maude shook her head and her jowls jiggled unflatteringly. “Thanks Bobby, but zombies or no zombies and Clutchey here’ll die without his prescription. And we’ve gotta plan after we go to Baxter’s to pick it up. Ain’t that right Clutchey?”
Clutch’s face said the prospect of hunkering down at Shop-Rite with its abundance of you-name-its appealed to his better senses. But his sister was a trump card, had been ever since he could remember, and she was lying face up and staring at him.
“Clutch, answer the man,” Maude said sternly.
Clutch nodded and looked back at the floor between his bow-legged feet.
“How’s about you, son?” Lancaster said and I realized he was talking at me. “You with them?”
I had no immediate answer. In my mind, I was up on Muddy Pine Ridge, spooning cold pinto beans from a can with two hooked fingers, watching silently as the hoards of undead flowed along beneath us, picking off the few that lifted their eyes usward. Then, I was in Shop-Rite. The lights pulsed weakly as the gennie roared from some unseen place behind me. The sound of glass shattering. Impacts on the makeshift plywood barriers. The volume of the moans rising with each collective fist bang like the bleep of a dying EKG.
Neither was attractive. But I’d hunted up on Muddy Pine Ridge, too and foxholing with my fellow Shop-Rite patrons seemed a little too Stephen King for my tastes.
“Yeah.” My voice. I guess I’d made my decision. “I’m with them.”
Maude exuded as much satisfied vindication as her face would allow and her brother looked perfectly dismayed. The female McBeene came alongside me and my buggy and spoke her breath into my face again.
“We need to hurry,” she said. “If you can drive this thing, I’ll fill it up. Bobby, where do you keep the fricking Moon-pies?”
Main Street was deserted and Baxter’s had been looted.
The cement block was there just like Dougie had said, but there were also glittering diamonds of broken glass on the sidewalk from where someone had put another such brick through the front picture window seemingly for the thrill of it. Greeting cards and envelopes fluttered out through the open doorway like a bevy of released pigeons. Even the shingle out front that read BAXTER’S DISCOUNT DRUGS—YOUR FAMILY RX SHOPPE hung on a vicious slant from its one remaining chain.
The McBeenes’s four-wheel drive Scout, newly loaded down with crinkling paper grocery sacks in the back, me riding shotgun, and the McBeenes themselves, puttered up to the curb. Maude threw the shifter up into park. Then, she leaned back and watched Baxter’s with a gunslinger’s steely eye.
“You’re with me,” she said at last, pushing open her rusty hinged door and curling a fist around her gun. “Clutchey, you stay with the supplies.”
Clutch never budged from the back seat where he sat drinking a grape soda and munching on a Moon-Pie. It was his second in less than ten minutes.
I got out and followed Maude into the pharmacy. We were greeted by the cool of air conditioning and Alan Jackson’s Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee twanging on the overheads.
“Something ain’t right here.”
Maude firmed her rifle’s stock up on her shoulder and puckered her left eye. I wanted to ask if that was a reference to the broken teeth yawn of Dougie’s front window, the general disarray of the store, or the quality of Alan’s earlier work, but then I heard a rattling coming from behind the counter and my unspoken question was answered. What wasn’t right was that the looting was not a done deal. It was still in progress.
Maude hitched her head in the rattling’s direction; code for follow-me-this-way. I waved my hand and bobbed my own noggin in the silent reply of you-go-ahead-I’ll-be-right-behind-you-remember-you-have-the-gun.
As we walked over the litany of unshelved gift store crapola towards the business end of Baxter’s, the canned Alan Jackson changed over to canned Marty Robbins and now we were true gunslingers and Millwood Branch was the West Texas town of El Paso.
The rattling came in spurts and as we drew closer, we could make out muttered curses between each series of rattles. “…fudgin’, dumpin’, mother-truckin’ open…gull-dern-it now open, OPEN…” Followed by more rattling, as rapid as machine gun fire but not as loud.
We walked past the PICK UP LINE BEGINS HERE…PRIVACY IS OUR POLICY sign. The cash register drawer was out and empty, even the pennies. The mini-refrigerator’s door swung lazily on its hinges, vials of insulin lay crushed or up-ended on its shelves and in a rough semicircle around it. Medication stock bottles littered everywhere. And at the far end of the behind-the-counter area, on his knees in front of the locked cabinet from which the original sideways skeptical Doug Baxter, RPh had retrieved the pills that had stayed the stabbing pie-server pain of my hopelessly abscessed molar, was the muttering rattler himself.
“…mother of all things holy…why don’t you just be a good crappety-crap-crap and open, open, OPEN…”
Maude had him sighted with that steely right eye straight down the barrel of her elephant gun but he was too busy jerking on the locked cabinet door to realize he was dead to rights until she spoke.
“Shut your filthy mouth and reach for the rafters before you turn to face me…” She snuck a quick peek over at me. “I mean ‘us’.”
The rattling stopped, the muttering curses, too. Over our heads, Marty was paying his last visit to Rosa’s Cantina. The looter removed his hand from the cabinet where he had been pulling for all he was worth and then some and raised his hands like a scarecrow. Then he knee-walked around to face us.
I had gone to junior college with Denny Beck. We were good friends, not good enough to split texts or car pool, but just short of that. Certainly if he had a drug problem I would have heard of it. And the cherry-top was the fact that Denny Beck was Doug Baxter’s brother-in-law. Denny’s sister had become Doug’s second wife years ago, so technically speaking, Denny was robbing his own kin. I guess nothing blurs the lines of familial loyalty quite like the impending doom of a gruesome death.
“Denny, what are you doing?”
His face turned incredulous. “What does it look like I’m doing? Most of the Okay Stuff’s already been taken so I’m trying to get to the Really Good Stuff. In the lock-up. What are you doing?”
It was Maude who answered. “We are getting medication. For blood pressure. And then we are going to leave Dougie enough cash to cover it and then we are leaving. You, on the other hand, are leaving right fricking now.” She puckered that left eye and there was no doubt who she was looking at with her right one. But Denny ignored the threat. In fact, he looked like a bright idea had just struck him.
“Hey,” he said, drawing out the word. “Reckon that gun could bust this mother-humping lock? I bet it will. Say, if you’d go all Calamity Jane on this here lock I’ll go halfsies on what’s inside.”
“I’ll do no such.”
“Oh, come on.”
“No. Doug Baxter is a friend of mine so no.”
Denny threw his hands down and punched out his lower lip like a child throwing a tantrum. He kicked at a stock bottle and didn’t catch it squarely. It spun below him, mockingly non-habit-forming.
“Puh-lease, you guys!” Denny pleaded. “You know what they say is coming, right? I don’t want to be coherent when they pull me apart, do you? I’ve heard Doug talk about the euphoria these pills can cause and I WANT ME SOME OF THAT, OKAY? Is that so wrong? Is that so criminal? I don’t even care if I take so much it kills me. Seems a better way to go, doesn’t it?” Then, his final plea to Maude, the one with the cabinet’s key wedged against her shoulder and pointed dead between his eyes. “You shoot out that lock and I’ll just get what I need and you can help yourself to the rest. I won’t even tell Doug if you don’t pay.”
She lowered her rifle and put a bullet in the floor between Denny’s feet. The pharmacy rang like a bell and poor Denny jumped like a jackrabbit on crack. Maude bolted the rifle and had it re-shouldered in a blur.
Denny didn’t move but to look down in shame at the puddle of urine spreading out on the floor around his sneakers. Maude squeezed off another round and that’s when it occurred to me that she might actually kill him.
“Now,” she said pulling back on the bolt and slamming it home deliberately, “or the next one will be four feet higher.”
Denny reached down to grab an unzipped back pack. The white lids of pharmacy bottles protruded from its opening, no doubt containing all the Okay Stuff he could find.
Denny whimpered like a whipped hound but he left it. His shoes squished in his bladder’s leavings as he left. Never before had I seen a more sullen person.
“Now,” Maude said once the squishing had trailed off and we were all alone. “It’s called metoprolol tartrate which is a pretty stupid name for anything if’n you ask me, especially something that old folks’ lives depend on, but nevermind all that. Let’s just find it and get gone.
And so we did. We found enough metoprolol tartrate to regulate Clutch’s pressure until Armageddon, which might have been right around the corner for all we knew.
And we got gone.
Muddy Pine Ridge lay just on the western edge of town in an undeveloped area the Two Forks folks thought was theirs. A few years back, the town’s aldermen pegged Muddy Pine Ridge as a potential site for a new industrial park. They got as far as running power lines and water mains out there to the north side of the highway before the collective Two Fork’s voice shouted its disapproval. The endeavor was halted. But in addition to the pipes that had never held water and the wires that had never hummed with electricity, there was an access road that had barely borne an automobile. The Scout made it almost a mile up that road before a downed tree blocked our path and forced us to stop. Almost a mile, but each and every inch was one I had expected to hike, so I can’t say I was disappointed.
Maude: “Get out, Clutchey. Grab something.”
Clutch, around a mouthful of something salty, pretzels I think: “Get out? We there?”
“There’s a tree. Fricking wake up.”
So we each got an armful. Clutch and I had two grocery sacks apiece and Maude toted the bottled water and of course, big iron.
“Sorry we didn’t have time to get you cowboyed up,” she huffed.
“That’s alright. Hopefully we won’t need it.”
It was a hope of mine but I’m not sure Maude shared it.
“Don’t worry,” she said as she readjusted the plastic-wrapped case of water on her shoulder. “When we get high and dry, we’ll take turns with the rifle. Me first, then you, and then back and forth. Just do not pass it over to Clutchey. Guns make him nervous and he’s liable to go into panic mode if he’s to touch one. So, just me and you, okay?”
“Alright, sure.” There was something bothering me and I wanted to ask it before we got “high and dry” although I guess it was already too late. “Hey, Maude?”
“You think these things can climb? Like trees?”
“Good-gosh no. We’re not talking about fricking bears here, okay?” She shot a glance back over her shoulder at her brother who was his typical three steps behind. “And keep your voice down with that talk.”
The rest of the walk was quiet and not just because we didn’t talk. Whether by means of shock or anticipation, Mother Nature was also hushed. No birds chirped or beat wings in the pine branches. No squirrels scurried in the underbrush. Nothing moved but us. No sounds but for our feet crunching rhythmically through the forest floor. After a while, the silence must’ve gotten to Clutch because he began to hum out Waylon Jenning’s theme to The Dukes of Hazzard, softly at first and rising gradually to full bravado.
We didn’t stop him; he carried a decent tune and if the truth be told, the silence was bothering more than just him. Then he started singing the lyrics in addition to humming the interludes and before I knew it, I’d joined right in. Maude, too. And just as we’d begun to tweak out the three part harmonies, we were there.
Maude dropped her waters with a thud and a slosh.
The deer stand was as large and capable as Maude had promised. The platform was bolted to a thick oak about thirty feet up. Camouflage netting hung down from a makeshift roof that consisted of a single sheet of green spray-painted fiberglass laid over a wooden framework. An extension ladder, also bearing a sloppy coat of the green paint leaned against the tree’s trunk just below the stand.
The singing stopped and I immediately felt silly for having taken part in it.
“Here we are,” Maude said. “High fricking ground, baby.”
There was a pause. We all looked up at it, craning our necks, and Clutch and I hefted our loads. We looked down at the awkward bundle of bottled waters. Then we looked back up, following the long line of the ladder with our eyes. I felt like Moses looking over into Canaan.
“How’re we gonna get all these supplies up there? I mean, mine’s kinda heavy.”
Maude grinned impishly and spoke where only I could hear. “Same way me and your ole Pops used to do things working on the railroad, God-rest-his-soul.” Then she favored me with a wink that was kindhearted, almost motherly, before raising her voice loud enough for us both. “Assembly line, Clutchey. Ass-sem-bull-ee line. And you just volunteered to be at the end of it. Go on and put your sacks down and get your hinnie up there.”
Clutch did as ordered. As did I and two minutes later, I took the first paper sack from Maude and twisted to pass it up over my head to her brother. Then, the next sack and the next. It was quiet again and at one point Clutch tried to pick up the Waylon tune again but when no one joined in he shut up. That moment had passed and Maude and I, at least, were not willing to revisit it.
The last sack, containing bags of wild rice and marshmallows, vacuum-sealed packages of beef jerky, a four-roll pack of toilet paper, and a half-eaten bag of pretzels, was passed up. Finally came the waters, which nearly tumbled me from the ladder. It shook and groaned and a sprinkling of crushed tree bark fell to the ground from where it leaned against the oak before I was able to complete my turnabout and pass the God-forsaken water up to Clutch. Below me, Maude swiped her forehead with the back of her arm and took a long cautious look around.
“Alright Clutchey. I’m gonna pass up the rifle now so I can climb. Just grab it here and here and prop it up in the corner of the stand and I’ll get it when I get up there, okay?”
She handed the rifle up to me and I grabbed it by the barrel and handed it on up to Clutch. He looked like he’d rather touch a coiled up cobra but he took it, gripping it in the places that Maude had instructed. And the instant he had it leaned up in the back corner of the stand, we heard something.
At first, it was difficult to pinpoint in the relative stillness of our surroundings. Hard to pinpoint just what it was and just how close.
Leaves and pine needles crushing softly but decisively. A low roar barely more than a forced whisper. The crushing sounds coming faster now, more frequent.
Yes. It was running.
It looked no more than sixteen years old. Blonde hair parted to right. Slim. Athletic. It even wore a black and yellow Martin Track and Field T-shirt. It was the All-American Zombie and it was on Maude before any of us could have said Jack Sprat. It dug into the soft area where Maude’s neck became her shoulder. Blood cascaded down her front in a red bib that stretched into an apron.
“Clutchey,” she shouted as she tried to use her balled fists to beat it off with no effect. “Shoot him, Clutchey! Fricking shoot, shoot, shoot!” But Clutch McBeene was nothing more than a frozen face above me, his eyes and mouth wide.
“Shoot this fricking thing, Clutchey. SHOOT!” And then the last thing, just before it worked around to her vocal cords, “I’m sorry, Clutchey. Take your medicine.” And her voice was gone in a guttural snap.
It was like watching a train wreck, except bloodier, more up-close, more intimately violent and up until that moment, I could not peel my eyes away. Then the undead track star dropped Maude’s body in a contorted heap of arms and legs, wrapped its gray-toned hand around a ladder rung just below my feet, and bear or no bear, began to climb.
I have no memory of the rest of my climb, but suddenly I was pulling myself up onto the stand’s platform and shoving Clutch aside. The ever-troublesome God-forsaken case of water was in the center of platform and I tripped over it, sending it nearly over the edge and myself nearly head-first into Maude’s gun. I struggled up to my hands and knees. That low roar was growing behind me as the thing had almost reached to top of the ladder. Yelling for Clutch to get-down-by-golly-get-down, I grabbed the gun, thumbed off the safety, and spun around. But I didn’t spin all the way around; I couldn’t. I tried again, yanking harder this time, to no avail.
To borrow from the late Maude McBeene: The fricking front sight on the fricking rifle was tangled up in fricking camo netting.
Behind me, I heard the flap of a cold gray hand on the platform and a deep-throated groan that seemed to never pause for inhalation.
I pulled; nothing.
I pulled again; a ripping sound and the gun seemed freer by the slightest fraction.
The groan was above me now; the thing was standing. I could feel the vibrations of its footfalls.
One final pull and the gun’s weight settled on me completely as the dark green netting ripped. I pinched the hand-sanded wooden stock close to my side with my arm, pointed it in the direction from which I’d come, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet caught it square in the chest, between the R and A of Track, and a big red rose of exploded skin blossomed there. Then it was stumbling backward, pinwheeling its arms on the edge of the platform just before it fell.
I heard a meaty thud from thirty feet below. But that sound, that mindless moan, never stopped. I scrambled over to the platform’s edge, this time with the rifle’s stock firmly on my shoulder, and watched with one part amazement and one part nauseating certainty as the thing regained its feet. It looked up and saw me with eyes that shouldn’t see. Shivering, I pulled back on the gun’s bolt and ejected the empty casing. Then I sighted it in the dead center of the thing’s forehead, took a deep calming breath, and squeezed the trigger on the exhale.
I tried again. Click again. The thing began to smile, blood so dark it looked like chocolate syrup dripped from the rising corners of its mouth. I pulled open the bolt and saw that the chamber was empty and then I felt my stomach knot into a cramping fist. Maude’s body lay on the forest floor, a crumpled and lifeless gore, with two ammo belts criss-crossing her chest. She might as well have been on the surface of the Moon. It, the thing, smiled even wider, its teeth red-stained with Maude’s blood. Then it stepped up to the ladder and again began to climb.
“Clutch,” I gasped. “Clutch, do you have any bullets? Did she give you any bullets?”
But he didn’t hear. Evidently, seeing his big sister eaten alive had proven too much for his ticker. His right hand was death-clutching his left shoulder and his lips were already blue. There were banana Moon-Pie crumbs still on his flannel button-up, but he was gone.
I looked down. It was still coming, still climbing rung by rung by inevitable rung.
There was only one option and it simultaneously saved my life and doomed it. I threw Maude’s useless gun aside and sat on the edge of the stand. My heel swung like a pendulum and struck the side of the ladder. Reverberations traveled up my body, chattering my teeth, but I swung again. Again my heel hit the ladder and this time, I felt it shift to the left. Still the thing kept climbing. Its groaning had turned into bad-humored laughter and deep in the distance of Muddy Pine Ridge, obscured by the leafy boughs of the forest, I heard that laughter echoed countless times over.
I raised my foot and swung again, screaming in terror and pain and effort as my heel impacted the steel of the ladder. There was a scrape of metal on wood and the slightest touch of a finger on my sneaker and the ladder was falling. Falling, falling, falling; the only way they could reach me, the only way I could escape.
That first night I worked. I pulled down all the netting and braided it into rope. Then, I attached my belt on the end. It was as close to a grapple as I could manage. But when the dawn arrived, Maude’s body was gone. Whether it was carried away in the darkness by the creatures or became a creature and simply stood up and walked off, I do not know. However it went, it carried the ammunition with it, robbing my makeshift grapple of a purpose.
That very morning, I said a fittingly simple goodbye to Clutch and dropped him over the edge out of fear that whatever was causing this, whatever they had, was contagious and airborne. Like his sister, his body was gone by midday.
After that point, I began to lose all sense of the passage of time. I ate and drank as little as possible. I dozed in short fitful nightmarish spans. I relieved myself over the edge of the platform. I hummed old country and western tunes to drown out the moaning monsters beneath me. And I thought.
In the beginning, my thoughts centered around things I had no control over. I thought about the folks holed up at Shop-Rite and when I began to feel envious of them, I was careful to remind myself that there was no reason to suspect that they were fairing any better. I thought about the crystalline structure of the world, of the governments from local to state to federal. I thought about the National Guard. I thought about the Marines. I thought about survival of the fittest and I thought about the lack of helicopters beating the air over my head.
I thought about the destruction of a species.
Sometimes I would become so lost in my thinking, I would see the faces of people I knew in the dead faces passing below me. I saw MaryAnne Gipson and her baby. Except they weren’t alive, they were them. Gray skin, blood smattered mouths that gaped at odd angles, and eyes with no life behind them. Then I blinked and they were gone. But they never stayed gone. Sometimes it was Dougie Baxter or Denny Beck or even good ole Bobby Lancaster groping up at me. Sometimes it’s names I can’t remember but faces I’ve seen around town. Once I even saw myself, whether by premonition or delirium, I cannot be sure.
As time wore on, I thought less and less about the big picture and began to work out what I would do when my meager supply of eats and drinks ran out.
I thought about metoprolol tartrate and how much it would take to kill a man. More than once, I poured out a handful of the oblong peach tablets and considered knocking it back and washing them down with the last of the bottled water. But I’ve heard that some drugs kill you slow and I didn’t know enough about Clutch’s pressure pills to give it a try. So I always dumped the pills back into the bottle.
The culmination of all my thinking was that it would need to be quick and a sure thing, so there was really only one option.
I had a rope thanks to my first night’s efforts, and if you’re reading this you already know that my plan was not to use it to climb down; not down there, not ever. The fiberglass roof of the deer stand is brittle and weatherworn but the wood frame that it’s bolted to appears sturdy enough to support my weight.
As a postscript, I would advise against cutting me down.
The dead cannot be trusted.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Winter lives and writes in Northern Mississippi. His work may be found in Bartleby Snopes, The Battered Suitcase, Full of Crow, The Medulla Review, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Until the completion of his website, he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.