Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Swan Point, Providence

He staggered out of the theatre like I knew he would, eyes pale and glazy, and I ripped a stone at him and ran. I ran hard. But he was so fast. I meant to be away before his eyes could even turn my way and he was already in front of me, shirt freckled with blood, broad face flooded with red tears. His sleeves were torn, his pants shreeded, deep cuts and pulsing wounds lettering his body like witchcraft. He stank of blood. I thought of what I'd seen in the movies, I couldn't help it. They eat brains, don't they? But all the movies showed slow walkers moaning in the air and that was foolishness. I gaped at him. This one was fast, quicker than any human could possibly be, and clever, too. The thing was howling now, loud flashes of sound booming from its gullet. I scrambled backwards (when had I been knocked down?), elbows digging at the concrete. I wasn't fast enough, though, never fast enough. His body was a blur at the edges, arms like wavy snakes, and the beast was stepping over me, kicking me, reaching those poison-handed arms toward me. His mouth was as wide as an evil book, filled with rottenness, the garbage breath of him on my face. I screamed. I didn't mean to, I just did, and I wriggled back and found myself running again, unhurt and free of the beast.

I pounded as hard as I could past the theatre and that shabby deli, and blistered around the corner of Carter and Randolph. Legs failing, lungs falling in, my sides ploughed up with knotted muscle, well, of course I started to limp. The monster must have clawed me somewhere. He was nowhwere in sight now, though, and I stumbled to a halt in front of the department store. Swan Point, Providence, is a small town, two churches and a gas station, population shrinking. We only have the one clothing store and it doesn't even have a sign, just a few faded letters painted long ago on the brick facade above the high wide windows. I checked myself, but I wasn't bleeding, clothes not even torn. Hands a little scraped from the pavement back there, maybe, but no pain, even.

A couple of moulting seagulls screeched, swooping overhead. Movement in the glass caught my eye and I jerked my head up. Only a row of mannequins shrouded in pinned-back blazers, plastic feet crammed into hard new shoes. No socks. One figure carried a Burberry purse, one wore a black fedora, one smiled blindly over my shoulder, and one crashed briskly through the glass. Clear shards sequined dangerously across the sidewalk. The shattered window looked like a spider-web, and the silent bodies twirled and tilted behind white lines, behind blank noise, behind that pale gaze. This was not the first beast, this was the second beast. Only one eye and half the face clawed crazily away, a great greyish white slippery man. I laughed in shock and spun away hard, feet simply not moving fast enough. That was it, this was a nightmare! Classic signs, weren't they, inescapable monsters, inability to run? And nobody else around, either, the afternoon streets simply bare of anything that wasn't helpless and blank. Another sign. All I had to do was wake up. The dream would be done.

I fell down. Hands stretched wide, useless, shoulders smashing against cold concrete. My left foot was tangled in a shopping bag. I ripped the thing away. The bones in my wrist were swelling, but the pain stayed away. Pressure appeared, though, a felling as if those bones were made of styrofoam. I jumped up and nearly knocked Howard Phillips into the side of the brick wall. Well, he was an old man, wasn't he? "Phillips!" I said, and glanced down the street, nothing there. No monsters yet. "Thank God, Phillips, I was starting to think I was the only one left in this town. Where's Susan?"

"Susan's dead." Sarah Susan was Phillips' wife, everybody knew her. She looked like the oldest woman in the world and wore that pale old-lady-blue that every old lady wears. Her first husband had died of madness. I put a hand on Phillips' shoulder, thin bones, brittle as wishbones.

"I'm so sorry, Howard."

"Don't touch me, I'm too cold."

"What happened to her?" I ignored his outburst.

He muttered something in a voiceless tangle of sound. I wondered how long it had been since Howard Phillips last cried.

"What's that?"

"They killed her," he said. His voice was all bare branches. "She was lying on our bed and they broke the door down. I turned around and saw the dark shapes and heard the howling and they killed her and took her head. My wife!" The last leaf faded away from his voice. "They were covered in blood."

"Where'd they come from," I said, scanning the empty street. "That's what I want to know. Monday was fine. I went to work, had a ciabatta bread sandwich at the deli with Sonia. It was expensive. Tuesday, get dropped off for work, find out Sonia's dead. She was killed. I'm never seeing her again."

There was howling in the next street over. Gunshots, loud ones, a rifle. I felt sick. "We need to leave town, Phillips," I said. "We need to leave town right now."

Phillips was shaking his head. "Where do I go? I can't leave Susan."

"Yeah, but she's dead, you said it yourself. Listen, Howard. Phillips, listen. These monsters, I don't know what to call them, these—"

"They're zombies!" he yelled. "You idiot! They're going to eat us!"

"No," I replied. "They're not eating me." And I remembered the movies again, how zombies swarmed towns and cities and ate the brains of the living. "I've been hiding in the streets over two days now, ever since Tuesday. There's only two of them, Howard, and that's another thing I don't understand. If they're zombies, why aren't there more of them? Aren't zombies infectious? And where's the rest of the town? I don't understand. I haven't seen anybody, or, if I do, they're just shadows, men slipping around far corners. Nobody is doing anything. We've all just stood around and gotten killed. So what if they're zombies? Two of them, Phillips! Screw leaving town, then. Why don't you and I take them on?"

"Kill them?" The old man's eyes brightened. "Let's tear their heads off!" he yelled. "Comes to that, yeah, let's eat their brains why don't we, yeah, see how they like that!"

"No," I shouted. The long-armed beast loomed behind the old man, a bloody grey-skinned giant behind that frail old frame. "No!" I yelled again and Phillips crumpled to the ground, the giant clubbing him heavily across the head and then the ankles. The old man's face looked like the inside of a ripe walnut, dark stains and splinters mashed inward. I started to run, but the dull-eyed beast was standing in front of me. I stumbled backward, but he was there, too. There was no escaping this monster. The beast towered above me and now the second monster was here also, the pale face and quick limbs of him making fast shadows in the afternoon sun, the one eye of him swollen and staring. The one monster started howling, a dim slow wave of anger, and the second beast joined in. I saw the club above my head and darted forward, knocking myself near-senseless against the second horror. I had to clutch that foul body just to remain upright. The taller one grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall, my head bouncing off the bricks. I didn't let go of the gun, though, that enormous Colt I'd clawed from the holster around the zombie's waist. I raised the pistol quickly and pulled the trigger and there was a sound like a stone exploding in my ears. But the first monster moved so quickly, always so quickly,. I never even saw him. I didn't feel any pain, either, but I saw my outstretched arm folding under the crushing stroke, saw the wooden bat whisper into my sleeve, felt my hand shred against the bricks as my arm whipped down and away. The gun clattered out of my hand. The second beast picked the pistol up, cradled the gun clumsily in his left hand. Aimed it at my chest. There was no sound this time. I felt the power blossom in my chest, saw the world sliding upward, looked down at the clean pebbles on the sidewalk, saw the neat hole in my shirt. No blood. No pain. A great weight blanketed my shoulders, my thighs. I lifted an arm, it was like lifting a house, and fingered the hole in the cloth. A figure bent down over me, the one-eyed beast with the least blood on his clothes. Hands on my collar, my shirt ripped away. I let my neck sag and saw the bullet hole again, a small burnt circle in my chest. A faint swish in my ears, and a second hole appeared beside it, a third, five, sixseveneight like deadly magic across my torso, great punching blows. Then they broke my ankles.

The monsters came back a couple of hours later, the bloodier man with an axe in his hand, a wood-splitter. The blade was bright. The second monster grabbed one of my arms and dragged me away from the wall, around the corner to the other street. I didn't mind. I thought about Sonia.

There were bodies in the street. Bodies with smashed heads or no heads, some of them without feet. No socks. Some of them were still moving. The second beast dropped Phillips' body beside me. The old man was still alive. Not for long, though. The axe glittered and they took his head, they did, those two blood-spattered grey-skinned worn-out men. The monsters moved tiredly, their faces were full of lines and sleeplessness. I looked at my ankles and tried to haul myself up, but one of the beasts flashed instantly to my side. How fast could they move? Was I just slow? Sonia had been slow, too. She had edged toward me, slow steps dragging in the shadows of the warehouse. I thought she had hurt herself.

The one-eyed monster raised his axe. I didn't mind. No pain. No blood. Where had I been the last two days? My memory was so hazy. Skulking around the streets like an animal, trudging from one alley to the next, not even breathing, merely existing. My mind tumbled back to thoise movies again. The movies were right. Zombies did stagger around slowly. And Phillips had wanted to rip open the monsters' heads. The axe-man wasn't a monster. Phillips was the monster, and the whole town, and myself, and Sonia clawing me in that warehouse, all of Swan Point entirely, excepting these two men, we were the monsters, the undead, the zombies. The two beasts were the only two breathing men left in the town.

A swift shadow fell towards me. I closed my eyes.