Severing a human head isn’t like cutting roses. You have to saw through gristle and bone and the rose isn’t exactly holding still, waiting to be decapitated. Either way you could end up bloody—from the scratch of thorns or from clawing nails and tearing teeth. But with roses you don’t have to worry about contracting an infection that might turn you into one of them.
“Over here, Pasman. Don’t leave me hanging,” Fes bellowed from the other side of a pile of garbage.
“Coming.” I tugged on my axe buried deep in the throat of a zombie. The blade hadn’t quite severed the spinal cord so the creature thrashed like a landed fish, eerie in its silence as it fought to continue a semblance of a life.
At last I wrestled the blade free, my arms screaming in protest at the unexpected workout. Blood spouted from the severed artery in the zombie’s neck as he rolled to the side and pushed up on all fours, attempting to rise. I brought down the axe once more, grunting with effort. This time the blade cleaved through the back of it’s neck. The head dropped to the ground and rolled down the slope into the ditch. The body continued its awkward scramble to rise upright. I didn’t wait to watch it go still before running to aid Fes.
My patrol partner was pinned and wasting a lot of breath on swearing as he fought a petite woman with the preternatural strength of the undead. He was too close to her to wield the Japanese sword that was his weapon of choice. The antique katana used to hang in a display case, but had been pressed into active service with the advent of zombies. Fes’s attempts to slice his opponent were hampered by the woman’s tenacious grip on his arms.
The white-haired woman lunged up, snapping at Fes’s throat like an angry little terrier attacking a Golden Retriever. When I caught a glimpse of her face, my heart plummeted. The zombie was Mrs. Jackson, my second grade teacher, the lady who’d begun my lifelong love of books. Kind Mrs. Jackson, who’d already been cotton-haired when I was in elementary school, must be almost ninety now. Or would be if she were still alive. Her denture-less mouth snapped at Fes’s chin. I grasped her and tried to pull her off Fes, but her clawed fingers were stuck to his jacket like a burr.
“She’s got no teeth. There’s not a lot she can do to you,” I pointed out. “Pry her hands free.”
“Get her off me!” Fes screeched like a girl. “God, she stinks!”
It was hard to tell how much was the decaying odor of zombie breath and how much was the stench of the dump where we were fighting. Summoning reserves of strength, I seized the back of Mrs. Jackson’s cardigan, hauled her away from Fes and tossed her to the ground.
Before I could swing my axe, Fes swung his sword, nearly cutting me as it whirred through the air and severed the old woman’s neck. I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Jackson’s face, then her hair, then her face again, as the head rolled across the ground and came to a stop beside a car tire with weeds growing through the middle. My former teacher regarded me with wide-eyed surprise like she used to on the rare occasions when I couldn’t answer a question in class.
I looked at Fes. “You all right? Did she bite you?”
His round face was as pale as the moon instead of its usual ruddy color. “No bites, but damn, that was disgusting.” He wiped his hands along the sleeves of his jacket, smearing the bloody handprints the old lady had left behind.
As we trudged up the hill of garbage to the pickup, I glanced at my watch. “Another hour till our shift’s over. I’m starving. Did you bring anything?” It might seem callous to have an appetite after seeing a beloved schoolteacher get beheaded, but I’d developed a cast iron stomach since being bombarded with enough blood and guts to fill a war’s worth of battlefields.
“Yeah, I brought food. You shoulda thought ahead.” Fes retrieved his pack from the pickup and took out a paper bag containing a couple of sandwiches and apples. He proceeded to devour a sandwich with the savage intensity of a feeding zombie.
My stomach rumbled and I offered a sarcastic “Thanks” as I squatted beside the truck.
Fes tossed me one of the apples and, more reluctantly, the second sandwich.
“Thanks,” I repeated without the sarcasm before biting into tuna and soggy bread. Once upon a time you would’ve had to tie me down and force-feed me tuna. Now I demolished the smelly fish nearly as fast as Fes did.
“Enjoy it while you can. Nancy said they’re planning on cutting rations again,” he reminded me. “Guess the council is starting to doubt we’ll get our share of the government bailout, but I know they’ll get to us eventually.”
I pictured faraway bureaucrats and military types who were supposedly getting things under control in our post-apocalyptic United States and highly doubted Grainfield was on their radar.
“Radio says order’s restored in some of the major cities now and they’re distributing vaccine to other parts the country. Our turn’s coming.” Fes continued his Pollyanna speech, but we both knew our town was off the grid.
I stared at the crumbs in the bottom of the sandwich bag before crumpling it and digging a hole in the dirt to bury the plastic. Fes let his blow away on the breeze like a transparent ghost. I tracked the bag’s flight up into the sky before the sun dazzled my eyes and the bag disappeared from view. For a moment, the rich gold of the late afternoon sun caught my heart with its beauty and normalcy. I could imagine I lived in the world I’d always occupied, unchanged and unremarkable.
But impossible. I glanced at Fes. In the old world, we never would’ve been together—not here, not anywhere. Maybe, back in the day, Fes and his buddies had come to the dump to shine and shoot rats on a Friday night when they weren’t out on the football field playing small town gladiators, but I’d never set foot here until recently.
I grunted as I rose on aching legs and reached into the pickup for my canteen. A long drink of tepid water emptied the container. I tossed it onto the floor of the truck. “Ready?”
“Sure.” Fes waved away a persistent deerfly as he walked to the driver’s side. He always drove. I didn’t mind. I was better at zombie-spotting and he liked driving.
Fes put the truck in gear and revved the engine. “I’ll cruise out to the reservoir. See if there’s any action there.”
“Why so far? Shouldn’t we patrol closer to town? Zombies are looking for food not water.” Conserving gas was crucial. Once our supply ran out we’d have to add more foot patrols to protect the ramshackle fence around Grainfield. The makeshift nature of the fence illustrated the town’s expectation this crisis would be short-lived. People believed the cavalry was just over the horizon and grumbled about the council’s insistence on rationing food, gas and oil for our generators. A lot of people were still in denial. I wasn’t one of them. I knew things were likely to get much worse before they got better.
Fes didn’t answer my question so I shut up and stared out the window, scanning the dump one last time. Nothing living moved in the mounds of garbage. Only trash fluttered past in the breeze.
I supposed the reason Fes headed away from town was because he didn’t want to have any more encounters that night. We’d done our job and earned a little peace after two kills. Besides, it wasn’t like it had been in those first weeks after everything fell apart. There were fewer zombies now. The isolation of living in a town plunked down in the middle of miles of cornfields had its advantages. With the closest city so far away, it was easier to get the zombie population under control.
Fes turned the truck onto Reservoir Road. “We used to come out here on summer afternoons or at night and build a bonfire. Me and Denise, Cal, Jimmy and the guys, and whoever they were dating at the time. Good times.”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t add much besides “I imagine”. A guy like me hadn’t been invited to those reservoir parties. I’d spent most of my time with my computer even on the sunniest days. My friends had been online. My deepest wish had been to shake off the dust of Grainfield and never return. I’d escaped to college and freedom after high school, but here I was again. Fate brought me home just before the zombies attacked.
Fes glanced at me. “You were a weird kid back then.”
“It wasn’t that long ago. You sound like a forty-year-old looking back on his glory days.”
“Seems a lot longer than a few years.” He stared through the windshield, his face returned to its normal, rosy hue. “Hey, man, I’m sorry if I used to be a dick to you.”
I remained silent a moment, wrapping my head around the astonishing fact of Mike Fessenden apologizing to me. “You weren’t. I don’t remember you ever talking to me at all.” Some of his buddies, on the other hand, had given me shit on a regular basis. But he was right. A thousand years had passed since those days.
Fes changed the subject. “So you went to Caltech. What was that like? Lots of hot California chicks, am I right?”
“Not exactly. “
“But Pasadena, man. You must’ve gone to the beach sometimes and you’re not blind. Hell, even you must’ve gone to some parties.”
“I was pretty swamped with work. I can’t say I partied much.”
Fes clicked his tongue in disgust. “College was wasted on you. I would’ve known what to do with an opportunity like that.”
Flunk out? I bit my tongue and refused to point out the obvious—if Fes couldn’t make it through more than a year of community college, he probably wouldn’t have lasted a semester at a university.
He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “I should’ve left, seen some of the world before it fell apart. Instead all I’ve done is work for my dad. Now I’ll never get out of here.”
“I know the feeling.” Was it worse never to have experienced life outside Grainfield like Fes, or to have escaped only to end up back in the box? “I had a summer internship planned for this year, but my mom got sick with the A7 virus so I came home for the break.”
Stuck here and feeling guilty as hell for resenting it. But what if I’d been apart from my parents when disaster hit? I never would’ve seen them again. Besides, being anywhere near L.A. when it was overrun would’ve been horrific. I should be grateful for the way things turned out, grateful for the relative safety of a quiet place like Grainfield, but instead I felt restless and trapped.
“Fuck, we’re a pair of whiny bitches,” Fes said. “What we need’s a swim in the reservoir to clear our heads, then go back to town and have a few drinks. We earned ’em today.”
“Sounds good. Minus the swimming. It’s pretty cold.” The thought of plunging into the dark, seemingly bottomless water of the reservoir was not appealing to me at the best of times. With images in mind of rotting arms grabbing at my kicking legs, there was no way I’d go in.
Fes laughed and punched my shoulder. “It’s good for you. Like those Norwegian dudes who chop holes in the ice. Purifies the system.”
I smiled. Fes could be pretty funny sometimes, but there was still now way he’d get me into the water.
A flash of light in the distance caught my attention. I squinted and shielded my gaze from the sunlight. “You see that?”
I pointed toward the road intersecting Reservoir Road on the far side of the rectangular body of water. Light glinted off metal—moving vehicles—a group of motorcycles.
Fes slowed the truck. “Shit. Looks like trouble.”
“Maybe you should turn around.” My heart beat faster as the cycles slowed at the crossroads and turned in our direction, swooping as gracefully as a flock of birds. Maybe the people were friendly, but they were strangers and anything new and different could be very dangerous these days.
Fes did a U-turn, spraying dirt and gravel from beneath the tires as they dug into the shoulder. He gunned the motor, heading back toward town. I looked out the rear window and counted over a dozen cycles. The approaching horde appeared ominous looming behind us, but I didn’t know if we should try to outrun them. We could probably make it to the gates first, but was scurrying back to our mouse hole the best way to deal with these strangers? There was no reason they should hurt us. We didn’t have anything of value except for the truck and a couple of weapons.
As the cycles drew closer, Fes pressed his foot on the accelerator. The truck rattled alarmingly as it bumped over desiccated remains on the rough road.
“Wait. Maybe we should stop and talk to them,” I said.
“Are you crazy? Take a chance on getting carjacked or killed?”
The truck hit an especially deep pothole and my teeth clicked together. I cursed and grabbed the door handle. “Slow down before you get us killed.”
I glanced back. Behind us, the leader raised an arm and gestured us to pull over. He flashed a peace sign, which didn’t signify a lot but made me feel a little better. As I took in the motley collection of bulky Goldwings mingled with sexier Harleys, I became convinced the caravan didn’t pose a threat.
“Seriously, Fes, pull over. Let’s see what they want.”
“Fuck that.” He swerved around an abandoned car.
One of the cycles zipped past the other side of the Fiesta and raced alongside us. I looked out the window at the rider. Long brown hair whipped from beneath a helmet as ruby-red and sparkly as Oz slippers. The visor hid the rider’s eyes but her lips as she mouthed Pull over were purely feminine. Not that a woman wasn’t just as capable of pulling a gun on us, but my interest was piqued.
Fes swore but eased his foot off the gas. “We’re going to regret this,” he warned while bringing the truck to a stop.
As the motorcycles surrounded us, engines purring like big jungle cats, exhaust fumes clouding the air, I tended to agree with him, but I climbed out of the truck.
The woman on the Harley pulled off her helmet and shook out her hair like an actress in a shampoo commercial. My heart, already racing in overdrive, did a barrel roll when she looked at me with eyes the color of ice chips and stuck out her hand. She wore fingerless leather gloves so her palm was covered, but her fingers wrapped around my hand, skin to skin, and sent a little charge through me.
“Hi. My name’s Ashleigh.” A smoker’s huskiness clouded her voice.
I froze for a moment, forgetting I needed to respond. “Brian. Pasman.”
“I’m Mike Fessenden. Can we help you folks?” For a moment he sounded just like his dad used to, a jolly salesman welcoming potential buyers to his car lot.
The man who’d appeared to be the leader of the group swung a leg over his chunky Honda and walked over to us, helmet hanging by a strap from one big brown hand. He held out the other. “Daylon Brice. Where you boys from?”
“Grainfield.” Fes nodded at the road before us. “Not too far from here. Look, we’d like to help you but the town’s rationing as it is.”
“Didn’t ask for a handout. But we wouldn’t mind a hot meal and bed for the night then we’ll move on.”
“Where are you headed?” I divided my attention between Brice and the girl I could hardly stop staring at. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful, but had a magnetism that made her impossible to ignore.
“South. We heard things are coming together in Dallas and we don’t want to winter up north.”
I was worried about winter too. Could we stick it out in Grainfield if the government never came to our rescue? Scenarios in which we got snowed in and ended up no better than zombies, cannibalizing our dead, had occasionally flitted through my mind.
With the bikers’ faces unhidden by visors or sunglasses, they ranged widely in age and appearance. None of them excerpt maybe Brice appeared remotely dangerous. I couldn’t imagine them riding in and taking over our town.
“We’ll take you to Grainfield but the town council will decide whether you can stay. I imagine they’ll let you inside the wall for a night or two.”
I glanced at Ashleigh. If any of them needed a host, there was plenty of room in my house. I wouldn’t mind sharing.