Story: REJECTED

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Hey, it happens. You feel disappointed, talentless for a bit, and then you get blistering drunk and you move on, looking for another girlfriend (publisher) knowing you have the moves to do it. But sometimes there’s a girl (again, publisher) that’s VERY specific on what she want’s. She looks like fun so you give it a shot, putting together some twisted device, trying to fulfill her needs. But damn, she’s persnickety, and doesn’t let you in the door, not even a cool drink for your sweaty efforts. And this thing you made is so specific to her, you couldn’t give it away at a Flea Market. So here I am going to the whore that is self-publishing–it’s true, self-publishing always says yes cuz she has no discretion. Doesn’t matter if you’re a slopping stinking mess, she’ll spread her legs and say, “Come on, big boy”. And you have to pay her upfront.

And that’s what I’m doing here. This little zombie tale I submitted to an anthology that was very specific on plot device and theme, and was (sob) rejected. Having no where to go next, I’m giving this story to my friends to accept or reject according to their tastes, self-publishing it on my blog. It’s kind of odd, but it was a neat little challenge and I had fun with it. So here it is. I hope you like your meat raw…

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I stare at the Necrometer not in disbelief, shock, or tears in my eyes, only numbness. I don’t feel a damn thing, except for my right cheek pulling up in a half grin. The LED display counts down in hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths of a second. It now reads–00:46:32–and counting. I ignore the flashing tenths; I really don’t need to see my life counting down in split-second increments.

I notice I’m scratching at the gauzed-wrapped wound on my upper arm and I stop. The bleeding has ceased, but it itches like hell and it’s starting to get warm. Black lines have crept out from beneath the bandage, working their way up my arm like poison rivers. I think of my Mom–passed long ago–chastising me when I was a kid.

“Stop clawing at it. You want it should get infected?”

I laugh. Too late, Ma.

Below the bite, wrapped around my wrist like a watch, the Necrometer ticks down the time left until I turn, racing to a zero line. I found it at an abandoned military tent hospital, sort of a M.A.S.H unit, just on the outskirts of town. Hundreds of them, individually wrapped in plastic, scattered from an overturned box across the canvas floor of the patient’s room tent. That’s when I started to notice the half-eaten bodies, and the whole, headshot ones, of soldiers and doctors and nurses wearing them on their wrists. The consumed one’s Necrometers all read, CLEAR, while the headshot–the turned–had flashing zeros across the board. When I got home and read the accompanying instructions, I couldn’t help but think how long it took to develop such technology and how the government had known about the zombie plague for much longer than they reported. Not that it matters now.

I’m sitting on my couch in my fortified home and I can’t take my eyes off the thing. It’s somewhat hypnotizing watching your life tick away.

00:44:59

I’ve lost eleven minutes since the zombie bit me. I just wanted to find a can of beans from the nearby, already heavily looted, grocery store. I had a hankering. Then this undead girl-child rushed out of the darkness of one of the aisles and bit the shit out of my arm so fast, I had no time to react. I threw her off, pulled my pistol, and blew her black brains all over an empty display for Heinz Ketchup. Shooting a kid in the head and I didn’t shed a tear; I don’t mourn the already dead.

A beeping alarm came from the Necrometer almost immediately, and when I looked, CLEAR flashed out and the countdown began at fifty-six minutes even. It flipped to 00:55:59 and I threw up.

This device accurately, so the one page manual said, counts the time left from bite to death and zombification. Not a bad idea. Gives one a time frame for getting their business together before the inevitable, I guess. More importantly, it removes any suspense for those around you. Not a problem for me. No loved ones left. And no bills to pay or funeral arrangements to be made. The whole world came crashing down almost overnight, and all those little things we thought meant so much went with it. Only base survival remained, and now I’ve lost even that. I should feel angry or depressed or something, but I think I’m just relieved.

My only companion jumps into my lap, gives me the soft eye, and chirps a meow. I run my hand down his back and his butt goes up along with his tail. He purrs.

“What am I going to do, Buddy?”

He has no response and does a turn to get settled in my lap. I tell him not to get comfortable and pick him up, stand from the couch and place him back on it. He lies down in my warm spot, and looks up at me with those soft eyes again. That hurts. The last kind creature I’m ever going to meet. Not like I have time to go out and find and make new friends.

The pistol on my hip digs into my side. I could do that. Scatter my brains on the wall and circumvent all this. God, or whoever is running this show, knows I’ve seen my share of brain-blown suicide. But it always seemed sort of pathetic and sad and very lonely. Like hell I’m going to go that way. Don’t know what I’m going to do, but it sure ain’t that.

Fresh air. That would be a start.

I go down into the basement where I sleep–it’s doubly fortified and I have an escape route through the outside basement door–and break out the small, high window and pull the bed over so the headboard sits beneath it to make it easy for Buddy to come and go. I slit open the two bags of cat food and knock them to the floor, letting the nuggets spill out. I’m sure once that runs out the exploding vermin population will keep him fat. And he’ll always have a home.

The basement door in the house I block open and return to the living room. Funny. Living room.

Buddys curled up, eyes closed, oblivious to what’s happening. I look at the Necrometer. 00:40:45. The old cliché crosses my mind: No time to waste! Forty minutes left of my life and I haven’t one meaningful thing to do. Hell, have I ever done anything meaningful in my whole life? Seemed like I was before the so-called Zombie Apocalypse. In fact, all the fine and good acts of humanity over thousands of years seem useless now, gone with one world spanning swipe of a jokester reaper’s blade. Gone not because humanity is dying–and coming back mindless and voracious–but because there’ll be no one left to remember.

Damn, another minute’s passed and I’m standing here remunerating. Now that is a waste.

I squat and pet his head. Never has his fur felt so soft. He rolls to his side and curls into a crescent moon.

“Adios, my friend. The place is all yours now.” His front paws flex and turn inward. I stand and walk away.

I remove the five crossbars to the back door, step outside and close the door behind me. The sun has fallen below the horizon and the coming twilight darkens the sky to the east. The fresh air I wanted is thick with disappointment. No wind and the heavy scent of decay surround me. I need to get out of town to get any relief. This is a relatively small town and I don’t live far from the wide-open prairie, but the walk would take at least thirty minutes just to pass the city limits, and that’s if I’m not accosted on the way. I need a car.

The neighborhood greets me in silence. A couple of houses down, a zombie sits on a covered porch in a rocking chair, her white eyes to the clouds above and rocking haltingly back and forth through a cloud of flies. She doesn’t notice me and I walk away and turn the corner toward the main highway.

I’m starting to sweat like a sumo wrestler in a whorehouse, and though the evening is warm, I feel a chill. Tightness spreads across my forehead and begins to ache. At the dead stoplight, I turn south and tread the sidewalk that parallels the highway. Shuffling shadows move amongst the abandoned, akimbo cars. I start to step out into the road to get away from the houses and possible ambush, when a shambler appears from behind a tree right in front of me.

I freeze as it stops and turns to me. Its face has been eaten away, leaving only a grinning skull framed by torn, black skin. Its bulging eyes look like Ping-Pong balls. It takes a limping step towards me, dragging a dangling foot. I slide back a step, pull my pistol out, and point it at its head. I may be dying but I’m not about to be eaten.

But something’s different. It’s not locked on me. There’s no ravenous growling moan. No reaching arms and clutching fingers. It angles to my right, past my raised gun, and shambles by me so close I could spit in its hanging ear. I turn, my gun arm dropping, and watch, confused, as it goes on about its undead business.

I turn around and spot one leisurely sitting on the ground, back against a burned out mini-van. Gun slightly raised, I walk to it and stop at its feet. It’s a woman, whole, with blue and black mottled skin. She holds a naked baby doll to her chest, upside down, gnawing at its plastic toes. I fake a cough. No reaction. I kick her foot. She moans something like a “huh?” and looks up at me briefly before her eyes wander and she returns to her foot nibbling.

“Sonovabitch.”

I press my fingers to my wrist and feel my rapid heartbeat. I’m not even dead yet and they know. Maybe I’m already dead, my mind and heart going on from sheer momentum, and I’m just a delusional corpse. I’m now officially a Pledge to the Fraternity of the Undead.

I toss my pistol away and walk down the middle of the highway feeling safer than I have in weeks.

An untouched car in a driveway attracts my eye. Taped to the inside back window, a temporary car tag. Except for the thick dust, the bright red Prius looks brand new. Tires look good. In the back compartment are a suitcase, some blankets, and two five-gallon plastic gasoline containers. Someone was ready to escape and didn’t quite make it.

I look at the gasoline again. I grab the luggage rack on the roof and rock the car. Waves of the dark liquid undulate near the top of the containers. An idea pops into my head, unconsidered and uninvited. I hope the car starts, because now at least I have a destination in mind and an end to the Third Act of my life.

I move to the driver’s side. A dried, dark red slash of arterial blood bisects the window on the inside. An unmoving figure sits in the passenger seat. I open the door and a miasma of rotted flesh slaps me in the face. Stepping back and covering my nose, I lean down to take a look inside. A body is slumped to the right, dressed in a brightly flowered print dress, stripped with blood. Her flip-flops are loose on the floorboard. The flesh of her left arm, shoulder, neck, and head, eaten away, and a breast is missing, leaving bared ribs.

Looking at me stupidly with his dulled eyes, a boy–maybe twelve or thirteen at his death–sits buckled in the passenger seat. From chin to chest, he’s covered in cracked dried blood, almost obscuring his Transformers t-shirt. He moans as if he’s glad to see a friendly face.

The keys are dangling from the ignition, not even pushed all the way in. A plastic glittered fob hangs from the ring, declaring: World’s Greatest Mom.

I grab the corpse by the ankles and pull it out. The bag of bones lands on the concrete with a rattle. The boy looks puzzled and a little concerned. I lay her to rest among some blue flowering hydrangeas and return to the car and plop in the seat. When I turn the key, the control panel lights up and the open door alarm goes off. Zombie boy moans, slaps at my arm, and looks around in undead panic.

“Settle down, kid.” I kick out the flip-flops, close the door, and with a couple of turns of the pistons, the engine fires up.

“Praise Odin,” I say. I look at zombie boy and he’s staring at me, his bloody mouth agape, as if I’m some kind of undead wizard. I slap him in the chest with the back of my hand. He sways in his seat.

“Let’s go for a little ride. Whatdya say?”

I lay down all the window buttons to invite an exchange of air and drop the gear stick to reverse. Something sloshes in the back seat. I brake and look. An ice chest within reach. I flip open its top and find bottled water and several cans of grape soda floating atop water. I grab a couple and toss one into the zombie boy’s lap. He picks it up with both hands and stares at it.

“I’m guessing that was your favorite.”

I back out and head south, out of town, meandering around abandoned cars and reaching, hitchhiker undead. At the last stoplight, I stop and check the Necrometer. 00:29:29. Plenty of time. I pop the top of the grape soda, and reach over and open zombie boy’s can. He moans as it fizzes out over his hands. I tap our cans together.

“Lachiam.”

Holding the brake, I rev the engine high and smoke the tires, then screech out of town in a cloud of rubber. I guzzle what is the best damn grape soda I ever drank in my life.

A half a mile and we pass the city limits and the high plains open up; rolling hills to the horizon covered in short grass and dotted with candelabra cactus and future tumbleweeds. An occasional stone bluff breaks out of the sand like a shattered bone from broken skin. Clear against the sky some six miles away is my destination: a vertical sided mesa with a gentle sloping hill for a hat.

The highway is clear and I kick the speed up to eighty, passing a lone car on the side of a road and an overturned reefer truck. Its spilled guts of rotted meat is scattered across a hill slope. Numerous Black Vultures and a couple of ragged coyotes are having supper. I give them a triple toot of the horn. They don’t even look up.

The wind is beating against me and my head is starting to feel squeezed in a vice. The sweating has stopped, replaced by a deep core chill, despite the heat of the ending day. I look at zombie boy and he’s holding his soda can out of the window, watching the windblast suck the purple delight out and spray behind us. The can slips from his hand and disappears. He groans, sounding disappointed, then begins to hand surf. He may be dead, but there’s still some kid left in him.

A glance at the Necrometer and see I have twenty-five minutes of life. From beneath the bandage, the angry red lines of infection have spread to my hand and my shoulder like rabid growing, twisting vines. My whole arm feels numb.

“Ever hear of a bucket list, kid?” I look over at the boy and he’s still watching his hand float up and down. He may not understand, but it feels good to have someone there to listen. “You know, it’s one of those things people make when they get the bad news they’re dying. Cancer or something or other. The got like, six months, a year, three years, to live. Whatever. It’s at that moment or soon after, they decide to live, really live. They’ve been living their lives at some job that feeds the wife and kids, habit prone, stuck there for years, stuck with the same wife, or husband, for that matter. Don’t wanna be sexist. But it all, rich or not, just didn’t do it for them, you know what I mean? They feel like life has passed them by.

“So they make this list of all the things they’ve always wanted to do and set out to accomplish each one, marking it off like it’s a shopping list. Has to be some disappointment there. Some things just won’t be accomplished. Like climb Mt. Everest or some shit like that. Either too sick, or it costs too much, or just not enough time. So they settle for the doable, you know? Maybe go see Everest. Or Paris. The Great Wall. Parachute. Rob a bank. Or get laid by a trio of high-end hookers. Or punch their dick of a boss in the face. Any number of crazy things. They have this idea in their head that this will make their life finally complete. Happiness at last.

“But I always wondered if that worked. If they don’t go to their deathbed still feeling, you know…unfulfilled. That would really suck in a major way. Discovering that those things you always wanted to do, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t before, were like anything else in life. A momentary thrill, a passing happiness, that doesn’t add up to anything. Makes for great memories when you’re alive, but you can’t take memories to your grave.”

I look at the kid. He has is arm back inside and he’s looking out the windshield, watching the darkening world race at him. His head is turned a bit my way and I get the feeling he’s listening to me rant.

I wonder what he sees through those cloud-covered eyes. Despite the decay and all, those eyes are the most disturbing thing about zombies. It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but I think it’s the other way round. The eyes are windows for the soul, a physical conduit for an ethereal, eternal being to see this world. A window to look out. When someone dies normally, their eyes may cloud over a little, and sometimes not, never full white, like the soul lingers to gauge the world past death. But I think with this disease, when death and reanimation occurs, the soul flees in such terror, it throws the window closed, leaving behind nothing but depthless white. And when you look into the eyes of the undead, it’s a vacuum, a sucking of your own soul, the dead trying to refill the void within. It’s damn unsettling.

I look back to the road just in time to catch my turn; a property line dirt road that goes east and then turns south, leading to the mesa. The east mesa face glows dull red in the remaining light, its backside now in dark eclipse. The washboard road shakes the car and threatens to throw us in the ditch. I slow down as much as I dare.

“I guess all I’m saying is that life isn’t about making memories cause those are just lost. Whatever happiness can be attained is right here, right now. You gotta look at what you got right in front of you and know that life is good, cause the alternative, well–“

I look at the kid. I can barely see his features, and for a moment, I can imagine him whole and talkative or teenage angst quiet, ate up with video games, loving movies, arguing with his mom, worrying about girls and the repellant zit on his nose, and wishing the world would get off his back long enough to catch a breath.

You know. It ain’t any better, is it?” I swear I hear him sigh.

I turn south and flip the headlights to high beam. A dark figure moves at the side of the road, caught and struggling to free itself from a barbwire fence. I can’t tell if it’s a deer or a wandering zombie. It’s behind us now, eating our dust.

The mesa is passing on my left, rising about five hundred feet from the sand of its eroded self. An oil pump stands like a sucking insect at its base, dead and frozen. I can barely see the road cut out to get to the top that wraps steeply a quarter ways around it. Before the owner chained the place off, teenagers used to park atop the mesa to drink and make out. They called it Lover’s Drop for a legend dating to the fifties when two young lovers that lived on opposite sides of the tracks (of course) leapt to their deaths, forlorn over their parents keeping them apart. Forbidden love and suicide. A rock ‘n roll teenage tragedy song if I ever heard one. When a drunk and foolish kid fell off Lover’s Drop back in the eighties and became a paraplegic, the county thought once was enough and forced the landowner to close off access.

I smile as I near the entrance, prepared to drive through the chain, and see it lying on the ground across the cattle guard. A pair of bolt cutters leans against the right gate pole. The bullet hole riddled sign that hung in the middle, lies face up, reflecting bright red in my headlights. KEEP OUT PRIVATE PROPERTY VIOLATERS WILL BE PERSECUTED, it shouts. I wonder if the spelling was purposeful.

Another glance at the meter. 00:14:29. Time sure flies when you’re living it. The pain in my head flares from my eyes to the bottom of my neck. My heart is beating so hard, I think of the alien chest-burster from that movie.

I drive forward across the cattle guard. It rumbles the car like a deep drum. The rutted trail is grass-grown but easy to follow and I find the mesa road up the side without problem. About halfway up, we come across a long dead, rotted carcass of a cow. A rut the width of a tire runs across its crushed skull. I follow it, missing the rut, hearing the crunch of what was left of the skull. Zombie boy gives a staccato moan that sounds vaguely like a giggle.

At the top of the mesa, I drive through the tall grass to the east side, where the kids used to park to watch the cold rising of the moon. Very little grass here, mostly hard dirt and rock; a lover’s parking lot. The headlights illuminate another car at the far end, facing the east and thick with dust. It’s a pink Caddie and as big as a battleship. Not a teenager’s kind of car.

I stop, leaving the lights on the Caddie, and throw it in park. I open the car door and set a leg out. The kid is looking at the lit dome light likes it’s a miracle.

“I have to check it out. You don’t go anywhere.”

I step out and every joint in my body aches. Like the desert, the temperature drops quickly on the high plains and the cool light wind is a welcome relief. As I limp to the Caddie, I notice two things: the large letters across the back window that read, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and the water hose stuck in the rolled up back window. It winds back to the rear of the car where it’s secured inside the exhaust pipe with a giant lump of duct tape.

I open the passenger door, and instead of the scent of rot, I’m greeted with the smell of dried death and the oily scent of long gone exhaust fumes. Inside is an elderly couple, clutched together in a lover’s last embrace. His right hand embraces her shoulder and her head rests on his chest at an unnatural angle. Their hair is shock white, his combed and slicked back, hers is done up, nice and poofy, old lady style. He’s wearing a suit and tie and she’s in her best blue, church goin’ dress. They’re both extra wrinkled, dried out, almost mummified. Both her hands surround his other hand, lying atop her leg.

It’s touching and horrifically sad all at once. No lover’s drop for them, just an eternal nap in each other’s arms.

My chest heaves and I feel like I’m about to lose it, about to fall to my knees, weeping. I swallow and choke it down deep. I haven’t the time to cry anymore.

On the dash is a pack of those extra-long and slender lady cigarettes, made to make a woman look sophisticated as she gets cancer. On top of them is a Zippo lighter encased in a pink Mary Kay embossed holder. I lean in–the sweet scent of her perfume still lingers–take the smokes and lighter and stick them in my back pocket. The old man makes a single coughing sound, expelling dust and tomb breath. His significant other’s head begins to lift, sounding of pulled leather and hissing muscle against loose skin. I close the door and walk back to the car.

I get in and the kid grunts a welcome to me from the darkness.

In my best Bogart impression, I say, “It’s just you and me now, kid.”

I turn the car to the cliff and drive up to the edge, lining it up, and then drop it in reverse and carefully back the car straight up the hill. Stopping before I hit the top, I set the parking brake, put it in neutral, and kill the engine. I leave on the lights, get out, and strip off my shirt as I walk to the back. I toss my shirt to the ground and open the hatchback.

Five gallons of gasoline is not light, and feeling weaker, I almost drop it on my foot when I drag the container out. I sit it on the ground, unscrew the lid and toss it away. When the shirt is soaked with fuel, I sit the can back to the ground and walk to the gas fill, open it, and stuff the shirt in the pipe. The rest of the gas I pour on the hanging part, letting it run down the side of the car until I get a nice puddle on the ground. I splash a good amount on the back half of the roof and then run a line from the puddle to the outside of the driver’s door.

Startled by a loud, high-pitched tone, I jerk and my heart thumps in my head. I look at the Necrometer. It’s flashing a red 00:04:57. The five-minute alarm.

I toss the partially empty container in the back on its side, unscrew the top off from the other gas can, and close the hatchback. Walking upwind from the car and the gas fumes, I stand at the peak of the hill, and face the last of the dying light. I pull the cigarettes and lighter from my back pocket, take out a smoke, and toss the pack.

The stale smoke burns my throat and lungs but I don’t cough. I strip off my jeans, underwear, socks, tossing them all to the wind and dark. I smoke, feeling the rush of the nicotine, and the cool breeze across my naked body. I am dying and never so alive.

The cigarette is dry and burns fast, but damn, it’s good. My legs are really starting to tingle now, going numb, and I hobble back to the passenger side of the car and open the door. In the reflection of the lights, I see the kid give me a dumbfounded look–as if he has any other–and I reach in, unbuckle his seatbelt, and step back.

“Come on out. You don’t have to do this with me.”

He looks at me, and his features change enough that I swear his face just turned sad. He groans and grabs the door handle and slams the door. Damn obstinate teenagers.

“Yeah. Okay. I understand.”

Back in the driver’s seat, I press the foot brake, and release the emergency brake. I turn off the headlights and we sit in the dark, silent. I’m twirling the lighter in my hand. My body has gone numb and I feel no more pain. I try to think back of the goods things I’ve done in my life, but my brain is misfiring, and all I can recall is that stupid cat I left behind, free now, free to climb trees and chase mice and birds and stray kitty pussy. He’s going to do just fine.

I hear a rush of wind, but it’s not from outside, but in my head. It feels like it’s turning and tossing my thoughts around like so much wind-blown garbage caught in a corner.

I speak and my voice is a gurgling whisper from far away.

“You know, kid, what I was saying back there, I think it all comes down to this…there’s only one thing, one single item on that bucket list and you get it the day you were born. It’s this life, this one precious fucking life, and you better live it because it’s all you got. Live it or you might as well be already dead.”

The meter starts beeping, high pitched and urgent. One minute warning.

I flip open the lighter and place my thumb atop the flint wheel. A flash of light from out the windshield and I look up just in time to catch a green streak of light arcing across the night sky. It flashes and fades out as the meteor breaks apart. I start to laugh, a gut-pulling hoot, like I haven’t in what seems years. And I realize that’s all I wanted, just to laugh again. That makes me laugh even harder.

I spark the flint and the flame comes to life, looking dim in my fading sight. Dropped out the window, there’s a whoosh, and the car becomes a candle on top of Lover’s Drop. The mesa lights up around us, except for the black fall-off two hundred feet down the hill. I take my weakening foot off the brake and we begin to roll towards the cliff.

I’m still laughing when the Necrometer’s beep turns into a continuous screech and the wheels go silent as we go airborne and a black hunger swallows me whole.

Copyright 2014 by Timothy Baker

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