The Kings and Queen of Peaceful, Texas
It took a whole night to learn one big thing about those un-dead motherfudgers: they wanted part of their old lives back. Of course, that was a little hard to tell in the beginning, what with the screaming and chewing that come with your typical zombie attack. When your shift-buddy's Mama tries to munch on your neck in the Quik-Snak, well, you can be excused for thinking they're beyond what the Reverend would call human concerns.
Hey, I'll tell you one thing I'm proud of, though. Even when Shawn's Mama had us cornered by the beer cooler, grinding her teeth and rolling those inky-black eyeballs around, I never cursed. Not a single H-E-double hockey sticks. My own Mama raised me right. Thankfully she's no longer around to see our little town of Peaceful in the icy grip of the un-dead apocalypse.
Bet your last two gallons of drinking water and a handful of 12-gauge shells, though, she raised this little whippersnapper well enough to avoid becoming an extra-rare zombie burger. No matter what the cost.
* * *
Before the most important things in life became a keen sense of hearing and a healthy collection of firearms, I worked for a hefty motherfudger named Marty Covin, who ran the Quik-Snak with an iron fist. Working the register there was the best I could do, at least until I earned my GED. Don't think I'm not smart, or that I don't want to improve. Every job in Peaceful not nailed down had been shipped to India, and that left either the Quik-Snak or humping kegs down at the Spigot. Once I had enough dough I could head someplace big, like Sandy Junction.
Radio was a big N-O for those of us rocking the late-late shift, after that one night we jacked 97.1 too loud and Marty wandered in to find us banging heads to vintage Guns N' Roses. (Marty 'wandered in' a whole lot, even at 3 A.M. when the only customers were Martians wanting cough syrup – he wanted to catch us committing what he called 'infarctions.') That was why we didn't hear the news that the dead had risen all over the county, everybody aim for the heads, blah-blah.
It was Shawn and me behind the counter that night, talking cheerleaders and flipping through the magazines. I was thinking about that redhead with the funky name, Cordelia, who worked the Tastee Diner down the road, and whether in a few hours I would grow the cojones to actually stop there for breakfast and talk to her.
Shawn gave me endless bad-word-for-poop about my crush, pointing out how my voice got higher when I was around her. He was right. I had been too much of a wuss to ask her out, even though I knew from her friend Darnie that she liked comics and Halo – just like I was too wussified to even ask Covin the Incredible Spit Machine for day hours or a dollar raise. Not that any of those things would matter in about thirty minutes.
The Martian who came in at a quarter of four was this ratty-looking dude in a white cowboy hat pouring sweat and looking around with eyes fit to pop right out of their sockets. Yawn. The only strange thing was his right hand wrapped in about ten feet of bandage. I remember thinking that maybe I should tell the guy to loosen the thing a little, because the skin around his fingers was looking green. But the first rule of Martians is, you don't talk to the wacko motherfudgers – just keep your pie-hole shut as you ring up their porn and pork rinds.
Ratty Dude dumped every bottle of rubbing alcohol and that hydro-fizzy stuff he could find on the counter and stood by, face twitching as he received new marching orders from the receiver in his head. The smell coming off him could have made a pig weep.
twenty-nineteen, inflation's a b-word," I told him, playing like I was bored. His non-bandaged hand hovered
straight out, opened, and three crumpled twenty-dollar bills bounced
on the scuffed counter.
"Keep the change. You're gonna die," he croaked, eyes somewhere over our heads. Now, such a charming phrase usually makes me want to reach for the baseball bat leaning by our feet for special customers. Except it wasn't a threat. His tone was like, Thunderstorm's coming, or, Big crash out there on the freeway this afternoon. Just announcing, like.
"That a fact?" Shawn yawned. "Can it be now? Don't think I'll survive to the end of my shift."
"They're locusts," Ratty Dude said, sweeping the bottles into his arms. "You better run." I had a solid look at that bandage again – man, the vessels around the edges were purple-black, which even to a certified numbskull like me with a tenth-grade education screams Not healthy.
"What happened to your hand, mister?" I asked.
"Bartender bit me," he said, and flashed a smile that could have made babies burst into tears. With that, he turned on one scuffed boot-heel and headed out the door. For a moment we could see his shadow bobbing past the pump island, and then only his cowboy hat floating like a little ghost in the dark beyond. Then it disappeared – bam – as if snatched away.
"I love my job," Shawn announced.
"How can we quit, making so much?"
"All that green, brings the chicks around."
"Cordelia," I said.
"Talk to her already, you whiner."
I laughed, flipped to a column in my magazine about combat driving. "Yeah, right."
* * *
The chaos hit fifteen minutes later, according to the clock with the neon bar-logo over the door, and by hit, I mean hit. It started when a white F-150 pulled in for gas. I waved to the swarthy dude in the red bandana who climbed out and pulled the premium unleaded nozzle (out here in Peaceful, we trust people to pay after fueling up), and then went back to ogling photos of that actress starred in Tarantino's car-crash movie, Mary Elizabeth What's-Her-Face. I think Shawn was in our plywood excuse for a bathroom – my mind is still a little hazy on details, given the fudging horror that came next.
When I looked through the windows again, Ratty Dude was back, and he was hugging Red Bandana, like some kind of Brokeback thing right by the pumps. Except Red Bandana was flapping his arms, and Ratty Dude's white cowboy hat was moving side to side real fast. Then I saw that gallon of black liquid splashed down the side of the pickup, and something clicked in my brain.
"Shawn," I said, trying to yell with a throat squeezed tight as a cocktail straw. Somehow he heard me in the bathroom.
"Dude, I'm sorta busy."
"Uh, we got some kind of cannibal situation." Sweet Cordelia, save us.
Now a flesh-chewer ain't – sorry, isn't – your typical Martian, even at the late-late Quik-Snak. Shawn came running, still hiking up his jeans with one hand. Eyes never moving from the two outside, I picked up the cordless by the register. No dial tone. Took out my cell – no service. Crud. In exactly half a second I had the bat from under the counter in my grip, palms slippery on the black friction tape around the handle.
"Guess Mickey D's was closed," Shawn said, and broke into hysterical laughter that made my skin crawl.
Ratty Dude twisted Red Bandana around, and we could see him really tucking into the larger guy's neck. At that moment a third man appeared under the lights, sweating and sick. Later on, the radio said the last stage before full-on zombie mode was a high fever, the same as my Mama had before she went. The kind of fever makes you say strange things, like, Your Daddy ain't your Daddy. "When I'm president," the third man yelled, swaying. "I'm gonna have a cabinet just like America. It'll be fat! Mostly white! Dumb! An' not get anything done—"
A school bus came barreling out of the dark, plastering him to the grille before he got the chance to utter another syllable on the subject of his forthcoming administration, and plowed its merry way into the pumps. Shawn dove for that shutoff switch so fast you would've needed instant replay to catch the action. Solid idea, but he should have left it on. We might have barbequed the two-dozen motherfudgers onboard.
People on the radio talk about how they had no idea what they were facing. That is total bull. I played enough Resident Evil to know that swarming outside the Quik-Snak was a bunch of un-dead citizens with brains on their minds, even before I saw those blank eyes, the big bloodless wounds. I kicked myself for not watching the news this morning – dead people eating live people not something that just up and happens all at once. My heart beating harder than when we had to run the mile in gym, I thought of Cordelia, hoping she wasn't stuck in some diner of the damned.
Zombies shuffled toward the glass, lurching and frothing. It looked like both the church bingo night and the AA meeting had been hit – there was a lot of blue hair and two-day stubble. I gripped the bat, not totally sure what to do, as Shawn started that loony-tunes laughter again.
"What's going on?"
We turned. Marty Covin in the flesh, or more specifically his blue-and-yellow checked sport coat over a wife-beater, lonely strands of hair running free over his balding head. He stared back with bored indifference, balloon hands jingling his car keys. He must have come through the back, from the service road.
"Zombies," Shawn said, giggles puffing his cheeks.
"It's not safe here," I told Marty. "We gotta leave."
My boss sighed long and loud like people do on TV and slapped one fist against the other. Through the windows the dead were reaching for us but he seemed not to notice, his attention focused on his pair of late-shift idiots. Every few days he would call me at home – he phoned everybody who worked at the Quik-Snak, not caring if we were sleeping or eating or at a funeral – to talk for almost an hour about his plans for the store, or detail how I had messed up. I think deep down he was lonely, but I was always too much of a wuss to just hang up. "I don't care about whatever's 'out there,'" he said. "I care about why the trash out back is –"
The windows behind us shattered. No pounding, no running: walk two tons of chunky citizens at a half-mile an hour into a pane of glass and it will give way. Shards in my hair, on my shoulders, crunching underfoot as I stumbled back against the register – Shawn leaping over the counter, way to help a buddy there – as Pete Lynn from the Dairy Queen with a missing eye lurched forward (silent, the un-dead are always silent, that's the creepiest part). I lifted the bat and took a swing that would have made Barry Bonds beam with pride. If only I had some of the man's steroids. The bat did nothing to ol' Pete except send him back a foot.
I ducked his freezing grip and jumped the counter in a single bound. Sprinted past Marty, who was standing at the head of the snacks aisle with this irate look on his face and a hand on his puffy stomach.
Shawn screamed. Pale in the cold light of the beer cooler his Mama loomed over him in her bingo best, a tidal wave in a pink floral dress, thin mouth yawning wide. The drool on his chin said Shawn's mind had temporarily bought a one-way ticket to Crazyville.
I grabbed him by the
collar – it stretched and almost tore in my grip – and dragged him out the back door past the
bathroom. Covin screamed, and I glanced back. Much as I hated the man, I
hoped he was dead before they did that… that… thing to him.
* * *
My car was a piece-of-junk sedan that probably deserved to be in a museum somewhere. Still, I take good care of my things, and it started on the first try. I kept expecting the un-dead to shuffle their way out the back but nothing happened – shadows danced on the slice of hallway we could see through the open door, there was the crash of an aisle toppling over, and that was it. Those motherfudgers were likely planning to Geronimo us at the soonest opportunity, so I slammed the gas – caring not a whit as my duct-taped rear bumper knocked a divot in the side of Covin's secondhand BMW parked beside us – and spun the car in a wide arc around the Quik-Snak. Shawn thumped around in his seat like a bag of nails.
"Snap out of it," I told him, and leaning over started punching him in the shoulder. "Unless you want me using you as Z-boy bait."
We followed our headlights around the building, and as I readied to boom down the state road, I glanced in the rearview mirror. My jaw dropped – I mean further than it had already.
The un-dead (those not stuffing their cheeks with my boss) had lined up neat as you please in a line heading to the counter, anything they could grab diapers, milk, a six-pack of Iron City, Covin's head – under their arms like they were ready to slap their money down. They stood, waiting patiently in front of that empty register, and I guessed on some level even the fresh ones already missed living, or at least shopping. For all I know every single one of those twenty-four zombies is still standing right now under those fluorescents, the cans of tomato sauce and the cartons of cola in their cold arms gathering dust. It's a hard thing to break, routine.
I hit the gas. There were a few shuffling in the road, throwing scarecrow shadows in the moonlight, and none blinked or flinched as I pulled a tire-screeching Steve McQueen around each. Maybe two miles further on we almost hit a jeep stopped across both lanes – the hood was up, a pale un-dead in overalls had his one remaining arm on the engine – and I had to bounce onto the shoulder. "Gosh darn!" I yelled.
Shawn jerked his head around as if awakening.
We made the Tastee in record time, and at first I thought we were too late: the parking lot had filled with swaying, silent dead. I almost burst into tears of rage right there, thinking about Cordelia always filling my coffee cup even when I didn't ask, her saying "You want anything else?" like she meant it.
Heck, I almost let slip a doozy of a curse word right there. Then I noticed how the zombies had pressed themselves against the bright glass, wanting something inside yet lacking the ability to open doors.
I steered around the side of the diner, swiping a few motherfudgers on the way (the tall one in glasses could have been my second-grade teacher, but he bounced away into the dark too fast). The employee lot stood empty for the moment, and I bolted out my door without turning off the engine, pulling a muttering Shawn across the seats by his arm.
Halfway to the back
door and a loud boom almost blew my eardrums onto my shoulders. A hole of light
punched above the brass knob – what could have been a swarm of bees
buzzed past my head. You don't grow up in Peaceful without knowing what
man's other best friend, Mr. 12 gauge, sounds like. I pulled
Shawn to the dirt, hollering,
The pause inside went on far too long. Any moment the un-dead out front would add things up and come sniffing around. Someone moved on the other side of the door. "Who there?" It sounded like that hairy cook with the knobby wrists, Blaine or whatever.
"Max and Shawn from the Quik-Snak. Let us in now."
A longer pause. To our left, gravel rattled in the dark. We were maybe seconds from becoming an appetizer. The voice behind the door shook with fright. "Prove it."
"My bro Ricky slept with your sister," Shawn called.
The next shotgun blast almost destroyed the door and our heads. However many shells he had left, it wouldn't be enough when the crowd out front finally broke in. And then the voice of an angel – my angel – rang out:
"Will you stop
it already? Sheesh."
The back door shuddered open, loose wood clanking onto the step. There, illuminated by white light, Cordelia stood in a work uniform splattered with something red that definitely wasn't ketchup, hair in her eyes and a half-empty coffee pot in her hand. She made a stained diner uniform look good.
"Oh, man, you're okay." I scrambled to my feet, the first smile in what felt like a million years splitting my face. "Oh, I was so totally worried."
Cordelia squinted. "Who the almighty heck are you?"
It must have been the shock, I'm sure. Screws your memory something fierce.
Crowded into the narrow hallway off the kitchen, Blaine in sopping-red cook's whites holding that shotgun in roughly our direction, Cordelia slammed and bolted what was left of the door. She smelled of bubble gum and tangy sweat – smelled like life. I wanted to bury my face in her neck, except at that moment the diner's windows blew inwards. The music of glass crushed underfoot as our un-dead friends and neighbors decided that dinner was served.
"Oh, that's it," Blaine said, casual like the grill just caught fire, and stalked away, shotgun held high.
"Stupid motherfudger," I said.
Cordelia cocked her head at me. "Why not just let out a good ol' fashioned 'mo—'"
"Mama always told me not to curse."
"Okay, Forrest Gump."
We waited. From behind us came the whisper of nails on wood as zombies reached the back door. The first shotgun blast rattled the stacks of plates in the sink, followed by a gurgling scream... then silence. Our feet rooted to the floor. Thinking back this might have been a perfect moment to slip her hand in mine, but I was still a little burned by that Gump comment.
They filed into the room, slowly, staring somewhere over our shoulders with those marble eyes: Miss Wally who played the organ on Sundays and Artie Skinner who always pressed you to buy cords you didn't need at the Best Buy in Sandy Junction, Doctor Kim who stitched that cut on my hand in fifth grade and little Wally still holding his BB pistol. And dozens more, smelling like a piece of food left under the fridge but stronger, making my nostrils burn.
Yet my heart was calm. I think my brain already had its hat on and the lights turned off, ready to head out the door. They came for us, hands outstretched, clotted nails ready to sink in, and then Cordelia's shaking hand tipped the coffee pot, spilling two cups of decaffeinated on the tile and my sneakers.
The zombies stopped. Tilted their heads to watch the pot. Fascination flickered in their eyes like weak bulbs. It made me think about them lined up at the Quik-Snak.
"Do it again," I told her.
She did, mindlessly. The un-dead finally made a noise, like the wind on autumn leaves. Dull feet shuffled back a step.
"Shawn." I put a hand on his shoulder. "Get over to the grill. Make eggs."
"Doesn't matter, I think." Even as he moved I picked up a carton of orange juice on the counter and poured it slowly on the floor.
"Sit down people," I called out to them. "Or you ain't – aren't – getting served." And stood there, waiting to see if we would live through the next five minutes.
With another sigh, the great un-dead exodus to the booths began.
That's how we ended up here in the Tastee, the only beating hearts for a hundred miles. Piles of eggs scrambled, over-easy, fried, poached and boiled sit on every table, beside whole piles of bacon, oceans of grits. The zombies eat none of it – I guess they prefer their food a little more raw.
As long as the three of us keep going through the motions of cooking and serving, they will sit and wait to be served. If we try and stop, they start rising out their seats. So we cook, work, and drink Coke by the crate to stay awake. The radio by the dishwasher says the Army is maybe a day away, and I hope we can hold on until they arrive. Cordelia has ice packs taped to her aching wrists. She likes the sniper rifle in Halo, and her favorite actor is Bruce Campbell, too. If we escape from this alive she wants to watch Evil Dead again, to see how it holds up against real life. We've finally had time to talk.