The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Forty: Public Opinion
It's amazing to think of the things we used to talk about: the latest celebrity gossip, what cars looked like the best bang for you buck, what brainless teen pop star had been caught plowing a 50-year-old business tycoon. This crap filled our days, not to mention countless message board and Facebook postings.
Now, those celebrities were dead, the cars rusting on the highway, the pop stars and business tycoons shambling through the streets, looking for their next throat to gnaw on.
And the talk of the Boulder, Colorado? Just what the fuck Jason Stradd was on when he announced his plan to dispatch the survivors of The Graveyard to retake the nation in his name. Whatever it was, it was some potent shit.
Michael Rayanson listened to the talk of the town as he walked the streets that evening. Most of the people were scared, but plenty were eager to be deployed. He could understand the latter: losing your home and life to a mindless corpse, knowing you could never get it back because they outnumbered you a million to one on a good day was tough to cope with. Revenge, getting the chance to strike back and reclaim what was yours was a tempting offer. Which did nothing to change the fact that it was pure, uncut lunacy.
"How could he do this?" asked one woman, who looked on the verge of tears. "We came here to find a safe place to live, and now he wants to send us back out into that hell?"
"The guy's insane, plain and simple," said an older man, leaning on an oaken cane. "You ever hear some of his anti-government bullshit? He once said the whole zombie plague was an experiment gone wrong, that they just let this happen to see how effective their creation was. He's got this fantasy of saving us from the 'evils' of America, and now he's gonna make it happen."
A young man with a crew cut wandered by, and stopped when he heard the old man's comments. "Stradd's a hero, you old bastard! He saved us all, and now it's time for us to earn our keep."
The old man just laughed. "What the hell do you know, punk? How many zombies did you kill before you got here? I fought for my life from North Dakota because I heard that loon's promise of safety and security. I was better off where I was."
Stradd's supporter took a step toward the old man. In his right hand he carried a nightstick, and he held it firmly. "I fought plenty, and if Stradd tells us to go out and fight some more, I'm gonna. This is our fucking country and we need to take it back."
"And just what good can we do?" asked the woman. "There's only a few thousand of us here. Most of us came here with just the clothes on our back. Does he expect us to retake a nation with our bare hands?"
"You will if he tells you to," said the young man. "Jason Stradd is the leader of Boulder, and we do what he tells us, end of story. You don't like it, the door's that way."
The old man took a step toward the younger one. "Son, you're gonna watch how you talk to my daughter, right goddamn now. And while you're at it, you're gonna get the hell out of here."
The young man raised the nightstick so the other two could see it, spinning it casually with his hand but with menace in his eyes. "You just give me an order, pops?"
In the next moment the would-be Marine found himself flying backward and landing hard on the ground, the air knocked out of his lungs and a foot planted firmly on his chest. Michael stood above him, holding the nightstick. "Little boys should watch how they talk to their elders. Just common courtesy."
The aggressor in this little dispute tried to get up, but Michael forced him back down with ease, placing the end of the police-issue baton between his eyes. "Here's how this works, kid. You get your carcass out of here, right quick. I keep this, and if I see you back here, I'll be sure to return it you, rectally. Clear?"
The young man glared at Michael, but it was clear he knew when he was beaten. He nodded quickly. Michael released him, and he scrambled to his feet and ran off, casting furtive looks over his shoulder as he went. Michael looked back to the old man and his daughter. "Someone pass a law against free speech while I was on the can?"
The old man laughed and shook his head. "That'd almost be better, 'cause it'd imply there was some law around here. Naw, that there was just a difference of opinion. Only problem is, most people aren't stopping at opinions about Stadd's little U.S. tour."
"There's been fighting all over since his speech," said his daughter. "People are taking sides, either for or against, and a lot of the ones for are acting like we're the enemy now. It's like, if you're not with Stradd you're no better than the zombies."
"I've heard rumors that they're gonna exile anyone not on board with Stradd," said the old man, pausing to spit at the ground. "I don't doubt he'd do it, either. The man's in love with himself. Like he's the only one that can save this country."
Michael shook his head. "Nothing left to save," he said. "Doesn't matter who's running the show, but guys like Stradd, all they care about is ends, not means. He'll kill all of us if it means his plan comes through."
The two people looked to each other, then back to Michael. "I heard some others, they were talking about leaving Boulder," said the woman. "There's gotta be other cities we can clear out, maybe a small town. It's not worth staying if we have to deal with punks like that."
Michael looked around him, eyeing anyone within shouting distance. He lowered his voice so only the two before him could hear. "Just how many people are we talking about?"
The old man glanced to the side. "It's not a small number. From what I hear, half, maybe even two-thirds of the people here feel like Stradd's gone around the bend."
Michael nodded to himself, then handed the nightstick back to the woman. "That little piece of shit comes back, pretend to faint, then crack his kneecaps with this. Make sure he doesn't walk again."
The two nodded, and Michael left for home, smiling to himself. "Half or two-thirds, huh? Not a bad start."
Much of the portion of Boulder which Jason Stradd and his forces had liberated was apartment buildings and businesses. So far, seven apartment buildings had been cleaned out, and were now occupied by the thousands of refugees that had traveled across The Graveyard. Thanks to the generators Stradd and his people had set up, the residents had electricity at night, though some of the luxuries like the washing machines in the basement and the televisions remained off to conserve power.
Armed guards stood outside the buildings, a last line of defense in case the zombies got into the city. Being in a building of any kind was suicide when the undead were around. Michael had seen that more than once: survivors would hole up in there, thinking that with limited entrances, they could effectively hold off the undead forever, that the ghouls would eventually give up and leave, off to search for easier prey. What they never once considered, what no one ever even thought of, was that zombies didn't get bored, or tired, or sick of throwing themselves against barriers. As long as they could smell fresh meat, they would wait until the end of time.
This knowledge wasn't lost on Michael as he made his way up the twelve flights of stairs to the apartment he shared with the others. If the worst happened, they'd have to get out of this place in a hurry. Otherwise, they'd be trapped in a tower of death, with no way out except a long fight or a short flight.
He entered to find Ron Birn and Jake Marlow in the living room, reading. Ron had an old paperback, while Jake leafed through a newspaper published a month ago. With all the time they had spent on the road, the news was probably new to the former journalist. Sara Kern, Jake's wife, was on the balcony, watching the stars. Steve Rankin, a police officer from Martha's Vineyard who had joined the team after their so-called safe haven had been wiped out, worked in the kitchen alongside Kaitlin Comeau and Addie Mayer. Addie was another newcomer, having decided that shacking up with the only people still expecting the worst made the most sense.
Ron looked up as his friend entered. "So how are things out in the safest city in the world?"
Michael smirked. "I think we may have lost that title," he said. "Things are getting tense out there. I had to stop some punk from wailing on an old guy and his daughter. Seems they had the audacity to speak their minds."
Sara walked in from the balcony. "It's like the political debates we used to cover before all this happened."
"Yeah, except people didn't come armed to those," Michael replied.
"Not always," she said.
"Any chance this will all die down and Stradd will move on to some new lunacy?" asked Jake.
Both Ron and Michael, the de facto leaders of the group, shook their heads. "No, this isn't just some difference of opinion," said Ron. "Stradd's making an army, one that just so happens to consist of all the thugs, punks and racist shitheads in this city. Anyone not on board isn't just gonna get a tongue-lashing. Some'll probably get fed to the zombies to teach the others a lesson. Nothing guarantees loyalty like fear. Something's gotta be done before we all find ourselves either conscripted or disposed of."
"But the problem is, too many of these clowns are following Stradd out of loyalty," said Sara. "Anyone makes a move against him, they'll have an army to deal with, and there's no guarantee that the others will back that play. We try something, we could find ourselves alone real easily."
Steve came out from the kitchen, casually cleaning a knife. Though far from the toughest hombre in the group, he had been a cop in his former life, which meant he was the wrong guy to underestimate. He was learning, little by little, what it took to survive in The Graveyard. "Any chance we could rally the troops in secret? Maybe get everyone ready when the time comes?"
Ron shrugged, clearly not liking the idea. "Stradd's guys may be Grade A assholes, but they ain't stupid. And a lot of them look like they used to be military. They may see something like this before it even happens."
"So then what? We hope his utter psychosis shifts enough to the other side?" asked Jake.
Before anyone could respond, a voice sounded through the night over a loudspeaker. "All residents of Boulder are to report to the auditorium within the next twenty minutes. Jason Stradd wishes to address the populace. I repeat, all residents of Boulder are to report to the auditorium in twenty minutes."
Ron got to his feet, cracking his old, weathered joints. "We were better off on the damn island."
Jason and Daniel, brothers bound together even with the death of one, wandered the sewer tunnels that ran beneath Boulder. The two had snuck in days ago, eager to see what the city offered, but not quite so eager to join the others. Jason was the kind of person who could blend in with any crowd, but Daniel, well, he tended to stick out.
Might have had something to do with the fact he was dead. Dead, but still in possession of his mind, making him a rarity in The Graveyard. For some time, Daniel had been communication with the undead, feeling what they were feeling, and he knew that something was wrong. Something had the zombies scared, and if that was true, and Jason had no reason to doubt his brother, it was bad news for the living.
"OK, so we know they're rounding up the undead en masse, but for what?" asked Jason.
"Nothing….good," replied Daniel, forcing words out of a body that had long since ceased to function. How he could still think was something his brother pondered often, but right now, they had bigger things to worry about.
The two had spent the last few days since they snuck into the city exploring the sewer system, which had been converted into storage tunnels. Thus far, they had only found food, clothes and other provisions, but it wasn't Stradd's shopping list they were interested in. When they arrived, they also saw a horde of undead being herded into the city. The ghouls were kept in pens, and so far, there was no indication what they were going to be used for.
The brothers moved carefully down the tunnels. Jason wore a guard's uniform, and his undead brother was chained up, to keep up the ruse that he was just another prisoner. The moans of the undead filled the tunnels, a sound they had depressingly grown accustomed to, but mixed in was a new sound: humans.
Jason edged to the corner, peering around to find the source of the living sounds. What he saw shocked him to the core.
In a pen forged of razor wire were dozens of humans, around forty in total. They cried out to the guards, begging for help.
"You can't do this to us! We came here to be safe!" cried one man.
One of the guards sneered and jabbed at the man's ribs with his nightstick. "Maybe you should have thought of that before you committed treason," he growled.
The man doubled over, trying to catch his breath. "All he did was talk about holding elections," said a woman, helping the man up.
"In Boulder, that's treason," said the guard. "Here, Jason Stradd is the law, and that bullshit democracy is a thing of the past. After all, where were your leaders when The Great Exhumation happened, huh?"
"Big talk," said the man. "But where was your brave leader when the dead started walking? Hiding in his bunker like a scared rabbit!" shouted a teen.
The guard's face went red. "That's fucking it!" he yelled. He gestured to two other guards. "Take all three of these little shits and prep them for tonight!"The three blanched at the news. They knew exactly what the guards were talking about. They looked around, but quickly found their fellow prisoners backing away. The guards unlocked the door and entered, grabbing the screaming prisoners and dragging them out. Jason watched this happen, gripping the pistol he had 'appropriated' with the uniform. He was about to move on the guards when he felt his brother's rotted hand grab him.
"Won't help…." he growled. "You'll just…die….nothing good….comes from that."
"We need to do something," Jason said, trying to keep the prisoners in view as they were led away.
"We will….when we can win…." said Daniel. "Listen….I have…a plan."
The residents of Boulder assembled in the auditorium, but the mood this time was far different. The crowd was clearly divided, with those supporting Stradd's announcement on one side, many clutching knives and clubs. Michael and the others noticed the guards made no move to disarm them, despite the rule that only they were supposed to have weapons. On the other side were those against the idea, but unlike the supporters, they looked defeated, despite the fact they outnumbered their opponents three to one. There was something to be said for the power of fear.
Michael looked around, sizing up the guards assembled on the stage and around the crowd. "This could get ugly if we make our move now," he said to Ron.
The older man nodded. "I was hoping a public takeover might get the crowd to back us, but they look they've all had their spines removed. We try something, they're likely to stand and watch while we get skinned alive."
Just then Stradd took the stage. The response was immediate. One side of the room erupted into cheers, while the other was quiet, and only a soft applause was heard. The guards took note, and some moved to that side, in case some of the detractors decided to make their opinions known. In front of the stage, the walled-off area remained, but more guards surrounded it. Whatever its purpose, Michael thought they'd learn it tonight.
Stradd raised his hands for quiet, and after a minute, the cheers and applause subsided. The leader of Boulder smiled, like a proud parent about to bestow a great gift to his children. Michael saw many gripping their weapons, as if at any minute he might order them out into The Graveyard. He doubted that many would find fault in the command.
"My friends, my brothers and sisters, it's great to see you again," he shouted to the assembled crowd. "We stand on the threshold of a new nation, one which you will build, one which we will lead together!"
One half of the crowd exploded into cheers, while the other looked on, some shaking their heads and others whispering to each other. Stradd didn't seem to notice, or if he did, he just didn't give a damn. "I know that when the time comes, you will make me proud. But before we can build a new world for ourselves and our children, we must be united in our cause, standing together, strong and sure. The old America didn't stand for traitors, and neither shall we!"
Stradd beckoned, and Michael saw a sight that nearly sent him flying onto the stage. A contingent of guards arrived, dragging three helpless people, chained and gagged. They were beaten, bruised and broken. Stradd gestured to them. "These people have been found guilty of the crime of treason!" he screamed, soaking his words with hatred. "They conspired against me, against all of you, to take what freedom we have worked and fought for, and make it their own little fiefdom! Will we let them get away with it?"The roars of the audience answered that question, and Michael looked to those clearly not on the Stradd bandwagon only to find a pack of cowed little children. Many had suddenly found their feet to be very interesting, while others looked off to the side. Only a few brave souls bared witness to the execution before them.
Stradd gestured, and the guards threw them into the penned-off area below the stage. They grabbed the wire mesh that caged them and begged for mercy, offered anything they had and several things they didn't to be set free. Stradd only smirked and signaled to the guards, who then dragged in a new set of captives, only this group didn't beg, didn't plead, didn't say a word as they were pushed into the cage with the others.
They only moaned.
And the crowd roared its approval.