Until I'm well enough to write, here's another section of my still-waiting-to-be-completed zombie novel:
James Robert Smith
Two years after the Thing
(If Only They'd Listened to the Mailman):
Everyone liked to gather in downtown Sparta whenever one of the real barbers was present to cut hair. Everyone had someone who could cut or even style hair if push came to shove, but there were about a dozen actual barbers and educated hair dressers in the town, and when they volunteered to cut and do, the crowds were quite large. It had also become a tradition as everyone waited patiently in line to discuss not the mundane affairs of daily life, but to dwell on The Thing. No one seemed disturbed by this fascination with the event, and no one complained, as it was seen as a kind of catharsis, a shedding of what might otherwise have become a poison.
There were always the usual theories. It was a government biological weapon gone wild. However, some of Sparta’s new citizens had been actively involved in such parts of the government, and they’d never heard of such a thing. It was widely not believed, but the topic came up from time to time. Another possibility that held more sway with the locals was that Mankind had just poured so much poison into the sky and into the rivers, and onto the earth that some kind of saturation point had been reached. And it was the combinations of all of these poisons that had ended up causing the dead to walk, and to devour the living. However, some would often point out, only humans seemed to have been affected. No one had ever seen a dog rise from the dead. Or an eagle. Or a trout. Or a rattlesnake. It was confined solely to human beings.
Then, of course, there were the religious theories. Some claimed that it was right there in the Bible, and they would quote from this or that portion of the Revelations. However, most of those people had fled Sparta to points downhill, so one rarely heard those tales any longer. But it was brought up from time to time before being quickly dismissed by most of those present, waiting to have their hair cut or styled.
None of the doctors in town could say just why it had happened. They’d all been wondering about it since the phenomenon had first occurred two years before and the effects of it had all but wiped civilization off the maps of Earth. Why did the brains reawaken? No doctor could say. Why did the newly awakened dead eat the flesh of the living? No physician could do more than guess. Why didn’t they rot like normal tissue? Not one scientist had come up with a good answer for that one. How did they continue to move when they rarely seemed to take in anything of sustenance? If anyone had such an answer, no one had yet heard it.
And, because almost everything involved in The Thing was such an annoying puzzle, everyone liked to discuss it in the light of day and surrounded by so many other good people who were willing to wait so patiently for this thing that they missed so much: a good haircut.
One of the newest arrivals in Sparta was Ben Guess. He was a Cherokee/Crow mix who had formerly lived in Cherokee, North Carolina, working as a letter carrier, having had one of the few city routes there. He’d had a pretty good life before The Thing had overtaken them all. For various reasons, the town of Cherokee had been especially hard hit. At the time, the place had been filled with infected tourists and the situation had gotten out of hand really fast. Add to that the fact that Cherokee sat in a kind of bowl at the base of the mountains, and that many of the nearby dead headed in that direction in that strange twilight memory that seemed to possess all zombies, and it just was not a good place to be. The town had emptied out pretty fast, with those who could make it fleeing to all places imaginable, and those who could not ending up either as zombie chow, or shambling endlessly with them.
But Ben had a theory of his own. It was not a theory lifted from the Book of Revelation, or even in the Old Testament itself, although he counted himself as a good Baptist. No, Ben knew other legends from other times told by other people than those who’d been swayed by that obscure Middle Eastern tribe. Guess enjoyed telling a good story, and so he was willing one day, waiting his turn in line, to tell it. All eyes were soon on him as he began to talk, his deep voice booming out in that sing-song dialect typical of so many Native Americans. As a letter carrier, he had heard stories from other letter carriers in other towns. As The Thing had spread across the country, before his fellow workers stopped doing their jobs (the USPS was one of the last government agencies to cease operations), he listened to the rumors that were spreading from station to station. Now, he was ready to repeat these tales. He spoke, and everyone who was there listened:
Wally Jackson woke up on a Thursday in late August. For the third night in a row he’d had the most disturbing visions. At first, he brushed it off as a nightmare. The second morning after he feared that it might have something to do with the medication he’d been prescribed for the persistent pain in his left knee which was worse for the wear of delivering mail for the Postal Service for more than thirty years. After the third night, however, he came to another conclusion.
The dream was a vision. It was a message. He sat up in bed, his tanned and muscled legs bracing against the carpeted floor. His wife barely stirred. Should he act on the message?
Then he sat up, seemed to hear something from far away, trying to make sure if he’d heard it just right. And quickly, his eyes glazed over, he blinked, and it was as if he’d never dreamed at all.
“Time is it?” April, his wife, muttered. She had retired two months ago from her job as a county clerk and had been badgering Wally to do the same. He had more than enough time in to claim the decent Civil Servants pension Ronald Reagan had tried in vain to steal from the letter carriers, having had to settle for ruining it only for those hired after 1982.
“It’s 6:00 a.m.,” he told her. “The alarm hasn’t gone off yet. I just woke up on my own.” He reached to the alarm clock on his bedside table and switched alarm to ‘off’. “I’m just going to get dressed, make some coffee and bagels and head on to work,” he told her.
“’kay,” she replied. And rolled over, snuggled into the cool sheets, and was quickly asleep again.
Wally did exactly as he’d told his wife. He shaved his fifty-four year-old face, his whiskers slightly tinged in gray these days, but looking all right for a man of his years. (If it just weren’t for the bum knee, he figured.) He brushed his teeth, flossed, and gargled with an antiseptic mouthwash that he hated. Then he put on his postal uniform—short-sleeved shirt and short pants, because he knew it was going to be a typical North Carolina summer day.
That was okay with him, though. Because he was headed into his long weekend and was going to have Friday through Sunday off. He’d probably go fishing. And he was seriously thinking of setting a retirement date on the calendar to make April happy. Maybe they’d fly to Bar Harbor to celebrate.
Drinking his coffee, munching on bagels with soft cream cheese, something seemed to be bothering him. What was it? He sat and pondered between bites of bagels and sips of hot coffee. He couldn’t remember. But there was something eating at the back of his mind. His golf clubs? Nope, they were all in order. He’d cleaned them three days before. Was it his fishing tackle? Not that, either. He hadn’t loaned that stuff out in ages and had even restocked the tackle box earlier in the month. His yard work? The lawn looked like it had been groomed with a pocket comb.
Shit, he decided. He’d figure it all out later. On his way out the door, he made a brief stop at the coat closet beside the front door and reached for the shoe box hidden on the top shelf. Gathering up what he needed, that glassy look on his face again, he headed out to work, ducking very quickly into the bedroom to give April a peck on the cheek. “Later,” he told her.
He got to work almost an hour early and just wandered around the station, going from the break room the floor, then out to the loading dock. Wally chatted with a few of the other carriers and one of the clerks. But most of them were pretty busy and he didn’t want to get in the way. So he just sat and tried to recall what was bothering him, itching at the back of his brain that way. Although he couldn’t figure it out, he went to his mailbag and checked it and rechecked it to make sure everything was in order.
At 8:00 am he was at his case, sticking the mail into the slots. Some of the other carriers kidded Wally about his route. Although he had thirty years seniority, he insisted on keeping the same route he’d had for the past fifteen years. It was a classic park and loop route and he walked about seven miles a day, five days a week. Sometimes six days a week if he came in to work a day of overtime, which he would do occasionally as a favor to his current supervisor who, despite all odds, was a decent guy. Wally could count the well-intentioned management people he’d met in his thirty years of service on one hand. The jobs of supervisor and manager seemed to attract a rather sadistic crowd, as a rule.
The station was generally a happy place of late, and it was filled with the sounds of letter carriers and wandering clerks yelling and joking to one another. The typical stuff. Making fun of politicians, yammering about baseball scores, old TV shows, current movies. Only when each carrier got ready to pull down his route and hit the street did the conversations slowly begin to fade. And soon Wally was walking out the door pushing a gurney full of mail to his postal vehicle, his bag and its contents stored safely in a white tub.
Once he had his stuff stashed in the LLV, he returned the gurney to the station, agreed to meet two other carriers for lunch at a Wendy’s restaurant, and went back to head out to his route. The day was warm, but the humidity was down and he was glad for that, at least. Since the weather was going so well—there were even passing clouds hiding the glaring sun from time to time, keeping the temperatures below 90—he cast about trying to recall what the heck could be bothering him.
He made his first stop, parked his LLV, gathered up the mail for the initial loop and began walking. Wally really liked this neighborhood. It was a cut or two above what he could ever have afforded. The homes were large—on the order of 4,000 to 5,000 square feet. The lawns, too, were generally huge and well manicured, usually worked by hired hands. And the homeowners were pretty friendly, as a rule, and liked Wally. At Christmas time he could expect cash gifts totaling $3,000. One year he’d cleared $4,000. That first loop went without a hitch, and he figured he’d have plenty of time to spare that day, maybe even enough to linger at lunch.
On the second loop, though, those feelings of anxiety hit him again. What was it? This was really starting to piss him off! He glared into the sky, looking up at passing clouds and patches of blue. He smelled the air, scenting honeysuckle on the wind. Listening, he heard the first dog bark of the day. From the sound of it, he was sure that it was Mrs. Jarmon’s brown Lab. Tucker, the dog’s name was. That was it.
Wally’s eyes went dark. It was all coming back to him. Not a dream. A message.
Shouldering his bag, Wally headed off down the street. He even took the mail with him. There was no reason he shouldn’t deliver all of the mail before he got to Mrs. Jarmon’s house. Some people were in their yards. Captain Hastings, retired from the Air Force, waved to him from his garage. “Hello, Wally,” he yelled. Wally waved back to him. The Dawkins girl—a senior high cheerleader at Latin Day School—was walking from the garage to the back yard, headed to their swimming pool and dressed in a day-glow bikini. Normally he would have stared at her shapely form, but today he did not. He had something to do. Once he got to Mrs. Jarmon’s place.
And then, he was there. He stood in the yard for just a moment, went to the letterbox attached to the solid oaken door at the front of the sprawling ranch house. Already, he could hear Tucker barking at him. The big dog would be propped against the chain link on the left side of the house, waiting for him to walk past as he headed over to the Goldman house. But Wally hadn’t brought the mail for the Dr. and Mrs. Goldman today. He’d left it in his LLV. He wasn’t going to deliver any more mail today. He had something far more important to do.
With the dog raising quite a fuss—as he did every single day when Wally delivered the mail—Jackson proceeded to walk to the other side of the yard. Once there, instead of going over to the Goldman mailbox, he stopped at the fence that hemmed Tucker into the half-acre back yard. The seventy pounds of pure-bred Labrador was propped against he fence, raging at the mailman he’d seen walk past almost every week for the previous six years of his young life. The dog slobbered and snarled and all but roared.
Wally stood for just a moment, and then walked in closer to the fence. He was eye to eye with Tucker, with only the straining chain link between them. Now, he could recall some of the details. The face that he saw on the dog was not Tucker. No, it was something else. It was something that had come and mocked him for three nights running. Looking, he could see that Tucker was gone. Someone else was there in the dog’s head, peering back at the letter carrier. The ears were tall and erect. The snout was long and pointed. A tongue drooped out of those toothy jaws in a jaunty, laughing way. HAHA, it said. EVERYTHING I’VE TOLD YOU THE PAST THREE NIGHTS WILL COME TO PASS! HAHA! THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO!
And, carefully, Wally reached into his mailbag and drew out the .38 revolver. He kept it cleaned and oiled, but it hadn’t been out of its shoebox hiding place in weeks. Not since the last time he’d cleaned it. He and April had even talked about getting rid of it. They didn’t really want it. Wally held the gun in his hand, walked up close to the fence, aimed the pistol at the raging dog, and pulled the trigger.
The roar of the explosion brought Mrs. Jarmon out of the front door of her house. She took one look at Wally as he stood there, still pointing the pistol at Tucker, who lay dead and bloody on the grass, and she screamed. She was still screaming when Wally jogged off, down the street, heading for the next home that harbored a dog.
At the Wilcox house he shot their malamute, a big, tame dog who rarely barked at all. At the Donaldsons he put a bullet into the brain of the beagle who lived there and which was phenomenally gentle. At the Monroe’s stucco mansion, he found the decrepit old redbone lying at the front door where it often lifted its snout to lick his hand and rap its tail a time or two each day. He killed the old dog and was reloading when the police car arrived. Wally did not seem to hear the officers shouting at him to drop his weapon, and so when he turned toward them, the gun still gripped in his right hand, they shot him down.
When the medics arrived, they tried to talk to Wally Jackson as they raced his rapidly dying form to the hospital. One of the medics, a kid named Charles Liston, was leaning in close to Wally and telling him to hang on, and he heard the mailman’s last words.
“It was laughing at us,” he whispered. “The coyote was laughing at us.”
The crowd in the room sat silently. This was something new. Something none of them had ever heard before. Finally, someone spoke.
“What did he mean—the coyote was laughing at us?”
Ben smiled and looked that the speaker, a young blonde kid about nineteen and terribly in need of having his wild, sandy hair cut back. “Coyote is kind of like a god to some Indians,” he said. “Some call him The Trickster. He likes to fuck around with human beings.”
“So, you’re saying this Coyote guy started The Thing?” This time it was an older woman, black hair gone almost completely to gray, who posed the question.
“It could be,” Ben answered. “I heard this a lot in the days leading up to The Thing. Stories about mailmen going bats and shooting dogs. I heard several stories like that, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.” He shook his head and looked around at the three dozen or so people gathered in the room. One of them was Mr. Killen, a council member. He hoped he hadn’t gotten himself into any trouble. He doubted it, but you never knew.
“You know, I remember hearing about a mailman going wacko and shooting at dogs. In Atlanta!” A girl with a thick north Georgia accent said it.
“Me, too,” another woman said. “In St. Louis. About a month before everything fell apart there. And we all know how bad the dogs have gotten. They’re almost as bad as the zombies!”
People began to talk then, in little groups. Some of them were laughing, but most were not. “Well, anyway,” Ben said, “it was just something that I heard around the station not long before Cherokee shut down. The guy I was just talking about lived in Charlotte, here in North Carolina. And that place, from what I hear, is a dead zone. Nobody wants to go anywhere near it. At least, near what’s left of it. I think we all saw most of it go up in a big fire about six months back.”
“Coyote,” he heard someone say. “I’m going to go to the library and look that feller up. Might be something to it. Lord knows we’ve had more than enough trouble out of the dogs. If only we’d known what was going to happen, we could have put most of them down before it was too late.”
“Too late,” Ben said. “You’ve got that part right. I’ve heard it said that the only thing that outnumbers dogs anymore are zombies. And dogs are smarter.”
“Damn,” a youth repeated. “Coyote. It almost makes sense.”
“As much as anything else.”
Ben smiled and went silent, waiting for his haircut.