A Chapter from
THE LIVING END: A ZOMBIE NOVEL (with Dogs)
by James Robert Smith
Copyright 2009 by James R. Smith
Dr. Wein and Dr. Schiff exchanged a toast as they sat and rocked.
“Do you feel old?” Wein looked across at his associate.
Stu Schiff considered for a moment, raising the delicate glass to his nose and examining the scent of the scuppernong wine, recent vintage. He sipped. “Yes, I suppose I do,” he admitted. Although not much past forty, he’d experienced two years of almost indescribable hardship compared to his life before The Thing. “I think this last winter was rather harder on my joints than I thought it would be.” His brow knitted as he thought of things he’d seen in his yearlong struggle to get to Sparta. Unlike Dr. Wein, Stu Schiff was clean-shaven and his sandy hair was only now going to dark brown as he entered his forties.
“What do you think of this stuff about a standing army?”
“Bad news,” Schiff said. “It’s not really something we can afford. But, then, when has a standing army been something any nation can afford?”
Wein who’d been rocking slightly forward stopped dead in his chair, silence surrounding him as a slight breeze ran through his hair and even found its way through the tight darkness of his beard. “Nation? You think of this town as a nation?”
Dr. Schiff swallowed the remaining contents of his glass and poured it full again as he replied. “No. Of course not. It was just a remark. We’re no more a nation than that narrow-minded bunch of fanatics down in City of Ruth or one of those places.”
“But the way you said it…”
“Don’t read too much into everything I say. I’ll start thinking that you’re trying to muscle in on my territory.” In fact, Schiff was a Sociologist, but had some extensive training in psychology. Therefore, he’d been recruited to act—if not as a psychiatrist—then as a kind of advisor to anyone who seemed to be suffering from extreme emotional or mental stress. It was as if he was confidant to just about all of Sparta’s 3,000 and more folk. He was overworked, and truth be told, he was indeed feeling far older than he would ever admit to anyone. His joints ached and he found himself nodding off into deep sleep at the slightest opportunity.
“What do you think they’re saying about the two of us sitting here talking while the sun eases down and night comes on?” Wein raised his glass to hail three passing women who had been working in the nearby cornfield. He recognized all three of them—they were barracks girls who had been in Sparta for only a few months but were doing well.
“What would they say?”
“They might say—I don’t know—look at the two Jews. They’re probably conspiring.”
Schiff glared at his companion. “Do one another no harm,” he said. “We were all in on that. You know this place isn’t like some of the others. Don’t even talk like that. It isn’t healthy.”
“They’re probably talking like that in City of Ruth.”
Schiff nodded. “Most likely.”
“Speaking of Jews, though, any news from The Stetl?”
The sun was now gone from the horizon. From their vantage point on the wide porch of Schiff’s house, they had a grand view of the peaks to the north of town. High mountains fading off into the grand valley beyond and then up again into Virginia. They could see the dark pyramid of Mount Rogers, the highest point in the state-formerly-known-as-Virginia. It dominated the skyline in that direction. The night was cooling rapidly. It felt good.
“I don’t think we’ve had a signal from The Stetl in…oh, three weeks.”
“Wonder what’s going on there.” Wein had been the first to speak with the folk in that community. The fellows who monitored the short wave had heard the voices on that band early in Sparta’s confederation, but they hadn’t understood them. Finally, one of the fellows had recognized it as Yiddish and asked Wein to translate and respond. Turned out that an almost exclusively Jewish community had gathered at an old resort in the Catskills Mountains, pouring out of various cities and towns and trying to piece together a safe place. They’d had their troubles.
“I wish I could tell you,” Schiff said. “Maybe their short wave radio is on the fritz.”
“Maybe they’re all dead.”
“We may never know,” Schiff replied. He swallowed another throatful of wine and tipped the bottle again into his glass. “Let’s talk about something less morbid, shall we?”
“Let’s not. I feel the momentum and I want to talk about some things.”
Schiff sighed, admitting defeat. Almost everyone wanted to unload on him. From out of the falling darkness, they heard a scream. “Ellen Jarman,” he said, staring into the growing shadows, seeing a few lantern lights glowing yellow from windows in the town around them.
“Poor Ellen,” Wein said.
Ellen Jarman sometimes stood in the center of the street. She would have been doing something or would have been going somewhere. Generally, it was something useful or something quite practical. She’d been a nurse, they knew, although she would have nothing to do with the practice, now. But once in a while—sometimes once a week or, if things were bad, several times a day—she would freeze in place and just scream. Usually, it was a single, piercing scream. Other times, she would scream again and again until her throat seemed raw from it. And then, whether or not anyone had arrived to comfort her, she would suddenly stop and continue doing what she’d been about before being overcome.
“She was in…what was it? An orphanage?”
“No. A maternity ward.” Schiff squinted his eyes and tried in vain to blot out the visions of what he’d drawn out of Ellen Jarman during those times when he’d tried to help her, to get her to purge herself of the things she’d experienced. “They…they broke in there. While she was alone. She tried to save them. Probably a dozen newborns.”
“Goddamn,” Wein whispered.
In the darkness, Ellen Jarman had stopped screaming. They hoped someone was comforting her. Well, they knew it, but hoped it was someone she knew and trusted.
“Well, you’re ahead of me," Wein said, lifting the almost-empty bottle. "Do you mind if I kill the rest of this bottle? I don’t feel like pouring any more drinks into this dinky glass you gave me, you selfish asswipe.”
Schiff smiled. “Go ahead. I have two more bottles in the house. Let’s get bleeding drunk.”
“Hell, yes. A lady from the south of town gave them to me for helping her son. He was having some real problems. No more Zoloft in this new world, you know. I’ve been able to talk him through some things.”
Wein was chugging down the contents of the bottle. He let the sweet wine slosh across his tongue, savoring the sugary-fruity flavor of it. His lips made an audible smacking sound. “She makes a good wine,’ he had to say.
For a few minutes the pair of them sat, chairs creaking against the wooden floor of the porch, the night all but hiding them, two shadows in the chilling air of evening. Out of the night there were no more screams, but they could hear voices drifting on the air, the sound of children playing, trying to wring a little more fun out of the faded day.
“What about this standing army, then?
“They want a hundred and fifty permanent men-at-arms.”
“They didn’t say ‘men-at-arms’, did they?” Schiff smiled in the dark.
“Yeah, I think someone said that. Killen? Not sure, right now.”
“Killen? Really? I figured he was through with that kind of thing.”
“What do you mean, ‘through’?”
The air was still now except for the rocking of the two chairs. Children were all in their homes. Voices were muffled by four walls. “You know as well as I do that he’s former military. Sure, he’s never confessed to just what he was in the real world, but he reeks of it. I can’t say what rank he was, but it was at least a Captain. Probably higher. For all I know, he was a fucking general.”
“Well, I never bugged him about it. All I know is that he’s against Sparta having anything like a regular army or police force. He thinks we should stick with rotating the job out with people the way it is. Everyone serving two or three weeks at a pop as a trooper.”
“Well, it’s all moot, now. After what that bastard from Ruth pulled. I just hope no one tries to kill the little weasel when he shows up again in a few weeks.”
“No. We discussed that. We’re going to confront him, and depending on what kind of reaction we get we may bar him from entering Sparta again. They’ll have to pick someone else to barter with us if he’s a hard-ass about it.” Dr. Wein stretched, felt his joints creak and his spine crackle with mild pain.
“What else? What kind of changes are we going to see?”
“Well, Roland Thompson is agitating for some kind of breastworks.”
“Get out of here!”
“No. It’s true. His argument that not only will it act as a defensive structure, it’ll help us out in case of a forest fire raging up from the valleys. He had some diagrams worked out. I think the fire thing swayed some people. He mentioned West Jefferson.”
“Shit. He would.” West Jefferson had been something everyone could see. It had been much like Sparta. It had not been situated as high as Sparta, but was still a mountain town, sandwiched between a pair of high ranges. Seven months earlier the horizon had been lit red and orange for two weeks while the town and everything around it had burned in a horrid conflagration. When it was over, they’d sent some scouts to check out the situation. There’d been some talk of trying to repopulate the little city if Sparta started bursting at the seams. On their return, one of the scouts explained what he thought had happened—spontaneous combustion of some type. And maybe a natural gas line had gone up and exacerbated the fire. At any rate, there was nothing left of West Jefferson but a vast charcoal gap between the mountains. It was gone forever.
“Yeah. He’ll definitely get his one hundred and fifty soldiers. And he might even get the breastworks. Who the hell knows?”
“We’re backsliding, Dr. Wein.”
Wein sighed. "It sure does look that way." He squinted into the night, seeing nothing. "Bring out those other two bottles."