The New Ecology of Death (an excerpt)
By James Robert Smith.
“What did they say? Can you get one?” Beth had decided just to come out and ask, first thing. Why beat around the bush, waiting for a right time that might never arrive?
Davis shook his head, his black hair moving not at all with the movement. After a year of marriage she still could not get over how kinky his hair was. It was a tight mass of curls that would not give in to the tug of gravity. And as dark as the deepest night. “No,” he added.
“But…you’re a CDC official. You’re out late sometimes. You usually don’t even have an escort when you have to deal with the infected. They can’t expect you to depend on cops and soldiers.” She’d been at Davis for some weeks, trying to get him to allow them to have a firearm. But so far his requests had been denied.
“Look, Beth. They don’t just hand out those permits like gifts. It’s not like the old days. You know that.”
She sighed and sat down at the dining table. She hadn’t collapsed into the dark-stained oak chair, but almost. If you’d asked her, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you precisely why she wanted a gun so much. Things were calm, now. The danger was past, they kept saying, and it seemed so. The days of emergencies and air raid alarms had passed, and much damage had been done.
But she was afraid. She didn’t know if the fear would ever fade.
“There hasn’t been an outbreak in over six months,” Davis told her. He stepped in close and put his arms around his wife. Sometimes he wondered how much of their love was the product of the situation that had thrown them together, and how much was genuine. At least on his part the emotions ran deep, and he tried not to let his doubts about her feelings rise to the surface.
“I know,” she admitted. It was true. The government had done an exemplary job in maintaining order and putting things to right. There were other places where things had fallen apart so completely and so utterly that they were considered now to be lost causes, failed societies that had stumbled when it came time to deal with the problem before it was too late. In the USA, though, the returned dead no longer menaced the living and the contagion that had initiated the emergency had faced to the background. It wasn’t gone completely, but it was only a bad memory now for most of those who had survived. “I just…I’d just feel safer if we…you know…had a gun.”
Davis Cotter was tired. He didn’t feel like going over the difficulty of getting a firearm permit one more time with his wife. When things had been at their worst, when it looked like it would get totally out of hand and the dead might actually start to outnumber the living, the government had put the hammer down. There were more deaths due to people killing one another with pistols and rifles and shotguns than from attacks by the raving bands of undead. So as the authorities mustered the military and the police to take out the monsters, they had also moved in with speed to disarm the population.
Dr. Cotter chuckled audibly and Beth looked up at him. “What’s so funny?”
“Those gun nuts. All of those tough guys. The whole ‘pry it from my cold, dead fingers’ crowd.”
Beth smiled, too, despite her disappointment. “Really.”
“Faced with the Marines and the Rangers and SWAT those guys had coughed up their guns faster than you could possibly have thought.” It was true. Hardly a one of them had fired a shot or chosen death over gun ownership. There had been a few, but they hadn’t been a problem.
“Oh, well.” Beth stood up and headed for the kitchen. The house was filled with the scent of baking bread. Challah bread, Davis’ favorite, and one which Beth was exceptionally good at preparing. Davis followed her. He really was tired, but always took the time to help her in the kitchen when he arrived home. That day had not been a terribly difficult one, and he’d gotten home before rush hour.
He laughed again. “You know. There was a time when I thought we’d never even have things like rush hour and heavy traffic again. It was a close call.” He breathed in the heavenly scent of the baking bread. “Damned close call.”
As a statistician for the local branch of the CDC he had seen the numbers in stark black and white. If the government had not acted precisely when it had in declaring martial law, things would have turned out differently. There would be no rush hour, no traffic, no cities, no stores, no TV, no movies; there would have been nothing at all but hoards of the dead and a few knots of humans trying to survive. And the computer models had shown them all that at that point it would have been a quick descent into extinction.
Without order, without government, without technology, humanity would have lost this fight.
As Davis laid out three plates at the table Beth pulled the food from the warming tray. The smell of a wonderful meal exploded into the spacious dining room. They’d moved into the house four months before and had filled it with antiques bought from government warehouses and from survivors of families who had not made it through those worst days.
“What about buying a gun without a permit?” she asked from the kitchen her husband of one year out of sight, only a series of sounds as he placed china and silverware and glassware on the table.
There was a moment of silence and Beth tried for a second to pretend that he hadn’t heard her question. But when she turned, a tray of beef and gravy in her mittened hands, he was there. He was not happy.
“Goddamn it, Beth.” He actually raised his pale, hard hand and pointed his finger at her. “Don’t ever say anything like that again. And don’t you ever try to buy a gun on the black market. The men who deal in that kind of thing are scum of the Earth—and not long for this world, I might add!” He was sincerely angry. Beth Cotter—formerly Mrs. Beth Wenzler—had rarely seen her second husband lose his temper, but now he was visibly angry.
“And if the authorities caught us in the act. Or caught us with an illegal gun.” He sighed and ran that hand through his wiry hair. “It doesn’t matter who I am or what I do for a living. They’d arrest the both of us and toss our asses in jail. I can promise you that.” He’d not raised his voice so much as a fraction of a decibel, but his brown eyes fairly blazed.
She went by him and put the tray on the table, passing him again to return to the kitchen for the vegetables. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t mention it again.”
“Don’t ever,” he said, following her. “They’d throw us both in the can and then where would Mark be?”
“Okay,” she repeated. Mark was upstairs, in his room, watching television. His favorite program was on and she was allowing him to watch it to the end before she called him down. “I understand. I’ll never mention it again.”
“I don’t want you to so much as think about it again.” He continued to stare daggers at his wife. “You should be thankful that Mark can still sit in his room and watch silly things like Power Rangers. I’m telling you if anything had been handled any less harshly, then he would be squatting in a dark room somewhere wondering when something would come and kill him instead of in a room surrounded by the same things we all grew up with.”
“All right,” she said, putting the squash and beans on the table. “That’s it. It’s done.”
Davis looked at his watch. “I’ll go get Mark. His Power Rangers show is over.”
She watched her husband walk out of the dining room and across the foyer to the staircase, his tread soft and light, like the man himself. He was tall, slender, intellectual; rich. None of those things she could have used to describe her dead husband, Walter. A shudder ran through her body and she had to sit again.
That was why she wanted the gun. When Walter had died, when he’d died alone in her cousin’s house and she hadn’t been there with him…
A sob escaped her throat, even two years after his death.
Everyone knew now that some of the risen dead held a few sparks of memory in their partially operating brains. Sometimes they remembered bits and pieces of whom they'd been and what they'd done when they’d been alive. Those fragments of memory didn’t make them reasonable or anything like a human being. But those memories sometimes tugged at them.
They’d never found Walter after he’d gotten up from that stained deathbed. He had wondered away, only God knew where.