Friday, April 9, 2010

Free Fiction Friday: A Long Time Coming

This was originally part 1 of a longer story; but ended up being the inspiration for Rotworld. I posted it on a writer's site that has since collapsed, but I don't know if I've made it more widely available. I think I spent too many words telling you about it instead of showing you, and I'm not sure about the ending, but what do you want?

The road out of Montgomery is just like every road; Reggie's bike handles it easily enough. Like all the other roads, all the other cities, all the other people, all dead.

He brushes his dusty hand along his windswept hairline. It's only been three months, but his locs are already starting to come together. He doesn't even bother using the hair pick now, just twists his hair at night and brushes it back with his hands in the morning.

Even just sitting on his motorbike, a Chinese 250cc Touring cycle that belonged to his brother, he appears dejected, beaten. All of the hope has gone out of Reginald Romero. If it wasn't for the Geeks he'd just go back home.

He can't bring himself to use the “Z-word.” It's too fantastic. Too fucking scary. Instead, he calls them “Geeks.” It comes from an old horror comic he used to read back in Maryland, sitting on his best friend's front porch. Deadworld, or something. Seemed appropriate.

They weren't zombies, anyway. Not really. Oh, they looked like zombies; and it took a lot to bring down a Geek. A hell of a lot. A good solid blow to the skull could do it; but you usually had to follow that up with another – to really fuck up the brain matter. Bullets through the brain worked too, if they hit right and splattered out the other side. And just beating the snot out of them worked too, if you were brutal enough. No still-living severed hands crawling across the floor, no headless monsters. At least that was something.

Geeks were hungry; and they ate anything that moved. They were stupid and mindless and if they saw food they attacked it. Which pretty much meant they attacked anything that wasn't a Geek.

The third night after it happened, Reggie cried himself to sleep in the abandoned house he'd sheltered in. He'd been out scavenging for food in a Safeway in Silver Spring; and he'd had to fight off a couple of Geeks that surprised him in the parking lot. One of the ugly bastards bit him.

He'd stuck a pistol in his mouth a dozen times or more that night. He was suffering from hot flashes, vomiting, and the worst pain he'd ever imagined stretching from his gut all the way up to his shoulder, where the Geek's teeth had ripped out a chunk of flesh.

He knew he was done. He was going to wake up a mindless zomb-

But he didn't. And dwelling on it wasn't going to get him anywhere. For whatever reason, Reggie had taken the hit and pulled through. The sickness stayed with him for weeks. Before it was over, the pain had spread to every muscle and nerve in his body. He'd lost a couple dozen pounds and any desire to stay in D.C.

He made a tour of surplus stores and pawn shops, stocking up on anything he could load onto his brother's motorcycle. He took the bike because it got such great gas mileage, and he had a long way to go. He planned on taking the highway south along the coast, then follow the southern border to California.

He spent a couple days in every town and truck stop and bullshit little tourist trap he came across – restocking ammo and supplies; and looking for another survivor. Any other survivor. How the hell could he be the only one left? He'd been so desperate, that he was taking longer and longer to search through each town. Now he was just sick.

Every five or ten minutes, his thoughts came back to it. He was alone. There was no one left in the world; and if there was – they were probably in Africa or China or some shit. Even if there were a whole bunch of people, he was going to die here alone. Probably at the hands of a god-damned Geek.

H already knew he couldn't off himself. Even when he'd thought he was going to end up a brainless, half-starved walking corpse.

“Fuck it,” he said to the world, “fuck you all!”

He held his head up, gave the throttle a little twist and stretched his legs out on the highway pegs. With no working radio (it'd been damaged during the fight of his life at some bullshit tourist trap called “South of the Border”), he started singing back the loneliness.

“I was born by the river in a little tent
and just like the river I've been running ever since.
It's been a long, a long time coming
but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

It was an old Sam Cooke song his mom used to sing to herself. All of the sudden, it just popped into his head.

“It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky.
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

He stops the bike and pulls off the road. He stands the Fujian Sanli on its kickstand and leans against the seat. He wears a pair of Metal Storm 9mm caseless FBI guns slung low on his hips like six-shooters. He picked them up at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. The same place he'd found the two 10mm Glocks he kept in a double holster in the small of his back. The Metal Storm guns were amazing. He can put three bullets into a Geek's skull before the recoil even kicks up; and each clip holds 24 bullets. They were a pain in the ass to restock; but worth it once he'd learned how.

On the left side of his gas tank, a shotgun was mounted in a long holster, like in the old west. Right next to it is a katana he'd taken from a military base in D.C. Across the backseat – along with his bedroll, was a Remington 7400 deer rifle. In a make-shift sling by the saddlebags hung a hunting bow and 27 arrows.

He'd taken them so that he wouldn't be wasting bullets on food.

This was before he realized that there were Geek animals; and before his ego let him accept that he was a lousy shot. He was getting better though. He'd managed to kill a couple of squirrels and a rabbit; and just outside of Savannah, Georgia, he shot a deer. It ran off, but he'd hit it.

Reggie had a knife stuck in each one of the hiking boots he'd picked up after his Ponies got trashed in a fight. An 8-foot hose was coiled up and tied to the bike opposite the hunting bow. In a gas tank bag, he's got a Bowie knife supposedly carried by David Bowie himself. He picked that up at the Smithsonian, along with his sunglasses (which once belonged to Ray Charles), a great big, blue diamond (in the saddlebags), and the ivory armband he wars under his leather jacket (a 16th century piece from Nigeria).

Even before he'd picked them up, he knew he wasn't very good with any of the weapons. Now though – four states from home – he figured he must not be as bad as he'd thought; and he was definitely the luckiest motherfucker ever.

He'd tangled with so many Geeks now, he couldn't remember them all. And he was standing while they were all brain-dead. He took a deep drink from his canteen.

But it was just dumb luck. Dumb luck and whatever tiny bit of skill he'd managed to develop in the last few months. In Maryland, his Mom had taken him to church every Sunday of his life. He'd always believed in God and Heaven and Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Only... None of that mattered when you were face to face with a fucking Geek.

He was holding one of the Glocks now. Checking the clip, flipping the safety, cocking and releasing, cocking and releasing. It brought him comfort. No rapture, not trumpets. If this wasn't the end of the world, then why wasn't it in the Bible? If it was, how the hell was he the only one left standing?

Did God forget about him? No. That was stupid. And there was no way he was the only one righteous enough to stay out of hell. He sure as hell wasn't the only motherfucker who didn't believe enough in Jesus.

Well. He might be the only one now.

He laughed. It was pitiful though; and he put it away with a scowl, slamming the clip back in place.

This was his God now. His Savior.

No. To hell with that. He was his own savior now. He was a fighter, a survivor. In the last
months, he'd done things he'd never thought possible after living his life relying on god. Please give me this, please give me that, oh god please don't let Deschelle be pregnant, please please please. Now he struggled every day just to keep breathing. He crapped in the woods and hunted and killed his own dinner (when he was lucky enough to hit with his bow).

Now he prayed to himself, “C'mon Reggie, don't miss.”

“Oh shit, Reggie, kill this motherfucker, fast.”

“Keep your eyes peeled, Reggie. It's getting late.”

It saddened him that there was no god. Just another casualty of June 16th. God was either dead or he was a Geek. Running around heaven biting the heads off all the angels.

Now he laughed hard. It was still nervous, but it came easier. He smiled and mounted his bike again.

“It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky.
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

“I go to the movie and I go downtown
somebody keep telling me don't hang around.
It's been a long, a long time coming.”

Reggie's voice was strong and clear, even over the rumble of his Chinese motorcycle. It didn't seem to fit, coming out of this dirty road-warrior, armed to the teeth and carrying his life in his saddle bags; but Reggie had been a good singer. His Mom had wanted him to try out for American Idol when they came through. No chance of that now. He kept singing though. The song gave him courage. Filled him with strength.

“But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

“Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knocking me
Back down on my knees,”


Reggie's brother is dead now too – the only one of his family (that he knew about) who turned into a Geek. Reggie had to beat his older brother's head in with the baseball bat Ron gave him on his 14th birthday. All the rest just got the rot and died. Reggie rubbed at his shoulder.

Underneath his leather and the layers of shirts, the skin of his right shoulder was scarred and misshapen.

When it got infected, he'd thought he was going to end up with the rot. Like the lepers in the jokes and the old movies (and nothing like real leprosy) – people just fell apart. Reggie's own girl, Deschelle died of the rot on the 16th, along with everyone else. They went to bed and everything was fine; maybe she had a little headache or a stomach virus, but that was it.

When he woke up she was dead. And she looked like she'd been that way for weeks. The skin on her face was -

No. Bad thoughts. Reggie wasn't ready to deal with that. He pushed it down and sang instead.

“There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Reggie camped in the woods near the roads. Geeks were too stupid to drive; and if Reggie was smart enough to drive on stolen gas, maybe others were too. Maybe he'd wake up to the sound of a passing car. Plus, Geeks didn't much seem to be bothering with roads. They went were the food went, so there was always a chance that he'd run into trouble; but Reggie felt reasonably safe by the roadside.

When he camped, he slept in the sleeping bag he kept strapped to the back seat of his bike. And from one of his saddle bags, he withdrew a couple dozen bells and a spool of twine. He strung this around him in about a 20-foot radius, so that touching the string rattled the bells and (hopefully) woke him up to defend himself.

He hadn't put this to the test yet, but his sleep was light these days, nervous. And he was certain that even the slightest tinkle would snap him to attention. He spent a half-hour or so setting it up every night, and taking it down again in the morning.

After another week of traveling and searching, Reggie found himself in Mobile. He'd found an iPod with a full charge in Greenville; but it was all Country & Western, so he packed it away, just in case he'd find some power and a computer to put some real tunes on it.

In a pawn shop in Mobile, stocking up on ammunition and looking for a CD player and some CDs; he found a big, black cowboy hat made of leather with a white-gold buckle for a hat band. He couldn't help himself, so he snagged it, pushing it down over his locs. It was tight; but he figured that was perfect. Maybe it'd stay on his head while he rode. He went ahead and took a Rolex out of the jewelry case, as well. Why not?

Mobile was almost completely free of Geeks; and he found a generator that ran on gas in one of the nicer hotels. He spent two weeks there, before heading west on 1-10.

In Mississippi, Reggie found himself off the interstate and driving through the wilderness one morning on 110 Crop Unit Road; when he found a dirt road leading back into the woods.

“This is where you get lynched boy,” he said to himself in his worst southern accent. But his curiosity had him by the scruff and he turned onto the unpaved trail.

It wound back about a quarter-mile and ended in some kind of idyllic, Mississippi swamp-house. Everything Reggie had ever thought about the South, about Mississippi, about Rednecks. It was all written right there in the dirty, single-story house with the run-down porch screens, the auto parts in the front yard. Empty dog pens lined the left edge of the yard. Reggie expected they weren't really empty; but that he just couldn't see the carnage from here. He didn't want to see it; but he dismounted and walked closer.

“Holy shit!” Reggie screamed, kicking his legs straight out behind him and falling flat on the ground as the echoing retort of a large caliber rifle sounded from somewhere near the house. He scrambled for his pistols, and shouted louder, “Holy Shit!”

He was almost sure he could hear the reloading and cocking of the rifle in the distance.

“Hey,” Reggie screamed again, “Hey! Holy Shit! Are you fucking human?”

Silence from the house. For a half a moment, Reggie was sure he'd imagined it all.

“Who 'dat 'dere?” The accent was thick and cumbersome, almost comical. “Ya'll cain't fool me, ya' dirty zombies!” The rifle fired again, but over Reggie's head. He could see the man now, leaning out from behind a shed in the backyard. He was clutching the rifle. “Ya won't take me alive!”

Just great, Reggie thought, gripping the pistols tightly. “Zombies don't talk, man!” The word felt dirty in his mouth. It actually made his stomach turn when he said it. He thought of the Louisville Slugger slamming into Ron's -

Son of a Bitch. “Look, dammit – I'm not a fucking Zombie!”

More silence from the house, then Reggie added, “can I please stand up and not get shot?”

The redneck came walking around the house with his rifle held half-way at the ready. He was shirtless, in a pair of over-alls. A caricature of the South. “Well, come on 'den. Les' get a look 'atcha.”

Reggie picked himself up out of the dirt and holstered his pistols. His hat had come off and he replaced it on top of his head. He brushed himself off and then looked up at the approaching man. The redneck had a sly grin on his face that wasn't easy to read.

“Don't dat jes' beat all,” he said, “months and months without a human soul in sight; zombies in town tryin' ta eatcher brains; and now I gots me a negger cowboay come a callin'.”

Reggie didn't react to the racial slur, but neither did his hands stray more than 6 or 8 inches from his holstered guns. “I can't believe you're alive,” he said.

“Yeah,” the redneck drawled. His rifle was relaxed now. He seemed to be looking Reggie over, sizing him up. “Well, you come a long way then, boy?”

Reggie squinted against the morning sun, “D.C.”

“Yankee negger,” the redneck half-asked. “Guess beggers cain't be choosers,” he stuck out his right hand, “M' name's Cleve.”

Reggie shook his head and took Cleve's hand, “I'm Reggie.”

Cleve turned away and indicated the house. “Reckon yer' hungry. I gots a couple a' chickens ain't turned. Doan' wanna eat 'em; but I gots eggs. Slaughtered the pig last Tuesdee. Got goat milk and some beer. Beer ain't real cold; but's Busch, so it's good.”

Reggie chuckled. “Thanks a lot, man.”

Cleve started toward the house. “I swear to God. If my daddy knew I's about to have a negger over for breakfast...”

“Yeah,” Reggie replied, “ain't that a bitch?”

Reggie and Cleve ate breakfast together, recounting their stories since the world turned to shit and everybody died. Afterward, they wandered out back to a little stream where Cleve had a couple dozen bottles of beer tied together in the water, along with a handful of Tupperware bowls and jars of something Reggie couldn't recognize.

Cleve fetched up two bottles and handed one off to Reggie.

“Here's to yer, Reggie,” Cleve toasted.

“And to you, Cleve.” Reggie touched the neck of his bottle to Cleve's then took a big swig. He almost spit it again when Cleve finished up with “Happy Halloween.”

The two men spent Halloween reclining beside Cleve's fireplace. At first, Reggie was uncomfortable just sitting in silence; but he glanced across the room at the redneck who was staring off into space, scratching his chin in thought. If my daddy knew... he'd said. Reggie smiled, then went back to watching the fire. He didn't want to be staring at the man. He was just grateful he wasn't alone.

The next morning, he gave Cleve the iPod and showed him how to use it. Cleve tried to turn it down; but Reggie told him it was a gift, in return for his hospitality. Adding that he didn't like country music anyway.

They ate another big breakfast, then Cleve suggested they should walk into town and “hunt up” some supplies.

Reggie stayed with Cleve for a little more than a month. He tried to convince the redneck to come along with him. Offered to teach him to ride a motorcycle, filled him with tales of life on the road – the possibility of other survivors. Cleve would have none of it. This was his home, had been his family's home for generations.

In the end, Reggie decided it was enough just knowing that there was someone else. Even if it was a backwards redneck in a Mississippi swamp. They shook hands, and Reggie rode on out of Mississippi. He found himself singing an old Roy Rogers cowboy song, “Happy Trails.”

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