The fifth shot removed the top of Larry’s skull and he collapsed onto the girl’s remains. A breeze through the trees would please as it rolled over my knees like a disease or honey from bees and it would ease my . She wanted to shout something comforting; some final thought Mike could take with him. He hefted it once or twice in his palm, getting the feel for it, then lobbed it down into the crowd. It was a good thing there were no rules of political correctness regarding the undead. ” Karl imagined someone saying, in that shrill, strident, bygone PC tone. Dabney launched the missile and this time it slammed down on the skull of a bald zombie. The thing collapsed amidst its fellows, one less head bobbing aimlessly in the ocean of bodies. This was one of those enjoyable, rare male-bonding moments. In a city full of vacant apartments, Dabney chose to live on the roof. The pipes were as arid as she was, so they no longer bothered to test the faucet. Sitting there, eyes closed, a faint sound wafting past the discolored chintz oozed into Abe’s ears; one in addition to the brainless lowing of the shamblers. With effort Abe disengaged from the chair and craned his head out, looking north—nada—then south—bingo! As the small sport ute plowed northwards it hit the shell of a dead car masked by the crowd. As he neared the top few steps an explosion rocked the building and he gripped the handrail to avoid tumbling back down. When he stepped onto the tar paper he saw black smoke churning up from below. 8 Alan stared across the queen-size mattress at Ellen, who slept peacefully. When he’d come back in, through her Ambien-induced haze she’d burbled something dreamily at him, and before he knew it they’d been a tangle of naked limbs. He’d been devoured, and here Alan lay, in Mike’s bed, perhaps even on Mike’s side—chances were that Ellen snoozed in her normal spot, so Alan was occupying a dead man’s very personal real estate. Ellen’s body, even dissipated, still held attraction for Alan. As he peered down, three taxis collided, the driver of one bursting through his windshield like a meat torpedo. Abe cased the hall, then elbowed the loose pane out of the frame, the glass crashing to the linoleum beneath. Abe gave the unlit room a quick once over, then stepped in, flicking on the overhead fluorescents, which buzzed in protest. The small dancing light found the blackened wick of one of the candles, which sputtered to life, creating a pool of comforting incandescence. He’d gotten them as gifts, pretended he’d appreciated them, then thrown them all in a box in his closet. “You were my Everest.” Karl flushed with embarrassment at his floridity, then looked up at the ceiling and considered going up to the roof. Ellen dropped the glass and grabbed for Mike, her hands moist with perspiration, muscles neutered by malnutrition. The first of his defilers stooped over and dropped to its knees, baring its teeth. By the time her temporary immobilization eased, all that was left of dear, sweet Mike was a dark crimson stain on the pavement and some picked-clean bones. Next door she heard Eddie bellow something unintelligible. This was excitement no one needed or wanted, least of all him, but he couldn’t just sit in his apartment and pretend it hadn’t happened. Some aspirant swashbucklers slapped together homemade armor. Their hides might be tanned as shoe leather, but mark my words, they’ll fall. Their neighbor, Gerri, stood at the top of the steps, looking bedazzled. Gerri’s Yorkie, Cuppy, skittered down the stairs and began lapping up Dave’s sick. “I’ll get it later.” 7 July, Now “Do something, you piles of pus.” Even before things got as bad as they’d gotten, Abe Fogelhut knew the drill. The skin under her sharp jaw was a loose curtain, what ever nasty business lurked beneath barely hidden by her translucent epidermis. He didn’t bother with mirrors any more, not since he stopped shaving. Vanity was outmoded folly, even in light of the facial hair. Pushing the Christ was all about marketing and demographics. Karl remembered the Lord’s Supper service on Sunday mornings—an odd time for supper, but why quibble over details when illogic reigns supreme? Accompanied by a chorus of growls from his abdomen, Karl stalked over to his bed and willed himself to sleep, intoning a sacred hymn.People were jostling, shoving, climbing all over each other, every man for himself, the hell with the rest. Taking care not to cut himself, he opened the door, experiencing the giddy thrill of breaking into his neighbor’s business as well as a jolt of bowel-tightening fear. A cursory look at Bender’s books made clear Cutie-Pie wasn’t the only outfit in the garment trade to have a lousy last quarter. “My condolences.” Abe stepped around the desk toward the storeroom, nearly tripping over Bender’s body, a .38 clenched in his white-knuckled hand. The more he hummed, stretching out the notes, the less the words came into focus. Karl had lots of candles, gifts from his mother, aunts, grandma, and past girlfriends. Now he was grateful for them—except the scented ones. The fresh, fruity, cinnamony, flowery aromas reawakened his dormant sense of smell, unfamiliar odors rousing the olfactory receptors, which in turn refreshed the revulsion from the overwhelming tang of rot outside. So, did whacking to these beauties’ images constitute virtual necrophilia? She made contact with his left bicep but it slipped away. At least Ellen couldn’t see its face, but she knew what it looked like. With ingenerate knack, one scored perforations around Mike’s left shoulder with its teeth then jerked the arm clean off and began to devour it, ripping the meat off the bones. Ellen wrested her fingers from the mortar, contemplated jumping, reconsidered, and slumped to the floor, hugging herself, taking no solace from her bony limbs and digits. But his tone, as always, was ugly and portended trouble. He’d heard the howl from the alley and had looked down in time to see Mike’s head come off, a sight he hoped Ellen had been spared from her vantage point, but probably not. Instead she’d watched her husband transform from significant other to outdoor buffet. Egged on by their hungry neighbors, they’d either lowered themselves to the sidewalk from windows or fire escapes, or even more imprudently breached from within their blockaded front doors, which inevitably led to an unstoppable tsunami of zombies surging into their dwellings, costing all within their lives. As they stepped past her onto the second floor landing she pointed at the vomit. He was eighty-three years old, the TV and radio were shot, he’d never been much of a reader—except for the occasional paper, and even there it was strictly the Post or the News, never the hoity-toity bleeding-heart Times—so he did what old people do: he sat by the window and watched the world putrefy, counting off the minutes until the final letdown. ” “Exactly.” Ruth shuffled into the room, her slippers shushing against the worn carpeting. His whiskers had itched at first, but they concealed the sins of his lank flesh so they earned their keep. Abe smelled like the old parchment he resembled, his skin felt like membranous cheap leather. It’ll keep.” Ellen eased closer to Alan on the rumpled bedclothes and pressed her head against his bare chest. The bread, representing Christ’s body, cups of juice, representing Christ’s blood, passed out to all. “She’s a vision from coast to coast, sea to shining sea . “You gotta get home to Ruthie,” he wheezed as sweat glossed his waxy face. So when he could work up the energy these days, he spanked to dead ladies. His prize was the Polaroid of Dawn-Anne Mc Carthy, his junior high crush. Ellen poked Mike in a furrow between his ribs until, with effort, his eyelids separated, revealing red-rimmed, yellowed, mucilaginous eyeballs. Not the supple breasts of a successful twenty-seven-year-old Upper East Side urban-professional mom. She could have at least waited until after their scant breakfast. Some had attempted a different approach, still from above, casting a line from their windows or roofs down to the streetlamp right in front of the market. He had stuff stashed in his crib, but an offer of food from Dabney augured something mysterious and tantalizing. “Yeah, you do,” Dabney answered, lifting himself from the tarp. Last I checked, refrigeration went the way of the dodo, right? ” Dave sidestepped the stain that used to be a little girl and, once safely inside the entrance hall, puked. * * * With the pretext of needing some things from his pad, Alan disengaged from Ellen and fled her constricting lair. “I did a little fishing in Lake Swenson.” He turned the drawing over, its back flecked with bloodstains. “With everything going on outside you rescued that drawing from the alley? ” “Car crashes are a dime a dozen,” Eddie said, grinning, “but art is forever.” “Car crashes are a dime a—” Alan shook his head like a wet dog trying to make sense of that statement. Name the last time you saw a car driving by.” “Been ages. Even back in the day.” Alan shoved Eddie into his apartment and closed the door behind them. She might hear you,” Alan said, jabbing his finger into Eddie’s ditchlike sternum. White faces upraised praising their lily-white version of Jesus, all soft, mousy brown hair and blue eyes, very European, very not Middle Eastern—very, extremely, super not Semitic.“Yeah, yeah,” Abe said, pouring himself a stiff one from the bottle in his desk. With internal creaks and pops belying his actual age of twenty-eight, Karl swung his legs over the side of the bed and touched his toes to the bare wooden floorboards, which were as warm as everything else. Before stepping from the bed, Karl groped at his night table for matches. He’d run into her years after they’d graduated, on line at a store here in the city. His mouth, a thin, wide, desiccated trench while sleeping, clenched and unclenched, lines radiating in parched spokes from his dull gray lips, which back in the day were red and full and the most kissable in the world. Like, push some furniture up against it to make it impenetrable.” With considerable effort, Mike sat up and rubbed crumbs from his eyes and nose. They were more like the breasts seen in a magazine spread on depredation in Ethiopia or Somalia or some other godawful place—the kind of breasts that play landing field to legions of flies and their owners don’t even notice. “I brought your water,” Ellen said, holding up the small juice glass, an old jelly jar with Huckleberry Hound on it. ” Across the narrow hall the door to 4B opened and Eddie appeared, standing in the doorway in his boxers, which hung too low beneath his diminished waist. They’d anchored the ropes like a clothesline, then shimmied across the street, only to find themselves stranded above the sidewalk, still with ten feet between them and the airconditioning alcove. There was no way in from there unless you knew how to dismantle an industrial air-conditioning unit. He strode across the roof to a sooty, bunged up metal contraption fashioned from salvaged commercial exhaust ducting. He then looked helplessly at Eddie, who was examining his bare forearm. With nimble assurances he edged out into the common hall and left her standing in her kitchen. “Y’know, I always figured you for queer, but I doff my lid to you, Zotz. If Christ had been portrayed in art as he actually looked in life, Christianity never would have caught on.The sounds of screams and random gunfire echoed in the darkening canyon of office buildings, the sun ducked for cover beyond Jersey to the west. Bits of skull and brain matter flecked the adjacent wall and floor. It had only taken one Apples ’n’ Spice candle to teach him his lesson. Karl’s eyes roved to The Wall of Beauty, a veritable tapestry of pinups, centerfolds, magazine clippings, and most personally gratifying (and now, in retrospect, most painfully sentimental), Polaroids from the good old days when he was “getting some” and could occasionally convince his conquests to pose for him in the raw. Back in the day, one of Karl’s fave porn starlets offed herself. He pitched forward, his bony, naked ass slamming against the sash as his legs pinwheeled by her astonished face. She dragged her feet across the floor toward the open window Mike fell through. Cadaverous, leathery skin, yellow as a dead plucked chicken, translucent enough to display dull plum-tinted veins, blackened gums receded all the way, teeth huge, eyes glazed—if it even had any. Another disemboweled Mike, unintentionally inviting several others to mooch off the uncoiling spoils. He’d looked up from the alley’s floor and seen Ellen perched at her windowsill, eyes like saucers swimming in roomy sockets. The ones with enough foresight to reseal the entranceway usually didn’t make it ten feet from their homes before the horde picked them clean. We know we’re gonna die if we don’t eat, but I figure so will they, eventually. I’d like to set my feet down on pavement again, even if ain’t exactly gonna be tiptoeing through tulips.” “Me too.” “It’s a waiting game and nobody knows how it’s gonna play out, but play out it will. If he had any balls he’d have hurried the process up. Because as lousy as this life was, this was all you got. Except these days it wasn’t, so death had lost some of its appeal. Today, much like the day before, and the day before, and the day before that. Even the ache in Abe’s empty belly had quieted to a dull numbness. With some effort, Abe opened the window, leaned his head out a little, worked up some glutinous saliva and spat into the mindless crowd directly beneath his fifth-floor dwelling. He’d stopped changing clothes on a daily basis weeks ago. He’d stopped bathing before that, except to wipe a damp sponge in a desultory manner under his pits and over his balls and ass. Of answering that question.” “Then what’s the point of asking it every day? Exactly so.” “I hate talking to you when your eyes are closed,” Ruth complained. Those who believed in Christ as their personal savior were invited to eat the bread and drink the juice that was dispensed. Though Karl didn’t miss that old-time religion, he could go for some of that body and blood right about now.
The radio droned the barely cogent reportage of nervewracked correspondents attempting to articulate what was happening throughout the five boroughs—not to mention the entire globe. What kind of world was this where even the floor was tepid? Though he was loathe to strike one and add to the heat even a little, he was more averse to stubbing his toes or tripping over something. Her disdain for him in junior high had vanished and for a few dazzling weeks they’d fulfilled every last one of his adolescent fantasies about her, and several his pubescent mind had been too inexperienced to even conjure. “You were the best, baby,” Karl said, touching the tip of his index finger to the flossy hub of Dawn’s sex. ” Across the hall, in 5A, Ruth Fogelhut poked her husband of forty-six years in his xylophone ribs with her chicken claw of a hand, her hard, pointed fingers raking his translucent epidermis and leaving behind scarlet trails—not that either could see them in the dark. His mouth, as it attempted to form his first words on the day, pursed like the shriveled sphincter it was, lost in curly beard growth. Mike lifted his hands off the window ledge and straightened at the waist, eager to drink, unmindful of the window frame. These were regular citizens, not special ops personnel trained in breeching bulwarks. He bent down and opened a crudely hinged door he’d cut out of the cylindrical appliance. A little discoloration from the bite was evident, but that was all. At the cessation of the multiple clicks of her dead bolts engaging, the door across the hall swung open and there stood Eddie, looking wry and malevolent with a fishing rod in his hand. You got right in there like a champ and got the booty. All those generations of European artists westernized the Christ to conform to standards suited to their parishioners’ predilections—early market research.Abe took a tentative sip of the whisky, then downed it as he sauntered over to the window to catch an eyeful of uncorked chaos below. Weighing, like, a hundred or so pounds was killing him. After living in this apartment for the last few years you’d think he’d know the lay of the land, even blind. His sweaty palm found the book of matches and Karl snapped one into life, the brightness singeing his eyes for a moment as they adjusted to this pinprick of light in the absolute dark. He exhaled with conspicuous melancholy, not that there was anyone to notice or lend comfort. Then he considered Dabney and reconsidered, slunk back to bed, blew out the candle, and curled up on his side on the edge, in an attempt to avoid the damp spot. Ellen still kissed that puckered bunghole of a mouth, but now it was perfunctory, a sad nod to past romantic glory. His head slammed into the sash and his feet lost purchase on the smooth floorboards, thrusting his upper portion forward. He’d raced up the stairs and now pounded on the door of 4A. So they either shimmied back into their shelters, or dropped to the pavement and were devoured. “It’s a smoker I made,” he said, by way of explanation. “If that little cunt didn’t still have her milk teeth I might be in trouble,” Eddie said, brow creased as he mulled this over. That was close.” “Yeah,” Dave said, wiping his mouth. A Yasir Arafat-looking spokesmodel wouldn’t have put asses on the pews. For all the times his father whipped out the Bible—and occasionally whipped him with it—Karl couldn’t remember a single time Big Manfred cracked it open. But it had made a compelling prop, thick of girth and bound in chipped oxblood leather. Mindless, conformist, primed to eat bodies and drink blood. Five stories below, the seething stew turned a deep burnt umber.