I rounded the corner and nearly collided with a wheelchaired zombie parked in the middle of the sidewalk. I mumbled something ridiculous like, “Pardon me, ma’am,” as I chugged past and she riposted by lunging out of her seat like a vengeful toad, clawing the bottle of George Dickel rye out of my left hand. I heard it shatter on the hard cement behind me and despaired.
The crash of breaking glass was immediately swallowed up by an army of pounding feet rolling over and crushing the wheelchair and its former occupant.
Zombies can run, I’d recently discovered, but they run like enthusiastic asthmatics, like morbidly obese three-packs-a-day smokers chasing the last hamburger on earth. I shoved between two old-timers who hadn’t had time to turn around, croaking, “Excuse me, fellas, I’m just going to slide right through here.”
Fucking idiotic, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. You don’t just instantly shed a lifetime of social graces, zombie apocalypse or not.
As I loped down the sidewalk, I couldn’t help but notice I was having a magnetic dragging effect. Every zombie I passed, even those on the other side of the street, wheeled around and fell in behind me.
I didn’t want to look over my shoulder. I could hear the thundering of feet, the huge chorus of labored breathing, moans, and snarls. There was probably at least a thousand of them and more every moment. I was afraid that if I looked, the visual impact of a vast horde of zombies, every one of them fixated on ripping my throat out, would give me a heart attack or cause my limbs to seize up with suicidal despair. I focused on breathing and dodging grasping hands and chomping mouths, feeling every cigarette I’d ever smoked.
And yet, in the back of my mind, I knew I was going somewhere in particular. There existed a vague, foggy map in my head, pulling me down certain alleys and streets until I realized I was headed for the Jester.
The Jester was the nearest dive bar to Lou’s Last Chance Lounge, the place I’d just left, the dive bar where I’d woke up to the Big Flip, the zombie takeover. The downside was it was also on Colfax, and the last time I saw Colfax, five long minutes ago, it was the Mississippi River of Zombies.
And yet, in the face of all my finely-attuned survival instincts, I found myself cutting down Williams Street and running back towards Colfax, just two blocks ahead and—
It was empty. Except for a few gimpy stragglers, the river had dried up.
“They’re all behind you,” my ex-wife’s voice whispered in the back of my head.
With a sudden jolt, I realized she was right. Like a powerful magnet, I’d pulled the horde into a big U, away from and now back to Colfax.
In my mind’s eye I pictured a tight overhead shot of me running furiously, then the camera slowly pulling back to reveal the nearest pursuing zombie then three more, then—holy shit!—dozens of them, then hundreds in an ever-widening cone, finally finishing with a towering helicopter shot of a tiny human dot being pursued by a vast army of zombies, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, finally including the entire population of North America.
What horror! What drama! I imagined a mostly packed theater, watching my plight on the big screen, the audience struck dumb by the enormity of it, the abject hopelessness, the sheer cinematic power.
My lungs on fire, my legs heavy as lead, I picked up the pace. When I reached the Jester I’d be spent, I’d have to do something decisive, I’d have to identify my main chance and go after it like a shark.
The back of the bar loomed up, a squat two-story red-brick affair with zero windows on the first floor. Three zombies in soiled kitchen whites, undoubtedly the former cooks, lounged near a butt barrel like they were on a smoke break.
“Back to work, assholes!” I rasped as I lumbered by and they instantly took up the chase.
I swung left onto Colfax and gave the brass handle of the street-front door a quick tug as I ran past.
“Fuck you!” I croaked at the door, then dove down the alley next to the Jester. I shoved over a zombie wino, then cut left again into the parking lot.
The cooks were gone, but a thick column of zombies was jogging down Williams toward Colfax. I’d doubled back onto my stream of pursuers. On my heels were the elites, the zombie athletes, but in front of me were the fun-runners of this shitty marathon, the old, obese and out of shape, just following the herd.
One of them noticed me with a kind of excited look, like she couldn’t believe her goddamn luck, then, almost supernaturally, the formation wheeled left and charged right at me.
I grabbed the handle of the back door and jerked. It was like yanking on a piece of rebar sunk into two tons of dried concrete.
“Dinner time!” my ex squealed with delight.
I turned around, pressing my back against the door and—my God!—it was a scene straight out of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s more gruesome paintings. I watched with interest and horror as the elite runners collided with the sluggards and a hellish brawl broke out, a monstrous tableau of clawing and biting and snarling. They knew they had me, they were just working out if merit or luck should determine who got to sink their teeth into me first.
For a morbid instant, I thought about climbing into the butt barrel and curling up like a hermit crab. Make the bastards claw me out of my steel shell, make them work for their meal.
Instead, I flipped the can over, stepped on top and made the six-inch jump to the bottom rung of the Jester’s fire-escape ladder. The ladder didn’t slide down like it was supposed to because it was chained and padlocked, clearly a fire code violation, but I found the adrenal strength to pull myself to the next rung, then the next.
Incredible. I was probably the last human on Earth, pitted against seven billion vicious monsters, the ultimate underdog, and this fuckface was rooting for the zombies.
His modest success inspired me to start climbing again. Once I got my feet on the rungs, it was easy going. The ladder paused at a creaky metal platform in front of a large, half-open window before continuing up to the roof.The horde noticed what I was up to, put their rivalry aside and began leaping up at me like a battalion of basketball players going for the rebound. A tall zombie, tall enough to have played forward in high school, managed to claw off my left shoe, which he immediately tried to eat.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck,” sighed someone from the back of the theater. It sounded as if he was more disappointed than awed at my daring escape.
Incredible. I was probably the last human on Earth, pitted against seven billion vicious monsters, the ultimate underdog, and this fuckface was rooting for the zombies.
“He can still fuck it up,” my ex said hopefully.
I took a knee and pulled off my remaining shoe. I felt wrecked. I felt like a shitty old car that had been forced to participate in a high-speed movie chase scene. I needed to get in shape, I needed a montage of me doing pushups and pumping iron and running on a treadmill and shooting assault rifles at a gun range and—
A dry scratching started up in the back of my head. I hadn’t had a drink since I’d bailed out of Lou’s Lounge and if I didn’t have one soon I’d become—
“Sober?” my ex said.
“One of them,” I corrected.
“Oh, right, I forgot. Alcohol keeps the, uh, space spores from taking over your brain.”
“Try to keep up,” I said, standing. I looked over the rail, almost knocking a large clay pot over the edge.
“Be careful,” my ex warned. “You might hurt a zombie.”
There was some snickering. I checked on the horde. They were all stretching their arms toward me and making grabbing motions. Their attention was rapt, every eye was focused on me and nothing else. I was everything to them, the very center of their collective existence. I was a superstar. And I have to admit, perverse as it sounds, it was a little exhilarating.
Those nearest the ladder strained to reach that oh-so-close bottom rung. They were packed in too tight to do much jumping and hadn’t figured out the butt barrel yet. But I knew from experience that eventually one of them would figure it out. And once one of them knew, they all would know. They were terrible leaders but terrific followers.
“Boooooring!” a snotty voice said from the back of the theater.
I peered in the window at a living room with an old tube TV and ratty sofa. I’d applied for a bartending position at the Jester a year ago and I seemed to remember there was some sort of upstairs live-in arrangement for select members of the staff.
“What is this, an art film?” a voice said from the front row.
“That’s what it is, it’s a fruity art film!” someone else jumped it. “He’s looking at his reflection and getting in touch with his feelings!”
“No, I’m not,” I said. The window was too dirty to get a proper reflection.
“Then do something!”
“Fine,” I snapped and pushed the clay flower pot over the rail.
It hit a middle-aged hippy chick zombie square on her upturned face. The shattered clay pot fell away, leaving a clump of dirt and roots covering her face. A flower, a large daisy, stood straight up. It was pretty funny. It was like we planned it, as an act. I noticed the zombies around her were growling, as if they were angry that she was trying to be different from the horde.
The zombie started chewing. Slowly, laboriously, she swallowed dirt and roots until finally the daisy disappeared into her mouth.
“What the fuck was that?” someone shouted. “Some kind of bullshit art-house symbolism?”
The theater filled with boos and whistles and the sound of people getting up. As one group headed for the exit, a familiar voice said, “Fucking art film.”
Fuck you, I mouthed silently, so the remaining audience wouldn’t hear me breaking the fourth wall, and ducked inside the apartment.
The decor was Retro Bleak, fairly common with serious drunks with steady jobs in the bar industry. Vintage macrobeer signs lined the walls, and all of the furnishing and knickknacks were, at some point in the last 50 years, provided by the promotional departments of two dozen or so booze companies.
The living room morphed into a dining room/kitchen area on the left. An ajar door peeked into a bedroom on my right and straight ahead was the door to a hallway, also ajar.
I lifted the shade off a Johnnie Walker lamp, gripped Johnnie by his top hat and jerked the cord from the wall. Its heavy ceramic was yellowed by age and cigarette smoke, but it still would have went for a couple hundred bucks on eBay.
Stepping lightly with the lamp held in striking position, I crept to the refrigerator. Huddled between a jar of pickles and a box of animal crackers was a bottle of Thunderbird, one-third full.
“That’s bullshit,” I said, unscrewing the top and chugging most of it. “Last man on Earth and all I get is warm shit-wine.”
I loaded the rest into my mouth, then executed a perfect spit-take, shooting wine across the top of the Formica and chrome dining table.
“Party foul, bro,” a voice said from the front row.
“What the fuck am I doing?” I said for his and the rest of the audience’s benefit. I dramatically smashed the bottle against the sink, grabbed Johnnie, strode purposefully into the hall, down the stairs, through a door, and into the Jester Lounge.
I didn’t bother looking around for zombies. First, it was too dark to see anything, and second, I was tired of being pushed around by that fucking army of assholes. I wanted—no—needed a drink, for medicinal purposes and otherwise, and if they wanted to stage an intervention, well, it’s been tried before.
I followed my lit Zippo behind the bar, a handsomely-carved mahogany island with a tasteful amount of rubbed brass. I set Johnnie on the bar, took down a nearly full bottle of Dickel rye, poured a lowball to the brim and lashed half of it down my throat.
Oh, that sweet burn, that fine medicine, that fiery serum against the—yes—space spores or whatever the fuck had flipped everyone on the planet except for myself into evil zombies. Almost immediately, whatever had been scratching the inside of the skull skulked away.
Dickel neat wasn’t my usual, but I was trying to make a point. It was a way of saying the zombies don’t get to win. If they knock a bottle of rye out of my hand, I come back with two. Or three or four or however many more there were in the Jester’s storeroom in the basement.
I finished the glass and poured another while wistfully wishing there was ice. I would have to learn to live without ice until I worked out some sort of generator deal at my future mansion fortress.
I dug around behind the bar until I found the trays of swanky red glass candle globes they usually put on the tables after happy hour and lit four. I also found a pack of Kools, which would have to do until I pried open the cigarette machine.
There had always been rumors that the Jester kept a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun under the bar. I’d seen Josie, the bar manager, pretend to reach for it, as a joke, but evidently that was just a load of bullshit.
I discovered I was parched, so I popped open a Rolling Rock. I sat in the bartender’s cheat seat next to the huge brass old-timey register, took a deep drag of menthol and blew it out in a long stream toward the wickedly grinning jester face carved into the mahogany of the back bar.
The Jester was one of those classy dive bars. One that drunks with comfortable retirements flocked to. No riffraff, no drugs, no drama. Josie made sure of that. She was one of those no-nonsense yet somehow tragic American dreamgirls stretching their middle years with a big-city bob cut and a deadly arsenal of sly looks, vague comments and heartbreaking cruelty. All the regulars were in love with her, but if you saw her at a drugstore you’d think she was just some haughty housewife with a certain swing. But behind the bar, her bar, she was Cleo-fucking-patra.
“She’s gone,” I told the bottles, feeling a little maudlin. “Along with all the booze blondes, the flirty-skirts, the bar vamps, all those—”
“. . . all those girls who wouldn’t give you the time of day,” my ex finished.
“I bet they would now.”
“Yeah, you finally got that Last Man on Earth thing working for you.”
“And I still have you.”
“The voice in your head? Yeah, you still have that.”
“Why aren’t you ever nice? Why can’t you be on my side?”
“You’re asking the voices in your head to be more sane?”
“You and . . . my audience, aren’t voices. You’re internal dialogue. Everybody—”
“Trust me. I’m a voice.”
I poured another rye, noticed half the bottle was gone, then laughed. There was plenty more, and not just what was in the Jester. All the booze in the world belonged to me. Every box of wine, every bottle of liquor, every can of beer. That bottle of cab that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson? Mine. That case of Scotch that auctioned for half a million bucks? Mine. All of it. As the only person who showed up at the reading of Mankind’s last will and testament, I got everything.
But was I the last? I’d survived the Big Flip because I had a large amount of booze in my bloodstream when it went down in the middle of the night. I continued to survive because I’d woke up in a bar, wised up fast, and kept my BAC at a high level. But there had to be others. Tens of millions would have been as drunk as I the night of the flip. Of those, at least a million would go straight for the hair of the dog. They would have learned that only alcohol muted the scratching in your head. Of those, surely a hundred thousand or so would have been able to avoid being bitten or ripped apart by their suddenly homicidal neighbors and loved ones.
In Moscow and Vegas there were probably packs of survivors bonded together, heavily armed, wildly drunk and kicking ass. There were probably down-and-outers all over the country, holed up in motels with suitcases full of liquor, drinking through some misery, perhaps even unaware of the big changes happening outside.
I heard the padding of feet on carpet, and the tall zombie who’d ate my shoe casually strolled through the door to the upstairs. He noticed me in the candlelight and got excited.
“Fuck you,” I said, getting up. I couldn’t get 15 minutes of alone time without these fuckers getting in my face. But you know what? I was just in the mood to deal with this asshole.
I picked up Johnnie by his hat, walked through the bar gate and we met in the middle.
“You’re 86’d!” I roared, swinging the lamp at his face. At the last second, he did a head fake, a remnant of his faded basketball skills, but the heavy base of lamp caught him on the cheekbone anyway. He stumbled to the right, his knees buckling. By the time he shook it off, I was waiting for him. A high overhand swing that hit him right on the bridge of his nose. With a sharp crack of bone and a heavy, wet kerchunk!, the lamp base smashed his face deep into his skull, and he hit the floor like a bag of wet sand.
Standing above him, a little out breath, buzzing with adrenaline, I heard two distinctly separate noises. The first was from upstairs, the muted sound of footsteps. The second was a sudden pounding on the door to the basement office and storeroom.
I walked to the bar and finished my drink, furious. Was I to be a hunted animal? The last remnant of the old order, to be wiped out like the last mosquito of summer?
“One at a time,” I said, bounding up the stairs with Johnnie. I swung into the living room to find a tall mocha-skinned zombie wearing a Starbuck’s apron and a full-on afro crawling through the window. I leaped forward and konked her square on the back of her head. She slumped, and I hit her again, just to be sure. She draped over the windowsill, and I leaned on her back and ducked my head out the window.
The horde had figured out the barrel, sort of. It‘d been knocked on its side, and the zombies took turns doing a log-rolling routine that usually ended with a lunge at the ladder.
I ducked back in, put down Johnnie and grabbed Mocha Trenta by her wrists.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it look like?” I said. “I’m dragging the body inside so I can close the window.”
I froze. Something was off. It didn’t sound like my ex. I turned around. Josie stood there, holding an empty 1.75 of Wild Turkey 101 in her hand like a club. Her bob was puffed up like a dandelion and she was wearing pajamas.
“You’re alive,” I said.
“I am,” she said, pretty cool-headed, considering. “Why, what were you planning?”
I heard rhythmic squeaks from outside. Someone was coming up the ladder.
“We have to go,” I said. “Follow me.”
I tried to explain everything as she followed me down the stairs, but I didn’t know how much she knew. I ended up saying, “We’re surrounded and they’re going to start trooping in one at a time. I’d suggest the basement, but that would mean being trapped, and I think there are some of them down there. Do you hear the pounding?”
I visited the bottle on the bar, poured the last of it into my glass and knocked it back.
“You’ll want to keep drinking,” I said. “It keeps you human.”
She walked purposefully around the bar, glancing at the empty bottle then giving me a “You gonna pay for that?” look, which I thought was a little strange, but hey—old habits die hard. She paused to open the door to the basement, then continued behind the bar.
“No, don’t do that,” I said, comically late.
Four zombies–I recognized them as Jester staff–filed in the door and walked unhurriedly yet resolutely toward me, like they had a sorta pressing question, and I was the guy with the answer.
I hit the first in line, I think he was a bartender named Ron, with my famous overhand swing. I swung a little early so the base of the lamp clipped his jaw, separating it from the rest of his head.
He fell back into his chums, and I glanced over at Josie. She was in the middle of reaching behind the brass register but had paused to watch me de-jaw one of her bartenders. Her callous mask was gone. She looked horrified. She finished pulling out a double-barrel stagecoach shotgun, as old-timey as the register it was hidden behind.
Which was good timing, because the last zombie in line had peeled off and was presently behind the bar, closing on Josie. I recognized him as Elmo, a weasely bar back given to asking strange women if they wanted a shoulder rub. He held his hands in front of him while making clamping motions, as if, even now, he was trying to weasel a rub down.
The zombie without the jaw had lost heart, he just sat on the floor delicately touching his exposed upper teeth with an almost human melancholy. His two buddies stepped over him and came at me. I danced back two steps, loaded up another overhand strike and threw a quick glance at Josie.
“Get off me, Elmo,” she said, casually shoving him to the floor.
She frowned at the shotgun for an instant, making sure everything was right, then turned her eyes and both barrels in my direction.
Both zombies lunged at me simultaneously, and I yelled, “Shoot!”
She leveled the barrels at me, squinched her eyes in anticipation of the blast, which humanized her a little, then pulled both triggers.
Continue to The Drinking Dead, Part Three