I swung the heavy base of the Johnnie Walker lamp at the head of the onrushing zombie just as the twin blasts of Josie’s shotgun blew away his neck.
During the split-second the head hung in the air, free from all attachments, I placed the face.
Before he’d taken up the zombie life his name had been Johnny, head bartender at the Jester Lounge. I’d asked him for a job, long ago, and he’d made a face similar to the one he wore now. I connected solidly with that face, like a batter aiming for the back fence. It didn’t get much arc, thumped across a tabletop and rolled to a stop near the far wall of the Jester. Not a home run, but certainly a base hit.
The zombie standing next to him, perhaps stunned by the shotgun blasts and spray of gore, paused for an instant, long enough for me to bring the lamp up high and hatchet him in the face, splintering the bone cartilage of his sinuses into his brain. He collapsed next to a zombie I’d knocked to his knees a moment before. I stepped forward and brought down the lamp hard, finishing the job. A little breathless, I looked to Josie.
Though the recoil of the double-barreled stagecoach shotgun had slammed her hard against the backbar, Josie was already reloading. Never taking her eyes off me, she snapped the shotgun open with one hand, deftly flipped out the spent shells with her long fingernails then reached behind the brass cash register for a reload. She leaned against the backbar almost casually, like she was waiting out a slow shift, but in the light of the four candles along the bar top her eyes glittered with a mix of stark horror and—was it blood-lust? I pictured her after hours, deep into the night, loading and unloading the shotgun like an automaton, building muscle memory, dreaming of blasting customers who’d rubbed her the wrong way.
The zombie she’d casually shoved to the floor an instant earlier, once a weasely bar back named Elmo, had regained his feet and was again pawing her, trying to get close enough for a bite of flesh.
“Elmo, I said no!” she snapped, plainly exasperated. Finally, she pushed the barrels of the shotgun into his face and Elmo tried to eat them. There was a single, partially muffled whump! and the back of his head splattered against the far wall. The rest of Elmo windmilled backward and disappeared behind the bar.
A ringing silence crowded the room, along with the mingled scent of gunpowder and blood. I could detect a tiny ticking sound. The power grid had gone down earlier that morning, so it was probably a watch on the wrist of one of the zombies.
“I told you to stop,” she said, sounding just a little unhinged, then pointed the remaining loaded barrel at me.
“I’m not a zombie,” I said.
“Cut the zombie crap. I’m not crazy.”
“It happened the night before last,” I whispered. I seemed to be operating under the theory that the quieter I was the less likely I’d get shot. “Everyone flipped. Except us. You and I didn’t flip because we were both drunk. Do you remember? You must have been on a bender upstairs in your room. Am I right? You didn’t notice the flip but I did. I was bartending at Lou’s Last Chance.”
She started to say something then stopped. I made my final pitch.
“If they’re not zombies, Josie, you just murdered two of your coworkers.”
“Marcus was an accident,” she said. “I was aiming at you and he stepped in the way.”
“Okay,” I said. “He was an accident. But then you put the barrels in Elmo’s mouth and blew his—”
“He was trying to eat the . . . it was self . . . he bumped my trigger hand.”
She was assembling her accidental-manslaughter case, unaware that there would be no trial, that there was no system left to judge her. And if she honestly didn’t believe in the “zombie crap” then I had to consider the possibility she was a stone-cold killer. She’d gotten a murder under her belt, accidental or otherwise, then figured, what the hell, and blew away a coworker for pawing her. A long-brooding psychopath finally unleashed.
“Tell you what,” I said. “We’ll go up to your apartment and take a look out the window. See what’s going on outside.”
She seemed suspicious at first, then broke open the shotgun, deftly replaced the spent shell and snapped it shut.
“Turn around,” she said.
I didn’t think she had any qualms about shooting me in the face, so I turned around.
“Let’s go have a look,” she said a moment later.
I turned to see she’d tied a black cocktail apron around her waist and it bulged with what I suspected to be shotgun shells.
“I’m going to need a bottle of whiskey,” I said.
“We usually don’t offer bottle service.”
“These are unusual times.”
She made a face, and I slowly took out my wallet and put my debit card on the bar top. “I’ll open a tab.”
“How do I know it’s any—”
“You’ll have to trust me.”
I climbed the single flight of stairs and she followed with the shotgun pointed at my back like I was Billy the Kid and she was a cagey sheriff who’d heard all about my sneaky tricks. I topped the stairs, continued down the hall and crept into her over-the-bar apartment.
The zombie whose head I’d bashed in earlier was where I’d left her, hanging halfway in the large window. I set the bottle of Booker’s on the coffee table, opened the window all the way and pushed the body onto the fire escape. I stepped back and looked at Josie. She motioned with the shotgun and I backed into the kitchen area.
She stuck her head out the window and had a look. The thousand or so zombies loitering in the Jester’s rear parking lot let out a long, low moan of excitement.
She ducked her head back in quickly, looked at me, had another look then, lowering the shotgun, said, “What do they want?”
“Us! Our juicy flesh!”
“That’s . . . just crazy.”
“Totally crazy. But we’ve been prepared for this. All the zombie movies and TV shows we’ve been bombarded with for the last 40 years? Humanity sensed this was coming.”
“I don’t like zombie movies.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Look.” We both stuck our heads out the window and I pointed down at a zombie trying to keep his balance on a butt barrel long enough to lunge at the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder, missing it by mere inches. “We have to pull the ladder the rest of the way up or they’ll eventually get in.”
“So pull it up.”
“It’s chained and padlocked.”
She walked into her bedroom and emerged two minutes later. It was the fastest I’d ever seen a woman change. She’d switched out of her pajamas into a trucker hat, jeans and a black T-shirt with the Jester Lounge logo across the front. Below the wickedly jocular face it read: “We’re Laughing at You.” Against her head she held a hot-pink iPhone.
She threw me a ring of keys. “It’s the Master Lock key.”
I climbed out the window.
“Why are so many of them nude?” she asked from inside.
“The Big Flip happened in the middle of the night,” I said, dragging the dead zombie to the edge of the fire escape. “Most were probably in bed. Some have managed to dress themselves, to one degree or another. If you see a zombie with shoes, pants and shirt, keep an eye on him. He’s high functioning. He might be capable of all sorts of tricks.”
I rolled the body off the fire escape and it landed on the head of a fat balding zombie cavalierly draped in a blue shower curtain. Once he’d recovered, I could swear I detected a flash of very human resentment in his eyes.
“911 isn’t answering,” she said. She sat in the window, her back against one pane, her feet up on the other, like she was hanging out on a hot summer day. “And no Internet.”
“It’s all gone,” I said. I inserted the Master Lock key into the padlock. It fit. I turned it. The lock sprung open.
“I can’t believe this,” I said as I began unwinding the heavy chain wrapped around the ladder like a rusty boa constrictor.
“I don’t either,” she said.
“Not the zombies,” I said. “I can’t believe the key fit. That something went right. So far absolutely nothing has gone right. It’s been a perfect shit storm.”
I looked back at her. With the shotgun tucked under one arm, she tapped at the phone furiously. Texting the dead.
“Listen, I’ve been down in the trenches with these fuckers,” I said. “Up until last night I was serving them drinks.”
“It calms them down. Makes them more human.”
“What I’m saying is I’m not some sort of comedy relief character bumbling from crisis to crisis.”
I finished unwrapping the chain and the steel ladder shot to the ground with a loud screech of rusted metal. I immediately tried pulling it back up but a 1000 pounds of snarling zombie had latched onto the rungs and more were swarming in, eager to get up the ladder first.
“Fuck-fuck-fuck!” I said, sensing Josie had joined me on the fire escape. “Get back inside, we—”
A not-unfamiliar double-boom detached the half dozen zombies from the ladder. It was as if they’d lunged into an airplane propeller. I expected the horde would accept the casualties and mindlessly attack the ladder but they didn’t. They just stood there, looking aghast at the twitching heap of bodies. It was as if they were saying, “And you say we’re the monsters?”
“Jesus!” I said. “Let me know before you shoot that thing. You’re going to make me deaf.”
“Pull up the ladder,” she said, ducking back inside to reload.
I pulled up the ladder. It locked into place, the bottom rung a good 12 feet from the ground.
I reached a hand inside the window and said, “Can you hand me my bottle?”
“I’m going up to the roof. I want to find out how fucked things really are.”
She held out an empty hand. I put the keys in it and the bottle came out. I stuck it neck-first into my belt and started up the ladder to the roof.
Even just two stories up, the view was spectacular. Half a dozen large fires and hundreds of small ones were busily eating away at the carcass of Denver. Three LoDo skyscrapers were gushing black smoke and a third of the Queen Anne Victorians in Five Points were aflame. The unnatural silence, the utter lack of sirens, made it all the more surreal.
I walked the perimeter of the roof’s three-foot high parapet. A vast rippling sea of zombies surrounded the Jester. I estimated there was at least 75,000 of them, as many as would attend a typical Denver Broncos game. Their heads followed me in near-perfect unison as I walked. I was their sole focus. I was their everything.
I looked deep into the horde, trying to pick out individual faces, faces I knew, but it was nearly impossible because every face wore the same expression—a sort of fervent yet dumbfounded hunger framing eyes so lifeless they seemed opache—so they tended to blend together into one huge face. It was like trying to pick out individual drops of water in the Dead Sea.
I twisted the top off the bottle, raised it to the horde and—I couldn’t think of a single good toast. I drew a total blank. So I said, “Fuck all of you,” and took a good pull.
I didn’t know if it was the special circumstances, my emotional state, or its counteraction to the zombie spores in my bloodstream, but I couldn’t remember when bourbon had tasted so wholesome, so pure, so delicious.
Behind me I heard Josie come up the ladder and over the three-foot high parapet. I listened to her feet crunch the white gravel that covered the roof until she stood beside me, looking out over Colfax Ave.
“It’s pretty fucked,” I said.
“How do we know they’re zombies?” Her tone said she wanted to be logical about the whole thing. Rational. Find the problem and solve it.
I sighed. “What else could they be?”
“They could be crazy. Mass psychosis. Something in the water supply.”
“A zombie by any other name is still a zombie. It doesn’t matter why they want to eat us.” I pointed at a cobalt-blue sky tinted sickly gray by smoke. “And look.”
She looked. “I don’t see anything but smoke.”
“Exactly. No aircraft. No contrails. If this was isolated to Denver, the sky would be swarming with military jets, news helicopters, recon drones, you name it. And there’s nothing.”
She leaned over the parapet a bit, then drew back. “Jesus, they stink.”
“Their sweat glands are working. They have functional circulatory systems. They breathe and bleed. I don’t think they’re dead. Or undead. Or supernatural. They’re just changed. Personally, I think fungal spores have taken over their brains. Like those ants on that National Geographic special.”
She stared at me, unblinking. I noticed she’d rigged a shotgun sling out of a spike-studded fashion belt and the weapon hung from one shoulder.
“I’m guessing, of course,” I said, “but I’ve had time to think.”
“I can see that,” she said, her voice slightly condescending. She paused for thought. “Just think of all the funerals I won’t have to go to.”
“Gosh, you’re tough,” I said, offering her the bottle. She reached inside her cocktail apron and came out with two lowball glasses. I poured them three-quarters full and we clinked.
“No toast?” I said, getting the jump on her.
“You poured them.”
“Okay. Here’s to . . . success.”
“Success? Success at what?”
“At . . . surviving.”
“Surviving? We’re surrounded by 50,000 zombies. We’re going to run out of food in about two weeks. You have a very weird idea of what qualifies as success.”
“Probably closer to 75,000.”
She laughed, a little hysterically. “Right! Okay, 75,000. That makes us even more successful!”
“Do you have a better toast?”
She thought for an instant then said, “Here’s to the last gasp of the human race.”
She clashed her glass against mine and downed it in one. I followed suit. I didn’t care for the toast but I couldn’t fault her execution.
I refilled our glasses and held mine up. “Here’s to us,” I said. “The drunks have inherited the earth.” I could tell she didn’t like being called that, that it was something she liked to apply to other people, but she drank anyway.
She said, “Someone should tell them that.”
“They have no concept of ownership. They can’t inherit anything. They’re like cockroaches or rats. They can occupy a place, but they’ll never own it. They’re just squatters.”
“I will. I just need a . . .”
“I’m sorry, you trailed off.”
“I just need some guns and—”
“There aren’t enough bullets.”
She was right, of course. I’d never win a pitched battle against them. I could shoot one every five seconds for the rest of my life and not make a dent.
We drank. To fill in the silence I laid out my last two days, from the moment I woke up in Lou’s. I told her about my escapades serving them booze, how the party had gone south when a horde of outsiders showed up, my daring escape. I left out the few things that reflected badly on my character.
When I finished she told me she’d spent the last three days having an Extended Lost Weekend in her apartment, completely oblivious to the world outside. That, until then, she’s been In the Program and hadn’t had a drink in almost a year.
“You picked a good time to fall off the wagon,” I said.
“I guess so,” she said, looking over the horde at the distant Rockies. I could tell she wasn’t entirely on board with the Drinking Prevents Zombification Theory. “Or maybe all this drinking is just you reaching back into the past for a handhold of normalcy.”
“Look who took some psychology classes.”
“It was my minor,” she said, smiling a little. “This just doesn’t seem real.”
“If this were a zombie movie,” I agreed, “I’d definitely have some problems with the script.”
“Like you. You’re one of those unlikely characters that show up in a lot of zombie films. The hot chick who happens to be a badass with guns. Do you know any martial arts?”
“I know shotguns.”
“Usually there’s a troubled military dude. There’s his black friend, either a gangster with a heart of gold or a cop with a hard streak. There’s the helpless blonde. An over-the-top redneck. Some sort of comedy relief. Oftentimes there’s a child.”
“Which one are you?”
“I don’t fit any of them. I’m complicated.”
“Isn’t there usually a creepy guy who sells everyone out in the end?”
“I thought you didn’t like zombie movies.”
“Doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any.”
“I spent some time in the military,” I said. “I’m probably the ex-military dude with a dark past.”
She gave me an odd look, and I knew I’d fucked up.
“Eventually they’re going to starve to death,” I said, trying to derail her train of thought.
“You think so?”
“They’re expending energy just standing there breathing. They have to replace it. Once the fat is gone, they’ll starve. Unfortunately for us, America has been on an eating binge for the last twenty years, so it’ll take a while.”
“Won’t they just eat each other?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. Have you noticed how few children there are? Or animals?”
“You think they ate them?”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
I refilled our glasses. I kept waiting for her to say she’d had enough, but she didn’t. I felt that warm, golden glow rising up inside me. Standing there, looking into the mass grave of humanity, I felt very good, very fine.
“You know,” I said, smiling, “since I ran into you my wife’s voice has stopped.”
“My ex-wife’s voice. She’s been living rent-free in the back of my head but now she’s disappeared.”
“I thought she disappeared a couple years ago.”
An icy trickle traveled down my spine. A sudden numbness of the face, a stiffening of the shoulders and neck. It was always the same.
The problem with the horde, I realized, was they had no leader. You couldn’t point at one zombie and say, he made them this way, he led them astray; they were probably a swell bunch of fellows you could have a beer and a laugh with if that one asshole hadn’t poisoned their minds. Who was their Hitler, their Manson, their Kardashian?
“They never proved anything,” I said. I always said that, fully aware of how guilty it sounded.
“I remember that,” she said, her voice softened by a plodding recollection. “There were searches of rural locations. Anonymous tips that went nowhere. They dug up your basement and backyard. But they never found the body.”
“No body to be found.”
“What did you do with—”
“There was no body because she didn’t die. Far as I know. She’s probably out there somewhere, one of them. She might be in this crowd.”
I scanned the horde, as if searching for her face. I noticed a ripple of movement in the crowd directly below us.
“Uh-huh,” she said, looking at the mob. “A Denver Post reporter dug up your past and she found . . . odd things.”
I leaned both hands against the parapet and looked straight down at those closest to the front of the building and I saw him. He faced the horde, his back to the Jester. He was dressed from head to toe in a bright and baggy orange uniform. I watched him bend over until his fingers almost touched the ground then rear up and paw the air. He was supposed to be mimicking a wild bronco on its hind legs but to me he had always looked like a kitten pawing at a piece of string. He did it repeatedly, tirelessly. It was Bronco Burt, the locally famous football fan. He appeared on camera at least once per home game and here he was, still doing his shtick. Around him, just like at the stadium, a dozen or so zombies mirrored his routine.
I hated Bronco Burt then and I hated him more now.
“You were discharged from the Army,” she said, “because . . . it was something to do with human skulls.”
“Enemy skulls,” I said, instantly regretting saying anything.
“Right. You were collecting ISIS skulls.”
“Taliban. ISIS wasn’t around yet.”
“Right. Taliban skulls. You and your buddies stuck them up on poles and lit them on fire.”
“It scared them,” I said. “Once we started doing . . . that, they stopped attacking our base. They pretty much cleared out of the AO.”
“Right. But then a BBC news crew showed up and ruined it for you.”
“You just gave me a brilliant idea,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I practically ran to the ladder, I was so excited. I was back in five minutes with a handle of Everclear and a bar towel.
“What’s going on?” she said, taking a step back and smoothly sliding the shotgun into her hands.
“Look,” I said, pointing.
She leaned over the parapet. “Why, it’s Bronco Burt,” she said with surprise and affection.
“He probably thinks he’s at the game, riling up the crowd.”
“So they’re not total zombies,” she said. “They keep some of their personality.”
“I did some experiments at Lou’s. I fed one of my old friends a gallon of liquor and he seemed to come back a little.”
Her eyes flashed with hope. “Then how do we know this isn’t temporary insanity? That they might get over it and become human again?”
“That’s on them. I reserve the right to kill them until they give me a reason not to. But that’s not the point. What I’m getting at is they are not a monolithic force. They’re part of a horde, sure, but they also retain some individuality. A sense of self-worth.”
“So,” I said, unscrewing the bottle of Everclear, “that means they can be manipulated.” I doused the bar rag with 190 proof grain alcohol then poured the rest over the parapet, most of it drenching Bronco Burt.
“Watch,” I said, lighting the towel with my Zippo and dropping it over the edge. It landed on Burt’s shoulder and he immediately burst into blue flame. Incredibly, he continued his routine, and with much more verve than before. The fire spread to those who’d caught some Everclear backsplash. The horde tried to give them room and it was instant chaos, like an incredibly vicious mosh pit breaking out in a festival crowd, with the added havoc of some of the moshers being on fire.
“Do you see what’s happening?” I unnecessarily shouted.
“That you set those people on fire?” she shouted back. “Yes, I see that.”
“No, do you see how the other peop—zombies back away? They’re not fearless like movie zombies. They don’t want to die.”
“So maybe we shouldn’t kill them.”
I blinked at her. “No, I’m saying we should kill them. So they fear us.”
She looked down at the wild scene and said, “I’ll bet you poured lighter fluid on anthills when you were a kid.”
“What’s that, number two and three on the psychopathy checklist? Childhood obsessions with fire-starting and insect torture?”
She didn’t answer. Full disclosure: I’d hold a match up to the nozzle of my mom’s hairspray, like a miniature flamethrower. Are you telling me you didn’t?
“I didn’t wet the bed,” I said.
“Good for you.”
“Remember when you murdered those zombies coming up the ladder and the rest backed off?” I said. “Like they were scared you would murder them too?” She turned away, her face frozen with—what was it? Horror? Sudden self-awareness?
“Remember that?” I said. “What I’m getting at is they have a herd thing going but they’re also self-interested. We can use that.”
Burt collapsed onto his back, his limbs clawing the air like a dying beetle while the others ran in a circle around him. Perhaps it was a little gruesome. Perhaps I should have conducted the experiment when she wasn’t around.
I turned my attention to the label of the empty bottle in my hands, just to prove that when it came to watching flaming zombies run in circles — I could take it or leave it.
“Did anyone actually order this stuff?”
“We use it for Jell-O shots,” she said, her voice a little odd. “Sunday is Jell-O Shot Day. A buck each. The price point is right on the mark, the profit margins are excellent.”
“I’m going to assume Jell-O Shot Sunday was your baby,” I said.
“The markup is fantastic. They cost us five cents each and we sell them for a buck.”
She started to cry and I didn’t look at her. The suddenness of it caught me off guard.
“Where else do you get that kind of markup?” Josie continued, between sobs. “And the customers love them. They absolutely love them. They order six at a time, to share with their friends.”
I reached for her then, I wanted to put my arm around her shoulder, tell her it’d be all right, but she flinched away like I was a zombie going in for her neck.
I put my arm down and leaned over the parapet. Burt now lay motionless. He still burned and the others stood around him as if he were a campfire on a cold morning. I felt a pang of regret at the demise of Burt, then forced myself to think of him as just an ant, a very small part of a much larger anthill. And besides, the other four, still smoldering, had survived the ordeal and came away with a powerful lesson.
I felt her head against my shoulder. I put my arm very gently around her. It was terrifying.
“We should just jump,” she murmured.
“We shouldn’t.” Then I added, “All that marketing talk was just you reaching back into the past for a handhold of normalcy.”
I was just trying to be funny, to break the tension with some humor. Instead, she tensed up and pulled away.
“It’s easy for you! You don’t feel anything!” she shouted on the way to the ladder. I watched her disappear behind the parapet, then looked over the edge at the horde. The campfire was out and once again they pressed against the wall. Some appeared to be standing on Burt; he was just a bump in the sidewalk now. They weren’t big on grieving for the dead. They just moved on.
I leaned over the parapet. “Hey, assholes.”
They moaned and snarled at me, like a herd of evil cattle.
I held up the bottle of Everclear and pretended to pour its imaginary contents on the zombies below. They flinched back very quickly, instantly creating a six-foot space, revealing Burt’s burned body. I’d totally faked them out. I did it again and they drew back, though not so much. The third time they barely moved at all.
“You’ll learn to fear me,” I told them. “You’ll learn to run when you see me coming.”
Tune in next issue for the fourth thrilling installment of The Drinking Dead.