In the flickering candlelight I poured a Guinness from the tap, drank it straight down, poured another, then went about dealing with the four bodies. One at a time, I drug them by their ankles to the basement door and flopped them down the stairs. Finally, taking him by the hair, I tossed Marcus’ severed head into the void and closed the basement door.
Fine work, I thought, then went behind the bar to wash my hands with Gordon’s Gin. I liked its fresh antiseptic scent. I slid onto a bar stool and took up my pint. It felt good to have done something constructive, something positive, even if it was just hiding bodies.
I was well into my fourth Guinness when Josie came down the stairs. She paused on the last step, took note of the missing corpses, seemed to approve, then continued behind the bar. She leaned against the register and lit a cigarette.
“Slow shift?” I asked.
She almost laughed. She seemed fully recovered. You could tell she’d been crying, but her hair was brushed, she’d put on a rudimentary amount of makeup and the shotgun was nowhere in sight.
“We should eat something,” she said.
I shrugged, and she disappeared into the kitchen and came back with an open industrial-sized can of refried beans with two spoons sticking out of it.
“Oh boy,” I said.
She nearly smiled and we ate.
I switched to Cuba Libres because I wanted to use up the limes before they went bad, and she went into the back with a bottle of Crystal Skull vodka and the remaining lemons and returned with a large glass pitcher of what she called Day of the Dead Lemonade. I noticed how much easier it was to talk to her when she wasn’t cradling a shotgun.
And we drank. Comfortably, like we were old friends wiling away a Sunday afternoon. We worked through various schemes and ever-bolder plans to get us out of Denver. We agreed that if we could get high up into the Rockies, things would be better. Could we pass through them by acting like them, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Could we bath ourselves in gore and move freely as in The Walking Dead? If we hid downstairs without showing our faces for a week, would the massive horde besieging the Jester Lounge get bored and wander off?
We laughed at the insanity of the whole thing. We really started to get along, which didn’t surprise me because I’m much more human when I’m drunk. I also felt much more vigorous and energized. It felt like a Vegas binge when you’re with all your friends and you’re tearing shit up. I was sure there was a biochemical process taking place; maybe my body was unloading extra endorphins to keep me drinking, to keep me from flipping into one of the monsters outside.
I remember her saying I should slow down a little, and me telling her that it was very important to drink a lot before going to sleep because there had to be enough alcohol in our systems to carry us through until dawn, and then it was dawn.
I awoke in a comfortable bed with the slightest tint of day lightening the window. I was spooning with Josie, my arms around her waist. Jesus, how long had it been? I’d forgotten how much I’d missed it, the human touch. I drifted back to sleep in perfect peace, dreaming of a new life, of Josie and I trekking through the apocalypse together, facing all challenges as an unbreakable team.
I woke to music, light and airy and far away, then it stopped, and I heard Josie’s voice, distant and indistinct. I sat up. I was naked, alone and needed a drink.
I rolled out of bed. Folded neatly on the dresser was a fancy two-tone blue and red western-style shirt with rhinestone buttons. What my father would have called a Going to the Rodeo Shirt. Under it was a pair of straight leg Levis and white boxers.
I put them on. Hey, if she needed a cowboy, I’d be a cowboy.
My wallet and Zippo were in my shoes along with a rolled-up pair of white gym socks.
“Good morning!” she said, as bright and cheery as her red dress and pale blue apron. I could tell by her eyes that she liked my outfit. She stood behind the bar, mixing a Bloody Mary. She set in front of me as I slid onto a bar stool.
“You look like you could use a drink,” she said.
“And you don’t?”
“Already had one. Like to sleep in, don’t you?”
“What time is it?”
Without a thought, she dipped a hand into her apron, pulled out her iPhone, told me it was 9:45, and put it back.
I trapped the Bloody Mary between my fingers. “Who were you talking to?”
“Drink your drink,” she said and disappeared into the kitchen.
I drank it down in three big swallows. It was strong and spicy, the way I like it, and was actually better without any ice getting in the way.
I heard the light and airy music again. It’s a ringtone, I thought. Someone is calling.
I slid off the barstool like an alligator easing into a pond. The music stopped and I could hear her whispering. I crept behind the bar to the kitchen door and ever so slowly pushed it open.
She stood at the stove with her back to me. She held the phone between her shoulder and cheek. The shotgun was slung from her other shoulder and she was assembling some sort of breakfast from open cans.
“Okay,” she whispered. “The sooner the better.”
She said goodbye, dropped the phone in her apron and turned around with a plate in each hand. She jumped with genuine terror at the sight of me standing there, dropping the plates with a loud crash.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” she said and the shotgun slid off her shoulder and into the crook of her arm.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked.
“None of your beeswax. Just because last night happened doesn’t mean you can tell me who I can talk to.”
I stared for a second, then said, “It’s the post-apocalypse, and you’ve made outside contact through cellular towers I thought were all down.”
She rubbed the side of her head. “I’m having trouble thinking. Okay, I should have told you last night, but you very drunk. When I came down from the roof, after you lit the zombies on fire, my phone beeped. It just beeped. It was a text. He sent a mass text to everyone on his phone and I’m the only one who answered.”
“Darvin. My sponsor.”
“A.A.?” I said. “Wait—has he been drinking?”
“Not a drop. He hasn’t had a drink in five years.”
“So you’re saying the whole drinking-to-stay-human thing is just . . .”
“A theory that didn’t prove out.”
“What about the headaches?”
“We’ve just been hair-of-the-doggin’ it. Delaying the inevitable. Chasing the hangover. It might be time to sober up and face the music.”
“I don’t want to face the music.”
She put a hand on my shoulder and looked deep into my eyes. “One day at a time, okay?” She patted me on the head and hurried upstairs.
I sat at the bar, listening to her moving around upstairs. Packing, I was sure. I discovered I was drinking a bottle of Miller Lite. It was my traditional comedown drink, when it was time to start wrapping up the bender and get back to . . .
What? Reality? This wasn’t reality. This was a nightmare. I went behind the bar. I wasn’t going back anywhere.
I got a look at myself in the mirror behind the bar. The cowboy getup now looked absurd. “Well,” I told my reflection, “I sure as hell know what to do when yer woman gets a mind to leave you.”
I looked around until I found the pitcher she’d used last night. I’d make a big batch of Old Fashioneds. Or Red Eyes, or whatever the hell cowboys drank. It was time for a real bender. A total blowout. A full-on hoolihan.
There was still an inch of her Russian Lemonade in the pitcher. As good a start as any, I thought, pouring it into a pint glass and downing it in one go.
I nearly gagged. It was completely watered down, just melted ice, except . . . there had been no ice.
I went back into the kitchen and it took me all of 20 seconds to find the unopened bottle of Crystal Skull vodka sitting in the oven like a crappy metaphor.
I barged into her bedroom. Sure enough, she was jamming clothes into a suitcase.
“What’s that?” she asked.
I held up the Crystal Skull. “It’s the vodka you forgot to put in your Day of the Dead Lemonade. You need to have a drink right now.”
“Jesus! You’re like the biggest enabler ever. I don’t want a drink. If I think, I won’t drink. If I drink, I can’t think.”
“That A.A. bullshit is going to kill you. You’re going to flip.”
“Then why hasn’t Darvin flipped? He’s been dry for five years and has the coins to prove it.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s got some immunity thing going.”
“Do you know what you’re doing? You’re just justifying your drinking habit with the end of the world. It’s insane if you think about it. But hey, live and let live, that’s our motto. But you don’t get to tag along if you’re going to drink.”
“Tag along? Tag along to where?”
“Darvin knows a place where we’ll be safe.”
“Does he? When does he get here?”
“Not soon enough,” she said. “You should get on the roof and see if you can see him coming. We have to be ready.”
She went back to packing and I noticed the shotgun laying on the western-style dresser.
I thought about picking it up and taking control of the situation.
Instead, I went back to the bar and pulled down a .750 bottle of Trago Reposado Tequila from the top shelf. I sensed it was time for fiery thinking and ruthless action. It was Tequila Time.
I pulled the cork, had a small, then long pull from the short, squat bottle, and an excellent idea jumped into my head.
I dug around under the bar until I found their Jell-O shot operation: a cardboard box with six 1.75 bottles of Everclear, eight boxes of various flavors of Jell-O and a sleeve of clear 2 oz plastic cups. I added the Trago and a handful of bar towels and charged upstairs. I paused outside her bedroom door. She was frantically pulling clothes from drawers and stacking them in a big heap on her bed. She seemed to be having trouble making up her mind what to take.
“What’s in the box?” she asked.
“I’m gonna rustle up some Jell-O shots.”
“It’s not Jell-O Shot Sunday.”
She shook her head sadly. “If God seems far away, who moved?”
“This time I reckon it was God.”
“If you think, you won’t drink. If you drink, I can’t think.”
“Yee-up,” I said.
The Jester’s rear parking lot seemed a little less packed. They’d been milling around and acting bored until I stepped out onto the fire escape, then they snapped to rapt attention.
“Morning, all,” I said.
It wasn’t easy climbing the ladder with the box, but I managed. I set up my Jell-O shot operation on the AC unit near the middle of the roof and finished up just as I heard the distinctive whine of a VW bus engine in the distance.
I walked to the edge overlooking Colfax and calmed my excitement with a refreshing jolt of tequila. I was immediately struck by the fact that overnight the horde had thinned out by about 20 percent. There was still a thick ring of faces around the building, but it had shrunk from five blocks deep to four.
We could have waited them out, I thought. If we’d laid low for a week most would have probably drifted away.
The mechanical whine grew louder and, looking down Colfax toward downtown, I spotted a red VW bus moving slowly down the street, swerving around stray zombies and debris. Almost as one, the horde turned its many heads from me to the sound of the bus. Its horn began to sound as it reached the edge of the horde and, to my surprise, they got out of the way like surly drunks at a street carnival getting out of the way of a honking cop car. The van entered the horde and it closed behind the vehicle like a vast amoeba.
I had to hand it to Darvin—it was a ballsy move. Occasionally a zombie would get knocked to the ground or one would take an angry swing at the bus, but it kept moving along at walking speed, horn blaring. I went back to the AC unit, loaded up my box and walked to the corner nearest the van.
I’d made six Jell-O shots. My version of a Jell-O Shot was a packet of Jell-O poured into a 1.75 of Everclear with an alcohol-soaked bar rag tied tightly around its neck. I was hoping the Jell-O would add a sticky napalm effect. Regardless, it made the clear-glass bottles festive with color.
When the van was 15 yards away, or as far as I thought I could accurately throw a Jell-O Shot, I fished out my Zippo.
“Jack!” I heard from the direction of the ladder. “Jack!”
I ran to the ladder and looked down. Josie stood on the fire escape. In her hands she held the chain and the padlock, which she was stabbing at with a key. She was wearing a black bra on her head, like mouse ears.
“What’s wrong?” I said, as if I didn’t know.
“We have to unlock the ladder,” she shrieked. “Marvin called! He’s coming right now! We have to unlock the ladder.”
“Darvin! His name is Darvin, you idiot!”
“It isn’t locked,” I said. “I never locked it back up.”
She stopped stabbing at the padlock. She dropped it and the chain and looked up at me. Her pupils were fully dilated, her eyes a flat black.
“You need to take a drink right now,” I shouted over the sound of the honking van coming down the alley flanking the Jester.
“The first drink is the worst drink,” she said and scrambled back in the window. The red van emerged from the mouth of the alley and into the parking lot. Pushing its way through the horde like an icebreaker moving through slush, it stopped directly below the fire escape. The engine idled, then died with a rattle and cough. The sunroof of the van slid open and Darvin squeezed out.
He wore a suitish khaki outfit you imagined an Ivy-league professor would sport during an Outback adventure. His shoulder-length loose blond curls framed a broad approachable face. It was the kind of face that filled the screen during late-night infomercials, shilling Australian lotions, real-estate strategies, yoga tools. There was something strikingly familiar about it.
He stood up on the roof of the van, stretched his long arms, seized the bottom rung and athletically pulled himself up the ladder. He gained the platform, wiped the sweat from his brow, then smiled up at me. He gave me a big thumbs-up then started up the ladder to the roof.
“Hey! You must be Psycho.”
“What? Josie said that?”
“Hey, no one is judging you, brother,” he said, swinging over the parapet. “That’s your paradigm, not mine. Heck, in this new reality it’s probably an advantage. Empathy just gets in the way, right? Where’s Jo-Jo?”
“She’s downstairs. But I wouldn’t go down there.”
His smile uncurled a little. “Why not?
“I think she quit drinking last night.”
“Good. We need clear minds.”
“Her mind isn’t very clear right now. I’m pretty sure she’s turning.”
His smile went flat, and that’s when I recognized him. He’d worn the same frown in his mugshot. He was the face and founder of the Power of Positive Emoting. I vaguely recalled the “movement” being investigated for fraud, embezzlement and will-tampering. I remembered the televised raid of his “ministry compound.” His explaining to reporters that he hadn’t actually done anything wrong and if key witnesses hadn’t vanished, they would tell them that. I remembered his seminars suddenly vanishing from late-night TV and hotel meeting rooms. Then a short stint behind bars followed by a court-mandated visit to rehab.
“She’s always been a little high strung,” he said, turning quickly back to the ladder. I noticed it then, a momentary interruption of balance, a little hitch in his step, quickly corrected, but for anyone who’s spent time behind a bar, easily recognizable.
“Hold on,” I said, grabbing his forearm. He tried to jerk away, but I pulled him close until our faces were inches apart. The scent was vodka, of course, the sneak-drinkers choice of liquor.
“Sorry, Tex, but it isn’t that kind of apocalypse party,” he said, menace in his smile.
“I thought you didn’t drink.”
He snarled something guttural and wrenched his arm away. His face went from angry to defensive in the span of a second.
“It was just a quick one, for the road,” he said. “It’s the first I’ve had in years.”
“I don’t think so. Do you realize what you’ve done to Josie? The reason we’re not one of them is we’ve been drinking. Once you stop you flip into a zombie.”
“Zombie! That’s just ignorant. Those are the New Humans and we’re the Neanderthals who haven’t caught on yet. I’ve been making inroads with these people. They get me. How do you think I was able to drive over here?”
“Stop drinking then. See what you turn into.”
“Fuck you,” he said, pointing at me as he backed to the ladder. “You’re a fucking psychopath and everyone knows it.”
I watched his eyes disappear behind the parapet and heard his feet hit the metal platform.
“Josie!” he called out. “Hey, Jo-Jo! It’s Darvin!”
I picked up my box of Jell-O Bombs and walked to the ladder.
I waited on the fire escape platform, my back pressed against the wall next to the window. In my hands I held the rusted chain. I planned to strangle him with it.
The zombies in the parking lot watched me with fascination. After ten long minutes, Josie’s suitcase nosed out the window, only instead of clothes it clanked with the unmistakable sound of bottled liquor. He set it very carefully on the platform, then his arm disappeared back inside and returned with the shotgun, which he laid atop the bag.
His leg came out as I dropped the chain and picked up the shotgun. After a dejected pause, the rest of Darvin came out, hands raised, his breath bright with the scent of peppermint schnapps.
“Easy does it, Tex,” he said.
“Where’s Josie?” I asked.
“She’s not well. She enlisted in the new paradigm. She was talking about opening the bar up for business, so I’m going to skedaddle.”
“That’s on you.”
He shrugged and picked up the bag of booze. “I’d invite you to join me, but I don’t think we’d be good saddle pardners.”
“Leave the bag. You don’t need it.”
He sighed, then shrugged, then started down the ladder.
“If I were a psychopath,” I said, “I’d shoot you right now.”
“Sure, sure,” he said. Then he said something under his breath. He just couldn’t help himself.
His feet reached the bottom of the ladder, with five feet of open air between the last rung and the roof of the van. The zombies surrounding the van reached up and moaned like teenage groupies at a pop concert.
“Y’all be cool now,” he said to me or the zombies or both, I couldn’t tell, and I pulled the ladder’s release lever and Darvin and the ladder shot down with an angry shriek of metal, crashing into the top of the van. He fell off the ladder and landed flat on his back. He nimbly scrambled to his feet but was close enough to the edge for a tall naked zombie to get a grip on his right ankle. Darvin tried to jerk it free, lost his balance, probably because he was half in the bag, windmilled his arms, then, almost gracefully, almost like he’d planned it, fell backward into the outstretched arms of the New Humans.
They caught him. They caught and held him like adoring fans buoying their favorite rock star who’d decided to indulge in a little crowdsurfing. He looked up at me, his eyes wide, surprised to be alive and unharmed, and the zombies holding him in their arms looked equally surprised. They didn’t bite him or growl or anything. They just held him and he laid perfectly still, his eyes shifting left and right, obviously a little unsure of his position. Then he smiled, and I thought he mouthed the words, “I told you so.”
Then one bit him. On the hand. Just a little nip, like she was a tiny bit curious about what he tasted like.
“Ow!” he said, turning his head to look at her reproachfully, and then it was all over. I had to look away, it was so awful, but I could hear what was happening. The wet chomping, the voracious growls, his screams. The kind of screams you imagined would remain with you forever, but then, I’d thought that before.
I heard a rush of footsteps and heavy breathing from inside Josie’s apartment. I quickly slung the shotgun and pushed the window closed. Josie, along with her new friends, a lot of them, pressed their faces against the window, their snarls muted by a thin pane of glass.
I snatched up a Jell-O bomb from the box, lit it with my Zippo, and threw it hard at the only other vehicle in the parking lot, a blue Mazda. It hit the front grill and erupted with a satisfying whoosh of blue flame, and, yes, the Jell-O did seem to add a certain clinging quality to those standing nearby. The fire-engulfed zombies opened up some space and I threw the rest of the Jell-O bombs, all but one finding asphalt, until the parking lot was amok with flaming zombies screaming and running in circles. It was utter and total chaos, a real nightmare scene.
The window exploded with a chorus of breaking glass and angry snarls, and I slid down the ladder. I glanced up to see Josie’s head, streaming blood, sticking out the window. She looked at me with opaque eyes and let loose a horrific animal scream.
It’s a good thing I’m loaded, I thought, because that might have broken me.
With all the hellfire and bedlam, the horde completely ignored me as I slipped through the sunroof and into the van. I was a little surprised to find the keys in the ignition.
“Things are going my way,” I said, starting the engine. I eased out the clutch and pulled away from the Jester. The legs of the ladder made an awful scraping as they dug divots in the roof, then finished its journey to the ground. In the rearview, I watched zombies storm up the ladder to meet the zombies coming out the window. It was fucking hilarious.
I steered between flaming zombies and took a right out of the parking lot and onto 16th where the zombies were thick and unbothered by fire. I leaned on the horn and they mostly got out of the way. I could see they still respected a moving vehicle, they understood it was an argument they would lose every time. They churlishly slapped and punched at the sides of the van as it passed, and some jerk hit one of the rear windows hard enough to fracture the glass.
“Have it your way,” I said, accelerating to 20 mph. They got out of my way with less surliness and more verve, except for a pair of malcontents who received glancing, perhaps crippling blows for their trouble.
“Drunk driver, drunk driver!” I shouted at them. “Killer on the road!”
Once I broke through the thick ring surrounding the Jester, it was mostly smooth sailing. Out of habit, most of the zombies stuck to the sidewalks, and it was easy enough to avoid the occasional jaywalker.
It was then I discovered I’d left the bag of booze on the fire escape. I was angry, but only for a single ugly moment. I knew the face of every downtown liquor store, I could have found them with my eyes closed.
I raced through the man-made canyons of downtown, craning my neck to look up at the tall buildings, feeling the warm glow of ownership. I looked at the shotgun in the passenger seat. Someone had skillfully carved a grinning jester’s face into the stock. Below the face was etched: The Jester’s Revenge.
I jerked the wheel in time to avoid T-boning a car parked in the middle of the road, turned on the radio and spun the dial. It was a stock AM set, quite vintage, and I found nothing but fuzz. I turned it off and starting singing a little song to fill the space, then I started laughing.
“This life,” I said. “This fucking life.”
“Having a good time?” said a voice from the back of my head.
“Hey! You’re back! I can’t say I missed you.”
“My, look how happy you are. You wouldn’t think two-thirds of humanity had just been wiped out.”
“Oh, let’s not be . . . I couldn’t help them.”
“Help? You’re the kiss of death.”
“Look, I know what you’re thinking—this guy—well, he’s a psychopath. But allow me to retort. Maybe, just maybe, it takes a psychopath to survive in this ugly new world. Maybe that’s why psychopaths exist, why humanity kept their genetic code in the pool. We’re the human species’ last card to play when it all goes to shit, and we’re brinked with extinction. Only we can make those tough decisions that would crush the average person. We are the genetic fail-safe. The hardened bunker.”
“Well. You’re finally self-aware. And all it took was the end of the world.”
“Come on. Those two—they were a little psychopathic themselves, weren’t they?”
There was a liquor store coming up on the corner of Wazee, a fancy affair that didn’t have all the barred windows and steel shutters of the more traditional downtown sources of hooch.
I slowed to a crawl and rolled down the window to get a good look at the state of its security, and that’s when I heard the music. And not just any music—it was loud, godawful techno music.
—Frank Kelly Rich
Tune in next issue for the fifth thrilling installment of The Drinking Dead.