R. Hunter Gough
Her skin is gray-blue, like the sky just before dawn. Fingernails cracked and caked with grime, she holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes. He shakes his head. She pulls one out with lipless teeth and lights it with a tarnished zippo. The ceiling shudders from a bomb strike up above. Plaster falls on the faces of dead children. So peaceful, so serene; like they're sleeping. Burned, bloody, broken, gutted, and sleeping. Had she really said the word "cigarette"? He can't be sure, and he doesn't want to ask. She twitches, randomly, with the arm holding the gun. It hasn't gone off yet. Maybe it's empty. She smells horrible. It's masked now by the smell of the children, and the thing that killed them. She prods it again with her boot to make sure it's dead. Then again it was dead to begin with. So is she. She prods it with her boot to make sure it's "dead again". Smoke drifts out through the hole in her cheek. She should be dead again too. The back of her head's missing, and her broken control box was sparking on the way down here. It's stopped now. He looks at the baby-killer. Vat grown; he's heard of things like this but never seen one. A human face stretched over a crocodile's mouth. And her with her lips rotted into a permanent grin. They look like they're smiling at each other, sharing a joke only dead people get. Her gun arm twitches again, and fires a bullet into the thing's head. The bullet simmers for a moment, then explodes, sending the top half of the crocodile mouth ricocheting off the ceiling and skittering across the floor. He figures the gun's not empty after all. She staggers over to a wall and sits down against it, rests the gun on the floor next to her and closes the one eye that still has a lid. The other just stares soullessly at nothing in particular.
He looks away. His face is still smeared with green and black paint, which blends smoothly into the muddy-brown of his hair but doesn't match the camouflage of his fatigues. The radio on his belt's turned down, but it still crackles steadily, like cooking bacon. They're too deep to contact anyone from here, but the radio went crazy just before the thing attacked them, so he's left it on as an early warning device. Trying to ignore the walking corpse across the room, he looks at an Easter display hanging on one of the walls, probably put together by the giggling Sunday school children whose bodies now lie in pieces around him. There's a collection of eggs, each colored in a uniquely sloppy way by a uniquely sloppy little hand, and a bunny with a real cotton tail that must have been cut out by their teacher. In the background is a hill with an empty cross towering into the clouds, and for a moment he imagines a Christ rotten like the woman behind him, risen from his grave to feast on the brains of the living. He shakes his head violently and drops to his knees in prayer. He's never been guilty of blasphemy before, so why does this unclean thought come to him here, in the basement of a house of God? The Lord's Prayer slips through his mind as it has thousands of times before, and taking a few deep breaths, he opens his eyes and looks across the room at her, still slumped in the corner with one eye open. "Happy Easter" he says as he gets up and wipes the ash from his knees.
"You too." She replies, not bothering to open her closed eye or look at him with her open eye. Her voice is slurred and forced, like the retards they used for combat practice. Maybe she had said "cigarette" before. He's surprised, since he's never heard of a zombie talking. Of course, he's never seen a zombie before either. Another bomb burst shakes the room, the lights flicker. He looks up, wondering if the ceiling will hold, and checks his watch; twenty minutes until "Onward Christian Soldiers" comes on. Like most teenage boys, he watches the show religiously. There's a smaller room adjoining this main chapel, with couches and a TV. Circling as far as he can around the woman, he goes in and checks the TV. After some careful antennae manipulation and some well-placed kicks, Channel 23 comes in okay; a little fuzzy, but he can live with it. This is war, after all. He turns the TV back off and resumes his place across the room from the woman. A brilliant orange sunset streams in through the high basement windows. He checks his watch again; thirteen minutes. He hears a click and looks up to see the woman field-checking her gun. Halfway through she grinds out the butt of her cigarette on the floor. He waits until she's finished, then clears his throat, "My name's Wayne."
She grunts something that sounds like "Maude".
"Maude? Your name's Maude?"
She doesn't answer, and goes back to looking over her gun. Normally he would've gone out of his way to avoid talking to the woman -- he's heard that zombies can be pretty unpredictable, and if they forget you're even there they're less likely to suddenly snap and blow your head off or rip you to pieces -- but they'd each saved the other's life once now, her by tackling him out of the way of the mortar shell that knocked off the back of her head and dragging him down here, and him by putting a cop-killer through the midsection of that crocodile thing as it tried to swallow her whole. He realizes that saving a zombie's life is kind of an oxymoron, but he's always been a good judge of character, and figures it's safe to assume that she's not just saving him for dinner. His watch alarm goes off. He always sets it for five minutes before "Onward Christian Soldiers" comes on. The woman leaps to her feet and points her gun at him, trembling. Wayne feels the color drain from his face, then the alarm stops and she slowly lowers the gun, and says "Sorry." Her voice sounds a little less slurred this time, but still barely intelligible through her mangled mouth.
Cautiously, he circles around her, maintaining eye contact the whole time, until he gets to the TV. He turns it on, trying to keep the volume low enough that it won't distress her, and sits down on a couch in front of it. As the "Onward Christian Soldiers" theme song begins, he hears her joints creaking as she shuffles in and collapses onto the couch next to him. He doesn't want to look at her, and remembers the feeling he had as a child lying on his side in bed at night, certain that there was a monster standing in the middle of the room, and praying that it would go away if he just held his breath long enough and pretended to just be a pile of blankets and pillows. Except this time he knows that the monster really is right next to him. He can smell her rot and hear her shallow breathing. Breathing? Do zombies breathe? Glancing at her out of the corner of her eye he asks if she's a fan of the show. She shakes her head "no", then offers him another cigarette without taking her eyes off the screen. This time he accepts. He's smoked before, in junior high, but these cigarettes taste different and sting his lungs. He wonders if there's some kind of zombie drug in them, but doesn't want to offend her by not finishing it. He smokes the rest without inhaling all the way, and when he's done his mouth tastes like he's been swishing with pickle juice and pennies.
During the commercial breaks he explains the plot to her. In the year 2424, Captain Luke Sanders and the crew of the C.S.S. Michael are in charge of patrolling the Delta quadrant, and protecting the strange and gentle Hrenac -- who are just now learning the good word of Christ's teachings -- from the evil machinations and wiles of the Bantrix. Earlier this season, the Bantrix unveiled their new elite warriors, the Bantrix Zerak, and Captain Sanders was forced to call in reinforcements.
All the time Wayne explains, the woman nods her head slowly. He can't tell if she's letting him know that she's listening or if she's just falling asleep. He looks over at the thing with half a jaw in the middle of the main room, and thinks that it looked a little like a Bantrix Zerak before the woman blew its face off, even though it only had one mouth and two arms. This week's episode has a recycled plot that's been used in at least a dozen episodes previously; a scientist is sent from Earth Command, determined to prove that the Bantrix aren't really evil, and that they're only reacting to humans encroaching on their territory. He gets infected with a Bantrix mind spore, and runs around screaming maniacally that humanity can end the war and make peace with the Bantrix until Captain Sanders himself finally pushes him out an airlock. The crew all have a good chuckle, and praise Jesus for guiding them forever onward to victory.
Wayne always hates "A Moment with Dale", the cheesy talk-drama that comes on right after "Onward Christian Soldiers", so he draws his gun and puts a cop-killer through the TV. He figures he won't be here in a week, and the next episode's a re-run anyway.
"My name Maude."
He jumps. He'd almost forgotten about the woman next to him; no, forgotten is the wrong word, but he'd put her in the same category as a dog or a cat sitting at the opposite end of the couch from him, and one doesn't expect a dumb animal to suddenly strike up conversation. He considers shaking her hand, but immediately thinks better of it. Instead he just nods and says, "Howdy."
Somewhere, maybe a dozen miles away, she hears an air-raid siren start up. The boy stands up and grabs one of the couches by the arm, pushing it up onto its side so it makes a column, then moves on to the next couch. She doesn't understand what he's doing, but she lends a hand, grabbing the couch they were sitting on by the middle and flipping it up on its end. By the time she hears the planes all four couches are upended in a tight circle, like a plaid Stonehenge. The boy crouches in the middle, and she comes and crouches next to him, and they sit waiting for the bombs to fall. His hands are clasped and his eyes are closed; she assumes he's probably praying that the couches will hold the ceiling up when it caves in. She reaches out to touch his hands. He's so warm, and she can feel his pulse just beneath his skin. She suddenly realizes how hungry she is and pulls her hand away. He opens his eyes and unconsciously wipes the hand that she touched on his fatigues. "You remind... my brother," she says.
Wayne had wondered why the shelling had stopped while they watched "Onward Christian Soldiers". He had hoped that his platoon had re-taken this area and forced the tanks back, but they were just withdrawing to make way for the air raid. The siren cuts out abruptly. The bombing starts quietly, but it quickly moves toward them, a deafening, continuous thunder that shakes tiles loose from the ceiling, accompanied by the hornet whine of the bombers. He can hear the church above them creaking from the tremors. It feels and sounds as though the moon has fallen out of the sky and is rolling over them. There's a hit nearby, and three high windows along the same wall shatter, adding a sprinkling of broken glass to the carnage in the chapel. The roar crescendos, and subsides. The planes have passed over them, and the ceiling has not collapsed. He waits until the sound has subsided completely, then opens his eyes. The lights are out; the bombers must've hit the power lines. The sunset isn't streaming through the windows anymore, which means that either it's evening or the windows are covered by rubble. He rummages through his pack, finds a flare, and lights it. She's staring at him, and he can't tell if the look in her eyes is lust or hunger. Neither seems particularly pleasant.
He looks uncomfortable, so she turns away. "Have you seen Heaven?" he asks.
She shakes her head "no". She remembers holding a flag... in the middle of a riot... black gloved hands grabbing her, and dragging her away...
"Were you in Hell?"
She shakes her head again. There were tubes in her neck... pumping in something that burned and eroded her consciousness...
He seems confused, "You were dead, though. Weren't you?"
She shakes her head again. It's started to ache. Her belly is empty and needs to be fed. Wires in her arms and legs, forcing the muscles to expand and contract over and over while she hung suspended... and metal in her mouth, they gave her a bar to bite down on while they soldered the control box to her brain stem...
There's a soft, creaking groan, and for a moment he panics and thinks the church is about to fall in on them, but then he realizes that the noise came from her. "Are you hungry?" he asks.
She nods "yes".
Across the chapel from the TV room is a small kitchen. He checks the padlock on the refrigerator, and is rummaging in the dark for something to smash it open with when she yanks it off the door barehanded. They find half a bottle of grape juice and four packs of hot dogs, along with some other condiments, an insulin kit, and something in tupperware that might be macaroni salad with a thick black coat of fur. Wayne is disappointed that there aren't any buns, and wonders for a moment if it's sacrilege to break into the refrigerator in a house of God. The woman sits down on the floor and starts chewing on a frozen hot dog, but he prefers his cooked. The kitchen stove's electric, but the water still runs and there are pots and he has his portable stove in his pack, so in no time at all he has a piping hot, plain hotdog. They're a little past their prime, and have that wrinkly texture hotdogs get from freezer burn, but at least it's food. He says grace and digs in. Among the condiments in the fridge is a jar of mustard, and mustard almost never goes bad, which helps to mask the taste.
After she eats a couple of frozen hotdogs he offers her a cooked one along with the mustard, and she takes it. He tries not to watch her eat, but it has a sort of car-crash allure to it, as she has to keep reaching up and poking the food back into the hole in her cheek. He wonders if it wouldn't be easier to shove the food in through the hole and keep her lips shut, but then he remembers she has no lips. Her tongue is pitch black, and reminds him of a leech darting around inside her mouth. He drinks some of the grape juice. It's a little fermented, but still good. When she's finished her fifth hot dog he offers her the juice bottle, but after a few failed attempts at keeping it in her mouth long enough to swallow she gives up and hands it back to him. He wipes the lip with his shirt, but doesn't drink any.
Old habits die hard, and after she finishes eating she lights a cigarette and goes to the sink to wash her hands. She finds it ironic that she's concerned with hygiene when there's little more left of her than rot and filth. She loses a fingernail in the process. The mind that was cut off by the control box is slowly coming back to her more and more. She still only remembers bits and pieces, but they're beginning to fit together and getting a little bigger; her youngest brother's last birthday party, one of her students asking an illegal question after class that she neglected to report. She still can't remember herself, but she's beginning to remember her interactions with others. Maybe that is her self. She turns off the water and looks around the kitchen for a towel. The boy is sitting on one of the counters, field-stripping his gun with another lit flare next to him. A gun's a good thing to have in a war, not only because it kills your enemies, but because it gives you a simple puzzle to solve and unsolve, solve and unsolve over and over again during the desolate tedium of waiting for orders. He reminds her of her youngest brother, whose name she can't remember but whose funeral she can, but he also reminds her of the endings of World War II movies, when the Nazis are so short on soldiers that they start drafting twelve-year-old boys. Nazis. Screaming about Nazis and waving a flag, standing on an overturned police wagon. Helicopters, teargas, black gloves, losing consciousness. The memory fades. She looks down at her hands. They're heavily callused, and the veins are black like a junkie's. The missing fingernail isn't even bleeding. "What I look like?" she asks the boy.
He looks up from his gun. She can see him trying to decide what to say. The wrong words and she might rip him apart. He finally decides that honesty is the best route. "You look... unnatural." He sets down the gun. "You look dead, but strong. You look like you used to be pretty, when you were still alive."
She turns away. There's a towel hanging from the handle of a cupboard right next to the sink, and she starts wiping her hands. "Am still alive." She runs the drops of water still left on her hands through her hair. She's comforted to find that it's still chin-length, like she used to wear it, and that most of it's still there. She probes the gaping wound in the back of her head with her fingers, but stops when it causes her to spasm violently. She looks back at the boy, and he's staring at her, almost like he can see through the erosion to the beautiful person she once was. It hurts her. In some ways she is dead. Her beauty is gone, her life is gone. She was nothing more than a killing machine drained of thoughts, memories, and emotions, until her control box was damaged and the ghosts of her past floated back to the surface. Ghosts of her past, and ghosts of her self. She breaks eye contact with the boy and looks down. The bottles of grape juice and mustard are still on the floor near him, so she flicks her cigarette into the sink and busies herself with putting them away. In the refrigerator she finds the insulin kit, and without even thinking she unwraps it, prepares it, and gives herself a shot. There's a plastic tube on the inside of her left elbow that circumvents her blackened arteries and leads straight to her heart. She feels the chilly medicine travelling through her synthetic vein, but when it reaches its destination and touches real flesh it doesn't feel right. She looks at the bottle and realizes that it's not desoxyn. In a flash, she remembers the lab.
Her hopped-up system has already digested the hot dogs, but she doubles over all the same, choking up blood and bile as she drops to her knees. She grabs the refrigerator door for support, but as she's wracked with another fit of nausea she rips it from its hinges. The grape juice and mustard crash to the floor, and their contents mix with her bile, creating a swirling ooze that creeps slowly around her knees toward the drain in the middle of the kitchen floor. She stays kneeling and panting heavily, eventually letting her hands slip from what's left of the refrigerator and wobbling to her feet. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve and looks back at the boy. He's just close enough to try to be comforting, but far enough to be out of the way.
"Bad hot dogs?" he asks, trying to lighten the mood.
She shakes her head "no" and smiles back at him. He shivers, and she realizes that her smile must look pretty garish with no lips. "Need shower." She says.
"There were showers in the bathrooms at the end of the chapel, where we came in."
She nods and shambles out of the kitchen. Wayne follows her out and shuts the door behind them. The smell of the bile is horrible. The kitchen had been the only place down here that wasn't entirely permeated by the smell of dead children, but now it's ruined too. He hopes they'll be out of here soon. The flare he'd left in the chapel has burnt out, so he lights another one. He crosses back to the TV room and absent-mindedly tries to turn the TV back on before he remembers that he'd put a bullet through it, and there's no electricity anyway. He checks his watch again, it's after two in the morning. There's a bookcase in here too, and in it he finds a few of the Narnia books; some of the only fantasy fiction that escaped the burnings because it was written by a Christian scholar. Reading by firelight hurts his eyes, but he doesn't want to go to sleep yet. He kicks one of the couches back upright, and sits down to read. He's reached the part where Edmund first meets the White Witch when he notices that Maude's back from her shower. Her hair's combed to the side, so it covers the hole in her cheek and shadows her lidless eye, and she's wearing one of the choir gowns that most of the dead children were dressed in. There are a few tears in it and spots of blood, and Wayne wonders if she took it from one of the little girls he'd found stacked in the shower when he first checked the bathroom. Probably not. It really doesn't matter to him. In the choir gown she looks smaller, softer, fragile, and in the red-orange light from the flare she looks almost alive. She told him she is still alive, and he wonders if it's true. She reminds him of the girl he fell in love with in boot camp, especially after their first mission together, when she died cradling her intestines in her arms as he cradled her in his arms, her eyes flickering desperately as her face drained of color, her lips turned blue, and her shallow breath quickened, then faded. The last word on her lips was not his name, nor "Jesus" or "Hallelujah", but "No".
Jesus. Dying in his mother's arms. Rising from the grave to feast on --
Instinctively, Wayne punches himself in the side of the head. There's a bass thump as his vision flashes to black and back again, and Maude lowers her head, staring at the floor. She must think she's upset him, and she's shivering. He takes a blanket that spilled onto the floor when they upended the couches and drapes it around her shoulders. "Are you cold?" he asks. There's a chill wind blowing in through the broken windows. It feels good to him, but her hair's wet and she's wearing significantly less than he is. He tries not to think about how little she's wearing.
She shakes her head and presses against him. With the thick blanket between them he can stand to touch her, otherwise he probably couldn't. She's a few inches shorter than he is, but she looked so tall from a distance and in uniform. Her hair smells like cigarettes, but the decaying stench that hung over her before is almost completely masked by the scent of cheap soap and shampoo. "Coming down, drugs." She says.
He leads her back over to the couch, and they sit down together; he in the corner, with her head resting on his shoulder. "Wayne?" she says.
The blanket's pulled up over her head and her face is turned away from him, but he can picture her straining to get the words out. "Don't let them take me back."
The flare burns itself out, and Maude's shivering gradually subsides as she drifts off to sleep. A voice crackles over Wayne's radio. He turns it off, whispers a little prayer for the woman next to him, and closes his eyes. In the red-orange light from Wayne's flare, Jesus looks almost alive.