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The Storyteller Speaks

American Zombie Beauty

By Philip Baruth

Page 3

I’m laying bricks against the basement door when my cell rings. Not really laying bricks so much as jamming them this way and that into the mess of concrete that I poured down the stairwell about an hour ago. Not so much poured it down the stairwell as ran the wheelbarrow full of concrete over the top step and let the whole mess settle as it would at the very bottom. Not a lot of finesse in the home improvement projects of the last thirty-six hours. But I get my cell out and up against my ear as I shovel around in the drying muck.

“I had to get off 89,” Suzanne says, and I feel my heart waver, then go airy and drift up in my chest, trailing a tiny kite-string of pain. Because this is a woman I’ve been foolishly in love with for almost twelve years, almost married twice, almost had a baby with once. And she’s not on 89 where she should be.

And if she’s not on 89 she’s either on Route 2 or the Mountain Road, and neither of those are roads where you want to be because they’re small, lonely tracks through deep woods, without a street light or a gas station or a militia outpost for twenty-five miles either way. Route 2 is where you go if you want to pull off and make love in the back of a Volkswagen Type 4, on a Navaho blanket with the hatch flung open and the constellations looking in, which is the way Suzanne and I started out back in the day.

“Jerries or Feds?” I ask, praying for Feds, for once.

“Both,” she says, and the phone starts to cut out. But then it sizzles back into life, and I hear her say, “—backed up from the road block, shooting into the tree line, sniper rifles. Looked like five or six or more.”

“Suzanne,” I yell, “why didn’t you stay at the roadblock? Why didn’t you just stay there?”


“Suzanne, did you get the ammo and the food?” She wouldn’t have gone out at all today, given the reports of Jerry movement south out of Burlington, but we were down to the odd handful of bullets and the last bag of fresh pasta.

Her voice comes through faintly. “No, I never got that far.”

“Are you on the Mountain Road yet?”

Nothing again. But I figure maybe she can hear me so I yell, “Use the side door, Suzanne. Side door. It’s the only way into this place anymore, and we’ll keep it ready to open for you.”

More sizzle.

And then Suzanne, faint but coming through—because she’s Suzanne and she’ll damn well move her voice through her phone and then the open air and then back down into my phone by sheer force of will if she has to—Suzanne shouts in this desperately thin little voice I can just barely hear: “—minutes or so. Have the door open, Will. I’m going to have to run from the car. Don’t make me stand out there fiddling with my keys, okay? You know I hate that, Will, right?”

And then the voice is gone.

You have to know what she meant: Suzanne went to college in Boston, and one night real late she was fiddling with her keys outside her dorm in the dark and some really big silent bastard ran by and grabbed her purse, thinking the little cocktail strap over her shoulder would break. But it didn’t and for this space of a few horrible seconds Suzanne had the feeling—sidewalk ripping her nylons, one hand twisted around into the leather strap—that it wasn’t the purse the attacker wanted at all. She had the sense that night that what the man wanted, really, was to haul her out of the Light forever and ever.


* * *

We learned fast as the bodies piled up and the government got stretched beyond its means. We learned fast once we realized we were all going to have to have take care of ourselves.

For one thing, we learned Jerry Garcia wasn’t himself the origin of LDV—that was a teenage runaway from Stamford, Connecticut that the Centers for Disease Control call “Twirly Girl Alpha”—but he was one of the first, and researchers think his death-like coma in 1986 was an early manifestation of the virus. Ditto for his relapse in 1992.

Two, we learned the Jerrys are pack-oriented, and they seek one another out and form up into tribes. They use tie-dye as a social signal, and the males are bearded, but you can’t fool them by dressing the part, believe me. They can smell an imposter at two-hundred yards, smell the difference in the blood, not to mention that the real ones all tend to bite off and consume most of their own right middle finger—you’re not a Jerry until you lose the finger Jerry lost, apparently.

And three, they can be wicked fast and they can move around just fine in full daylight and anyone who thinks that you’re only going to run into them in a deserted shopping mall hasn’t been sitting on a hot Burlington city bus in the late afternoon at the exact moment that an overweight woman with elaborate acrylic nails—a woman who happened to lose her virginity at the massive Summer Jam in Watkins Glen in 1973—goes full-tilt Jerry.

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