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The Storyteller Speaks

American Zombie Beauty

By Philip Baruth

Page 5

And when the music blares out, and rolls down on them foraging and rampaging around in the dooryard, it does reach them, I swear to Christ.

They all more or less stop where they are—even one of them hauling what looks like the hindquarters of a dog, fresh hindquarters, blood a big dull smear down the front of his tie-dye—and they look up at the speakers dumbstruck. Like it’s the Voice of God, demanding their attention.

And then, out of nowhere, they all start to do it: their Dead dancing thing.

Not sure if you’ve ever seen video of a Grateful Dead concert from back in the day, but all the women did these twirly hippy-girl dances, circling their freckled arms just as sweet and pretty as you please, peasant skirts snapping, and the men were all mostly good-natured, uncoordinated white boys with just enough of this or that in them to loosen up and enjoy themselves, and they all had a hell of a time dancing. Dance for hours, boys and girls, eyes closed, very deep grooves. It was a trance almost, by the look of it. If you ever wonder why the virus spread so easy among them at those concerts, you watch them dance. Like ballet and foreplay and kindergarten playtime all rolled into one.

Well, the Jerrys don’t get that into it—can’t any more. You can see that even from a distance, that there’s something bolluxed up with their nervous system, so what they manage is more like a rolling walk, a jerky little swing to the arms. The Jerry carrying the back end of the dog starts to fly it through the air, the way a little boy might fly a model airplane, just lost suddenly in the feel of it cutting the wind.

They’re all still foraging for food, and they’re all still parched with thirst, and driven by the madness in their blood, but they look almost contented down there in the driveway, boogie-taken, dream-swayed.

Doesn’t last more than a few minutes.

Because that’s when one of them gets a look at my head, sticking up out of the top of the cabin roof. And that female Jerry gives a loud, barking noise, and the heads swivel. From their perspective, it must look like a brain on a silver platter, like dinner is served, and suddenly they’re all looking, and none of them are dancing anymore. Now that I think about it, they can almost certainly smell the blood still drying on my shin.

I shoulder the rifle I’ve had leaning up against the wall below the window.

Which is when Suzanne comes slinging dust and gravel up the rise in the Subaru.

It’s like I knew it would be: they’re around the car before she can do much of anything, except try a savage spin of the wheel that just takes her into a stand of maple she can’t clear. And they begin to swarm.

By that time, though, I’ve got my rifle shouldered, and I take out Dog-Boy and a few others that are clustered on this side of the car. Really just clearing a path, more than anything. And then I pull the trigger, and it clicks, clicks again.

Empty as a fucking Halloween gourd.

Suzanne sees that I’ve poked her a hole, though, and as soon as the bodies slide away from the car, she slams the passenger door open and bolts for it, before any of the others can really react. She’s only 5’4” but she runs five miles every couple of days to stay in shape, and she’s so keyed up that she looks like a blur coming across the lawn.

But it’s too good to be true. Something comes out from the moss behind the cabin. A genuinely large Jerry—bald except for a long, stringy fringe of hair full of leaves and burdocks—suddenly takes shape. He must have been loitering around under the eaves where I couldn’t see him, and he’s got an angle between Suzanne and the doorway. I can hear him growling or howling or whatever that sound is they make.

The noise isn’t ear-splitting, but it’s the sound of authentic insanity, and it makes the rest of the Jerrys go quiet.

This big one’s not like the rest, you can tell that. No jerky movements, no misfiring synapses: he comes at her powerful and sure, arms circling for her, oddly cat-footed because he’s big as a black bear.

“Suzanne!” I scream, but my clip is empty and by the time I hobble downstairs it’ll be over, so there’s not a thing in God’s green earth I can do but watch. Like that night in Boston: she’s got ten feet between her and the door, and some sick bastard is trying to haul her out of the Light for good.

But that was Boston then, when she was a cutesy college girl.

This is Vermont now: Suzanne jerks out the .22 pistol she carries when she does the shopping, and I hear the irate little bang of it, a surprised protest from the gut-shot Jerry, followed almost immediately by the sound of the side door, slamming shut, being barred, double-barred, top and bottom.

She’s inside, just like that, and I feel my heart beat again. “Suzanne!” I yell down to her, my voice cracking. “You okay, baby?”

“I’m okay,” she yells back, and I hear her pistol firing through the little gun slot we’ve got cut into the side door. Then I hear her click on an empty chamber too. And just like that, everyone’s out of ammo. We’re inside a huge wooden box, under siege by a Fuurther of infected freaks, and we have no little iron things to stick into our guns. But she’s in the cabin, where it’s safe, and relief washes through me anyway.

Still, the relief is very short-lived, because I can do the math. There are at least twenty-five more Jerrys left than we have ammo, I’m sure of that, and eventually they’ll find a way into the cabin. Which is when there’s a tug on my sleeve, and I look down to see Grampa in his smoking jacket, handing me something round and dark and heavy for each hand. For a second I think he’s handed me two metal bocce balls. I weigh them in my hands before deciding that they are, in fact, exactly what they appear to be: a pair of grenades. Green. With pins and shit.

“Jesus Christ. Are these things live?” I say.

He looks hurt. “Sure, they’re live. I look like some weekend war re-enactment pussy to you?” He points to the hole in the roof. “You start feeding those bastards their lunch. I got three or four more of these babies hidden down in my room.” He starts for the ladder with real enthusiasm, like he’s just started a satisfying project, like building a kit-car or a kayak in the garage, that will occupy a run of Saturdays.

I can’t help but yell after him. “You mean every time we’ve moved in the last ten years, you’ve packed along a half-dozen hand-grenades?”

He looks dumbfounded, then squints like maybe I’m just having fun with him.

A look like, You mean you didn’t?

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