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The Storyteller Speaks

American Zombie Beauty

By Philip Baruth

Page 6

Late that night, after we’ve used the Subaru to drag the bodies into a hole back in the woods, and rigged the last grenade to a trip-wire perimeter, and finally gotten Grampa off to sleep, Suzanne and I sit up even later in the loft, trying to clean the wood splinters out of my leg. When she’s got it more or less clean, and doused with hydrogen peroxide, she bandages it tight and then comes up into my arms.

Never have I felt the same sense of blissful, all-consuming visceral satisfaction, in spite of the throbbing leg: Jerrys dead, Suzanne alive, futon warm, grenade primed.

For kicks, we’re listening to the Dead cassette that had the Jerrys so briefly grooving. We’ve got it turned down low, so Grampa won’t hear, and so any rogue Jerry in the woods won’t mistake it for a homecoming. It’s a song called Box of Rain, a live version, a song I’ve always liked because it manages to be both melancholy and up-beat all at once, truthful in that way, unlike most pop music, that wants one or the other.

And then something morbid dawns on me: that we’re listening to a concert tape, and that at that concert, very likely, the LDV virus was transmitted and forty years later there was chaos for whoever caught it. Blood and madness and chaos.

“Where’d you get this cassette,” I murmur into Suzanne’s hair.

There’s a very slight pause. “I recorded it.”

I take this in, feel a chill come creeping over my chest, all of the skin except the place where her hand rests. “You went to a Dead show? You never told me that, Suzanne. When?”

A longer pause, and I can see that suddenly we’ve bumped together into a place where she’s wrestled alone, mentally, for months. When she speaks again it’s nearly inaudible, although I can hear the catch in her voice. I feel warm tears welling against my chest. Finally, she turns to one side so she can say it. “It was 1986. Not like some major Dead love-fest from the ’70’s.”

I can feel my body tense, top to bottom, as though the tensing is happening to someone else. No, 1986 is not like the 1970’s, when the virus was everywhere at every concert. But thus far the Center For Disease Control can’t say just how long LDV continued its initial retro-viral bloom. So far the mid-eighties are a crap shoot.

I don’t have to ask.

She answers, because she loves me and she wouldn’t hold out. “I know you want to know if I did it with anyone that night, Will. And I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. I’ve racked my brain. I’d just broken up with Steve, a few months before, and I know I wasn’t a nun back in those days. But that particular night, I honestly don’t remember, Will. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”

I pull her closer, tighter, because I love her and I’d never let her suspect that I don’t. Even if she did do it, that doesn’t mean she caught it. They know that LDV was getting weaker each year after the seventies.

But it’s suddenly here with us, in the bed, at least the possibility, the threat, the living ghost of the thing itself. Death. The Dead. All of it. No longer outside, beyond the perimeter, but maybe here, maybe now.

So we do what humans do when Death needs to be kept at bay.

She holds my face right in front of hers, with both hands, tight. We’re an inch apart. “You’re my man,” she whispers fiercely.

No tears now. All cried out. Just sad, serious Suzanne eyes.

“You’re my woman,” I whisper back, and I kiss her neck. No hesitation, and I’m proud of that, but I realize that if I’m proud of it, it means there’s still a hesitation there inside somewhere, even if I’ll never ever admit it out loud.

She goes to sleep first, and I can’t help but lie there and watch over her in the dark, because it’s my job. And although it’s just gotten much harder, it remains my job, and always will. Loving her, watching out for her. Helping her fight the Jerrys, the silent bastards, the Dark.

Finally, I sleep too. Or sort of sleep.

Mostly I inch my way through dead dreams, to another land.

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