Thursday, March 20, 2014

ENJOY THE GRAVEYARD (complete)


  Molly liked to pretend it was something bigger when Pa sent her out to mend the fence. Sometimes it was to fend off predators, sometimes to drive off bandits. Usually, like today, she pretended she was marching out to fight a horde of zombies coming over the ridge on the far side of the road. She’d never seen a horde before, but Pa had told her stories of when he’d been her age. What it had been like growing up after the world had finished falling apart and no one had started putting it back together yet. She’d seen Pa put down a lone zombie a couple times, so she took the lurching scrawl of dead flesh from memory and increased it by a hundred. All ten years of Molly marched through the tall grass to the fence running parallel to the road. That child imagination, more real than the real world, conjured a horde silhouetted against the sun rising behind the ridge. Their dumb groans rumbled down the valley and drowned out the morning warblers and cicadas. The grass shook and parted for her as she approached. The pliers and hammers hanging from her belt banged against her leg and became a compliment of incendiaries. The meager training bow and quiver of wooden shafts slung across her back became a genuine compound bow and arrows swathed in kerosene. She reached the fence flint-eyed and scowling brave.
  Molly slid the last wooden spike into its socket. She was about to set to work sharpening the razor crowning. A dull buzz started to sound from behind the hill to the south. Molly turned toward the sound. A venue of turkey vultures came flying over the crest. The buzz growled to a guttural hiss. Molly looked up. The vultures sped over her head. Their mud brown wings blotted out the brightening sky. They flew past her, past the long dead culvert, and rose over the tor that lead to town. The vultures’ hiss fell away as they disappeared into the valley beyond. The warblers and cicadas were gone. The wind was gone. Molly’s imagination ran from the silence. Then the silence died as a relentless rhythm of boots striking asphalt approached. Molly turned back to the hill. She watched the peak, listened to the boots draw closer. A wide brimmed fedora appeared. Long bright orange hair spilled out from underneath. For a second Molly thought the man’s hair was on fire. Then she saw it was a woman walking down the road like a man. More than a man. Like the woman didn’t know thing one about barbarity, like she dared the earth to unleash its wrath. She got closer, and Molly looked her up and down. No bow. No arrows. Molly thought she saw a hilt peak out of the woman’s duster for a second, but just like that it was gone. She kept looking at that orange hair rolling down the woman’s shoulders. A lock sometimes waved in front of the woman’s face. The woman never bothered to move it. The woman came to Molly and turned. The rising sun sliced down the edge of her cheek. She stared into Molly’s eyes like she was watching ants pick apart a rabbit’s carcass. The girl had never seen a face like that on a woman. Whores and free women all looked tired and scared and beaten up and down. And Mama’s face had been soft and had a smile like a lullaby. But the orange-haired woman had a face at home among civilization’s remains, that was comfortable ducking in and out of shadows feeding on the constant fear of death. She had no fear. She welcomed the opportunity to wander the American graveyard, to court the attention of the wraiths and monsters that rose from its tombs, and make them scream.
     Molly turned and ran back to the house as fast as she could. Cordelia Sabina continued down the road toward the tor pointing to the town of Redgrass.

     “Emmie, dear, how are you?”
     She stopped sweeping. Mr. Croyt approached the shop, stepping over the open sewer grate onto the sidewalk. She turned to greet him with a smile, not bothering to hide the scarred side of her face. “Morning, Mr. Croyt.”
     “Your daddy working you too hard?”
     “No, he’s not.”
     “Good. Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be cooped up in a woodcarver’s all day.”
     Emmie Hayes smiled and bowed her head favoring the unscarred half. “Stop it, Mr. Croyt.”
     Croyt smiled back. “Is he teaching you or just having you clean up his mess?”
     “He teaches me. Daddy wants me to be able to fend for myself when he’s gone.”
     “Think you could copy this?” Croyt handed Emmie a pocket-sized photograph bled of color and infested with frays and creases.
     “Is this real?” she asked.
     “My grandmother when she was about your age.”
     “Did you know her?”
     “No. Killed before I was born. Mama kept it her whole life. It’s all I got of both of them. But look at it. It’s going to go one of these days, and that’ll be it. You think you can copy it?”
     “Of course, Mr. Croyt. Daddy’ll even make you a bigger one no extra charge.”
     “No, no. I got to have it on me. If something were to happen to my house or the town and I lost that picture… and if something were to happen to me, I’d just as soon keep them with me.”
     Emmie smiled as Wellman Hayes limped out the shop’s front door. “Mason, stop distracting my little girl.”
     “We were talking business, old man. Unlike her father, this one’s diligent.”
     “Yes, she is. C’mon in. Emmie, honey, finish sweeping quick and come on back inside.”
     Wellman and Croyt walked inside, gossiping about Anson Greaves’ missing men. Emmie went back to sweeping dried chips of mud into the street, her scarred side facing the shop. She looked up from time to time. She thought the cloudless sky gave Redgrass’ decayed exterior a measure of dignity and beauty. It almost looked like one of the real towns she’d heard of that used to be all over the country. Through their restaurant window, Mr. Faberly nailed a new two-by-four across the top of the window. Mrs. Faberly dropped some shreds of cabbage and chicken bits into a pan. Rock crashed and shattered from what remained of the town hall down the street. Some of Greaves’ hired hands cursed and hurried past the missing portions of wall and makeshift scaffolds. Mr. Derringer and his burro were on their way out of town for water. He glanced back at the town hall with a scowl. The scowl turned poisonous as Mr. Derringer passed Greaves’ saloon. Emmie didn’t know why Mr. Derringer didn’t just buy water from Greaves. He waved to Emmie as he passed her on his way out of town. The guards opened the gate as he approached. The scavenged bluffs of rusted metal screeched open. Cordelia Sabina stood outside.
      Mr. Derringer and the guards stared at her as she passed through the gate. Emmie stared too. Everyone she knew moved under a weight of grief and fear. Her father limped and sometimes threatened to fall. Mr. Derringer always hunched. Mr. Croyt’s head was perpetually bowed. Cordelia Sabina strode ahead without concern, crushing dead growth and asphalt flotsam under boot. The cracks in the street and the sections of road sinking down or thrusting up failed to impede her stride or retard her gait. Her orange hair tailed her like a cape of fire. 
Croyt walked past Emmie and said goodbye. 
“C’mon, Emmie” cried Wellman. “We got work to do.”
She watched Cordelia Sabina until she was inside the shop and the street beyond her view. She set up the table by the front window and set a fresh block of wood in the vices. Wellman hobbled over with his knives and gouges. Emmie pulled his stool up beneath him, and Wellman set to carving Croyt’s grandmother. Emmie hurried to the front stoop. The Faberly’s new busboy, what’s-his-name, skipped into the armory. Three of Greaves’ legbreakers argued about water by the mouth of the refuse pit. Cordelia Sabina was gone. Emmie returned to her sweeping. 
Back in the shop Emmie asked, “How’s it coming, Daddy?”
“Too early to tell yet, Pumpkin. What’re you doing?”
“Just going to plane some.”
“That’s a lamb.” He smiled.
Emmie grabbed some rough chunks of wood from out back, set up behind the counter, and started planing them into blocks fit for carving. Father and daughter worked in silence.
     She heard the boots pound up the steps before she looked up. The door swung open. Cordelia Sabina stepped inside. Emmie set down the planer. She started to smooth out her dress and brush the hair out of her face.
     Wellman was at Cordelia Sabina’s side before Emmie stepped out from behind the counter. “How d’you do, Miss? Welcome to Hayes Woodworks. I’m Wellman Hayes. This here’s my daughter Emmie.” He turned to his daughter. “I’ve got this, Pumpkin. You go on back to work. Go on.”
      Emmie looked at the orange-haired woman. Cordelia Sabina was staring at her, at the scarred side of her face like she was finding shapes in the clouds. Emmie lowered her head and returned to planing.
      “Between the two of us,” Wellman continued, “we can make you anything or fix whatever you got that’s broken.”
      Cordelia Sabina looked around the shop.
      “Back there’s some of our furniture. Chairs, tables, cabinets, chests. Try them out yourself if you like. What brings you to Redgrass?”
      Cordelia Sabina started to walk toward the wall covered with woodcarvings.
      “This here’s how we do most our business actually. Always people looking for pictures and keepsakes. Most artists you find’ll draw you on a rock in charcoal and chalk. But get it wet, and then what’ve you got? Some’ll mix up some ragass paints, but those don’t look like nobody. Yeah, you want a thing of beauty and skill that’ll last, you find yourself a woodcarver. And you ain’t going to find one better than me.”
Cordelia Sabina stopped in front of one.
“That one there,” Wellman said. “Fella passing through come in one day. Lost his boy and girl to bandits a week earlier. Said he tracked and killed them, then come in here and ask me to copy a sketch into wood. Never came back for it. Reckon them bandits either had friends or weren’t as dead as the fella thought. Sad to say that’s how most these woodcarvings ended up on the wall. Seemed wrong to just throw them away.”
Cordelia Sabina said, “I hope you demanded payment up front,” and moved onto other portraits.
Emmie wasn’t even pretending to plane.
Wellman sputtered, “Well now, what kind of ghoul’d I be, asking for –”
Cordelia Sabina faced him. “I’m looking for work."
Wellman paused, then said, “Sorry, Miss, but me and Emmie’s all we can –”
I meant mercenary work.”
Wellman looked at his daughter. “We don’t need mercenaries,” he said to Cordelia Sabina. “I don’t know how we’d pay if we did need – ”
“Who would?”
Wellman stood silent.
Emmie stepped forward. “Anson Greaves’d use her, Daddy.”
“You never mind Greaves, girl. I told you,” said Wellman.
“Who’s Greaves?” asked Cordelia Sabina.
“Never mind my daughter, Miss.”
“He’s the boss of the town,” Emmie answered.
“Emmie.”
Emmie approached Cordelia Sabina. “He runs the saloon down the street on the right halfway between here and the old town hall. We work for him and he keeps us in water.”
Wellman grabbed for his daughter. Cordelia Sabina jabbed a finger into his chest. He stopped cold.
Cordelia Sabina turned to Emmie. “He should have plenty of men already.”
Emmie said, “He sent some men out for supplies about a week ago. They never came back.”
“What do you know about that, girl?” Wellman spit.
“I hear people talk, Daddy.”
Cordelia Sabina asked, “Why would he care so much about his men?”
“It’s the stone he wants,” Wellman said, eyeing his daughter. “He needs it to rebuild the town hall.”
“Why’s that matter to him?”
“I don’t know. He’s been on it two years now, wanting to rebuild it.”
“He keeps jacking up the price of water to pay for everything,” Emmie said.
“Dammit, girl, that’s enough. I don’t talk to the man except to do business,” he told Cordelia Sabina. “And I don’t let him nowhere near Emmie here.”
Cordelia Sabina looked at the long serrated scars blanketing the one side of Emmie’s face. She turned back to the woodcarver. “So he’d pay to make sure that stone is recovered.”
“I don’t know,” said Wellman. “But, well, no offense, Miss, but good luck trying to convince Greaves’ a woman’s good for something she can’t do on her back.”
Cordelia Sabina looked again at Emmie’s scars. “Thanks,” she said and walked out.
Emmie’s eyes lingered on the shop’s entrance long after Cordelia Sabina was gone.


      Greaves sat on his office balcony, his feet kicked up on the railing, his hands folded in his lap. He watched the bipeds of burden slowly reanimate the corpse of his town hall. 
Jorge clasped the pale twee figurine of a girl by the arm. “This is her, boss.”
“You hear anything yet?”
“Nothing.”
Greaves nodded toward his office. “Go on.” He looked the new girl up and down until he heard Jorge close the door on his way out. “Did Jorge tell you Rule Number One?”
“Don’t say nothing ‘less you ask me,” she wisped.
“Seems to be giving you trouble. I didn’t ask what it was. I asked if Jorge told you what it was.”
“Sorry.”
“Right now I don’t know if I should talk to you like a three-year old or kick you like a dog. You answer a direct question and say nothing else.”
She said nothing.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes.”
Greaves nodded. “You got a name?”
“Jesa—I mean, yes.”
“And what is it?”
“Jesamine.”
“What kind of name is Jesamine?”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s not a whole lot you do know, is there?”
“I don’t know.”
“I guess you wouldn’t. Well, that’s good. Easier on both us not having to beat and fuck a bunch of useless knowledge out of you. Know this, Jesamine. I own you. Like I own this chair I’m on, this saloon, this whole what-passes-for-a-town, I own you. While I own you, you are going to make me what amounts to money. Not actual money of course. Do you know how you’re going to do that?”
“I think so.”
“Is thinking the same thing as knowing?”
“No,” Jesamine squeaked.
“So why did you say that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because you can’t think, that’s why you said that. That’s why your daddy unloaded you for a handjob and a sack of millet. That’s why you will make me money by working as a whore, ‘cause cum receptacle is the only job you’re qualified for. Understand?”
“Yes.”
“Good. Start here.” Greaves took his feet off the railing and pointed to his lap.
Jesamine kneeled in front of Greaves, opened his pants, and started working.
Greaves eyebrows arched. “God-given talent or years of practice?” he asked. “Don’t answer. Just keep going. So you already know Rule Number One. Now I’m going to risk scrambling whatever brains you got and outline the exceptions to the rule. See, despite these dudes coming in here to wet their whips along with their whistles, most of them need coaxing. It’s stupid. It’s like hunting and expecting the deer to shoot itself, but that’s a dude for you. So you get next to them and chat them up, tell them they can have you. And a lot of these imbeciles want you to talk when they’re fucking you. Makes them think you like them. Get with Anna or Lillian. Let them show you how to talk to a john. The other exception to the rule is if you have a question. You ask the girls or Jorge or Esteban. You do not ask me. You don’t work your way up to my position to keep answering stupid questions. Speed up a little.”
     Greaves demonstrated with his hand on the back of Jesamine’s head. He looked again down Redgrass’ main street, the crack of hammer and chisel on stone a music shimmering into his ears. “The town hall,” he said, “that was a husk when I got to this town. Once I got established here, I made it a point to rebuild it. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of free liquor and snatch enticing men to do the work and endure a lot of bullshit. Two different walls and half a roof falling and killing a couple boys. Losing men on supply runs to the zombies or the desperadoes. One shitfleck turned out to be stealing and selling materiels to them, the desperadoes. Thing that bothered me was I never got out of him what they tossed his way. What could the bandits promise him I couldn’t? Jorge and Estaban put that dumb kid through everything we could think of. In the end I wound up losing my temper. Ended up kicking him in the head ‘til he just lay there. But you can’t let a thing like that discourage you. You work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what’s important about impressions. Make a big enough impression, everyone falls to their knees. C’mon. Harder.”
     A knock sounded from Greaves’ office door. “Boss?” Jorge called.
“What?”
“Some girl’s here looking for you.”
“Deal with her.
“Boss, can I come in?”
Greaves yanked Jesamine to her feet and closed his pants. “Come in,” he growled.
Jorge stepped out to the balcony as Greaves got to his feet. He leaned into Greaves’ ear. “She ain’t going to deal with anyone but you.”
“So you and Esteban kick her ass out.”
“We was going to. Esteban’s laid out on the floor and his arm’s broke.”
“She put Esteban down? He’s a side o’ beef.”
“He’s no gentle giant neither.”
Greaves turned to Jesamine. “Go with Jorge.” He turned to his man. “Send her out here.”
Jorge and Jesamine left as Greaves sat back down. He heard his office door open and close. Footsteps crossed his office floor. Greaves watched the orange-haired woman step onto balcony. Her fedora eclipsed the sun. Her duster smothered the town hall.
Cordelia Sabina met Greaves with a look to wither marble. “I’m looking for work,” she said.
Greaves stretched his neck and grinned. “I hope your customer service is better than your inter-office politics.”
“I said work. Not bondage.”
“That depends on the customer.”
“You make a habit hiring talent for the wrong job?”
“Well, you’ll need to audition before I can answer that. You’re a little older than I like, but that doesn’t –”
“How’d you take over this town in the first place?”
“It’s a rousing tale all right. Want a taste?”
“I’d rather know how the town is still standing.”
Greaves’ smile died screaming. “Ask around.”
“I have,” Cordelia Sabina said. “Now I’m asking you.” She put one boot on the chair between Greaves’ legs.
Greaves locked onto the boot. He managed, “You know how to win a man over, don’t you, mouthy bitch?”
“I don’t have to, little boy. You got your two best men here watching your back, and no one worth a fart in the wind to fetch your stone.”
Greaves crossed his legs. “So I understand, you’re offering to retrieve my property?”
Cordelia Sabina nodded.
“Understand me. The gangs can flay those assholes alive and leave them on a spit for the zombies so far as I care. I just want what’s mine.”
“Understand me,” said Cordelia Sabina. “They can do the same to you. I just want to get paid.”
“What’s your price?”
“Five gallons.”
Greaves sprung from his seat. “Of water? Get the fuck off my balcony.”
“It’s a small investment,” Cordelia Sabina asked looking down at Greaves.
Greaves swallowed. “Word gets around I let some piece of ass waltz into my place and dictate terms, every tick in the region’ll be chomping at my bit mistaking me for a soft touch.”
Cordelia Sabina closed. “Want to talk soft? Let them see that open sore down the street you can’t close. The ticks won’t consider you at all. They’ll just suck you dry one corpuscle at a time. And how long ‘til the gangs realize how impotent you are?”
“This is my town.”
“You’ve done a job convincing people of it. Think you’ll be able to keep it up when they see your monument remain unerected?”
Greaves lowered his head. “Two.”
“Five.”
“Three.”
“Four”
Greaves drew a sharp breath. “Not one cup up front.”
Cordelia Sabina smiled. “Told you I wasn’t a whore.” She extended her hand. They shook, and Cordelia Sabina turned to leave.
Greaves stopped her with, “So you know, that stone you’ve now agreed to recover from the No Man’s Land is supposed to weigh around half a ton. My men used horse and cart. And even if they’re alive, I doubt the horses are drawing breath.” Greaves dismissed her with a starved grin.
     “You were right. It is a two-gallon job.” Cordelia Sabina walked away.


     Nyswaner’s bloodcurdled wheezes poisoned the cave air. Quigly slapped one hand over the dying man’s mouth. He wrapped the other around his throat. “Goddamn peckerwood shitsipper, we’ll throw your ass out this cave, let the zombies take you. Now you lay there and die quiet. You hear me?” Quigly backhanded the branch punched through Nyswaner’s left lung. The dying man loosed a brief storm of wet rasping anguish.
“Dumb shit,” whisper-spat Grommott. “You crazy?”
“Fuck him in the wound,” Quigly barked. “Him and Greaves.”
“Fine. Fuck them quiet, stupid.”
Quigly grabbed Grommott’s shirt. “You want me to chuck your ass outside too?”
Grommott slowly displayed his open hands. “No,” he softly offered pause. “We keep up the noise, we can stay right here and wait for them. Right?”
Quigly grimaced and slumped on the rock floor. He erupted into staccato convulsions. Airy sobs tore his face into a grimace. Tears zigzagged down his twisted weathered face. 
“Try and control yourself, all right?” Grommott said. “We’ll be all right.”
Quigly sniffled his way back to quiet composure. “Goddamn fucking Greaves,” he cursed quietly.
Grommott stared into the viscous black of the cave. The cave’s mouth and the zombie-plagued sea of darkness beyond waved to him from within the choking ink. “Yeah.”
“That’s all you got to say?”
Somewhere in the night’s lowest depths was Grommott’s sister, his nieces, sleeping. “What you want me to say?”
“What, you don’t blame Greaves for this?”
“Can’t blame him for my weakness.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“I was, Quigly.”
He was about to raise his voice, but caught himself. “That leech fucking lied to me.”
“Mmmhmm.”
“I signed on for a gallon of water. We shook hands. And now I’m going to die for nothing.”
“We’re not going to die,” said Grommott.
“Son of a bitch, zombie or thirst it don’t matter. We ain’t getting out of this cave alive.”
Grommott just stared off into the opaque uncertainty of the immediate world.
Quigly clenched shut the top of his coat. He shivered as the wind whistled a ghostly mating call at the mouth of the cave. He breathed heat onto his bloodless fingers. The need for silence hobbled his breath. The heat was more taunt than respite. “How the fuck you not freezing?” he asked.
“I am,” said Grommott.
“Well chrissake, show it.”
They said nothing else for hours. The men’s thoughts turned to the ether, but the darkness and silence turned them back inward. The scar tissue of past sins flared. The light from the blaze illuminated long-forsaken roads. The paths carved their way with a serrated hate through a landscape foamed over with self-imposed sepsis. Grommott and Quigly kicked and clawed through the crippling spume. Their voices finally meekly broke the surface.
“You got something to drink on you?” asked Quigly.
“I don’t.”
Quigly shrugged his way through shakes. “Just as well I guess. Wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the bottle.”
“How bad is it?” asked Grommott.
“Depends I guess on how pretty it is outside. Most days are rather ugly.”
Grommott nodded. “I hear you.”
“You’d think I’d know better. Daddy… he was dead to the world when the zombies came after us. Never woke up before they was on him. Got off easy, he did. My mother, she was dumb enough try fighting them. Standing there swinging this old rusty saw we used to use to cut down trees for the fire, like that’s going do a thing. She should’ve run with me.” Quigly’s voice wavered in the silence.
The words danced in the blackness around Grommott. The quaver in Quigly’s voice alighted and filled the cave with sandpaper empathy. Grommott exhaled. “Hell,” he cursed quietly, “only reason I’m here’s I had to get me some trim.”
“Well shit,” said Quigly, “man’s gotta get some from time to time.”
“I should’ve stayed with my sister and nieces. They’re older now, sixteen and fourteen, and they’re good strong girls. Pretty too. But,” Grommott trailed off. 
“What?”
Grommott shook his head like a dog buzzed by flies. “I couldn’t stay there anymore. Not like that.”
Quigly stared at the unseen voice in the lightless cave and thanked whatever deity had cursed the human race, grateful for the darkness.
As if sent on cue by that ruinous god a pinprick of light blinked into existence at the mouth of the cave. Like an orange-yellow spectre a torch swallowed the darkness as it grew. The echoing crunch of boots on cave floor approached.
Grommott and Quigly, stiff as corpses, listened for the witless moan of the carnivorous dead, but heard only boot on rock. “Who’s there?” asked Grommott.
Cordelia Sabina clutched the torch, the flame appearing to rise from her fist like a wellspring starved for destruction. “Cordelia Sabina. Greaves sent me to find you.” 
Grommott and Quigly helped each other to their feet. “He did?” asked Grommott.
Quigly hissed, “You mean to find his stone.”
“That’s right,” Cordelia Sabina said. “But you’re alive. Don’t see any reason you can’t stay so.”
Grommott’s canyon-wide smile bore his teeth to the light. “Thank you, Miss. Thank you. Thank you.”
“How much he paying you?” asked Quigly.
“Who cares what he’s paying her? She’s here, ain’t she?”
Cordelia Sabina trained her eyes on Quigly like pistols at dawn. “What’s that to you?”
“If he’s paying you in water, you got buffaloed. Four-flushing cuntbag’s dry as a bone.”
“You know this?”
“It’s true,” admitted Grommott. He pointed to Nyswaner’s near-corpse. “That one’s his man. Copped to it in his delirium.”
Quigly spat on the blood-soaked heap. “Die slow, shitheel.”
“Doesn’t change anything,” said Cordelia Sabina. “That the stone I saw in the cart down the ravine?”
Grommott nodded. “Zombies got the horses,” he said.
Cordelia Sabina nodded. “There’s three dozen a couple hundred yards to the north and east. You stay here ‘til I call for you, and keep your mouths shut.” She handed the torch to Grommott and moved to Nyswaner. She hoisted the almost-dead man over her shoulder and headed to the cave’s opening.
“What are you doing with—”
“Shut up.”
Grommott and Quigly watched their savior disappear into the black maw. Her footsteps faded to nothing, and Grommott stomped out the torch. The two men stared into the maw for an interminable period that bled their breath one unnerved exhalation at a time. They neared the cave’s entrance a trepid micron at a time. They strained forward to hear what they knew would be their fateful dirge. 
A scream erupted from the floor of the ravine. A flickering glow ballooned from its echo. The scream suddenly died as Grommott and Quigly ran to the opening of the cave and looked into the ravine. Flames roiled like angry waves consuming Nyswaner’s body. Grommott, nearly crying out, slapped his hand over his mouth. A weak trickle of zombies began to trudge into the ravine. The trickle soon grew to a deluge. The zombies’ dumbly ravenous moans consumed the crackle of the Nyswaner pyre, their effluvium peeling through the rotting flesh. 
“Where is she?” Quigly whispered. 
Providence soon answered with an arrow slicing the hot air with a whistle. It punched through one zombie’s brainpan, and sent the now motionless mass to the ground. The shock sent Grommott and Quigly back on their heels. The remaining zombies’s wails pitched upward as they turned their heads. A torrent of arrows rained from the surrounding darkness. A dozen more zombies fell. Cordelia Sabina soared out of the shadows, her sword in hand, into the heart of the undead scrum. The men watched her speed around the ravine in one fluid streak, weaving around, sliding under, leaping over, and charging past each zombie as she removed their heads with glinting, apocalyptic arc. When the last fell to the ground, Cordelia Sabina stood, her sword weeping the offal of the once living dead. Grommott and Quigly turned to each other, quieted by the cosmic power of what they had witnessed. The universe had unleashed its wrath. It stood in the foot of the ravine amidst its furious art, and regarded it as nothing.
When the men reached the ravine floor, Cordelia Sabina was wiping the blood from her blade by the Nyswaner fire.
“What kind of sword is that?” Quigly asked.
“Falchion. Medieval European.”
“Where’d you get it?”
Cordelia Sabina sheathed the Falchion and started to the opposite end of the ravine. “Meet you at the cart. Get plenty of rope ready.” She disappeared into the lightless void.
Grommott looked over the carnage, saliva pooling at the edge of his mouth. Quigly grabbed him and pulled him to the cart. The light barely reached the distance. The men squinted to collect the rope from the bed.
“Jesus,” Grommott said under his breath.
“What?” asked Quigly.
“What she did.”
“What? You think a woman’s going to make it through a no man’s land she don’t know how to handle herself?”
“When you ever seen someone do that? Where’d she learn how to use a sword?”
“You can ask her on the way back to town.”
“How we getting back without horses?”
“Sure she got a idea.”
“What’s your problem? I saw you up there. Don’t act like you ain’t impressed.”
“I don’t care a fuck what she can do, I ain’t letting –”
They shut up as two undead moans approached from the dark side of the ravine. Grommott and Quigly huddled behind the cart. Cordelia Sabina emerged holding an armless zombie by the scruff of its desiccated neck in each hand.
“What the fuck are you doing?” cried Quigly.
“Tie them up.”
“Why?” asked Grommott.
“We don’t have horses, and we got to get this cart back to Redgrass. Tie one end of the rope to the front of the cart, then use the rest to harness the zombies.”
Cordelia Sabina’s face discouraged further argument. The men kept their eyes on the zombies the whole time, shuddering as the mobile corpses’ wobbling heads and gaping mouths bent in their direction when near. Their torsos completely bound and tied to the cart, the zombies stood unmoving.
“Okay,” Quigly sneered. “Now what.”
Cordelia Sabina looked at him. “Now we dangle a carrot.”
Quigly caught her look. “Fuck that.”
“What?” Grommott asked.
“She wants us to be the carrots.”
She said, “You just have to walk in front of them.”
“I ain’t no fucking carrot, lady.”
Cordelia Sabina held up a length of rope. “Yes, you are.”
“What’s that for?”
“You get spooked, I can’t have you running off and leaving me stranded halfway to town.”
“Miss,” Grommott, “we wouldn’t do that.”
“I aim to ensure it.”
Quigly addressed Cordelia Sabina inches from her face. “Fuck you.”
She drew her sword and sliced open Quigly’s throat.
Before he could scream, Grommott felt the tip of the falchion at his Adam’s apple. He heard Quigly’s body slump to the ground, but was locked into the eyes of the firehaired angel of destruction. Her eyes swallowed him like a great whale. There was nothing human in them.
“What do you say?” she asked him. 


     Jesamine closed her eyes and let the sharp rhythm of penetration become the lyrical rock of a chair on a porch. She heard the pleasant creak of cedar swim with the breath of a spring breeze and the brushing of ash leaves. She breathed the succoring ambrosia of peonies flaking the sweet air. Her children, cherubic and unmolested, gamboled through the field of tall emerald. The gleam from their smiles glinted like the sun off the blades of grass. Their mellifluous giggling chimed the songs of mockingjays. Jesamine felt a hand cup her shoulder. She looked up and saw a man she knew to be her husband. A flush of security, of warmth and insurmountable joy welled inside and cast to oblivion every spore of hurt and fear.
The doctor’s fingernails dug into her shoulder as he climaxed. Jesamine felt him tense against the back of her thighs His breathing slowed, and he abruptly pulled out. Jesamine straightened herself, letting her skirt fall from her back.
“Let me get your balm,” the old man said as he fastened his pants.
Jesamine smoothed her skirt and billowed her top. “Do you have a mirror, Doc?”
He pointed without turning. “Against the wall. Behind the doghyde.”
Jesamine stood the aluminum plate on the stack of cured canine skin. She watched herself run the makeshift comb through her hair. For a split second she entertained the fantasy of the cats’ teeth filleting her scalp, of the blood seeping down her face and drying, of walking into Greaves’ saloon and proudly displaying her new look. But Jesamine’s fantasy dashed itself against the certainty of its consequences, and she soon saw herself walking through the wastes like carrion waiting for circling buzzards. 
She returned the comb to her pocket and the mirror to its place. The doctor handed her a flimsy cloth tied into a palm-sized sack. “Mix a tablespoon of this with maybe a quarter cup of water,” he said.
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“Well, it depends on the potency of the mix.”
“What is it?” Jesamine asked.
“It’s medical. It’s hard to explain to a lay person.”
     The door burst open. “Doc,” cried Emmie, “we need you at the gate. Now.”
     Emmie and the doctor ran to the gate. Jesamine followed. A crowd was gathered. Jesamine’s hurried walk petered to a stunned shuffle as the others reached the gate. The guards, standing over two dead zombies, slung their bows. A man was lying on the ground, barely breathing. The doctor and two other men cradled him in their arms and hurried to the doctor’s house. They rushed out of Jesamine’s periphal vision as she caught sight of the orange-haired woman in the duster and fedora from the other day. She marched in Jesamine’s direction like a god-made-man bound for the saloon.
     Jesamine hurried to Cordelia Sabina’s side.. “I remember you from the other day.”
     Cordelia Sabina kept walking.
Jesamine walked beside her. “You got Mr. Greaves’ stone?” she asked.
Not a word.
“How’d you do it?”
“Same way anyone would.”
“I don’t know anyone who could do what you did.”
Cordelia Sabina stopped. She turned to the alabaster niblet with eyes of tempered steel. “You don’t think you could?”
“Me? How am I going to fight zombies and gangs and all?”
Cordelia Sabina started back down the street.
“Wait.” Jesamine reached for Cordelia Sabina’s arm. Her fingers barely brushed a fold in the duster’s sleeve, but Cordelia Sabina’s head whipped around to meet Jesamine’s. Her face rattled like a diamondback’s tail. The brittle little prostitute heard the air hiss out the killer’s nostrils. Jesamine withered to a wide-eyed sheet of milk and backed up a step. She held her breath as Cordelia Sabina disappeared into Greaves’ saloon.
Emmie sidled up to Jesamine. “Impressive, ain’t she?” she asked.
“She’s scary,” Jesamine said, the corner of her mouth twitched upward.
“I guess she has to be.”
Jesamine shook her head. “What do you think happened to her?”
“Nothing easy.”
“Has it been easy for you?”
Emmie turned, exposing the scarred half of her face. She said, “In comparison?” and shrugged.
Jesamine turned back to the saloon. Her eyes crept up to Greaves’ empty balcony. Her shoulders sagged.
Emmie asked her, “So how’s Greaves treating you so far?”
“Well–”
A man’s scream knotted in terror blasted from inside Greaves’ office. The town stilled as a body flew through the balcony door, shattering the glass. The railing splintered, and Greaves’ body thudded to the street with a disinterested crunch. Jesamine shrieked and ran to the writhed corpse. Its wounds rained red, coloring every thread now heavy with blood. Its eyes were shocked open and with the fear of a lost child crying for his mother. More screams, both men’s and women’s, exploded from inside the saloon. Glass broke. Wood snapped. Stone cracked. The noise stopped abruptly, and the silence deafened the town.
Cordelia Sabina exited the saloon, wiping the blood from her falchion. She returned the sword to its scabbard as she approached the delicate orphaned whore.
Jesamine stood. “What did you do?” she screamed.
“Guess,” Cordelia Sabina said. She passed without looking at either Jesamine or Emmie.
The tears erupted from Jesamine as Greave’s blood slowed to nothing. “Why?”
“You want a reason, pick one.”
Cordelia Sabina reached the open gate. The crowd parted. The guards stood at their posts. No one said a word. The crawl of the wind stilled. The orange-haired demon set off across the no man’s land.
     Jesamine watched the fading outline of the harbinger against the wastes and didn’t know which was the greater horror.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

THE BATTLE OF SHANGHAI

     It’s largely bewildering to consider the possibility that some people have no friends, but the behavior of some of the Internet’s surliest assholes makes a compelling case for its veracity. But most of us do have friends, and some of us are lucky enough to have forged a friendship with someone that defies any ontological sense. Dancing on kismet’s strings you crossed paths with the one soul capable of navigating your profoundly twisted psyche’s Kafkaesque engineering. You share an understanding of and even an appreciation for one another’s neuroses and baroque addlepations. It’s a plush bubble of camaraderie in a torrential mosh of rolling eyes and curled lips, one you often shape and reinforce with your fraternal sense of humor. You share your jokes and where others hear the guttural imbecilities of barbarians, you two sing the language of dryads and laugh yourselves intoxicated. This is what led Brian and I to have the following exchange via text:
               Me: Having Chinese. I plan on asking them which
                       dynasty is their favorite, and then debating
                       them on whichever they choose.
               Brian: Ask if they can make peanut butter and
                       jelly sandwich.
               Me: Before or after the dynasty debate?
               Brian: During.
               Me: Will do.
     I arrived at the battlefield, my regular Chinese place, [name redacted, because you don’t need to know where I get my Chinese food]. Joe was behind the counter per usual. We shook hands and exchanged our pre-battle pleasantries. Only Joe had no idea I was planning to attack. I was coming to him as his regular customer who had always greeted him with a smile and a handshake. I’d given no indication that I was planning a Teutoburg massacre.
     “Here you are,” he said. “$[price redacted, because you don’t need to know how much I spend on my Chinese food].”
     I paid, grabbed the bag, and then launched my opening salvo. “Hey, let me ask you something. What’s your favorite imperial dynasty?”
     Joe stopped, his mouth stuck between a nonplussed gape and a grin tickled awkward. “My favorite dynasty?” he asked. “Of China?”
     I locked my face into the cast steel of a humorless cataphract. “Yes.”
     Joe’s mouth bent decidedly into a smile wide as Xiang Yu’s at Julu. “Okay,” he said. “The Xia.”
     “The Xia?” I sputtered with exaggerated apoplexy. “They were mythical.”
     Joe’s eyes widened and he exploded in surprised guffaws. “No they weren’t.”
     “Yeah, they were. Xia Yu the Great is as mythical as Romulus and Remus or King Arthur.”
     “Or George Washington’s wooden teeth,” Joe added.
     I smiled, realizing I had an opponent who understood the rules of engagement. “C’mon,” I said. “You gotta go with someone real.”
     “You asked what my favorite Chinese dynasty was. You didn’t say they had to be a real dynasty.”
     “Well, then you might as well say the Carringtons were your favorite dynasty.”
     “They were my mother’s favorite.”
     Wow. What a competitor. Time to break out the Greek fire.
     “Hey,” I said. “Could you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”
     Joe bowed his head in silent snickers, which should be a “healthy” variation of the famous candy bar. He raised his head and said, “Of course.”
     I beamed. “Can I have one?”
     “No. We don’t serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
     “You just said you could make me one,” and before I had loosed the words from my mouth, I knew I’d fallen into his trap.
     “I know how to make peanut butter and jelly. That’s doesn’t mean I’m going to put it on the menu.”
     Holy shit, he left his flank open. I targeted his pride and livelihood and fired. “All good restaurants let you order something not on the menu.” 
     “Not Chinese restaurants. We’re very anal that way.”
     Damn, this guy was good. He had countered by opening a brand new front I couldn’t defend. If I, the white demon, pushed back on the racial front, I ran the risk of escalating the battle out of the realm of the playful. Joe knew I wouldn’t do this. I had to redirect my initial charge. “I bet the Xia would.”
     “They weren’t real.”
     Son. Of. A. Bitch. Joe had me. I was Cao Cao at Red Cliffs. There was nothing left for me to do but spill my king and concede, which I did. I bowed my head and for the first time during the entire exchange laughed my ass off. Joe did the same. “See you later,” I said, and I walked out smiling. I had gone in there to entertain what I had believed was an insulated whimsy, and come out to find the wind carrying that whimsy over the mosh pit. My rational thirty-five-year old mind had known it was absurd to think that my sense of humor matched only one other on a planet of over seven billion. But to find another only five minutes from my house gave me optimistic pause. Maybe the pit was plusher than I’d thought.