An excerpt from my short story collection, Sex in the Time of Zombies
SKINNING THE FRESHY
William Todd Rose
FRESHIES & ROTTERS
The basic rules of Freshies and Rotters:
- Half of the players are designated Refugees and represent the living. Refugees can basically do as they please and are bound to no special handicaps.
- The other half are Rotters. Rotters can only stagger after the refugees and are not allowed to use tools or anything that would denote a higher intelligence. The job of a rotter is to pursue the Refugees through the muddy streets of Free Town and try to catch them.
- If a Rotter lays a hand on a Refugee, then that player becomes a Freshy. Freshies are allowed to sprint after the remaining Refugees as quickly as they can. However, they can only run for the amount of time it takes to count, out loud, to thirty. After reaching thirty, the Freshy becomes a Rotter and must shamble along with the rest of the undead team.
- The game continues until the last Refugee has been cornered and changed into a zombie.
I spent God knows how many hours playing this game as a child. And I was good at it, too. Whenever I was on the refugee team, I would always be the last one left alive. So much so that some of the other kids began demanding that I always start out as a Rotter. I declared it wasn't fair that I should always be undead just because I was good at running; they would argue back that they wanted to know what it felt like to be the last person left alive and that I was ruining the game for them. Sometimes, it would even come to blows and we would scuffle the ways boys will, fighting over something that really doesn't really mean a damn in the larger scheme of things. But to me it was important: I loved that silly little game more than anything else in the world.
I remember the feel of the mud squishing through my bare toes, the smells of shit and piss and boiling roots that wafted from the shanties and lean-tos, the constant coughing and hacking as dark smoke curled from barrels aglow with crackling flames. Free Town was the only world I'd ever known and I was enamored with every soot stained nook and cranny of it. Some of the kids would lean against the wall that encircled our little city and press their ears so tightly against the bricks that they would leave bloody pucker marks when they finally pulled their heads away again; they would try to listen for the world beyond the wall, for the scratching of the corpses we knew were just on the other side. Tommy Ballister used to stand like that and daydream about exploring the wilderness beyond our home, of hacking his way through the undead horde and discovering cities hidden in the undergrowth of forest; and Sarah Thompson would be right there with him because, as she so often reminded us, her Grandpa had taught her everything she'd ever need to know about surviving in the outside world. They wanted to be adventurers, to find the artifacts and relics of a world we had never known. A world some of us doubted had ever really existed. But me? I was happy with my family's tent, with the mouthwatering aroma of roasted rat on Sundays, with life inside the wall. The other world held no interest for me: let me do my chores, let my mother teach me to read and write, let me play Freshies and Rotters until it was time to bed down for the night. I was perfectly content.
Though it was never put to us in this manner, I can now see that Freshies and Rotters was basically a parable game. And the lesson it taught was the lesson of life outside the wall: in the end, you can't win. Everyone becomes a freshy or rotter sooner or later; the undead team will just keep coming after you until there's no refugees left.
Maybe if someone had explained it to us like that things would have turned out differently. Perhaps there would have been more fear of what waited out there in the dark. Or maybe it wouldn't have made any difference what-so-ever. Maybe we would've thought it was just another made-up story to scare little kids like the Boogeyman or Charlie Manson. But at least we would have had the facts. At least we would have known.
RETURN TO INNOCENCE
Sometimes, I awake in the darkness with tears still warming my face. I listen to the chirping of insects in the underbrush, to the distant call of an owl who sounds so forlorn and alone that he could very well be the last of his species. I awake with the feeling that something inside me, part of my soul perhaps, has collapsed like a sinkhole during my sleep, leaving nothing more than a dark, empty pit.
I curl into the smallest ball possible, pull my knees practically up to my chin, and wrap my arms around my legs. I try to tell myself that it's only to help trap my body heat, to ward off the damp air that seeps into my flesh with a chill that penetrates the very marrow of my bone.
But I know better.
For some reason, laying like this makes me feel less exposed, less vulnerable. It doesn't matter if I'm in some old structure with wood that smells of mildew or some cramped cave with its army of gnats and mosquitoes. I can never make myself tiny enough to escape from myself. So I lay there and cry , all the while listening to each snap of a twig, each rustle of undergrowth, to ensure my soft sobs haven't garnered unwanted attention.
The dream is always the same. I am small. So small that people tower above me like gods, their faces shining down benevolence and love but far too distant to ever touch. I 'm with my mom and dad and they are on either side, each with one of my little hands entirely folded into one of their own. Above us are monstrous buildings of steel and glass; they gleam in the sunlight like the swords of angels and cast long shadows over the throngs of people who pass below.
And there are so many people, more than I ever thought possible. Men and women and children of all ages, all packed together shoulder to shoulder, some smiling, some talking into these weird little boxes they press against their ears. No one is running. No one screams or looks frightened in the least bit. They simply walk by, well-fed and clean, as if they are the only ones who exist. As if a crowd of rotters could be sidling right up beside them and they would never know.
In the dream, I can feel a flutter of excitement so strong that it almost makes me nauseous. My parents and I are going to something called dizzy knee on ice and I am jabbering on and on about seeing the giant mouse and the duck who gets so mad you can't understand what he's saying. My parents laugh and squeeze my hands softly as they look at one another with a smile.
It's one of those dreams that feels like a memory and maybe that's why I always wake up crying afterward. But I know how absurd this is. For one, ducks can't talk. Plain and simple. And mice don't grow to the size of the one we were going to see. But there's this small part of me that feels this tugging: like there's these little strings attached to my heart. And I want so badly to be pulled back into that surreal landscape of my dreams. To be in that place and never have to wake up from it.
I've thought about this a lot. Which really shouldn't be any surprise. Other than scavenging for food and water and hiding in the shadows, there's not much to do out here. I just try to stay alive and my mind turns over the dream again and again, picking it apart piece by piece.
I think what I'm really missing is Free Town and those huge buildings represent the security and safety I felt behind its walls. My parents and all the other residents, obviously, are still there in their little tents and shacks so that explains their presence and all the other people in the dream as well. As far as I can tell, the mouse and duck are just odd little things my mind threw in for reasons I'll never be able to comprehend. But I definitely know why I'm so small… I want to return to the innocence of my childhood, to a time when my biggest concern was whether I would be a refugee or a rotter. I want this emptiness in my stomach to be filled with the greasy warmth of possum and to be explaining the rules of Freshies and Rotters to some kid who's just now old enough to learn how to play.
The rules were simple. But everything is when you're a child. And that's what I want to return to: a time of simplicity and ease. A time when I didn't have to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether or not I would live to see the sun rise on another day.
Damn that Tommy Ballister. This is all his fucking fault. He may have wanted this, but not me. Not in a million years. All I ever wanted was Free Town. But I'll never be able to feel its cool mud on my feet again and because of that, if for nothing else, I 'm glad that Tommy's dead. Looking back, I only wish I would've killed him myself.
GANGS OF FREETOWN
I had grown too old for Freshies and Rotters. At fourteen, I was nearly a man; within the next couple of years, I would be expected to move out of my parent's tent and make my own way in Free Town. I would provide my own food, make sure the Emperor got his required share, and go about the business of being an adult. The problem was, I wasn't quite ready for all of that responsibility. While I'd cast aside the games and toys of childhood, I needed something to take its place. Something that would exist as a buffer between the innocence of youth and the obligations of maturity. Which is where the gangs came in.
There were three major gangs within the confines of Free Town, each comprised of approximately eight teenage boys at any given time: Los Muertos, The Rotter Nation, and The Free Town Freshies. Los Muertos had way too many rules for my tastes: they dictated everything from what you could wear to who you were allowed to speak with… if I wanted to subject myself to that kind of control, then I'd just stay at the tent all day while my mom and dad barked orders at me; it was also generally agreed that The Free Town Freshies were a bunch of pansies and posers. So, by default, the gang I really wanted to belong to was The Rotter Nation.
For some reason, the boys in The Nation seemed so much cooler than anyone else I knew. They all had this swagger in the way they walked, as if they were the true emperors of Free Town, and they could nick apples from someone's basket without that person even realizing what they were up to. Which is saying a lot; the gangs are generally distrusted and people tend to keep their food close to their bosom, as my mother used to say. But somehow, they pulled it off, time and time again, while members of the other gangs were routinely brought before the Emperor for punishment.
As it turned out, Tommy Ballister also wanted to join The Rotter Nation. We'd never spent much time together as kids: I was too busy playing Freshies and Rotters while he was pretending his stick was a machete and the hulks of twisted metal littering Free Town were zombies needing dispatched. But we knew each other enough to throw back our heads at one another as we passed and knew quite a few people, like Sarah Thompson, in common.
Sarah, though, wasn't doing so well. The fever had set in a few weeks back and her condition had gradually declined with each passing day. Which, secretly, caused me to whisper prayers for her when no one was listening. See, I'd developed something of a crush on her: every time she'd look at me with those big green eyes, I'd feel this little quiver in my stomach and I wouldn't know whether to throw up or just keep grinning until my face cracked. I'd lay on my bedroll at night, long after my mom and dad were both snoring loud enough to call the dead, and picture her long dark hair and the little smattering of freckles across her nose. I'd think of those thin lips, the swells of breasts that rounded the front of her shirt…
But I was much too worried about how I would look in front of the other guys to admit this. They all thought she was kind of weird because she'd picked up this odd little habit after her baby brother had died. At least once a day, she would walk to the walls of Free Town and place her hands against them. She would stand there and talk to the Rotters on the other side. She'd tell them little details about her morning: what she had for breakfast, how her mother was teaching her to sew, that sort of thing. And even though she couldn't see the corpses she was talking to, she gave them names: I don't know, Robert, but I think Anna might not be as good of a friend as I thought… I hope you're well today, Shirley, or at least as well as possible seeing as how you're dead and all.
The other kids called her a zombie lover and would laugh and point as she passed. The boys would find dead mice to throw at her and the girls would hold her down in the mud while long strands of spit slowly descended towards her face. She was ridiculed, mocked, beaten up, and threatened at every turn; but day after day she persisted in making her pilgrimage to the wall and talking with the dead.
When I would string together my elaborate fantasies in the dark of night, they almost always began the same way: a bunch of other kids had her surrounded and they were pushing her from one person to the next as they spat their derision in words carefully chosen to inflict maximum emotional damage. Tears streamed from her eyes and she yelled for help until her voice cracked but this just seemed to incite the kids even further and the jeers got more vicious, more personal. But then I showed up and pushed my way through the crowd; my voice boomed above their mocking chants and they all immediately lowered their eyes in shame as I scooped the trembling Sara into my arms and whispered everything will be alright, now. I'm here…
In real life, however, it was an entirely different story. Even though it left me feeling like I needed to somehow clean myself from the inside out, I was right there in the crowd. My voice might not have been the loudest and my comments may not have been the most biting, but other people were watching. I had to say something . . . even if it was only to call her a dirty zombie lover.
Of course, it didn't help matters any that her cousin, Carlos Thompson, was usually the one responsible for the attack in the first place. He seethed with hatred for his cousin and made no attempt at hiding it from anyone other than their family. When he looked at her, his face had this expression that seemed to encompass anger, shame, and disgust all at the same time. Spittle would fly from his snarled lips as he hurled insults at her and if she began to cry or tried to run away, his eyes would spark with cruel amusement as he doubled his efforts.
He was a real piece of work, that Carlos. He'd been before the Emperor so many times
that his body was still covered with bruises from his last punishment. The usual food rations and ever-increasing amounts of time in the solitary hole never seemed to have much of an effect on 'ole Carlos. So, when he killed the Henderson's prize kitten and tainted the meat by making sure that all the internal organs had ruptured, it was obvious more drastic measures were needed.
The entire Henderson family were given these long wooden dowels and Carlos had to kneel naked before them as they struck him over and over as hard as they could. The Emperor had decreed that the beating should continue for as long as the Hendersons had strength left in their arms; when all was said and done, Carlos had to be carried back to his tent and had been laid up in bed for nearly three days. His mother and aunt had stirred up quite a fuss, claiming that the evidence was all circumstantial and that everyone was just out to get their family for some reason I never quite understood.
But Carlos wore those bruises like badges of honor, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt so that everyone could clearly see the blue and green splotches covering his arms. He bragged how the entire time he'd never screamed and begged for mercy…how he'd just knelt there and took his punishment like a man.
Whether or not that was true was anyone's guess. The entire scene had played out within the confines of the Emperor's doublewide trailer and it was strictly forbidden for anyone to come close enough to his palace to have witnessed anything. But Carlos was one tough son of a bitch; and, as the de facto leader of The Rotter Nation, it was easy to imagine him kneeling there with an expression of grim determination as the dowels whacked his flesh again and again.
Sometimes, I think that maybe that's why he hated Sarah with such fervor. Being related to her might have caused others to wonder if it was something in the blood; if perhaps he, too, was somehow tinged by the same madness that gripped his younger cousin. Could he also be considered a zombie lover by default? If so, how would this effect his standing within the gang? Perhaps some young upstart might see his relationship to Sarah as a sign of weakness and lay challenge to his role as leader; all it would take was a few whispered conversations, several well-rehearsed lies, and a gaggle of gossip.
Or maybe he was just a cruel and sadistic mother fucker who didn't have a cell of
compassion within his entire body. The truth is, I'll never really know for sure. All I know is that during that point in my life, I worshiped this man like a god. Anytime I'd filch a bit of food from some other resident of Free Town, I'd always ensure that he got a fair share of the booty. As if he were the emperor and I a humble supplicant showing gratitude for his protection and mercy. Sometimes, but only when Carlos was in clear view, I would pick out a member of the Free Town Freshies and start a bit of trouble. The scenario I played into was always the same; some imagined disrespect the other boy had shown me, some little slight I'd dreamed up the night before. And I would beat that kid into the ground, would pummel him until his face was nothing more than a bloody mess and all the fire had gone out of his eyes.
But the entire time, I was keeping watch out of my peripheral vision. Watching Carlos and that little grin of approval that would spread across his face…
HISTORY & LORE
My parents told me once that when the world was still alive, Free Town had been what used to be called a junk yard. They said it was a place that people had taken their trash and rubbish to, all the garbage leftover from their day to day existence. They also claimed that the emperor hadn't built the walls that surrounded our little city. These had existed long before the world knew what a freshy or rotter was; the emperor, they claimed, simply saw the possibilities that the enclosure offered and began the task of transforming this place of refuse into a refuge. The earliest residents had helped him clear away most of the wrecked cars that littered what would become Free Town; they'd drug them outside the wall and surrounded the city with these rusty hulks of metal as a kind of additional barricade against the dead.
However, the zombies, it turned out, were far more persistent than anyone had ever dreamed. They came clamoring through the doorless shells of trucks, squirmed between the tight passages of this metal labyrinth, and slowly made their way to the outer wall. Drawn by the sounds of life like ants to a crust of bread, they clustered together and clawed at the bricks, scrambled over one another as they searched for even the smallest weakness in our defenses.
So, a new plan had to be put into place. I have vague memories from when I was very small of hammering and pounding as the residents of Free Town constructed a series of platforms that rose almost to the very top of our great wall. These structures looked rickety with their planks jutting off at odd angles and the rungs of ladders being nailed in at irregular intervals; but they were surprisingly sturdy. As we would come to learn, they were actually capable of supporting the combined weight of every person in Free Town without so much as even a creak or groan.
Once the platforms had been constructed, a group of men had been sent outside the wall with picks and shovels. Their first order of business had been to kill the rotters who'd surrounded our little enclave like an invading army. I don't know how many widows were made in this undertaking or how long that battle outside raged on . . . I was, after all, just a small child and barely understood the events that were unfolding around me. History, however, has taught me that the mission was a success and that these men quickly set to their primary objective.
In a spot that was mostly free of wrecked vehicles, they dug out a long trench that hugged the base of the wall like an earthen shadow. Somehow, they also managed to bore a hole through the bricks just large enough to insert a metal pipe. The pipe jutted out of the wall at a forty-five-degree angle and connected the safety of our life within Free Town to the savage wilderness outside.
And that, my parents said, was how The Day of Burning came to be.
THE DAY OF BURNING
All of Free Town was buzzing with the babble of excited conversations, the clanging of
pots and pans, and the squeal of laughing children as they zig-zagged through town. And the scents… good God, the scents. Deep fried hawk mingled with the spicy aroma of batter dipped rabbit and the smell of those little wild onions that grow down by the south side of the wall was sweet and pungent, permeating the tents and shacks like the promise of heaven. Mushrooms, crispy crickets, rhubarb pie baking in rusty ovens whose sides had become blackened from the fires that crackled underneath: every household was preparing their finest dish in the hopes that the Emperor would bestow upon them the coveted title of Best in Show.
Tattered streamers had been strung between the structures of our city and the multicolored triangles and squares flapped in the breeze as if they were applauding the collective efforts of the residents. Some of the banners sparkled with large, block letters that formed words I didn't understand: SALE!, Clearance, and Grand Opening. But these strange phrases really weren't the point; no, the point was that a collective madness had seized the residents of Free Town and brought smiles to faces that otherwise were locked into deeply creased frowns and tight-lipped expressions of disapproval.
Two Finger Freddy had set himself up on the back of a flatbed truck and the strumming of his battered guitar was soft and haunting as Sadie Hoffman sang cryptic lyrics. Something about imaging there was no heaven or hell. Not normally my thing, but I, too, had been swept up in the whirlwind of cheer that made eyes sparkle like jewels in the sunlight.
I was lounging in the shade of what the older folks called a refrigerator with my eyes closed, breathing in the smells as my stomach gurgled, and listening to the music drift through the wordless drone of a dozen overlapping conversations. By the time the sun had begun its descent in the sky, the real festivities would have started: people dancing in the brightly colored costumes exclusively reserved for The Day of Burning, wrestling matches where grown men squirmed in mud in the hopes of claiming the wild pig that had been snared from the wilderness following the last Day of Burning and allowed to grow fat and round. Maybe I'd try for that pig, I thought to myself, bring it home and let my mother prepare it however she liked.
I opened my eyes and squinted at the boy who stood before me, shading my eyes with a
Tommy Ballister squatted down and began picking small pebbles from the ground as he cocked his head first to the left, and then to the right.
“You hear? The Emperor picked the Thompsons to be the Fire Bringers this time.”
He spat a glob of spit into the dirt and rattled his collection of small rocks in his hand as he looked up at me.
“Yeah, Skinny Tyrell said somethin' about it earlier. He was pissed 'cause his family has never been picked and this is the second time for the Thompsons.”
Tommy leaned in so close that I could smell the rankness of his breath as he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. He glanced over both shoulders before dropping his voice to a whisper.
“I bet old lady Thompson is sucking his cock.”
Tommy laughed and shook his head as if he'd just seen a trained mouse perform an elaborate trick.
“Fuck no, rotter brain…the Emperor.”
I turned this over in my mind and tried to imagine Mrs. Thompson with her head bent over the Emperor's lap. This time, it was my turn to laugh.
“No way, Ballister. He probably just feels sorry for them. Because of Sarah and everything.”
“Shit, man, who wouldn't feel sorry for them? Having that little zombie lover for a daughter? Probably why she's so sick… done caught the walking death from her little friends. I bet she'd suck off one of the bastards if she had the chance. Probably even go all the way with the stinkin' sons of bitches.”
I felt my left hand clench and imagined how it would feel to drive that fist right into Tommy Ballister's nose: the sharp crack of bone, the squish of blood and mucus, the surprise and pain in his murky eyes. But, instead, I simply glanced over at the flatbed where Freddy and Sadie had now launched into a duet about islands in a stream. What the hell did that even mean, anyway?
“I'm thinkin' about going for the pig.” I said, changing the subject. “I think I could probably take just about anyone who…”
“No, you're not.”
Tommy had begun chucking the little pebbles in his hand at the flatbed and they pinged off the metal at erratic intervals.
“Oh yeah, asshole? And why's that?”
He had no clue exactly how close he was to getting the beating of his life. Every frustration, every time I'd ever caved and spat insults at Sarah, every iota of pent up anger would be taken out on his freckled, little face and it would take all of the Emperor's guards to pull me away.
“Because,” he said with a smile, “I been talkin' to Carlos. We're in, man. We're fuckin' in!”
I sat up so quickly that a wave of dizziness overtook me and my anger dissipated like fog in the morning sun.
“The Nation? Don't shit me, man. I swear to God if you're…”
“I wouldn't pull your leg, Smitty. Not about somethin' like this.”
Inside, I felt like turning somersaults all the way to the Thompson's home, scooping Sarah's fevered body to mine, and planting a kiss on those dry, chapped lips of hers. I wanted to laugh and dance, to jump up on the stage with Freddy and Sadie and lend my voice to their pathetic song.
“Fuck, man. Fuck…”
Tommy was grinning like a toddler eating rat as a smile devoured the lower half of his face, revealing rows of crooked teeth marred with dark cavities. He tossed his last pebble and it thudded against Freddy's guitar, distracting the man just long enough to elicit a jangled chord that otherwise would have rang out like the tolling of a bell.
“Yeah, I'm sayin'. Carlos says we just gotta pass initiation and then we're full fledged
members. You and me, my man. Rotter Nation, all the way!”
“What we gotta do?”
“I dunno. Somethin' he called skinning the freshy. Whatever the fuck that is. Doesn't matter anyway, fuckwad. The point is, we're fuckin' in, man!”
THE ANTICIPATION OF THINGS TO COME
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I hung around the judging table as the Emperor tasted each dish before him, nodding his approval for some and simply shaking his head at others. I watched the sun slowly make its arc across the sky, wishing there was some way I could help it on its way, that I could push it closer and closer to the horizon. I half-watched the wrestling but the cheers of the crowd sounded as if they were miles away and my mind kept turning a single phrase over and over, trying to decipher its hidden meaning.
Skinning the Freshy.
I couldn't even begin to fathom what secrets were cloaked in those three words. Would it require strength? Agility? Cunning?
Skinning the Freshy…
Or maybe it was just some sort of ritual that was completed; I'd heard rumors that Los Muertos required their new initiates to slice their thumbs with a special knife that was kept in a velvet lined box and used exclusively for this particular rite. Supposedly, each member of the gang also did this and then allowed their blood to drip into a cup shaped like a human skull. When they'd collected enough, the new members would make some sort of solemn pledge and then drink for the crimson stained cup until not even the smallest drop remained.
Skinning the Freshy.
Was it something like that then? Nothing more than some silly little ceremony and an oath of allegiance? No, that didn't seem like The Nation's style. They were the toughest of the tough, the most daring gang to walk the streets of Free Town. I was sure that gaining entrance into their club would require something more extreme. Something that would actually demonstrate the loyalty a new member could otherwise simply mouth.
All I knew for certain was that Tommy and I were supposed to meet Carlos by the dump truck once darkness had fallen. Everyone else would be on the platforms, listening to the Emperor's speech as the dead below attempted to scramble up the side of the wall. The corpses would be clustered in the trench that had been dug so long ago and, at the appointed time, one of the royal guard would tilt the red, plastic can into the end of the pipe that ran through the wall. A smell unlike any other in Free Town would waft from the end of the pipe as liquid gurgled through its passageway and fumes wavered in the air above its opening. The Thompsons would then bring the ceremonial torch and light it with one of the matches reserved especially for the celebration.
From past experience, I knew there would be a great whoosh and a mushroom of flame would rise from the end of the pipe, bathing the Fire Bringers in a reddish-orange glow. At the same time, the fire would race along the inside of the pipe, burning the sharp smelling liquid that had been poured into it, and emerging from the other side like a river of flames. The fire would quickly engulf the rotters below and the night would be filled with the crackling and hissing of sun-dried flesh as the crowd above let out a deafening cheer.
But, for the first time in my life, I wouldn't be there to help rain down sticks and wood upon the fiery zombies who still tried to scale our defenses; I wouldn't breathe in the stench of burning bodies and laugh as what was left of their brains boiled away into a thick sludge that oozed from every orifice in their heads. I wouldn't see their crispy forms drop, one by one, into the trench, robbed of whatever strange magic had kept the alive even after death.
No, I would be taking the first steps to becoming a member of The Rotter Nation. I would be proving my worth.
I would be skinning the freshy.
And I couldn't wait.
Carlos led Tommy and I through the deserted streets of Free Town at a quick pace and we scrambled to keep up with him. Even though the rest of the population were gathered along the platforms on the outskirts of town and we were cutting through the very center, we still spoke in hushed tones.
“You guys want to have an alibi at the ready.” Carlos instructed. “People'll want to know why you weren't at the burning and ya gotta tell 'em something. And ya gotta keep your stories straight, dig?”
“What about you? What's your cover, Carlos?”
Carlos glanced back over his shoulder and flashed a toothy smile in the moonlight.
“Oh man, I got it made. My aunt and uncle? They were picked to be the Fire Bringers, right? Only with that little bitch bein' so sick they were worried 'bout leaving her all by herself.
Afraid she might do us all a favor and up 'n die while they were away or something.”
Carlos' voice almost cracked with delight as the words spilled out of his mouth.
“So I says hey Auntie Juanita, no sweat . . . I got you covered, man. You guys go to the
Burning and I'll keep a close eye on Sarah for ya.”
Tommy giggled like a little girl and slapped his hand against the side of his leg.
“Oh, man…and they bought that shit?”
“You bet your sweet ass they did. 'Course they tried t' play it off like it was too much t' ask, ya know? But I could tell by th' look in their eyes that they're just as sick of bein' 'round that little cunt as me.”
I felt as if my soul were tied to the center of the rope in a cosmic game of tug-of-war. I thought of Sarah: the soft contours of her cheeks and chin, her long wispy hair blowing in the breeze as she smiled and cast her gaze toward her feet. I thought of her and wanted nothing more than to speak up, to tell Carlos and Tommy that they had it all wrong with her. She was good and sweet and funny and if they lost their baby brother they'd probably be a little wigged out, too. She wasn't all that bad; in fact, she was the closest thing to perfection this town had to offer.
I cleared my throat, feeling the need to say something but also like my neck was being squeezed by an infinitely strong hand. Carlos and Tommy turned to look at me with arched eyebrows and the older boy shrugged as if to say, “What gives?”
“Dirty fuckin' zombie lover.”
The moment the words crossed my lips, I felt as if an invisible rotter had devoured everything within me that was ever worth a damn and left only a hollow shell in its place.
“Damn straight, brother. Ain't no room in The Rotter Nation for zombie lovers. You're gonna fit right in. Living Power all the way, baby.”
The next few moments were spent in silence. As we walked, we could hear the Emperor's voice delivering his address; but the celebration was so distant that it sounded as if the words were reaching us through the corridors of time. Finally, we stood before the flaps of a familiar tent and I felt the contents of my stomach churn as I bit my bottom lip.
Carlos had turned to face us and his pock-marked skin almost seemed to glow in the soft light of the moon. He was smiling as if the greatest surprise in the world lay just on the other side of that mud-stained canvass.
“What… what are we doing here?”
In the distance, the crowd roared amid thunderous applause. The Emperor, then, had concluded his speech and The Burning was about to commence. And, at that moment, I wanted to be there on the platforms; I wanted to be wedged shoulder to shoulder with my mom and dad, all of our neighbors, to be just another face in the throngs of people peering over the edge of the wall.
Carlos' grin widened and his eyes seemed to twinkle with mischief.
“You boys ready to skin the freshy?”
Tommy and I were so quiet that you could have heard the sweat drip from my armpits. I wanted to turn and run, to forsake the Rotter Nation and all they stood for; I wished for an antique firearm or a heavy wooden club, anything that would bolster my strength and confidence. But in the end, I simply shuffled inside as Carlos threw back the flap and swept his free arm in a beckoning motion.
A few lanterns flickered inside the tent and caused shadows to dance across the walls like demons celebrating the return of their master. A threadbare carpet with interlocking shapes was spread across the floor beside a pile of books and personal effects were strewn about almost haphazardly: mounds of clothing, cooking utensils, a smattering of faded photographs propped against rocks and bricks and metal shelving that seemed to defy gravity with its bent frame.
In a way, I felt as if I had somehow stepped inside one of those old photos. Like I was hovering somewhere just outside the camera's scope, looking on at the scene before me; not a participant but a casual observer, distanced and aloof.
Sarah was tied to and old bed like someone who was about to be drawn and quartered. Her arms and legs were splayed out wide, the ropes digging so deeply into her wrists and ankles that the surrounding skin seemed to overlap the tight cords. She struggled against the restraints, writhing and pulling as if she could somehow rip the bedposts from the frame. Lying in the floor was a white nightgown that looked as if it had been ripped and shredded by some wild animal.
Tears had begun to sting my eyes and I felt cold inside, so cold that I doubted if I could ever know the warmth of the sun again. I tried to speak, to say something, to say anything; but that powerful hand now gripped me so tightly that I began to swoon from lack of air.
Sarah's skin was pale… so damn pale. Her bare midriff, the curves of the breasts I had so often dreamed of seeing and touching and tasting…
But not like this, good Lord, not like this, not like this.
Not a single goosebump or dimple to mar its alabaster surface. Just a thin network of bluish veins spreading like roots just beneath the surface of her flesh.
Her head was wrapped in some kind of clear plastic so tightly that her eyes and mouth formed small dips.
Her eyes, sweet Jesus, her beautiful eyes…
Any glow which had once taken residence there had now fled, leaving only two lusterless
orbs which tracked Carlos' movements through the room. Through the plastic wrap, I could barely make out these little black specks that seemed to somehow float in the whites of her eyes.
No, no, no…
Carlos ripped the plastic away from her face and she immediately tried to lunge forward, her teeth clacking like stones as she gnashed at the air. She seemed more animal than human. Not at all like the girl I'd fantasized of taking into my arms, of nuzzling and kissing and caressing.
“Time to skin the freshy, boys.”
It was the voice of the devil, dripping poison with each syllable.
A scowl passed over Carlos' face and his eyes narrowed into mere slits.
“Look here, you little pussies, you wanna be in The Nation or not? We got fifteen minutes tops before I gotta put on my little production, turn on the waterworks, and tell everyone how poor little Sarah went quietly in her sleep and how I had to take care of her when she reanimated.”
“We don't know what to do.” Tommy stammered. “You tell us what you want and consider it done, Carlos. Ain't that right, Smitty?”
Carlos laughed and I felt a shiver race along my spine.
“Do I gotta spell it out for you rotter brains? Take off your fuckin' clothes and do this zombie bitch. You shoot your load without getting' bit and you're in.”
I watched the thing that had once been Sarah as her jaws continued to snap at the air, as she twisted and turned and arched her back to the point I was sure we'd hear her spinal cord snap like a dry twig. Where had the goodness gone? Where was the shy smile, the fluttering of eyelashes, and the embarrassed flush in her cheeks?
My legs had begun to tremble and I felt as if a million needles were jabbing into my skull. I had to look away, to focus on something else, anything other than this snared, naked creature.
For some reason, it was a box of matches that caught my attention. It was a nice wooden
box with little jewels embedded around the strip of sandpaper on its side. Such a pretty little box….
“What the fuck, Smitty?”
I turned to look at Tommy. His clothes were in a pile by his feet and for a moment I was confused: why was he naked? Why was he showing me his private parts and looking like he expected something from me? What the hell was going on?
“Don't you fuck this up for me, man. Take off your damn clothes!”
I stood there and blinked like a frightened animal as I struggled to make sense of everything that was happening. Sarah was…dead? And they wanted me to… to…
“Shit, Smitty, don't tell me you're a fucking zombie lover, too?”
Tommy's words cut through the haze that my thoughts had struggled to force their way through. I pictured a future where I was ringed by taunting boys, where spittle rained down on me like a thunderstorm; I would be ganged up on, beaten within an inch of my life, and left lying in the mud with only my bloody tears to keep me company. Los Meurtos, The Free Town Freshies, The Rotter Nation… they would all rally around a common enemy, would take turns degrading me in ways I couldn't begin to imagine. My life would become a hell on earth. Like poor Sarah's had.
“Fuck this! I'll stick it in. I'm no pussy.”
Tommy stormed forward but Carlos blocked the way, holding his hands on his hips like some mythic sentinel to the gates of Hell.
“Uh-uh. Your friend's gotta go first. Otherwise neither one of ya are getting' in.”
Tommy spun around and if his eyes had been weapons I would've been a rotter by now. Every inch of his face was twisted by rage and it somehow seemed to draw his features out, to make them longer and sharper.
“Smitty, you son of a bitch, take off your damn clothes!”
I looked from Tommy to the thing tied to the bed. Sarah Thompson. The only girl in this entire town who'd ever caught my eye. Gone forever.
“Why, you no good, zombie lovin' piece of shit!”
I couldn't do it.
I couldn't live out the rest of my days being the object of ridicule, being mercilessly pursued and baited, shunned by the very people I'd once called friends. I just couldn't.
I felt as if I were moving through a thick sludge as my pants and underwear slid down around my ankles. I stepped out of them as I peeled my shirt off, grateful for that brief second when the cloth blocked the horror of my situation from view. My cheeks and chest felt warm enough to cook a bird's egg, but I knew this embarrassment was nothing compared to what lay in store if I didn't go through with this.
“My man! I knew you weren't no zombie lover! I fucking knew it!”
It took an eternity to cross that room. I didn't want to look at the creature on the bed, wanted to close my eyes and wish it all away; but, somehow, I found that I couldn't take my eyes off her. Not in the same way as before, though. When she'd been living, Sarah was like this beautiful butterfly that flittered by; a butterfly so rare and exotic that no one else was privileged enough to witness its graceful dance through the air. But there was no beauty here… not anymore. Now there was only the viscous snap of teeth as she chewed at the air… unblinking eyes that locked onto mine with pupils so round that the irises seemed to be mere outlines.
I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry.
I placed my hands on either side of the bed and pulled myself into position.
I had to do this.
I had to be part of The Rotter Nation.
There was no other choice now.
I closed my eyes and tried to will away that shaking in my arms and legs. Just do it. Do it and get it over with.
“Yo,” Carlos tossed a foil packet onto the bed, “don’t forget your protection, dumb ass.”
At that moment, I heard a sound unlike any I'd ever heard before. It was a shrill scream that sounded as if a bobcat had mated with a human. So loud that my eardrums quivered in pain and my eyes watered; it was the sound of rage and anguish and shock and every other emotion that can tear a person down all rolled into a single, undulating screech.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
As it turned out, that ornate matchbox I'd focused so much of my attention on had been our undoing. After the Emperor had finished his speech, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson had solemnly carried the ceremonial torch to the end of the pipe with all of the reverence it deserved. The crowd had waited in hushed anticipation for the spark that would culminate the day's festivities. But it was a spark that would never come.
See, the Thompsons were exhausted. They'd spent weeks caring for their sick daughter, waking up at all hours of the night when she'd cry out in fevered delirium, sitting by her side with cool rags and whispered lullabies; so, it was understandable how they that might forget the all-important matches back at their tent. It was also understandable that Mrs. Thompson would go running through the streets of Free Town as quickly as her feet would carry her. She had to retrieve them, after all, had to make the ritual complete.
Mrs. Thompson's screams had echoed through the town like the cry of a banshee before being abruptly cut off. Other residents quickly arrived to find Carlos straddling his aunt's limp body, her throat squeezed between his hands as if he meant to pop her head open. But they'd responded too fast to those initial screams; when they tackled the leader of The Rotter Nation, Mrs. Thompson gasped for air and coughed as she scrambled into a far corner of the tent.
And, of course, she'd told them what she'd witnessed. Tommy. Me. Naked. Preparing to... she broke down then, collapsed in a huddle of tears; but even the most unimaginative person in Free Town was able to piece together the rest of the story.
The zombie that had once been Sarah tied to the bed, legs spread wide. The condom on the mattress. The way I couldn't meet their stares and could only gaze at my own feet as tears silently streamed down my face. Tommy hollering over and over that he didn't want to do it, that me and Carlos had forced him, that he'd tried to stop us.
The next day the three of us were tethered together like the little flags that still dangled from streamers throughout the town. Carlos led the way, his hands bound, a rope tightly cinched around his waist, and tied at the back, this same rope encircled me as well, and then trailed off to Tommy, who brought up the rear.
We were paraded through the center of town and citizens on either side spat at us as we passed, their warm, thick spittle sliding down my cheeks and soaking into the collar of my shirt. Others hurled stones that bounced off our ribs and foreheads, leaving angry welts and thick blood in their wake.
Kill 'em! Kill the dirty…
At one point, I saw my father in the crowd. He was holding my mother close to him, as if his arms were the only things that kept her from collapsing into the dirt; both had aged twenty years overnight, their faces pained and wrinkled and tired, oh so very tired…
I tried to mouth I'm sorry as I passed; but in unison, they both turned away, leaving me with only the sight of their backs to serve as the final memory of my parents.
We were led to the edge of town, to the platform where the Burning should have taken place the night before. The Emperor stood atop the platform, flanked on either side by his most trusted guards, and the wind rustled his thin, gray hair as he looked down upon us.
At some point during the night, a machine had been built upon the platform. The thing looked like a giant arm attached to a wooden base and, at the very top of the arm was a little metal disk. A rope ran through the grooves in the pulley and dangled down to street level where it circled slowly in the wind. Attached to the end of the rope was what looked like a harness of some sort. It, too, was formed of rope, of loops and swirls that could easily accommodate the arms and legs of a full-grown man.
The Emperor raised his arms and the jeers of the crowd surrounding us trickled into silence. In the distance, I heard a bird call out and the leaves in the forest whispered their secret language as the seconds drug on into minutes.
Even though I couldn't bring myself to look at the Emperor, I could feel his stern gaze burning into my soul. After what was probably the longest moments of my life, I finally heard the old man's voice boom out over the congregation.
“I have little to say to you boys. Other than this.”
I was crying again and my cheeks glistened in the morning sun. But these tears weren't for myself or what would become of me. No, I completely deserved whatever punishment was passed upon us. I knew this as surely as I knew I would never see Sarah speaking with the dead again.
“May God have mercy on your souls… because I most certainly will not.”
The crowd erupted in a great cheer and I felt the rope around my waist tighten as Tommy began struggling against his restraints.
“I didn't do nothing! I swear, I didn't!”
A guard rushed by my peripheral vision and there was the sharp crack as the ax handle connected with Tommy's jaw, a grunt of pain, and a dull thud as Tommy fell to the ground. He was quiet after that, save for a soft weeping that somehow sounded wet and gurgly.
“Carlos Thompson, for repeated crimes against the community and residents of Free
Town, I sentence you to death by hanging.”
My head snapped up as the guards cut through the rope connecting me to the older boy and drug him to the suspended harness. Carlos was screaming, his voice as high pitched as a woman's and he struggled against his bindings. Just like Sarah had struggled against hers…
It didn't take long to secure him within the rope sling and I watched as he was hoisted into their air. Within moments he'd been pulled to the top of the platform; but then the entire contraption swiveled with a squeal only matched by his own. His feet kicked in the air as he dangled over the other side of the wall and he cried out for his mother over and over. And then he was slowly lowered like a human piñata into the crowd of rotters below.
When his screams finally faded, the Emperor nodded and a second, smaller rope, was pulled. This must have somehow released the harness, for it was quickly followed by a dull thud that could only have been Carlos Thompson's body plummeting to the ground. Gas was poured through the pipe. A match sparked and then a great, black cloud of smoke arose from the other side of the wall… the Burning Ceremony had finally been completed.
Tommy and I were kept standing in the middle of the crowd until the last lick of flame had finally burned away. I can't really say how I felt then: every cell of my body was numb and even thoughts were few and far between. It was almost like back in the tent, when I had that sensation of existing somewhere outside of my own body.
“Thomas Ballister… Johnathon Smith. For your crimes, I sentence you to banishment from this great city. May your shadows never darken our walls again.”
One by one, Tommy and I were hoisted into the harness. One by one we were dropped into the cinders and smoking ashes of the dead on the other side. No supplies other than the clothes on our backs. No food or weapons. Just two teenage delinquents turned loose in a wilderness ruled by the living dead.
FRESHIES & ROTTERS (Revisited)
Tommy didn't last three days. We were running from a pack of rotters, scrambling up a hillside so steep that even the trees seemed to be struggling to keep their grasp. One moment he was right behind me, panting and crying as his hands reached out for the next root, the next rock… and then he was gone. Tumbling downward, screaming my name over and over even as the first rotter grabbed his shirt in its decaying hand.
But that was three cycles of the moon ago. And I'm still out here. Running. Hiding. Staining my lips and fingertips with berries and occasionally eating the raw flesh of some small animal I've managed to spear with a sharpened stick.
And, sometimes, I think I can see her in the distance: this pretty young girl with shy eyes and chapped lips. She seems to be beckoning to me, urging me to come to the arms in which I'd always dreamed of being held. But, by the time I get there, she's always just a little further
away. Always so distant and unobtainable.
But I'll make it to her eventually. I have to. I need to look into those beautiful eyes of hers, need to hold her cheeks in my hands, and let her know how very, very sorry I am. I need to somehow make things right, to purge this sadness that taints my soul and makes me punch at my own reflection in the stream. Without her, I can never forgive myself. Without her, I can never be whole again.
And maybe that's why she's always just out of reach. Perhaps I haven't suffered enough yet. Perhaps there are still years of atonement in my future before I can know the warmth of her touch.
I won't give up. I'll pursue her to the ends of the earth if I have to. And I know that I'll eventually reach my dear, sweet Sarah. After all, I was always the best. I was always the last of the refugee team left alive. But even then, I still know in my heart that the game is not truly over until the last survivor has been cornered.
I just need to make sure I can find the redemption I so desperately need before I'm called home.
For more post-apocalyptic goodness, snag your copy of Sex in the Time of Zombies today