Authors: Thomas Head
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Head
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce any portions thereof.
This is a work of fiction. The places and characters it depicts are the product of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or places, dead or alive, is purely coincidental.
This e-book is licensed for your entertainment only. It may not be re-sold, in part or in whole.
Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.
Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”
Wish I could say it was her goofy laugh, maybe her cooking. If you’d call it cooking. What I miss, it’s got nothing to do with macaroni and cheese.
Tours are nine months, sixteen weeks off. When they were a year, soldiers snapped. Put in the time, even rangers go mad, like anyone. We go mad as dogs with salami tails and don’t come back.
If we don’t get chewed first.
There are other kinds of deaths from time to time. Wild animal attacks, guys walking into friendly fire, falling into their nest-holes or jumping in, drowning in the guts the shado had drug into their dens. Yeah. They jump in. I’ve seen it twice. They think it looks braver than chewing on their gun, probably. The chaplain always does a little service, though there’s rarely a body.
None of that today. I look up. Perched over the Rec Hall’s shelf of whiskey bottles the clock says midday. It’s the middle of the
day, to be precise. Heading north to the United States, four months.
I’ll make my mind gear down. Emily will help; the sight of her. Always does. Even here, now, thinking about that airbrush of freckles across the tip of her nose. I can still see the way it moves when she giggles. So I sit, wait for the A400 to taxi onto the wet Peruvian clay. Bag’s packed at my feet, goodbyes to the humidity-beaten military paint, so long to sand bag bunkers that do precisely jack against the undead except maybe make you feel better. Like they’ve got guns, the new guys are fond of pointing out, like the undead animals are going to open fire on us.
Trust me, they get behind them their first few times.
Nothing personal gets left behind, as always. Bulldozers and the mining equipment you’re here to protect grind outside. Cypress Hill, who Bear insists is a guy named Cypress Hill, fades overhead. I try to make out the next song over the roar of a cargo chopper taking off. Led Zeppelin, I think. The rain pounds at the windows like it’s trying to communicate the answer.
The chaplain makes small talk with the men across the hall, nodding a lot. He should thank God they’re not three sheets to it. You can’t beat these guys, but man, they’ll see you watching, try to call you over. Give you some wisdom via empty Tequila bottles, which seem to make everyone down here sage-like beyond saying. But there’s none of that. No one gets blistered on the last day. The last day, for whatever reason, is a day to remember.
They get loud, but they let me and Bear do what we like. Catch a little bumblebee in our ear and listen to Robert Plant. Teams of two, us long-range guys. I don’t know his real name, just Bear, his mother’s Central American of some kind. Don’t care much for him. But he’s a hell of a shot. This isn’t like the sniping that was done in the Mekong or Fallujah. The 50 cals’ rounds we use have incendiary tips. You use them to start fires, basically—fires to alert the company to their whereabouts. So you have to keep their field of view in mind. The spotter carries some food on his back, along with a few medical essentials and additional ammo clips. Never enough ammo. Mostly, though, the spotter keeps you from getting chewed.
“They need those asses stomped,” Bear says when they suddenly get louder across the hall. “One good time.”
They need nothing of the sort. Doesn’t matter, anyway. No one calls anyone out. Our fathers and their fathers had failed us in this, same way we are going to fail our sons.
“Just once,” he repeats.
I swallow some seventy year old Scotch. It’s awful. Shake my head and pretend it’s the booze.
Wish he’d cool it, really. I don’t have it in me these days. The plane hasn’t even landed, but already, cat-like noises are issuing from my stomach. And it is hot. Whenever it rains this much, the jungle air smells like sex in a tin sauna.
I look around. At anything but Bear. He’s already pissy about something else, but there’s no energy to agree with him. I feel weak, and now I’ll be damned, he’s got me thinking about angrier things than thinning Old Navy fabric stretched over Emily’s perky white tangelos.
Then he captain walks in, and I get this sudden feeling down my back. Just a random, doomed feeling. It happens sometimes, and there is no logic to it. Like if I got it and saw the undead, I’d think there was something to it. Something useful. Instead I’m just filled with this chill. I breath, kind of squeeze my tongue in my teeth, try to rid myself of it. It just tells me louder: There is no solace inside of ending tens of hundreds of zombies. We have wrecked the bastards, torn apart the brutal crawlers in a manner befitting their own. We can dull fear into the true mathematics of a situation, by damn—but I can’t stop this feeling.
A million moons ago, when I enlisted, my favorite uncle told me to watch it. War screws you in places you didn’t know you have holes.
“Why does it do that?” I’d ask him.
“Don’t know, Tyler. Depends on the war probably,” he’d say.
I resist a shiver, force myself to grin.
Outside the little window, beyond Bear’s disappointed head, the air field starts to hum. Beast’s coming. The wild dip and lee of the jungle’s canopy is broken with a shake of the wind as it descends. The plane is a behemoth.
The sheer, overwhelming mass makes the tires bark and hiss in the soft mud. Smoke curls behind. You can feel it in your boots. Attuned as we are, there is also the sensation in the temples; you’d think there was a presence nearby, like a wolf watching.
Captain waves us over. We stand, carrying our drinks, walk unhurried.
We all watch as the plane slows. A few minutes and it turns near the end of the runway. Then it lumbers prehistorically toward us, reassuring and menacing at once.
The rain pauses just enough to dare us; we look at each other.
In the next instant we’re slamming back our last shots, and we’re lined up, then half-running in formation across the tarmac’s mud, slipping and sliding.
Some stop as long as they can stand it, look around like they’re going to miss it. You see that sometimes, thinkers like Robbins with worried faces, the what-might-happen looks, the “I survived the savage wild and it was man’s inattention to detail that ends me on the way home” looks. God knows what happens in an instant when some E5 mechanic’s back is turned. Hey, look at that chic’s ass, and a company of warriors is mangled in the canopy of a Brazilian forest. I see that in their faces, some of them.
Screw that. I am trotting these arthritic bones, stiff as boards, past the newbies that soak it in. I’m outside forty seconds and my legs and face are wet to the muscle.
I haul my ass up the open back end of the plane. Tromping up the nets, I feel the warmth as the heaters hit us. The guys who know each other get next to each other, and as much as I wish I could just get next to a window and bliss out for the trip, Bear starts edging my way.
Then a glimmer of hope; I see Jagger getting on the plane. Debow Jagger. Black guy from Tuscaloosa, some white in him too. He’s one of those guys that manages to be unfriendly and immensely likable at once. I’m hoping he’d come over, but he gets distracted when the captain started barking for someone to hurry their ass up.
Then real barking. The K9 units go ape shit. We had company. Everyone outside halts and turns, raising their weapons.
Several bursts of automatic gunfire snarl from an angle I can’t see. Then the captain motions for us to hold.
“Fuck yeah,” someone says. “Good boy, Jackson.
Soon after, Captain gives the thumbs up—done.
We are good at what we do. Both species.
Head shots work best. Through the heart will work, despite what you’ve read. Just not as well as logic would dictate. Even a headshot will surprise you sometimes. No blood flow to speak of. It does spill, but more like sauce than any kind of bodily fluid. Bizarre filaments in the veins ooze from the lungs and head.
The army had explained the why, what, and how, but I retain little but the gist. Something about spores; mushrooms on the DNA or some such.
Jagger shoulders his M4, comes up the aisle, climbs into the seat between me and Bear. He gets a look for it, but he doesn’t so much as shrug.
Next to me, he nods and says, “McCartney,” instead of McCarthy like I’m a Beatle. This is what I like about him, partly.
The other rifles pile in.
Three minutes and all the shouldering in and squaring up is done, and everyone starts to settle. Loads of gear at our feet. People start sitting as the captain boards.
The Captain looks at Jagger too, for not sitting with him, I suppose, but Jagger is the one guy you can count on to miss every social cue, like sideways looks are a mystery to him; seen that so many times, it still makes my brain happy for some reason, whatever signs to the contrary I sometimes give.
We get belted in, yammering halted. Shuffling bags with our boots, we grip the belts as the engines moan out louder. Then the enormous plane turns. Immediately, our attention is given to the incredible pelt of rain against the metal. But the engines shriek louder still. And we suck back into our chairs. It’s a rush. Best part of the flight. A sudden clap of thunder causes the pilot to flinch or something. The plane throws us, and we lurch as much as the next man’s shoulder allows.
Everyone laughs but there’s not a single word after that. Just the sideways rain. The thrust of incredible speed, then almost instantaneous lift.
Man, the rain. It’s messing with us for thinking we could leave. The wings are shivering like they’re cold. Some laugh under their helmets; we’re men of the front lines, Z Company
, ye bastid
Fucking Big Red Z, bitch
; we’re less afraid of this shit than the plane that hoists us, the plane that shoves its cargo, living and mechanical, this way and that, and snakes and shakes and struggles to get its huge ass up.
Then we breathe.
Of course we weren’t worried. Hell, Jagger might admit it.
When we level out, we’re way beyond the walls of the mining operation. Not dark yet but I see the blinking lights sinking into the surrounding rainforest, slurped up, two by two, by the energy-rich mountains to the southwest.
We’re over darker, flatter terrain. It’s grassy and slopping, rocky. I watch it pass until the mountains are gone and it gets to be an effort to stay awake.
In the dying light they put music on for us. Alice in Chains, maybe Soundgarden. I think we’re beyond the storm now because we’re flying smooth as fish in a shadowy lake. Rolling through the great dark. Just the enormous monotony of four engines, each the size of your dining room. Mile by mile we slip through the darkening pate of Earth, until we’re back over the trees, on and on, seems like forever. You could probably airdrop a Walmart in these jungles and lose the son of a bitch forever. Soldiers are nodding off without closing their eyes beside me. Bear is snoring behind us. Son of bitch makes me ill sometimes looking at him. His face. He’s got me missing Robbins again, thinking of Nepal. The penned-up crowds had pounded me. Every step through the narrow, near-vertical trails had felt like a tug of war with a carthorse. I had stopped often, wiped this gooey sweat from my neck.
“I smell like fucking popcorn butter.”
Robbins, ever the philosopher, had laughed. “Good. Guess who they’ll eat first.”
I had laughed too.
When we had finally encountered the first nest of Shado, my knees were jelly. A tunnel through the loose scree. Then walls of blood and flesh-goo, plastering the dirt and stone. It had punched my brain more than usual.
How fast, and to what degree another man would have failed his buddy that night, who the hell knows—but if you had asked Robbins, he would have never said you did. Imagine a friend like him. Outnumbered, leaping and half-laughing, jumping down the loose stone of a mountainside, unaware you’ve broken your leg. Imagine the presence of mind they’d have to have to tell you it’s not your fault while they’re being eaten—you’re not close to that night. They don’t eat his head, heart or lungs. They take the soft middle apart, altering the gut’s bacteria. They eat the liver and kidneys, the pancreas. I can hear him scream. A week to ten days later, he’s something else. Undead. The Shado. Sounds innocuous, but you see them once, every time you close your eyes you see something as fierce as the beings who once haunted European caves. The ghoulish black warpaint of the fungus on their mouths and noses. Your dreams fill in the rest. Juveniles moving in halting, reptilian bursts, naked and unafraid. You see them mating, yeah, fucking, and gnawing on meat all at once—Hell’s orgy covered in shit and fungus. Sometimes, your eyes are closed, you watch them cross the gray shape of some distant river, swimming the way iguanas do. They scamper up a rocky hillside, their yelps rising like raptor calls as they reach a family holding out atop a grocery store. Robbins’ father had failed them atop Ney York’s locally-famed Bangkok Center Grocery.
And I had failed him in death, too, unable to decapitate him. I had left, and that was it.
And now I’m stuck with a Bear with a contagious growl.
Next to me, Jagger produces a vast chaw of Beechnut from his vest. In his cheek, the smell gets intense. Like medicine. His face looks froggishly comical. Maybe what gets me tickled is he’s so
, which I should be used to. Shouldn’t be a surprise, not many of us New Yorkers left. Maybe there is, I don’t know. I know it’d end me if he got chewed.
He is asleep already, I think, that shit in his mouth. A rare thing, the tobacco plant. He says when it’s gone then kill him.
He makes an mmm noise and stirs. My attentions returns to the passing, darkening blur outside. I have to look him up when we get to Fort Campbell. I’ve got to see him drunk. Maybe hook him up with one of Em’s friends. Wonder if he’d like old what’s her name with the knee-high boots.
“Daddy says it was worse in the beginning,” he whispers. I half-wonder if he’s talking to me. “But ‘worse’… that shit possible?”
“Doesn’t seem like it.”
“Just means there was more blood to spill I guess.”
“Yeah. When you think of it like that. Be surprised if it wasn’t. No more warning than a bunch of school closings. Due to illness.”
I nod. Funny what can be humorous. A small, rogue wave hitting India, a wave that will go virtually unnoticed until it reaches the shore, where Tsunami sirens will alert Vishiknam’s villagers to make their way inland. A great release, but not of energy. The wave, it’s no larger higher than a tall man. And the village’s fisherman with have lost little but an afternoon’s work. Yet, as the press descends from around the globe, people are falling down with fungal infections so rampant that their eyes crusted over with black disks. Rising as creatures, creatures… because even the word cannibal implies something vaguely human.
So the UN responds, and our efforts are like firing bullets into a wave, which was already too large for our disorganized efforts. And when it hits American soil, what do they do? Close the schools. And shut up. Or die.
“Big Silence Theory,” I grouse.
He doesn’t respond. Stillness and sleep overtake most everyone else. Almost has me. My eyelids weigh a couple pounds.
A few are stirring. I love this hour, this feeling, when the boredom of the flight revs my mind into strange chatter. I let it go, let it think what bizarre things it will. Like public schools. It’s hard to imagine that we once warmed up fish sticks for millions upon millions of schoolchildren. That we even attempted to counter the entropy of all the roads’ pavement across the vastness of the United States is nuts. Men in marked vehicles collecting stray dogs and putting them in a special jail for dogs? It just boggles the damn mind beyond boggling.
But it had to be a fantastic age, however crazy. Thank God I was only five. Watching it all go, seeing the domesticated planet unravel, good Lord, I have seen things that would choke a maggot, but I can scarcely imagine anything more disgusting than knowing that what little wheat that remains standing is being eaten by clouds of starlings and sparrows. Or getting mowed down by vast carpets of field mice and grasshoppers, both of which flock to it undisturbed, feasting at their pleasure. Worse still, the terrible fact that still haunts us. Knowing the great slithering press of them is too much to hope to stop. Knowing they eat the slow and sick while the crops are beaten down by the storms and soaked with rain. Knowing the beasts eat the silent and agreeable elderly in retirement homes, tearing at humanity’s numbers with napalmic cruelty, adding to their own. Knowing the human-shaped things keep coming, and coming yet, and they look in the windows for anything on two legs, then for anything alive. And year by year, the arable fields themselves grow smaller while the brambles and the prickly runners of itchy plants stretch farther from the hedges until they have little to contend with but wild pigs. Everything is in belligerent, unstoppable motion. Knowing that we, the bloated, pale mattes of flesh, which for whatever reason they most treasure, will surely not last them out. We just fought. Numb. Hungry. Knowing terrible things.
An hour passes. More thoughts come—nickel and dime stuff, platitudes we old guys are fond of calling wisdom.
Jagger chokes, makes a hilarious job of waking. When he spits on the floor, he’s gentleman enough to rub it away with his boot. He wipes his mouth, looks across the aisle through the window.
Then he gets wide-eyed.
I’m grinning when I turn. Then I’m a wide-eyed idiot, trying to comprehend what I am seeing.
I close my eyes as a dazzling whiteness washes across us. Through us. It feels like I’m dreaming, or immersed in something oceanic, like a storm with great waves of light. The waves are rolling into a greater vastness of being, slipping without gravity. It’s not a horrible feeling, actually.
Then I wonder, half-sideways in this floating state, what hit us, what the fuck fires a ball of light; what sends such a thing up from the jungle?
Then, gunshot quick, the fuselage roars and rolls us onto our sides. My skull buzzes, the cubbyholes rip and netting pops and bags and SOPMOD M4 rifles and night vision goggles and clips of ammo are shredding through the air and crumpling against gasmasks and boots and books and bloody pieces of someone.
The whole world is yelling, moaning and roaring in the wind as somebody’s belt smacks me in the earhole.
I get the helmet strapped tighter while the universe slams back upright and drops. I’ve tore apart my seat in my hands. Shit shooting by. Still have my hands, I do; but we are starting to fall faster than before, and a dog flies by my face. Then a soldier is yanked down the aisle by the force, gun-up, in shock, firing as he flies away outside.
Then we are hit by something again.
And oh shit we’re falling.
Whatever I thought I felt before, in my stomach, this is unbearable. My throat and lungs get punched and jarred and shaken all at once. I am screaming, then aware I’m screaming, and somehow there’s the awareness I have an adrenaline hardon, and now my belly feels spilled open from the back. My spine might prolapse through my ass, and oh shit, more of the plane rips away, and my shoulders twist around past my head while seats with soldiers in them fly by. Jagger is off his nut, laughing his ass off. Hugging me. And in the roar we fall further, and in the chaos and speed, we straighten back out. I’m trying to pray, getting hit by something else. It’s flapping against me. There’s nothing but jaw-twisting pain, but I’m aware someone has kept us leveled us out. But through it all comes this other crackling in my brain, almost more than a noise; it’s louder than the splitting plane, louder than the hurt and the fear, and I’m smashed up the ass by a tree, and the lights go strobing while a helmeted head bounces off the roof and flies by, and there’s the splitting again, and son of a bitch the whole plane is splitting. And a darker sound comes from under us, jagged hell-music, screaming about bones as I’m trying to pray again, telling God that I love life and Christ.