It goes without saying that the owner and creator of the WWZ world is Max Brooks. I am writing this story for my own enjoyment and hopefully that of my readers. I am making no money from this endeavor.
"That was another thing they taught us at Willow Creek: don’t write their eulogy, don’t try to imagine who they used to be, how they came to be here, how they came to be this."
Colonel Christina Eliopolis, Max Brooks, World War Z
[Hobbs New Mexico is typical of many small western towns struggling to rebuild after the reclamation. Its population is low but gradually approaching pre-war levels.
Kendall Phillips' room is a simple bare cubical with a bed and a chest of drawers. I see none of the personal touches I have come to expect during other interviews. The man himself is almost as nondescript as his surroundings -- tall, thin, with greying close-cropped hair that recedes at the temples. His only distinguishing feature is the band of adhesive tape that holds together the nosepiece of his pre-war black plastic glasses.]
Yes, I read your book. I'm not surprised you're doing a sequel, since the first one proved so popular. But you must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if you're down to interviewing the custodian at a local bio-reclamation plant.
Your letter intrigued me. It seemed rather . . . heated.
Heated? That's a kind way of putting it. Your book pissed me off. All those movers and shakers and hero types going on about what they did for Humanity. That soldier-boy Todd Wainio in particular talking about 'LaMOEs' and weeny-wagging. Asshole. He always had a gun. He always had the army around him. He never had to crouch in a ditch beside a stalled car, watching the US army heading west toward the Rockies and screaming to please, for the love of God, take us with them. Nope. Not that they listened. It was only our lives at stake.
And then when I read about our country's version of the Redecker plan, I got even madder. I always suspected something of the sort, but to see it confirmed in black and white hit me worse than I thought it would. They left us for bait. Human bait.
We got screwed over by everybody. The one thing I'm proud of is that I was never stupid enough to waste my money on Phalanx.
Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. You want the usual survivor story full of heartaches and hairsbreadth escapes and zombie-guts. I'm happy to oblige. This is all about the human factor, eh?
[I nod ruefully.]
Then here comes your human story. At the time of the Great Panic, I was living in Marble Falls, Texas, which was a fairly reasonable commute from my IT job in Austin. Marble Falls was a nice place with a small-town feel to it still, even though the open fields were starting to fill up with McMansions and retirement communities. Our house was no McMansion. We had two thousand square feet instead of four, and our countertops were composite instead of granite, but we were doing okay, Cyndi and I, enough to afford a fuel-efficient coupe for me and a Grand Cherokee for Cyndi to drive around town in.
On that Saturday morning, Cyndi was taking a few well-deserved hours to herself and it was my turn to drive our daughter to soccer practice -- in Cyndi's Jeep of course because having Grace ride shotgun in my little two-seater wouldn't have been considered safe. Soccer, or ballet, or gymnastics, or a host of other orchestrated activities was what concerned parents did with their eight-year-olds back then. I'm not sure why. I guess it served as 'quality time' and looked good on the eventual college application. I'll confess that at the time I was more than a little bored watching the girls trot around the grass, only occasionally making contact with the ball. Now I look back on it as the last few hours of peace in my old life. There were soon to be more worries than getting Grace into Bryn Mawr.
On the drive home, just as we hit the main drag through town, that was when I saw the first of them. I took him for a drunk at first when he stumbled out into traffic, or maybe one of the town's retired population who -- let's put this charitably -- were prone to their moments of senile confusion at times. Until he turned toward me and I saw that half his face was missing. I swerved around him and sped on past before my daughter could see him from her place in the back seat. A police car flew past me with its siren going, and then another.
I realized what was happening right away. I'd seen the reports on TV, and I worked in IT, so I had my share of info from the net. That's how a town went down -- one case became six cases, which in turn became thirty, and eventually you had what I called 'flashover', like a smoldering fire suddenly turning your house into an inferno. A smart person gets out of the house while it's still just smoking.
The first thing I did was to call Cyndi to warn her to lock up, and it was obvious from her heavy breathing when she answered the phone that I'd interrupted her workout. Before I could say anything other than hello, she said, "Hang on a sec, Hon. Judi Sanchez from next door is out on the back deck. She probably wants to borrow the Espresso machine again." I could hear the dull pounding of a fist against the glass of our family room door, and I yelled for Cyndi not to do it, but I was too late. I heard the sound of the sliding door opening and the crash of the phone hitting the floor as Cyndi's friendly greeting turned to screams.
God help me, I hung up on my wife before our little girl could hear any more of those sounds. I'd heard enough to know it was hopeless, and from the wide-eyed look Grace gave me when I turned to her, I knew I hadn't been quick enough with the off-button. She simply nodded when I told her that we would be going on a trip just the two of us, and she never asked about her Mommy or mentioned her again.
She stayed quiet while I turned the Jeep around and headed out of town to the northwest. I don't know what I was thinking at the time -- my instinct was to go in the opposite direction from the large population centers near Dallas and Fort Worth. I stuck to back roads too, figuring that the major highways would be bumper to bumper before long. Which it turns out they were.
It seemed like the whole country had gone into flashover that day -- people fleeing anywhich way, with no plan in mind. Even on the two-lane blacktops, I ran into snags and, more than once, wrecks that clogged the entire roadway.
I had always teased Cyndi about her insistence on driving an SUV when all she really used it for was going to and from her part-time teaching job and to the supermarket. But she always smiled back and said that she felt better knowing she had a car that could get her through anything. I remembered that when I had to go into the ditch to avoid a jack-knifed tractor- trailer and drive about two hundred feet to get around it. There was a little problem getting back up the crumbly bank and onto the roadway, but I threw it into 4WD-LO, and up she went, sweet as pie. I had a fleeting thought about telling Cyndi she was right, and then I remembered. I kept my eyes straight ahead on the road for a while after that so Grace couldn't see that I was crying.
We spent our first night on the road, parked between a dilapidated barn and a chicken coop, out of sight, or so I thought. I put the driver's seat back to as far as it would go, and took Grace in my arms, both of us covered by the plaid wool car blanket we kept for emergencies. Despite our cramped position, we slept.
I awoke to one of them peering in the side window. He was fresh. They all were, back then. And then he let out a howl. It was the first time I ever heard a zombie-moan. I didn't know what it meant back then, being fresh myself, but the sound of it made me want to get out of there, if the sight of him hadn't already been enough. Grace whimpered and scrambled across the console to the passenger seat while I sat up and turned the key in the ignition. The Jeep fired right up and I peeled out of there, none too soon, because we saw them coming across the field -- the farmer, the farmer's wife, and what looked like a few hired hands. I went two miles before I stopped, put my seat in the upright position, and clicked on my belt. I didn't have the heart to tell Grace to get in the back for safety. Traffic was the least of our concerns by then.
There wasn't too much of it that day. I drove around a few wrecks, and passed some lurchers on the road. Never a live person until we came across Sharon Mueller and her two boys standing beside their rusted out Plymouth Voyager, which was pulled over onto the shoulder and leaking steam from the front end. This was about ten miles outside of San Angelo, which I was giving a wide berth because of the people likely to be there.
In those days people, both dead and alive, were likely to be trouble, but something in her eyes made me take a chance and stop. She was a single mom, on the road, running, just like I was. The van was a total loss. She'd been driving on a burst coolant hose for miles, and by then she'd cracked the engine block. I thought about the two boys -- Jimmy was about a year older than Grace, and Duane was a little younger -- and then I thought about the two zack I'd seen heading up the road a few miles back. I told Sharon to get her things and toss them in the back of the Jeep. She had a short length of aquarium tubing, and I had just enough time to siphon some gas from the Voyager to my own gas tank before we heard a moan, and then we were out of there, Sharon riding shotgun and the three kids in the back seat.
I know what you're thinking -- here comes the romance, but it was nothing like that. I sure wasn't ready the next day after losing Cyndi. Hell, I don't think I'm ready after almost two decades, and for Sharon, it would take longer than that. She swung the other way, didn't really like men, something she'd come to realize over the course of a short but miserable marriage. Which is how she'd come to be a single mom and two sons stranded next to a rusted-out POS van during the Great Panic.
I've never regretted stopping for her. We might not have been lovers, but we became something better than that -- friends. I'm pretty sure it saved my life, because from then on I had someone to watch my back, and the two of us could take turns standing guard while the other slept.
Sharon came in handy late that afternoon when we drove round the outskirts of Big Spring. Food wasn't a problem quite yet, nor gasoline, but we needed camping supplies and our lack of weapons made me nervous.
Guns? Nope. The gun stores were the first picked clean. Plus I was a liberal. I hated guns, and if I'd been so unlucky as to find one back then, I'd probably have shot my foot off and alerted every zack within a one-mile radius.
I saw the store by the side of the road -- Landell's Hardware, Established 1973, according to the sign -- a little Mom and Pop place that had managed to survive the Walmart on the other side of town. I told Sharon to guard the kids and to hit the horn if she spotted trouble. Then I went in, jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs, as they say in my part of the country. I found 'Mom' more or less in pieces behind the counter near the cash register. She wasn't going to get up again. 'Pop' surprised me in the garden tool section, where I was looking for lengths of hose to supplement the aquarium tubing.
He rushed out at me from behind a section of shelving that held boxes of weed-killer and grass seed. I didn't even have time to think, just grabbed a hatchet off the wall display and swung it at his head. If there is a Higher Power, that Higher Power was watching out for me that day, because I connected in the right place. The only thing that surprised me more than how quickly he went down was how hard it was to free the hatchet again.
After I was done throwing up and the shakes had subsided to something manageable, I looked to arm myself with something a little better than the hatchet, although that hatchet saw a lot of use in the years to come. A sturdy axe with a solid oak handle was the first thing I took. Then a medium length handled sledge hammer, some shovels, a straight-bladed spade, and files and whet-stones for keeping them sharp, with a tool-belt to carry the lighter ones in. Finally, I chose an eight-foot pruning-hook with a saw attachment that could be turned into a spear for longer range fighting.
Then my thoughts turned to the practical. Gasoline cans. Canteens. Blankets and tarps. Lighters for starting fires. And finally, anything edible in the place, even if it was only jerky, Tic-tacs, and gum.
You know, they say never to write their eulogies. I think I read that in your first book. But Ed Landell deserves one for saving my life and the lives of the rest of them when I got back to the car carrying my load like the conquering hero. I've thought it out since. His wife must have been the first to turn, and he put her down so that she'd never rise. The bite mark on his arm matched the old lady's dentures. I don't feel so bad about doing the same for him. Quite a few of us survived because of Ed. Rest in peace, old-timer.
I made a lot of mistakes back then. There were so many things I should have taken from that store in addition to what I gathered, but I was new to the whole Armageddon thing, just like everyone else. I wish I'd met Ricardo a little sooner.
We found him in the attic of a house just outside of Lamesa. Not just any attic. It was a one and a half story bungalow with one of those pull-down folding ladders into the attic. I'd seen that trick in a Romero movie, and so had Ricardo, I guess. He was smart enough to pull up the string after him, but I had the pruning hook. After the first shock -- I looked down the barrel of his gun and he saw a scared face in glasses poking up through the floorboards -- when I told him I had a woman and three kids in need of shelter, it was cool.
From the name, Ricardo Lopez, you'd expect ethnic as they come, but even though he was a little guy -- looked straight into my collar-bone when we stood face to face -- he sounded just like a Texas good ol' boy. He loved his guns and knew them well. He taught me to shoot, when we had the weapons and the ammo to spare for training. But that wasn't his chief talent. He never told me which branch of the service he'd been in, or what he did there, but he'd learned to fight hand to hand and how to kill barehanded if necessary. Some of his techniques were of no use on someone who was dead already, but I learned how to aim for the weaker portions of the face and skull, to duck under the swipe of an arm and use my opponent's momentum to take them down in order to finish them off.
I'd be interested in interviewing Ricardo.
I wish you could. He died seven months before the army 'liberated' us right after the battle of Hope.
He cut his finger opening a rusty steel can and picked up an infection. We'd used the last of our Amoxicillin on old Mrs. Showalter's pneumonia the month before. Can you imagine dying for a lousy can of okra? [He shakes his head.] That's life in our new world. It was coming anyway, what with people demanding antibiotics for every little thing, and antibiotics in all the meat, creating drug-resistant strains.
It was a blow for our little community, losing Ricardo. Hell, I don't think I'd have made it through the next morning in Lamesa without him. When we cracked the folding stairway at first light, we discovered zack milling around in the hallway below. They must have broken in through a front window during the night.
Ricardo never turned a hair. He just lifted the attic window and sent us all out onto the roof. There was a crowd of them staggering around the side yard where we'd left the car too, but Ricardo whispered his plan into my ear and sent the rest of us toward the garage roof. Then he went to the back of the house, where there was a little porch over the back door and started whooping and hollering, dangling his feet down just out of reach. With the zack attracted by his noise, I dropped from the garage to the roof of a little garden shed and then to the ground, had Sharon drop the kids to me one by one and then come down herself.
I had to take out a straggler near the Jeep with my hatchet, but after that it was an easy dash into the car. I drove to the front of the garage and hit the horn, just like we'd agreed on. Zack are slow and stupid. I heard Ricardo land on the roof of the Jeep and give three thumps to indicate he was okay, before any of them had a chance to come more than a few paces nearer. Off we went, with Ricardo hanging onto the roof rack. After two blocks, when things seemed clear, I stopped and he squeezed into the back seat with the kids.
What happened next was my fault. I thought I had things under control. We had plenty of water in the back, not much food, but that was not a worry yet, and we had a third of a tank of gas. Lamesa would have been the place to find more to top our tank and fill our cans, but that crowd of zack had spooked me too badly.
Despite its low population, Seminole was infested with the dead. I didn't dare stop at its lone gas station, and my prospects for finding a car to siphon on a quiet residential street were not good after they had seen and heard us coming through. I drove on, sticking to the main road in hopes of finding a wreck with some gas in the tank, or a homestead along the highway. The gauge crept lower and lower. We had turned off the AC miles back to conserve fuel and now we dropped our speed as well.
We had just passed over the border into New Mexico when I felt the Jeep lose power and drift to the side of the road. I didn't say the word I wanted to say because of the kids in the car. I just turned to Sharon in the passenger seat and gave her a look.
From the back seat, Ricardo said, "Give me a few fuel cans. I'll take a hike and see what I can find."
I didn't like that. "What if you run into trouble? You'll need someone to watch your back."
"What about Sharon and the kids?"
"I can watch out for the kids." Sharon sounded pissed at the idea of being relegated to the status of the 'little lady', and I couldn't blame her. "We can lock up at the first sign of trouble."
"What if neither of us comes back?" The idea of Grace and the others trapped inside a hot car in the last week of August, surrounded by zack, scared the hell out of me.
The radio still worked, intermittently. The civil defense band was still telling us to remain in our homes and wait for the authorities. All the broadcast stations were solid news and evacuation advice, all of it the same -- head north. Or else it was some screaming radio preacher ranting that the outbreak was God's own punishment on us for allowing the "homaseckshuls" and the Godless Liberals to take over. Sharon didn't like me to have it on. It scared the kids.
So that's how we were caught unawares by the rumbling from the east. We stopped our arguing and froze, waiting to see what came over the horizon. When I saw the green of the US Army trucks a weight lifted from my shoulders. Here came the cavalry over the hill, just in time.
Just as quickly, the weight dropped again as the first vehicles went past us without stopping. When I stepped into the road to flag them down, two more went around me. A third, with an officer inside, slowed and he told me that his division was not taking responsibility for civilians at this time. We were free to follow, if we could, but he could not transport us. I yelled that we had a woman and children with us, but he just drove on.
The convoy rumbled past, and out of one of the last trucks flew a red can which tumbled end over end into the ditch. I caught the eye of one of the grunts inside the truck, and he shook his head as if to say, "Sorry, buddy, that's all I can do."
I was about to scream and curse him that we had plenty of water in the Jeep, when Ricardo pulled me back and told me to take a sniff. The can held gasoline, and it was about half full. We wasted no time in getting it poured into the tank of the Cherokee. It would take us another fifty miles, if we were careful, but the most important thing at the moment was to get out of the path of the horde of walking dead that the commotion of the army retreating would certainly have drawn along behind it.
I took the next side road we came to-- north, as luck would have it. My vague sense of the map told me that we were not far from a town, but we were still pretty far out in the boonies. There were few signs of life other than the occasional scattered house. No cars, no signs of a gas pump. Not until, as we drove past one of the most ramshackle homesteads I had ever seen, a ragged figure crawled out from under the trailer and came running out into the road to flag us down. It's a good thing I didn't run over him, because with his long hair, beard, and dirty coveralls he looked more like a zack than a live one, but first impressions can be deceiving. Jerry became the most useful member of our group.
I'm not sure what to call Jerry -- Greenie, hippie, survivalist . . . oh, hell, let's be honest. Jerry was a hoarder. His trailer was surrounded by two acres of the most outlandish junk you could imagine. He had a 'logical' reason for keeping every piece of it, and in the years to come it turned out he was right.
I asked him first thing if he had gas. He said yes, but he had no working car at the moment. At that point, I sat back and began to really think, for the first time since fleeing Marble Falls, just where we were running to and for what purpose. With things falling apart and fuel already scarce, reaching Canada would be impossible. Following the retreating army west seemed a poor prospect too, given their lack of assistance to civilians. The best thing might be to find a place to hunker down and ride out the terror until the authorities could return. (Of course at that time, I had no idea how long that would turn out to be.) I had in mind a large warehouse or store like a Walmart, where we could bar the doors, reinforce the fences and live on what supplies we could scrounge.
When I mentioned the plan to the other adults of the group, Jerry said, "Have I ever got the spot for you! I'd've been hiding there myself, but I need a little extra help clearing it out."
It was a squeeze getting everyone back into the Jeep, but he rode shotgun to show us the way, while Sharon and Ricardo sat in the back with the kids in their laps. When we reached our destination, about three miles north after driving through rolling red-brown hills dotted with pinion, I laughed and said, "You have got to be kidding me."
The sign beside the broken gate read, "Teaching Sisters of St. Clare Mother House and Retirement Home."
"Think outside the box, man," Jerry said. "Look at those walls. Look at those narrow windows, and it's not as infested as some places you'll find."
That was true. The big box stores were crawling, not to mention being the places that got looted first. The convent was nothing fancy, but a sense of . . . something had kept most of the looters away.
[He turns to me with the first grin I've seen during the interview.]
Is it okay to whack a nun? Sure, as long as you don't make a habit of it. Sorry -- black humor. It was all that got me through that period. Each time I had to put one of them down, I told myself I was doing them a kindness. These good women who called themselves brides of Christ didn't deserve to end up lurching around the New Mexico landscape in a ghastly kind of purgatory.
The first one was the hardest. She sprang at me out of an open doorway on the first floor. She might have been the Mother Superior, since I later learned that was the office she'd been lurking in, although I'll never know for sure. At first, I froze, but thank goodness for Jerry, who pinned her up against the jamb with the pruning hook spear I'd lent him. That gave me time to move in and finish her with my hatchet.
It was an eerie moment, the two of us standing there shocked, staring at her ruined head. Above the doorway was a sign that read, "Silence. The kingdom of God reigns here."
And then the sound of Ricardo's pistol rang out from the floor above. Jerry and I jumped about a mile, but it snapped us out of our paralysis. If Ricardo could do it solo, then Jerry and I could man up and do our part of the clearing as a team.
It wasn't as bad as it might have been, thank God -- and although I'm not a complete believer, I mean that sincerely. The convent was a mother house, where women came to begin their religious lives as novices and then to end them as retirees. Perhaps because of the drop-off in vocations there were fewer young women that Jerry and I had to put down than there might have been fifty years ago. Not that it made much of a difference. Death seemed to put an end to the aches and pains of old age, and the older nuns were almost as spry as the ones who had been younger when they turned. Maybe some had wandered out the open gates during the time before we arrived. But as I said, there was something about the place that made both the living and the dead shy away.
I made a discovery in a small room at the end of a back corridor on the third floor. An old woman in a plain white nightgown, her short white hair standing out around her head like a halo, rose from her bed and tottered across the room when Jerry and I opened the door. I almost put my hatchet in her skull before she looked me in the eye and said, "What are you two boys doing out here? The recess bell won't ring for ten minutes yet."
That's how I met Sister Mary Magdalene -- Sister Maggie to generations of her awed and adoring students. Even though Sister Maggie couldn't remember what she had for breakfast and hadn't a clue that we were in the midst of the End of the World As We Knew It, whatever malady that had Swiss-cheesed her brain left her ability to teach intact. She was a valued member of our little survivor community in the years to come. Not only did we have my Grace and Sharon's two boys to teach, but in time we had other families with young children as well.
They came trickling in over the next days, weeks and months. Some were single survivors who came out from their hiding places when they spotted Jerry and me out and about gathering the materials to shore up the tall brick walls of the convent's meditation garden. First order of business had been to return to Jerry's place for his welding supplies to repair the broken gate.
However the plague had come to Hobbs -- I learned the name of the town halfway through my first week there -- it had gone down fast. The stores had not been badly picked over, and the small lumberyard and building supply was blessedly intact. No one thinks to loot bricks during a panic, and we needed every scrap of masonry we could lay our hands on to raise the walls and brick up the ground-floor windows of the convent building that faced the outer world.
We found the entire Showalter family -- husband and wife, children ranging from twenty-two down to four, and Bob Showalter's eighty-six year old mother -- holed up in the storm cellar when Jerry and I drove out there to scavenge their stock trailer once the back of my Cherokee had proved insufficient for our frequent supply runs. It didn't take much to persuade them they'd all be better off back at the convent with us. I was the one who felt uneasy about taking on the challenge.
Of the old lady?
No, of DeeDee, the oldest daughter. I thought a girl who must have weighed over three hundred and fifty pounds by the look of her, and couldn't have ventured very far from her couch in the last few years, would be more of a hindrance than an asset.
[I interrupt, recalling the handsome, fashion-model slim woman who welcomed me to Hobbs and showed me to my guest accommodations.] You can't mean Diane Showalter?
Yes, that would be DeeDee, and I couldn't have been more wrong about her. She wasn't much use on foraging runs, for obvious reasons, but there was no job inside the walls that she would shirk, no matter how dirty or unpleasant. Toilet flushing slowly or a drain clogged? (The convent had its own septic system which, according to records I found in the Mother Superior's office, had been updated three years previously.) DeeDee would snake them out. Someone needed to stand watch in the bell tower during a broiling New Mexico summer or a frigid desert night in the winter? DeeDee would volunteer. And when rations got short, which they did at times, she would just smile that impish smile of hers and say that she'd always known there was a reason she'd kept putting off starting on her diet. And then she'd give half her rations to Sister Maggie or one of the children.
You had short rations with such a small group?
We weren't supplied regularly like the Blue Zones. The convent had its own fruit trees growing up flat against the inner wall, and we turned the rest of the meditation garden over to food crops, but our numbers kept growing. Our sanctuary built up to a population of almost fifty at its height -- including seventeen children of all ages. Other than the ones from the town, we'd get the occasional car full of refugees who spotted us on their way to someplace they thought might be safer. Sadly, the families, like Grace and me, were missing at least one member, if not more. More, as the weeks turned into months.
In addition to the septic system, the convent had a well of its own. The lack of electricity was no problem, since Jerry created a windmill out of re-purposed junk from his two-acre hoard to pump the water. He also fortified the wrought-iron gate by welding on every spare piece of metal he could scrounge. That alone might have been enough to make the fact that the place was inhabited apparent from the road, but we had also raised the walls by four extra feet of concrete blocks topped with razor-wire, all from the local building center. Frankly, the razor-wire was more as defense against the living than against the zack, who feared no pain or mutilation when it stood between them and living flesh.
We had a procedure in place for dealing with the zack. If the lookout in the bell tower saw one or two, we'd carry on as usual and let Ricardo go out to dispatch them quietly if they got too close. We left their bodies lying where they fell to disguise the smell of the living inside the walls. We all had to get used to the constant stench.
If the lookout spotted a large group, we disengaged the windmill, shut any windows, and hunkered down quietly to wait for them to pass. The children had a playroom that also served as their schoolroom in the basement, soundproofed with insulation and quilts. The rest of us obeyed the signs: Silence, the Kingdom of God reigns here.
I'm glad we never had to deal with a full-on swarm. If they had known we were in there, they'd have ramped up, and even the twelve-foot walls and the razor wire wouldn't have stopped them.
[I think of the convent, which the people of Hobbs have preserved as a memorial and museum to the war, and I agree.]
Our worst danger came from the living, who couldn't be fooled so easily. What I had dreaded finally came during our fifth summer in the convent. That day was one of the rare occasions when Sharon was manning the bell-tower while DeeDee helped teach. Our system of communication was primitive -- nothing more than a bell in my office attached to a long wire that Jerry had threaded down the walls. We had a code if the person on guard spotted something -- a single pull separated by a few seconds and then rung again if only a few zack were spotted, in which case we'd send Ricardo out to deal with them quietly one by one. A cluster of ten pulls, followed by a ten second break at which point the ten pulls were repeated, was the signal for a large enough swarm to send us into silent mode until they had passed.
That afternoon, the bell started to ring and never stopped. I dropped what I was doing and ran up the stairs to the tower to see what had put Sharon into such a panic. What I saw alarmed me too.
It had been a dry summer. Wet, rainy summers in New Mexico were as rare as unicorns, but this summer had been even dryer than most. The clouds of dust coming down the road from the north would have been hard to miss, even if the sound of their engines hadn't already been audible from over a mile away.
Once they got a little closer, it looked like something out of Mad Max -- motorcycles mostly, but they had an armored truck and other modified vehicles with them. These weren't some scared survivors looking for shelter. I swore and ran to get Ricardo.
We had a plan in place for just such a scenario, and by the time the group roared up to our gate, Ricardo had everyone lined up along the high walkway we'd built along the interior of the walls, with the marksmen (and markswomen) aiming every gun we had through the crenellations Jerry and I had designed into the top of the masonry. Those without guns stood ready to use whatever they held -- makeshift spears, rock, and pots of boiling water -- to repel anyone who tried to come over the wall. The gate didn't worry me. Jerry had fortified it within an inch of its life, and we kept a large truck parked behind it unless we needed to go in and out.
[I nod. I have seen the gate at the Survivor's Museum, studded with everything from old fenders to scavenged stop signs. It is ugly but functional.]
Their leader pulled his chopper to a halt, swung a leg the size of a tree trunk over, and looked up. "Who's the leader here?" He was your stereotypical biker type, all tatts and face-bling.
I gave Ricardo a sidewise glance. "You're the leader, Mr. Peepers," he whispered. "I wanna take this guy's measure."
I cleared my throat and looked down at our visitor. "That would be me."
He seemed to find that amusing. "You all have fifteen minutes to collect your people, open your gates, and walk away. We just want what you have here."
"No way," I said. "We have women, children, and old people with us. The racket you made coming in has drawn every zack in the five mile area. We wouldn't get more than a quarter-mile without being torn to bits."
"Not my problem," he said. "But have it your way. The deal just changed. You take your kids and your old folks and leave. We'll keep the women. The young ones, anyway."
I thought of Grace, proudly holding her first rifle on the opposite wall, guarding our backs but shielded from the initial action. At barely thirteen, would she be considered one of the children? "I don't think so," I told him.
"Keep it up, buddy. Each time you say no, the deal is gonna get worse. Now we'll stake out the men for the zack, and you all can watch while the kids and the old folks try to run."
I heard a gun go off as one of his snipers took out an approaching lurcher at a very impressive range.
"Fuck you," I said and heard Ricardo chuckle beside me.
"No, man -- fuck YOU!" He held up a stick of dynamite. "I'll get through your walls one way or the other."
"He's a moron," Ricardo said softly, "but he's a moron with a stick of dynamite. Don't feel bad, we were dead either way, but we might as well go down fighting. He's not going to put a hole in the wall unless he can't help it, but if he does, we'll fall back into the building and defend from there as long as we can."
A light breeze had been blowing all day, but suddenly the windmill started going crazy and we began to feel strong gusts in our face. I saw something dark moving on the horizon, other than the growing crowds of zack.
The leader of the raiding gang turned around to face the wind, which had been coming from his back.
Then they came rolling and bounding across the dusty landscape. We were used to tumbleweeds, especially in the dry seasons, but this was nothing like I'd ever seen before. Masses of tumbleweeds that looked as thick as a herd of stampeding cattle came racing toward us, only to begin piling up at the base of our wall. I started to hear cursing as the invaders got caught up by the prickly branches.
It became hard to stay rational. I knew they were just plants, but dammit if they didn't look like they had an intelligence of their own. Even Ricardo looked a little spooked by the seething mass down below. It became hard to see what was happening to the men out there, and I could only imagine what it felt like to be down amongst it, blinded and confused.
What's more, in the general distraction, the zombies were coming closer. A lot closer. From our position on the walls we could hear the moans getting louder, and we'd see an occasional hand clawing up out of the tumbleweeds.
Then the cursing from the outer edges of the attacking group turned into screams. I heard gunshots, the sounds of engines starting up and then dying again, and along with it all came the moans. Those never stopped, even after a huge explosion that made us all duck down behind the ramparts, and sent a cloud of debris and one solitary tumbleweed flying over our wall and into our garden. No more screams. Just the incessant moaning.
We kept watch on the walls just to be sure. The sun went down, and then it came back up. At that point we were certain that nothing was left alive out there. Sister Maggie and DeeDee had stayed in the basement room with the children and our other oldest folks. All Sister had to say when we came in the next morning was, "We prayed. And then we worked on our subjunctive tenses."
We spent two days in silent mode. When we finally came out, we had a mess to clean up, but the shifting wind had taken many of the tumbleweeds, and so had the zack as they lost interest and wandered away with the shrubbery still attached. Mostly, we found a mess of body parts and a few crawlers still trying to worm themselves away. The armored truck was burnt out and in pieces, along with splattered fleshy bits, one of which had a familiar tattoo on the shoulder. The leader must have tried to escape in the truck and then set off the dynamite when it became hopeless.
Too bad. I could have used that truck.
After that incident, the folks started referring to me as The Governor, after some fictional character from a graphic novel published back in the days when walking corpses were seen as a source of entertainment. I never understood the joke myself.
Frankly, I have no clue how I ended up as de facto leader. My only real skill was not in high demand, what with no power to run the computers and no internet to connect to. I wasn't much of a fighter like Ricardo, and I wasn't handy like Jerry. The only factor I can put a finger on is that it was my Jeep that got the core group there. That's not much of a reason, but it was that way from the beginning. I was the one who assigned the tasks. I was the one who decided who went out on scavenging missions. And I was the one they all expected to pull a rabbit from the hat when things got bad.
For lack of anything more useful to do, and maybe for a moment of peace, I assigned myself the job of hoeing the vegetables in the meditation garden. The nuns had originally put plaques representing the fourteen stations of the cross on the interior of the walls. My favorite place to work was the patch of peas near the Fifth station. It sounds a little -- what did the kids used to call it? -- emo now, but I used to wish that a Simon of Cyrene would come along to help me carry the load for a little while.
So, when the army showed up not long after the Battle of Hope, there was no weeny-wagging, and all I wanted was to melt back into the crowd and become just another F-6 doing mindless menial labor. My friends understood, and they've held their peace about what I really did during the war.
But why? With your knack for identifying people's talents and organizing, you could have played a valuable role in rebuilding Hobbs after the liberation.
[He is silent for a long enough time to make me worry that I have crossed some personal line. Then he sighs.] Those poor pitiful creepers that thaw out every spring up in Canada, or come staggering out of deep cold lakes aren't the only walking dead still around these days. The war took the life and the heart out of some of us the rest of us.
Jerry Zimmerman is a good mayor. This bio-reclamation plant was his idea, you know. Sharon has rebuilt the town's library, along with her partner, a survivor from Taos by the name of Beth. And of course you've met DeeDee. I think she and Jerry might just make a marriage announcement one of these days. But I had nothing left after Hope. I was tapped out. Each morning I get up, pick up my broom or my oil-can, and do my job, until it's time to go to bed. I'll keep going through the motions until one day I'll wake up in the morning and, instead of seeing this bare room and a drab building that turns various kinds of shit into power, I'll find myself walking up the front path to my beautiful house. Inside, waiting for me, will be my beautiful wife and my lovely daughter. And at last my body will have joined the rest of me.
Your daughter? But . . .
I know. I haven't really mentioned Grace since the day of the tumbleweeds. Too painful, I guess. There wasn't much to say, other than she grew up smart and beautiful, with blonde hair just like her mother's, and she never gave me a bit of trouble. I had myself braced for the usual teen rebellion, but I guess kids during the war had had their priorities adjusted radically.
Grace was my light in a darkening world.
Dumb luck carried us for a long time, but it couldn't hold forever. We lost Sister Maggie right after Christmas in our eighth year. She didn't show up in class one morning as she usually did, and we found her lying in her bed with her fingers on the last bead of her rosary and a smile on her face. We buried her along with her sister nuns in the convent's cemetery -- the ones who'd died before the war and the ones we'd had to put down.
Then two months later Ricardo nicked his finger on that can, got sick, and died. Hobbs had been good to us, but it was picked clean. We were hungry, and getting severely low on other critical supplies, and we had to go farther and farther afield for them. Our gasoline had run low too, so we went on foot or on the motorcycles to save gas if the scavenging run was too far away, both of which exposed us more danger and let us carry less. The best we could do was to pull the little bike trailers Jerry had built.
So, when DeeDee alerted me to a parachute drifting down far to the north in early March, right when the supply runs were beginning again to the Blue Zones, I couldn't pass up the chance to get to it before anyone else did. Whatever the Blue Zone it was meant for, the drop and the plane were badly off course. My hope was that it contained medical supplies. Watching Ricardo die of blood poisoning was not anything I wanted to repeat.
When Grace wanted to be a part of the mission, I couldn't find a good excuse to say no. She'd been out before, and like most of our older kids, she could shoot and handle herself pretty well. The Governor's daughter, especially, couldn't be seen to be above the rules, she pointed out to me. I think the real reason she was keen to go was that Sharon's older boy Jimmy had volunteered already and she was more than a little sweet on him.
[His face turns haunted.]
I should have known. I should have known that the weather patterns had turned wonky if the parachute had been blown so far south of where it should be. And sure enough, four hours after the party had left, I saw the wall of darkness on the horizon as the dust storm came sweeping out of the west. Some people call them Haboobs out here, and they're vicious.
We got inside quickly and buttoned up, while the storm blew for a day. I didn't worry at first, because DeeDee's father was with them, and Bob Showalter knew enough to find shelter and stay there until it was over.
But they didn't come back the next day or the day after that. The days turned into weeks and then months. And then in late August the army arrived and it was over. After that, we had food, ammunition, medical supplies -- everything we needed. Nothing luxurious, mind you, but we were used to living on much less.
I always told myself the fairy-tale that Grace and the others had tried to evade the storm and gone so far out of their way that they were unable to get back, for some reason. I wanted the comfort of hoping that she and Jimmy were hunkered down somewhere, paired up and living their life, and maybe some day they'd make their way back home with a couple of my grandchildren in tow.
But last year, Sharon read your book when the town bought a copy for the library, and she showed the passage to me -- you know the one I mean -- and we both had a good cry. And I guess I had one last spark of life left in me, because once I'd read the rest of it, I felt pissed off enough to write you that letter. Am I bitter? Yes -- about so many things.
So let this be my daughter's eulogy. I know she was just one among millions, but to me she was the only one who gave me a reason for going on. I couldn't let her end that way -- anonymously, just another one for the pile.
I'll never forget the last time I saw her, smiling and waving me good-bye as she rode off on the back of Billy's bike. She was wearing the tee-shirt I'd given her for her fifteenth birthday. She loved that shirt. I'd found it brand new, in the package, stuffed behind a collapsed shelf in the demolished Hobbs Walmart, and saved it for that special occasion.
If this had been the old days, back before the war, and I'd still been trying to be a responsible parent, I'd never have let her be seen in such a thing. The logo was rude, it sent the wrong message, yadda-yadda. But it was her favorite color, black, and I think the words made her feel tough and confident. It might have embarrassed her to admit it, but when she wore it, she also felt wrapped in my love.
The words on the shirt read, 'G is for Gangsta', but to me, G will always be for Grace.
Author's Note: Even those who have read Max Brooks' book may need this reminder of Todd Wainio's account of the pivotal battle of Hope, New Mexico:
We switched positions, I flipped off my safety, and sighted my first target. She was a noob, couldn’t have been dead more than a year or so. Her dirty blond hair hung in patches from her tight, leathery skin. Her swollen belly puffed through a faded black T-shirt that read G IS FOR GANGSTA .
I centered my sight between her shrunken, milky blue eyes…you know it’s not really the eyes that make them look all cloudy, it’s actually tiny dust scratches on the surface, thousands of them, because Zack doesn’t make any tears. Those scratched-up baby blues were looking right at me when I pulled the trigger. The round knocked her on her back, steam coming from the hole in her forehead. I took a breath, sighted my next target, and that was that, I was locked in.
Many thanks to my stalwart beta, Ignoble Bard, who kept me going, and to the good people who helped me with factual information.