Chuck had just woken me up, firing his rifle out the window and cussing, when I trip over Carny’s body in the kitchen.
“Hey,” I say to Chuck, “you’d better come see this.”
Chuck’s eyes are kinda pissed under his hunting cap, but they kinda brighten a little when they see Carny’s body laying in a pool of blood. He switches his camping lantern over to his other hand, the one with the rifle. “Sucks for Carny,” is all he says, his breath hanging in front of his face.
“Yeah,” I say, the electric warmth of the lantern against my sleeve, “he musta just done—”
Chuck puts a bullet in Carny’s forehead. Carny’s body gives a little jump, and in the glow of the lantern, the blood spatter on the fridge is black.
“Better him than me,” Chuck says. He puts his pistol back in his jacket pocket and turns away.
“Wait, wait,” I say, “gimme the light, will ya?”
He hands it over and rushes back to the window, where it’ll be Crack! and then either, “Shit!” as in he got one, or “Shit,” as in missed again.
I hold the lantern over Carny’s body. He had stripped down to nothing but a T-shirt, socks, and tighty whiteys. A steak knife is in his left hand. His opened wrists gape up at me. I try and keep the light away from his face.
He’s wearing his Misfits T-shirt, the one with the cover to the “Earth A.D.” album. I always liked that shirt, with the dungeon or whatever, and all the undead and shit like that. Carny would never let me borrow it. Figures he’d kill himself while wearing it.
Something’s weird, though. The shirt’s kinda bunched up at the top of Carny’s stomach, and it looks sticky too, like he’s spilled Hershey’s syrup on it or something. I squat down and peel it back some. Carny’s still stomach is still warm. A big fart escapes from under him.
“Hey, Chuck,” I say, “come lookit this.”
“Shit. What?” Chuck tromps back in thick boots.
“Lookit this,” I say.
Chuck reads out loud the words carved in Carny’s chest. “‘Abandon all hop,’” he says. “Abandon all hop? The hell’s that mean?”
“Look, man, our pal Mr. Carnahan’s in the past tense now. So who cares what freaky shit he did to himself before he died. At least now there’ll be a little more food to go around.” Back to the window he goes.
“Yeah,” I say. Something itches at the back of my mind. Something we were supposed to have done if Carny hadn’t bought the farm on his own. About what we were supposed to do after the little to go around went around. It itches, but I don’t scratch.
Abandon all hop.
“Hey,” Chuck calls from the window, “you gotta come see this.”
I go over to the window, pulling my watch cap, the only thing of my dad’s that I ever kept, down over my ears a little more and blowing uselessly into my hands. My stomach gnarls itself in my gut, but I’m used to that by now. Well, sorta.
I look out the window and there they are, a whole bunch of ‘em down on the street two floors below us. Most of ‘em lay crumpled on the ground like rotting fruit where Chuck had shot ‘em. Some still wander around, groaning, moaning, shuffling in that hinky way they have when they’re not chasing somebody. Them things.
They’re not human. They can’t be. They’re not alive. They’re not really dead. Even after Chuck wastes one, and its head’ll explode and the rest of its body’ll hang there, still standing for a second before collapsing under its own weight, even then, I still expect it to get up and start shuffling around again.
It seems harder for them to walk in the snow. They trip over shit more often, especially on a day like this when the snow—goddammit, it’s cold—the snow covers everything, the remains of Chuck’s previous days’ hits, the cars at the curb, the overturned truck in the middle of the street. Everything is topped by a crushing gray sky, and the buildings across the street, the hollowed-out apartments and storefronts, sag under the pressure. Even the footprints—if you can even call them that, more like dragmarks—even the footprints them things leave behind are just gray smears on the slightly less gray snow.
We only saw them get ahold of a live person one time. Me and Carny and Chuck watched as the fat girl across the way climbed down her fire escape. It was about noon on a clear day, cold, but nowhere near like today. There weren’t many of them things out on the street, and Chuck figured out loud that she was making a break for her car, a little new model VW Bug, typical fat girl’s car. But then three or four of them appeared outta the alley next to the Pizza Hut.
The fat girl screamed and fell off the fire escape, her jacket rippling up in the wind. We could hear her leg crack when she landed on it. Help, help, she yelled, and I could hear the hoarseness in her throat, and then her words turned into—into…I dunno what, not another scream exactly, but then they were on top of her. Them things can move pretty damn fast when there’s food on the table like that. They’d never moved as fast before, I’d bet, not before the shit hit the fan, before they all started jumping outta their graves like a buncha fuckin’ Pop-Tarts.
Anyways, then Carny barfed all over himself. He told me later that the fat girl was looking right at him as them things tore at her.
What Chuck wants me to see now is pretty obvious: Audrey Appleby. Or at least what used to be Audrey Appleby. She’s still wearing her Vons smock, but it’s torn at one shoulder and flaps around as she shuffles up the other side of the street. Her yellow hair is ratty and hangs in her eyes, and it looks like she’s having a hard time keeping her head up. Could be because her throat’s ripped out, blood all down her front.
As we watch, she bumps into another one of them, a guy in a business suit with half his scalp and one eye missing. This one goes, “Uhn,” and falls over, squirming around, making a fucked-up snow angel. Audrey keeps going. I mean, it isn’t Audrey, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“You wanna take her out?” Chuck says, offering me the rifle.
“No,” I say, “Why would I wanna do that? No.”
“Seymour,” Chuck says, “there are so few benefits to all this shit. But when else would you’ve had the chance to put a bullet in the head of the bitch that got you fired? Huh?”
“Yeah,” I say, “but it still seems kinda…I dunno. Boucher walks in and sees us like that, who’s to say I wouldn’a done the same—and hey, y’know, if I hadn’t got fired, I wouldn’a been home when you boarded up the door. I’d be one’a…y’know, right?” I blow into my hands some more.
Chuck shrugs. “Suit yourself,” he says, and puts his eye to the rifle’s sight. Audrey is just shuffling past the Pizza Hut, smock flip-flapping, when Chuck pulls the trigger.
The shot musta just glanced off her temple, because instead of exploding, her head whips to the right so hard that it tears off of what’s left of her neck and smashes through the big Pizza Hut plate glass window. The glass smashes and shards cling to the pane, so it looks like a big mouth fulla jagged teeth. The rest of Audrey is kinda pulled to the right too by her head being ripped off and it leans all the way over and impales itself on several giant shards of window. Her feet kick a few times and stop.
“Shit!” Chuck yells, “Shit yeah, ya fuckin’ cunt!” Spit flecks the barrel of his rifle. “Ya fuckin’ pile’a shit, ya!”
My stomach growls. “Maybe we should go look for food,” I say.
“Maybe we should just both eat the barrel’a this fuckin’ thing,” Chuck says, “Go out like your pussy buddy in the kitchen. Go outside? Wind up one’a them things?”
“We’ll end up that way anyway if we starve to death,” I say.
Chuck shakes his head. “Look, man,” he says, “by tonight, tomorrow night at the latest, I’ll have wasted every one’a them things near here.” He pats the boxes and boxes of ammunition that he sits on. “Then we can go out and get all the Spaghetti-O’s you can stand.”
“Seymour, you go out there before I give the all-clear, you ain’t gettin’ back in.” He wipes at the frozen snot in his mustache. “I’m just as hungry as you are,” he says, “but I ain’t gonna end up one’a them things. Understand?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say and get up to walk around, get my blood flowin’. It seems like these last few days I can’t stay in one place for two minutes before I start to lose the feeling in my toes. I dunno how Chuck can just sit on those boxes all day, all night.
“Can we have some crackers at least?” I say. Chuck sits on those too, what’s left of a carton of Saltines. As long as I’ve known Chuck, he’s been preparing for the end of the world. Leave it to him to store more ammo than rations.
Chuck moves his sleeve to look at his watch. “‘Nother hour,” he says.
“Man,” I say.
“Hey, it woulda been an hour and a half if Carny hadn’t carved himself up,” he says, “So shut up.”
“I’m gonna go jerk off,” I say.
“Yeah,” Chuck says.
I’ve been jerking off a lot lately, way more so than usual. Anything to keep my mind off of food, if only for a little while. But it’s really hard today. Or should I say, it’s not hard at all. Back in my room, I’ve got a stack of porn as high as an elephant’s eye—all magazines, fortunately. Videos don’t do me much good since the power went out. But then as I kneel there, I gotta keep my gloves on, since my frozen hands make for a pretty limp noodle, no matter how fast I rub it. Then, on top of that…I dunno, y’know, the usual stuff just ain’t doing it for me today.
This one Hustler I got, it’s practically falling apart, and it’s got a spread called “Baked Alaska”—“Nina, the naughty naturalist, gets more than just photos from immense Inuit Ikuk and his eight-incher!” That usually gets me right off, but nothin’ doin’ today. There’s this other spread in Penthouse called “Hot Dogs and Donuts” about a hot dog cart guy fucking this hot-ass yellow-haired chick working at a donut shop, but still zilch, nada. A big, fat goose egg.
I try other stuff. I think about this video I used to have where these two chicks ride opposite ends of a cucumber. I reach under my balls and try to recreate the feeling of that time Marcia Baker tossed my salad for me.
Thinking of Audrey is what finally does it. Not that time, the time when I got fired, but there was this one other time we shared a joint out by the dumpster on our lunch break, and she got the munchies real bad and snaked an apple outta Produce, and I watched her eat it in the break room. I slow down the film in my head so I can watch it again.
Her little white teeth sink into it, her head jerks back ever so slightly as she pulls the bite out, a wet crunch. She licks the juice from her pink lips. My dick gets hard before her teeth, now speckled red with tiny flecks of apple skin, sink back into the fruit. She doesn’t even notice I’m watching, she closes her eyes with every bite, and I can see the little sparklies in her pale blue eye shadow. After every swallow, she goes “Mm” real deep in her throat, and I have to sit on my hands there in the break room to keep from whipping it out right then. She finishes it that way, slow and steady, then nibbles at the core, and just in time, because right then, Mr. Boucher and his haircut come in and tell us break’s over.
I rewind the film back a little to before Boucher comes in, and watch her nibble at the ends of the core, the rounded part, watch her tongue flicker over the white apple meat already starting to darken, and she finishes just as I, in my bedroom, in the freezing cold, finish.
I reach for my come-rag, this crusty old sock I keep handy, and start to clean myself off when I notice the sock’s covered in ants. I drop it like a hot potato, and I have to flick a couple ants off my dick. I lean over the sock on the floor, my pants still down, and look at it. Man, it is fucking crawling with ants. The sock is stiff and pretty much yellowed out with ancient jizzum, and those ants are having a smorgasbord on my sperm. Lucky bastards.
I get so fucking hungry kneeling here, just watching those lucky bastards go, that I decide the hell with it. I reach behind my stack of porn, under some dirty underwear, and pull out a can of Chef Boyardee X-Men in tomato and cheese sauce.
I hold the can, feel its weight in my hand. I look at the label starting to tear at the bottom, at Wolverine and Cyclops and Storm jumping out at me from a bowl of fun pasta shapes. I wrap my fingers around the can, grip it a little tighter, trying to memorize how it feels to hold a full can of food.
I lift the tab and peel back the lid, slowly so Chuck won’t hear, slowly to draw this out, slowly to make it last. The lid warns, Caution: Sharp Edges. My stomach cramps and my asshole starts to sorta pucker.
The lid is back and that cold smell punches me, like copper and limes. The sauce is orange and thick-looking, probably half-frozen. I bring my nose closer and inhale deeply. I stick my fingers in and lift out a couple of the shapes, slowly so they won’t break. Shapes. I think that’s a Wolverine. Could be Professor X, I dunno. They don’t look like people.
I don’t realize what a ridiculous figure I must cut until Chuck’s standing over me. Kneeling, pants down, limp noodle flapping in the breeze, fingers deep into a can of unshared food.
I don’t say anything.
He cracks me in the face with butt of his rifle.
I once read that prisoners of war usually hallucinate either food or the fiery pits of Hell. I, in turn, hallucinate my dad.
For a second, I think he’s one’a them things, but he killed himself over thirty years ago. I mean, he wouldn’t have any flesh left on him now, right? But here he is, looking younger than I do. He’s sitting at the dinner table in the little dining nook we have off the living room, next to the kitchen. This is when I realize I’m not in my bedroom. I’m fully clothed. My head is killing me.
“Hey, Chuck, my dad’s here.” Chuck ignores me. Or he doesn’t hear me, I dunno. My dad sits there at the table in his boxers and T-shirt, just staring off. The outline of him is kinda blurry, y’know, like a bad blue-screen effect. I reach up and touch my watch cap.
In front of my dad is a heaping plate of chicken parmesan. My mouth gushes with spit, like it’ll do right before you puke. My stomach clenches a fist and punches me in the colon. The red of the marinara, the brown breading gasping for air in an ocean of sauce, the fine spots of blonde pasta. My dad picks up the plate, holding it carefully by its underside with the tips of his fingers. He brings the plate to his face and his eyeballs seem to steam over. He bites into the plate, food and all, like a tostada. I have to turn away. I can still hear the crunch of ceramic as he chews, like it’s in my own head, my own mouth. “Chuck,” I say, “Chuck, my dad’s here.”
“Chuck,” I say. “Chuck,” I say, “I’m sorry, I—”
“Yeah, I’d be, too.”
I turn back to the table. My dad’s gone. “I,” I say, “I think I’m hallucinating.”
“Yeah, I’d be, too.” And then Chuck eats his rifle, tearing at it from the barrel down like it’s a foot-long, with relish, sucking little bits of iron from his teeth between bites. I pass out, or something, before he gets to the stock.
My dad was a POW, from 1967 until he came home in 1972. I always knew which conversations to eavesdrop on because my mom would always send me to my room to play. “Seymour, go to your room and play.” Short men in olive green uniforms would come around, and from what I could piece together from the upstairs hallway, my dad was in someplace called The Zoo, or How Loo maybe, I dunno, and then it was the Hanoi Hilton. It was like he was on vacation. I remember being jealous.
There’s no boards on the door.
“There’s no boards on the door, Chuck,” I say.
They bust down the door like cops, like a buncha pigs. One of ‘em, it looks like, was a cop, a motorcycle cop. His helmet’s half-gone and so are half his mirrorshades. The air flows in behind them, cold and sweet.
“Chuck! They’re in here!” A hershey squirt shoots into my pants.
“Yeah, I’d be, too.”
He’s still firing out the window. There’s three or four of them things in here now, all going, “Urh” or “Gnng” or “Gray.” The cop and a black dude and some lady. I go for the hallway and can barely put my hands up before I hit the two-by-fours with my face. Blood starts to leak from my nose and I try yanking on the boards, but they’re nailed tight.
I plaster my back to the boards, trying to push myself through them, atom by atom, but still wanting to watch my own death. The air coming in is so cold and I start shivering so much that my goddamn teeth start falling out. They go right by me.
Jesus Christ, they go right by me. The cop and the black dude and the lady and the bald kid, twenty years old or so and already losing his hair. All around the coat rack, through the dining nook, into the kitchen. They all go, “Urh!” and “Gnng!” again, more excited. And then there’s a big tearing sound, and they kinda hunker down, and Jesus, Carny’s body.
They’re fuckin’ eating Carny’s body.
I peek over the counter a little. Two of them, the bald kid and the EMT, are fighting over a big chunk of Carny, the bald kid with Carny’s right shoulder, the EMT with his left arm. Carny’s head lolls around and then he opens his eyes and looks at me. Looking me right in the eye. Something itches.
“Chuck, I’m hallucinating.”
“Chuck, I’m hallucinating. Carny. Carny’s dead.” Something itches at the back of my mind.
“Yeah, I’d be, too.”
I barf all over myself.
First thing when my dad came home, he gave me his watch cap. He just put it on my head and then hugged my mom for a long time. But he wouldn’t look at me. He looked at my mom, but not at me, that I remember anyway. He didn’t talk really either, not beyond “No,” or “Maybe,” or “I dunno.” But mostly he just stared off.
He ate like a demon, every meal: breakfast, brunch, lunch, linner, dinner, midnight snack. He would tear whole steaming chickens apart with his hands, the gizzards, the necks, suck out the marrow. My mom would have to make another one for me and her. He never gained any weight that I remember. He was always pale. His neck cords always stood out and his cheeks sunk in. His first night home, at dinner, my mom, all shaky, said, “Bet you missed eating like this, huh, Frank?” My father just looked at her. She never tried making dinner conversation again. I always made sure to clean my plate.
We went to The Lemon Tree one night for dinner and it was the same routine: less talk, more eat. Halfway through the soup, this big, fat businessman-lookin’ guy at the next table belched and got up, picking his teeth in his loud suit. He balled up the napkin from his collar and tossed it on his table, turned and stopped. My father was standing in front of him.
“Uh, excuse me, friend,” the fat man said.
My dad didn’t move.
“Y’seem to be, uh...”
My dad pointed at the fat man’s plate. A big chunk of meat, liver it looked like, lay congealing in its own juices. Onions, some split by the fat man’s steak knife, lay stinking on top of it. A cigarette butt poked from the left-over mashed potatoes.
The fat man followed my dad’s finger, then retraced his steps to my dad’s face. I touched my watch cap. I had no idea what was going on. My mom neither, but she didn’t say, just pushed a stray strand of yellow hair back behind her ear. The fat man seemed to grasp it right away.
“Now see here, friend—”
My dad grabbed the fat man’s pointing finger and twisted the whole arm around the fat man’s back. “Gaa!” the fat man said. With his free hand, my dad grabbed the back of the fat man’s head, palmed it like a basketball, and shoved the fat man’s face into the plate. He let go of the fat man’s arm and grabbed the half a liver, shoved it into the fat man’s face. “Gnng,” the fat man said. Mashed potatoes, butt and all, were next. Two busboys tried to break it up, but they weren’t ex-Marine Corps and they got swatted like flies at a picnic. The fat man said, “Gnng,” again, and “Urh.” My dad took the fat man’s water glass, nothing but ice left, and dumped it out on him. As he turned back to our table, the glass fell from his hand. It rolled away from him, like the whole restaurant was doing now, and I felt it come to a stop at my feet. And then my dad looked at me. Looking me right in the eye.
Two weeks later, he blew his head off.
At the funeral, I overheard some of his Marine buddies say my dad ate his gun. “Frankie ate his gun, just like Romaine last month.” He ate his gun, my dad.
When I wake up, it feels like I’ve grown a goatee. When I feel my chin, I realize it’s just dried barf. The boards are back on the front door. My head is killing me. I haven’t heard Chuck fire a shot.
“Don’t talk to me.”
I sit there. A long time. Something itches at the back of my mind. My stomach feels like it’s being inflated by an asthmatic.
The little to go around has gone around.
I get up and walk into the kitchen. The blood spatter on the fridge is black. I open the silverware drawer and find that big roasting fork we got. I kneel down and take the steak knife outta Carny’s hand, get a firm grip on its handle.
Abandon all hop.