THE BUMPY ROAD - R.S. BOHN
I had just turned ten, and I stood crying and dripping snot over my Uncle Mike’s casket. “I wish you weren’t dead,” I blubbered. My dad led me away after putting an orange lily on top of the rest of the flowers.
Twenty-two days later, Uncle Mike stood in our backyard, chewing the stump of somebody’s hand in his rotting mouth until the last finger went in. Then, with nothing left to chew, he picked up Jenny, our old beagle, and began chewing on her until his jaw fell off and hit the ground with a thunk. My dad finally came into the kitchen to see what all the racket was about, and why wasn’t that damned dog shutting up. He took one long look at my uncle, went and got the shotgun he keeps in his bedroom closet, and told me to step aside. I stood at the screen door, gaping and with pancake syrup on my chin, and watched him blow Uncle Mike’s head clean off. Well, not clean off. It sort of exploded, bits plunked into the above-ground pool that is now gone and is an oval, obviously-pool-shaped rose garden, and then the rest of him fell forward. Dad, not satisfied, shot until he ran out of shells and all parts of Uncle Mike had stopped moving.
Later on that day, we heard more shots. The commie, no nukes, Greenpeace, grass-eating hippies, Sheldon and Louise, had no gun, and therefore, were killed in their driveway while they attempted to prise up dandelions with trowels. Dad said that we were not to take pleasure in their deaths, even if they got what they deserved because they should’ve just sprayed the lawn in the first place and then there wouldn’t have been any dandelions to remove. He did, however, show the first outward sign of respect ever for Louise, that Birkenstock-wearing llama-hugger, when she repeatedly slammed her trowel into the head and shoulders of the zombie that was eating her husband and which shortly turned to eating her. “Hm,” was all he said, but he’d made that same “hm” when my big brother Danny had hit his first Grand Slam the previous summer.
I asked him why he didn’t take his gun and go shoot the zombie when it was attacking Sheldon and Louise, and he said that it was because we needed to conserve bullets. I thought immediately of the cupboard over the toaster, which has two shelves, one for ammunition and one for cereal and cookies. There were a lot of bullets in there; surely we could spare one to save Sheldon and Louise, or any other neighbors who fell under unfortunate attack because they weren’t prepared and had been just asking for it? But Dad said no, and told me to keep nailing boards over the door to the sunroom.
He was already mightily pissed off about that sunroom before the zombies came. It had been Mom’s dream to have a sunroom, a room full of windows so that it felt like she was sitting outside when she was, in fact, sitting inside. Dad said it would cost less to put up a tent, one of those ones with zippered, roll-up windows and screens that folks who don’t know nothing about real camping buy at El-El-Beansquat. But Mom wanted a sunroom, so Dad got a few buddies to build one for all the beer they could drink, and he bought the supplies. It looked only slightly better than an added-on room built by guys who got paid in beer, but Mom had sat out there all the time, drinking tea with the bag in it and watching the birds fly around and the laundry dry. There was still a cup sitting out there with a bag in the bottom, withered and nearly attached. There was still laundry on the line, but no one to watch it.
Now, in addition to not being as cost-effective as a tent, the sunroom had the additional bonus of being highly unsafe in case of zombie attack, which case looked more and more likely as the day wore on. From the basement, we brought up all the wood, broke down packing crates, and used up most of the galvanized nails.
Danny wouldn’t take a step without his Louisville Slugger, which made it hard for him to carry boards, and Dad got testy with him a few times, but let him keep the bat. We worked listening to the radio until about two, when the last station shut off in mid-sentence. Two guys laughing, sounding tinny on account of their station working off generators, talking about how when this was all over, we’d find out it – nothing. That was it. Dad reached over, clicked it off, and went back to cleaning his revolver.
Since we’d boarded up the house as well as we could, he had us on phase two of survive and repel the zombie invasion. One person, me, counting supplies and writing everything down on notebook paper. Two other people going from window to window throughout the house, looking out through the carefully placed holes drilled in the boards. The house was a tiny two-bedroom with a basement, so there wasn’t any need for the walkie-talkies, but those, among other helpful items, sat on the kitchen table. An assortment of knives, one machete, a variety of hammers, a first aid kit, a quart of hydrogen peroxide, a hand-crank emergency radio/flashlight combination, candles, and all the bottled Gatorade previously stored next to the washing machine. Also on hand were three guns, loaded, and a saw.
At about one, the phone rang. We all froze. Dad stared at it through five rings before finally picking it gently up off the hook, as if it was a bomb that might go off.
“Charles, you no good for nothing piece of shit.” Grandma. She was loud. In person, it could knock you over if you weren’t ready.
“Hi, Grandma!” Danny and I called.
“You tell those boys I love them more than anything in the world, you goddamn bastard.”
Dad held up the phone, more than twice as pissed off as he was about the sunroom and maybe four times as pissed as he was about the zombies in general.
“We love you, too, Grandma!” Danny and I shouted.
“Charles, I got a problem.”
“We’ve all got a problem, Jessie. Probably the same problem, I reckon.”
“You reckon, do you, you ignorant chicken shit?” She huffed. “I don’t know how you manage to wipe yourself and not fall off the toilet at the same time.”
“Jessie, if you got dead people in your yard, I’m sorry, but we ain’t coming over. We got the house all boarded up, matter of fact.”
“Matter of fact, eh?”
“You’re just gonna have to take care of them yourself. Maybe when this dies down some, we’ll get in the truck and come over. Till then, I’m very sorry, but you’re on your own.”
“Oh, that’s all right, Charles. I’m not really alone. I got Roseanna here.”
Up until that moment, the world had seemed full of noises. Gunshot far off, intermittent screaming, the normal creaks of the house, the coffee pot that had been going pretty much all day.
In an instant, all that faded away, as if giant earmuffs had been clapped over our house. A nail on the table that I’d been playing with rolled off onto the linoleum. It sounded like a tiny, tinkling bomb.
“What do you mean--”
“I mean what I said, you monkey’s ass. Roseanna’s here. I got her in the sunroom.” That’s where Mom had got the idea for our sunroom. It occurred to me that maybe it was another reason for Dad to despise it so much.
“You got the door shut?”
“No, I just asked her nicely to please stay out there while I make some zucchini bread. What do you think? Yes, I got the door shut.”
“Is that going to hold her?”
“Charles, she is in no condition to be breaking down doors, let me tell you.”
Dad was silent for a long time, it seemed. Finally, he said, “Are you sure it’s her?”
Grandma sighed, even her sigh amplified by her massive bosoms tenfold. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“I’ll come over. Meantime, anything gets in the house, you shoot it in the head. Anything.” He hung up.
I picked up the nail that had rolled off the table when I’d stopped paying attention to it, and I took it to the cupboard where the cereal and bullets were, and I stuck it in the top flap of a box of raisin bran and left it. After that, I got my notebook paper and pen and started counting the cans of tuna fish. I had forgotten to differentiate them into the jumbo cans and the normal-sized cans, so I had to start over. I thought maybe I should write down the weight of every item I’d counted. One box of spaghetti, sixteen ounces. Another box was mostly used up, and even though I hadn’t done very well at fractions in school, I tried figuring out how much was left. I couldn’t. I thought maybe four or five ounces, but what if it was three, and what if that wasn’t enough pasta when food started running out?
My breath got choked, and I began hyperventilating, and Danny didn’t even call me a pussy. Dad came up behind me, real quiet, like he was stalking a deer, and he put a hand on my shoulder. I realized then that we were in deep trouble, and this wasn’t just a drill, no sir, and worst of all, that I had cried at my Uncle Mike’s funeral but not at my mom’s.
“You do what you have to do,” Dad said a few times. Through a blur of tears, I saw Danny standing by the sink, staring down at the empty plate from that morning’s pancakes. Dad reached out a long arm to him, too, and put it on his shoulder, and we were connected, my brother and me, by our father’s hands on our shoulders. And then Danny walked off.
There is a time limit on blubbering. When it was reached, Dad squeezed my shoulder. “That’s enough.” And just like that, I stopped.
He left me in the kitchen, and when he came back a few minutes later, he had on his old Navy jacket, faded black and slightly scuffed but still tough. From the peg by the sunroom, he took his cap with the embroidered stag and jammed it down on his head. Pulling out a chair from the kitchen table, he sat down and tucked his jeans into his boots, relacing the boots so they were tight. Danny had come out and stood watching him from the hall, leaning against the wall, baseball bat dangling from his hand. He wore his camouflage hunting jacket. His jeans were already tucked into his boots. Dad looked up.
“What you got on there, son?”
“My hunting jacket.”
“I see that. And why are you wearing it?” Dad had an elbow on the table, and he took a sip of orange Gatorade, leaning back as if they were having a casual conversation about what time they’d be getting up in the morning for the first day of doe season.
“You’re going to Grandma’s.” Danny’s face, blotchy red beneath his own cap, didn’t quiver or tremble. “I’m coming with you.”
“Yeah? And who here’s gonna take care of your brother?” His eyes never left Danny’s, even as he nodded to me.
“I can take care of myself,” I said.
“He can take care of himself,” Danny repeated, his blue eyes never leaving Dad’s. They looked so much alike in that moment, only Danny was like the baby bird version of Dad, complete with downy yellow fluff on his upper lip and the bottoms of his cheeks. “Richie, hide in the dryer if they get in. See? He’ll be fine.”
“That boy tripped over his own feet taking out the garbage last week and I almost had to stitch up his knee.”
This was true. Both parts. I had tripped, because our driveway has so many holes you could take your pick of fishing when it downpoured, and I’d split my knee right across. Dad had taken one look and went and fetched Mom’s old sewing kit. The only reason I wasn’t sporting black or red thread on my knee was that I’d screamed bloody murder until Dad had sighed, heavily resigned to the fact that his youngest was a fragile flower, and just put butterfly bandages on it. And a lot of hydrogen peroxide.
Danny was not thinking about my knee or me. He probably didn’t really care if a zombie that broke its way through the boarded-up windows ate me. All that would mean was that no one would bug him while he was trying to get to level sixteen on whatever stupid game he was playing, and that he could have all the ice cream in the house since my dad was, to his great shame, deeply lactose intolerant.
Neither of them cared what happened to me. They just cared about their stupid staring contest, and Danny cared about being a man now that his voice was just starting to change and he had the razors all ready for when the peach fuzz on his chin had grown enough to shave. Neither of them cared about me being left alone in the house, and neither of them thought I could help on the ride over to Grandma’s house. I could already picture it: Dad’s hand on Danny’s shoulder, right before they hoisted guns and took out a whole brigade of zombies together, and how they’d be all solemn and heroic. Meanwhile, I’d be here, listening to every little noise from where I was holed up in the dryer, hoping no zombie would come along and decide he’d like his dinner warmed up a bit first. The disposable kid.
Dad’s middle finger tapped softly on the table. “Well, Daniel…”
Daniel! I knew it!
“I’m going, too!” I dropped the notebook and chose, at random and without really looking, a hammer from the table.
“Neither of you are going!” Dad thundered, smacking his palm on the table.
“Dad!” Danny advanced a quick step.
“Yes, we are!” I’m not really sure what I was intending to do with that hammer, but slamming it down on the table was not it. Purely an accident. Knee-jerk response. Making a point.
Shattering the bones in my dad’s left hand.
I’d heard that sort of bellow once before. Dale Green, friend of Dad, had called up asking if my dad would help with the castrating of his big mean bull, Blackie. Blackie had caused just about enough trouble in a five mile radius, ripping fence posts like they were toothpicks when he decided to have at a cow a few farms over. Fences, gardens, and one Subaru all fell victim to Blackie’s lust-induced rages. Mr. Green couldn’t part with ol’ Blackie, not just yet, so he’d decided that castrating would solve things.
So there we were, two boys that Blackie could’ve easily stepped on, stamping our pitiful lives out, sitting on a rock wall, watching the proceedings. Mr. Green and Dad and the vet, who was holding a big needle, all seemed relaxed, even though they had the devil himself by a rope. The vet put that needle in Blackie and said that he’d calm right down. Blackie continued snorting steam, a locomotive of a bull, all engine. And he did, in fact, calm right down.
Right up until the vet put a knife to his giant bull balls. As if he’d been just waiting for that moment, Blackie took a deep breath, bared his teeth, his eyes wild and white, and he swung around, flipping my dad like he was a tadpole on a fishing line. And one of those massive black hooves, a hoof that could kill a boy easy, cannoned into Mr. Green’s midsection.
To his eternal credit, Mr. Green put off the sizeable amount of pain he was feeling and came up from the dirt immediately, bellowing, one of God’s own angels, set on revenge.
Castration fattened Blackie up nicely. We were the lucky recipients of some good steaks and roasts. Mr. Green, it is rumored, ate almost all of that bull himself in one winter.
As my father rose up from his chair, I saw the same pain and rage in his eyes. And unlike Blackie, I took a step back. Unlike Blackie, I know when my time is up.
I fell to the floor, dropping the hammer and covering my head. “I don’t want to be a zombie!” I shrieked.
He bent over me, panting coffee breath in my hair. “Boy.”
It was a miracle I didn’t piss my pants.
“Boy,” he said again. “Get up.”
It took forever to stand, but when I did, I resolved to take it like a man. Whatever it was I had coming.
My dad’s face was red as a tomato, his eyebrows and lips a bizarre white. He stared at me for a minute, and then he walked by and into the bathroom, holding the wrist of his damaged hand.
“Somebody get me the hydrogen peroxide!”
Danny grabbed the bottle. I sank into the chair and waited for my vision to clear. And a little while later, they came out, my dad’s left hand a big bandage. The two of them looked at me, sitting there, sick as a dog.
“Well?” my dad said. “Why don’t you have your boots on yet?”
We had exactly one vehicle to our name, a ’78 brown and white Ford Bronco. It sat in what was fondly known as the Garage, a place where a man’s dreams of peace and quiet and a twelve-pack of Bud could come true. It was also the final resting place of a borrowed weed-whacker and assorted other tools that required gas, and it was overrun with mice. I liked playing in there, unless my dad was in there, in which case I’d play elsewhere. Dad was big on Don’t Touch Nothin’ with an added side of Or I’ll Bust Every Finger On Your Hand. And there was a whole lot of stuff in there that just begged to be touched.
We stared at the Garage through the window over the sink. The kitchen door only had a couple of boards nailed over it; we could pry those off and make a run for it. Danny had a rifle over his shoulder, but he hadn’t yet given up on the Slugger. My guess is that he was envisioning himself taking a zombie head clean off with that bat, and I wondered why Dad hadn’t yet told him to leave it. I may have been a kid, but even I could see that if you had one zombie and two choices of weapon, it was always gun over baseball bat.
Dad had a pistol in a holster on his right hip and a rifle slung over his shoulder, and me, I had another hammer. We all had on heavy jackets, despite the humid heat of late August, and our jeans tucked into our boots. Ticks seemed to be the least of our problems at the moment, I thought, but Dad had taken one look at the bottom of my jeans hanging over my boots and said, “You tuck those pants in, son.”
Now he looked at us both, said, “Zip up those jackets. Got gloves? Good. All right. You boys get the boards off the kitchen door, then I’m going out first. When I signal, you come out, too. We go to the Garage, I go in first, and then you. Get in the Bronco. Don’t mess around. You hear me? I said don’t mess around.”
We nodded solemnly. And then Danny and I went to work prying off the boards that we’d just nailed up that morning.
I started to get afraid, because what if the zombies heard all that noise? But Dad stood behind us with his rifle, looking deceptively casual, and anyway, the ruckus seemed to have died down. We hadn’t heard a scream in two hours.
We slipped out the door, Black Ops style, and Dad, who never once locked a door in his life, paused to lock the kitchen door.
I was in such a hurry to get in the car, that I took the most sensible route: straight to the front of the garage, where I grasped the handle and lifted.
“No!” Dad hissed, but it was too late. The garage door screeched like a cat in heat, teetering for ten long seconds before slamming up, the loudest sound for a mile. My heart dropped into my boots and I stood frozen, like a deer. Danny shone a flashlight around the garage.
“All clear,” he said, and then turned towards me. “Idiot.”
I clambered into the Bronco. The back seat smelled reassuringly like hay and mud, and I lay down, breathing it in to calm my nerves.
“Richie.” Good hand on the wheel, bandaged hand in his lap, he turned to peer down at his substandard issue second son. “Listen to me. You do as I say, and not a single goddamned thing else. You got it? You don’t act on your own. What I say.”
“Yes, Dad.” I curled the hammer to my chest.
“Good. Now sit up.” He waited for me to sit, and I pulled myself up and took a deep breath. Mouth tight, he started the car.
I’d never before noticed what a throaty rumble the Bronco had, how loud it sounded when there was nothing else to distract from it. Danny played with the radio dial, as if we’d get something in the car that we couldn’t get in the house, and Dad drove slowly down the driveway, bumping through potholes. We pulled onto our street and slowly began the drive to Grandma’s.
A plethora of amazing sights greeted us before we’d got halfway there. First we saw Sheldon, who had been mostly eaten and therefore, although zombified, lacked the ability to get up and move around. What was left of him lay facedown in his yard, making feeble breaststroke movements but going nowhere amongst all those dandelions he never got to yank. I could see not wasting a bullet on a zombie that you could skip circles around, but further down the street, we saw Mrs. Marge and her fat son, Kyle, banging against the picture window in their living room, arms raised, unable to figure out how to get out of their own house. They seemed contained, so we drove past them, too, even though the Bronco incited them to flail even more.
The Jackson’s cockapoo, Andrew, hobbled onto the road, missing a leg and looking horribly confused and saddened. Dad stopped the Bronco and rolled down the window and shot him, because you don’t let a dog suffer. At the entrance to our sub, two kids ran by, one holding a basketball. Dad slammed on the brakes and yelled out the window for them to get in the truck, and then the one kid holding the basketball saw us and stopped and the other kid caught up and ripped his ear off with his teeth, thus proving that looks can be deceiving. I could see this was a conundrum for Dad, but within seconds, he’d put kids with dogs and shot them both.
We swerved past pick-up trucks flipped over in the road, tried to avoid broken glass, and did not, on any account, stop for people trying to flag us down. Dad was stoic, Danny grim, with fingers like spiders on his rifle, and me, I was simply scared shitless. I saw danger around every turn, every shadowy area, and even behind telephone poles.
Which did not prevent me, when we were midway across our town’s biggest bridge, from shouting, out of long habit, “Bumpy road!”
To my surprise, Danny twisted in his seat and said, “Yeah! Bumpy road!”
Dad’s eyes jerked to Danny and then to me in the rearview. Instead of condemnation, I saw consideration. At the end of the bridge, he could cut across the heart of town, to the left, or he could veer right and take a twisting, dipping, barely two-laned street on the other side of the river. A street which was separated from the river a hundred feet below by only those shanty-houses built half-hanging over the edge, clinging to the edge of the road. Both routes came out at roughly the same place.
“Bumpy road! Bumpy road! Bumpy road!” we chanted and shouted.
Dad turned to glare at both of us, and I thought all hope was lost, when with a swift yank of the steering wheel, we went swinging right. He gunned it, the Bronco roaring along the narrow twists, gaining speed. Danny and I yelled, “All right!” and “Whooo-hoooo!” I put up my hands so that when we hit the biggest dip of them all, halfway through, we’d catch air and my stomach would swoop and maybe – because nobody wore a seat belt in those days, not even little kids – I’d float to the top of the Bronco for a second, which had nice beige padding on the ceiling just for times such as this. Hey, this was as close to a rollercoaster as I was likely to get.
He knew that particular dip was coming up. He gripped the wheel harder with his good hand and leaned forward, foot pressing the gas. He didn’t have to say, “Get ready!” Danny and I were already bouncing like uncontrollable jacks, open-mouthed and practically salivating for that single moment of airborne ecstasy. And for one instant of pure joy, a split-second of happiness, we were transported beyond our meager lives, beyond the world of rust-bottomed trucks and counted cans of tuna, beyond dead mothers and uncles and silent radios, and into outer space. Into euphoria. We were three men lifting off from our seats and flying into glory.
And then the Bronco hit down, rocked, and I caught my father’s eye in the mirror. He was smiling. And by taking his eyes off the road for that nanosecond, he missed the zombie bolting into the street, arms out.
A blur of denim and flesh flew into the windshield with a crack. I shrieked, “Dad!” and Danny hollered and his gun blasted through his window. The Bronco swerved, barely missing a rock wall on the hill side of the street, and made a hard left onto the other side, clipping the corner of a house and tearing wood siding off before smashing into some garbage cans and riding onto the front porch. We came to a stop in front of the door, “Portuguese-American Club” painted on a plaque nailed to it.
I had flung forward, grabbing both their seats, and now I hung there, breathing heavily.
“You boys all right?” My dad’s voice seemed huskier than usual. I nodded. Danny, pale and trembling, looked at the gun in his death grip and gently set it to rest against the dash. He nodded.
Dad put it in reverse, the clanging trash cans and creaking, splintered wood no match for the Bronco. Slowly, he angled it back onto the road. He was nearly there when a hand reached down from above and grabbed the side of Danny’s face.
The rest of the girl came sliding down – well, it may not be fair to say “the rest of her,” as a good portion of her had been left behind in the road, or maybe was stewing in some other zombie’s stomach. But there was certainly enough left of her to fall to the ground and spring up again, snarling and spitting and snatching at my brother, who apparently forgot he had a gun right in front of him as he screeched and punched.
Dad stomped the gas, but our new friend had a good hold of Danny’s ear with one bony, bloodied hand, and she would’ve tore it clean off before she let go of him. In perhaps the only span of real clarity in my short life, I saw exactly what needed to be done.
I rolled down my window with lightning speed, skinny arm pumping, and leaned out of the quickly accelerating vehicle. I lifted it behind me and then brought the hammer down with astounding power, right on that bitch’s arm. I mean, that hammer went through bones, crushed cartilage, and with a second and then a third blow, I’d nearly taken it off. One more, right to the side of her skull as she turned to roar at me, and she fluttered away like a wounded moth.
“My ear! My ear!” Danny shouted, cupping the side of his head.
I slid back into my seat, rolled up my window, and sat straight up, holding my weapon on my lap. The Bronco continued its winding, breakneck path down the bumpy road, and with a grunt, hit the proper four-lane street that was Highland and rumbled to a stop.
Danny wailed, rocking back and forth.
“Let’s see,” said Dad. Danny turned his head, sniffling. He was crying. I felt sort of numb, so I couldn’t take proper pleasure in my big brother sniveling like a baby, though I tried to memorize it for later. I looked at the hammer, saw what amounted to bits of bone and gristle on the dark metal head of the thing. I did not feel like I was going to throw up, which surprised me.
“Did she bite you?” he asked, fingers brushing through damp hair on Danny’s head.
“I don’t think so.”
“Good.” Dad eased back into his seat. “Good.” He stared out the windshield and took a deep breath, wiping the sweat from under the brow of his cap.
“Yeah, ’cause if she had, we’d have to shoot you.”
Both their heads whipped around to look at me.
“Well, it’s true,” I said weakly. “If she had--”
“Richie,” my dad warned. I shut up.
The tears dried up on Danny’s face as he looked at me, blue eyes unblinking. And then he turned in his seat and adjusted the gun subtly in his hands. Readying it. The jagged edge of the glass window caught sunlight with a cruel glint amongst the bits of red and brown. Danny swept the window with a jacketed arm. We drove on.
Other cars and trucks, for a short time, passed us or nearly sideswiped us, and then we were on the road out of town, a straight shot to Grandma’s.
It seemed like a funny time of year for a zombie invasion. School started in a few days, and some people already had baskets of mums on their porches, flags hanging with pictures of red barns and pumpkins. They were all set for fall. Our house never had any flag but the American one, with a spotlight on it at night. I wondered what time it was, and if we would be back in time to turn on the light. You weren’t supposed to fly it at night without a light on it. Mr. Gutowski next door complained that the light shone in his bedroom at night, so he wouldn’t do it, assuming he had survived this far. A lot of our neighbors, as far as I could tell, were currently zombified, and thus in no state to consider the sanctity of the U.S. flag.
I thought about asking Dad if we would be back in time to turn on the light. We passed a yard with a sprinkler going, back and forth, the ground being turned to mud. A towel lie sodden at the edge of the water’s reach. A yellow flip-flop caught my eye. I think there were toes in it, maybe half a foot. A small one. I forgot about the flag.
We got to Grandma’s road in record time. It occurred to me that Dad had never driven out here so fast before. I figured it must be because there were hardly any other vehicles on the road.
Her house backed to woodlands, a squat ranch with faded green siding and darker green shutters, white storm door with a plastic flower wreath on it. A freshly sealcoated drive led up to it, lined by bird feeders on tilting poles. In truth, it wasn’t too far removed in appearance from our house, minus the flag. I loved coming here, and I bounced in my seat, ready to bolt out the door. Dad saw me in the mirror as he pulled in.
“You don’t get out until I tell you to. Got it?” He looked at Danny, rifle to his eye like he was a sniper, scanning the yard. “You, too.”
The Bronco idled to a stop, and he turned his head in every direction, searching for trouble. My right knee shook up and down; my tongue poked out the side of my mouth.
The front door slammed open. “Well, what the hell are you doing, just sitting there? Get in here! There’s dead folk running around, you know.”
Danny and I were already out of the car.
“Boys!” he shouted, but it was too late. I ran to her, arms open, hammer up.
She grabbed me and hugged me briefly before pushing me through the door. “Go on, Richie. Hello, Danny. Kiss your grandma. That’s a good boy.” She looked up at my dad. “Charles. How nice of you to come.”
“Jessie.” He shut the door behind him, locked it, and pulled the sofa in front of it. There was an enormous picture window that had been bleaching the hell out of the green and pink flowers of the sofa for a good twenty years, and he yanked the curtains closed over it.
“What happened to your hand? Don’t tell me you let yourself get bit by one of those things?”
Dad had the same look that Danny had given me in the car.
“I did it! It was me. With my hammer.” Breathless, I held it up in front of me. “And I saved Danny with it. And then he cried.”
“Well that just proves that you are a heroic little boy. And your brother is very grateful, I’m sure.” She smoothed my hair back as she looked at my father. “And why did you bring the boys, Charles? Couldn’t have left them in a house that’s all boarded up and safe?”
“We’re like the Three Musketeers,” I said. “We stick together.”
“I see,” she said, eyes never leaving my father’s.
“Yes, Jessie. We stick together, us boys.” Dad’s hand clamped down on my shoulder. I smiled up at him. I’d beaten off a zombie, saved my brother, and now my Dad was patting my shoulder as if I was just as satisfactory a son as Danny. It couldn’t get much better at that moment.
“Better late than never, eh, Charles?”
Dad’s face bloomed red. Quietly, he said, “These last two years have been hard enough, Jessie. Why don’t you just let it go?”
“I’d like to, but the past keeps turning up. Like a bad penny. You know what I mean, Charles?”
“I sure do, Jessie. Matter of fact, Mike turned up in our yard this morning.”
Grandma blinked. “Mi—Michael?”
Dad nodded. “Yep.”
“I took care of it.”
Grandma’s chin bunched up, and I thought she might cry. She wouldn’t stop staring at my dad, and I hadn’t seen her this furious since the day mom had died. She’d been the one to tell him. To tell us all. She’d been at the hospital; Danny and I had been in bed. I don’t know where Dad was. I remembered waking up at some point earlier that night, blue and red lights flashing on the walls of our bedroom. Danny was already sitting up in the top bunk, looking through the blinds out at the front of our house. “Go back to sleep, Richie,” he’d said, so I did. I didn’t wake until Grandma shook me, telling me to wake up, we had to wake up. Then Dad was there, and Danny slid out of bed onto the floor with a thump, not using the ladder. He never used the ladder anymore. Grandma left us in the room, in the dark, the three of us sitting cross-legged on the floor like we were going to tell ghost stories. I don’t remember what we said. I remember crying. I went back to bed and woke up when it was light, and Dad had the phone to his ear, was already smoking cigarettes, already had an ashtray full. And Grandma was gone, at her own house. Making her own phone calls.
But Dad had been the one to tell her about Uncle Mike. About the motorcycle. I’d passed the pizza place where he’d skidded and crashed a bunch of times in the last few weeks. It was by Jason Diehl’s house. I went there to play HORSE a lot. He wasn’t that good, but neither was I, so it was more fun. Well, more fun than playing with Danny, anyway. We’d looked at the asphalt. You couldn’t tell. I’d kicked pebbles and scuffed my sneaker. I’d wondered what happened to the motorcycle, where it was since that night. It had been my dad’s, originally. He’d sold it to Uncle Mike to pay some bills.
There’d been an argument about that part of things. Grandma had shown up at our house – a miracle, as she hadn’t set foot in there since the night Mom had died – and slapped down an envelope with the cash for the bike. Told my dad to leave Michael alone.
Dad had casually slit open the envelope with his ivory-handle pocket knife, counted the bills out, and said, “I believe I’ll do that, Jessie. Coffee?”
Grandma declined, which was good since my dad had been drinking the last of the pot and was obviously making no move towards making another one. She hugged both of us, told us to be good boys or she’d swat our behinds, and left. Dad waited until her car was on the street and gone before he got up and opened the can of Maxwell House to make another pot. The envelope sat on the counter for a day and then was gone. Uncle Mike crashed the bike two days later.
Three weeks later, he’d continued his spree of irresponsibility into the afterlife, or afterdeath, by eating most of our dog, Jenny, and by making one of hell of a mess of the pool. Dad seemed unsurprised, but Grandma clearly struggled with the evidence that even undead, her adored son was a delinquent. A malfeasance. Or, as my dad had said once, a little puke.
My father took no joy in this, and eventually he said, “All right. Don’t you have a basement door needs boarding up?”
I’d boarded up enough things that day. It was a fact that I could now board something up without even looking at it. I could probably watch Saturday morning cartoons while boarding up an entire foyer.
“I’m sick of boarding things up,” I whined. “Can we have cookies?”
“No,” my dad said. “Later. You help your grandmother. Now. Go on.”
I sighed and slumped my shoulders and the head of the hammer dragged across the carpet, leaving behind a trail of zombie viscera and despondency. I was at the door to the basement before I stopped and stood up straight.
“Where’s Danny? He has to help, too.”
Dad and Grandma broke off their staring contest. Their heads swiveled towards the back of the house.
Dad sprinted, but Grandma was hot on his heels, screaming for Danny.
I looked at my hammer. Remembered what we’d come for.
A wish like a pencil stab, small and hard in my throat: I should’ve stayed home. I could be in the dryer right now. I could’ve curled up in there, gone to sleep…
I jogged after them, through the dining room, into the kitchen.
Danny stood in front of the door to the sunroom, gun raised. He was shaking.
Something looked back at him. Something leaned its rotting forehead against the glass pane, knocking, knocking. Something with long brown hair, that’s all I could see. All anyone could see. All anyone could tell.
You couldn’t tell.
“Stay back, Dad. I’m doing this myself.”
“Danny, it might not be her. You can’t tell,” I said.
“It’s her.” The tip of the gun touched the glass. The something opened its jaws, mouthing the glass, smearing it.
“Danny, listen to me--”
“Go away, Grandma. Go away now.”
My dad made a move to grab Danny’s shoulder with his good hand. “Son--”
It has always been the failing of the older brother to underestimate his younger sibling. And so it was in that moment, as he focused on the thing on the other side of the door and on the two adults in the kitchen with him, that he didn’t see me come up behind him and, with one uneven swing, smack him in the back with my hammer.
He fell to the floor, the gun falling beside him, safety still on.
Twisting like an inchworm, he wheezed desperate, angry sounds before barking, “What’d you do that for?”
“You shouldn’t do that, Danny! It’s not your job.”
“It is my job, you stupid little…” He began to sob, rolling onto his stomach. “It is my job.”
Everyone ignored the thing in the sunroom, which resumed knocking and swaying. Grandma was right. It wasn’t going to be busting down any doors anytime soon.
Grandma helped him to sit up, telling my dad to get the boy something to drink, he was probably crazed with dehydration.
She rubbed his shoulders. “Why, Danny? Your father can do this. You don’t have to.”
“Because,” he sniffled. “Because…”
“Well, spit it out,” said my dad, handing him a juice box from the fridge.
Hands trembling, Danny finally got the little straw into the hole. He sucked down half that box before looking up, tears drying on his face.
“Because I’m gonna be one of them soon anyway.”
“The fuck you are,” growled my dad.
“Language, Charles,” Grandma snapped. “Honey, you ain’t gonna die for a long time, if that’s what you mean. We’re here to see to that, don’t you worry. And you, too, Richie.”
“No. I will be. Look.”
Richie pulled down the collar of his coat. There, low on his neck under the ear that the zombie had been yanking on, were two red scrapes, dried blood beading along the edges.
“It could be any time,” he whispered. “I feel it already. It’s happening. I got to… I got to do it, I got to shoot her, and then myself.”
“Uh-huh,” said my dad. “Richie, give me that goddamned hammer.”
I handed it over, immediately feeling strange and unprotected without it. In a matter of only hours, it had become part of me. An extension of my hand. I wanted it back.
Dad put the claw of the hammer against the scrapes. A perfect match. He sighed, pushed his cap back and rubbed his arm across his forehead.
“You weren’t bitten, son. Your fool of a brother almost scalped you, that’s what happened.”
It’s amazing how fast the feeling of being a beloved son can seep away, like the last snowman on the first warm day in spring.
“I didn’t mean to!” I squeaked.
“Now, Charles, he was saving Danny’s life.”
“I was!” Those blows, each of them, I could see in my mind: the purpling flesh of the zombie taking them, the head of the hammer burying itself again and again. I’d been leaning out the window of a speeding car; it was all blurry, but I hadn’t meant to hit Danny.
Dad stood up, supporting Danny for a minute.
“He almost killed me? You little prick!”
“Hey!” Grandma slapped his face so fast that I felt the wind on my own face. “I said, language. The only one who gets to cuss around here is me. We all clear on that? Good. Now the way I see it, your brother saved your life from one of those dead folks. You got a scratch in the process. It appears you will live. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe you have said thank you to your brother, have you?”
I almost said, “No, he didn’t,” but then wisely kept that to myself.
Danny touched the scrapes and winced. “Thanks, Richie.”
“All right. Now listen here. Me and the boys are going into the basement so they can board up the cellar door. When we come up, I expect that the sunroom will be empty. And then we can have something to eat.”
We all nodded, even Dad. Richie left behind the gun, taking his Slugger, and I got my hammer back. I used it to put boards over the door in the basement to the outside, though that door was metal and had, I remembered, a padlocked chain on it. Still, we hammered and Grandma watched and told us what good grandsons she had, she couldn’t believe her luck. We all pretended not to hear the gunshot, and some time was spent going through the boxes of old toys before we finally went back up.
The electricity finally went out around nine, but we’d made the house a nice little fort while Grandma cooked a chicken, and with bellies stuffed, we lay in the dark in sleeping bags on the floor. Danny and I took turns scaring each other with increasingly bizarre stories, until we were both laughing so hard that we forgot what we were laughing at. Dad yelled for us to keep it down out there, and we muffled giggles in our pillows until we fell asleep.
When we were older, Dan and I would laugh again, recalling the time I’d tried to scalp him with a hammer. He’d remind me of the time Dad had tried to stitch up my knee himself, and I’d grab my knee and take another swig of my beer, trying to not spit it out because of my laughter. We put our arms around each other as we stood over Grandma’s coffin, and we whispered so that no one else could hear that she’d been a good ol’ broad, but that Grandpa had died first for good reason. We stood at Dad’s bedside and let him tell us that the visiting nurse was a fine piece of ass, and we agreed when our wives were out of earshot. We also all agreed that she talked too much. And sometimes, looking at Dan’s beagle, Sadie, we’d say how good Jenny was, and it was too bad that Uncle Mike had been such a jerk like that, and then we’d laugh and raise a toast to Jenny, and to Sheldon and Louise, and a whole lot of other folks now long gone. We dedicated the rose garden that used to be the pool to them; there’s a gnome in the center of it, and the kids like to take him out and put him other places. I found him in my shower one morning. No one has ever fessed up, because they all know better.
We didn’t ever, none of us, speak of Mom again. Dan and I say that if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, and that’s become sort of our family motto. We holed up in Grandma’s house for two months, occasionally making forays back to our old house for supplies. The Bronco mowed down more than its fair share of walking dead, and it has now been retired to a junkyard outside of town, another steel zombie, rusting itself into obscurity. I am a gin rummy champ, and Dan could take the head right off a person with his Louisville Slugger if said person was zombified, but thankfully, that talent isn’t called for these days.
So, no, we don’t talk about her. I’m not even sure it was her in the sunroom that day, but Grandma believed so, and if anyone else did, well, they are welcome to believe what they want. I believe that she was my mother, and she died, and that my father and my brother and I made up the Three Musketeers after that. And when my time finally came to cry for her, it was many long years after that day. And I don’t believe she minded.