“Don’t use that shovel.”
Jon, reaching for the wooden handle, stiffened. “What’s wrong with it?”
“That one’s mine.” Sonny strode past him, grabbed it from where it leaned against the apartment wall.
Crap. Why did Sonny have to say that? The brothers kept three shovels, and it was impossible to tell them apart. “They’re all the same,” Jon said.
Sonny pointed to the end of the handle. “See this?” Engraved there in plain, unmistakable caps: SJK.
Oh. “You just carve that in?”
“Last week. Remember?”
A silence followed. Before it grew too awkward, Jon spoke up: “So where are we going today?”
Good–that was the closest one. They could walk there, and be back by noon if the job wasn’t too far in. Providence sported–if that was the right word–four cemeteries within its city limits, too many for a New England city that never quite outgrew its original small townhood.
And the brothers had gotten to know all of them. St. John’s was the most dangerous, downtown by the Eighteenth-Century church tower. Sonny charged double for that one. North Main lay farther out, but didn’t have too many trees or monuments blocking your view of approaching intruders. Elmwood was a swamp, the ground squishing under your feet; it always soaked through Jon’s gym shoes. (Sonny had waterproof boots.) Blackbriar was way out in the country, second smallest and first safest. Swan Point was the best-kept of the lot, vast and green, small headstones and few mausoleums dotting the overgrown grass.
It hadn’t always been that way. Growing up at Gram and Gramp’s three-story College Hill home, Jon and Sonny never heard of ghosties or ghoulies or anything like that outside of Halloween. They never even feared bogeymen in their shared bedroom closet. And zombies were a Caribbean thing, found only on sugarcane plantations. In fact Jon had read somewhere that for the slaves of old, their idea of hell was having to go on working in the fields after they died. Not Lincoln, nor any Emancipation Proclamation, nor even the Grim Reaper could liberate them.
Sonny, shovel in hand, squinted beneath gray eyebrows. His hair, combed perfectly each morning with two strokes, had grayed before age thirty-five. Too many cigarettes. Jon’s hair retained its reddish-brown, but was thinning fast.
“Did you say something, Jon?”
“Oh.” Jon clicked a shell into his break-action twenty-gauge. He wore a leather belt holding six additional shells, three on each side of the buckle, that Sonny had scrounged from somewhere. “I was just thinking, maybe to zombies, we taste like sugar. And that’s why they…”
Sonny sort of slumped, yes, that slump, and his stare said Jon had done it again.
“Let’s go.” Sonny stuck his revolver in his shoulder holster.
The two men occupied a brick building off Blackstone Boulevard: fourteen apartments, all vacant now except for themselves. Sonny had insisted on tearing out both front and back flights of stairs–that took most of a day–and substituting a ladder scrounged from the neighborhood fire department. They kept it on the second floor landing when at home, and in a padlocked first floor maintenance closet when out on a mission or errand. The padlock had taken five hardware stores to find; locks seemed a popular item.
They reached Swan Point in fifteen minutes. The tall, spiked wrought iron gate, perhaps meant to be intimidating in its day, now hung ajar and half off its hinges.
Two people waited there, younger and more like business execs than the two blue collar brothers. The man had short black hair, a white shirt and tie and a little too much waistline. The woman wore jeans and a white blouse. Both glanced in every direction every few seconds, as everyone had quickly gotten into the habit of doing.
Sonny strode up to them, shovel in hand. “I’m Sonny. This is my brother Jon. You’re the Ephraims?”
They were. The man shook hands with both brothers, introduced himself as Francis and his spouse as Michelle.
“We appreciate this.” Francis spoke it like a politician issuing a proclamation, rather than a conversation between two men. “My father, he died when a drunk driver struck him head-on. At least he was alone at the time. When they put out the fire, there was little left of him…but my mother, God rest her soul–” he stopped himself. “She had a stroke, six months ago. We buried her here.”
One month before everything went down, Jon thought automatically. Everyone now thought in terms of before or after the dawn of the dead.
“And you’ve…done this before?” Michelle asked.
They had already discussed this, of course–the phones still worked, as well as cable television that mostly blew static around the clock–but clients craved reassurance. Sonny gave her a smile. “Seven times. We’ve been to all five cemeteries. And, yes, we found most of the deceased had indeed reanimated in their coffins, including one buried seven months before everything started. Only one was in a normal nonanimate state; he’d died fourteen months beforehand. We still dispatched him, just to be sure.”
Everyone knew what “dispatching” meant. Clients didn’t want to know the details. The important thing was, their loved ones were no longer trapped thrashing underground in that demonic state to which so many humans had been reduced. Thrashing until…? But now they could rest.
Francis held out a brown paper grocery bag. “It’s good of you to do this for people like us. We don’t know of anyone else doing it. The thought of my mother down there, turned into a…”
He trailed off. Like most clients, he couldn’t quite bring himself to say the Z-word. Not about someone dear to him.
Sonny took the bag, looked inside it, and handed it to Jon. Two loaves of bread, the advance payment. Once the brothers completed their task, the Ephraims owed them dinner as well. Jon unslung his backpack and stuffed the bag inside.
“Don’t mash them like last time, Jon. Francis? Lead the way please.”
They walked through the gate and into the cemetery.
Francis drew from his slacks a .357 Magnum. The sun broke through the clouds for a moment, and the weapon glinted in its beams like a silent discharge. “Thought I should bring a weapon, too. Just in case…”
“Doubt it’ll be needed.” Sonny marched beside him up the wide asphalt road between the headstones, statues and tall oaks. Jon followed behind–he always seemed to walk behind his brother–glancing from tree to tree, noting every stone and monument big enough to conceal any intruders.
Michelle looked around, too. “This is almost as bad as downtown. So many places to hide.”
“Yes, but they don’t know to hide.” Sonny strode on, revolver at high ready. “Zombies don’t like to sit still, they like to keep moving. Won’t catch any food otherwise.”
“Sort of like sharks,” Francis said.
“I think they’re smarter than we realize.”
Sonny looked over his shoulder. Jon had said this.
“How so?” Francis wanted to know.
“I’ve seen their eyes up close. It was a surprise, kinda. We tend to think zombie eyes are always yellow or milky, but the ones I saw weren’t like that. Not normal, but clear. You can tell something’s still glimmering in there. I wouldn’t sell them too short.”
“Jon.” Sonny, still walking, spoke in the low, hard voice that always meant his next words would not be pretty. “Stop making up stories. You’ve seen, like, one zombie that near.”
“Three. There was one at Blackbriar, two at Saint John’s.”
“Yeah, and I had to pull you out of that. You fired the twenty-gauge too soon.”
“But did you notice the way they came at us in formation? Two big ones first–big as wrestlers,” he told the Ephraims. They had stopped and now stood listening to him. “They charged, then a squad of six followed right after. Smaller ones, running at us broadside.”
Sonny’s face showed traces of red. “‘Running?’ Jon, when did you ever see one actually run? You know how they move, all jerky. They have to fight rigor mortis!”
“If they’re around long enough, they limber back up.”
“You wanna go home?”
Sonny confronted his brother now. Getting in his face, like Jon sometimes told him to get out of. But Jon knew his words had no teeth. They came from a man who kept turning into a startled deer in the headlights, who forgot things, whose face muddled into confused looks, who needed someone to lead him by the hand. At least that was the impression he conveyed.
“They’d have gotten you on the first day,” Sonny shouted, “If you didn’t have me around!”
Jon wanted to reply. To retort something back. He knew that his honor depended on it. The Ephraims studied the ground with pained faces. Jon had to say something, anything, but his mind seized up and betrayed him. Afterwards–he knew from long experience–afterwards, when he’d settled down, then the comebacks would surface, the perfect rebuttals, now that the time for them had passed.
The glare faded from Sonny’s eyes. “Jon,” he said more quietly. “Why don’t you take the bread home, and I’ll pick you up on the way to the Ephraims. I can get this done myself.”
It popped out so fast, it surprised Jon.
“No?” Sonny repeated.
“This is a dangerous place. Maybe not like downtown, but we still need everyone.”
Francis stepped forward, or rather lunged, like one of those wrestlers at Saint John’s. “Sonny. I think your brother has a point.”
Sonny’s face fell–just for an instant–but Jon saw it. His heart swelled. Someone was standing up for him, siding with him. Yes! He felt almost as in a dream. A good dream, that he hoped he wouldn’t wake up from too soon.
“It’s not much farther.” Francis took off, his spouse matching his steps. He pointed. “You see that white monument like an obelisk? It’s to the right of that.”
Sonny shot a scowl at his brother. Jon returned his gaze but not his glare.
Without a word, Sonny broke eye contact and ran to catch up. Jon followed.
The family plot consisted of two white slabs marking two graves. One read LOU EPHRAIM, the other MARY JO EPHRAIM, BELOVED WIFE OF LOU. It lay directly between the obelisk to Jon’s left and the pond to his right. The pond was perhaps thirty yards long and twenty wide, decorated with lily pads, fed by a small gurgling man-made waterfall on the other end. Jon had seen it before. It was a peaceful thing, still normal and clean, one of many reminders that the whole planet hadn’t died and rotted along with the zombies.
Sonny strode to the grave, hefted his shovel. “You guys keep lookout. I’ll start–hey!” He whooped. “Over there. See?”
Jon saw it already. From a cluster of white maples some fifty yards distant, three corpses emerged, tottering like marionettes controlled by a novice puppeteer. Any second now, he’d be able to smell them.
“There they are. Some of those smart zombies, walking right out into the open. We could pick them off with our eyes shut.” He threw a triumphant look at his brother. “You wanna do the honors, Jon? Or should I?”
Actually, Jon would use the twenty-gauge only when they got close enough to take out with one blast. Shotgun shells, like everything else, were like gold nowadays. But there was something about this he didn’t like.
“Folks?” he said. “It can never be said too many times. Watch everywhere. Be ready for anything.”
Sonny answered with a crack of his revolver. The nearest zombie’s head split like a melon and it toppled forward. Michelle gave a cry and put her hands to her mouth.
“Now Francis, Michelle?” Sonny lowered the smoking pistol. “We’re in luck. We can see a mile in every direction here. The only place to hide is that obelisk. Rest easy.”
Jon was watching the pond. “What about there?”
“What about it?” Sonny aimed, steadying his firing hand on his other forearm. Crack. The second intruder toppled. “Show me a zombie, Jon.”
No wind rippled the surface. Something pale lay underneath it. As Jon watched, it moved. He edged in closer. Several more shapes appeared.
Jon snapped his twenty-gauge up into firing position. “Incoming!”
The water exploded with splashes. It was as if a volley of cannonballs had hit. Zombies, soaked and snarling and waving their arms, swarmed out, kicking up splatters of mud, rotten bodies dripping water. Four at first, then three more, running as fast as any human.
Jon squeezed the trigger. The shotgun roared and kicked his shoulder, shattering an attacker into red splatters and knocking the one beside it off balance.
Three shots banged on his left. Francis, firing his Magnum–thank God for the Magnum. It might spell the difference today. Three more zombies rose streaming from the pond.
Michelle screamed, a steady scream, drowned out every time a firearm discharged. Sonny stood his ground, revolver spitting shots and smoke. Jon, walking backward, went through the reloading drill he had practiced over and over at home, popping open the action, slamming in a second shell (My kingdom for a pump-action), snapping shut, aiming, firing. The twenty-gauge kicked him again, and he knew his shoulder would be sore tomorrow. If he made it out of here.
A carrion stench stung Jon’s nostrils, and he remembered there was still a zombie behind his group. He whirled and found it practically breathing in his face. One eye was missing and maggots were working on the left side of its jaw. Jon backpedaled, yelling and sucking in a mouthful of stench. He went dizzy, eyes watering, and blindly kicked out his right foot. It hit something solid. He shook his head, saw the zombie still on its feet, whacked its shoulder with the shotgun muzzle. It lunged out, lost balance and collapsed on its face. Jon gasped and spit and fumbled for another shell.
“Run!” Sonny bawled, and hastened to take his own advice. Michelle followed, tugging Francis by the hand. Had anyone been bitten? Jon saw no marks. Francis banged off a shot as he followed.
Jon brought up the rear. Securing a shell at last, reloading as he ran, he glanced left and right for any undead reinforcements.
The attackers, waterlogged as they were, moved fast for zombies. But the adrenaline-spiked humans were faster. They gained distance, racing back up the road. The Ephraims wheezed for breath and staggered. This thousand-yard dash came easier for the brothers, who took turns each morning on a treadmill in their apartment. Sonny took Francis’s arm, and Jon took Michelle’s.
They reached the gate. Jon waited till the others had cleared it. Turning then to appraise the horde, he counted them–thirteen–raised the twenty-gauge, and gave them one last blast. To remember me by, he thought.
The Ephraims lived five miles away, and had driven here in a green Jeep Cherokee. Francis unlocked it with shaking hands, and the whole party tumbled inside. Jon slammed and locked the door after himself.
Everyone sat for a long time, Francis in the driver’s seat, Michelle beside him, the two brothers in back, huffing, panting and settling down.
Francis spoke first. “I’m sorry I got you all into this.”
Jon jolted, and he knew he wore one of those startled looks he hated so much. You’re sorry?
“An ambush.” Michelle sniffled, face flushed red. “Those first ones…decoys. To get our attention.”
“How’d you guess?” Francis asked Jon.
He shrugged. “That’s all it was, a guess. I was thinking, how can they stay animate down there without any air? Do zombies even need to breathe? I guess not. And if that’s so, they can hide underwater too.”
“Well…” Francis’s breathing evened out. “Your hunch saved us all.”
“I think your Magnum saved us,” Jon said. “I just wish we could have gotten it done. We’ll, ah…we’ll try it again. We will get peace for your mother. How about it, Sonny? Come up with a plan, and try again?”
Sonny sat with head hung and arms folded. He gave no reply.
Francis turned the ignition key. Jon looked over his shoulder at the fuel gauge. A fourth of a tank remained. Maybe everyone could trade information on where gas could still be found.
The Cherokee roared to life–a different, quieter and much more welcome sound than that of the weapons. Jon’s ears still rang.
“We’d still like to treat you to dinner,” said Francis. “If that’s all right with you, Jen?”
“Yes. Sounds good.”
Sonny remained still. Jon gave him a friendly punch on the arm. The Cherokee started off.
Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed stories in publications like Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, Aurora Wolf and The Lorelei Signal. He how haunts Providence, Rhode Island.
Image by David Simmonds