This is Book 3 in the series
EARTH’S SURVIVORS AMERICA THE DEAD: MANHATTAN
Earth’s Survivors America the Dead: Manhattan is copyright © 2016 Dell Sweet. All rights foreign and domestic reserved in their entirety.
Cover Art © Copyright 2016 Wendell Sweet
Some text copyright 2010, 2014, 2015 Wendell Sweet
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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places or incidents depicted are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual living persons’ places, situations or events is purely coincidental.
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Carl Evans watched from the mouth of a dark alley. It was one of the things he loved about this place. You could hang out in an alley, smoke cigarettes all day and night long if you wanted to, and nobody said a word to you. Where else, but New York could that be true, he asked himself.
He leaned back against the wall, one sneakered foot propped on the brick behind him to hold him, the other flat on the cobbled stones of the alley. Another thing about New York, he thought as he inhaled deeply of his cigarette, and then let the smoke roll slowly out of his mouth. Old things everywhere you looked. These cobblestones for instance. He wondered how old they truly were.
“Young man.” The deep voice startled him from his thoughts. He lifted his head to see an old, gray haired gentleman standing at the mouth of the alley a few feet away. His face was creased and seamed. His skin so dark it was nearly blue. A cane in one hand supported his weight.
“What’s up, Pops?” Carl asked politely.
The man placed his second hand on his cane and leaned forward. “That cigarette will kill you.“
He held up one hand as Carl began to speak. “Just telling you. Don’t need an argument. It will kill you. The big tobaccos, they knew about it back in the day when I was a boy chasing that habit. And they knew about it when it was in commercials in magazines, and T.V. and what not. That cowboy died from it you know, they knew it and they still know it. It will kill you. In case you didn’t know it I wanted you to know it.” He straightened his back, lifted the second hand, nodded once, and moved across the mouth of the alley disappearing as though from some sort of magic.
Carl chuckled, lifted the cigarette to his mouth, took a deep drag and then found himself blowing the smoke out, dropping the cigarette, and crushing it. The old man had ruined it for him. He hadn’t smoked in ten years, but it tasted as good now as it had then. And he had figured with the way things were nobody had much time. Certainly not enough time to die from cancer or some other nasty surprise from cigarettes, but just the same the old man had ruined it for him.
He looked down at the blackened mess he had made as he ground the cigarette into the cobbles. Just as well, he told himself, it was time. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small silver canister. He inhaled a sharp breath involuntarily. He knew what it was. Knew what he was doing, but he still couldn’t believe he was actually going to do it.
He fingered the small red button on the top of the silver canister, hesitated, and then pushed it down. Something inside clicked. There was no other sound in the stillness. He tossed it down the alley, turned, and walked out to the sidewalk.
We were down along the river checking over some old buildings that are perched on the cliffs there, high above the water. Fall was not far away, and we knew we had to get moving, get out of this dead city. We had half the country to cross and find a place before winter came back around again.
We had struck out looking for food earlier that morning. With the park and its crowds so near to us, the shops and small stores for blocks around us were stripped clean. Another reason to get out of the city. It was time. I remember thinking that as I walked along.
I was thinking back to March as I walked. Not really paying attention to the walk, where I was going… March… Just a few months ago, but the world was still the world then. And for the next little while there, we didn’t even know about the dead. Dead was still dead. When you closed your eyes for the long eternal sleep you didn’t wake up a short minute later as something else. No. We were ignorant up until they decided to come after us. Ignorant. Stupid. Didn’t know a thing. Didn’t have a clue.
I had been in Central Park a few days after the first earthquakes hit. I had left Donita alone and went down on my own to see what the deal was. I found out nothing. No one knew any more than anyone else. There was a lot of speculation, but that was it. There had been earthquakes. It had rained hard for nearly twenty-four hours straight. The really freaky stuff hadn’t happened yet. We were just starting down our new path, but what was clear was that thousands of people had died in the city, maybe more than thousands, maybe a million or more. And certainly millions if the damage here was the same across the country… or worldwide.
And my initial estimate turned out to be a kind. In the city alone: collapsed buildings, fires, exposure to the elements because there was no shelter. There were millions of bodies. It was not so bad in those first few days, but a few days later, when the smell of the dead rotting under the rubble began, it was horrible. The diseases started then too. And the diseases took thousands more, and we thought that was the end of it, but it was not. The dead came next. The same dead, newly risen to some other sort of life. But that day in Central Park I did not know about the dead yet. I had no idea what was ahead; what was before me was bad enough.
At six foot three and nearly two hundred ninety pounds I don’t usually fear much. But that day I did. I realized there are some things you had better fear if you have half a brain in your head. It didn’t matter that I could walk through Central Park unmolested. Something was on the wind, something that didn’t care who it touched, did not respect physical size.
I walked through the park. There were hundreds there already. In the coming days those same people began to make the park home. But that day they wandered aimlessly, in shock. The subway was shut down, the buses. You could not find a cab. The same with the cops. Everything that was the same about the city, the things you could depend on to be the same day after day, were gone. A few short days, and they were gone. No more. And it had a feeling of permanence to it, a feeling of doom.
I sat down on a bench and watched the people shuffle by. No noisy kids. No babies bawling. No Joggers. No dog walkers. Hopeless people shuffling by. The occasional panicked whack job running around crazily. I saw no one shot that day, but in the coming days, they, the hopeless ones, began to shoot the crazies, chase them down and kill them. But that was later. That day I sat on the bench and wondered what had happened, and that was when the planes had overflown.
We all heard them from a long way off, military cargo planes. Slow, sometimes seeming to hang in the sky. That droning sound as they overflew, blocking the sun from the sky. This was no fly over to see how New York was, that much was evident immediately.
I was torn between running and needing to know what this was. Once you start down that path of just reacting to fear, it gets bad fast, so I sat there, as calm as I could be. ‘They will not drop bombs,’ was my thought. I remember it. And they didn’t. What they did was spray the entire city. Trails of blue-tinged vapor drifting down out of the sky. That was the first time.
I finally did give in to the fear and took off through the park, thinking, like nearly everyone else, that it must be some sort of poison. The government’s solution to whatever it was that was going on in the city.
We didn’t know what the blue shit the government planes sprayed us with right after everything went to hell was. And I am still not convinced I know all there is to know, but I suspect things. I have been told things. I met a guy a few weeks back that said he worked at the Army base over in Jersey. He said he knew what it was. He said the planes came from somewhere down south, but stopped there on the way back to re-fuel. What he told me was it was designed to strengthen us, keep us alive a little longer, and make us stronger somehow. Some dip shit scientist’s idea.
I suppose it was meant as a boost for us, a help. The world slowed down, fell apart; everything stopped working. They knew they couldn’t get to us. We would die. So they sprayed the blue shit on us, and I could suppose further that some of us survived the first few months because of it. I can’t prove it, but I suspect it did help us evolve into…
I don’t know. Whatever the hell we are now. I know we’re alive. I know our hearts beat. I still feel human, and I truly think I am still human. If it made changes to the living, they are very small changes… at least so far.
But the dead – oh, the dead. That’s a different story. It did something else to the dead.
I walked along now thinking my thoughts. I was lost in them – I’ll admit it – right back in March for a few seconds. But I came back fast.
We were right in front of a line of cliffs that overhung the river, spread out a little. At least I was. It’s funny how you can forget to be careful so goddamn fast. It was somewhere past midday when they came for us.
Cammy from a hundred yards down. The panic and fear in her voice made my heart leap into my throat, and because of her fear, and probably some of my own, I did a really stupid thing right then that cost me time. I was so panicked, that I threw my rifle down and sprinted toward the sound of her voice. I got maybe twenty feet when the realization of what I had done hit me. It would have been comical to see the way I locked my legs up and tried to turn around before I had even come to a stop if it had not been so goddamned serious.
I had the rifle back in my hands, the safety off, just a fraction of a second later when Cammy and Madison opened up on the UN-dead closing in on them from the mouth of the narrow trail that lead up from the river. I added my fire to theirs before I had run another fifty feet, and their leader, a shambling wreck of a corpse, folded up, and then flopped over the side of the trail and down into the river. I continued to run as I fired, and I was shocked to realize that I was screaming at the top of my lungs as I closed in. I am big, but I can move when I have to.
“Goddamn-son-of-a-bitching-goddamn-bastards, dead-fuckers!” All strung together. Fear words. I did not hear them at first so I did not know when they started, and I could not shut them down once I did hear them. The panic and fear were just too hot.
I watched as, unseen by Cammy and Madison, a Zombie crouched on a narrow path above them swiveled his rotting head to me, seemed to take my measure with a wide, yellowed grin, and then dropped from the ledge on to Madison’s back.
“No! Goddamn-son-of-a-bitches-dead-bastards-bastards!” I could not say, ‘Madison Look Out!’ Or speed up my feet or any other damn thing. Time had slowed, become elastic, strange, too clearly seen. The Zombie hit her hard, and she folded like an accordion, driven into the ground, a few hundred pounds of animated corpse riding her down into the dirt, clawed hands clutching, mouth already angling to bite… to taste her.
I was still thirty or more yards away. I could not see how that could even be possible. I should have been closer, but I was not. I saw Cammy turn, panicked, take her eyes off the other UN-dead and start towards Madison. Unchallenged, the other Zombies closed ground far faster than they should have been able to.
I saw the Zombie on Madison take a mouthful of her back, just below the curve of her neck, and rip the flesh away from her spine. Cammy’s rifle came up and barked, and the zombie blew apart, raining down on Madison, a storm of black blood. Somehow, I managed to switch to full auto, get my rifle up, and spray an entire one hundred round clip into the other zombies where they rushed along the path towards Cammy and the fallen Madison.
Madison screamed. Time leapt back into its proper frame, and I found myself five feet away as Madison arched her back, screamed and tried to stand. Blood ran in a perfect river from her gaping wound, across the white of her T-Shirt and down to the waist of her jeans.
“I think… I think…” Madison tried.
“Baby… Baby,” Cammy sobbed. She dropped to her knees and pulled Madison to her. “Oh, Baby… Baby,” Cammy sobbed.
I looked back up at the trail. Empty. At least of moving UN-dead. Three or four, it was hard to tell with the tangle of legs and arms, lay dead on the pathway. Silence descended. I heard a bird in the trees above calling as if nothing was wrong with the world, Cammy sobbing, Madison crying hysterically, the wind moaning through the empty buildings that were set just back from the cliffs and the river on this side of the city.
I was thinking, ‘That wind is colder. Colder even than when we started out this morning. Maybe the weather will turn back to snow and cold. Maybe winter is not done after all… Or coming sooner… It could be. It’s all so screwed up. Maybe, if it does get cold, it will slow those bastards down. Maybe we will be okay… My, God… They bit Madison… They BIT Madison!!!’ I sagged to the ground, my mind full of confusion and numbness.
Cammy was sobbing uncontrollably. Madison had lapsed into shock. I was sitting crossed legged, wondering where in Hell this would all end up, my rifle fallen from my hands and laying on the ground next to me. Time spun out, dragged, seemed elastic once more, sticking in places and jumping ahead from those places to where it should have been had it continued to run properly.
Cammy sobbing, holding Madison up, kissing her forehead, telling her how much she loved her… how she was her world…
Madison, eyes rolled back in her head… face pale… fine beads of sweat standing out on her forehead… her back a bright slick of red running across Cammy’s hands where she held her. Slowing… Slowing… Cammy mouthing words in such slow motion that I could not understand what she said. Madison’s body sagging, eyes rolled up to the whites… bright dots of blood speckled across Cammy’s cheeks. Then time jumped, staggered, came back to normal, and Cammy was screaming and screaming…
“No! … NO! … Not my… My, love, my Madison, my…” Collapsing to the ground with Madison, crying still… softer, but continuous.
“Cammy,” My voice, but I did not know it at first. I actually stopped speaking and looked around, startled, before I realized it was me speaking. I turned my attention back to Cammy. “Cammy… Cammy, it’ll be okay… It’ll be…”
“NO! … NO!” She scrambled backward, pulling Madison’s unconscious body with her. She wiped one hand across her eyes trying to stem the flow of tears… “NO! She’s… She’s okay… Okay… You can’t… You…” She broke down into sobs, pulled Madison to her and began dragging her away from me.
“Cammy… Cammy, it bit her… Bit her… Cammy… Cammy, it’s… It’s just you and me, Cammy… It bit her… It bit her…”
She let go of Madison and lunged for her rifle. I sat, still cross legged, stupidly, as she grabbed it and leveled it at me.
“Get out,” She said very calmly. Much more calmly than I thought she should have been capable of.
“Cammy… What are you doing… Cammy?”
“GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!” She screamed. I reared back as the rifle barrel came up and then slashed down across my face. I jumped back, but not fast enough. The steel barrel smashed into my lower lip, through it, and then hit my teeth. I immediately tasted blood and machine oil. My tongue ran across my teeth unconsciously. I was sure she had smashed them out, but the barrel edge had come up short, or I had moved back far enough. One of those things.
The pain was delayed, but it came never-the-less. Hard, heavy, fast, down into my lower jaw and then ricocheted back up into the top of my head. I scrambled backwards, tripped over my own rifle, got it into my hands, and then time did that funny slowing, elastic thing again.
The blood dripped from my chin onto the ground. My rifle was pointed squarely at Cammy, safety off and an empty clip, but Cammy didn’t know that. The blood dripped slowly. Cammy’s eyes swam in and out of focus, but remained on me. Her rifle barrel dipped and then rose again, leveled on me once more.
She seemed to take a deep breath that went on forever, and then, once more, time sped up. “I’ll kill you,” Cammy told me. “If you touch her, I’ll kill you… I will,” She started out strong but ended in a doubtful, whining whisper.
I didn’t drop my rifle barrel, but held one hand out in front of me in a placating gesture. “Not touching anyone… Not,” I managed through my busted lip and aching jaw. The pain was a live, throbbing thing.
“You will… But… I know you will… You think… You think…” She seemed all at once to realize that she no longer held Madison in her arms. She took a deep shuddering breath and then dropped her rifle to the ground. She collapsed back down to the ground and crawled to Madison’s body.
I stood shocked, not knowing what to do. Time side-slipped again. The bird went back to calling out, if it had ever stopped. The wind came back, blowing cold against my face, pushing the flush of heat that the situation had brought with it away, cooling the sweat on my brow. The bird called. Another picked it up, and soon all the birds were talking as though nothing at all had happened. It became a perfect storm of noise after the deepness of the silence. Time slipped away again, clouds moving across the cold, blue of the sky.
Cammy sat, Madison pulled up into her lap, a large smear of maroon on her forehead, stroking Madison’s black hair. The birds called. The coldness of the wind seemed to bite at my bones. Nipping. Tasting. An un-dead thing of its own.
I can’t tell you why I did it, but I am glad I did. I pushed the button on the rifle butt, dropped the empty clip in to my waiting palm, and slid another up into the rifle where it socketed itself home with a solid click. I did it perfectly, like I had been doing it all of my life instead of just the last few months since the UN-dead disease, epidemic, disorder, plague, what-ever-the-fuck it is has happened. She never looked up. The birds didn’t stop singing their birdsong. Just in case, I told myself. Just in case.
I stood, my knees screaming, flexed experimentally and then walked a short distance away, leaning up against the cliff face. I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out my pouch and rolled a cigarette. I felt at my lips, busted up, but it would heal. I had been in fights in my old life where I had been busted up much worse. I lit the cigarette, held it carefully between my lips, smoking as I watched the clouds slip across the sky. Letting the urgency of the situation float away on the wind like the smoke.
Cammy’s voice had fallen to a barely audible whisper as she stroked Madison’s hair and held her. Madison’s lips, blue tinged, moved, too quiet to hear her words. A private conversation. A private conversation in the wide open, which, thanks to the UN-dead, was a very private place. No one at all around, alive anyway, and the dead couldn’t care less about love, secrets, whispered promises, goodbyes. The UN-dead only cared about the hunger that seemed to drive them. Flesh, and more flesh. The time turned elastic once more and spun out of control for some unknown length. I only know that when I came back to myself the sun had moved across the sky. My thoughts were about darkness, Zombies, staying alive.
When I think back on it now, I realize a noise had brought me back. Had to be, otherwise there was no reason for me to come back at all, just stay gone. Let the sun go down and the UN-dead take the night, me, Cammy, Madison and whatever else they wanted. But it didn’t go that way.
A noise, a sliding foot, a pebble falling from above… I really don’t know. I know that this time I reacted fast. My rifle came up; my mind was clear. I focused; two of them dropping from the cliffs above… like cats… like dead, stinking, feral cats… dragging that stink of death with them. The stench of rotted flesh falling from the sky, enveloping me even as I fired into them.
I had a choice. I couldn’t get them both. One falling at me, one falling at Cammy where she sat with Madison cradled in her arms, oblivious to everything around her. My reaction chose for me. The rifle came straight up and spat short, little barks of noise and flame. The Zombie started to come apart before it hit me. A shower of cold, dead blood rained down on me, splattered against my face. The body hit the barrel of the rifle and took me down to the ground, clutching the rifle hard to keep from losing it as the full weight of the Zombie came down on it.
I kept it, but only by sheer determination. The Zombie had impaled herself onto the barrel. Her flesh so rotted that it had simply punched through her breast and out her back. I shoved her off as quickly as I could, one booted foot kicking against her chest, knocking her apart, pulling the barrel back through the soft flesh and hard bone.
I expected to see Cammy done for. I expected to see her dead or dying, but she had somehow ended up about twenty feet from where the Zombie had fallen. She looked herself, as if she had no real idea how that had happened, but when I raised my eyes and they took in the whole scene before them, I saw exactly how it had happened.
Madison must have still been awake. Laying there badly injured but not gone, taking the comfort from Cammy that she offered. When the Zombie fell, she saw it. She saw it and managed to push Cammy away from her and take the attack on herself.
The Zombie was no match for her, wounded though she was. She straddled the Zombie with a rock easily the size of her own head and brought it down hard: Once. Twice, and then I lost count, and the Zombie quit fighting. The undead, dead again. This time for good.
The silence came back hard. Like a curtain on the last act of a play, just when the audience isn’t expecting it. It crashed down.
Time did its elastic trick and then snapped back before I was ready for it. My senses were shot. At first I could not connect the dots of memory that I needed to connect to make sense of what my eyes were seeing.
Cammy rose to shaky legs and started toward Madison, sobbing once more. Madison’s eyes swiveled to me. A sick look in them, and pain riding there too. She slumped forward, one wrist flapping uselessly, and lunged for the rifle that Cammy had trained on me not so long ago. Time stopped its elastic trickery right around that time. I knew exactly what she intended to do before she did it.
Cammy stopped in mid stride and nearly fell backwards at the effort of stopping so quickly. I think she believed for a second that Madison intended to shoot her. I really believe she thought that. But that was not the plan, and I knew that was not the plan. Because the plan that had resurfaced in her mind was the one we had talked about, half seriously, half jokingly, for as long as we had been traveling together. Before she followed through on that plan, I heard her tell it to me in my mind once again, the way she had a week or so before, when she had been unmolested… whole… not about to join the ranks of the UN-dead herself.
“If I ever fuckin’ have to, I won’t hesitate,” Madison had said, “Once I’m dead, I don’t want to come back.” She shuddered and grimaced at the same time.
We had been in an old house over in Harlem. That was before Harlem got crazy too. We’d had gas lanterns for light. The windows were boarded over. The UN-dead scratched and cried and pleaded, but they could not get in. The four of us – John had still been alive then, in fact he had died just two days later. Fell through a rotted section of floor in that same old house. Impaled himself on a pipe in the basement. Madison had shot him in the head nearly as soon as he had stopped his struggles. Cammy had bent double and vomited. I had held it in, but barely – but that night John had been alive, he had still been with us. With us as we listened to the sounds of the UN-dead that were trying to get to us. To kill us. To eat us. To satisfy their ceaseless hunger. In the flickering light from the gas lanterns, she had said it, and he had nodded his head, agreeing immediately with what she had said. And I had not. It had not been a real thing to me, despite what I had already gone through on my own, until two days later when John had died and she had wasted no time. None.
“He would have expected it,” she had said, and nothing more. But that night… that night she had said it straight out, like a mantra, like looking into the future and seeing this day.
“If they come for me, if they get me? I’ll put a bullet in my own head. I will. I swear I will. If I ever fuckin’ have to, I won’t hesitate,” Madison had said, “Once I’m dead, I don’t want to come back.”
And Cammy had begun to cry. “Don’t say it, Maddy. Don’t say it.” And she hadn’t said it again, but it didn’t matter. She had already spoke it into truth. I had heard it. I had heard it, and I knew she meant it.
And now, time stopped its trick. She jammed the rifle under her chin and squeezed the trigger. Her head exploded in a spray of red and gray. I swear I could hear the sounds of small bits of bone and drops of blood pattering down to the ground. And then the silence was roaring again.
I took a breath, another… And then Cammy began to scream once more.
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