An Excerpt from the chapter “Everything That Rises Must Converge”
Everything is everything.
Meemaw used to say that, and I never understood what she meant.
I came to her house with a fractured jaw, a splint on my arm, and a broken heart. Pa went to jail and I never saw him again. At night, I cried in my bed and Meemaw cradled me, smoothed my hair.
“Why’d he do it?”
“Why was he so mean?”
She stayed silent, thinking. “He must’ve been born that way.”
“Maybe his parents were mean.”
“Maybe. Never met them.” She said this as if she really didn’t care. “It don’t matter, Jimbo. He is. You can’t fight against what is.”
“But Momma’s gone. Everything’s gone—”
“Shhh, baby. Everything is everything. It can’t be gone.”
My heart was broken, and the world ended when my mother died.
The doctor is beautiful, and I’m glad she’s with me. She’s beautiful despite the soot, despite the bloody gouge crossing her skull and the fact that half her hair has burned away. I’ve known her for just moments, but she’s beautiful and I can’t imagine how I’d deal without her.
Maybe because I’m scared.
It all happens so fast. Everything. I pull over. She hops in. I thought she was a lunatic at first, claiming to be a doctor, but . . . really you just can’t fake it. Only doctors act like doctors. And like all doctors, she came before the bad news. Cancer. Tumors. Zombies. Nuclear explosions.
She talks to me and then everything catches fire in a hot wind. Without the wind, we’d choke in smoke, but the smoke is whisked away behind us, making my eyes tear and itch.
We walk the interstate for what seems like hours, baked by the heat of the infernos to either side of us. The pine forests crackle and howl and stink of creosote.
Behind us, the cloud rises.
Amazing how long a cloud like that can hang in the air. It’s like some gigantic, radioactive pastry rising in an oven.
It’s so big, looking at it gives me the same feeling I had when we drove to the Grand Canyon. Seventy-nine, I think it was. I was just a boy. We drove across America, my grandfather, my grandmother, and me. Meemaw reading magazines and smoking. Peepaw humming with the radio. I always loved the road because of them, the way they were content in the cocoon of car and sound. I miss them.
We came to dry country and drove for days. The sky became brittle and cracked at the horizon. It took hours to park, the lot full of cars releasing a horde of tourists with bulky cameras and picnic baskets, and when we did, the chasm was only yards away. I stood on the edge in Buster Browns, nervous at the brink, and tried to grasp the vastness of the abyss.
The cloud we walk underneath is the same. It’s hideous and beautiful by turns. The mushroom rises behind us in the east. Before us, the setting sun smears the sky with color. The interstate is a long thread through burning piney-woods. We’re higher up than the rest of the land, a little. A delta. Without the world being set afire, it’d be muggy and we’d be swarmed with mosquitos. Chalk up one point in favor of nuclear annihilation. No more skeeters.
She looks at it too. The cloud. I can see her cringe.
“We’ve got to get inside,” she tells me, face intense. She’s the most focused person I’ve ever met. When she looks at me, I feel flayed, bare.
“Fallout. Radiation. Every minute we stay outside, the more we risk sickness. Cancer.”
Ahead is an off-ramp. A charred figure stumbles toward us. One of them.
“Still hard to get my head around it,” I say. “Zombies.”
I have the pistol tucked into my belt. I guess I should get it out. I’ve never shot it, but I’m ashamed to admit that to Lucy. She is probably the better shot—she looks as if anything she tries is easy for her. Though growing hair might be troublesome from here out.
“Here. Take it.”
“What? The gun?”
“I’m not much of a shot,” I say.
She takes it, pops it open, checks the rounds. Little brass circles in a larger gray circle.
The charred figure has come close enough for me to smell it. Burned hair. Melted plastic. Underneath all the char, it has the smell of pork, fatty with drippings. My stomach rumbles. I wish I was nauseous.
“Holy Christ, forgive me. I’m drooling like a goddamned dog.”
She gives me a sharp glance. Beautiful. And razor-sharp.
“It’s normal to start salivating in autopsies. Okay. Not normal in everyone. But in a percentage of people. It’s old, animal memories. Don’t worry about it. You’re fine.”
I nod. Hope she’s right.
She cocks the hammer of the pistol. The zombie is only ten or fifteen feet away. Lucy walks calmly forward, closing the distance. The thing—it is impossible to tell its sex, and anyway I don’t think you can even think of them as male or female anymore—raises its arms and totters at Lucy, trying to meet her.
Lucy looks at me and I can tell she’s thinking the same thing.
“Knock-Out, we’ve got to get inside.”
She’s said this before. But I nod. We walk up the rise, up the off ramp. This area didn’t get hit as hard by the blast. There’s another overpass crossing the interstate. We’re not very far from Little Rock, maybe five or six miles out, and I recall, because this is my route now, that there’s a Shell Git-N-Go filling station off to the right. They’ve got a fry-station serving gizzards and livers. Cold beer. Pretty young thing behind the counter, a little thick around the middle but with bright eyes and the nice smile. Not anymore, I imagine. We go that way.
There’s quite a few of the shamblers milling about. Some of them are burned, but others seem whole, if you can call walking around after you’re dead whole. The smell of charred meat is overpowering.
The station is burning. The air stinks of burning tires and plastic and an oily smoke pours off the husk of building and is whisked up and away into the already smoke-filled sky. My eyes tear, and there’s a cough building in my chest. Thank god for the wind at our back.
The gas tanks have exploded and the vehicles around the building are black husks, much like the zombies. They turn in a group, like fish or birds. Creatures of the same instinct. To eat. To destroy, maybe. I should ask Lucy. She could make it understandable.
Ash begins to fall like snow.
She pops the chamber on the revolver and counts the remaining rounds.
“Too many. Can you run?”
This doctor, she takes off, her long legs devouring the pavement. I run too, behind her. She’s slender, swift, and deadly, pumping her arms with a pistol in her hand. With each stride, my feet sting and pain shoots up my legs. Boots aren’t suited for the mile sprint. They’re made for walking, as the old song goes.
The dead bank to follow, coming around the twisted columns of the gas pumps like a school of particularly vicious fish swimming around black coral.
We leave them behind, but they keep following.
It’s the moaning that gets me. It sounds like an angry mob of deaf-mutes. Unintelligible and urgent.
Lucy slows, looking to the left and right. To the left, trailers. To the right, a little pillbox house with frill around the eaves and reflective globes in the front yard. Nestled in pine trees. A gravel drive. The fires haven’t touched it.
She peels off the highway, her shoes crunching on the gravel. She dashes across the lawn, dodging the potted plants in whitewashed tires, up the porch steps, and stops.
My chest feels like the inside of a charcoal grill, crusty and black. My wind comes in great sooty heaves. After a moment, I climb the steps and stand beside her.
She looks at the porch. A smear of blood marks a trail inside the house. The door is open and the lights are out.
Lucy looks at me and raises the gun, pointing inside the dark of the house.
“First thing you do, Knock-Out, is lock the door. Bar it with furniture. Someone’s in here. Dead. Or dying. We stay together.”
“We’ll find him.” I want her to concentrate. It scares me when she loses her focus.
She blinks and gives me a sharp look. I toss my head at the open door.
“Right,” she says, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s go.”
Inside, I’m blind, nearly. I can see the bright shapes of windows but no details of the interior. But something moans. I hear a thump.
“Close the door!” Lucy whispers as loud as a scream. “I’ll take care—”
I turn and shut the door. There’s a dead bolt and a clasp. I fasten both then turn back to the house.
My eyes are adjusting to the dark. We’re in a narrow hall. Lucy’s moved down it a bit, gun out.
My legs are watery and weak, but I force myself forward, behind her. A spill of light from a window shows us a kitchen. In it, a shape moves. One of the shamblers. It turns and steps into the light.
It used to be a woman, older, blue haired. Frumpy and heavy breasted. Still wearing slippers. She looks up with milk-white eyes. Her skin is bluish green but her mouth drips with red. She’s holding an arm in her hands. The arm is small and showing bone. I’m scared that the arm is so small.
The shambler drops the piece of flesh and its face becomes enraged. It seems the zombies still have one emotion left to them: anger. A garbled sound comes from its throat, half like a scream of rage, half like the bleat of a goat. It comes forward in a brisk limp.
Granny is spry.
Thanks to Dan O’Shea for doing a dramatic reading of the excerpt of This Dark Earth. Dan is a mensch and a great writer, to boot. To learn more about him or his golden throat and his awesome books, both current and forthcoming, visit him at his website here. And before you get your panties in a wad because I used a little bit of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, I’m sorry to report that that wonderful movie fell into the public domain due to a boneheaded error by the movie company that produced it – learn more on that here. So it’s fair game, as is the nuclear footage available from Archive.org and the Library of Congress.
Another bushel of gratitude goes out to Chris Cranford for donating a day of his – and Jones Productions studios – time shooting against a greenscreen for the the book trailer. Also, a big shout out to Duke Boyne – programmer and epicure extraordinaire – and Allen Williams for donning heavy motorcycle gear in high summer temperatures and smacking around some pillows – in lieu of zombie noggin. You guys all rock.
You should probably make clicky on the following link and get yourself ordered up. Many thanks, y’all.